Friday, December 31, 2010

Saying goodbye to 2010

Another year of blogging draws to a close. My posts on Gratuitous Violins declined rather dramatically beginning in April. I didn't get to the theatre much for the first six months of 2010 so I felt like I had less to say.

Plus I spent more time on Twitter, where I really enjoy being part of a running conversation with theatre fans from all over. Blogging can be kind of solitary. And besides, sometimes all you really need is 140 characters.

Despite a slow start, I did see some terrific plays and musicals this year. I was thinking how many of them had strong endings. And endings, like beginnings, are tough to get just right.

Since this is my final post of the year, I'll mention some of them. (I've been vague enough that I don't think there are any plot spoilers):

  • The last couple minutes of Lend Me A Tenor, where the cast re-created the entire hilarious plot at warp speed.
  • A tender moment between Albin and Georges in La Cage aux Folles, made all the more poignant because it was something they didn't do in the original production.
  • A sweet family portrait at the end of Elling that made me smile.
  • The very fun concert after the curtain call for Brief Encounter. Don't stop believin'!

Overall, 2010 was a good year. I saw lots of friends during my three trips to New York and met new ones. I visited Washington, D.C., one of my favorite cities, for the first time in a long time and reconnected with people I hadn't seen in years.

I made it to a couple more wonderful New York City museums for the first time: the Whitney and the Jewish Museum. And I learned an important lesson: you can't always judge a sandwich by its picture in a magazine.

To everyone who read my blog, left a comment, followed me on Twitter, friended me on Facebook, sent me an e-mail, joined me for lunch, brunch, dinner or a show during the past year, thank-you for the gift of your time and your friendship.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and adventure-filled 2011!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Downstage Center hits 300

Today marks another milestone for my favorite podcast, the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center. This week's interview, with composer John Kander, is number 300.

Congratulations!

At the time of my first trip to Broadway, in 2007, I was pretty much a blank slate when it came to theatre. Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald? I would have shrugged. But somehow I found my way to Downstage Center, then a co-production of the Wing and XM Satellite Radio.

The interviews with actors, directors, playwrights and designers were my ticket to the world of theatre on Broadway and beyond. I'd download the podcast from iTunes and listen at the gym or in the car.

The hosts, XM Satellite's John von Soosten and the Wing's executive director, Howard Sherman, were great at making the shows relaxed and conversational. Their questions were insightful and the guests weren't rushed - they were given plenty of time to talk about their lives and careers.

For example, I now know that at age 16, McDonald played Eva Peron in a Fresno, Calif., dinner-theatre production of Evita. One of Nathan Lane's first professional acting jobs was in a musical about the history of New Jersey, called Jerz. And Jan Maxwell got her Equity card after being cast as the understudy for the role of Lily St. Regis in a bus-and-truck tour of Annie.

It's been great to find an interview with someone whose work I've just seen onstage. I can't pick a favorite - every program has an anecdote or a quote that sticks with me, and I've shared a few of them on my blog. But the one with Marian Seldes is a gem. I even had a chance to tell her how much I enjoyed it.

Since August 2009 Downstage Center has been solely a Wing production, with Sherman handling the interviewing. (On the Wing's blog, he writes about the program's history.) I hope it'll continue, with his participation, after he steps down as executive director next year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

My favorite theatre of 2010

Listing my favorite shows of the year is tough because even if I don't totally love a play or musical there's always something I want to mention, like a strong performance or a moment that really moved me.

But out of the 27 plays and musicals I saw in 2010, these stood out:

Brief Encounter - Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54

Brief Encounter was the most captivating theatre I saw all year. It was whimsical, magical, romantic.

Britain's Kneehigh Theatre Company adapted the 1945 film Brief Encounter, based on a Noel Coward play about a married man and woman who begin an affair after a chance meeting in a train station.

Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock were enchanting as the couple, reminding me how sexy those old movies could be without the actors taking off all their clothes and jumping into bed.

I felt like I was watching an old black-and-white movie onstage - visually heightened by some imaginative effects and with all the boring parts left out. And those effects, along with Coward's music used throughout, enhanced the story. They never threatened to overwhelm it.

Brief Encounter runs through Jan. 2.

The Scottsboro Boys, Lyceum Theatre

Stunning would have to be the word I'd use to describe this final musical from John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. It was the most compelling theatre I saw all year and I thought the score was haunting.

The story of nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama is told through a minstrel show, illuminating the era's racism in a way I found chillingly effective. Here, the white characters were lampooned while the African-Americans were treated with respect.

The Scottsboro Boys was musical theatre that made me think. With a superb ensemble led by Joshua Henry, I thought it was profoundly moving and immensely entertaining in the best sense of the word. It deserved a longer run on Broadway.

La Cage aux Folles, Longacre Theatre

My favorite new score of the year - well new to me anyway - was La Cage aux Folles. Hearing Jerry Herman's gorgeous songs for the first time - stirring, heartfelt, playful and utterly romantic - was unforgettable.

Based on the French film, it's about two men, partners in a nightclub and in life, who have raised a son. They now face a dilemma with his impending marriage to the daughter of a right-wing politician.

I saw Chris Hoch, Kelsey Grammer's understudy, as nightclub owner Georges and he was wonderful. He had great chemistry with the equally wonderful Tony-winner Douglas Hodge as the drag performer Albin. I was moved to tears watching them.

With warmth and wit, this musical goes to true meaning of family values: the love we show each other, the sacrifices we make.

La Cage aux Folles is an open-ended run.

La Bete, Music Box Theatre

I was nervous going into La Bete. I was afraid the play, written in rhyme and taking place in 17th-century France, would be musty and hard to comprehend. Well, this was the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. I was enthralled.

Mark Rylance as Valere, a bufoonish street performer, and David Hyde Pierce as Elomire, a principled playwright, were terrific, which I figured they would be. What surprised me is how much I truly enjoyed David Hirson's play. It was hilarious, thoughtful and entirely accessible.

As Valere and Elomire competed for the patronage of Joanna Lumley's princess, La Bete raised questions about artistic integrity and the debasement of popular culture that struck a chord. While I was laughing so hard, it gave me so much to think about.

La Bete runs through Jan. 9.

Mistakes Were Made, Barrow Street Theatre

As a would-be Broadway producer, Michael Shannon is giving a virtuoso performance in Mistakes Were Made. I've never seen anything quite like it.

Craig Wright's frenzied satire comes to New York from Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre. In 95 minutes, it takes us through a day in the life of Felix Artifex, a producer who's desperately trying to mount a play on Broadway about the French Revolution.

Shannon's Felix is on the phone almost nonstop. He must talk to nearly a dozen different people, including a movie star he's wooing, the playwright, a potential investor and several people associated with the movement of sheep through a Middle Eastern country.

What's remarkable is how adeptly Shannon handles all of this. Every caller gets a different approach, a different tone of voice. I swear he had me believing there was someone else on the other end of the phone every time.

Mistakes Were Made runs through Feb. 27.

Fela!, Eugene O'Neill Theatre

Thanks to an amazing performance from Kevin Mambo, this musical turned out to be one of the most exhilarating experiences I had all year.

Mambo was incredible as the late Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He was mesmerizing, making Fela a terrific storyteller and showman and truly evoking the charismatic part of his personality. Ok, maybe it doesn't tell his entire story but I did get some insight into his life and influences, what made him such a revered figure.

I loved the way Fela! meshed politics, history and personal narrative with the pulsating sound of Afrobeat. It was original and unique. The music and dancing was pretty much nonstop for 2 1/2 hours and I was into it the whole time.

Fela! runs through Jan. 2.

A Bronx Tale, Providence Performing Arts Center

Even though Chazz Palminteri has been performing the autobiographical A Bronx Tale for 20 years, and the events belong to his childhood, he makes them seem as fresh as if they had just happened yesterday.

Palminteri paints a vivid portrait of growing up in New York City in the 1960s. He portrays 18 people in this solo show, including an assortment of mobsters, his bus driver father and two versions of himself - an impressionable 9-year-old and a streetwise 17-year-old.

It's a masterful performance, the way he depicts these characters and their various idiosyncrasies with a change in his tone of voice, an expression, the way he moves around onstage. He makes them all distinct and memorable.

The Glass Menagerie, Gamm Theatre

I'm so glad I had a chance to see this classic play onstage for the first time.

I knew the shorthand for The Glass Menagerie: domineering mother, artistic son, unstable daughter, gentleman caller. But watching Tennessee Williams' play about a troubled family made me realize how little I really knew about it.

Diana Buirski brought out Laura's frailty; Marc Dante Mancini made me understand how trapped Tom felt; and Wendy Overly as their mother, Amanda, truly was a fading Southern beauty living in the past.

Williams crafted his characters with such care that I felt for what each one was going thorough in this intimate, absorbing production.

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, at Trinity Rep

I wasn't sure what It's a Wonderful Life would be without Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the cast from the movie. Well onstage, it's pretty wonderful, too.

Joe Landry's adaptation is presented as a Christmas Eve 1949 radio broadcast. There's a minimal set and cast - five actors play multiple roles - but the story retains its charm and pull.

Fred Sullivan Jr. was so endearing as George Bailey, a man who's always put the needs of his friends, family and community over his own.

It's a Wonderful Life is a moving portrait of small-town American life. Maybe it's because I was sitting so close - in the front row, in a small theatre, but I was struck by how much the story resonated and how emotional it was to watch. In the end, there were tears in my eyes.

It's a Wonderful Life runs through Jan. 2.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lowering the curtain on 2010

All the reviews have been written and the curtain has dropped on my year of living theatrically, 2010 edition.

Unfortunately, it was not a record-setting year. I saw fewer shows than I did in 2009, since I wasn't able to get to New York in the spring and I didn't make it to Boston at all. But it's quality not quantity, right? And I still saw a lot of memorable theatre.

Before I get to the highlights in an upcoming post, a few odds and ends:

I checked two more Broadway theatres off my list: the Longacre and the Cort. There are only six left that I've yet to step inside: Ambassador, American Airlines, August Wilson, Golden, Majestic and Sondheim. The Longacre reopened in 2008 after a two-year, $12-million renovation by the Shuberts, and it's beautiful. The Cort, well, I hope it's next on the list for a facelift. And speaking of the Sondheim, when are they going to dot the i? Has anyone else noticed that it's still missing?

Among the seat-selection lessons I learned this year: just because the front row in a particular theatre is fine for one play, that doesn't mean it'll be fine for another play. I sat in the front row at the Friedman for The Royal Family and it was perfect. But I was a little too close for The Pitmen Painters. The stage seemed to be higher and deeper. I never realized the dimensions could change that dramatically!

Another question: Does the director ever sit in the audience to make sure everyone can see from every vantage point? A row of speakers blocked my view of the actors' feet in Xanadu. Not good in a musical with roller-skating dancers. A chair blocked my view for a couple of scenes in The Pitmen Painters and a piece of the set that popped up from the stage did the same during Act II of A Free Man of Color at the Beaumont. (To be fair, I had changed my seat at intermission, moving down to an empty spot in the front row. There's no leg room in the Beaumont, even in the orchestra.)

As always, I had many wonderful stage-door experiences. Among them: Saycon Sengbloh of Fela! graciously took me onstage at the O'Neill.

I tracked down Tony winner Douglas Hodge in a bar after La Cage aux Folles and he was great, taking a few minutes to talk to me and sign my Playbill. I consider that one of my more intrepid stage-door adventures.

I met Michael Shannon from Mistakes Were Made at the Barrow Street Theatre. He was so nice, asking me where I was from, how I travel to New York and what other shows I was seeing. He asked me my name so he could personally inscribe my program. (I think I startled him because "Esther" is his character's secretary in the play). And he even drew a little smiley face for me!

Another first: I met a playwright! David Hirson was at the stage door at La Bete, a work I really loved and I got to tell him so. I also had the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with David Hyde Pierce. I told him how much I enjoyed him in Curtains and he showed me that he was wearing the show jacket from the musical - which I thought was sweet in a theatre geek kind of way.

By far the rudest audience behavior I witnessed this year was at Trust, at the Second Stage Theatre off-Broadway.

I was in the third row and at the beginning of Act II, a woman sitting on the aisle snapped a couple of pictures of Zach Braff. It was so brazen, as well as rude and dangerous to the actors. It's a small theatre, too, 327 seats. So it's not like no one would notice.

I'm pretty sure that if she'd waited until after the play, he would have posed for a picture with her.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Another milestone for civil rights

This is what a civil-rights milestone looks like.

President Obama signed legislation today repealing "Don't ask, don't tell," allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the armed forces. (And what a contrast with this picture, of President Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

Obama's remarks were inspiring, especially a story he told about an Army private, Lloyd Corwin, whose life was saved by a fellow soldier during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Decades later he learned that Andy Lee, the man who rescued him when he tumbled 40 feet down the side of a ravine, was gay.

The president said Corwin "didn’t much care. Lloyd knew what mattered. He knew what had kept him alive; what made it possible for him to come home and start a family and live the rest of his life. It was his friend.

"And he knew that valor and sacrifice are no more limited by sexual orientation than they are by race or by gender or by religion or by creed; that what made it possible for him to survive the battlefields of Europe is the reason that we are here today."

Well, I get choked up just reading that anecdote.

Corwin's son Miles was present at the bill-signing ceremony. He's a former Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote about his father's friendship with Lee in 1993. (At the time, Lee didn't want his name used, so Corwin calls him Frank.)

Like most straight people, I've had the experience of learning that friends and colleagues are gay or lesbian. Sometimes it doesn't happen until years after we've met. I understand that coming out is a difficult decision. There have been times when I've hesitated to tell someone that I'm Jewish and the stakes aren't nearly as high.

But I'm always honored that my friends and colleagues have trusted me enough to tell me something so personal. It doesn't change the way I feel about them. Being gay or lesbian is simply an immutable part of who they are and knowing more about them makes our friendship stronger.

I'm fortunate to have a diverse group of friends. (It would be pretty boring if I only knew people who were exactly like me.) Lloyd Corwin was right - sacrifice and valor are no more limited by sexual orientation than they are by race, creed, ethnicity or gender. Neither are generosity, integrity, patriotism and friendship.

It's unacceptable that my friends who are black or Latino or gay would be treated as anything less than decent, honorable people, as less than full and equal American citizens. So when I read this on Twitter today, from a writer named Mark Blankenship, it truly moved me and made me smile:

"The US president just declared the honor of gay people and took action to defend it. What strange joy to feel welcome in my country."

Now, Americans who are serving our country bravely will no longer have to hide who they are. That benefits all of us. You shouldn't have to hide who you are to do any job.

Like the president said, "We are not a nation that says, 'don’t ask, don’t tell.' We are a nation that says, “Out of many, we are one.” Today that includes even more of my friends, making me very proud - and joyful.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,
at Broadway's Belasco Theatre

Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****


Before Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown recedes to a distant memory, here's my bottom line: it wasn't a great musical but I had a good time. Seeing Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Brian Stokes Mitchell in the same show was a treat, even if I didn't feel totally swept up in the story.

The book, by Jeffrey Lane, is based on the Pedro Almodovar movie about a group of women in Madrid in 1987 who are driven to the breaking point by the men in their lives. While I've never seen the film I knew the musical, with a score by David Yazbek, was supposed to be a dark comedy, with over-the-top characters and a convoluted plot in the style of a telenovela.

Gazpacho also plays a big role in the musical - there's a recipe for it on the show's curtain. Since I don't speak Spanish I didn't understand all of the ingredients and the key word: frio. (It means cold, which is how the soup is served.) So the symbolism kind of escaped me.

The main character in Women on the Verge, played by Sherie Rene Scott, is Pepa, an actress who makes a living dubbing foreign films. She's distraught after her longtime boyfriend, Ivan (a very suave Mitchell), abruptly breaks up with her, via a message on her answering machine.

At the same time her good friend Candela, a frantic, not-too-bright model played by Benanti, is in a troubled relationship of her own: she fears that her boyfriend may be a terrorist, and she comes to Pepa for help.

Also in the mix are LuPone as Ivan's mentally unstable wife, Lucia; a charming Justin Guarini as Carlos, Ivan and Lucia's son; Nikka Graff Lanzarone as Marisa, Carlos' domineering fiancee; De'Adre Aziza as Paulina, a take-charge lawyer; and Mary Beth Peil as the sweet concierge in Pepa's apartment building. There's also Danny Burstein as the helpful taxi driver who chauffeurs Pepa around town.

Unfortunately as Pepa, Scott doesn't really stand out in this ensemble and I felt she was miscast. Her performance seemed a little flat, while everyone else was operating at a faster speed, more zany and memorable. Although she does have a nice solo number, "Mother's Day," that I thought was poignant.

In contrast, Benanti was an absolute delight as Candela. She was hilarious and truly seemed to capture the outrageous style that I was expecting from the musical. She made the story interesting and exciting to watch in a way that Pepa never did for me.

I also liked LuPone, whose Lucia lurked in the background, disguised in a series of large hats as she searched for Ivan. It was funny and at the same time, a sad story about an abandoned wife. Of course she has a big solo, "Invisible," which the audience ate up, myself included.

As the smooth-talking Ivan, Mitchell doesn't have a lot to do but he also gets a song, "Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today." This was my first time hearing him perform live - and I have to say it was pretty incredible. What a deep, powerful voice. I can't believe he's the same actor I used to watch as Dr. "Jackpot" Jackson on Trapper John M.D.

Despite a terrific performance from Benanti and the thrill of hearing Mitchell and LuPone, Women on the Verge seemed to be lacking something. I was entertained but I wasn't captivated. I don't know, maybe Bartlett Sher wasn't the right director for this musical. Maybe it just wasn't wacky enough.

Yazbek's score didn't leave a lasting impression and despite Burstein's opening number, "Madrid," I didn't feel transported to the Spanish capital or like I was in some kind of English-language version of a Spanish soap opera. (The song is a lively ensemble number that's supposed to set the tone but it contains some cringe-worthy lyrics involving mother's milk.)

In the Playbill, Almodovar says his films from the 1980s, coming a decade after the establishment of democracy in Spain, "reflect that explosion of freedom which illuminated everything. You could say that even grief was joyful."

Grief and joy sprinkled with a touch of craziness against the backdrop of Spain emerging from dictatorship. I get it. Unfortunately, I don't think the musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown truly got it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lombardi

Lombardi, at Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****


Lombardi was the 11th pick in my fall 2010 Broadway draft and it was a bit of a longshot. Although I went through a sports fan phase as a teenager, it's been awhile since I've watched a football game.

But I figured, Vince Lombardi was an iconic figure in the 1960s, the period in American history that interests me the most. While I'm pretty well-versed in the era's politics and culture, I'm a few yards short of a first down when it comes to the sports highlights.

So I went into Eric Simonson's play hoping to learn what made Lombardi such a legendary football coach, to the point where the NFL named the Super Bowl trophy after him, and wanting to get a sense of his place in the midst of that tumultuous decade.

Well, there is a fascinating story here and a terrific, nuanced performance. It comes from Judith Light, as Lombardi's wife, Marie. She is sublime, absolutely the most interesting character onstage.

In the title role, Dan Lauria (best known as the father of Fred Savage on The Wonder Years) looks like the Green Bay Packers coach. But that's not enough for a winning performance, in my opinion. I felt like he got by too much on bluster and Vince Lombardi remained elusive.

The premise of the play also seemed contrived and not very dramatic - a writer from Look magazine has come to Green Bay in November 1965 to do a story on Lombardi, in the wake of an unflattering piece that ran in Esquire.

Keith Nobbs is appealing as Michael McCormick, youthful and eager to make a splash on his first big assignment. But he doesn't act like any reporter I know. He lives with the Lombardis during his week in Green Bay. He prefers to not take notes during interviews. And he's shocked when he realizes the type of story his editor wants. Wouldn't they have discussed that before he left New York City?

My biggest problem, though, is that most of what I learned about Vince Lombardi came secondhand, from conversations between McCormick and Marie, and when he interviews three Packer players - Paul Hornung (Bill Dawes), Jim Taylor (Chris Sullivan) and Dave Robinson (Robert Christopher Riley).

There certainly were moments when I got to see what made him tick. Lombardi talks about his frustration at being passed over for head coaching jobs, which he blames on the fact that he's Italian. In Green Bay, he makes it known that his team will only frequent restaurants that welcome black players. There's a passing reference to how he doesn't understand kids these days.

But I didn't get a sense from Lombardi of what made him unique as a coach, why his players revered him despite his toughness toward them, his relentless criticism. He just seemed loud, quick-tempered and stubborn and not very likable.

Marie Lombardi, on the other hand, was a different story.

The play offered a much deeper sense of her life: what it was like for her and their two children to live in the shadow of a famous husband and father, the difficult adjustment when they moved from New Jersey to Wisconsin. She tells McCormick that the three most important things to her husband are God, family and the Green Bay Packers - not necessarily in that order. Light handles all of this wonderfully, usually with a drink in Marie's hand.

Director Thomas Kail and set designer David Korins used the space in Circle in the Square well. I never felt like I was shortchanged in seeing the actors' faces in the round. The action takes place mostly in the Lombardi living room and on the practice field. (Ironically, the theatre is one of the few on Broadway that's not shaped like a football field.)

In the end, while there's one terrific performance and a few good moments, I was a bit bored at times. I'm not immune to having my heartstrings pulled by an inspirational sports story but Lombardi didn't quite do it for me. (Ok, I'll admit I did get a little choked up at the very end.)

It's possible I would have enjoyed the play more if I were more of a football fan. There was a cheer when the name of a New Jersey high school where Lombardi coached was mentioned. And there was an even bigger cheer at the curtain call when it was announced that the Packers had beaten the Vikings that afternoon.

Lombardi is produced in association with the National Football League and they've set up a nice display of Green Bay Packers memorabilia in the lobby, including signed footballs, newspaper articles and an old bench from Lambeau Field. I noticed a lot of people lingering afterward to get another look.

Clearly the play is attracting football fans to Broadway and they're enjoying themselves - and that's a good thing.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Senate repeals "Don't ask, don't tell''



Congratulations to the U.S. Senate, you did remember how to pass a civil-rights bill! I was afraid you'd forgotten.

Fifty-five Democrats, 8 Republicans and 2 independents voted Saturday to repeal "Don't ask, don't tell" and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Their stand in favor of equality benefits all Americans, gay and straight, because a more just society benefits all of us.

A week ago I did not think this vote would happen. But for once, Congress surprised me in a good way - the House earlier in the week and the Senate yesterday. (My fellow blogger The Tin Man writes about how we got to this point.)

So kudos to Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And Joe Lieberman, who helped spearhead the effort in the Senate, nice to have you back on the side of the angels. To the Republicans who broke party ranks, thank-you for demonstrating that equality is a bipartisan issue. President Obama, thank-you for keeping a campaign promise to end DADT.

I have to admit that when Bill Clinton announced "Don't ask, don't tell" in 1993, I didn't give it much thought. I didn't have any close friends or coworkers who were openly gay. I didn't appreciate what meant to be in the closet, to be forced to live a lie in order to serve your country.

But times have changed. Laws like "Don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act affect my friends, coworkers, neighbors, people I love and admire. I understand now that those measures are unfair and un-American. That wasn't something I could have said 17 years ago. And I think that's true for a lot of straight people.

The young men and women in the American military will adapt. They're already serving with gay and lesbian soldiers who are doing their jobs quite well. I lived for a year in Israel - where gay soldiers serve openly. And no one would say that Israel doesn't have a strong army, whose troops face enemies every bit as tough as the ones U.S. troops face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When I was watching C-SPAN, one vote in favor of repeal stood out - 86-year-old Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.

Inouye, a Medal of Honor recipient, lost an arm fighting in Italy in World War II. His unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprised of mostly Japanese-Americans, was among the most highly decorated in the history of the U.S. military.

Here is what he said afterward:

“Finally, all brave men and women who want to put on the uniform of our great nation and serve in the armed services may do so without having to hide who they are. My only regret is that nearly 13,000 men and women were expelled from the military during the 17 years that this discriminatory policy was in place.

"In every war we have had men and women of different sexual orientation who have risked their lives for their country. I fought alongside gay men during World War II and many of them were killed in combat. Those men were heroes. And once again, heroes will be allowed to defend their country, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Of course they were heroes - and now all of America's heroes will be able to serve openly and proudly.

As the president stated: "gay and lesbian service members - brave Americans who enable our freedoms - will no longer have to hide who they are. The fight for civil rights, a struggle that continues, will no longer include this one."

The road to equal rights for all Americans has been a long and tortuous one and progress doesn't happen nearly fast enough. But we're getting there. And yesterday was one of the good days.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at Trinity Repertory Company
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****


I wasn't sure what It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play would be like without Jimmy Stewart and the rest of the cast from the classic 1946 movie but I'm happy to report that onstage it's pretty wonderful, too.

Joe Landry's 85-minute adaptation is presented as a Christmas Eve 1949 radio broadcast from Manhattan, before a studio audience. There's a minimal cast - five actors play multiple roles and a Foley artist provides sound effects - but the story retains its charm and emotional pull.

Just in case you're not familiar with the plot:

George Bailey dreams of an adventurous life far away from his hometown of Bedford Falls but ends up taking over the building and loan started by his father. Years later, facing financial ruin, he's on the brink of suicide, convinced that his family would be better off without him and wishing that he had never been born.

Fred Sullivan Jr. was absolutely endearing as George Bailey, a man who's always put the needs of his family, friends and community over his own. As his devoted wife, Mary, Angela Brazil was sparkling. I enjoyed watching them progress from young lovers to a married couple with kids of their own.

Timothy Crowe was a marvel, switching effortlessly from the rich and ruthless Mr. Potter to George's affable but not always reliable Uncle Billy. Stephen Berenson brought sweetness to Clarence, an angel who's sent to save George, and a comic touch to the kindly bar owner Mr. Martini. Anne Scurria was terrific as the flirtatious Violet and as the adorable Zazu, the youngest Bailey child.

Michael McGarty's set includes microphones on stands, a few chairs, a small Christmas tree and props for the Foley artist, Benjamin Inniger, who makes doors slam, the cash register ring, the water splash and the wind howl.

The actors spend a lot of time in front of the microphones, scripts in hand. But when Clarence shows George what life would have been like in Bedford Falls without him, they play directly to the studio audience in a way that was so emotional and effective.

What the scaled-down set and cast did for me was to make the story more intimate. It's a Wonderful Life is about one man and his impact on a community, but it's also a moving portrait of small-town American life. And it struck me how much the story resonates today.

Home ownership - that cornerstone of the American dream - plays a major role in the plot. The Bailey Building and Loan Association made it possible for the working-class residents of Bedford Falls to get out from under Mr. Potter's usurious rents.

I'm certain that George Bailey never let anyone take out a mortgage they couldn't afford. I'm also certain that those first-time homebuyers bought within their means and understood how much their monthly payment would be. And everyone knew who held their mortgage.

This is the first year Trinity Rep has staged It's a Wonderful Life, in tandem with the theatre's annual production of A Christmas Carol. It's a great combination.

As much as I love the movie, there's something unique about watching a story unfold right before your eyes. It's a Wonderful Life is funny and poignant and absorbing. And in the end, there were tears in my eyes.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys and a haunting "Go Back Home"



Tonight at the Lyceum Theatre, The Scottsboro Boys concludes its too-brief Broadway run after 78 performances.

I saw the musical from a spot where I'd never sat before: the middle of the front row, right behind the conductor, Paul Masse. (Sorry again if I accidentally kicked you while I was trying to stretch my legs!)

Honestly, that seat was a little too cramped and it probably would have been better to be a little farther back. But I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.

It really struck me how lucky I was to be sitting so close when I heard "Go Back Home," a haunting, lyrical ballad that took my breath away.

I thought, I'm listening to a new song from Kander and Ebb. This is what it must have been like during Golden Age, when you hear a song performed for the first time on Broadway and you know it'll become a classic.

I hope that happens with "Go Back Home." Joshua Henry and 12-year-old Jeremy Gumbs are spellbinding and heartbreaking.

I've written about my disappointment with the musical's closing. It tells a compelling American story about nine young black men and boys unjustly accused of a crime in the 1930s South. I thought it was tuneful, powerful, thought-provoking and entertaining in the best sense of the word.

I know there's talk about a tour, or bringing the show back for a brief stint in the spring, before the Tony awards. Whether that happens or not, I hope Tony voters don't forget The Scottsboro Boys and its superb cast. I know I never will.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Broadway audience, 2009-2010

The Broadway League has released its demographic survey for the 2009-2010 theatre season and once again, the typical theatergoer was - yours truly!
  • Tourists accounted for 63 percent of the 11.89 million Broadway admissions.
  • 66.3 percent of the audience was female.
  • 69 percent of those making purchasing decisions were women.
  • Three-quarters of admissions were Caucasians.
That pretty much describes me.

Of course in some ways I'm above average.

According to the League, the average playgoer saw 7 shows, compared with 5 for musical attendees. Those who saw 15 or more shows comprised 6 percent of the audience but 31 percent of admissions.

I saw 14 Broadway shows: 8 musicals and 6 plays. But if you add the 2 off-Broadway plays, it's a 50-50 split. My only limit is the number of shows I can squeeze into a long weekend.

And I make 100 percent of the purchasing decisions. I pay for every ticket myself, sometimes using discount codes but I've also ponied up full price and even bought premium seats on a few occasions.

Interestingly, critics reviews were cited as the most important factor in choosing a play, while a personal recommendation was the single strongest factor in picking a musical.

At this point I pretty much know based on the cast and the subject matter what interests me. But I do trust the reports from my friends and fellow bloggers. If they're excited about a show, that means a lot.

I don't think there's any one, sure-fire thing producers can do to get me to buy a ticket - except quintuple the number of toilets in the ladies room, and I'm not sure they have the ability to do that. I don't enjoy really, really loud music and I'm very squeamish, although there are exceptions. I loved Fela! (which wasn't too loud for me) and Sweeney Todd is one of my favorite musicals. So, go figure.

Generally though, I'm up for anything and I like to think I have pretty varied tastes in plays and musicals. I enjoy a good story and I don't want to be bored.

The League also noted that the number of international visitors dropped, blamed on the poor global economy. But they still accounted for 17 percent of all Broadway admissions. One in four foreign tourists took in a Broadway show during their trip to New York.

I'm sure there's much more interesting data but the League charges $25 for the full report. And from the summary, the snapshot of the average Broadway theatergoer doesn't seem to change much from year to year.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Senate fails on "Don't ask, don't tell''

Senate Democrats and President Obama, shame on you for failing on a matter of fundamental civil rights like repealing "Don't ask, don't tell."

Is this the same party that in the 1960s won the struggle against racial segregation, that enshrined into law the right of black Americans to vote? You used to be good at this kind of thing.

Just a reminder, here is how you did it. With the vocal support of President Johnson, Sen. Hubert Humphrey and his colleagues managed to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress despite entrenched Southern opposition.

And it was a bipartisan effort. On the day of the historic vote to end a filibuster over the bill, Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen echoed the words of Victor Hugo: "Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come."

Here's another idea whose time has come:

Gay and lesbian Americans serving in the military, as in all other walks of life, should be able to live their lives openly and without fear. The time for requiring Americans to hide who they are in order to serve their country has passed.

Just like that vote 46 years ago, this is about one thing: equality.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Elf

Elf, at Broadway's Hirschfeld Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****


I hadn't seen the movie Elf before taking in the musical version on Broadway but I was fairly certain of one thing: it would only be as good as its Buddy.

He's the baby who's accidentally transported to the North Pole after crawling into Santa's sack of gifts at an orphanage. He grows up to be Will Ferrell, a giant among elves but kind of a washout as a toymaker.

Well, Sebastian Arcelus won me over as the musical's Buddy. He's adorable - a big, overgrown kid in his green elf suit. He has a winning smile, a sweet singing voice and tons of charm.

I love a story set in New York City, and that's where Buddy goes at Christmastime when he learns that his human father is alive. I'm guessing the book, by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, follows the 2003 movie closely but they've added some clever current references.

Composers Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar have written a catchy, poignant score for Elf that's just as fun as their songs for The Wedding Singer. They capture the excitement of the holiday as well as a son's yearning for his father. And as someone who loves big Broadway dance numbers, I still smile when I think about Casey Nicholaw's exuberant choreography.

I liked Mark Jacoby as Buddy's long-lost dad, Walter Hobbs. He's a busy, brusque man who works at a children's book publisher and doesn't have much time for his family. Jacoby makes him just disagreeable enough without going over the top.

Beth Leavel and Matthew Gumley are perfect together as Emily and Michael, Walter's neglected wife and young son, who welcome Buddy into their lives. They have a nice duet in "There Is A Santa Claus." Amy Spanger is cute as Buddy's love interest, Jovie, whom he meets at Macy's. And it was great to see George Wendt as Santa Claus.

There's not much - actually, there's not any - suspense in Elf. But that didn't matter. While some shows geared toward kids have left me a little bored, I was into this one all the way, right down to the final unsurprising special effect. And this lighthearted musical sends a strong message about the importance of family.

(My only complaint: the product placement for Apple that even I, as a loyal customer of more than 20 years thought went overboard.)

Elf was the final show I saw in New York City in 2010. While it wasn't life-changing, the musical ended my year of Broadway theatergoing on a very enjoyable note.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Free Man of Color

A Free Man of Color, at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****


At the end of Act I, A Free Man of Color struck me as sprawling, bawdy and a bit confusing. Too many characters, too much going on in too many places.

But in Act II, John Guare's play came together in way that made sense of everything I'd seen before. It was a compelling - even brilliant - finish. And the very last line will stay with me for a long time.

Jeffrey Wright is dazzling as Jacques Cornet, a playwright and a free man of color living in New Orleans.

Born to a slave mother, he purchased his freedom and became the heir of his wealthy white father. Cornet dresses like a dandy, seduces other men's wives at will and generally lives life to the fullest in a freewheeling city where race seemingly doesn't matter.

But between 1801 and 1806, the period in which A Free Man of Color takes place, New Orleans is in transition. Founded in 1718 by the French, the city was ceded to Spain in 1763, reverted back to France in 1801 and was sold to the United States in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase.

Guare uses a broad canvas and historical figures such as Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson and Touissant Loverture to tell the story. He moves from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., France, Spain, the newly independent nation of Haiti and the vast unknown territory west of the Mississippi.

It's a lot to keep track of and I'll admit I sometimes felt a little lost in the sheer amount of history and number of characters and locations. (There are more than 30 people in the cast.) And while I wasn't offended by the bawdy humor, I just didn't find it all that funny a lot of the time.

But I have to give director George C. Wolfe credit for the play holding together as well as it does. It was always interesting to watch and I was never bored.

Mos (formerly Mos Def) was excellent as Cornet's slave, Murmur, and as Toussaint Louverture, leader of the slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Louverture makes an emotional plea to the United States, as one young democracy to another, to help his newly independent nation of Haiti.

As Meriwether Lewis, the secretary to John McMartin's President Thomas Jefferson, I found Paul Dano's youthful eagerness and desire for adventure so appealing. He's chafing to get out of Washington and explore the new territory that the United States has acquired.

And it was pretty exciting to see Joseph Marcell tackle a dramatic role as the dignified Dr. Toubib, Cornet's physician who acts as a narrator. Of course I know him as Geoffrey, the proper British butler on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

The sets by David Rockwell and costumes from Ann Hould-Ward were lavish. And some of the imagery was stunning, including a boatload of slaves being deported from Haiti, Mardi Gras revelers and the vast whiteness that represented the unexplored parts of the North American continent.

The play is a character study and a snapshot of New Orleans at a particular time in history. But I think most importantly, Guare is making a powerful statement about how our lofty ideals as a nation sometimes conflict with our actions.

Ironically, Cornet fears the return of the French, with their code noir that severely restricts the lives of black people, and feels a sense of relief with the arrival of the United States. After all, doesn't the Declaration of Independence say that all men are created equal?

As it turns out, Cornet will have much to fear from the Americans. (Jefferson helpfully informs him that "all men are created equal" isn't in the Constitution.)

What happens shows how tenuous life for a black man could be, even for a supposedly free man of color. And Wright is especially powerful as Cornet's fortune changes.

I wouldn't recommend A Free Man of Color to every theatergoer. But if you're interested in the time period or the history of New Orleans or the history of race in America, or if you just want to see an ambitious new American play, I think this is one you'll be talking about afterward.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mistakes Were Made

Mistakes Were Made, at the Barrow Street Theatre off Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** 1/2 out of ****


I've never seen anything quite like the virtuoso performance Michael Shannon delivers as a would-be Broadway producer in Mistakes Were Made.

Craig Wright's witty, frenzied satire comes to New York from Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre. In 95 minutes it takes us through a day in the life of Felix Artifex, who's desperately trying to mount an epic play about the French Revolution penned by an unknown Midwestern author.

If you love theatre and know anything about the perils of Broadway, I bet you're smiling already.

From Tom Burch's set design it's clear that this is not some high-powered dealmaker. Felix operates out of a dimly lit, shabby office with a worn desk and chair, scripts strewn around the floor and heated by an old-fashioned steam radiator. There are old Broadway posters and I recognized a framed photo of Larry Hagman on the wall.

Felix spends most of his time alone - well, almost.

An eternally patient but rarely seen secretary, Esther, played by Mierka Girten, announces his calls. She remains calm no matter how agitated he gets.

And there's an aquarium with one very plump, wide-eyed fish named Denise, in whom Felix confides. Puppeteer Sam Deutsch does a great job manipulating Denise, making her a character in the play.

As Felix, Shannon is on the phone almost nonstop. It's amazing to watch him juggle phone calls, sometimes several at a time, stretching from the Midwest to the Middle East. I swear he had me believing there was someone else on the other end of the line each time.

Felix must talk to nearly a dozen different people including a movie star, the playwright, an investor, a theater owner, an agent, a director, his ex-wife, an American military officer and several people involved with a shadowy money-making scheme to move sheep through a war-torn country.

And everyone gets a different approach - flattering the hot young movie star he's wooing, gently but firmly trying to persuade the playwright to create a bigger part for the actor, incensed with the theater owner who tries to back out, deferential to the investor. (I loved how he kept reassuring the writer: "You're the artist," all the while trying to rewrite the play for him.)

What's remarkable to watch is how adeptly Shannon handles all of this. He's moving all the time - running his hand through his hair, feeding his fish and effortlessly changing his tone of voice while switching among callers.

This was my first time seeing one of Wright's plays but I'm familiar with his work from such television series as Brothers and Sisters, Lost and Six Feet Under. He seems to know all of the players and egos involved in show business.

While there's nothing particularly startling in Wright's observations about the difficulty in putting on a Broadway show, he's written a tremendously entertaining look at the intersection of art and commerce.

Mistakes Were Made is a character study and Felix Artifex is quite a character. I'm thinking there aren't a lot of small-time producers like him around today. It's a bit of a stretch to believe that he could ever actually mount a Broadway show.

Still, Shannon elevates this play, making Felix utterly sympathetic and memorable. And in Mistakes Were Made, he's giving a Tony-worthy performance, even if it isn't eligible for one.

An Oscar nominee for Revolutionary Road and currently in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, Shannon is gaining some well-deserved national recognition. This is a great opportunity to see him up close.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World AIDS Day 2010

I know it sounds strange to say that I enjoy being asked for money but I look forward to those pitches for donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS when I'm at a show.

Since it's World AIDS Day 2010, here's a pitch from me.

At the end of 2009, there were 33 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS, about 1 million of them in the United States. An estimated 56,300 Americans become infected every year.

This year's United Nations report offers some encouraging statistics: worldwide, the number of people newly infected with HIV is declining and AIDS-related deaths are decreasing.

But much work remains, including caring for people who are living with the disease.

Whenever I go to the theatre at this time of year I always make sure that I have a little extra cash to drop in the bucket if the cast is collecting for Broadway Cares. (Touring productions of Broadway shows often collect donations, too.)

The organization will award about $10 million in grants in 2010 to groups in nearly every state and around the world. Broadway Cares supports health clinics, food service and meal delivery, housing and emergency assistance. Most likely an organization near you receives help.

Broadway Cares also supports other organizations that provide services to performing artists, including the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, the Al Hirschfeld Free Clinic and resources for actors and dancers.

While they're serious about the organization's good work, the requests for donations at the curtain call are often done with a sense of humor. In 2008, I watched Daniel Radcliffe auction off a sweaty polo shirt he wore during Equus.

This fall, David Hyde Pierce was ready with a few witty one-liners after La Bete. (He should host the Tony Awards!) And it was sweet to see 12-year-old Jeremy Gumbs, the youngest cast member of The Scottsboro Boys, smile broadly at the curtain call after playing a very serious role so well. He was so incredible in the musical that it was almost startling to realize yeah, he's a kid.

But I have to give the prize to the cast of Lombardi. Bill Dawes, who plays Green Bay Packer Paul Hornung, had us laughing hysterically. And Dan Lauria was pretty funny, too, staying in character as the legendary Packers coach.

I got an autographed Playbill for $20 (a color one!) and I saw quite a few people walking out of the theatre with $100 signed window cards. But any amount helps.

I'm happy to support an organization that helps so many people and it's my way of saying thank-you to the people whose work I've enjoyed all year long. That includes everyone who works onstage and backstage and without whom, the show would not go on.

Broadway Cares also has an online store with lots of great ideas for gifts for Christmas, Chanukah or any time of year.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys to close on Broadway

The Scottsboro Boys is closing on Dec. 12, six weeks after opening night? I just can't believe it. I'm crushed.

According to Playbill, producers Barry and Fran Weissler and Jackie Barlia said:

"It's a show we felt we had to produce and we're proud and grateful to have brought this last great musical from Kander & Ebb to Broadway. We encourage anyone who loves challenging, provocative and original new musicals to see us in our final two weeks at the Lyceum."

Well gee whiz guys, if you felt you had to produce it couldn't you at least have given it a chance to build an audience? Doesn't a challenging, provocative work need time for the buzz to spread? Couldn't you plow some of the profits from Chicago into it to keep things going a little longer?

Like I said in my review, The Scottsboro Boys is a thoughtful, tuneful and powerful story about injustice. It gives voice to a group of 1930s Southern black men in a way that I found original and compelling and entertaining in the highest sense of the word. It also brilliantly uses the format of a minstrel show to illuminate the era's racism.

I have to wonder if we're seeing a trend toward quickly pulling the plug on a show.

It happened last fall with the revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs and last week with Elling, both of which closed a week after opening night. The Weisslers also produced the British play Enron, which had a very short life on Broadway this spring.

Are these shows so undercapitalized that they're basically being fronted on a wing and a prayer? (The Scottsboro Boys played to 59.8 percent capacity last week, with an average ticket price of $63.43.) Sometimes I think there's the mentality that we'll throw up a show and see if it sticks. If not, we'll get out quickly and move on to the next one.

Compare that with Passing Strange, which I don't remember exactly burning up the box office but the producers, including The Shubert Organization and Elizabeth McCann, at least kept it going for five months, through the Tony Awards. It won Best Book of a Musical and now has an afterlife in regional theatre.

Or Memphis, which started out slowly but has built an audience since winning the Tony for Best musical. Or Next to Normal, another musical about a difficult subject that will have been on Broadway for nearly two years by the time it closes in January, and has just started a national tour with Tony winner Alice Ripley. Or Fela!, another innovative musical, about someone little-known to most Americans, that's concluding after just over a year on Broadway.

I feel bad for the incredibly talented cast of The Scottsboro Boys, as well as for the rest of the creative team. Your work - hilarious, insightful, heartfelt - moved me so much. It was a thrilling and memorable evening of theatre.

Time Stands Still

Time Stands Still at Broadway's Cort Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****


In Time Stands Still, James Dodd and Sarah Goodwin are a reporter and a photographer who have spent their working lives moving from one world hot spot to the next. Now the couple is at a crossroads, both personally and professionally.

Laura Linney's Sarah has been badly injured in a roadside bombing in Iraq. Fearless and focused, she's eager to get back into the action. For James, played by Brian d'Arcy James, things have gotten a bit fuzzy. He's shaken by the incident and ready for a change.

Added to the mix is Eric Bogosian as Richard Ehrlich, the couple's friend and a magazine photo editor. His current girlfriend is the much younger Mandy Bloom, played by Christina Ricci in her Broadway debut.

I thought Bogosian was good as the clearly smitten Richard. He's supportive of Sarah and James but fighting his own uphill battle against the public's dwindling appetite for news from places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ricci's Mandy, an event planner, seemed mismatched with Richard. I understand an older man falling for a younger woman, just not this woman. Ricci plays her as sweet and perky but she also seems to be someone who's not much interested in the larger world.

What I think playwright Donald Margulies does well in Time Stands Still is explore how the media views itself versus how it appears to outsiders. I don't think there's anything very revelatory but he creates characters who, at least to me, were recognizable.

While I've never reported from a war zone, I know the adrenaline rush that comes from working on a big story, as well as the certainty that you're doing something vital. As Sarah explains when Mandy asks how she can take pictures of the wounded instead of helping them, "If it weren't for people like me, the ones with the cameras, who would know? Who would care?"

Despite the media critique, at its heart Time Stands Still is a love story. (I can see this becoming a popular play for regional theatres - four actors, one set: the couple's cozy apartment, designed by John Lee Beatty.)

Linney and D'Arcy James are terrific as two people struggling to come to terms with changes in their life together. I previously saw D'Arcy James in Shrek - a musical I was mixed about - and it was hard to get a take on him under that ogre costume. But here, I enjoyed him so much - he just exudes warmth.

It seems ironic that Sarah and James, who've have been through so much in so many dangerous places, find their relationship at its most stressful when they're in the peaceful and comfortable confines of New York City.