Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why should I wait until opening night?

Wow, some people just don't get it, do they?

British theatre producer Michael Codron, who received an Olivier Award for lifetime achievement earlier this month, has some harsh words for theatre bloggers.

Here's what the 79-year-old Codron told Mark Lawson in The Guardian:

His single flash of anger is aimed at the bloggers who, in defiance of theatrical convention that comment is embargoed until press night, review a play during its previews. "It's almost invariably reactionary responses. They're the modern equivalent of the lot that used to boo the plays in the 50s and 60s. I think they're ghastly."

When I started my blog, if I saw a preview I wouldn't wait, I'd post my review immediately. Now, I do tend to wait for opening night simply because it's more fun that way! If I saw a preview performance, I always mention that.

But since I pay for my tickets I'm under no obligation to anyone, especially the producers, to hold off on stating my opinion. And, I might add, I've paid full price for shows in preview.

The blog isn't my job, it's a hobby. It's simply an extension of a conversation I might have in everyday life. It's a way for me to jot down my thoughts, to vent occasionally, to write about something I enjoy.

To say that I shouldn't post a review until opening night is as silly as saying I shouldn't talk about the show with friends or coworkers or post something on Twitter. I should just enter the cone of silence and not utter a word to anyone.

Theatre fans are a pretty passionate bunch - hate it or love it, we want to talk about what we've seen. Why would you want to stifle that dialogue? Besides, the bloggers whose reviews I read regularly are extremely thoughtful and knowledgeable - hardly "reactionary."

Of course if someone accepts a free ticket from a producer with the understanding that they'll wait until opening night, well that's a different story. It's just not mine.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A tale of two Broadway shows

The producers of Next to Normal have announced that they've recouped their $4 million initial investment. This is quite a feat for a musical about a difficult subject - mental illness - and without any bankable TV or movie stars.

The New York Times story lists some of the reasons, including a terrific performance by Alice Ripley that was showcased on the Tony awards telecast.

But one question I wish reporter Patrick Healy had asked lead producer David Stone was what effect the show's schedule might have had on its success.

I saw Next to Normal on a Sunday night, a rarity on Broadway, especially for a new show. There's also a Monday night performance, a day when most theatres are dark. (To keep to the eight-show maximum, Next to Normal is dark on Wednesdays.)

In retrospect, this was a savvy move on the part of the producers and may well have helped them recoup. My guess is that given its youthful fan base and lack of competition, Next to Normal fared better on Sunday and Monday nights than it would have with two shows on Wednesday.

On the not so bright side, The Miracle Worker is closing Sunday after 21 previews and 38 regular performances. Despite its starry casting of Alison Pill as Annie Sullivan and Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller, the play received lackluster reviews.

Producer David Richenthal told The New York Times last year that "It's simply naive to think that in this day and age, you'll be able to sell tickets to a play solely on the potential of the production to be a great show or on the potential for an unknown actress to give a breakthrough performance."

While the two leads drew praise, most critics felt the staging didn't work at Circle in the Square and the play would have been better off at a theatre with a traditional proscenium.

I didn't see it, so I can't comment on the quality of the production but I wonder if The Miracle Worker would have been better off opening at a different time of year. It might have sold more tickets in the summer or around Christmas, when tourists flock to New York with children in tow.

Monday, March 29, 2010

PPAC's 2010-2011 season

The Providence Performing Arts Center has announced its 2010-2011 season and I think it's a pretty strong one. It's also a milestone for me - I've seen every show. Here's the lineup:

Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Nov. 12-28
South Pacific, Dec. 7-12
Mamma Mia!, Dec. 28-Jan. 2
In the Heights, Jan. 11-16, 2011
The Lion King, Feb. 1-20, 2011
Blue Man Group, March 4-6, 2011
Next to Normal, March 22-27, 2011
Monty Python's Spamalot, April 15-17, 2011
West Side Story, April 25-May 1, 2011

Things kick off - literally - in November with the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which I saw in New York in 2008. It's a great show with some truly spectacular segments featuring those high-stepping dancers. And it'll definitely get you in the Christmas spirit. Here's my review.

Also on the PPAC schedule for next season are five musicals I really enjoyed on Broadway - South Pacific, In the Heights, The Lion King, Next to Normal and West Side Story. I can't say what the touring productions will be like but they're shows I'd see.

Honestly, I'm less enthused about Spamalot, Mamma Mia! and Blue Man Group.

The first two have stopped in Providence fairly recently. Mamma Mia! is a fun musical and I had a good time seeing it on Broadway. I was less enthused about Spamalot when I took in the tour at PPAC in 2008. And I saw Blue Man Group in Boston years ago. Different, but once was enough for me!

Of course South Pacific, West Side Story and The Lion King are classics that probably don't need an introduction from me. But theatergoers in Southern New England might not be as familiar with In the Heights and Next to Normal.

In the Heights, the 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical, refers to Washington Heights, a neighborhood at the northern end of Manhattan that's a Latino melting pot.

It's a sweet and heartfelt look at an immigrant community's hopes and dreams. I loved the choreography and the score that combines hip-hop and salsa with more traditional Broadway sounds.

Next to Normal is something so rare on Broadway, an original musical about a complex subject - a woman suffering from mental illness and the effect it has on her family.

People are divided on it but I gained a greater understanding of the devastating impact of mental illness and how difficult it is to treat. Plus, the vibrant rock 'n' roll score conveys so well what each character is going through. Tough to watch at times, yes, but utterly compelling.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Alec Baldwin hosts Studio 360

This weekend 30 Rock's Alec Baldwin will try out a new gig, substituting for Kurt Andersen as the guest host of Studio 360, which happens to be one of my favorite radio programs.

Among Baldwin's guests will be actress Laura Linney, who ends her Broadway run Saturday as a scarred war photographer in the play Time Stands Still, by Donald Margulies.

Update: Here's Baldwin's interview with Laura Linney. I think he did a great job. They should have him on again!

Studio 360 is an hourlong arts and culture show out of New York City that's been on the air since 2000. Here's a list of stations that run the program, usually on Saturday or Sunday. You can also listen at the Web site or download it as a podcast.

Andersen, a novelist, often interviews people connected with the theatre. And I highly recommend his series on American icons, examining The Wizard of Oz, Superman and the Lincoln Memorial, among other cultural touchstones.

Here's an interview he did with Bill T. Jones, director and choreographer of the Broadway musical Fela!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Getting excited about The Odd Couple

I'm major-league excited about Trinity Rep's next production, Neil Simon's classic comedy The Odd Couple. My season of Simon was cut short last fall after I saw Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway, so this is another chance at bat.

Previews begin April 9 with Brian McEleney as neurotic neatnik Felix Ungar and Fred Sullivan Jr. as slobbish sportswriter Oscar Madison. The Odd Couple runs through May 9.

Here's a clip of artistic director Curt Columbus talking about the play, which was first produced on Broadway in 1965, became a movie in 1968 and a TV series that ran from 1970 to 1975.

In reading it over Columbus, who's directing, says he realized that the play is "a much richer piece about friendship and about masculinity in the mid 20th century in America."

I grew up watching The Odd Couple on TV with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall and Columbus says resident set designer Eugene Lee took that familiarity into account. "It's going to have a really cool 1960s television feel."

In this clip from the Dec. 1 1972, episode Felix and Oscar appear on the game show Password, competing against Betty White, who was married to host Allen Ludden. Watch it to learn something about Abraham Lincoln that I bet you never knew.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Stephen Sondheim Theatre

It's so easy to get cynical about Broadway as an over-produced and overpriced theme park or a vehicle for star turns. Then something happens that makes the cynicism melt away.

I'm thrilled that Broadway's restored Henry Miller's Theatre will be renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, as a gift to the composer on his 80th birthday. (The picture is a preliminary artist's rendition of the marquee. How elegant!)

But even more thrilling was seeing these photos when it was announced from the stage of Studio 54, after a performance of the musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim.

It's clear that Mr. Sondheim, surrounded by the cast and his frequent collaborators John Weidman and James Lapine, was surprised and delighted and overcome with emotion.

Kudos to the small group of "Stephen Sondheim devotees" who made a generous donation to the Musical Production Fund of the Roundabout Theatre Company, which operates the Henry Miller's.

Now the ball is in the court of Roundabout's artistic director Todd Haimes to make the opening production at the Sondheim Theatre something memorable. Personally, I'd love to see a revival of Merrily We Roll Along - with a full orchestra, please.

David Mamet's red sequined dress

Is it just me or does anyone else think this "promotion" for David Mamet's play Race at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre is in poor taste?

According to an article at,

"To celebrate the arrival of spring, RACE will take over Times Square on Wednesday, March 24, 2010 from 11 am - 1 pm and will have nearly two dozen women wear red sequined dresses for the public. This event will also celebrate the fact that RACE is currently the longest-running play of this Broadway season. The women will be coming from all over the city to wear the show's famous red sequined dress, a major plot point in the play."

Okay, spoiler alert if you haven't seen it: Race is about a white man accused of raping a black woman who was wearing the red sequined dress in question and the lawyers who have to decide whether or not to represent him.

So a play about a woman allegedly used as a sex object is marketed by using women as sex objects. How meta! (Guess someone considered it more eye-catching than a group of lawyers in suits carrying briefcases.)

I'll admit I was not a fan of this play so maybe I'm looking at it from a jaundiced perspective. But given the subject matter, having a group of women wearing tight-fitting dresses parade around Times Square is a little unseemly.

What were the producers thinking? Is the point to titillate passersby so they pony up for a ticket? If so, they're going to be awfully disappointed because the woman in the red sequined dress never appears in the play.

Surely there must be a better way to celebrate the arrival of spring on Broadway.

Update: Here are pictures from the event, posted at Broadway World, including one with producers Jeffrey Richards and Jerry Frankel. What a tawdry, disturbing publicity stunt. Don't they realize this is a play about an alleged rape?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Happy Birthday Stephen Sondheim

I'd like to wish a very happy birthday to composer, mystery buff and puzzle designer Stephen J. Sondheim, who turns 80 years old today. (You can sign a birthday book here.)

Of course I was aware of Mr. Sondheim's importance to musical theatre long before I started going to the theatre. But my first real introduction came from listening to him and seeing clips from his shows in the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical in 2006.

Since then, I've been working my way through the Sondheim catalog: Gypsy, West Side Story and A Little Night Music on Broadway; Road Show off Broadway at the Public Theater; and in Boston, the Sweeney Todd tour and the Lyric Stage production of Follies.

I've watched Company, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods on dvd and I've listened to scores of musicals I haven't seen - Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along.

If I had to pick a favorite Sondheim musical it would be Sweeney Todd. Despite my oft-stated squeamishness, I love the setting in seedy, industrial 19th-century London, the themes of class division, injustice and the desire for revenge, and the score's mix of humor and poignancy. The movie with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter may have its fans but my favorite is the stage version with George Hearn as the vengeful barber and Angela Lansbury as the demented piemaker Mrs. Lovett, which is available on dvd.

I'm by no means an expert on the man or his music but what I appreciate about Sondheim is that he tackles meaty subjects.

I think of Follies as an examination of what happens as we age, how we look back at our youthful dreams with nostalgia and a twinge of regret; Road Show about our ability as Americans to remake ourselves and our desire to get rich quick; Assassins about our obsession with fame and guns; Sunday in the Park with George about the creative process.

Here are two quotes from Craig Zadan's wonderfully detailed book Sondheim & Co. that go a long way toward summing up how I feel:

From the late choreographer Michael Bennett - "There are still composers in the theater who are thinking about writing hit songs, but Steve writes for character all the time. Steve, of all the composers I've worked with, understands more about the musical theater than anyone."

And from former New York magazine critic Alan Rich - "It's not such a bad thing, now, is it - being treated in the theater as if you just might be a grownup with a grownup's intelligence? Thank you, Steve Sondheim, above all for that."

Update: What a perfect birthday present - a Broadway theatre! The restored Henry Miller's Theatre on West 43rd Street will be renamed the Stephen Sondheim. Here's a preliminary artist's rendition of the marquee. Hey Roundabout, how about a revival of Merrily We Roll Along as the first show?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bigotry and the health care debate

The disgusting slurs hurled yesterday at Georgia Rep. John Lewis and other African-American members of Congress over the health care bill reminded me of something I once witnessed from the other side of the political spectrum.

In November 1997, when I was living in Israel, I went to a peace rally in Tel Aviv held in memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had been assassinated two years earlier.

About 200,000 people crowded into the square in front of City Hall, where Rabin had spoken moments before he was killed. At the time, as now, the right-wing Likud Party was in power.

It was a young, mostly secular, left-leaning crowd at what was supposed to be a nonpartisan event, although I did see a few posters opposing then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

When the sole government representative in attendance began to speak, Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, some people started to boo him.

I couldn't believe it.

Booing Sharansky, the man who languished in a Soviet prison camp for the "crime" of wanting to immigrate to Israel? The man whose plight galvanized Jews around the world? Even if you dislike the policies of the government, how could you be so disrespectful?

Thankfully, Ehud Barak, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, walked over to Sharansky, held up his arm and called him an Israeli hero, silencing the crowd.

Well, John Lewis is an American hero, a man who was arrested and beaten as he marched and organized throughout the South in the 1960s to win African-Americans their civil rights, including the right to vote.

The invective hurled yesterday at black lawmakers, as well as at openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, is un-American and unacceptable.

House Republican leaders have denounced it but I'd like to see them leave the comfort of a CNN studio and directly confront their bigoted Tea Party supporters, some of whom seem to have a problem with the fact that we've elected a black man as president.

I have no patience with extremist behavior, whether it comes from the left or the right. Whatever your argument, it's impossible for me to take you seriously. Why anyone would think that I'd listen to the ravings of bigots is is beyond me.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mel Brooks on Blazing Saddles the musical

When I heard that Mel Brooks had written a couple of songs for a musical version of Blazing Saddles my initial reaction was "Mel, this is meshugas. You're 83, do you really need the tsuris?"

Then I thought no, that's wrong. He's 83 and if he wants to write a Blazing Saddles musical, who am I to tell him to stop? He's already got the theme song from the movie.

This time though, I'm not getting my hopes up. While I'm a big fan of Brooks as a filmmaker, I'm lukewarm on Brooks as the creator of Broadway musicals.

Granted, I've never seen The Producers on stage, although I have watched the movie of the musical. But I did see Young Frankenstein on Broadway and I was disappointed. The tongue-in-cheek homage to horror films didn't translate well.

Unlike The Producers, which won 12 Tony Awards and ran for six years, the Tony-less Young Frankenstein got lukewarm reviews and closed in a little over a year.

But that hasn't deterred Brooks.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, he reveals that he's working on the Blazing Saddles musical, although he warns that the project might not pan out.

"I don't know - if I did it, I wouldn't rush to New York with it because the Times would say: 'Oh, oh dear, another movie converted and transmogrified into a musical.' ''

Personally, I'm not convinced a Blazing Saddles musical would work. I don't know whether some of the most well-known scenes in this sendup of Westerns would translate well to the stage. And then there's the film's use of a racial epithet.

The best part of the interview, though, was the comparison Brooks made between film and theatre:

"Film takes an eternity - it takes an eternity! - and there are, like, infinite collaborations, which waters down anything.

"But the stage is: you throw your naked heart on the stage and they respond to it or not, and it's immediate. You send a bad joke out there and you get this big laugh or you grow wings and fly. It's just amazing."

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Glass Menagerie

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

I'd never seen The Glass Menagerie but I knew the shorthand: domineering mother, literary-minded son, unstable daughter, long-awaited gentleman caller.

Still, watching actors bring Tennessee Williams' characters to life so vividly at the Gamm Theatre made me realize how little I really knew about the play. This is an absorbing, intimate production, made more so by seeing it in a 137-seat theatre, nearly filled on a rainy Sunday.

The story takes place in St. Louis in the 1930s, in the living and dining room of a drab apartment that designer Patrick Lynch has decorated with some well-worn furniture and an old phonograph.

It looks out onto a brick wall and a fire escape, apt metaphors for the Wingfield family because mother Amanda, son Tom and daughter Laura are all trying to escape from something.

And each of the actors playing them is just pitch perfect:

Gamm veteran Wendy Overly is Amanda, a faded Southern beauty wistfully recalling her comfortable girlhood, when she was courted by an abundance of promising gentlemen callers.

She ended up marrying a charmer who worked for the phone company, "a telephone man who fell in love with long distance," and abandoned his wife and children to a dreary, tenuous existence.

Marc Dante Mancini is Tom, an aspiring writer working at a warehouse job that he hates to support his family. He's angry, he drinks too much and he yearns to be free of his mother. Mancini makes you understand how trapped Tom feels and why that leads him to do some selfish things.

And Diana Buirski is a revelation as daughter Laura, capturing her character's emotional and physical fragility so well. She's a childlike young adult, painfully shy and unable to interact with the world, happiest listening to records on the phonograph and playing with her glass figurines. It's no wonder that her mother is fearful for her future.

In stark contrast is Jim O'Connor, a coworker Tom brings home for dinner as a potential suitor for Laura. As Jim, Kelby Akin exudes confidence and optimism. He seems to be everything the Wingfields are not.

Parts of the story are narrated by Tom years later. Director Fred Sullivan Jr. has split the roles and I think it's effective. Sam Babbitt is the older Tom, hovering around the edge of the stage, a drink in hand, watching his youth play out.

The Glass Menagerie is a memory play - Williams was born in Mississippi and spent part of his childhood in St. Louis. And his sister Rose suffered from debilitating mental illness. So this is clearly about his family and his first stirrings as a writer.

At the heart of the play is Amanda Wingfield's relationship with her children. And it's painful - especially when the shouting turns to shrieking. Each of these people is desperate, Amanda to find a husband who will take care of her daughter, Tom to escape his mundane life and Laura to escape from the world to a place where she feels secure.

Despite the sadness, there's more humor than I expected. Although I did find the laughter inappropriate on occasion, especially in the scene where Laura hides under the table because she's too frightened to open the door when her brother brings Jim home.

There's also a great deal of tenderness in The Glass Menagerie. Williams has crafted his characters with such care that I did feel for what each one was going through. Amid all the shouting and anger and hurt and delusions is a great deal of love.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A school district's lesson in hate and fear

The Itawamba County Agricultural High School in Mississippi cancelled its prom rather than allow Constance McMillen, an openly lesbian student, to attend with her girlfriend and (horrors!) wear a tuxedo.

The school district said it was concerned about the "education, safety and well-being" of the students and took the action "due to the distractions to the educational process caused by recent events."

McMillen is a courageous young woman. I can imagine that her classmates are not too happy with her right now, when they should be directing their anger at the school district. Fortunately the ACLU has taken up her cause, filing a lawsuit to get the April 2 prom reinstated.

In addition to being bigoted, this is just silly.

Who would it hurt if McMillen wore a tuxedo and brought a girl to the prom? No one. If someone doesn't like it, that's their right. But they shouldn't be able to prevent a same-sex couple from attending any more than they could prevent an interfaith or interracial couple.

A school district so concerned about the "educational process" is teaching the wrong lesson. Instead of stressing the importance of acceptance, they've taught their students that it's acceptable to be intolerant.

As usual, a show tune says it best.

Sixty-one years ago, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote that we're not born hating or fearing anyone. We've got to be carefully taught.

Here's Glee's Matthew Morrison as Lt. Joseph Cable in the Broadway revival of South Pacific with a song that sadly, resonates today:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Theatre criticism and serendipity

At first glance, it may not mean much to the average theatre fan that Variety has laid off critic David Rooney. Variety is a trade publication and unless you're in show business, or an especially devoted fan, you probably don't read it.

But as this Playbill article mentions, Rooney is merely the latest addition to a line of theatre critics who've been let go by more mainstream publications, replaced by freelancers if they're replaced at all. (By default, Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press is probably the most influential mainstream theatre critic in the United States.)

I know there's the argument that criticism hasn't declined, it's simply changed, gotten more dispersed and democratic with the advent of blogging. There are more theatre critics nowadays, not fewer.

Well, bloggers can pick up some of the slack and we do have a role to play. Our passion for theatre goes a long way toward keeping the conversation going. We can be a great source about what's going on in New York and elsewhere and our reviews are widely read.

But as I see it, there are a few obstacles to theatre bloggers taking over the world:
  • we're preaching to the choir, people come looking for us because they're already interested in the subject; (Does anyone aimlessly browse the Internet?)
  • few of us, even on a great day, reach as many people as a TV station, radio station, magazine, newspaper or their Web sites;
  • since most of us don't blog for a living, we pick and choose what we write about. We don't have an obligation to cover everything in our communities.
All of this may not mean as much to Broadway or to a major regional theatre company that will still get coverage, that have built-in audiences.

But what about the small company just starting out? How does it get noticed? What about a theatre in a community where there aren't a lot of theatre bloggers to pick up the slack?

And there's one more thing that troubles me about the decline of general-interest criticism. Our culture has become so decentralized, with everyone wrapped up in their own little sources of information, that we've lost the opportunity for serendipity.

That means there's less chance we'll come across something we've never heard of, never thought about reading or attending or listening to, but our curiosity has been piqued. It means there's even less chance that a non-theatergoer will hear about the theatre.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A leaner North Shore Music Theatre

After reading about a spate of regional theatres shuttering, I'm happy to see one making a comeback.

The North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass., which closed in 2009, has announced its new season under a new owner. William Hanney, who also owns Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck, R.I., bought the bankrupt venue.

The season starts off with Gypsy, July 6-25; followed by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Aug. 3-22; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Sept. 21-Oct. 10; A Chorus Line, Nov. 2-21; and A Christmas Carol, Dec. 3-23.

This is good news for actors and theatre fans on the North Shore. Although it may not be such great news for anyone hoping to make a career out of the theatre behind the scenes, with the stability of a full-time job and benefits.

What Hanney told The Boston Globe is understandable given the recession and the North Shore's past financial problems. But it does strikes me as a sad and foreboding commentary on the current economic climate.

"Hanney also said he's not going to hire nearly as many full-time workers as were employed in the theater's last incarnation. (When the theater closed last year, it laid off more than 50 people.) Instead, Hanney imagines supporting six to eight staffers with an ever-changing slate of temporary workers to answer phones and take tickets."

Still, a theatre that's open and employing six to eight people full time is better than one that's closed and employing no one.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Goodbye to my Broadway Billy

Today is 15-year-old Trent Kowalik's final performance in Billy Elliot on Broadway and it's something of a milestone.

Trent was in the London cast and the Long Island native came to New York when the musical opened in 2008. He's the last of the three original, Tony-winning Broadway Billys still with the show and most importantly, he's the one I saw in the role.

What's stayed with me the most about Trent is, no surprise, his terrific dancing. Watching him tapping and leaping and pirouetting across the stage I remember thinking, "I hope he stays in musical theatre because I'd love to see him perform as an adult."

And as this video shows in addition to being incredibly talented, he's also a well-spoken, considerate young man. I wish him and his fellow Tony winners David Alvarez and Kiril Kulish all the best. I wish I could have seen them all.

As for Billy Elliot, the story of a motherless boy in a coal-mining town in Margaret Thatcher's England has become quite the worldwide juggernaut.

The musical opens this month in Chicago and the 2010 U.S. tour kicks off Nov. 2 at the Durham Performing Arts Center in North Carolina. An Australian run wrapped up last year. Productions are planned in South Korea, Japan, Germany and the Netherlands.

I loved the 2000 movie Billy Elliot and a great deal of the poignancy has been transferred to the stage. It's a bittersweet story about a boy discovering his passion in life and the rocky relationship with his father. It's also about a community under great stress coming together.

But as I said in my review, what truly stood out for me was Peter Darling's Tony-winning choreography. Billy Elliot the musical is a tribute to the joy of movement, to the artistry and exuberance and sheer athleticism of dance.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In defense of Twitter

After I finish writing this blog post I'll put a link to it on Twitter and that will be my 5,000th tweet.

I know it's fashionable to knock Twitter as another example of social networking run amok, filled with people sharing the minutiae of their lives in 140-character spurts, like what they had for breakfast or lunch.

In one of the most recent examples, George Packer wrote online for The New Yorker: "Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell."

Honestly, I feel just the opposite. Rather than an "information hell," I use Twitter to better organize information.

Many of the sites I follow are related to theatre. It's a quick and easy way to keep track of what's happening on Broadway and elsewhere. There are book-related sites on my list, too. (In one of the most imaginative uses of Twitter, I'm also tracking John F. Kennedy's campaign for the White House in 1960.)

Some people I follow are friends and fellow bloggers. Others I've found through a shared interest. I've had great discussions with theatre fans across the country and as far away as Australia about shows we've seen or what we're looking forward to seeing.

Often, the tweet includes a link to an interesting article I wouldn't have found otherwise, like the inspiring story of Andrew Grene, a U.N. worker killed in the earthquake in Haiti. And in one serendipitous case, a tweet led to an act of kindness I'll never forget.

It's not always so serious either. There are some people I follow simply because they make me laugh. I need a laugh every once in awhile.

On the down side, every once in awhile I go through my followers and block the ones who are spamming me. And yes, Twitter attracts people who hide behind pseudonyms to say stupid, vulgar things, just like every other part of the Internet.

What I appreciate about Twitter is that it's easy and immediate and limitless. It's also been a great way for me to find new readers, especially when people link to a blog post I've written.

I look at it as a never-ending conversation with as many or as few people as I choose, for as much or as little time as I care to spend. To some, perhaps that's overwhelming but to me, it opens up a world of possibilities.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dead Man's Cell Phone

Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Remember when phone calls were relatively private affairs, conducted at home or in the office or at least in the semi-seclusion of a phone booth?

Now, it's all too easy to overhear conversations, to become privy to the intimate lives of strangers. Playwright Sarah Ruhl takes that premise to a hilarious extreme in Dead Man's Cell Phone, at Trinity Repertory Company through March 28.

Like Ruhl's earlier work, The Clean House, which I saw at Trinity Rep in 2007, Dead Man's Cell Phone is full of sharp dialogue and quirky characters. She has some perceptive things to say about how we grieve, how technology has changed our lives and the connections we make. (Here's a profile of Ruhl from The New Yorker.)

As the play opens Jean (Janice Duclos), is sitting by herself in a cafe when a cell phone goes off at a nearby table. The phone's owner isn't answering it so she walks over and picks it up. Eventually, she realizes that the man has uh, expired.

For some inexplicable reason - loneliness, curiosity, a desire to help - Jean keeps the phone and continues to answer it.

Duclos is very funny as she gets more and more involved with the family of the dead man, whose name we learn is Gordon. It's like she can't stop herself. This is probably the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her.

She meets Gordon's "other woman," played with a terrific air of mystery by Rachael Warren; his long-suffering wife, Hermia (Phyllis Kay); and his very upper-crust mother, Mrs. Gottlieb. (Barbara Meek).

They want some reassurance that Gordon was thinking of them during his final moments. Jean, good-hearted soul that she is, weaves an ever-more elaborate tale that may not have much to do with reality but makes everyone feel a bit better.

Richard Donelly pulls double duty as Gordon, whom we meet at the beginning of Act II, and his mild-mannered brother Dwight. Donelly does such an amazing job portraying these two very different men that I almost couldn't believe it was the same person in both roles.

(Also, Donelly has an interesting background. Until he retired a few years ago, he worked as a plumber. You can read a Providence Phoenix story about him here.)

Under Beth Milles' direction, the first act moves along at a snappy pace in just under an hour.

The second act starts off well, with a very riveting and revealing monologue from Gordon. It's quite a shock. (Let's just say those snippets of cell phone conversations we overhear may not tell the whole story.)

After that, I felt like Dead Man's Cell Phone lost some steam. It takes a mystical, fantasy turn that seemed a little too incredible. Ruhl also tosses in a reference to the Holocaust that seemed totally gratuitous.

I liked the whimsical, quirky quality to Ruhl's writing. But a little bit of whimsy goes a long way.