Friday, July 30, 2010


Fela! at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Broadway.
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I was supposed to see Fela! in December as the final show in my New York City trip. When the performance was canceled due to injuries about 10 minutes after curtain time, I was extremely disappointed.

By the time I returned to Broadway, last weekend, new musicals had opened and I'd lost interest. I was going to skip Fela! altogether.

But my friend Steve on Broadway encouraged me to give it another chance, telling me it was incredible and reminding me that I'd get to see Saycon Sengbloh in a featured role. Fortunately, I listened to him.

tells the story of the late Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and takes place in 1978 in his nightclub, the Shrine. It's an original musical that meshes politics, history and a personal narrative with the pulsating sound of Afrobeat. I was enthralled from beginning to end.

Two actors share the title role - Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo. I saw Mambo and he was mesmerizing - a charismatic showman who at one point gets the audience up and swiveling our collective hips. You can understand why a million people crowded the streets of Lagos at Fela's funeral.

Mambo is onstage almost the entire 2 1/2 hours and has practically the only speaking role. The music - from the Afrobeat band Antibalas - and dance, choreographed by Tony winner Bill T. Jones, are almost nonstop. Robert Kaplowitz's Tony-winning sound design was crisp and clear without hurting my ears.

Aided by Peter Nigrini's projection design, Fela tells of his childhood in a politically active family, chafing under British Colonial rule, eye-opening travels to England the United States, becoming a musician and opposing the corruption that took hold in Nigeria after independence.

And Mambo is a terrific storyteller. He's funny as Fela describes his influences - Frank Sinatra and James Brown among them; poignantly ambivalent referring to his grandfather - the first African to record music in Europe; reverential about his mother, Funmilayo, a courageous, pioneering feminist; defiant toward the authorities who constantly harass and arrest him.

Only two other performers have speaking roles. Sengbloh is captivating as Sandra Isadore, an American who sparks his interest in politics and black power. Abena Koomson (understudy for Lillias White) is stirring as Funmilayo. I just wish we'd seen more of them, and others who influenced Fela's life.

Fela! doesn't present its subject as a saint - there's a hilarious scene involving marijuana and he married 27 women, some of whom are onstage dancing with him. And it doesn't stint in describing the violence directed against Fela and his followers by Nigeria's military dictatorship.

So I was disappointed that while the show mentions Fela's death, it's silent about the cause - complications from AIDS. The omission leaves the audience wondering and it made me a bit sad that in one respect, this bold musical held back.

Nonetheless, I left the theatre exhilarated and with two thoughts: that Kevin Mambo should have received a Tony nomination along with Sahr Ngaujah and that Fela! was the best new musical I saw on Broadway this season.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

La Cage aux Folles

La Cage Aux Folles, at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway.
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

While I knew the plot of La Cage aux Folles going in, until this Tony-winning Broadway revival I'd never seen the show on stage.

So Jerry Herman's unforgettable score was new. Combine that with tender, sensitive performances from Chris Hoch as Georges, owner of a St. Tropez nightclub, and Tony winner Douglas Hodge as the drag queen Albin, his life partner. Add a book by Harvey Fierstein that's humorous but never loses sight of the human element. Toss in some fun, athletic Cagelles.

What you get is a musical that captured my heart. With warmth and wit, La Cage aux Folles gets to the true meaning of family values: the love we show each other, the sacrifices we make.

In their 20 years together Georges and Albin have raised a son, Jean-Michel, the product of Georges' one-night stand. He's engaged to the daughter of the conservative Monsieur Dindon, head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party. And when he brings his future in-laws home for dinner, he doesn't want the flamboyant Albin to be there.

Hodge, who transferred with this production from London's Menier Chocolate Factory, plays Albin as dramatic and insecure. He's an aging actor surrounded by the younger and more agile drag performers. He's a parent terribly hurt by the son he adores. The attempts to make him appear more "masculine" were funny but also heartbreaking.

Hoch, on in place of the vacationing Kelsey Grammer, was terrific. His Georges is steady and patient - a perfect counterpart and soulmate to Albin. He's wonderfully expressive: hilarious as he coaxes Albin out of his dressing room, stern as he reminds Jean-Michel of all the things Albin has done for the family. And he has a deep, beautiful singing voice.

Herman's songs illuminate the lives of these two men and their love for each other so well - an emotional "Look Over There" that Georges sings to his son, Albin's anthemic "I Am What I Am," the poignant "Song on the Sand" when Georges serenades Albin, and a stirring "The Best of Times."

There were times when I was moved to tears, including the scene at an outdoor cafe when Georges tries to hold Albin's hand, only to be warned away because someone is watching. The brief moment when they finally touch made me think about my friends who are gay and lesbian and how guarded they have to be with their affection in public.

From what I've read, this La Cage aux Folles takes place in a nightclub that's more rundown, with fewer dancers than in previous productions. It worked fine for me. I have rarely had as much fun sitting in my seat as I did when the Cagelles started tossing giant beach balls into the audience, which we swatted back onto the stage.

I liked the supporting cast, too: A.J. Shively in his Broadway debut as Jean-Michel plays a young man more misguided than mean-spirited. Robin De Jesus provided great comic relief as Jacob, the butler/maid devoted to Albin, who dreams of being a performer.

Fred Applegate was effective as the blustery, narrow-minded Monsieur Dindon. Yes, Dindon is a stereotypical bad guy but the hurtful things he says are mild in comparison with the bigotry of real-life antigay groups.

And talk about morality - contrast the way he browbeats his wife and daughter with Georges and Albin, who go through a charade, pretend to be people they're not, in order to make their son happy. When they affirm who they are, simply and with dignity, I wanted to cheer.

Last week I wrote about Grammer's absence and I questioned whether Hoch, who's younger, would be believable as Georges. Well, he won me over from the first scene until after the curtain call, when he put his arm around Hodge's waist and they walked offstage together.

All I can say is, bravo.

Monday, July 26, 2010

At the stage door, upstairs in the bar

I'll be posting reviews of the shows I saw in New York City but first, I have some memorable stage door experiences to share. Well okay, one of them was an upstairs in the bar experience.

First, I introduced myself to Saycon Sengbloh, whom I've written about before, after seeing her in the vibrant and powerful Fela! To my surprise, she recognized my blog!

Saycon occupies a treasured place in my theatergoing experience. She went on in the role of Celie, as the understudy for Fantasia, when I saw The Color Purple. It was the first show my dear friend and brother Steve On Broadway and I saw together, on the day we finally met in person.

After signing my Playbill, and sending regards to Steve, she graciously took me onto the stage at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, which was thrilling. After years of being an understudy, I'm so happy that she's had a chance to create a role on Broadway.

I saw La Cage aux Folles Saturday afternoon and it won my heart completely. But neither Douglas Hodge nor Chris Hoch, who was filling in for Kelsey Grammer, came out after the matinee. (Although lots of other actors and the fabulous Cagelles did.)

On Saturday night, I went to the hilarious Lend Me a Tenor a few blocks away at the Music Box. That stage door was quite an experience.

Did you know that teenage girls go wild for Justin Bartha? Neither did I. But about 25 of them swarmed him for a group photo. It was incredible. (Well, he is cute.)

Since La Cage is a little bit longer than Tenor, I raced back up to the Longacre but everyone had left. Then a woman standing in front of the theatre told me that the cast was in the restaurant next door.

Now, I don't normally run after actors in restaurants. Really, I don't. But I was so taken with La Cage aux Folles. Plus, after writing about Kelsey Grammer's absence, I felt that I owed Chris Hoch a mea culpa.

A waitress told me everyone was upstairs in the bar. One of the Cagelles (Sean Patrick Doyle, I think) recognized me. He said Chris wasn't there but Douglas was, and introduced me. (I asked him to please pass along my compliments to Chris on a terrific performance.)

Well, Douglas Hodge could not have been nicer - incredibly generous with his time after a two-show day.

He signed my Playbill, apologized for not coming to the stage door after the matinee and spent a few minutes chatting with me.

Stupidly, I forgot to congratulate him on winning the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. So, congratulations!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer vacation in New York!

I'm almost ready to head to New York City for my first visit of 2010.

I've done my sandwich research and decided to go for No. 77.

I've got my tickets for La Cage aux Folles, Lend Me A Tenor, Fela! and The Addams Family on Broadway and Trust off-Broadway. I'm also planning to take in a concert at Joe's Pub to benefit Broadway Impact and its fight for marriage equality.

Given the heat wave, I'm not sure how much energy I'll have for sightseeing but I've picked out a couple of exhibits: Race to the End of the Earth at the American Museum of Natural History and Curious George Saves the Day at The Jewish Museum.

One thing I won't be seeing is Al Pacino in Central Park in The Merchant of Venice. When you've got a too-short summer vacation, spending three hours with Shakespeare and anti-Semitism isn't very appealing.

Yeah I know, opinions differ, it has to be understood in the context of its time, it's a plea for tolerance, yada, yada, yada. Maybe another time.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Nicholas Nickleby in Boston

When it comes to theatre, I like to think ahead. And what has me dreaming currently is the 2010-2011 season from Boston's Lyric Stage Company. I saw Follies there in 2009 and really enjoyed it.

Located on the second floor of a YMCA, the Lyric is an intimate space with about 240 seats on three sides of the stage.

There are several shows in the lineup I'd love to see, including the play My Name is Asher Lev, based on the novel by Chaim Potok, and the musical Animal Crackers, by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind.

But what truly has me salivating is the adaptation of Charles Dickens' The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby from Oct. 21-Dec. 19

I love epic stories and at two parts totaling 6 1/2 hours, with a cast of 25 playing 150 characters, I think this would qualify.

The original Royal Shakespeare Company production on Broadway, which took eight hours with 39 actors, won the 1982 Tony Award for Best Play.

Here's associate director Courtney O'Connor on Nicholas Nickleby:

"As with any play, the strength of the story is in how we relate to it. Though the events take place in 1830’s England, parallels to our contemporary world are clear. Thoughts and concerns of money, family, and morals are everywhere – just as they were 180 years ago."

It's the largest production in the theatre's 37-year history and is being sponsored in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Lyric has set up a backstage blog, which I'll be following.

Whether or not I get to see it, I think it's great that the Lyric Stage is tackling something so ambitious.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Go to a show, buy some tickets!

Since it's bypassing Boston, I expect quite a few New England theatre fans will trek to Providence next year to see Alice Ripley sing her heart out in the touring production of Next to Normal.

It's not often that a performer goes on tour in her Tony-winning role and I thought Ripley gave a gut-wrenching performance as a wife and mother in the throes of mental illness. Here's my review of the musical, which you can still see on Broadway.

Individual tickets go on sale Monday, July 26, at 10 a.m. at the Providence Performing Arts Center. But you can click here to buy them now, using the code PPAC. Next to Normal runs from March 22-27, 2011.

Other musicals on PPAC's 2010-2011 lineup that go on sale next week include South Pacific (Dec. 7-12), In the Heights (Jan. 11-16), and West Side Story (April 26-May 1). I enjoyed all three of them on Broadway.

As President Obama said last night, during a concert at the White House saluting Broadway and musical theatre: "Not that I’m trying to boost the economy or anything but go to a show! Buy some tickets!”

Monday, July 19, 2010

A bait and switch from La Cage aux Folles?

What do you do when the actor you came to see is out of the show? And are the producers obligated to tell you about the absence of a "name above the title" performer before you buy a ticket?

I'm asking those questions because apparently I won't be seeing Kelsey Grammer as Georges in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles this weekend. Grammer's understudy, Chris Hoch, posted on Facebook that he'd be performing Wednesday through Sunday.

I found out about it Saturday night, on the Broadway World message board, and contacted Telecharge to confirm. They checked with the Longacre Theatre, which wasn't aware of any absences. I called back this morning and was told that yes, indeed, Kelsey Grammer will be out.

Hoch posted his message on Thursday. That means producers Sonia Friedman, David Babani and Barry and Fran Weissler used Kelsey Grammer's name to sell tickets knowing full well the Cheers and Frasier star would not be appearing.

I know there are no ironclad guarantees. Actors get sick, they have emergencies. I had a wonderful experience seeing Saycon Sengbloh go on for Fantasia in The Color Purple.

But as soon as the producers of La Cage knew about this absence, they should have informed the ticket-buying public. I asked the Telecharge representative why there was no notice online and he said there should have been.) Update: After my call, a note was added.

In contrast, the producers of A Little Night Music made it very clear far in advance the weeks that Catherine Zeta-Jones was going to be out.

We all know that nearly 65 percent of tickets to Broadway shows are purchased by tourists, people like me who plan our trips far in advance, often pay full price and can't return for a second chance.

I was lucky. Most people won't find out about Grammer's absence until they get to the theatre. And by then, it'll be too late to change plans.

In this case, while it would have been nice to see Kelsey Grammer he's not a make or break for me. The question mark is Hoch. I'm sure he's a fine actor but I'm worried that at 34, he's too young to be believable as a man with a grown son.

While I could get a refund, I don't know when I can make another trip to Broadway. I'd still like to see the musical and Tony winner Douglas Hodge as Albin. Telecharge says as far as they know, he's in.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed and I'll be stopping by the theatre a little early just to make sure.

Update: I've posted my review of La Cage aux Folles - I loved it. Both Chris Hoch and Douglas Hodge were terrific. They make such a lovely couple! Hoch was giving 110 percent and I'd see him on stage again anytime. You can hear him, and other performers, talk about what it's like to be a Broadway understudy in this NPR story.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Turning on comment moderation

I hated to do it but I finally turned on comment moderation.

It wasn't that I got any nasty or rude or insensitive comments. It was the unrelenting spam via an Internet Service Provider on Taiwan called Chunghwa Telecom.

There were times last year when I got 10 or 11 spam comments on multiple blog posts on the same day. And they had to be deleted one by one, a time-consuming task.

The spam stopped for awhile but recently it's started up again with a vengeance. I understand Blogger is a free service but I wish it would do a better filtering job. And I'd love to know if there's a way to block this one ISP.

When I leave a comment on someone's blog, I like the instant gratification of seeing it appear immediately. But it's getting to be ridiculous. Every day I'm deleting a half-dozen or more spam comments.

I can approve comments by e-mail and I check my e-mail pretty regularly, so there shouldn't be too much of a lag time. And the only ones I plan to reject are spam.

So far, it's working. I had five spam comments in five minutes earlier this evening and none of them got on my blog.

Thank-you for understanding.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

1776, 1972 and 2010

I saw the movie 1776 on a school field trip, in one of those single-screen theaters that used to exist before the invasion of the multiplex.

At the time, I didn't know it started as a Broadway musical. And while I was an American history buff, the Colonial period was not my favorite.

Okay, maybe 1776 wasn't a totally accurate account of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, but the music and the story were captivating.

The score, by Sherman Edwards, was by turns playful ("Sit down John,") lyrical ("He Plays the Violin") and haunting ("Molasses to Rum").

And Peter Stone's book made the men who assembled in Philadelphia in 1776 seem so distinct and memorable. It made history very entertaining.

I bought the soundtrack, which I still have in my record collection. (Yes, it was that long ago and yes, I still have my records.) While I haven't listened to it or seen the movie in ages, the experience has stayed with me.

It's amazing to think about how much has changed since the movie came out in 1972. Sandra Day O'Connor was serving in the Arizona Senate and Barack Obama was 11 years old. I'm not sure I'd ever seen a musical on stage, let alone on Broadway.

Here's something else that I couldn't have imagined along with a woman on the Supreme Court, an African-American in the White House and my first Broadway show.

In August, a Kansas City company called Musical Theater Heritage is presenting the first a all-female production of 1776.

To me, it's a reminder that U.S. history has been about breaking barriers, taking risks, expanding equality and creating opportunity, in the arts and elsewhere.

Happy Independence Day!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Born on the 3rd of July!

Happy birthday to George M. Cohan, father of American musical comedy who was born on July 3, 1878, on Wickenden Street in Providence, R.I., where I snapped this photo. (Not July 4th, as the song goes.)

Here are Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade singing one of Cohan's most famous tunes, "Give My Regards to Broadway." It's one of my favorites.