Tuesday, May 31, 2011

War Horse

War Horse, at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I've been looking forward to War Horse for about two years, ever since I saw a video of the original production from Britain's National Theatre, with its stunningly lifelike horse puppets.

In some ways, the show lived up to my expectations - the horses are amazing. The story, unfortunately, pulled up a bit lame. Still, as theatre War Horse gets high marks from me for sheer inventiveness.

The play is adapted from a children's novel by British author Michael Morpurgo. It takes place in an English village just before World War I and then moves to the battlefields of France as war breaks out.

The story is pretty straightforward. Teenage Albert Narracott, played by an earnest and appealing Seth Numrich, has a horse named Joey that he's raised from a foal. When the war begins, his alcoholic, wastrel father (Boris McGiver) sells Joey to an Army officer. A heartbroken Albert enlists to search for him.

Without any elaborate sets, War Horse manages to evoke a time that now is nearly a century in the past. I loved the lyrical folk music from Adrian Sutton and John Tams and the projection design by 59 Productions - drawings of the English and French countryside that looked like they were torn from a sketchpad.

I also thought War Horse was very effective in showing how World War I became a watershed in the sad history of human conflict. We know what the characters don't realize - that soldiers on horseback will be no match for the tanks and other weaponry of modern warfare.

Where I thought the story got bogged down was in Act II. Joey is captured by a German officer, played by Peter Hermann, who ends up befriending a young French girl and her mother. That part struck me as overly cloying. Morpurgo has said that he wanted wanted to show the suffering on all sides but I thought it pushed Albert off to the side for too long.

The stars of War Horse, though, are the horses, created by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. I'm so thrilled that Handspring's Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, partners in business and in life, are getting a special Tony Award next month. Their work doesn't easily fit into any category and it's so deserving of recognition.

Each of the two main horses, Joey and Topthorn, requires two actors inside and a third who walks alongside to maneuver the head. Somehow the combination of wood and leather and metal comes together in a way that's truly magical. They seem alive.

(I have to give a shoutout to one of the puppeteers. Jude Sandy is a Brown/Trinity Rep MFA graduate who I saw in A Raisin in the Sun. He's the first Trinity Rep actor I've seen on Broadway. He's also a dancer and I can see where that training would be invaluable for the intricate equine choreography.)

I know some critics felt that War Horse was manipulative but I think all art is designed to manipulate our emotions in some way - you don't want to look at it and feel absolutely nothing. What would be the point? The question is, are you absorbed by the story. And I was.

I'll admit that I got a little teary at the ending but where I really felt emotional was the curtain call, when Joey and Topthorn, their manes flying, took one last magnificent gallop around the stage.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hubert Humphrey at 100

Today marks the centennial of Hubert Humphrey's birth and I can't let it pass without mentioning my brief but memorable meeting with him.

It was in 1976, when I was in high school and visiting Washington, D.C., for the first time, with Project Close Up. He wasn't part of the program - it was just the result of a lucky series of events.

One night, I wandered into a banquet room at my hotel where a dinner was being held. I saw someone standing off to the side and asked him what was going on. He turned out to be a reporter for U.S. News & World Report and he told me it was for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.

I started talking about my interest in journalism and as things were winding down, he took me around and introduced me. I picked up a spare program and got autographs from, among others, Coretta Scott King, Alan Greenspan and Senator Humphrey.

While everyone was cordial, it was Senator Humphrey's response that made the biggest, most lasting impression on me.

He could have simply signed the program quickly and quietly and left it at that. I wasn't even from Minnesota. But he spotted my Close Up name tag, gave me a big smile and said "Well hello, Esther." Then he introduced me to his wife, Muriel.

This was a couple of years before his death from cancer and he looked thinner and more frail than I'd seen from pictures and on TV. But he greeted me so warmly and with such enthusiasm that it made a memorable trip even more memorable.

There is a postscript. A few years ago, I visited my dear friends Steve and Doug in Minneapolis. Knowing this story, Steve had a surprise for me. He took me to Lakewood Cemetery, where Hubert and Muriel Humphrey are buried. After all these years, I was so moved to be able to pay my respects.

Unfortunately, at some point over the past 35 years I lost the program with the autographs. But when I saw that signature on Senator Humphrey's grave, penned in his elegant cursive script, I remembered it so well.

In The New York Times, author Rick Pearlstein has a wonderful tribute to Senator Humphrey, titled "America's Forgotten Liberal."

As vice president, Humphrey was tarnished by the growing opposition to the Vietnam War and the violence outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, both of which helped to doom his presidential campaign.

But he deserves to be remembered as a champion of civil rights - for his efforts as mayor of Minneapolis to combat racism and anti-Semitism, for his success in getting the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act through the Senate. Today, I believe he would be equally committed to fighting homophobia.

Senator Humphrey once said: "the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

On his 100th birthday, let's remember those words.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bob Dylan turns 70

Dylan is 70!

Bob Dylan, born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Hibbing, Minn., on May 24, 1941, is celebrating his 70th birthday today. His songs are among the first I remember listening to - and loving. So happy birthday, Zimmy!

A few years ago I wrote a blog post about my favorite Dylan tunes, most of which date from the 1960s. As much as he fought against the whole "voice of his generation" label, his music really did help to define that tumultuous decade.

I've only seen him perform once, in 1988 at The New York State Fair. As usual, he didn't say much between songs but he did play a couple that I especially love: "The Times They Are A-Changin" and "Like A Rolling Stone."

But my favorite - and most likely the first Dylan song I ever heard - is "Blowin in the Wind," from 1962. Based on the spiritual "No More Auction Block," it became an anthem of the civil-rights and antiwar movements and remains an American classic.

More than four decades later, "Blowin in the Wind" resonates deeply with a simple, direct question that continues to define the struggle for equal rights: "How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free?"

Here's a young Dylan singing what is arguably his most famous song. I listened to this a few times last night when I found it on YouTube and what struck me was how sweet he sounds.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Joakim Noah's antigay slur

I wasn't going to write about Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah - another pampered, overpaid athlete shows his bigotry in public. But when I saw a video of the antigay slur he uttered during Sunday's playoff game, I was so disturbed by it.

Noah, sitting on the bench after his second foul, was angry about something a fan said to him. The intensity of his reaction was hate-filled and frightening. Clearly, he wanted to hurl the absolute worst, most hurtful insult he could think of at that moment. And what came to mind: a vile epithet about gay people.

Now, Joakim Noah isn't some stereotypical poor kid from the 'hood who never learned the proper way to treat people. His father is Yannick Noah, the French tennis player of Cameroonian descent, and his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, is an artist and a former Miss Sweden.

Noah has since apologized and he's been fined $50,000 by the NBA. (It would be great if the money went to a group like the Trevor Project, which works to prevent suicide among LGBT youth.)

But the problem is not just what Noah said in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately too many kids, no matter what their background, grow up believing that the word he used is the worst thing you can call someone. You use it because you know it stings.

And honestly, why wouldn't they get that message when the larger society - including elected officials - go out of their way to devalue the lives and relationships of gay people? Here are just two of the most recent examples:

On Sunday, I wrote about a vote by the Minnesota legislature that will place on the ballot in 2012 a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

In Tennessee, the state Senate has approved a bill forbidding the mention of anything but "natural human reproduction science" in kindergarten through eighth grade. (It's been dubbed the "Don't say gay" bill.)

What's particularly cruel about both of these measures is that Minnesota already bans gay marriage and in Tennessee, the family life curriculum doesn't even cover homosexuality. They're examples of pure vindictiveness.

So if you're a gay kid in Tennessee, what are you supposed to think when adults believe that your classmates need to be protected from you, that what you are can't even be mentioned by name? And if you're a straight kid, what message do you think that sends about your gay classmates?

Of course none of this is an excuse for outbursts like Noah's. In addition to being bigoted it was unprofessional -- no matter what the fan said to him. But an apology and a $50,000 fine don't even begin to get at the root of the problem.

In an interview with an ESPN reporter, Noah, 26, said the slur doesn't represent who he is. Now, he has a chance to prove it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's 1984 in Minnesota


Those quotes are from George Orwell's 1984 and apparently, they're a source of inspiration for a Minnesota state representative.

The Minnesota House has voted to put on the ballot in 2012 a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

While gay marriage is already illegal in the state, apparently there's a fear that pesky judges or lawmakers might try to overturn the ban. So Minnesota needs an extra layer of "protection."

(Either that, or someone is hoping for a big turnout of conservative Republicans for the 2012 election. Nah, politicians couldn't be that cynical, could they? I mean, they wouldn't try to whip up irrational fear and hatred of a minority group just for votes, would they?)

I could not believe this quote from Rep. Steve Gottwalt, a St. Cloud Republican and the bill's sponsor:

"This is not about hatred. It is not about discrimination or intolerance," he said during Saturday's debate.

Well, you can frame it any way you want but that is exactly what the proposed amendment is about. Even if it's not what you intended, the measure will enshrine in the state Constitution discrimination against decent, hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying Minnesota citizens who happen to be gay or lesbian.

Saying it's not about hatred or discrimination or intolerance doesn't make it so.

Don't take my word for it. Here are the more eloquent words of Republican Rep. John Kriesel, a veteran who lost his legs in the Iraq war:

"This amendment doesn't represent what I went to fight for. This doesn't represent that. Hear that out there?" he said, referring to the hundreds of protesters in the hallways of the Capitol, "That's the America I fought for, and I'm proud of that."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can, at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

I had such high hopes for Catch Me If You Can. I adore Hairspray and I was excited to hear a new score from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

Well, I wish things had turned out differently. While Catch Me If You Can was entertaining, it didn't make much of an impact. Except for one production number, the musical flew by without my feeling truly engaged by the story or the score.

Of course, you don't go to the theatre in a vacuum. It was the last show in my New York City trip so maybe I was a bit tired. Also, I was sitting behind someone who, unfortunately, blocked my view of the stage. I was constantly tilting my head from side to side. The very nice house manager moved me to another seat for Act II but by then, it was too late.

Catch Me If You Can is based the exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr., who conned millions of dollars, mostly through forging checks, while posing as a doctor, a lawyer and airline pilot until the FBI finally caught up with him. Steven Spielberg made Abagnale's story into a movie in 2002 starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

As Abagnale, Aaron Tveit moves around the stage nicely and he has a powerful Broadway voice and he's quite handsome. A real triple threat! Unfortunately, Tveit's character never made a strong impression with me. I realize a con man is going to be somewhat elusive but he wasn't all that interesting.

I'm not sure it's totally his fault. I wish Terrence McNally, who wrote the book, had included some more witty, snappy dialogue that really made the characters memorable. The supporting roles seemed underdeveloped, too. Kerry Butler is sweet as Brenda, Abagnale's love interest, but she came and went quickly.

Part of the problem may be the framing device - Abagnale is narrating a TV variety show about his life, so the musical is looking backward. While the opening number, "Live in Living Color," was energetic and it was nice to see and hear a big orchestra onstage, I don't think it served as a great introduction.

The second scene, where we meet the teenage Abagnale and his parents, and get some idea of what his childhood was like, might have been a better way to begin. Knowing a little bit about where Abagnale came from got me much more interested in him. And I liked the duet with Tom Wopat as Frank Sr. - "The Pinstripes Are All That They See."

But even in a show I found disappointing there's always something to savor.

For me, the highlight of Catch Me If You Can was Norbert Leo Butz. I've heard my theatergoing friends praise this Tony-winning performer but I'd never had a chance to see him onstage. He was terrific as the rumpled FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who's in dogged pursuit of Abagnale.

Butz has the advantage of Jerry Mitchell's best choreography for the show, leading a chorus of singing and dancing FBI agents in the hilarious "Don't Break the Rules." It's a terrific number. I wish the rest of the musical had been that good.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Jerusalem, at Broadway's Music Box Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

As much as it pains me to say this, Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem made me want to turn in my Anglophile card. Yes, it's funny and Mark Rylance is brilliant in the leading role but what was the point?

Now, I knew this play was very British so I did some research. I read the poem by William Blake, with its reference to England's "green and pleasant land," as well as its "dark Satanic mills." I learned that the hymn "Jerusalem" serves as an alternative national anthem. I found an article that explained the slang.

All of that helped but Jerusalem, about a disreputable Pied Piper-like character who supplies the local teens with drugs and alcohol, went on and on. I laughed a lot but it felt like a long three hours.

Rylance, terrific last fall as a buffoonish playwright in La Bete, certainly knows how to immerse himself in a role. His Johnny "Rooster" Byron is ridiculous and riveting. A former daredevil motorcyclist, he lives in an old Airstream trailer parked in the woods in rural Wiltshire.

I loved the set design, by Ultz, which featured real trees, as well as a turtle and goldfish. (I've read there were chickens but I must have missed them.) Ultz also did the costumes, dressing Rylance in an impressive variety of headgear.

Giving the establishment the middle finger and spinning increasingly tall tales, Rooster's kind of a local legend to the kids, who regard him with a mixture of awe and amusement. (My favorite scene involves Rooster's impressive talent at Trivial Pursuit.)

The establishment, of course, views Rooster as a wart to be surgically removed. The local council wants to evict him and his trailer because they're standing in the way of a new housing development. Parents are angered by the sway he holds over their children, the extent of which becomes more apparent and more sinister as the play goes on.

All of this takes place on the festival of St. George's Day. According to legend St. George, the patron saint of England, slayed a dragon, rescued a princess and in doing so, converted a grateful citizenry from paganism to Christianity.

Clearly there's a lot of history, geography and religious and literary references here that escaped me. In one sense, it didn't matter. You don't need to be British to recognize Rooster's type.

The problem is, I wasn't sure what Butterworth meant Rooster to represent. I know he's trying to make a big point about England today, but what exactly?

Is Rooster a symbol of uncouth modern England - despoiling this "green and pleasant land" and standing in the way of building a new Jerusalem? Or, is he the authentic Englishman, rooted in history, that soulless modern Britain is wrongly trying to stamp out?

I think Butterworth is using "Jerusalem" ironically. England is far from a shining city on a hill, a point the play makes abundantly clear in a terrific opening scene, featuring a sprite-like Aimee-Ffion Edwards attempting to sing the title hymn.

I enjoyed the supporting cast - it was fun to see Mackenzie Crook (from the original British version of The Office) and John Gallagher Jr. as two of the teens drawn to Rooster. I'm a big fan of Gallagher from Spring Awakening although his British accent didn't sound wholly successful.

But after awhile, I thought the hangers-on became tiresome. I don't know, a bunch of people sitting around in the woods drinking and using drugs are just not very interesting. Or maybe they simply paled in comparison with the larger-than-life nature of Rylance's character.

Eventually, Jerusalem takes a darker, more serious turn. It gets a bit brutal and as I've said before, I'm extremely squeamish. There are surprises involving Rooster. I thought some of them were more believable than others. In the end, I wasn't sure whether I was supposed to root for Rooster or revile him.

I've been to three-hour plays that have flown by, that have held my interest all the way. This was just not one of them. I didn't find much wit or insight in Butterworth's language, except for one speech at the end. (OK, maybe there is wit and insight that you have to be British to pick up on.)

I think Jerusalem could have made its point more clearly and in a lot less time. Or perhaps it's me. The reviews have been pretty rapturous. Maybe American drama simply speaks to me more.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tony Kushner, Israel and awarding honorary degrees

As someone who feels a connection to Israel and admires playwright Tony Kushner, I think it's shameful that the City University of New York's Board of Trustees vetoed a proposal by John Jay College to award him an honorary degree.

First, the way the board reached its decision was reprehensible. Members let one trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, make unsubstantiated claims that Kushner had disparaged Israel, using quotes taken out of context that distort his views.

There was no attempt by the other trustees to contact Kushner or verify the information independently, or even to discuss whether there should be a litmus test on Israel when awarding an honorary degree. They allowed Wiesenfeld to hijack the proceedings and voted. That's not how representatives of an institution dedicated to reasoned discourse should operate.

But there's something that troubles me even more. I find it embarrassing when my fellow American Jews try to "defend" Israel by silencing anything they perceive as criticism. It's misguided and, quite frankly, offensive to Israelis. I understand the need to speak up when Israel is unfairly maligned but knee-jerk reactions aren't helpful.

I lived in Israel for a year, from 1997 to 1998. One of the things I admire about the country is that despite the constant threat of terrorism, despite being at war for all 63 years of its existence, it is a robust democracy with the freedom to express every imaginable viewpoint.

I think that American Jews don't realize the raucousness of debate in Israel. I remember going to a peace rally in Tel Aviv and being incredulous that the crowd booed Natan Sharansky, a representative of the Likud government. Booing Sharansky, the man who languished in a Soviet prison camp for the "crime" of wanting to immigrate to Israel?

The idea of American Jews criticizing Israel is always delicate. We don't live there, we don't face the same dangers. If Kushner and I were to talk about Israel we wouldn't be in total agreement but we'd have a good debate. It would start from a place of mutual respect for each other and for Israel's right to exist.

I realize that not every American Jew views Israel the same way I do. Some have questions or reservations similar to the ones raised by Kushner. That doesn't make them extremists. That doesn't mean they should be ostracized. If, as Jews, we are a family then we should be able to talk openly and honestly with each other about the past, present and future.

Well, Tony Kushner can defend himself. Here's part of his letter to the CUNY board:

"I am very proud of being Jewish, and discussing this issue publicly has been hard; but I believe in the absolute good of public debate, and I feel that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish people. My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr Wiesenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks."

(Update: according to The New York Times, the executive committee of the CUNY board met Monday evening and approved granting Kushner an honorary degree. The Times says it's not clear whether Kushner will accept but I hope he does.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

2011 Tony nominations

Some thoughts on the 2011 Tony nominations, announced this morning:

I was shocked (but in a good way) by 12 nominations, including Best Musical, for The Scottsboro Boys, which closed in December after a brief Broadway run. I'm so happy for Joshua Henry, Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo, all of whom received richly deserved acting nods.

I thought Scottsboro was inventive and compelling for the way it told the story of nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931. One of the last musicals from John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, it was profoundly moving and entertaining in the best sense of the word.

I'm also glad the Tonys recognized other performances I enjoyed from shows that have closed: Laura Benanti as a wacky model in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; Hannah Yelland as a woman involved in a clandestine love affair from Brief Encounter; and Joanna Lumley's princess and artistic patron from La Bete.

And I'm thrilled for Judith Light, nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her role as the wife of the Green Bay Packers coach in Lombardi. While I didn't love the play, I thought her portrayal of Marie Lombardi was sublime.

It's also great to see South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company receive a special Tony for War Horse. Their horse puppets were amazing and I was wondering how the nominators would deal with them. They don't fully belong in any category but they so deserve to be recognized.

Now, some disappointments.

The biggest surprise for me was Daniel Radcliffe being snubbed. He was so charming in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He sang sweetly, danced up a storm and had a flawless American accent. He should have received a nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. I would also have given a nomination to the lovely Rose Hemingway as Rosemary.

And I wish Nick Adams had gotten a nod for his very funny performance in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which was shut out of the Best Musical category. I am happy his costar, Tony Sheldon, received a nomination. He totally inhabits his role as the transsexual Bernadette, an aging drag queen.

I also would have nominated David Hirson's La Bete for Best Revival of a Play. It got a lukewarm reception from the critics, even as they praised Mark Rylance's performance. But I absolutely loved the play. I thought it was clever, hilarious and thought-provoking.

The 65th annual Tony Awards, showcasing the best of Broadway, will air Sunday, June 12 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Priscilla Queen of the Desert, at Broadway's Palace Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

I like to think of Priscilla Queen of the Desert as a palate-cleanser: it was the first show I saw on my first trip to New York City in 2011. And I can describe the experience in three words - fun, fun, fun.

The musical is based on the 1994 cult-classic Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about three drag queens, one of them a transsexual, who travel 1,700 miles from Sydney to remote Alice Springs in a converted bus.

I've always enjoyed road stories. They generally have great scenery, mismatched companions who squabble and get into scrapes along the way and in the end, they're also about a journey of personal discovery.

Priscilla has all of those elements wrapped in a package that's comical and poignant with great production numbers and mostly terrific performances. And while it doesn't have much scenery, it does include the single most famous line in Australian cinema history.

The bus, designed by Brian Thomson, was pretty cool. (I wish I had one in my backyard.) The very colorful and often outrageous costumes were created by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Oscar for their work on the movie.

As the transgendered Bernadette, Tony Sheldon was wonderful. He was so believable as a woman and so moving as aging performer. Sheldon has been playing the role since the earliest incarnation of the musical in Australia, and he totally inhabits it. Plus, he has some sweet moments with C. David Johnson as Bob, the mechanic who's smitten with him.

I also loved Nick Adams as Adam/Felicia, the younger and more immature of the three. He and Sheldon are so funny with their snarky back-and-forth banter. And Adams is responsible for one of the sexiest - if not the sexiest - Broadway production numbers I've ever seen, playing the Madonna role in "Material Girl," accompanied by some scantily clad chorus boys. I felt flushed!

Unfortunately, Will Swenson, so perfect as the leader of the hippie tribe in Hair, was a bit stiff as Tick/Mitzi. Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott have moved around parts of the story, so we know right away that Tick is traveling to Alice Springs to see his ex-wife, who runs a casino, and connect with his young son Benji.

Swenson has some sweet moments with the boy, played by a very cute Luke Mannikus, but overall, he didn't seem to be having as much fun as everyone else. Maybe that's the nature of his character, to be more serious and detached. But his big solo number, "True Colors," should have been a showstopper and it wasn't for me. All I could think was, "Cyndi Lauper did it better."

In March, a New York Times article chronicled the changes that have taken place with the show en route to its Broadway debut. Some people questioned whether the campy aspects had been toned down and the musical made "less gay" to appeal to American audiences.

It's not my place to judge that, but the creative team hasn't downplayed the homophobia the trio encounter. When it comes, you gasp because it's shocking and it happens to people with whom you've been laughing and having a good time. It's a powerful reminder that bigoted words hurt, no matter how much we try to just let them roll off our backs.

While Priscilla isn't a life-changing or innovative show, I had a good time. Yes, it's a light and fluffy jukebox musical but there are flashes of emotion and heart that make this a trip worth taking.