Friday, March 28, 2008

No ghosts in sight

Ok, last night was Passing Strange at the Belasco. I liked it a lot but I didn't love it quite as much as my fellow bloggers.

First of all, it's really, really loud at times. I hate to sound like an old fart, but it's been a long time since I've listened to music quite that loud. And I don't know, maybe it was just a little too minimalist for me. Maybe I just like my musicals more traditional, with big dance numbers, elaborate sets and catchy pop tunes.

But Daniel Breaker as Youth, whose journey through life we follow, is amazing. He made me realize how much an actor can do without words - his expressions, the way he carries himself, the way he slouches in a chair. It's worth the price of admission to see him leap across the stage in imitation of a big Broadway dance number. (I'm still smiling about that). In fact, everyone in the cast is wonderful.

And there's a lot of really witty dialogue - about race, about art, about politics. At a time when an African-American is waging a campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Passing Strange seems to have extra relevance and urgency.

I have to think about it some more, and I'll be writing a review. Passing Strange certainly gives you a lot to think about afterward.

On the way to the Belasco, I did one of my favorite things to do in Times Square - take pictures of theatre marquees. I've never passed a marquee - or a giant poster on a building - that I didn't want to stop and photograph. Call me tourist - I don't mind.

Tonight, it's the salsa and hip-hop infused Latino musical In the Heights. I think it says something great about the theatre that on successive nights, I'm seeing musicals featuring a young African-American man and a young Latino man telling their own stories.

And no ghosts at the Belasco, I'm sorry to report.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Back on Broadway

I made it! I'm in New York City - back where I belong!

I had a nice ride in on Amtrak's Acela Express, although this time it wasn't quite so express. We were 30 minutes late getting into Penn Station. But hey, I'm on vacation. I have all the time in the world!

I took a look at the line of people waiting for cabs outside the station and decided to hoof it to my hotel - about 14 blocks. It was a little chilly and drizzly, but the walk wasn't too bad. There's just something about walking as opposed to riding in a cab.

When you ride in a cab, you feel like a visitor. When you walk, you feel like you're a part of the city. And I was part of the teeming throng of humanity, as I dodged between people, dragging my suitcase, my knapsack perched precariously on top.

A couple of times, I didn't quite make it up the curb to the next street, and the knapsack and suitcase toppled over. I had to quickly get out of the way to avoid being crushed by the teeming throng of humanity.

A few blocks from my goal I stopped for a minute under the overhang of an office building to get a tissue. I looked inside the lobby and thought it looked new and modern and nice. When I was ready to go on, I stepped back and realized I had been standing right in front of - The New York Times! How cool is that!? I wanted to take a picture, but it was raining and damp and I'd only had a granola bar and a diet Pepsi since breakfast, so I trudged on.

I finally made it to my hotel, dropped my stuff off, and walked down to the Edison Coffee Shop, the site of my first Broadway meal a little over a year ago, when I came to see Kevin Spacey in A Moon for the Misbegotten. I had the same thing I ate last time - a turkey sandwich on rye. And it was real turkey, none of the foul-tasting processed deli meat you get in a lot of places. It comes with a tiny cup of coleslaw, and pickle and all of the spicy brown deli mustard you want. (And I'm a big mustard fan.)

The Edison was started after World War II by two Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, and it's a real Broadway hangout, or at least that's how all the framed newspaper clippings on the walls describe the place. It's frequented by producers and starving actors alike. A group of magicians gather there every week. Neil Simon even wrote a play about the Edison, called 42 Seconds from Broadway, because it is actually 42 second from the Great White Way.

Well, it's almost time to head out to the first show of my firstBroadway outing of 2008. I'm seeing the much acclaimed Passing Strange tonight. I'm really looking forward to taking a journey with rock musician Stew, and see where life leads him.

I'll report back later on whether I see the ghost of David Belasco!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Food Court - the Musical

The New York-based troupe Improv Everywhere, founded in 2001 by comedian Charlie Todd, is known for causing "scenes of chaos and joy in public places."

Their latest mission made me smile. (Thanks to Pop Candy for the link.) It's a musical that takes place in the food court of a Los Angeles shopping mall. The shoppers look bewildered as people around them, including a young woman behind the counter of a fast food place and a guy sweeping the floor, suddenly burst into song. But hey, isn't that what happens all the time in musicals?

Here's how Improv Everywhere describes what was behind the idea: "We’ve had tons of ideas emailed to us over the years. Out of all of them, one stands out as the absolute most suggested: “You know how it’s weird in musicals that people just break out into song for no reason? You guys should stage a musical like that in a public place.” We’ve probably gotten over 100 emails just like that. Well, we finally decided it was time to make it happen.''

And these aren't just seat-of-the-pants type operations. The participants rehearse, they learn choreography. To come up with an original song, they turned to Scott Brown and Anthony King, writers of the off-Broadway show Gutenberg! The Musical!, who composed "Can I get a napkin (please)."

The folks at Improv Everywhere are very James Bond-like about their operations. Their Web site says they've executed more than 70 missions with thousands of undercover agents. I'm not sure whether they should be encouraged or are simply annoying, but the performers are funny, and so is the reaction of the audience.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sex and the City marathon

I finished my Sex and the City marathon about a month ago, in plenty of time for this summer's movie, which I'm now eagerly anticipating.

The first time I tried to watch the series, I couldn't get past the first couple of episodes. I just didn't care very much about Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie, Kristin Davis' Charotte, Kim Cattrall's Samantha and Cynthia Nixon's Miranda. They were attractive, successful women who sat around in trendy restaurants talking about their inability to find Mr. Right and except for that, didn't seem to have any problems - financial, career or otherwise.

But this time, I stuck with it until the end - all six seasons, 94 episodes. And I really enjoyed it. I think part of it was, I'd spent more time in New York City, so that alone made the show more fun to watch. It was great spotting cameos from actors I'd seen on stage, like the legendary Marian Seldes. Plus, the more I watched, the more I saw that the dialogue was actually smarter and more witty than I realized and the women, far from being annoying, began to grow on me.

Sure, some things still bewilder me.

Why didn't we ever meet any of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha or Charlotte's family members? Didn't they ever come visit? We knew that Miranda was from Pennsylvania and Charlotte grew up in Connecticut. But where was Carrie from? Did she have any siblings? Were her parents still living? Maybe I missed it, but I don't remember anything about her background ever being mentioned.

Also, now that Miranda and David Eigenberg's Steve are married, will their son take Steve's last name? Will he be Brady Brady? Am I the only one who's concerned about that?

And why didn't Carrie marry John Corbett's sweet, cute Aidan? (I'm a big fan of Corbett's from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.) Whatever did she see in Mikhail Baryshnikov's Petrovsky? He was a completely self-absorbed, selfish jerk who treated her shabbily and let her know that his life was more important than hers. I mean he basically had no redeeming qualities. Why did she ever agree to go to Paris with him? I knew it was going to end badly. I just knew it.

On a serious note, I was also uncomfortable that the gay characters, Willie Garson's Stanford and Mario Cantone's Anthony, were such stereotypes. Sure, the women were stereotypes, too, shallow and catty. But at least we get to know them as individuals. Stanford and Anthony, unfortunately, pretty much remained stereotypes instead of fully realized characters.

I actually found Sex and the City more appealing in the later seasons, when the women faced more real-life problems: infertility, cancer, aging parents, whether to commit to a relationship, being a single mother. I'll never forget the sight of Charlotte curled up on the couch an looking bedraggled after her miscarriage. It was so unlike the perfectly dressed, perfectly made up woman we'd seen in every other episode and it was just an unbelievably sad, haunting image.

There were many funny moments, too. Charlotte prepares her first Sabbath meal after she converts to Judaism with a zeal that only a convert could possibly have. I mean, the woman baked her own challah. I know some pretty religious people and I don't know anyone who bakes their own challah. And this is New York City. We're not exactly talking about an item that's difficult to find.

Also, I wish Kristen Johnston's Lexi had made her appearance long before her entrance and untimely exit in "Splat," near the end of Season 6. It was the best cameo in the whole series. And Carrie's misadventure on the runway as fashion roadkill in "The Real Me" was hilarious.

But my favorite episode is probably "A Woman's Right to Shoes." It contained so many of the themes that we've seen throughout the show: Carrie's obsession with Manolo Blahniks, singles versus marrieds, kids versus no kids. The way Carrie gets a friend to pay for a replacement pair of shoes is pretty inspired.

The other thing that episode has going for it is a subplot where Charlotte tells Evan Handler's Harry she wants him to feel more at home in the Park Avenue apartment she got in her divorce settlement. He does just that - by walking around in his birthday suit. The way they hide his private parts, using some fancy camera work, plus a carefully-placed newspaper and plant, is one of the funniest scenes in the entire series.

The Sex and the City movie opens May 30, and I hope to be there during the first weekend. I'm looking forward to seeing the original cast and finding where life has taken them since the series ended in 2004. I'm also looking forward to some great shots of New York City.

I guess the big question is whether Carrie and Chris Noth's Mr. Big will get hitched. Somehow, I think they will. Doesn't everybody love a happy ending? After all she's been through, Carrie deserves one.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Times three

Ok, I've been a little neglectful of my blogging over the weekend. But even when I'm not writing about the theater, I am reading and thinking about it. And I did read some great theater stories in the New York Times that I want to mention.

A profile of Laura Benanti. I'm the first to admit that I can be more than a little bit starstruck. I was really looking forward to Patti LuPone in last summer's Encores production of Gypsy, and I knew she wouldn't disappoint. But I didn't know what to expect from Laura Benanti as Louise. The way Benanti transformed herself from a gawky, insecure adolescent into a stunning, confident stripper has really stayed with me. I'm looking forward to seeing her in the role again on Sunday.

Until I read Celia McGee's profile, I didn't know anything about Ms. Benanti. It was interesting to read that to portray Louise, she taps into the loneliness she felt as a child growing up in New Jersey. And I didn't realize that she fractured her neck playing Cinderella in the 2002 production of Into the Woods. Obviously, it was an incredibly scary experience. She was partially paralyzed at times and had to undergo an operation that could have damaged her voice. But fortunately, Benanti is doing fine now. “I can walk, and I can sing, and I am healthy for the first time in a long time,” she told McGee.

Broadway shows for kids. Robin Pogrebin writes about taking her 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter to see musicals beyond the usual Disney fare, ones that weren't especially written for children their age but which they might like. I was happy to read that her son enjoyed Curtains: "I loved the mystery of it." And I'm especially excited about seeing In the Heights, which he called "almost flawless."

But there's one pretty child-friendly play I'd like to recommend: The 39 Steps, the British import now in an open-ended run at the Cort Theatre. Yes, it does help immensely if you've seen the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie beforehand. But it's so funny, with so much inspired, physical humor, that I think anyone from a preteen on up would enjoy it. And it's good to let the kids know that they can enjoy an action-adventure story without anything getting blown up.

And if I could just recommend one non-Disney musical, it would probably be Hairspray. I haven't seen it on Broadway, only on tour. I'm a big fan of its catchy pop score and I love the story. It's about teenagers and fitting in and standing up for what you believe in. Plus, it's a truly integrated musical. As the decades go by, the civil-rights movement is a period that we're dangerously close to forgetting. Hairspray tells that story in such an engaging, fun way that never sounds preachy.

South Pacific and Gypsy: Both of these are on my weekend schedule, so it was interesting to read Charles Isherwood's take on what he calls the two "theatrical bookends of the 1950s." Isherwood believes that they have quite a bit to say about the distance American musical theatre traveled in that 10-year span.

I'd never thought of the two shows that way - contrasting South Pacific and its more optimistic message with Gypsy as a harbinger of darker themes to come in American society. Isherwood concludes that while he loves Momma Rose, American audiences today may be more in the mood for what South Pacific dishes up.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Be happy

Ok, I'm a little late on this, since the sun has almost set, but today was the Jewish holiday of Purim, and since Queen Esther is a major player, I feel obligated to say something about it in my blog.

For the uninitiated, Purim is one of the most festive days on the Jewish calendar - sort of like a combination Mardi Gras and Halloween. Well, I've never actually been to Mardi Gras, but it's what I think Mardi Gras would be like - lots of parades, parties and drinking to excess.

When I lived in Israel in 1997-98, I looked forward for months to celebrating Purim. After all, how many holidays are there with a heroine named Esther?

The Book of Esther commemorates the salvation of the Jews of Persia thanks to the efforts of Mordechai and his cousin, Queen Esther. They manage to thwart the evil plan of Haman, an adviser to the Persian king, who wanted to do away with all the Jews in the Persian Empire. (By the way, it's also the only book in the Bible that doesn't mention God.)

The name of the holiday comes from the word pur, a game of chance used by Haman to determine the month and day when all of the Jews would be killed. On Purim, we're commanded to be happy because the holiday celebrates the downfall of a tyrant. (I know, it sounds like that joke summing up Jewish history in three sentences: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat).

I have great memories of celebrating Purim in Tel Aviv. The night it began, I went to a temple to hear the Megillat Esther, or Scroll of Esther. The sanctuary was decorated with balloons and streamers and masks. The rabbi had his face painted. Kids in costume sat on the floor. (For anyone who knows anything about Israel, this was not, needless to say, an Orthodox synagogue).

The person who read, or rather chanted, the text, made a dramatic pause before reading the name of Haman. That was a signal for everyone to rattle their noisemakers, stamp their feet and drown out the name of the villain. It was kind of difficult to keep my place in the text, but luckily, my name is mentioned a lot, so I could always look for the next reference to Esther and wait for everyone else to catch up!

That year, Tel Aviv revived a citywide parade called Adloyada, a combination of three Hebrew words that translate as until you don't know. On Purim, we're supposed to drink enough wine so that we can't tell Haman from Mordechai. (Just for the record, Israelis don't drink that much. I only saw one person at the parade with a beer bottle, and I didn't see anyone drunk).

The procession was led by one of the biggest collections of vintage American gas-guzzlers I've seen in a long time. Where they came from, I have no idea. There were dancing hamantaschen, a traditional Purim treat (see photo at top), dancing pita filled with felafel, clowns, puppets and a giant rabbit wearing a gas mask.

As I walked around downtown afterward, I realized that this was one of the few holidays where I've seen the streets filled. Usually on religious holidays, like Rosh Hashana, the streets are empty because there's no public transportation and most businesses are closed. People are celebrating at home, with friends and family. But Purim is one of the holidays when the buses are running. The kids were off from school and most people had the day off from work. And the celebration is public. It was a crowded but joyous atmosphere.

The day before, in the elementary school where I taught, there was a Purim party, with all the kids in costumes - soldiers, queens, cowboys, devils and at least one Scud missile. (Now I know where all the Halloween costumes and gory makeup go after Oct. 31 - they're sent to Israel).

I felt really old when I correctly guessed that a girl with a shoulder-length platinum blonde wig was Marilyn Monroe. "How did you know?" she asked. "Everyone else thought I was Madonna."

An Internet superhero musical

I have to admit, I'm not a Joss Whedon fan. I never watched Firefly or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nothing against him personally - they're just not my cup of tea. I find anything with the word "vampire" in the title a turnoff. But this item from TV Tattle got my attention. Whedon is developing a live-action superhero musical for the Internet featuring Neil Patrick Harris.

Whedon posted an item about the musical to a fan site, It'll be called Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog. (Ok, I admit that the name doesn't sound too promising.) In addition to Harris in the title role, the series will also feature two actors who have worked with Whedon before: Nathan Fillion as Captain Hammer and Felicia Day as Penny, as well as a cast of dozens.

Apparently, he started to work on the musical during the writers' strike and intended it as a limited series of three 10-minute episodes. Shooting has started, and Whedon reveals a little bit about the plot: "It's the story of a low-rent super-villain, the hero who keeps beating him up, and the cute girl from the laundromat he's too shy to talk to."

Like most people, I only knew Harris as Doogie Howser M.D., from the popular sitcom that ran from 1989 to 1993. Then, I heard him sing on the 2004 Broadway cast CD of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins. And I rented the concert version of Sweeney Todd, in which he plays Tobias Ragg. Wow, what a beautiful crisp, clear, voice.

Harris is now in a hit TV series, How I Met Your Mother, (pictured at top) so a return to the stage probably isn't in the cards for awhile. Since my chances of hearing him sing are pretty slim, I'll take what I can get. Even if it's only 30 minutes long.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The curtain falls

I really didn't see this one coming. Curtains, the first musical I saw on Broadway, is closing June 29 after what will be a 16-month run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

The last time I looked, the show was playing at 75 percent capacity, with an average ticket price of $65, which seems like a perfectly respectable number to me, especially since we're at the tail end of winter. And attendance is up 13 percent over the previous week. According to Variety, the show hasn't recouped its initial investment, so I guess that's probably a big part of it.

Yes, I know shows close all the time, but this one, like The Color Purple, is hitting me especially hard. Curtains plays a big role in what I wrote yesterday about the value of theatre. But it's also special to me for a few other reasons.

First of all, I saw it at the end of a wonderful day in New York City, in which I walked all the way from Macy's at Herald Square up to the Museum of Natural History, crossed Central Park, made my way down Fifth Avenue, visited the Top of the Rock, and had a delicious meal at The Blue Fin. And did I mention how friendly and helpful New Yorkers are?

You'd think I would have been pretty wiped out by 8 o'clock and in no shape to see a show, but I loved Curtains. The cast was terrific, especially David Hyde Pierce as the Boston detective sent to investigate a backstage murder and Debra Monk as the show's brassy producer. I loved the humor, the murder mystery plot and the dance numbers, especially the duet between Hyde Pierce and Jill Paice. The final scene is hilarious. And I'm constantly listening to the cast CD. It gives you a great taste for the show. I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Meeting the cast afterward and getting my picture taken with David Hyde Pierce just made it perfect. When I told everyone that I'd seen my first play on Broadway the night before, and Curtains was my first musical, they were beyond nice. Mr. Hyde Pierce especially won my heart when he asked me what play I'd seen the night before and whether I liked it. He was terrific when I ran back and asked for a picture. He is a great performer and a great gentleman.

While I'd love to see it again, in a way I'm glad I probably won't have a chance. I want to remember Curtains just the way it was the first and only time I saw it.

Way back in December 2006 (which seems like a very long time ago!) when my new friend, Steve on Broadway, was helping me plan my first trip to Broadway, I asked his advice on a musical to see. I'd never heard of Curtains, but Steve told me that he'd seen it in Los Angeles and it was fantastic, "everything a Broadway musical should be." And he was right.

But little did I know that seeing the show, on April 13, 2007, wasn't going to be the end. There was the thrill of David Hyde Pierce winning the Tony for best actor in a musical that June. I was so happy I jumped up from the couch and cheered!

Then, in July, I got a package from Steve. Even though he wasn't seeing Curtains, on a trip to New York he stopped by the stage door and had the entire cast sign a souvenir program. It came with a personal hello from David Hyde Pierce! A few weeks later I met Steve for the first time, and he brought me two gifts: an opening night Playbill from the show we were seeing that evening, The Color Purple, and a program from the 2006 premiere of Curtains.

In addition to being incredibly entertaining, and having a gracious and talented cast, Curtains is a memorable show for me because of a wonderful friend and brother who helped make it even more special.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The value of theatre

What is the value of theatre? I posted a comment on Aaron Riccio's blog, That Sounds Cool, when he posed that question, but I didn't realize it was a group effort. Steve on Broadway has also weighed in. So let me try to give my own answer.

Until a year ago, I wouldn't have called myself a theatergoer, although I was always interested in the theatre. I'd watch plays and musicals when they were on tv or made into movies. But I rarely ventured out to see a show. It seemed too expensive, I didn't have friends who were interested in it, and I felt a little intimidated going alone. (Although I've never had a problem seeing a movie by myself).

What have I found after a year of regular theatergoing?

When Kevin Spacey walked onto the stage about 30 minutes into A Moon for the Misbegotten, my jaw dropped and I think I was a little bit in shock. I'd seen all of his movies, but you know, it's not quite the same. He was so close I could have reached out and touched him. All I could think of was, "It's Kevin Spacey." At one point, I swear he looked right at me. It was my first time sitting in a Broadway theatre, and no matter how many times I go, I'll never forget that experience.

On a movie screen, the actors are larger than life. But watching Spacey, his costar Eve Best, and the other actors, I felt a sense of immediacy that was kind of thrilling. Especially if you're up close, you can see every expression, the sweat on their faces. There's just something so mesmerizing about watching a group of people a few feet away from you telling you a story.

And as much as I love Kevin, Eve Best was amazing. She brought such great physicality to the part of the rough-edged Josie Hogan. She was so believable. I just got into her performance in a way that I don't usually when I'm watching a movie or tv. She created a truly memorable character on stage in everything she did, whether it was pulling on her work boots, washing her hair, or comforting Kevin's Jim Tyrone.

When I go to the movies, I can usually find a spot away from everyone else. But at the theater, even if it's not a sellout, there are usually people sitting next to me, all around me. So physically, I feel a sense of community much more deeply, even if I go alone. And I love going to the stage door, too. That's another thing you don't get from seeing a movie - the ability to talk to the actors.

I remember at the end of Curtains, feeling a little startled when David Hyde Pierce spoke to the audience directly for a moment, to ask for donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. And it looked to me like many, many people were giving. Afterward, I met the entire cast of at the stage door, and they were so wonderful, so gracious and generous with their time. That evening gave me a great sense of the closeness between theater actors and their audience.

Sure, I've seen swordplay and heard gunfire on stage, but primarily, it's not about special effects, it's about language and emotion, getting caught up in a story. I've been on some amazing journeys with characters who grew and matured and changed right before my eyes: Celie in The Color Purple, Louise in Gypsy, Elphaba in Wicked. I've seen stories and situations that really resonated with me, like some of the characters and plot in August: Osage County.

You can have those experiences watching tv or a movie, but it's not the same as having someone right there in the room with you, using basically just their bodies and voices. I saw The 39 Steps in Boston last fall, and I thought it was so inspired, so unlike anything I'd seen before. It's amazing to see what four actors can do with a few props. It's all about creating an illusion - making the audience believe we're really seeing a man flee for his life by running across the top of a train.

We've become so used to the elaborate special effects in movies and on television that we forget about the magic human beings can create all on our own. To me, that's the value of theatre.

Jerz(ey) Boy

I'm a big fan of the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center podcasts. I've probably listened to half of the nearly 200 interviews with actors, playwrights, directors and others connected with the theater. As someone who doesn't have years of Broadway theatergoing behind her, it's great to hear actors talk about how they got started in the business, some of their earlier shows. There are always at least a couple of stories or quotes that stick in my mind.

Last week, I listened to an interview with Nathan Lane, currently starring as President Charles Smith in David Mamet's Oval Office satire November, which Lane describes it as an "absurdist political cartoon in the form of a play."

He reminisced about one of his first professional acting jobs, for a small theater in East Orange, N.J., called the Halfpenny Playhouse. It was around the time of the bicentennial, and they were putting together a musical revue about the history of New Jersey, called Jerz, which was performed at school and colleges around the state. Lane's big number was called "The Statue of Liberty Lives in Jersey City."

And file this story under "They'd never do it today." Lane said that in 1972, when he was in high school, he saw the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with Phil Silvers in his Tony-winning role. The show wasn't doing good business so as a publicity stunt, the producers had a free Fourth of July matinee. "I stood on line in the blazing sun and I was the last person let into the theater," Lane recalled, "and then they closed the doors."

Apparently, giving away tickets didn't help. It closed on Aug. 12, after 156 performances. (The second revival, for which Lane won a Tony award, did much better, running from 1996 to 1998, with more than 700 performances.)

Still maybe that experience is why Lane has a soft spot for matinees:

"Those are the best shows, the matinees. I love the matinees. The matinee people, they want to be there. They haven't been dragged by a spouse or they're not there on a business trip of some kind. They're there to see the play or the people in the play and they want to have a good time. Very often in the evening, they're a little more judgmental, or you know, go ahead and show me, prove to me how hilarious you are. But the matinees are always great."

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Grand theatrical traditions

I've added two shows to my spring Broadway schedule: Passing Strange and Macbeth. They've both gotten raves and I'm excited about seeing them. But I didn't realize I'd also be picking up two new theatrical superstitions in the process.

Until I saw a short video clip on the New York Times Web site, I had no idea that once inside the theater, you're only supposed to refer to Macbeth as "the Scottish play," lest the production suffer all sorts of bad luck.

Then, since I've never been to the Belasco, I wanted to read up on the the theater that's currently home to Passing Strange, and found that it's haunted. There's an actual ghost on the premises. And somehow, I don't think he's a friendly little guy like Casper either!

Now, my only acting experience has been a drama class I took in junior high school. I know you're supposed to tell an actor to "break a leg" instead of "good luck," but I really have no idea why. Haunted theaters and names you're never supposed to utter are all pretty new to me. Well, except for this one.

Here's what my in-depth Internet research turned up:

Break a leg: While I've heard this phrase, I never knew where it originated. Like "the Scottish play," there are lots of theories. One theory is that it's a translation of a German phrase for good luck brought to America by German and Yiddish speaking Jews in the early 20th century. Perhaps it was simply a way for performers to avoid tempting fate, or reverse psychology, using bad luck to ensure good luck.

My favorite explanation is that the phrase stems from actors' having to bend their leg at the knee when they take a bow at the curtain call. Hoping that someone breaks a leg is a way of wishing that the audience will be so enthusiastic, the actors will be forced to take lots of bows - although hopefully not to the point that anyone actually does break a leg.

The Scottish play: One explanation goes that the incantation of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth casts an actual spell. Another theory goes that because of the swordplay, there's a greater chance for an actor to be injured. Supposedly, a long list of mishaps have befallen productions of MacBeth.

The most likely explanation is that Macbeth was such a popular work, it was often performed out of desperation by theater companies that were on the verge of going under. So adding it to your lineup at the end of the season was a sign that you were in big trouble. Best not to mention the name at all. "Macbeth often presaged the end of a company's season, and would frequently be a portent of the company's demise. Therefore, the fear of Macbeth was generally the fear of bad business and of an entire company being put out of work."

The Belasco ghost: David Belasco was an actor, playwright and theatrical impresario. (I love that word! Do they still exist? Is it the type of thing you'd put on your business card?) Belasco, who lived from 1853 to 1931, wrote, produced and directed more than 100 Broadway plays. He had two theaters in New York. The one that bears his name today, at 111 W. 44th St., opened in 1907 as the Stuyvesant Theatre. Belasco renamed the theater for himself in 1910.

According to the Belasco's Web site, after his death, the ghost of David Belasco was rumored to haunt the theater. Actors and stagehands claimed to see the spirit in Belasco's private box on opening night, scowling if he didn't like the show. Supposedly, the ghost hasn't been seen since the 1970s, when it was driven out by the nudity in Oh Calcutta!

So it appears that the only ghost I'll be seeing will be Banquo's. I don't actually believe in ghosts, and I'm not very superstitious. Still, just in case David Belasco does show up, I'm keeping their number handy. I mean, who would you call?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Fit as a fiddler

Thanks to BroadwayBaby, who left a comment on the post I wrote about seeing Fiddler on the Roof in Israel, I've learned that there's a U.S. tour of the musical planned for 2008-09.

Incredibly, it will star Chaim Topol as Tevye, the actor I saw on stage 10 years ago in Tel Aviv. Topol, who will turn 72 in September, previously played the role in London, in the 1971 movie version and in the 1990-91 Broadway revival, as well as many other locations around the world.

The Fiddler tour is being put together by Maryland-based Troika Entertainment, but I can't find a national itinerary. I have pieced together a few of the stops for 2009: Pittsburgh's Benedum Center Feb. 17-22; the Performing Arts Center in Durham, N.C., March 17-22; the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center April 28-May 3; the San Diego Civic Theatre July 14-19.

Coincidentally, some of these same venues will also play host to the national tour of Rent in 2009, featuring Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal as Mark and Roger. Like Topol, they'll also be reprising their roles from the Broadway and movie versions of a hit musical.

I'm hoping Fiddler on the Roof will come somewhere closer to me. Since my Hebrew is far from fluent, I missed a lot the first time. It would be great to see the show again - this time in English. And I'll be able to say that I've seen an actor perform the same role in two different languages. How cool is that!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Web gem

When I was scouring the Internet 18 months ago looking for information about A Moon for the Misbegotten, Steve on Broadway was the first theater blog I found. I knew right away he was pretty special, so I'm thrilled that Graydon Royce, who covers theater for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, has picked Steve on Broadway as a Web Gem.

Here's what Royce has to say about SOB:

"His name is Steve Loucks, and he lists his location as United States, but we all know him by his Internet nom de plume. SOB is a terrific theater compendium of critical capsules, expanded commentary, background and news (lots of sources reported London's Olivier winners; Loucks listed all the nominees with his post). He's also unselfish enough to steer us to a number of other blogs and theater news sites. His chatty and intelligent style - terribly well informed - draws great contributions."

Terrific, unselfish, chatty, intelligent, terribly well informed. It sounds like SOB to me! Steve, if it weren't for your encouragement and support, I wouldn't be writing a blog today. And now that I've been at it for a few months, I know how time-consuming it is for you to assemble those critics capsules. You do a great job.

Steve is a pretty modest person and I know he doesn't like to toot his own horn. But since he's so generous at giving shoutouts his fellow bloggers, I hope he won't mind if I do the same for him. Congratulations to Steve on Broadway on some very well-deserved recognition!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The songs of San Francisco

Add me to the list of theater fans excited by the prospect of a musical version of Armistead Maupin's 1978 novel Tales of the City.

While I've only read the first book in the series, I really enjoyed it. And unlike some ideas for musicals that have me wondering exactly how they'll do it, I can actually picture this one. The elements just seem so inherently musical, like you could write songs about them and it wouldn't be a stretch.

First, I think the story - about Mary Ann Singleton, a naive young woman who leaves her home in Cleveland for a new life, new adventures and new friends in San Francisco - is so appealing. There's just something about journeys of self-discovery that get to me.

Plus, I've been to San Francisco twice, and it's one of my favorite cities. (Yes, I admit I could ride the cable cars all day.) While there have been movies and a television show set in the city, I don't know if it's ever been the subject of a musical. So it's about time. (Ok, I just remembered Flower Drum Song. But what else?)

I have to admit, I don't know anything about Jake Shears (Jason Sellards) of the Scissor Sisters, who's writing the music with bandmate John Garden. While I've heard of the group, I don't think I've ever heard any of their songs.

In January, Shears talked a little about the project to He said his friend Jeff Whitty, the Tony-winning book writer of Avenue Q, sent him a note a year ago asking what he thought of the Tales series. (I have to admit, I've never seen Avenue Q either).

"I'm crazy about 'Tales!' I grew up on the books," Shears enthuses. "They were a big part of my teenager-hood. They're just great, great books with amazing characters and I love the era. My heart just started racing. I got very excited about it."

Shears told Spinner that he's been working on the project for nearly a year and has written 15 numbers. "It's poppy and since there's no arrangement yet, all of our writing is just piano and my voice," he explains. "As it take shape, it's gonna even take on more of a style."

The stories first appeared in serial form in the San Francisco Chronicle. Steven Winn, the paper's arts and culture critic, writes that Whitty had been looking for a new project for three years. "I have such nostalgia for that period in San Francisco," he said, "even though I didn't live through it. It feels more real to me than the life I'm living now. I'd love to see the country get back to the place we were back then."

In the same article, Maupin said, "I had seen 'Avenue Q' and knew that they (the show's creators) had a marvelous sharp wit as a well as a real humanity. Doing 'Tales' needs both of those things." He said there's been talk of a musical for 20 years. "This is the first one that felt right."

And coproducer Jeffrey Seller says it's premature to speculate about a possible San Francisco tryout for the musical, which is supposed to arrive in New York during the 2009-10 Broadway season. But that's clearly where Whitty's heart is. "That's absolutely my plan,'' he told the Chronicle. "The only place to open is San Francisco."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Can the kid carry a tune?

When I threw some love Dan Savage's way on Monday, there was one item I missed. Apparently a musical version of his book The Kid is in the works. It was reported by Michael Musto in The Village voice last fall. Musto said that Scott Elliott, who directed the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera, was involved with the project.

Now, after a year of regular theatergoing, I'm no longer a complete neophyte, but I'm still starry-eyed. And I still get excited when there's talk of turning a book or movie that I love into a musical. I'm excited even if it's something I never would have thought of in a gazillion years. (And why doesn't anyone ever talk of turning a book or movie into a play? Why is it always a musical?)

I'd probably put The Kid into that far-fetched category. I loved the story, about the attempt by Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, to adopt a baby. Savage is a terrific writer and The Kid is funny and poignant. There's a lot of drama as you follow them through the adoption process, not knowing until the very end how things will turn out.

But while there's a lot of humor, there are also some very serious elements to The Kid. For example, the mother of the baby Savage and Miller are adopting is a street punk who drank and used drugs during part of her pregnancy. One chapter deals with Savage's research into fetal alcohol syndrome. Not the stuff of light pop tunes.

On the other hand, I can't carry a tune, so what do I know? And the story of Dan and Terry's journey to fatherhood is very compelling. (Although turning the story into a musical is kind of ironic, since Dan and Terry don't quite share each other's tastes in tunes. Terry loves dance music and Dan can't stand it.)

I haven't read anything about the project except for that one short item, so who knows, it might already have been abandoned. But I hope not. No matter how far-fetched some of these proposed musicals seem, I'm always curious to see how they turn out. And if it's a book or movie I loved, I always keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I haven't found much to watch on HBO since The Sopranos ended last June. I'm not very interested in the newer series. Two of my favorites, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm, have gotten a little bit tired and repetitive. The characters that I used to find funny I now just find kind of annoying.

But here's something that just might keep me from pulling the plug: HBO is picking up a series based on Alexander McCall Smith's mystery novels set in the African nation of Botswana, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

I've always been a big fan of mystery novels, ever since I started reading The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown as a kid. I especially loved The Bobbsey Twins, because their adventures always took place in exotic (to me) locations.

I like all kinds of mysteries - political thrillers, legal thrillers, espionage tales, hardboiled detective stories, or stories as quaint and sweet as teatime in an English village. While I've kind of gotten away from reading them - I find myself picking up more contemporary fiction these days - I still enjoy a good one. One of the best I've read in the past year is The Havana Room, by Colin Harrison.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency falls into the quaint category. The mysteries aren't usually very mysterious. But the characters are great, and Alexander McCall Smith, a former professor at the University of Edinburgh who grew up in Africa, writes about the continent and its people with obvious affection.

According to Variety, the series will star Grammy-winning singer and actress Jill Scott, as Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of Botswana's only female-run detective agency, and Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose, currently on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as her quirky secretary.

Anthony Minghella, director of the Oscar-winning film The English Patient, has completed a two-hour pilot, filmed in Africa, and HBO has ordered up 13 episodes. Variety says HBO plans to launch the show by the first quarter of 2009.

Years after I put down my last Bobbsey Twins book, I still like to pick up stories that take me to places I've never been. That's one of the reasons I'm looking forward to this series. In the Variety article, Minghella says filming the pilot in Botswana was amazing. "It was a privilege to be working on a film which celebrates what we can learn from Africa, and not what we think we can teach it."

Update March 18: I was shocked and saddened to learn that Anthony Minghella passed away today in London of a hemorrhage following surgery. He was 54. My thoughts go out to his friends and family.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Family man

I've really enjoyed Dan Savage's appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. His reports from the presidential campaign trail have been funny and brimming with insight. Savage, who is editorial director for the Seattle weekly The Stranger, also has a syndicated sex-advice column, called Savage Love. And he's written several books, so I thought I'd check them out.

I started with The Kid, Savage's account of trying to adopt a baby with his boyfriend, Terry Miller. (Boyfriend is his word, not mine. Savage doesn't like the the term partner. "It's just so ... genderless,'' he says). Then I moved to The Commitment, in which Savage uses the occasion of his and Terry's 10th anniversary to ruminate on love and marriage and relationships.

They're both great reads. Savage is a terrific writer - just as witty and sharp as he is on Bill Maher's show. He's especially adept at skewering the hatemongers, deftly pointing out the disconnects in their bigoted attitudes toward gay families and relationships. He has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and writes with incredible warmth and honesty.

I liked The Kid a bit more than The Commitment, although I recommend both of them. They're the kind of books you want to read quickly because they're so good, but you don't want to read quickly because you don't want them to end.

The Kid
is more of a straightforward, linear story, as we follow Dan and Terry through the adoption process. Whether you're gay or straight, it's a journey riddled with frustration and anxiety. Savage handles it with a great deal of humor, compassion and poignancy.

For example, he wonders what the other, heterosexual couples must be thinking when Savage and his boyfriend walk into the conference room for a seminar held by the agency they've chosen. They're the last to arrive. "We were also the youngest, the malest, and the gayest."

Savage discusses the difficulty in knowing who exactly does hate you these days, when many people are more careful about hiding their bigotry. It would be much easier he writes, if all the bigots were blue. "We'd know whom we had to fight, and when we had to fight, and, more important, we'd know when we could finally relax."

They've chosen an agency that deals with open adoption, which means the birth mother picks them and maintains some contact with the child. To Savage's amazement, they get picked fairly quickly, by a teenage street punk named Melissa, who'd been turned down by other couples because she'd kept drinking and using drugs during the early stages of her pregnancy.

After some qualms about whether the baby would be healthy, they decide to go ahead with it. The book charts their progress, including their evolving relationship with Melissa, their fear that she'll change her mind about giving up the baby, and their reluctance to tell friends and family for fear of jinxing things. (Savage is the first to admit that he's very superstitious).

The Commitment picks up the story when their son, D.J., is a healthy, active, curious 6-year-old. He clearly loves his dads and they're clearly devoted to him. The three of them are the very picture of a happy, contented family.

There's one passage in particular, when D.J. has an earache in the middle of the night, that really got to me. Savage gets up to give him some medicine and writes about the joy of holding your child in your lap: "the way your child's hand feels resting in your own, the trusting, contented weight of your child sitting on your lap while you read or watch tv."

During the debate over gay marriage in Massachusetts, I had a conversation with a parent who recoiled at having to explain the issue to his young child. When D.J. asks Savage whether he can be gay when he grows up, Savage, who's pretty sure his son is straight, tells him: "It's not a decision you get to make. It's not a decision I got to make. It's a decision your heart makes. ... One day your heart will let you know whether you're going to be the kind of man who falls in love with a woman or a man." Beautiful, succinct, and not at all difficult to explain.

I didn't find The Commitment quite as satisfying because Savage goes off on some philosophical tangents about the meaning of love and the ancient Greeks. Those topics really didn't interest me as much as the story of Savage and his family, and they got a bit tedious. Whereas while I was reading The Kid, I don't think it dragged for a single paragraph.

Perhaps there's simply much more tension with The Kid, as you wonder whether whether Dan and Terry will get a baby, will the baby be healthy, will the birth mother go through with the adoption? (I'd imagine this would be a great book for any prospective parents who are considering open adoption).

But there's still a good, compelling story in The Commitment, as Savage and Terry decide what kind of party to have to celebrate their 10th anniversary, and whether, prodded by Savage's mother, they should go to Canada to get married. (Terry would be satisfied if they each got tattoos, and their son is at first adamantly opposed to their getting married, although if there's cake, he definitely wants a piece).

In The Commitment, Savage writes about his experiences growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Chicago, about the marriages of his parents and grandparents, and about the choices his siblings make. He spends a lot of time discussing gay and straight relationships, monogamy, the wedding industry, the history of putting bride and groom figurines on top of the wedding cake, the opposition to same-sex marriage, and whether gay people who have marriage ceremonies are "acting straight."

When I was reading The Kid, I felt very uncomfortable that Savage used the f-word so freely. Even though he normally employs the slur to describe homophobic attitudes, I didn't like it any more than I would reading a book by an African-American who constantly used the n-word. I'm aware of the argument that when members of minority groups use those slurs they rob the words of their sting. Sorry, I don't buy it. Those words still sting. In The Commitment, Savage seems to use the f-word less frequently, and he still gets his point across.

At their anniversary party, Savage describes the group of friends and relatives, gay and straight, who have gathered to help them celebrate. The scene reminds him of something Andrew Sullivan once said, about social conservatives wanting to devalue the lives of gay people and denigrate their relationships. That strategy, Sullivan said, worked only so long as gay people cooperated, "by staying in the closet, keeping their heads down, playing the euphemism game."

With straight friends and relatives outnumbering gays 5 to 1, Savage realizes that it's not only gay people who refuse to cooperate anymore. "Our straight friends and family members don't want us living in cultural and social limbo anymore either."

Savage is right - we certainly don't want our gay friends and family members living in social and cultural limbo. I wish the part of America that thinks it doesn't know any gay people would read these two books, and maybe begin to understand why.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Some Frank talk

Don't get me wrong, I like Frank Rich. I really enjoyed Ghost Light, the poignant memoir he wrote about growing up in Washington, D.C. I read his column on the op-ed page of The New York Times every Sunday. But I have to respectfully take issue with a comment he made in the Times' discussion of August: Osage County.

Rich was responding to another panelist, playwright Marsha Norman, who said that critics need to be public advocates for the theater.

He agreed with her, but added that as much as critics might love a play, they don't really have much power to persuade people to go see it. Rich says: "If the critics have as much power as Marsha says, why do they have no power to get audiences to buy tickets to “The Seafarer” or to stop audiences from flocking to, say, “Young Frankenstein?"

Then he noted the range of information available on the Internet, where potential ticket buyers have access to to any number of reviews of movies, plays and musicals 24 hours a day. Once something makes it onto the Internet, it's there forever, available to far more people than would ever see it on the printed page.

Now this is the remark that got me a little steamed. Rich adds, almost as an afterthought, "By the way, many of the most vicious reviews are written on theater blogs, and they can’t be stopped either."

I think that line is really unfair and it tells me that Frank Rich needs to start reading more theater blogs. I'm not sure whether he's referring to someone in particular. I guess there could be some vicious theater bloggers out there, people who take delight in tearing someone's work to shreds, but I've never come across them.

I've read more than a few blogs over the past few years on a wide range of subjects. I read movie, pop culture and literary blogs in addition to theater blogs. While I normally hate to make generalizations, here's one I'm fairly comfortable with: people who blog about the arts generally do so because they're passionate about that particular art form. They don't do it to be rude or vicious or to tear anyone down. (I've also read a few political blogs, and they're a completely different animal).

I'm sure there are exceptions, but people who write about the theater or movies or books or music do so because they love theater, movies, books or music. And they're very knowledgeable about the subject, even though it may be far removed from their day job. Their reviews are every bit as thoughtful, discerning, well written and professional as any you'd find from a "professional critic" in a newspaper or magazine. (And I'm not anywhere near that level yet).

Reading bloggers certainly fueled my growing interest in going to the theater. Far from being vicious, it was the exact opposite: their enthusiasm and love for the art form made me enthusiastic and excited. Now that I have my own corner of the blogosphere, I hope I'm doing the same.

Even my little blog gets quite a few queries about Broadway shows, about touring productions, about local theater I've attended. I think we complement traditional media. When people get excited about something, they want to read and hear as much as possible. And I'm someone who believes the more information, the more voices, the better it is for the theater. Frank, I hope you agree.

Ok, I've vented. I feel much better now.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

To listen or not to listen

By nature, I'm an information gatherer. It's instinctive, innate, in my genes, in my blood, in my bones, or something. Whatever it is, I can't be any other way.

So it's taking every ounce of willpower I can muster, which normally isn't much, to stay away from video clips and audio clips and stories and reviews of the Broadway musicals I'm seeing in just a few short weeks - In the Heights, Cry-Baby, South Pacific and Gypsy.

I don't really want to unplug my computer, pretend Al Gore never invented the Internet, cover my eyes and ears and relocate to a cave for the rest of the month. But it's tough, because I'm torn between competing desires.

I'm excited about my upcoming trip, so I want to read and hear and see everything I can beforehand. At the same time, I want to maintain a sense of surprise and anticipation that will stay with me until I'm in my seat, listening to the music and watching the story unfold right before my eyes.

Actually, I'm giving myself a free pass on Gypsy, since I saw it at City Center over the summer, and a reduced pass on South Pacific, since I've seen the movie and the concert version on DVD. Because they won't be total surprises, I'm allowing myself to read reviews of Gypsy and listen to the scores of both musicals. (See, I told you I don't have much willpower!)

But I'm trying my best to hold firm on In the Heights and Cry-Baby. Let me tell you, it's not easy with all that temptation at my fingertips.

First, within a half-hour of the end of the first preview, or sometimes even the end of the final dress rehearsal, someone on the Broadway World or Talkin' Broadway message board posts a review. Yeah, I admit I'm a little bit addicted to those boards, even if they do tend to get kind of repetitive after awhile.

Obviously, it's impossible to remain completely in the dark. I mean, it's not like I could take a monthlong vacation from all things Broadway and theater-related. I'm too far gone for that. If you pay attention to the theater, you can't help but read about a show months or years beforehand - during workshops or out of town or off-Broadway.

So I know the basic story of In the Heights and Cry-Baby. But I'm doing my best to stay away from audio and video clips and interviews with the cast and creative team. That's difficult to do, especially in the case of Cry-Baby, since the music starts playing when you click on the Web site.

Last year, I think there were some shows I knew way too much about before I saw them. I loved Spring Awakening, but I really wish I hadn't watched the cast perform "The Bitch of Living" on The Late Show or read so many spoiler-filled reviews.

Also, I wish I hadn't read A Moon for the Misbegotten before I saw the play. My only defense is, I read the play when Kevin Spacey was still doing it in London, and at that time I had no idea I'd be seeing it on Broadway. I'm staying away from his current play, Speed-the-Plow, just in case there's a Broadway transfer.

I just think back to how hard I laughed at the finale of Curtains, how surprised I was to find out whodunit. I did an especially good job of maintaining a healthy sense of ignorance on that one, thank-you very much!

I know that some theatergoers like listening to the score of a musical before they see a show. If you're trying to decide whether or not to buy a ticket, of course that makes sense. But I'm glad I saw Curtains months before the Broadway cast CD came out.

I'd only heard the briefest of snippets of the songs from Wicked before I saw the musical. I don't think "For Good" would have hit me quite so hard if I'd been listening to it every day for the previous three months. I've mentioned before that as soon as I heard the song, I started to cry. And I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

Friday, March 7, 2008

A belated happy birthday

The composer of the score for my beloved Wicked, Stephen Schwartz, turned 60 years old yesterday, and I completely forgot to wish him a happy birthday. So to make up for it, and to mark the occasion, here are some places to see and hear from him.

Last month, Schwartz was interviewed during his first trip Down Under by the arts editor for Australian Jewish News. You can listen to him talk about a variety of topics in the 18-minute interview, from his Academy Award nominations for Enchanted, to the Australian Open tennis tournament. (Schwartz is a big tennis buff).

Of course, Schwartz also talked a little bit about his reason for visiting Australia: The fourth international production of Wicked, after London, Tokyo and Stuttgart, Germany, opens in Melbourne in July. (With the Broadway production, sitdown companies in Los Angeles and Chicago, and a nationwide tour, has there ever been a musical theater phenomenon like Wicked?)

Schwartz said that when he came across Gregory Maguire's novel, he thought it was the best idea he'd ever heard of for a musical. "As soon as I heard the title and the basic idea, I thought that's for me." He said that the Wizard of Oz is such an American icon, and he enjoys spinning familiar characters and stories in a different direction.

He also talked about whether there's a particular Jewish sensibility to his work. While Schwartz said he never experienced any anti-Semitism growing up in a suburb of New York City, his sense of feeling a little bit outside the mainstream contributed to his interest in characters like Elphaba, "slightly alienated and slightly estranged and are struggling with that."

For a chance to see and hear from Schwartz, you can check out his 2006 appearance at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. There are seven short video clips of Schwartz talking about his childhood and musical influences, as well as his work on Wicked.

So happy 60th birthday Stephen Schwartz! The first time I heard the score for Wicked, in January 2007, I was moved. Your words and music resonated with me. They opened the door to a magical year of theatergoing. And 14 months later, whenever I listen to them, I'm still moved. I'm a fan - for good.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

A new season

I couldn't believe it when I read about next season's lineup at Trinity Repertory Company, which was announced this week by artistic director Curt Columbus, pictured above.

On the schedule for Dec. 5 to Jan. 11 is a play by Adam Bock, The Receptionist. Given that I haven't been a regular theatergoer for very long, what are the chances that they'd pick a play I've seen? I took in The Receptionist last fall at the Manhattan Theatre Club. I didn't realize this, but Bock has an MFA from Brown University and worked for Trinity for awhile, so I guess it makes sense.

I have to admit I didn't absolutely love The Receptionist. It was good, but it just seemed somewhat underdeveloped. The story of the mysterious goings on at the Northeast office of an unnamed company was a little vague. I got impatient with all the small talk. The resolution wasn't quite satisfying, and I left the theater a bit confused about what it all meant.

But Bock has written some great characters and injected lots of humor. It'll probably remind you of some offices you've worked in. I loved Jayne Houdyshell's wonderfully funny yet spot-on performance in the title role. I said in my review: "She's efficient, overprotective of office supplies, motherly, humorous and has plenty of advice to dispense, whether you want it or not."

I'm looking forward to giving The Receptionist a second chance. Hopefully, I'll gain a deeper appreciation for the play. I'll be able to pick up on all the little clues I missed the first time around. And the best thing about Trinity's staging is I'll be able to go to the talkback afterward and say in by best theater-snob voice: "Well, when I saw it in New York ...."

From what I've seen, Columbus puts together a good mixture of classics and new works. And Trinity always manages to put its own spin on the classics. Our Town, from a couple seasons back, is a great example. While it was pretty traditional, there was also a little something that made it unique: in this case, a two-level stage that allowed the audience to watch the actors get ready for the performance.

This is Columbus' third season at the helm. He came to Providence from Chicago's esteemed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. My regular trips to Trinity coincided with his arrival, so I feel like there's a special connection between the two of us. He hosted the talkback held after the first show I saw at Trinity in decades: Hamlet. (And yes, someone at the session did preface their comments by saying, "When I saw it in New York.")

Columbus likes to arrange his lineup around a theme. Next season, it's personal change. Associate Director Craig Watson says: "We wanted to look at plays that spoke about hope, and all the possibilities hope can bring."

One of the shows I'm most looking forward to seeing in the new season is A Raisin in the Sun, which runs from Jan. 30 to March 8. I just watched it on ABC last month, with Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald reprising their Tony-winning roles from the Broadway revival. They were just terrific, so compelling and believable. I think the play, about an African-American family in Chicago in the 1950s and their dreams of a better life, has great resonance today.

Raisin will be the centerpiece of Trinity's Project Discovery Plus program, which brings students to the theater and cast members to schools for workshops with students. "These themes of race and class really resonate with students who live in our cities," Watson said. "They’re dealing with these issues on a daily basis."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A little sneak preview

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis held a sneak preview yesterday for the new musical based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books. Steve on Broadway was there and as usual provides an excellent firsthand account.

Also, you can hear from director Francesca Zambello and get a taste of three songs from the show in a short video clip on the Guthrie's web site.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Zambello said that the musical will take place in the 1880s and focus on a teenage Laura. The story will open in western Minnesota, then move to South Dakota, where the Ingalls family relocated to file a land claim. "They were constantly moving," Zambello said. "They were poor, poor people, constantly in search of land that would yield them something."

Casting for the show will be announced in April, according to a story by Dominic Papatola in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Previews start on July 26, with opening night on Aug. 15. The musical runs through Oct. 5.

And while there's no specific mention of a Broadway run, Papatola says the Guthrie is working with a team of commercial producers led by Ben Sprecher, who most recently helped bring A Moon for the Misbegotten to Broadway last spring. Coincidentally, Moon was my first-ever Broadway show.

The Little House books were some of my favorites from childhood, so I'm looking forward to my first-ever trip to Minnesota this fall, when I'll take in the tuner with my two very wholesome, theater-loving Midwestern friends.