Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Denny and Edie

I've got kind of a soft spot for William Shatner. Sure, he's an easy target. He's been around so long, and in so many incarnations - the iconic Captain Kirk, T.J. Hooker, game-show contestant, pitchman. Not to mention his singing career.

I'm not a huge fan of Star Trek or police shows, but I like Shatner as Denny Crane, the eccentric lawyer he plays on ABC's Boston Legal. He's often misogynistic, bigoted, needlessly combative, obnoxious, and downright clueless. Despite everyone telling him that, he never changes. Denny's a train wreck waiting to happen every week, and it's fun to watch what he'll do next.

I'm especially looking forward to tonight's episode, the show's first in its new 10 p.m. Wednesday time period, because Christine Ebersole is a guest star. It's kind of fun now to see actors I've enjoyed on stage do guest spots on television or in movies. And I'm kind of interested to see how she'll play off Shatner.

I haven't seen Ebersole in anything since last summer, when I watched her Tony-winning performance in the musical Grey Gardens. She was terrific playing socialite Edith Bouvier Beale in the first act and her daughter Little Edie in the second act, as their lives moved from comfort to squalor in their Long Island mansion. If you've ever seen the documentary, it's especially amazing the way Ebersole brought Little Edie, with all of her eccentricities and bizarre fashion sense, to life.

On Boston Legal, she's playing a cattle rancher who hires Denny to sue the FDA to stop the sale of cloned meat. Ebersole told the New York Daily News: "It's funny, it's touching, and it was just a blast to do it." While this is a one-time shot, Ebersole says that she'd be interested in returning. "It sure would be a lot of fun," she said. "The show is incredibly clever and well- written. It's smart."

But first up, according to this story, Ebersole is making a pilot for a Lifetime situation comedy called Libertyville, where she plays a divorced woman whose grown daughter and father both live with her. And she's releasing an album, Sunday in New York, on May 13. You can hear the title track at her Web site. There's also a free mp3 download of Ebersole singing "Lullaby of Broadway,'' from the album In Your Dreams.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The music of their lives

I'm marking a very big circle around June 3 on my calendar - the date the two-disc original Broadway cast recording of In the Heights will be released. There's an interesting Playbill Radio podcast, taped at the recording session for In the Heights. It made me even more excited to listen to the music again.

What struck me was hearing producer Jeffrey Seller, actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and actress Mandy Gonzalez, who plays Nina, talk about the cast albums they loved growing up. The music - West Side Story, Camelot, Les Miserables, A Chorus Line, Rent, to name a few - had a big impact on their lives.

While I wasn't a huge musical theatre fan as a teenager, I did have a few cast albums and soundtracks: Cabaret, 1776, A Chorus Line, Camelot, Oliver! (Don't laugh. I think I saw the movie when I was 9, and I loved it!) and Hair. I've still got all of them. Except for Hair, I'm pretty sure I started listening to them only after I saw the movie, or in the case of A Chorus Line, on stage in Boston when I was in college.

But for Sellers, Miranda and Gonzalez, the cast albums were their introduction to the shows. They listened to the music long before they saw the musicals on stage. Some of them, they may never have seen, or they may only have seen the movie version. That's one of the things I also found most interesting about The Drowsy Chaperone. Its narrator, Man in Chair, is in love with a musical he's only experienced through a cast album handed down from his mother.

Here's some of what they said:

"When I was growing up in Oak Park, Michigan, my first exposure to shows like A Chorus Line, Evita, Sweeney Todd were through the cast albums. I fell in love with those shows through the cast albums. And then if I was lucky I finally got to see those shows on Broadway. So a cast album is the the first line of attack for more than half of our audiences. It's only a small number of people that actually get to see a Broadway show in the theater in which it was born."
Jeffrey Seller

"One of the reasons they [his parents] realized they fell in love was they were comparing record collections and they both had Man of La Mancha and they both had Camelot. My dad saw Man of La Mancha in Puerto Rico and it was an English-language production and he remembers not understanding much of it, but when "The Impossible Dream" came on, just being reduced to tears. So I saw the effect that had on them at a very young age. I think it's probably one of the reasons I'm in this field is I saw how much theatre music can really move people."
Lin-Manuel Miranda

"This is my first original cast album and I'm so excited. When I came to New York I always said I want to be on Broadway and I want to be on an original cast album. Because my whole life I've listened to cast albums over and over and over again. So many different cast albums have had such a different effect on different parts of my life. to feel like somebody might do that with this and feel that way with one of my songs is just thrilling. So I can't believe it."
Mandy Gonzalez

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Drowsy Chaperone

On a day I'm feeling a little blue, I'd love to be able to pop Annie Hall into the DVD player and have Woody Allen and Diane Keaton step out of the screen and into my living room, acting out the story right before my eyes. And wouldn't it be even better if I invited a couple thousand people to watch it with me so I could provide a running commentary?

That's pretty much what happens to Man in Chair, the somewhat timid and lonely musical theatre maven who serves as our narrator in a very entertaining The Drowsy Chaperone. The show, which ran for 674 performances on Broadway before closing at the end of 2007, is in Boston through May 4 as part of its first national tour.

Everything changes for Man in Chair once he wipes off a record album, places it on his phonograph and carefully drops the needle onto vinyl. (Yes, a record! Remember the skipping? Remember how hard it was to lower the needle down on a specific song? Does anyone else have their soft brush and little bottle of Discwasher? I know I do!)

Once the music starts, Man in Chair's drab apartment is filled with the colorful, glamorous and hilarious cast of one of his favorite Broadway tuners - 1928's The Drowsy Chaperone - singing and dancing right before his eyes. He becomes positively ebullient - making witty, perceptive comments as he points out the show's charms and flaws.

In my opnion, the success or failure of The Drowsy Chaperone rises and falls on who's playing the role of Man in Chair. We've got to get to know him, catch some of his enthusiasm, and in the end, like him. I'm happy to report that Jonathan Crombie is terrific in the musical's touring production. As Man in Chair, Crombie is sweet, funny, quirky and immensely likable.

While it would be easy to turn the character into a caricature, Crombie never lets us forget Man in Chair's humanity. The role fits him like a favorite old sweater and a worn pair of corduroys - warm and comfortable and familiar. I never saw the show on Broadway, but I can't imagine that his fellow Canadian, Robert Martin, who wrote the Tony-winning book along with Don McKellar, and created the role, could have provided a more enjoyable experience.

At the beginning of the show, Man in Chair asks us to imagine what it was like to go to the theatre in the 1920s. Ironically, in New York, The Drowsy Chaperone played at the Marquis Theatre, which is probably Broadway's newest, located in the very modern Marriott Marquis hotel. Somehow, it seems easier to get into the mood in Boston's magnificent Opera House, which actually opened in 1928, and has been restored to its original marble and gold leaf splendor.

Granted, the plot of the musical is a little thin. Showgirl Janet Van de Graaff, played by an energetic Andrea Chamberlain, wants to give up the theatre to marry the button-down and well-off Robert Martin, played by Mark Ledbetter. Of course, complications and hijinks ensue. (In real life, Martin and Van de Graaff are married. The Drowsy Chaperone started out as a spoof created by their friends.)

As Man in Chair points out, the story is full of stock, stereotypical characters - Cliff Bemis as a cigar-chomping producer, Marla Mindelle as a ditzy starlet, James Moye as a gigolo and Nancy Opel as the tipsy title character. They're all good, but my favorite was Georgia Engel, reprising her Broadway role as the daffy Mrs. Tottendale. The moment I heard that voice, I was transported back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I could just picture her and Ted Knight.

I'm not an expert, but I'm assuming Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's songs, and the plot, are pretty close to what I would have heard during a night of musical theatre in the 1920s - a mixture of upbeat numbers and slower ballads, all with a good dose of humor - light and fluffy, nothing too heavy. As Man in Chair says, this show is fun.

Some parts of the musical dragged a bit. The vodka disguised as ice water joke made me laugh once. Hey, it's Prohibition, I get it. Still, there's a lot to like in the Drowsy Chaperone. Casey Nicholaw's choreography was great to watch, and I liked the way David Gallo's design transformed Man in Chair's cramped apartment into an expansive musical set. Some of my favorite parts were the terrific tap dancing in "Cold Feets," the catchy ensemble number "Toledo Surprise," and all of the groan-inducing puns. As silly as they were, each and every one of them made me laugh.

But the best parts of The Drowsy Chaperone, and what really makes it such a charming show, are Man in Chair's asides about the musical, about going to the theatre, and about how times have changed. Crombie is just delightful to watch, as he perches on the edge of his chair, his hands neatly folded in his lap and a grin on his face, eager to see and hear what comes next. Every once in awhile, he'll jump up to make a comment, telling us at one point to ignore a song's nonsensical lyrics, but to just listen to its beautiful melody.

With movies or books or television if you want to read or watch, you just do it. Theatre is unique in that you can listen to and enjoy the music of a show that you've never seen, and may never see. One of the most interesting things about Man in Chair's infatuation with The Drowsy Chaperone is that he's never actually seen the musical performed. All he has is the 2-album cast recording, handed down from his mother, and a very rich imagination.

When Man in Chair admits that while The Drowsy Chaperone isn't the greatest musical ever, he still loves it, I felt a little choked up. I've got my favorite books and movies and musicals. Maybe no one else feels the same way I do about them, but as Man in Chair would no doubt say, that's not important. What's important is the way they make me feel.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

My summer movie preview

I used to subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, but the magazine seemed to get thinner the reviews and stories flimsier, so I gave it up. But I still buy it at least a couple times a year, for the all-important summer and fall movie preview issues. Some of the summer's most anticiapted, including Indiana Jones (May 22); Sex and the City (May 30); Get Smart (June 20); and Mamma Mia (July 18); are at the top of my list.

But I can always find something interesting in the movies that haven't gotten as much attention, or weren't even on my radar, the ones that get summarized in a sentence instead of a two-page spread. For example, I didn't realize that Emma Thompson was starring in a remake of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, scheduled for a July 25 release.

I loved the 1981 British series with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews as two young men from different ends of the social scale who become friends at Oxford in the 1920s. It aired in the United States in 1982 as part of the PBS series Great Performances. I even visited Castle Howard, in Yorkshire, where much of it was filmed. Matthew Goode, who was in Match Point, and Ben Whishaw, from Perfume, play the roles in the new version. Thompson is Lady Marchmain, a role played by Claire Bloom in the original.

And it's directed by Julian Jarrold, who made the funny and warm-hearted Kinky Boots, about a drag queen, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who helps save a troubled shoe factory. (I'm not doing justice to the plot, really. It's a great little movie).

I'm also looking forward to Diminished Capacity, scheduled to open on July 4. It's directed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company cofounder Terry Kinney. Here's the plot description: "A man, who suffers memory loss after getting hit on the head, takes a trip with his high school sweetheart and his Alzheimer's-addled uncle to a memorabilia show, as the group concocts a scheme to sell a rare baseball card." I love all road movies, and this one stars two actors I really like: Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda.

In addition to British movies and road movies, I'm also a big documentary fan, especially if they tell me something about people or places or events that I don't know much about. So I'm looking forward to Guy Maddin's offbeat, dreamlike portrait of his hometown, My Winnipeg (June13); Trumbo, about the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (June 27); and Alex Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (July 4). Gibney won the Oscar this year for Best Documentary for Taxi to the Dark Side.

Finally, I've always been a big Woody Allen fan. Annie Hall is one of my all-time favorite movies. Although my enthusiasm has waned over the past decade or so, I did like the two films he made in London, Match Point and Scoop. Maybe the change of scenery has been good for him. Now, he's moved on to Spain, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Aug. 29), a romantic comedy with Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson about a painter who's involved with two American college students. The cast sounds great, and I'm willing to give it a try.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Theatre trivia

I was doing research on the Internet Broadway Database for another blog post and I came across some interesting trivia.

1.) Apparently, there's never been a Broadway revival of Evita, which really surprised me. The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice tuner was pretty popular in its day, playing 1,567 performances from 1979 to 1983. Since then, nothing. Maybe the musical has simply toured too often, or it's considered too dated to attract theatregoers who most likely have never heard of Eva Peron? I know there was talk about bringing the 2007 London revival, starring Elena Roger, to Broadway, but that fell through. I can't believe there weren't earlier attempts. I've only seen the 1996 movie, but I love the story and the score. So I'm waiting.

2.) The revival of Cabaret played longer than the original Broadway production of the Kander and Ebb musical. The original began previews on Nov. 2, 1966 and played for 1,165 performances before closing on Sept. 6, 1969. The revival began previews on Feb. 13, 1998 and played for 2,377 performances before closing on Jan. 4, 2004. I'm not sure how uncommon it is for a revival to exceed the run of the original. The original production of Oklahoma, for example, played for 2,212 performances between 1943 and 1948. Since then, there have been four revivals, and not one has come close to lasting as long on Broadway as the original.

3.) Finally, why wasn't 1776, a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, produced on Broadway in 1976? It seems to me that the Bicentennial would have been a perfect time for it. The original opened on March 16, 1969 and played for 1,217 performances, closing on Feb. 13, 1972. A revival began previews on July 16, 1997 and played for 333 performances, closing on June 14, 1998. What took them so long? If someone comes across this post in 2074 or so, don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Huntington Theatre Company

I'm trying to spread my theatre wings a little bit beyond Broadway, like to my own backyard. Last year, I saw three shows in Boston: the pre-Broadway tryout of The 39 Steps, the New England premier of Parade and Sweeney Todd on tour. This weekend, I'm going back to see The Drowsy Chaperone on tour, and I'm considering a return trip when the Huntington Theatre Company presents the musical She Loves Me.

This week, the Huntington, which has a new artistic director, Peter DuBois, announced its 2008-2009 lineup. Here are the shows that I'm most interested in seeing:

First is the world premier of Richard Nelson's play How Shakespeare Won the West, from Sept. 5 to Oct. 5. Here's the description: a "funny, heartbreaking, and highly theatrical look at a troupe of 19th century actors who cross the U.S. to perform Shakespeare for entertainment-starved panhandlers caught up in the Gold Rush." Based on a true story, DuBois calls it “a celebration of ambition and the human spirit. Richard has written a love letter to the theatre with his latest play.” I'm not familiar with Nelson's work, but as an American history buff, I'm kind of intrigued by the prospect of mixing Shakespeare and the Gold Rush.

From Jan. 9 to Feb. 8, the Huntington will present Emlyn Williams' 1938 play The Corn is Green, starring Kate Burton and her son, Morgan Ritchie. "Burton plays idealistic and hardnosed schoolteacher Miss Moffat, who arrives in a poverty-stricken Welsh coal-mining town to open the community’s first school. She takes illiterate school bully Morgan (played by Burton’s son, Morgan Ritchie) under her wing and points him toward a brighter future in this funny, life-affirming tale." Burton and Dylan Baker are pictured above from last summer, when the play was presented at the Williamstown Theater Festival and got a good review from New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, among others. If you read my post about Billy Elliot, you know this is right up my alley, or down my mine shaft.

Finally, from May 15 to June 14, there'll be a production of The Pirates of Penzance, described as "a raucous and rowdy Caribbean update of the musical comedy classic – complete with swordfights, sex appeal, and all the beloved Gilbert and Sullivan songs." According to DuBois, “Gilbert and Sullivan were sophisticated political satirists – the Jon Stewarts of their time – and this new re-imagining is a joyous conclusion to our season!” I loved the movie version of the 1981-1982 Broadway revival that starred Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt. (I'm pretty sure I still have the soundtrack album). And a rowdy Caribbean update sounds like fun.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Good as Gould?

Joe Mantegna, Kevin Spacey - and Jeremy Piven?

Those are three well-known actors who have, are currently or will soon appear in David Mamet's caustic, satirical look at the movie business, Speed-the-Plow. Mantegna created the role of Hollywood producer Bobby Gould on Broadway, Spacey is enjoying raves in the role of fellow producer Charlie Fox in London, and apparently, Piven will make his Broadway debut as Gould in a revival this fall.

I was holding out hope that Spacey's production, which also features Jeff Goldblum as Gould and Laura Michelle Kelly as Gould's secretary, Karen, would transfer from London's Old Vic Theatre to Broadway. But according to The New York Times, another version has won out, and will feature Piven. The Times article says that the play will be directed by Neil Pepe of the Atlantic Theater Company, which Mamet helped start. The producers, the same team behind the 2005 Tony-winning revival of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, are aiming for an Oct. 23 opening.

While I'm disappointed I won't get to see Kevin again, I'm looking forward to seeing Piven on stage. He's so wonderfully obnoxious, ruthless and insensitive as Hollywood super-agent Ari Gold in HBO's Entourage. Playing a Hollywood producer probably won't be a big stretch for him. My only concern is, a little bit of Ari goes a long way and I can easily see Piven being too over-the-top. But he comes from a theatre background - his parents founded the noted Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill. According to a story in Variety, Piven was last seen in New York in a 2004 off-Broadway production of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig.

This will be the first Broadway revival for the six-hander. (Ok, I know you'd normally call it a three-hander, because there are three people in the cast, but each person has two hands, right? So doesn't a six-hander make more sense?) It opened on April 9, 1988, with Madonna as Karen, Mantegna, (a Mamet regular, and an actor I really like) and Ron Silver as Charlie Fox, and closed on Dec. 31, 1988, after 279 performances. In his review for the Times, Frank Rich called Speed-the-Plow "by turns hilarious and chilling," and said that Mamet created "riveting theatre."

I've never seen a Mamet play on stage, and I like the idea of a witty, acerbic, inside look at the business of making movies. And I'd really like to see Piven on stage, albeit in a role that's pretty close to the one he plays on Entourage. Even though Kevin Spacey won't be in this one, I'm putting Speed-the-Plow on my Broadway wish list.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

'Theatre for everybody'

I've listened to lots of Downstage Center podcasts from the American Theatre Wing, and usually they're G-rated. So it surprised me when I saw that an interview with James Earl Jones carried an "explicit" warning. The interview is great, but the actor known as the voice of CNN and Darth Vader is fairly free with the expletives.

I guess the language is fitting for his current role, as a very profane Big Daddy in the revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (I wish I could see and hear him in that!) But here's an old clip from Sesame Street that's suitable for the whole family:

I've really enjoyed working my way through the Downstage Center archives, and I've learned a lot. In addition to interviews with actors, directors, composers, producers and playwrights, there have been shows with critics, on Broadway advertising, and on recording cast albums. It's all very interesting stuff. One of my all-time favorites is a 2007 interview with the legendary Marian Seldes, who, I am certain, would never, ever utter a four-letter word.

There are always one or two parts of the program, one or two quotes, that really grab my attention, tell me something I hadn't thought about before. This time, it happened when Jones was talking about the opportunity he found as an actor in New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He came to New York after a stint in the Army.

"When I came out of the Army, no longer did you have to be a Barrymore to be a qualified, respected actor. Marlon Brando had been on our stage Marlon Brando is everyman, and that meant every man of every color could benefit from that. The civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King, all that. There was a confluence of energy in this country. Not only in this country, but in Europe, in England with the angry young men period, in France with the avant garde period. ... You didn't have to be a Barrymore, you could be a Brando. And that opened up the theater for everybody, finally."

Monday, April 21, 2008

It's nominated!

Ok, now this I don't understand. The Outer Critics Circle, which recognizes Broadway and off-Broadway shows, released its award nominees this morning and Young Frankenstein leads the pack. It earned 10 nominations - 10 - the most of any show this season. Young Frankenstein? What were they thinking?

The other musicals that got nods were Cry-Baby, A Catered Affair and Xanadu. I'm assuming In the Heights wasn't eligible because it won last year's award for outstanding off-Broadway musical. Of the other three, I've only seen Cry-Baby, and like Young Frankenstein, I was underwhelmed.

Sure, there were some things I liked about Young Frankenstein. I loved Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor, and I'm glad he snagged a nomination. And Andrea Martin was great as Frau Blucher. (Neigh!) And there were a couple of good numbers, including "Roll in the Hay." It was fun to see "Puttin on the Ritz." But overall, Roger Bart was a disappointment in the title role, and I didn't think it was very funny or imaginative. It just struck me as a tired retelling of the movie and not nearly as good.

If you want to see a really inspired and hilarious translation of a movie into theatre, try The 39 Steps. I'm glad that at least it snagged a nomination for best new play, although of course it doesn't have a chance against August: Osage County. The other nominees for best new play are The Seafarer and Rock 'n' Roll. I didn't see The Seafarer, but Rock 'n' Roll was mostly a big disappointing, disjointed bore.

Like all awards, the nominations are a mixed bag for me - some hits and some misses.

I'm glad that two of my favorite shows, South Pacific and Gypsy, received numerous nominations. I just wish the critics had shown more love for Passing Strange, which seems to have been nominated only for best score. I can't believe they bypassed Daniel Breaker's amazing, incredibly appealing performance and Kevin Adams' lighting design that really illuminates the musical's two very different acts. And while I'm happy for Deanna Dunagan's nod, I think Amy Morton and Rondi Reed deserved nominations for their work in August: Osage County, as did Todd Rosenthal for his awesome three-story set. I also liked Tom Pye's scenic design - featuring an immense brick wall - and Gregory Gale's costumes for Cyrano, and I wish they'd received nominations.

I don't know much about the Outer Critics Circle, but according to Playbill, they're a group of writers "covering New York theatre for out-of town newspapers, national publications and other media beyond Broadway." And they've got a pair of pretty scary looking comedy and tragedy masks on their Web site. The winners of the Outer Critics Circle awards will be announced May 12.

Moving day

Today is moving day for August: Osage County, so it's time to show my favorite Broadway play some more love. Not that I need an excuse, of course - I can never say enough good things about Tracy Letts' witty, acerbic, immensely entertaining work, and the amazing ensemble from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company that brings it to life.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning multigenerational family drama was performed for the final time yesterday at the 1,443-seat Imperial Theatre. The Imperial's next tenant, Billy Elliot, isn't moving in until the fall, but it apparently needs quite a bit of prep time. So, August: Osage County is packing up its mammoth three-story house of a set and relocating next door, to the cozier confines of the 1,009-seat Music Box, where it reopens on April 29.

Last night, I watched a discussion from February on the American Theatre Wing's Working in the Theatre program that featured August: Osage County cast members Amy Morton, Rondi Reed and Jeff Perry, along with Laurie Metcalf, a Steppenwolf ensemble member who's also on Broadway, as a presidential speechwriter in David Mamet's November.

It was really interesting to hear Perry, one of Steppenwolf's cofounders, talk about the company's humble beginnings. The nine actors who would become the Steppenwolf ensemble met through high school and college in Illinois. Their first home, in the summer of 1976, was the youth center of a church basement in a Chicago suburb.

In the early days, Reed recalled, when guest actors would come to Chicago to perform with Steppenwolf, they'd always tell ensemble members that they didn't need to go to New York or California to have a career, they could make theatre right at home. "So of course we, like idiots, took that to heart and ran with it."

While ensemble members have gone back and forth over the years for various movie, television and theatre projects, they've retained a sense of loyalty to Steppenwolf. "There's been such a complete esteem for each other's work," Morton says. "These are the people I always aspired to. it's been the work that's kept everyone together."

Metcalf, who has had numerous film and television roles, and won three Emmy awards for Roseanne, tries to return to Steppenwolf at least every two years. "I feel like I have to go back every so often to recharge,'' she said. "It's the only time working as an actor where you feel like you're in charge, you can lead the audience where you want them. It's a really powerful feeling. There's nothing else like it. Maybe we all gravitate back toward theatre because we started out in theatre, I'm not sure. But once you get that bug, it never leaves. And we're still going to be doing this forever."

Morton brings incredible emotional depth to the role of Barbara Fordham, the stressed out and overburdened eldest daughter of the Weston clan. She recalled the first time Letts gave her the script of August: Osage County to read. When she looked at the thickness of it, she was a little daunted - and dismayed. Her first thought was a kind of resigned, "God, Tracy." But when she finished, "I immediately called him and said this is the most amazing thing I've ever read."

Perry, who portrays Morton's philandering husband, Bill, says that director Anna D. Shapiro connected with the play in way that no other assignment had before, relating its characters to members of her own family. "And I think that's true in some ways with all of us. It's deeply satisfying family territory."

The only actor Letts had specifically in mind when he wrote the play was Reed. She's hilarious as Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken, especially in the scenes with Francis Guinan, who plays her husband, Charlie. But incredibly, she initially turned Letts down. "I thought, you know, this isn't me," Reed said. "Why does he want me to do this? I've done this role before." Then, in rehearsal, during one of the rants her character goes on, she stopped and said, "Oh, now I get it. Now I see why you want me to do this, because I'm perfect for it."

Reed also mentioned rumors about taking the play to London or the West Coast. (And, I'm happy to report, there are plans for a national tour beginning next fall). "The play will live on for a very, very, very long time," she said. "It's a great thing for the American theater to have a new play written by, directed by and acted by kind of all unknowns. It gives a lot of hope to the American theatre."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A dancer's life

I've been reading Matthew Murphy's blog, Ranting Details, for about six months. I'm not sure how I found it, probably through a link from someone else's blog, but I quickly became a fan. He has a very personal, easygoing writing style and he's a pretty good photographer, too.

But writing and photography aren't Matt's first loves. By training, he's a dancer. He left his hometown of Missoula, Mont., when he was 13 to study at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Since 2004, he's been a member of the main company of the American Ballet Theatre in New York City - or at least he will be a member for a few more months.

For the past year, Matt's dance career has been on hold as he's battled the energy-sapping effects of Epstein-Barr virus. He returned home for a few months to try and improve his health, but apparently the progress has been slow. He's back in New York City now, and this weekend, he announced that as of July, he'll be removed from the ABT roster.

Here's a brief taste of what he wrote:

"With the absence of ABT, in many ways, I will be the most lost I’ve ever been. But as is typical with the universe, it has mysterious ways of teaching us lessons. EBV has informed my spirit in a way that I never would have thought possible a year ago; it has grounded me and taught me about what I want in life. Every change it has initiated has been more drastic than I ever could have anticipated, but I’m still soldiering on and defining myself by my strength of character and not by my profession for the first time in my life. No choice but to brush off the dust and start anew...I'm sure it won't be the last time."

Since I've been following his story all these months, the new really shocked and saddened me. Matt is only 22, but dancing has obviously been a big part of his life for such a long time. To have to give up something you love, something you've trained for, right at the moment when you've begun to achieve some success, well that's a level of frustration I can't even begin to imagine. I can only imagine that he's feeling a terrible sense of loss.

But Matt's not the type of person to wallow in self-pity, at least not from what I've read in his blog. He's written openly and honestly about how he feels, but he writes with humor and insight about many other topics as well, including theatre, movies, politics, and just the joys of hanging out with his friends and family. (He had a great interview earlier this month with Nick Blaemire, who's making two Broadway debuts - as a cast member in Cry-Baby and as the composer of the new musical Glory Days.)

I know Matt has parents and a sister who are terrific, and along with some great friends, they're helping him through this rough patch in his life. Through his blog, I've gotten to know some of the people who are close to Matt, and he's got a good support system in place.

I'm hoping this is only a temporary setback and Matt will find a way to dance again. In any event, I know he'll be fine. He's a talented young man, and whatever his future holds - writing, photography, choreography or something else entirely - he'll perform with passion and wit and grace.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Eyes Wide Open

One of my favorite Israeli bloggers, Harry of The View From Here, has written a witty, insightful personal history of his immigration from the United States to Israel. It's part of the 60 bloggers project to celebrate the country's 60th birthday.

I've also read about a new documentary, Eyes Wide Open, that follows American Jews on their journeys to Israel, many for the first time. When I watched the trailer, and listened to people's reactions to the country, it reminded me a lot of my own first trip, in August 1995. I was so taken with Israel that in 1997, I ended up going back to live in Tel Aviv for a year. It was, and will probably always be, the greatest adventure of my life.

I'm probably the only person who was inspired to visit Israel by an old Kirk Douglas movie. Late one night, I was watching Cast a Giant Shadow, a 1966 movie about Israel's War of Independence. It was based on the book by Ted Berkman about Col. David "Mickey" Marcus, an American army veteran and West Point graduate who aided the Israeli army during the War of Independence. It was pretty corny, but I was totally caught up in the story. I even exchanged a few e-mails with Mr. Berkman, who died in 2006 at age 92.

My visit came at a much different time. The 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestinians had been signed with much fanfare on the White House lawn. There was the peace treaty with Jordan a year later. I felt that by going to Israel, I'd be showing my support for the peace process, for the risks that Israelis were taking. But within three months of my trip, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. From then on, it seemed like things went downhill. The march toward peace has pretty much halted. It's now more or less a permanent stalemate, and it could stay that way for decades.

Still, as the trailer from Eyes Wide Open shows, a trip to Israel remains a very compelling experience. It's unlikely I'll ever have a chance to go back, but I'll always be deeply interested in the country and its people, and concerned about what happens there. Once you've visited, it's impossible to be any other way.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sweeney Todd - the movie

Roxie at Stage Left, House Right and I must have had a Vulcan mind meld last weekend, because we both watched the movie version of Sweeney Todd. Like Roxie, I really enjoyed it, despite having to shield my eyes during the more gory parts.

This was my fourth time with one of my favorite Stephen Sondheim scores. I've watched the stage version, with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, and the concert version, with Patti LuPone, Hearn and Neil Patrick Harris, on DVD. Last fall, I saw the revival, with actors playing all the instruments, on tour in Boston.

But starting with the computer generated scenes of a dark, sooty, grimy Victorian London, the movie version is by far the creepiest, most horrific, most Dickensian Sweeney Todd I've ever seen. There's no soft-pedaling the violence the way there is on stage, where you can get by with only a hint of blood to show Sweeney dispatching his victims. In the movie, it's very much in your face. I've read that Sondheim's intention was to create a musical in the style of Grand Guignol, macabre horror stories that contain graphic violence. Well, this Sweeney certainly seems close to Sondheim's vision.

Helena Bonham Carter is fine as the demented piemaker Mrs. Lovett. I'm a big fan of Bonham Carter from those exquisite Merchant-Ivory period pieces, with their gorgeous locations and genteel characters, like A Room with a View and Howard's End. But I don't think she holds a candle to Angela Lansbury. I just think Lansbury has a wonderfully comic, daffy take on the role that makes songs like "The Worst Pies in London" and "A Little Priest" so memorable. I have to admit, I did miss the humor. There aren't many laughs in this version of Sweeney Todd.

I thought Johnny Depp brought a terrific sense of slowly boiling rage to his portrayal of the wrongly imprisoned Benjamin Barker, who transforms into the murderous and vengeful Sweeney Todd when he returns to London to find his wife dead and his daughter Johanna a ward of the amoral Judge Turpin. I think the movie kicks the evil up a notch from the stage. The close-ups of Depp make his descent into madness as the demon barber of Fleet Street seem more chilling. He gets more ruthless, his face and clothes bloodier, as the movie goes on.

I was really impressed with the choices director Tim Burton took in casting the supporting roles. I refuse to watch Borat, and I hate all of Sacha Baron Cohen's alter egos, but he was very funny in a small part as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli. Alan Rickman is so slimy as Judge Turpin that I could easily understand the revulsion that Jayne Wisener's Johanna feels after he announces his intention to marry her. Yuck! And Timothy Spall is perfect as the self-important beadle, who acts as Turpin's eyes and ears.

I thought it made perfect sense to have younger actors cast as Anthony, the sailor who falls in love with Johanna, and Tobias Ragg, the urchin Mrs. Lovett takes in. Edward Sanders is sweet and kind of cheeky as Tobias. He was 14 when the movie came out, but seems much younger. He's a little boy who looks like he should be in the cast of Oliver! but without the saccharine sweetness. Yes, 20-year-old Jamie Campbell Bower does have a somewhat androgynous look as Anthony, but I thought he brought an innocence, sweetness and puppylike eagerness to the role. I really believed that he and Johanna could have fallen in love at first sight. Other Anthonys I've seen have just seemed too mature.

My only regret is that because I didn't see Sweeney Todd in a theatre, with a big, bold surround sound, the music didn't seem quite as vital. On screen, there's so much to look at, so many special effects. It occurred to me that you could have had a perfectly good movie without the music. But on stage, from the chorus that narrates "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" onward, the songs are so integral to telling the story. I can't imagine Sweeney Todd without them.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Broadway times two

When I reviewed the current Broadway revival of South Pacific, I mentioned that if you combine it with August: Osage County, you have a perfect pair of bookends for the Greatest Generation that grew up during the Great Depression, fought and won World War II, and sired the baby boomers.

South Pacific is the idealized, romanticized beginning of the Greatest Generation - full of youthful optimism and self-confidence. August: Osage County is when it all comes crashing to an end, in old age and illness, in a torrent of anger and bitterness. Together, they'd make a very interesting and thought-provoking day at the theatre.

Well, I've been thinking about some other shows that would make great Broadway double features. Here's my list so far:

Thurgood and Hairspray: Ok, this one's practically a no-brainer. They're both about the civil-rights movement. Hairspray takes place in Baltimore, and Thurgood Marshall was from Baltimore. I understand that one is a musical about a fictional character and the other, starring Laurence Fishburne, is a one-man play about a legendary civil-rights lawyer who became the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice. I'm not trying to make light of Marshall's achievements by comparing the show to Hairspray, and I haven't seen Thurgood yet. But they both recall an important time in American history, one that changed this country in profound ways. They're both about the power of the individual to affect change. And I think, or at least I hope, that they both have the ability to educate and inspire as well as entertain.

Passing Strange and Sunday in the Park with George: I've only seen SITPWG on DVD, with Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters. But like Passing Strange, it's about the process of creating art and all of the struggle that involves for the artist. In one case, it's a painter working on a canvas, in the other, an aspiring musician trying to compose a song. They both examine all of the people and events that pass through an artist's life and help to inspire his or her work. I also think that Passing Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to The Wizard of Oz, so pairing it with Wicked would work, too.

Wicked and The 39 Steps: Both of these take classic films and reimagine them in very creative, inspired ways. Ok, The 39 Steps is pretty much a word-for-word retelling of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, as opposed to Wicked's expansion of the story and characters we know from The Wizard of Oz. It doesn't take the story any further or expand our understanding of it the way Wicked does. Still, despite the differences, I think these are two interesting examples of taking material from another source and putting it on stage.

The Lion King and Macbeth: Yes, one's from Disney and one's a bloody Shakespearean tragedy about a power-hungry Scottish general that's clearly for an adult audience. But let's examine the plot of The Lion King: a young prince, believing his uncle is responsible for his father's death, tries to avenge the crime. I'm not the first to notice that it bears a strong resemblance to Hamlet. I'll be taking in both The Lion King and the current revival of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart, next month, although not, unfortunately, on the same day. But close enough for comparison.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Shows are bustin' out all over

I'm learning that spring is a great time of year for a theatre fan, because that's when plans for the new season come together - repertory companies announce which plays they'll be putting on and touring companies announce which shows will be coming my way.

There's a great rundown at Modern Fabulousity of the upcoming Broadway season, and once again, there's practically nothing I don't want to see. Well, maybe I'm not that interested in Shrek.

High on my list is the Elton John musical Billy Elliot, which has been a hit in London's West End since it opened in 2005. It's based on the 2000 movie with Jamie Bell and Julie Walters about a working-class boy from a family of coal miners who dreams of becoming a dancer.

Billy Elliot is one of those "little" British movies that I love. They're movies that take place away from London, away from posh, upper-class England, in rural parts of the country or gritty, industrial cities. Often, there's a political element - Billy Elliot is set against the backdrop of a miner's strike in the 1980s, during the Margaret Thatcher era. They're not big blockbusters, but small stories, well-told with a big dollop of humor and humanity. (I think I'm a sucker for mining stories, too. I loved How Green Was My Valley. And I've been underground in a real Yorkshire coal mine that's been turned into a museum.)

Other shows on ModFab's list that I've put on my personal Broadway wish list include:

Al Pacino's return to Broadway in Lyle Kessler's three-hander play Orphans. I have to admit, I've never heard of the play or Kessler, but it's Al Pacino, one of America's greatest actors, star of one of my all-time favorite movies, The Godfather. I even like the mostly unlamented The Godfather: Part III. "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." I'd go see him in just about anything.

Horton Foote's play Dividing the Estate. This one got good reviews off-Broadway last fall, and it sounds like a messy, dysfunctional, multigenerational family drama filled with quirky characters and plot twists. What fun! I just hope there are a few long-buried family secrets. Every family has some, right?

[title of show] is a musical about the making of a musical, and in addition to stories about miners and dysfunctional families, I also love backstage stories. From everything I've read, [title of show] sounds really funny. In fact, when I was first thinking about starting my blog, I thought about calling it title of blog. But since I'd never seen the show, I realized that probably wasn't such a hot idea.

I'm also excited about a revival of the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. Since plans to bring a revival of the Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls to Broadway have fallen through, I figure this is the closest I can get to a story of somewhat unsavory characters in the big city. And I think they both take place during the 1930s. Sure, it's based on a work by John O'Hara, not Damon Runyon, and it takes place in Chicago, not New York, but I think Pal Joey will have the same kind of feel to it. At least I hope so.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From Up Here

I was interested in From Up Here mostly because of Julie White. I didn't see her Tony-winning performance in The Little Dog Laughed, but I did watch her Tony acceptance speech, and it was hilarious. She just seemed like such a character. I thought, that's a woman I want to see on stage.

In Liz Flahive's play, being produced at City Center by the Manhattan Theatre Club, White plays Grace, a stressed out wife and mother on her second marriage. She's going through a rough patch with her husband, Daniel (Brian Hutchison). She's got her hands full with two teenagers, Lauren (Aya Cash) and Kenny (Tobias Segal). And her world traveler sister Caroline (Arija Bareikis) has just popped in for a visit.

The major drama in the play comes from something horrendous Kenny has done, an act for which he has to apologize before his entire high school. It's never quite spelled what he did, but Flahive strongly hints that it involved bringing a gun to school. Kenny's understandably being watched very closely by everyone and he's under a long list of restrictions about where he can go and what he can do. He's pretty much become a pariah.

The actors who played the teenagers were all good at playing stubborn, mopey, perky, dorky, uncommunicative kids. I especially loved Will Rogers as Charlie, a somewhat goofy classmate who wants to take Lauren to a high school dance, and Jenni Barber as Kate, an overachiever who befriends Kenny as kind of a personal challenge, but who may not be as altruistic as she appears.

White was very funny in a role that requires her to be pretty over-the-top at times. She seems like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, trying to hold her family together at a time of incredible strain. Everyone needs something from her, but her needs, of course, aren't being met at all.

My biggest problem with From Up Here, is that in the end, I felt a little bewildered and teased. Flahive brings up a very serious subject, school violence, and uses it as a device to explore its effect on a family. But she leaves out some essential details. I expected to find out what Kenny did and why. While Segal does a good job as the troubled teenager, giving us some sense of the anger that led to his outburst, the details remain maddeningly vague.

Ok, maybe Kenny's motivations were fuzzy. That's understandable. But why couldn't Flahive have simply come right out and told us what happened? It seems to me that if the play is supposed to be about everyone's reaction to this incident, then we need a clearer idea of what the incident was and how serious it was. I felt like I could have empathized more if I understood what happened.

Also, if Kenny really did bring a gun to school and use it, I simply don't believe there's any way he'd be allowed back, not even with the most stringent of restrictions. I don't think an apology to the entire school would have done it.

While there are some good performances in From Up Here, and I'm glad I had a chance to see Julie White, the play ultimately wasn't as deep or thought-provoking as I expected. I knew it was a dark comedy, so I expected some laughs. But it's about an incident that should have turned a family upside down and shaken everyone to their core. Or maybe not. I just don't know.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Spammed I am

An e-mail account is like a garden - it has be kept up and carefully pruned, lest it become overgrown and unsightly. I have at least a couple of accounts that I no longer use. In fact, it's been months, maybe years, since I've even checked them.

This weekend, I decided to take stock and make sure I hadn't heard from any long-lost friends, received invitations for exciting opportunties or won a million dollars. (No on all accounts, sadly). There were 1,641 messages, dating to Jan. 13, 2006, and all but a handful were spam. (If a spammer sends you spam and you never see it, have you still been spammed?)

Here's what I found:

I missed out on a ton of FREE (yes, it's usually in ALL CAPS) stuff - a Walt Disney World vacation planning kit, samples of Tide, Neutrogena and Noxzema, JetBlue airline tickets, (they're still flying, right?) shipping from Lands' End, 250 business cards, a Rachael Ray Celebrity Chef Package, a year's worth of Huggies diapers (No thanks!), pajamas from Victoria's Secret and 14 cans of Pringles. My NASCAR fan package has been waiting for me since August 2006. (I wonder if it's still there or if it revved up and moved on?) Next to free, complimentary appears to be the most popular word: doughnuts, a laptop, a Home Depot gift card were all mine for the asking if only I'd known.

Apparently $500 must be an eye-catching amount of money, because lots of retailers wanted me to have $500 gift cards: Wal-Mart, Best Buy, American Express, Target, Macy's, Amazon, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Circuit City. I mean, who didn't want to give a me a free $500 gift card? Practically no one. And I missed out on all of them.

I also missed out on lots of helpful advice about finding a good school, buying a home, quitting smoking, sleeping better, speaking Spanish, increasing my odds of winning the lottery, practically robbing a bank, (I think "practically" is the operative word here!) getting wrinkles out of my clothes and making my first investment.

Then there were lots of helpful inquiries about whether I was short on cash or needed an extra $1,500 (Who doesn't?) or felt stressed over bills I couldn't pay or whether I needed a new car. And if I did, I could always work online for eBay or get a quick cash advance, or get help erasing my outstanding debt.

And, to my utter delight, quite a few people expressed a desire to get to know me better - they had a crush on me, or wanted to chat or offered to treat me to dinner at Red Lobster or Arby's or take me on a cruise to the Bahamas.

Black singles, Jewish singles, Christian singles all wanted to meet me. (I've never felt so popular!) There was the more formal "pleased to meet you," and the more informal "Hey, was up?" or the very friendly sounding "Howdy!" For awhile, Ellen DeGeneres really, really wanted me in the audience for her talk show. (Sorry Ellen! My next trip to the West Coast I'm there, I promise.)

Companies also let me know that they valued my opinion. They wanted to know whether I preferred Schick or Gillette, which I thought tasted better, Tostitos or Doritos, who I thought would bring home the gold in the 2006 Winter Olympics, who would win Dancing with the Stars or whether I was interested in American Idol. I had no idea I was such demand as a clairvoyant or an arbiter of good taste.

I'm sorry I missed all of these offers. But the missed opportunity I'm most sorry about was the chance to win my very own pot of gold. (Have you checked the price of gold lately? It's through the roof!) I tried opening the e-mail but it was blank. My time had passed. Sigh. I guess I'll keep searching for a rainbow.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

My Broadway debut - one year later

Tonight marks the first anniversary of my first Broadway play - A Moon for the Misbegotten, and tomorrow, my first Broadway musical, Curtains. One year ago this evening, at the tender age of 47, I stepped inside a Broadway theater for the very first time in my life and was immediately hooked. It's never too late to make your debut on the Great White Way, is it?

While it was a chance to see Kevin Spacey's performance in Moon that lured me to New York initially, I've been back three times since April 2007, and I've seen a total of 21 different shows (Moon twice). And while I have my favorites, I can honestly say that I've enjoyed at least a little something about each and every one of them. Going to the theatre in New York City is still a pretty big thrill for me. I'm very envious of people who live there and can go all the time. I just wish I had a chance to see more off-Broadway shows, too.

I've now been inside 18 of the 39 Broadway theatres. There are some I like - the cozy, intimate orchestra section of the Belasco, for example. There are others I'm not crazy about - I felt sooo far away sitting in the rear of the Hilton's orchestra. The narrow, rectangular-shaped lobby of the Richard Rodgers made me feel absolutely claustrophobic. I'm hoping to get to all of them eventually, and if it comes down to the final one, I'll swallow hard, bite the bullet and go see The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic, because that show most likely isn't going anywhere in my lifetime.

This week, I got a comment on a post I wrote awhile ago about going to the stage door after a show to get my Playbill signed. The person who wrote has never been to a Broadway show, but is planning to go see Equus with Daniel Radcliffe, and wanted some advice. Imagine, someone asking me for advice. Can you believe it?

So, to mark the first anniversary of my first Broadway show, and in a shameless attempt to pump up the hits to my blog, (weekends can be slow, you know) here are some words of wisdom to another novice theatergoer.

Before I start, just in case there's one person left on the planet who doesn't realize it, Equus is not a play for young children. It's about a psychiatrist treating a young man who has an unhealthy fascination with horses. Nudity and adult themes are most definitely involved. You'll be seeing a side of Daniel Radcliffe you've never seen in the Harry Potter movies. (I'm not talking just about his acting.)

So forewarned is forewarned. Now, you want to get outside as quickly as possible after the show ends to claim a good spot. (My advice is to make a quick trip to the bathroom, because you might be there for awhile). I'm not sure where the stage door is at the Broadhurst Theatre, but you can ask an usher. With Radcliffe's fame, there'll be metal barricades set up, and a mob scene. You won't have any trouble finding it!

We don't know yet what color the Playbill will be, but I would recommend two different-color Sharpies (available at most drugstores), one black and one a lighter color, like red or silver. You can also check back at the Playbill Web site after the show opens to see what the cover looks like, so you'll have a better idea of which color will show up best.

Now this is important. If you're there alone, make friends with someone standing next to you, so you can trade cameras and hopefully each get a picture of yourself with Daniel Radcliffe. With the number of people, it'll probably be close to impossible. My guess is he'll be quickly signing his name and moving on. But you should be prepared just in case the opportunity arises. (And I wouldn't bother lugging your 800-page Harry Potter book to the theatre, chances are he'll only sign Playbills).

In my experience, the star of the show usually comes out last. Perhaps it's done for dramatic effect, or because he or she has so many important visitors backstage. I don't know. So you could be waiting a half hour or more. (You'll have plenty of company). But don't despair and don't leave until it's obvious that he's not coming out. There'll most likely be security people around to let you know if he's not going to make an appearance.

While there are no guarantees that he'll come out the stage door and sign autographs, I have a feeling Daniel Radcliffe will be pretty accommodating. Once you get your signature, etiquette dictates that you move to the back and give someone else a chance. Be persistent, hold your ground and don't be shy. I hope you have as wonderful and memorable an experience as I did, one that turns you into a lifelong theatre fan. Now go out there and break a leg.