Sunday, November 30, 2008
A Lower Manhattan tour
First, I stayed in Times Square, as I usually do. Because I was going to be in New York for seven nights, I wanted something a little cheaper than my previous hotels. Sarah, from Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment, recommended the Comfort Inn on West 46th Street, literally a stone's throw from Times Square, and it was perfect. Plus, I had free Internet access and free continental breakfast!
Then, following one of Sarah's expertly designed tours, I spent a day exploring Lower Manhattan, taking the Number 1 subway downtown, from Times Square to South Ferry (being careful to ride in the first or second car) and then working my way back up along Broadway, through the Financial District, Chinatown and Little Italy to the Lower East Side, where I took the subway back to Times Square.
My first stop was Bowling Green, the oldest park in New York City, dating to 1733, where you can gaze upon the pink-roofed U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
A few steps away was the iconic bronze sculpture of a charging bull that's become a symbol of Wall Street - and always seems to have a steady stream of tourists waiting for a friend or family member to snap a picture.
I was under the impression that the bull had been a Wall Street fixture for ages, maybe put there by a stock exchange or one of the big brokerage houses.
But in doing a (very) little research, I found out that it was actually a gift from a sculptor named Arturo DiModica, who created it in his studio over two years and then one night in December 1989, surreptitiously loaded the 7,000-pound sculpture on a flatbed truck and deposited it in front of the New York Stock Exchange as a Yuletide gift symbolizing the "strength and power of the American people.'' The statue was later moved to its present location in Bowling Green.
At the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street is Trinity Church, completed in 1846. I recognized the church, and the subway station in front of it, from the Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure. There was a service going on inside, so I settled for a peek through the door and a walk around the grounds. If you go down Wall Street and turn around, you'll get a nice view of the neo-Gothic spire.
Queen Elizabeth II visited Trinity Church, an event commemorated by a plaque in the entryway: "On this spot stood her majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her gracious visit, 9 July 1976. His Royal Highness Prince Philip stood nearby." Good to know he was close at hand!
Walking down Wall Street, I stopped outside Federal Hall. The current building, the first U.S. Customs House, dates to 1842. But a previous structure on the site was where the first Congress met and where George Washington took the oath of office as our first president, on April 30, 1789.
Unfortunately, it was Veteran's Day, so Federal Hall was closed. I'll definitely have to come back on another trip and take a look inside. I also want to visit the Museum of American Finance.
Across the way from Federal Hall is the neo-Classical New York Stock Exchange, completed in 1803. You can't get close - there are barricades and security guards in front of the building. But it looks very stately and imposing, especially with the giant U.S. flag across the front.
One thing I didn't realize is that the lower end of Broadway, in the middle of the financial district, has been turned into giant and very crowded pedestrian mall, filled with a tantalizing array of vendors selling food and the ubiquitous Pashmina scarves.
Somehow I expected I'd be dodging men and women scurrying around in tailored suits, briefcases in hand and cell phones to their ears, buying and selling stocks and bonds. Instead, there were lots of tourists taking in the smell of various grilled meats, fish and poultry. It definitely lends a festive atmosphere to the area.
A very memorable stop on my tour was St. Paul's Chapel, a beautiful, historic little church dating from 1766 that has taken on new importance since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It's a bit off the normal tourist track but I highly recommend a visit. (It's also a nice place to sit down for awhile and take a bathroom break.)
The chapel's exhibits relating to Sept. 11 are incredibly moving. They detail St. Paul's role as a place of rest for recovery workers at ground zero after the attacks, and as a site for memorials to the victims.
The chapel is located across from what was the World Trade Center - if you walk out the back, you can see ground zero from the churchyard. After the collapse of the twin towers, St. Paul's became a place of rest, refuge and memory. You can see pictures and other mementos that friends and loved ones left on the fence outside the church in the days after the attacks.
But what really got to me was a display of teddy bears that were placed for comfort by the cots of weary recovery workers, who came to the chapel for a meal and a few hours of rest in between their shifts.
Even without the Sept. 11 connection, St. Paul's Chapel would still be an historic, interesting place to visit. It's Manhattan's oldest public building in continuous use. George Washington and members of Congress worshiped there on Inauguration Day, and you can see Washington's pew.
After St. Paul's, I continued toward Chinatown, walking past Foley Square, home of the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Southern District of New York - what Sarah dubs the Law and Order portion of the tour. Again, because it was a federal holiday, it was kind of quiet.
But things definitely picked up once I got to Chinatown - more pedestrians, more traffic, more interesting stores selling fresh fish and products whose names I couldn't read. The sights, the sounds, the smells were familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
Then all of a sudden, the Chinese letters on the storefronts disappear, replaced by Italian flags flying from light poles and you're in Little Italy.
What amazed me was how quickly things change - one minute you're in Asia and the next minute, in Europe. What a city! I walked down Mulberry Street and stopped at Ferrara's bakery for a delicious pastry to keep up my strength.
My final stop was the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Last year, I visited Ellis Island, which I definitely recommend for anyone interested in American history. I wanted to see where the immigrants lived once they passed through there, so the Tenement Museum seemed like the next logical step.
The museum tells the story of some of the nearly 7,000 immigrants - Jews, Italians, Irish - who lived in a tenement at 97 Orchard St. from the 1860s through the 1930s. What struck me was how dark and cramped and grim these apartments were, especially in the 19th century. This picture makes it look a lot brighter than it actually was inside.
There's been a great deal of research into the lives of the people who lived in this building, and you can take several tours that cover families from different eras and backgrounds.
The tour I took told the stories of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, who lived there in the 1870s, and the Italian Catholic Baldizzi family, who lived in the building through the Great Depression.
And the fact that I found most fascinating, considering the current political climate regarding immigration, is that the father in the Baldizzi family arrived in this country as an illegal immigrant. He traveled from Italy to Canada, and then crossed illegally into the United States. But the difference from today is, it didn't seem to matter. Our guide told us that he was able to immediately start the process of becoming an American citizen.
So, it was a great day for a walk - and it pretty much took me all day, including a break for lunch and the Tenement Museum tour. I left my hotel around 11 a.m. and returned at about 5 p.m., and I feel like I just skimmed the surface of everything there was to see.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
A noteworthy Boston blogger
It's some very well-deserved recognition. Dan writes with great insight about the press, local and national politics, technology, culture and other passions, which include Bob Dylan, the Red Sox and hiking in the mountains of New Hampshire.
The full list appears in this Sunday's Globe magazine. Here's what they said about Dan's blog:
Dan Kennedy's medianation.blogspot.com is required reading for any follower of local media. But the former media critic for the Boston Phoenix, who now teaches at Northeastern and writes for the British newspaper The Guardian, exercises the blogger's imperative to bloviate beyond his expertise, such as when he raised the prospect of a "nasty, brutish, and short postseason" for the Sox (not quite, but not bad either, Dan).
Just for the record - I've known Dan for a long time and he never, ever bloviates and certainly not beyond his expertise.
Friday, November 28, 2008
The man who saved Broadway
This week, reading some of the obituaries for Gerald Schoenfeld, longtime head of The Shubert Organization who died Tuesday at 84, reminded me that 30 years ago, the area wasn't nearly as welcoming. I wouldn't have felt nearly as comfortable.
And Schoenfeld, for decades one of the most influential figures on Broadway, was one of the people who helped change that. (Although I guess Disney also had a lot to do with the resurgence of a safer and more G-rated Times Square.)
I didn't want to let Schoenfeld's passing go without mention. He's credited, literally, with saving Broadway through three shows that became hits at Shubert theatres: Pippin, Equus and most importantly, A Chorus Line.
In his tribute, former Times drama critic Frank Rich writes that Schoenfeld and his Shubert partner, Bernard Jacobs, "saved New York’s commercial theater industry — and, implicitly, Times Square — when everyone else had left it for dead."
If you watch the segment on A Chorus Line from the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical you'll hear narrator Julie Andrews talk about how New York, like the rest of America, was in a recession in the early 1970s, and the Great White Way was hit especially hard.
"This area in the '70s was a sewer," Schoenfeld says of Times Square. "This was the den of pornography, prostitution, felony crime, drug dealing, you name it."
What Broadway needed was a hit, and it found one in A Chorus Line, the late choreographer Michael Bennett's musical about the lives and aspirations of Broadway dancers. And it was a musical based on an original idea - imagine that!
A Chorus Line began downtown at The Public Theater before transferring to Broadway's Shubert Theatre. It opened in July 1975 and stayed there for over 15 years, breaking all existing box office records. (And I was thrilled earlier this month to make my first visit to the legendary Public Theater where, in addition to A Chorus Line, Hair and many other Broadway shows got their starts.)
"Michael Bennett and A Chorus Line totally changed the musical theater," Schoenfeld said in the PBS documentary. "It really saved the financial fortunes of the Shubert organization. It was a catalyst for the improvement of this area. And of course this area now is the most desirable area in New York."
The Times obituary notes that Schoenfeld ran the Shubert organization, which owns and operates 17 Broadway theatres as well as others around the country, with a combination of "combativeness and charm," and gives some examples of each trait. I guess the combativeness part isn't surprising. Like Debra Monk's character, Broadway producer Carmen Bernstein, sang in Curtains, "It's a business."
I liked this remembrance, from Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, who recalls that Schoenfeld was a champion of last season's rock musical Passing Strange. The show didn't turn out to be a hit but was certainly one of my most unique Broadway experiences. I'm so glad I saw it and I'm glad there was a place for it on Broadway, if only for a short time.
"I watched him fall in love with Stew and Passing Strange last year, and it was all the more beautiful because it was obvious even Jerry couldn't really explain why this story of a young African-American artist from Los Angeles moved him so much. (The closest he came was to describe their similar waistlines: 'Mesomorphs have to stick together.') But what he loved, he supported, and Passing Strange would never have gone to Broadway without him."
What comes through in all of the tributes is Schoenfeld's philosophy that nothing sold Broadway better than a great show and if audience members enjoyed themselves, they'd be back. As producer Elizabeth McCann said, "he believed in the theatre."
Over the past two years, I've seen 33 Broadway shows. I still love walking around Times Square, gazing up at the giant billboards and taking pictures of the marquees all lit up. I'm always excited when I come to Broadway and I always leave eager to return.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
A great day for a parade
Happy Thanksgiving! And to everyone who's stopped by, left a comment or met up with me, thanks so much. I'm grateful for your time and for the friendships I've made.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Esparza and Mametspeak
"Vocal limitations also hamper the revival of Speed-the-Plow, Mamet's comedy about a producer and an office temp trying to persuade a movie executive to make two different films. Though Jeremy Piven (Ari Gold on Entourage) and Elisabeth Moss (Peggy on Mad Men) have done plenty of stage work, their performances as the executive and the temp come off like those in American Buffalo: clear and poised but lacking the lyrical flash that Mamet demands. Why, then, does the show thrive?
Listen closely to Raul Esparza. The young star of musical theater all but sings the role of the craven producer, flickering from deadpan comic understatement to high, excited shrieks. He brings to Mametspeak the verbal flair you'd expect from an actor who spent the past two years slaloming through the rhythms of Sondheim and Pinter."
I've never been all that enthralled with Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter movies. But now that the boy wizard is all grown up and tackling a big, adult stage role - wow, what difference. Seeing Radcliffe make his Broadway debut in the revival of Peter Shaffer's Equus, at the Broadhurst Theatre, really gives me a new respect for him as an actor.
Radcliffe plays Alan Strang, a British teenager who inexplicably blinds six horses at the stable where he works and winds up in a psychiatric hospital. Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon to you Harry Potter fans) is Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist who tries to get at the reason why Strang did something so horrible, and to help him.
I really enjoyed Radcliffe's performance as a troubled boy, the way he reveals more and more about himself as Dysart peels away the layers of this mystery. At first, he's barely communicative, speaking in television jingles or giving short, clipped answers to questions. Dysart learns from the nurse at the hospital that Strang is plagued by nightmares, and it's clear he's in great pain.
In John Napier's scenic design, audience members sit above the stage in a semicircle - almost like they're overlooking an operating room - or for some reason, I thought of an ancient amphitheater. And the horses - actors wearing these oversized aluminum heads and hooves - are striking, especially Lorenzo Pisoni as Nugget, the horse to which Strang has an erotic attachment, and takes on secret nighttime rides.
I'd never thought of Radcliffe as very expressive performer but I was really struck by the way he moves in Equus - leaping on the back of a horse, trembling under a blanket after all of his defenses have been stripped away. He's a slight person and he makes Strang seem like kind of a loner - a quiet boy, not very social, not an intellectual, not someone you'd notice if you passed him on the street. It's probably not a coincidence that his name is close to "strange."
Griffiths was ok, but he didn't totally engage me as Dysart. I didn't find him all that compelling as a character. Maybe the problem is the play itself. A great deal of his dialog is a soliloquy in which he envies Strang's passion and bemoans the fact that he doesn't have anything remotely like it in his own life. While he's an academic who studies his obsessions from a safe distance, Strang has immersed himself in them. He'd love to feel something as deeply as Strang does.
It's almost as if Shaffer is saying, keep the kid from watching telly and fill his head with Bible stories and this is what you'll get. And that doesn't seem quite fair - either to religion or parents. Deep religious faith doesn't necessarily lead to the kind of obsessive devotion that Strang displays.
I was kind of disappointed in some of the supporting cast, too, especially Carolyn McCormick and T. Ryder Smith as Strang's parents. Neither one really came to life for me in any great way and McCormick especially seems to have one overwrought tone throughout the whole play.
Dysart agonizes over whether he'll destroy the boy's passion if he cures him. I think it's an interesting question, this intersection of madness and passion and what do you take away when you restore sanity. Do you somehow diminish the creative process? But I can't really believe that Dysart could envy Strang. His passion leads to violence. Next time, he could hurt himself or someone else. And that's nothing to envy - or romanticize.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I've seen a couple of David Mamet's movies and I've watched the 1992 film of his play Glengarry Glen Ross but I wasn't quite prepared for hearing Mamet's staccato dialog spoken onstage at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre in Speed-the-Plow.
The opening banter between Hollywood producers Bobby Gould (Jeremy Piven, from HBO's Entourage) and Charlie Fox (Raul Esparza) is so fast paced, I had a hard time figuring out what they were talking about for the first few minutes. But even though it was a bit confusing, it was also kind of exhilarating and both actors do a good job delivering Mamet's lines.
Gould and Fox are two longtime friends whose relationship is about to move to a new, more lucrative, level. Gould's gotten a big promotion and Fox has convinced a popular action star to make a prison buddy movie, which he wants to bring to Gould's studio. The two giddily contemplate the money they'll rake in - but the deal has to be wrapped up by the next morning.
Enter Gould's temporary secretary, Karen, played by Elisabeth Moss of the tv series Mad Men. In the first act, Moss' character is sweet and innocent and a little timid. Gould asks her to look over a novel he's been handed for a "courtesy read" to determine whether or not it could be made into a movie. She's supposed to come over his house that evening with her report.
The second scene, with Karen at Gould's house trying to convince him to make the movie, is where Speed-the-Plow dragged a little bit for me. I don't think Piven or Moss quite pull it off, but I also think this is the weakest-written part of the play.
Mamet is obviously trying to say something about art versus commerce in Hollywood, how the studios always go for mindless entertainment over more thoughtful subjects. But this book seems so unworthy I can't understand why anyone would get worked up over it, especially not someone as savvy and experienced in the movie business as Bobby Gould. From the snippets we hear, it sounds awful - it's about the history of radioactivity and the end of the world, or something like that. I could never quite figure it out.
Another thing that bothered me: Mamet has constructed the play as a false dichotomy. Lots of movies get made every year, and some of them are the small, thought-provoking films that this book is supposed to represent. In fact, I think most of the major studios have specialty divisions where directors and producers can make "independent" films as well as action movies. So it's not really an either/or situation, no matter how Mamet tries to represent it.
His disintegration at the end, his desperation, was thrilling to watch. You can see him grasping at straws, thinking on his feet. It's like this battle of wits with Karen. His life is at stake, his livelihood, everything he's tried to achieve. Here he is, about to reach the summit of his professional life, and this nobody comes from out of nowhere to block his ascent. And I didn't know who was going to win, which made it even more thrilling.
Fox can't believe that Gould wants to make a movie out of this bizarre and indecipherable book. He has a great line: "You can't tell it to me in one sentence, they can't put it in TV Guide." Which is so true - even if hardly anyone one reads TV Guide anymore. But we subscribed to it when I was a kid and I read it faithfully every week, so I knew what he meant.
Still, Speed-the-Plow got me thinking. I've discussed it with a more knowledgeable friend, and maybe there's some nuance to Mamet's writing or Piven's and Moss' performances that went by me. Unfortunately, I can't pop the dvd in for another go-round. If I lived in New York, I'd buy a cheap ticket and see it again just to make sure - and for Raul Esparza.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Dividing the Estate
I've been describing Dividing the Estate as kind of a cross between Dallas and Arrested Development - for its quirky characters and story of a multigenerational Southern family. But the family at the center of this funny and oh so true to life play by Horton Foote operates in a world all its own. After all, as Tolstoy might have said, every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.
At first, I was afraid Dividing the Estate, at the Booth Theatre, was going to trade in stereotypes - decaying Southern gentry with the dissolute son and loyal African-American servants. But Foote has imbued his characters with so much humanity and made them so unique. The ensemble cast, under Michael Wilson's direction, is wonderful. For my money, it's an immensely entertaining, enjoyable couple of hours at the theatre.
You may not connect with the name Horton Foote, but you probably know the 92-year-old writer's work. He won an Academy Award in 1962 for the screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird and another Oscar for the screenplay of the 1983 Robert Duvall film Tender Mercies. I first heard of Foote when I saw the 1985 movie adaptation of his play The Trip to Bountiful.
Like some of Foote's other works, Dividing the Estate is set in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, where an affluent family is settling down to Sunday dinner. And the scenic design by Jeff Cowie accentuates the good breeding - the dining room and living room are comfortable and tastefully decorated. They may be growing cash poor, but they're house and land rich.
As the strong-willed matriarch Stella, Elizabeth Ashley is a bit forgetful but not as out of it as her family would think. She steadfastly refusing to divide up and sell the estate so that her children can have their inheritance sooner rather than later. (And prevent the tax collector from taking a big chunk, as her son-in-law helpfully points out). She doesn't much care for oil or gas drilling leases either.
Her three children are the n'er-do-well Lewis (Gerald McRaney), the genteel widow Lucille (Penny Fuller) and the acerbic Mary Jo (Hallie Foote), who's decamped to Houston with her husband Bob (James DeMarse) and two daughters. Lucille's only child, Son, (Devon Abner) is the levelheaded one, put in charge of the family's finances and responsible for doling out loans to his aunt and uncle. Arthur French turns in a terrific performance as Doug, the ancient servant the family can't quite convince to retire.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of love lost among these siblings and they have a whopping sense of entitlement. As the play goes on, family secrets are revealed and everyone gets more and more desperate, squabbling over who's getting what, who's more deserving. The economy's in poor shape. The characters are in various stages of scandal and/or crises that require generous applications of cash. Sure, this family may be better off than most, but their problems ring true.
Among the cast, Hallie Foote, daughter of the playwright, truly stands out. (She's also the wife of Devon Abner, who plays her nephew). Foote is absolutely thrilling to watch - hilarious, sharp-tongued, covetous - and I'd never heard of her before. While I'm always eager to see a familiar actor from tv or the movies on Broadway, there's nothing like the joy of discovery.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
It's alive - until January
According to an Associated Press story, producer Robert F.X. Sillerman announced today that the musical, which opened on Nov. 8, 2007, will shutter on Jan. 4, after nearly 500 performances.
In this Playbill article, Sillerman says - no surprise - it's the economy, and that a national tour will begin next September. Of course, Young Frankenstein, alone among Broadway shows, declined to report how much money it was taking in every week and how many seats were being filled. (Which it had every right to do, I might add - it's a tradition, not a requirement, to report weekly grosses.)
After the success of The Producers, which ran for six years on Broadway, Young Frankenstein was one of last season's most highly anticipated shows. And as a big fan of the 1974 Mel Brooks movie, it was at the top of my list. It was also one of the most talked about even before it opened for, among other things, its $450 premium seats. But when I saw it, for a lot less than that, I was a bit disappointed.
For me, Young Frankenstein worked as a movie because it was a satire. Transylvania was a foreboding place. The musical tries to recreate some of that, with the design of Frankenstein's castle and laboratory. But overall, the tone struck me as a little too sunny and bright for a send-up of a horror movie.
Sure, it's a faithful adaptation - all of the funniest lines and scenes are there. Still, something felt off. I wasn't laughing as much as everyone else in the audience. (And I have to admit that everyone else seemed to be eating it up.) The production seemed to get lost in the cavernous Hilton Theatre. And I didn't find Roger Bart very engaging as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein.
But there were some things I enjoyed - Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor (who earned a Tony nomination and played his last performance in the show today) and Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher especially. I liked the "Roll in the Hay" number on the ride to Frankenstein's castle, with Bart, Fitzgerald and Sutton Foster as Inga; and "Puttin on the Ritz," with Shuler Hensley as the monster. And I'll probably give it another chance on tour.
Fitzgerald is an actor I'm looking forward to seeing again. According to an item on the Web site of actor and musician Kevin Cahoon, he'll join Cahoon in the musical Minsky's, set in Prohibition-era New York, which will premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles beginning Jan. 21.
But I have to wonder whether we'll see Mel Brooks again on Broadway.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
I've never experienced a situation exactly like Evan Goldman's in the Broadway musical 13, where I've been just about the only Jewish person in town, although I think I came close once. Still, whether they're Jewish or not, most people can probably recall a time in their lives when they've felt out of place, but desperately wanted to fit in.
So while I'm long past the age demographic, I really enjoyed this story of a gefilte fish out of water as Evan, played by a very appealing Graham Phillips, moves with his mother from New York City to small-town Appleton, Ind., after his parents get divorced.
Exiled from the Promised Land of Manhattan, all Evan wants is for the cool kids at Dan Quayle Junior High to come to his bar mitzvah. This won't be an easy task because judging from their reactions, none of them has ever been to one or even heard of the ceremony. (In fact, it makes me wonder whether there are enough Jews in this town so that there would even be a synagogue where Evan could have his bar mitzvah.) He tries to sell it as a really great party.
Initially, I was a bit concerned that in portraying this culture clash, 13 pokes fun at small-town America. David Farley's backdrop certainly makes this Indiana town look pretty desolate, especially in comparison with the colorful opening cityscape of New York.
But this is an endearing, good-natured show. And the characters are such stock types - the bully, his sidekicks, the cheerleader, the schemer, the gossip, the outsider - that I don't think you could take offense. They're pretty recognizable, no matter where you go to school - or when. And under the direction of Jeremy Sams, it all moves along at a brisk pace.
When I saw 13 on a Friday night in the orchestra section at the Jacobs Theatre, filled with teens and their families, everyone - including me - seemed to be loving it. It was announced yesterday that the show is closing on Jan. 4. I wish it had found a bigger audience.
Some of the most highly touted musical comedies I've seen lately have fallen a little flat. On more than one occasion, I've sat in the audience and wondered why everyone around me was laughing so hysterically. This time, I laughed at all the jokes, including at all the Jewish references. Ok, especially those. Sure, some of them were a bit silly, but everyone likes to see themselves represented on stage.
Plus, 13 features a very catchy rock 'n' roll score by Jason Robert Brown, and exuberant choreography by Christopher Gattelli, especially in the opening number, "13/Becoming a Man." At the performance I saw, Ariana Grande was Patrice, the unpopular girl who befriends Evan. Grande has a big voice that just soars in the stirring ballad, "What It Means to Be a Friend."
Of course, the conceit of 13 is that everyone on stage - the actors and musicians - are all teenagers. The kids, with their energy and enthusiasm, do a terrific job of carrying the musical. They're funny and cute and engaging. Since I'm not 13 years old, I probably felt the humor more than the sense of awkwardness and anxiety that comes with being a teenager.
I especially liked Eric Nelsen, who has just the right amount of menace as Brett, the school bully, Delaney Moro as the sought-after Kendra, Aaron Simon Gross as the disabled Archie, who's never an object of pity but schemes with the best of them, and Elizabeth Egan Gillies as the manipulative Lucy.
Like the characters, the book, by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, treads familiar ground with its message about the importance of figuring out who your real friends are, not just hanging with the popular crowd because that's the cool thing to do.
Still, there was one scene that I found surprising - and moving. At the end, we see Evan during his bar mitzvah, a yarmulke on his head and a prayer shawl draped around his shoulders, chanting in Hebrew. The show could have left that part out, soft-pedaled the religious angle, but it didn't - to its credit.
I'll admit that after reading some of the opening-night reviews, I'd lowered my expectations. But I was really pleasantly surprised by this little mensch of a musical.
Friday, November 21, 2008
England meets the Westons
Among other things, Vire asked whether she was done with August after London. Here's what Tony-nominee Morton, who left the Broadway run Oct. 12, had to say about that:
"You know, never say never. They’re talking about a tour. Who knows how long it will last on Broadway? Some of us might go back in, but I absolutely—my back and my neck feel so much better in the last week, I can’t even tell you! I lost about 15 pounds in New York just doing this dang play."
And on fame:
"The great thing about August: Osage County was walking out of the stage door and people saying, “This is my third time seeing it, my fourth time seeing it,” and wanting to talk about it and wanting your autograph because they loved what they saw, not because you’re famous."
And on acting:
"I mean, for as shitty as this business can be and as insulting as it can be, I still believe that acting is a noble profession. And actors get to fall in love, murder, fly, make out with people that aren’t their spouse—they get to do all this stuff on stage that everybody in the world has always wanted to do. Who hasn’t wanted to strangle their mother at one time in their life?"
Thursday, November 20, 2008
For months I've just assumed that Spring Awakening would be my first experience seeing the same show on Broadway and on tour. I've even mentioned in my blog a couple of times how I was looking forward to comparing the two productions when the national tour comes my way next year.
Then, fate intervened.
The producers of Hairspray announced that the show would end its Broadway run Jan. 4 after 6 1/2 years. Harvey Fierstein anounced that he would return to reprise his Tony-winning role as Baltimore housewife Edna Turnblad for the final two months. And that event just happened to coincide with my already-planned weeklong trip to New York City.
So in a bit of perfect timing that usually doesn't occur in my life, Hairspray, one of my favorite musicals, becomes the first show I can say that I've seen on Broadway and on tour. And I got to see it with one of its original Tony-winning cast members.
(It was also announced this week that Tony winner Marissa Jarret Winokur, the original Tracy Turnblad, is coming back Dec. 9 for the final month of the run but sadly, I'll miss seeing her.)
Let's get the most important thing out of the way - I loved it in both places. Granted, I saw the tour more than a year ago, so I can't compare them in great detail. I don't remember whether the sets or choreography were different on tour or whether they cut or rearranged things. And I didn't see the show on Broadway with its original cast, like I did with Spring Awakening.
But no matter where you see it, Hairspray still has the same energy, the same humor, the same terrific, catchy pop score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and the same inspiring story. What really came through this time though - even more than the story - was the buoyancy of the music and the energy of Jerry Mitchell's choreography.
I don't know whether this makes sense, but sitting in the orchestra at the Neil Simon Theatre, I could practically feel the music. This is a fun, joyous and moving show. I've enjoyed every version of Hairspray - John Waters' 1988 movie, the musical and the 2007 movie of the musical, but I have to say that the stage version is my favorite.
And I've loved every Tracy Turnblad, too, including Marissa Perry on Broadway. She's so eager and sweet and sincere as the plus-sized teen who dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show. She also doesn't see any reason why black kids and white kids can't dance together on television. After all, it's 1962 and there's a New Frontier.
The only question is: How big a difference is seeing Hairspray with Harvey?
Well for me, it kicks everything up a notch and makes the show even more hilarious. He has so much energy and he's such a great comic actor - the way he raises his eyes or scrunches up his mouth or jumps up on the hot dog cart in "Welcome to the Sixties." I loved his duet with Ken Marks as Wilbur Turnblad in "You're Timeless to Me." All I can say is - John Travolta? Puhleeeze. No one holds a candle to Harvey in this role.
Of course, I didn't have quite the same reaction as I did the first time I saw Hairspray. Back then, it was the excitement of discovering something new. Here, it was like spending an evening with an old friend - I was so excited waiting for my favorite songs and scenes and lines.
When I saw Hairspray on tour 18 months ago, I thought more about the the way things were, about the long struggle to overcome racial segregation in this country. The musical tells such an inspiring, important story in a very entertaining way - it's about standing up for what you believe in, no matter what the cost. It's about how, sometimes, the most unlikely people can be heroes - and get to dance on television.
This time, maybe because I was still on a post-election high, I felt differently about Hairspray. I reveled in the fact that we had overcome. I was grinning pretty much throughout the entire show, and I felt proud.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
I've always said - jokingly, I assure you - that I like to see my money up on stage. But the production of Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, which opened last night at New York City's Public Theater, takes things to a whole new level.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Wilson Mizner, played by a delightfully brash Michael Cerveris, and his more low-key brother, Addison, portrayed by Alexander Gemignani, seek their fortunes in the late 19th and early 20th century United States, and around the world. The pair walk a fine line between entrepreneur and con artist as they make and lose more money than you could possibly imagine.
No, I take that back. It's actually quite easy to imagine because money - great wads of it - is everywhere in this musical. Tossed in the air with abandon, it lands in the audience or is strewn about on stage, where it rests for the remainder of the show, as if to punctuate what this is all about.
I like drama that explores the dark underbelly of American life, and the music in Road Show reminds me a bit of Sondheim's score for Assassins. If Assassins is a meditation on our propensity for violence and our desire for fame, then Road Show is about other strains in the American character - our ability to create new identities for ourselves, our desire to strike it rich and our willingness to do anything for a buck.
The real-life Mizner brothers were born in California in the 1870s and died within weeks of each other in 1933. This is my first experience with the musical about their lives, which has had various incarnations over the past decade since its beginnings as Bounce. Apparently the current version sheds some characters, drops some songs and trims the running time. But I think the essence of the story remains.
John Weidman's book opens with their death and works backward - as their dying Papa, played by William Parry urges the brothers to go out and find their own road in life. That road, of course, is supposed to lead to the American Dream of financial success.
And Road Show, under John Doyle's snappy direction, charts every twist and turn along the way - prospecting for gold in Alaska, a fireworks factory in Hong Kong, a questionable real estate venture in Florida.
If at first they fail, and they seem to fail a lot, the Mizners simply remake themselves into something else. Along the way they're partners, they quarrel and in the end, they're inseparable. If they sometimes skirt the edge of the law, their inventiveness and daring are the same qualities that built this country.
This was my first trip to the Public and I was surprised and thrilled to find that the Newman Theater is a very intimate space - about 300 seats. Doyle's scenic design is a jumble of old wooden boxes and filing cabinets that the cast sits on - and Cerveris and Gemignani do quite a bit of jumping around on during the show.
While it's a less showy role, Addison is still a pretty fascinating figure and Gemignani does a great job portraying his inner conflict. At times, he goes along with his brother's schemes and at other times, he's repulsed by them. He genuinely wants to settle down to work as an architect, building grand houses for the very rich. There's a great scene showing how each matron wants her home to be flashier and bigger than her neighbor's.
Traveling to Florida by train, Addison befriends Hollis Bessemer, played with innocence and enthusiasm by Claybourne Elder. Bessemer, whose father has disowned him for dropping out of the family business, dreams of starting a colony for artists. He and Addison become partners and lovers. They have a beautiful, stirring duet: "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened."
When Wilson airs a radio pitch for the project, the sound design by Dan Moses Schreier makes his voice reverberate throughout the tiny auditorium. It's a deal that's too good to be true, Sondheim is telling us, but human nature being what it is, we fall for it anyway.
Monday, November 17, 2008
A week after seeing the musical Billy Elliot at Broadway's Imperial Theatre what I remember most - even more than Elton John's songs - is the dancing. In the hands of choreographer Peter Darling, this is a show about the absolute joy of movement, about the artistry and exuberance and sheer athleticism of dance.
I saw the 2000 movie Billy Elliot when it first came out and it's one of those small British gems that I really enjoy. Usually, they're about a depressed northern city or gritty London neighborhood and involve a community coming together to surmount some obstacle.
Unlike some of the more recent movie-to-musical adaptations I've seen, a lot of the charm has survived. The musical, which opened in London in 2005, features some of the same creative team as the movie - Stephen Daldry directed both and book writer and lyricist Lee Hall also wrote the screenplay. (And don't worry about the accents or not knowing the history. Everyone's easy to understand and there's a page in the Playbill that'll give you a brief rundown of the events covered in the musical.)
The story takes place against the backdrop of a strike by coal miners that lasted from 1984 to 1985. The miners walked out to protest efforts by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to crush their union and close unprofitable mines. There's a very pointed political song, "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher," and a rousing ensemble number, "The Stars Look Down," that bring home the anger of the miners. (And I also liked Ian MacNeil's whimsical set that rises up from the middle of the stage.)
As Billy's dad, Gregory Jbara is wonderful. He's a hardened, gruff man who can't imagine a life for his son that doesn't involve learning to box and going to work in the mines someday. Carole Shelley is funny as Billy's slightly forgetful grandmother and Santino Fontana is forceful as Tony, the brother who doesn't want to give in and go back to work.
It's pretty amazing to watch Billy's transformation as a dancer, from his first awkward steps to true grace. Kowalik is really terrific - a miniature Gene Kelly leaping and tapping and pirouetting across the stage in his "Angry Dance" and "Electricity." I hope he sticks with musical theatre, because I'm looking forward to seeing him on stage again as an adult.
I loved watching him surrounded by tutu-clad little girls in "Shine," and the big scrum of girls, miners and police officers all on stage together in "Solidarity." It looked a bit chaotic - I was amazed no one got a ballet-slipper-clad foot stepped on - but you just know there's an incredible order to it. There's also a sweet, funny duet, "Expressing Yourself," with Billy and his friend Michael, played by Frank Dolce at the performance I attended.
Like Billy, his dad also undergoes a transformation. It's so moving to watch him come around, from open disdain to the point where he's proud of Billy's skill as a dancer. There's a poignant scene near the end when he reaches out to hug his son and Billy turns away, perhaps without even thinking.
But to me, the person who comes closest to stealing the show is Haydn Gwynne as Billy's dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson. Gwynne originated the role in London, and she is so hilarious and unforgettable. I thought the show lost a bit of its spark during Act II, when she was largely absent. She portrays Mrs. Wilkinson as a demanding teacher, exasperated by her young charges' apparent lack of coordination. When she discovers Billy's talent, she rises to the occasion and becomes his champion.
I'll admit that Billy Elliot played with my emotions. The one scene that had me in tears during my week of theatergoing was when Billy reads a letter from his dead mother. I don't think there's anything more wrenching than the story of a motherless child.
I had a few quibbles with Billy Elliot. First, while it's very entertaining, at 3 hours it seemed just a tad long. A couple of the dance sequences didn't really further the story. And as much as I loved Kowalik's dancing, I didn't think he was quite as good as an actor. He's a very sweet, appealing young performer but I just felt that the rest of the cast outshined him a bit - except when he's dancing, of course.
One other thing that disappointed me a little - while it's been years since I've seen the movie, I do remember how it ends - the adult Billy dancing in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake as his proud father looks on. The musical doesn't end the same way and I missed that emotional release.
But perhaps to compensate, the musical has a dream sequence. Billy and an adult, portrayed by former New York City Ballet member Stephen Hanna, dance together. Supported by the strong and muscular adult version of himself, at one point young Billy flies through the air. It's a stunning moment and my jaw literally dropped. It's the moment when you see the man that this boy will someday become.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Remember me to Herald Square
If you'd asked me a couple years ago whether I thought I'd ever get to spend a week in New York, walking around, taking in the sights, seeing shows, meeting friends, I'd have said no. I was always a little intimidated by the city. I didn't know anyone there and it had been years since I'd gone anywhere for a week. In fact, until I took this trip, it had been 10 years since I spent a week away from home.
But my short trips to New York over the past 18 months have been terrific, and this one was no exception. I had a tremendous time. I feel like I'm beginning to know my way around a little and New Yorkers are awesome - friendly and welcoming and always willing to come to the aid of a visitor who hasn't quite mastered the subway system. (I know the Bronx is up and the Battery is down, but after that, it's a bit murky.)
I'll have lots to write about when I get back, but I just want to thank everyone who took the time to meet me - including Jan from Broadway and Me, and her theatergoing friend Bill; Vance from Tapeworthy; Gabriel from Modern Fabulousity; Sarah from Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment; Theatre Aficionado at Large; Mondschein from Third Row, Mezzanine; Kari from Persistent Cookie; and Roxie from Stage Left, House Right. You are all very kind, wonderful people and the trip would not have been nearly as much fun without your company and conversation.
And a special shoutout to a dear friend back home. I'm not sure whether she wants me to mention her by name, but without her aid, none of this would have been possible.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Daniel Radcliffe and the sweaty shirt
First, it's a great cause and I always drop something in the bucket. The organization helps people with HIV and AIDS as well as those with other illnesses, such as breast cancer. Second, you get to watch the actors you've just seen playing characters break the fourth wall and address the audience as their real selves.
Last night, at the end of Equus, it was especially exciting. Daniel Radcliffe auctioned off a sweaty polo shirt that he wore onstage in New York and London. He autographed the shirt and even wiped his face with it, so the lucky recipient, who paid $550, is assured of getting some of Harry Potter's DNA. How thrilling!
I'll have much more to write about Equus later but let me just say that Mr. Radcliffe gave a mesmerizing performance as a troubled teenager who blinds horses. And at the risk of sounding completely shallow, he has quite a cute little tush!
A lot of people find my blog by searching for Daniel Radcliffe, stage door and autograph, so here's the scoop:
I did manage to get his autograph and Richard Griffiths' at the stage door afterward. It was a pretty hairy experience. The stage door at the Broadhurst is on the front side of the theater. Just make a right turn as you exit. But you can't miss it - you'll see the security guards and the metal barricades.
The security people won't even let you near the metal barricades unless you show them a ticket for that night's performance. And you'll be wedged in like sardines with your fellow theatergoers. It was a bit of a madhouse, with the guards constantly telling us to move back and to not push. But it was kind of hard to avoid pushing when you tried to move back!
I was just behind the front of the barricade and I kind of scoped out the situation while we were waiting, trying to find an opening in the crowd where I could thrust my Playbill at Radcliffe. (He comes out fairly quickly, within 20 minutes. You'll have to wait longer for Griffiths but by then, the crowd will be gone.)
When he got to me, he seemed to take a looong time to sign his name. "Daniel" came out pretty good, but the signature starts to trail off by the end of "Radcliffe." He needs to work on a quick, illegible signature! Update Dec. 1: Okay, now I feel awful. I just heard Radcliffe say on Inside the Actors Studio that he suffers from a mild form of dyspraxia, which can affect fine-motor control, such as handwriting. So I apologize for joking about your signature.
Radcliffe will work both sides of the barricades. My advice is to position yourself on the side next to the giant Shrek poster. That way, when his driver pulls up and the car door opens, you'll be in good position to try and take a picture before he jumps inside.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Last stop Greenwich Village
This was my second time there, and it's definitely an area I want to check out again. You could spend hours walking around all the side streets, looking at the little shops and reading the menus posted outside every type of restaurant imaginable.
There were lots of students walking around NYU's massive campus surrounding Washington Square Park. For an urban campus, it has a surprising amount of green, leafy spaces. And it's a subway ride from Broadway. Then I crossed over the other side of the Public, which I guess is the beginning of the East Village, a little scruffier neighborhood but fun for browsing.
I did ask someone at the Public Theater about Kevin Spacey. He said he'd heard the story about him working in the stockroom. But he said that Kevin actually worked all over the building, in the loading area and sweeping up the theaters after shows. Hmmm, Kevin only talks about handing out pencils and notepads. Maybe he forgot about the other part?
Last night I saw Hairspray on Broadway. A full review will come later but let's get one thing out of the way - Harvey Fierstein is Edna Turnblad. John Travolta? Meh. Puhleeese! Harvey was hilarious - so expressive with his face and his body and surprisingly light on his feet. He was wonderful, simply wonderful.
Tonight - a little horsing around with Daniel Radcliffe in Equus. Harry Potter is all grown up and I'll be seeing him live - seeing all of him!
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
A day on Wall Street, a night at the opera
Thanks to the adventurous Sarah, who kindly equipped me with her excellent walking tour of Lower Manhattan, I took the subway to the very southern tip of the island and worked my way north.
And what surpises awaited me!
I expected the financial district to be full of men and women dressed in suits and carrying leather briefcases, with those little cell phones attached to their ears so they could do their deals on the go. Okay, there was some of that, but because it was Veterans Day, probably not as many as normal.
What I didn't expect was that Lower Broadway would be an open-air pedestrian mall, with row after row of stands selling all kinds of ethnic foods and grilled meat, as well as Pashmina scarves. There was a neverending stream of tourists waiting to get their pictures taken in front of the bull statue. It was kind of a mix between an upscale flea market and the New York State Fair. Not at all the dour, serious place I expected.
I stopped at Trinity Church, which I remembered from the Nicholas Cage move, National Treasure; walked down Wall Street to snap some pictures of the giant American flag adorning the front of the New York Stock Exchange; and visited St. Paul's Chapel, the rear of which overlooks Ground Zero. The chapel, which provided a resting place for exhausted workers after the Sept. 11 attacks, has a very moving memorial to the people who lost their lives on that day.
On my way back up Broadway, I walked through Chinatown and Little Italy en route to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. I'll tell you more about my tour of the museum, but it was pretty fascinating to see the inside of a tenement, with the apartments restored to the way they would have looked in the late 19th and early 20th century. They were pretty cramped, dark and gloomy places.
That evening, I met Sarah for some great food and great conversation at O'Neal's, across from Lincoln Center. Then, it was on to the Met for my very first opera, Puccini's Madama Butterfly. And as a special added bonus - I got to meet her very dear friend Noah!
It was wonderful - the staging was very theatrical, with some truly imaginative, breathtaking imagery. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to follow the plot, but the Met provides a translation on a small LED screen in front of you. The language is beautiful - it brings home the sadness of the story in such a lyrical, poetic way. This production, designed by the late film director Anthony Minghella, was a great introdution to the world of opera.
Okay, I'm off to Greenwich Village and then this afternoon, the Public Theater for Stephen Sondheim's Road Show. I'm really looking forward to the Public because as a young actor just starting out in New York, none other than Mr. Kevin Spacey worked in the stockroom, handing out notepads and pencils. I'm hoping they'll let me take a peek.
Then tonight, back to Broadway for Hairspray with Harvey Fierstein.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Rude, rude, rude
Last night I saw the new musical Billy Elliot, with Trent Kowalik in the title role, and I thought it was great. I'll provide a full review after I get back, but in my humble opinion, a hilarious Haydn Gwynne came pretty close to stealing the show as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy's dance teacher.
Afterward, I had a wonderful stage-door experience meeting the cast, getting my picture taken with Ms. Gwynne. I even told Gregory Jbara, who plays Billy's coal miner father, that I'd once been in a British coal mine! (It's true, in Yorkshire, where an old mine has been turned into a museum and you can actually go down underground and see the whole thing.)
My only complaint was the couple in back of me who wouldn't stop talking once the show began. It wasn't a whisper, either. Their remarks were clearly audible - to me anyway. What did they think, I spent $126 on a ticket to hear their conversation? I didn't come to hear Elton John's music or the actors on stage?
At one point, I turned around and glared at the guy and told him to please be quiet, which pretty much shut him up. But why did I even have to do that? It doesn't take a genius IQ to realize that once the show starts, people in the audience should stop talking!
Tonight, Madama Butterfly at the Met - my first opera! But first, time to bundle up and go sightseeing.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Hang on Broadway, I'm coming!
Yes, even bigger than that. I'll be spending an entire week in the city that never sleeps and I'll be taking in a mind-boggling 11 shows. Maybe 12 if I can squeeze in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
I'm not limiting myself to the Great White Way either. All of New York City needs my help. So I'll be attending my very first opera, venturing downtown to the venerable Public Theater and even traveling off the island of Manhattan, to the exotic climes of Brooklyn.
Will I have the stamina, the intestinal fortitude, that this mission into the very heart of drama, comedy and musical theatre requires? By Sunday night, will I remember anything about the show I saw on Monday? Will I be able to answer the two most burning questions on the minds of my readers: Where is the stage door at the Broadhurst Theatre and does Daniel Radcliffe sign autographs?
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Welcome to the end of the '60s
And on Wednesday night, there'll be one more bit of 1960s-tinged drama. I'll be in the audience at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre watching Hairspray, with Harvey Fierstein reprising his Tony-winning role as the oversized and over-stressed housewife Edna Turnblad. Fierstein's come back to take a victory lap with Hairspray, which ends its 6 1/2-year Broadway run Jan. 18.
I've loved the musical ever since I saw it on tour last year. The book, by Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell, based on John Waters' movie, does such a terrific job bringing to life the struggle to end segregation. It's done in a way that doesn't seem preachy or overly sentimental. The effort of white teenager Tracy Turnblad to integrate a Baltimore teen dance show, so that black teens could dance every week, makes learning about history entertaining - fun even.
Plus, Hairspray has some great pop tunes by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that really capture the decade's early years - a time when America was on the cusp of change. The original Broadway cast recording is one of my favorites.
When I saw the show on tour, one song really got to me. Yvette Monique Clark's rendition of "I know where I've been" was so powerful, so emotional. The song, with lyrics "There's a dream in the future, there's a struggle that we have yet to win," truly evokes the civil-rights anthems of the 1960s. At the end, black kids and white kids, standing from one end of the stage to another, are holding hands. It was the first time I ever felt like giving a song a standing ovation.
With the election of Barack Obama, I suspect hearing that song again will be even more poignant, By the end of Hairspray, I fully expect to be a wet, blubbery mess. (Must remember to pack extra tissues.)
It's kind of fitting that Hairspray will close the same week of Obama's inauguration as our nation's 44th president. In some ways, they're bookends for the 1960s. And as op-ed columnist Gail Collins wrote in The New York Times this week, the baby boom generation deserves a round of applause:
"The boomers didn’t win any wars and that business about being self-involved was not entirely unfounded. On the other hand, they made the nation get serious about the idea of everybody being created equal. And now American children are going to grow up unaware that there’s anything novel in an African-American president or a woman running for the White House. We’ll settle for that."
So I'm looking forward to seeing Hairspray on stage for a second time, when I'll applaud and likely shed a few tears as I watch Tracy, Edna and company take a well-deserved bow.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
They were not afraid
All three showed great courage. Schwerner and Goodman could have enjoyed their comfortable white, Jewish middle class lives, but something compelled them to go to Mississippi. This was a time of legal segregation, when African-Americans in the South could not vote. They knew that until we're all free, no one is free. Somewhere along the line, we forgot about that on Tuesday - in California, Florida, Arkansas and Arizona, were antigay ballot measures were approved. Here's another reminder:
"Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Ga. and St. Augustine, Fla., and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions."
Coretta Scott King