Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Inquiring minds want to know

Whenever I check my statcounter to see which Google queries have brought readers to my blog I often find that I've answered about 90 percent of their question. Close, but no cigar. I wish I could run after those people and say, "Wait, give me another chance!"

So as one of my blogging resolutions for 2009, I'm going to try to answer questions from readers on a more regular basis to supply that missing 10 percent. Naturally, I get a lot of questions about theatre and Broadway shows, which I can usually answer; a lot about violins, which I can't; and some random ones about movies, books or tv shows. (Apparently, the movie Ice Castles has a pretty big fan base.)

In the meantime, here are a few recent ones:

1.) Does Daniel Radcliffe come out after shows to sign autographs? I get a lot of queries about whether actors come to the stage door to sign Playbills after a Broadway show. Usually, they will, although matinees can be dicey. And this year, I've had some notable disappointments. But yes, I did get Daniel Radcliffe's autograph after an evening performance of Equus. You can read about it here. And to the person who asked, Leah Michele is DEFINITELY NOT mean at the stage door! Why would you think that? She was very nice to everyone when I met her after a matinee of Spring Awakening in the summer of 2007.

2.) Is the aisle seat good at a Broadway theatre? Well, for me, there's nothing like being smack dab in the middle of the orchestra, in the first few rows. But yes, I think aisle seats are generally good, especially if you think you'll need to make a quick exit. Although there's been a disturbing trend of shows charging more to sit on the aisle. Unless you have a medical reason or you want to reach out and touch the elephant during the parade of animals that opens The Lion King, (And who doesn't!) I'm not sure it's worth the extra money.

3.) Can Spring Awakening be saved from closing? January is going to be a very dark month for Broadway. A handful of long-running musicals are closing and other shows are finishing up their limited runs. At this point, I don't think any of them can be saved, including Spring Awakening. The last performance for the 2007 Tony winning Best Musical will take place on Jan. 18. But don't lose hope. You can still catch it, along with many other terrific Broadway shows, on tour. It's probably coming somewhere near you. Go here for more information.

4.) Can you take pictures at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular? Sadly, yes. At least at the performance I attended. While it clearly states on the show's Web site that photography is forbidden, (as it is in all Broadway theatres and probably all theatres everywhere) people were snapping away at will throughout the performance and no one appeared to be stopping them. But I did attend a 10 a.m. show and Radio City Music Hall wasn't very crowded. Maybe the ushers are more diligent later in the day.

5.) What does Johnna symbolize in August: Osage County? Good question. Johnna, originally played on Broadway by Kimberly Guerrero, is the Native American housekeeper hired by family patriarch Beverly Weston to look after his sick, pill-popping wife. The play takes place in Oklahoma and Johnna is a representative of the original occupants of the land. I think she also symbolizes the importance of family. Playwright Tracy Letts describes her role in an interview with The Times of London.

6.) Where did Carrie Bradshaw go to college? Did she have any family? Where did she grow up? Michael Patrick King, the executive producer of Sex and the City always kept the origins of Carrie and her pals a little mysterious, as if their lives didn't really begin until they moved to Manhattan. Carrie apparently mentioned in one episode that her father left her mother when she was 5 years old and she may have grown up close to New York and gone to college in the city. I'm guessing New York University, but that's just a guess. Here are some more hints.

7.) What's the town in Massachusetts in the Seinfeld finale? This is one of those questions where I smack my forehead (figuratively, not literally). I wrote about watching the final episode of the long-running NBC comedy for the first time this summer, 10 years after it aired. But I never mentioned the specific town in Massachusetts where it takes place. Duh! The NBC corporate jet that Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are taking to Paris makes an emergency landing in the fictional town of Latham, Massachusetts in the final episode. Here's a rundown on the whole sad incident.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Visitor

I was sitting on the couch watching a dvd, laptop on my lap so I could multitask, when I spotted a familiar face in the first few minutes of The Visitor. It was a cameo by none other than Marian Seldes! I knew I had to stop surfing the 'net and give this movie my undivided attention.

And I'm glad I did. The Visitor is well-acted and such an interesting look at contemporary New York City. Richard Jenkins, who for years was a member of Trinity Repertory Company, and also played the father in Six Feet Under, is an economics professor named Walter Vale who befriends with an illegal immigrant couple.

Walter returns to his Manhattan apartment and finds the couple, a Syrian named Tarek (played by Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend, Zainab, from Senegal, (played by Danai Gurira) squatting there. Realizing that they have no place else to go, and perhaps, also, because he's a bit lonely after the death of his wife, he invites them to stay. (Personally, since Tarek reacts so violently at being surprised by Walter, I would have called the police. But that would have been the end of the movie.)

He's soon caught up in their lives and seems invigorated by the pair. And they're so recognizable to anyone who's spent any time in New York City. Tarek plays the djembe, an African drum, and Zainab has a sidewalk table where she sells jewelry that she makes herself. Tarek is the friendlier of the two, inviting Walter along to clubs and teaching him to play the drums. Zainab is more distant and wary at first.

What struck me about The Visitor is that all of the characters are so wonderfully drawn and the performances are so understated. Writer and director Thomas McCarthy was also responsible for The Station Agent, another great movie about a group of unlikely friends. Here, he lets the story unfold bit by bit, with a fact revealed here or there.

When Tarek is arrested and held for being in the country illegally, Walter has to navigate this totally unfamiliar world of immigration laws and detention centers to try and help him. When Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass) arrives from Michigan to find out what happened to her son, Walter befriends her, too. He even takes her to The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, a show she's longed to see.

McCarthy does lay the symbolism on a bit thick at times - at one point, Walter, Mouna and Zainab pass the Statue of Liberty as they take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. And there seem to be a lot of strategically placed American flags in shots.

But without being too preachy, the movie does a good job of showing how the detention process works and McCarthy makes a good case for a more sane and humane policy toward illegal immigrants. This is a thought-provoking movie that shows a side of life in New York City we don't often get to see up close. And Jenkins is great. I really hope he gets an Oscar nomination.

An epic acting opportunity

My acting experience consists of a drama class I took in middle school a long, long time ago and I probably won't be getting to New York City anytime in the next month. So sadly, I won't be auditioning for the Madshag Performance Group's staged reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

But Gabriel from Modern Fabulousity, one of the creative forces behind Madshag, has asked his fellow theatre bloggers to pass along the audition information in case any real actors out there want to give it a try. Who doesn't love a good epic! And this one, as Jon Stewart would say, is all about the Mess O' Potamia. (Although a much more ancient version.)

I had a terrific time meeting the very gracious ModFab during my last trip to New York and I love reading his insights into theatre, movies, television and politics. Plus, I'm all about supporting my fellow bloggers. So ModFab, I'm pleased to share my tens of readers with you! Click here for all the details.

Monday, December 29, 2008


When I visited San Francisco a few years ago, I spent a couple of hours walking around the Castro neighborhood. It's a nice, quiet place, filled with small shops and restaurants - perfect for browsing. But it seemed a little sad that the place where Harvey Milk ran a camera store and built a political base didn't have a more prominent memorial to him.

So I'm glad that we have Gus Van Sant's film Milk, and Sean Penn's engaging performance - Lawng Island accent and all - in the title role. It's a powerful, heartfelt tribute to the life and times of one of the first openly gay candidates elected to public office in the United States. And it's also a reminder of the ongoing struggle for civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans.

But I don't want to leave the impression that this is preachy or a dry history lesson. Dustin Lance Black's script tells a story that's poignant and funny and passionate and entertaining. I like the way Van Sant weaves archival footage into the movie. (In the credits, Van Sant acknowledges a debt to the excellent Oscar-winning 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.) The classical score, with the operatic music that Milk loved, also is quite effective, giving the story an epic feel.

With his lover Scott Smith, played by a sweet and endearing James Franco, Milk leaves a closeted, miserable life in New York in the late 1960s. The two of them join hundreds of other gay men who made the Castro their home - a place where they could live openly and freely and hopefully without fear or persecution.

And Penn's Harvey Milk is irrepressible. He's smiling and confident, a man of boundless optimism and energy, fighting against police indifference, for equal rights, always looking to create alliances. He's constantly adapting - shedding his long hair and jeans for suits and ties, crafting a new message when an opponent advises him that he has to give people some hope.

I think that Penn is at his best when he's using wit and charm to disarm bigots and point out the ridiculousness of their arguments, or exhorting his followers that those words on the base of the Statue of Liberty and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence also speak to the rights of gay and lesbian citizens.

You can see why Milk attracted such a devoted group of political acolytes. And there's a terrific supporting cast. Emile Hirsch is adorable as Cleve Jones, a smart, young street hustler Milk takes under his wing and turns into an organizer. (Jones is also the person who would later conceive of the NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt.) Alison Pill is great as Milk's tough and savvy lesbian campaign manager in a very male-dominated circle. Josh Brolin plays Dan White, Milk's fellow supervisor and assassin, as the brooding, obviously disturbed person he was.

Milk finally wins election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors representing the Castro after redistricting creates neighborhood seats. His victory occurred during an ugly period for civil rights in this country. It was the same time as Anita Bryant's successful 1977 campaign to repeal a law in Dade County, Florida, that outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In 1978, California voters were faced with an initiative known as Proposition 6 that would have prevented gay people, or even those who supported gay rights, from working in public schools. The fight against Proposition 6 is eerily reminiscent of last fall's battle over Proposition 8 in California, which was successful in taking away the rights of gay and lesbian citizens to marry.

Just as in Proposition 8, we see proponents of Proposition 6 using children in the most dishonest and vile manner to provoke fear of gays and lesbians. And just as in Proposition 8, there's a reluctance by opponents of the measure to even use the word gay in their campaign.

In a very moving scene, Milk urges his gay supporters to come out to their families and neighbors and coworkers. He tells them, "People vote two to one for us when they know one of us." Unfortunately, although I wish it were otherwise, proximity and empathy don't always go hand in hand. Still, the measure went down to defeat by more than a million votes.

For me, some of the most poignant parts of Milk were the two scenes that Van Sant uses to bookend the movie. One shows grainy black-and-white footage and newspaper clippings of the police raiding gay bars, carting off patrons as they try to cover their faces. The second, some three decades later, is a candlelight procession through San Francisco's Castro neighborhood in the wake of Harvey Milk's assassination. This time, no one is hiding.

Harvey Milk famously said, "If I'm killed, let that bullet destroy every closet door." Thirty years after his death, there about 450 openly gay and lesbian elected officials in the United States, including the mayor of the city where I live. For another three days, it'll be the largest U.S. city with an openly gay mayor.

On Jan. 1, that distinction will transfer to Portland, Oregon, when City Council member Sam Adams takes the oath of office as mayor. Five days later, Jared Polis, the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a freshman, will be sworn in to represent Colorado's Second District in Congress.

These are not gay elected officials, they are simply elected officials who happen to be gay. Their issues are the same ones that all elected officials grapple with - education and transportation and social services and the needs of small businesses. They are the same issues that Harvey Milk cared about. Somewhere, I'm sure, he is smiling.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Marketing 9 to 5

I found an interesting tidbit buried in a New York Times story on viral marketing campaigns by Broadway musicals:

"Situation Interactive experimented with new technology in other campaigns as well. The firm worked with the producers of Billy Elliot to create videos that chronicled the rehearsals of the three boys who rotate as the lead character. For 9 to 5: The Musical, the firm is working on an online game in which players can upload pictures of their bosses for a shooting gallery."

Okay, my initial thoughts are:
1.) This sounds like it's in pretty poor taste.
2.) If you do participate, you probably don't want your boss to know.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Countdown to the Tonys

I know the weather outside was frightful earlier this week and June seems awfully far away. But we're halfway through the 2008-2009 Broadway season and the Tony Awards will be here before you know it. Based on the shows I saw in November, here are my nominations so far. What's great about my favorite performances is that I was seeing these actors on stage for the very first time.

Best Musical, Billy Elliot
I've seen three new musicals, Billy Elliot, Shrek and 13. So far, Billy Elliot gets my vote. It tells the story of a boy in a Northern England mining town with such heart and imagination and memorable characters. Plus, the dance numbers are amazing. But I really enjoyed 13 and I hope Jason Robert Brown gets a nomination for his energetic rock 'n' roll score. I'm also looking forward to 9 to 5 in the spring and I'm really sorry I missed [title of show].

Gregory Jbara,
Billy Elliot
I loved Gregory Jbara as Billy's dad, 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 coal mines someday. Just the way he goes from being totally opposed to his son's desire to dance, to being totally sympathetic and supportive, is wonderful to watch. Jbara handles the transformation so well.

Haydn Gwynne, Billy Elliot
As Mrs. Wikinson, the no-nonsense dance teacher who takes Billy under her wing, Haydn Gwynne is hilarious and unforgettable. She really becomes the boy's champion and I love how tough she is in confronting his father. Except for the moments when Billy is dancing, Gwynne comes close to stealing the show for me.

Christopher Sieber, Shrek
As the ruthless and vertically challenged Lord Farquaad, Christopher Sieber was one of my favorite things about Shrek. He was very witty and hammed it up a bit without going over the top. I just felt like the musical had more of a spark and became more interesting when he was on stage.

Martha Plimpton, Pal Joey
Martha Plimpton was terrific in Pal Joey as chorus girl Gladys Bumps, who's been wronged by nightclub owner Joey Evans and schemes to get her revenge on him. She has a great comic touch and I especially loved what she does with the song "Zip."

Choreography, Billy Elliot
Peter Darling's choreography has made this musical such a tribute to the absolute joy of movement, the artistry and exuberance and sheer athleticism of dance. I loved all the tutu-clad little ballerinas and watching Billy transformed from awkwardness to grace. While Billy Elliot was my favorite, I hope Christopher Gattelli gets a nomination for 13. I really enjoyed his exuberant choreography, especially in the opening number, "13/Becoming a Man."

Costume design, Pal Joey
What impressed me about William Ivey Long's costumes for Pal Joey is the way they really help define each of the main characters - the smooth-talking ladies man Joey, looking very suave in his tuxedo; Gladys, the showgirl, looking cheap and flashy; Vera, the sophisticated, socialite in glamorous gowns and tailored suits; and Linda, the sweet and innocent shopgirl, in modest skirts and blouses.

Set design, Pal Joey
I loved the look of Scott Pask's sets for Pal Joey - the elevated train track in the background, the winding wrought-iron staircase leading down to this seedy, out-of-the-way nightclub in 1930s Chicago. Even when the action shifts to a luxury apartment or a clothes shop, Pask's set design retains its dark, somber tone, which is so in keeping with the tone of this musical.

Raul Esparza, Speed-the-Plow
For me, Raul Esparza's turn as Hollywood producer Charlie Fox was the best thing about Speed-the-Plow, especially watching him in the climactic third scene. It's a point when his livelihood, everything he's tried to achieve in the business, is at stake, and he delivers an amazing performance. His character's disintegration, desperation, truly was thrilling to watch.

Daniel Radcliffe, Equus
I didn't know what to expect from Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, but I came away being impressed by his performance as Alan Strang, a young man who inexplicably blinds six horses. Radcliffe does such a terrific job portraying this troubled soul - from his initial clipped, nonsensical dialog to his trembling under a blanket at the end of the play, after all his defenses have been stripped away.

Anna Camp, Equus
I thought Anna Camp nailed the role of Jill Mason, the more worldly girl who gets Strang a part-time job at the stable where she works, and lures him into a sexual situation. I don't think she means to hurt Strang but she's clearly leading him into something that he's not ready to handle. She's his total opposite - talkative and perky and confident. I love the way she carries herself - her blond ponytail bobbing. Camp is so effective in the role.

Hallie Foote, Dividing the Estate
I laughed all the way through Dividing the Estate and I hope several cast members get nominations. But I especially loved Hallie Foote's performance as a daughter desperate to get her hands on her inheritance to ease her own family's financial crisis. She was so great to watch - sharp-tongued, covetous - and had a way of delivering the most outrageous lines with such perfect seriousness. What a hoot. I'd never heard of Hallie Foote before. What a wonderful discovery.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A little girl and a Christmas classic

Okay, I know I'm a bit early, but I don't like leaving things until the last minute. So to all of my readers who celebrate the holiday, my best wishes for a very merry Christmas. Thank-you so much for stopping by and giving me the gift of your time. And if you're going to be traveling over the next few days, have a safe journey.

Of course, I have to leave you with something performance-related. One of the things I love about the Broadway musical Billy Elliot is the way it celebrates the joy of dance. Here's another wonderful example that seems perfect to share this holiday season.

Every year the Joffrey Ballet chooses a child with disabilities to take part in a production of that Christmastime classic, The Nutcracker. This year an 8-year-old Maryland girl, Mary Cassell, who has cerebral palsy, got picked for the production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Katherine Shaver of The Washington Post wrote a sweet story about her. There's also a video where you can see Mary at rehearsal and hear her talk about how she wasn't sure she wanted to do it at first. Cute doesn't even begin to describe this little girl. And what a trouper. You can see her on stage here.

There's still time to catch the Joffrey's Chicago production of The Nutcracker. It runs through Sunday.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Broadway year - the downs

Now that I've praised some of the amazing moments I saw on Broadway this year, I want to take a moment to mention some things that bothered me, as well as one disappointment.
  • I've written before about the couple sitting behind me at Billy Elliot who were talking so loudly when the musical began that I had to turn around and glare at them as I asked them to be quiet. It was the same thing at Shrek, the people sitting next to me were talking and unwrapping candy. Is it me or is the talking and eating during shows getting worse? It makes me a little wary of seeing the musical Rock of Ages, since Variety reports that there'll be in-seat cocktail service during the show when it moves from off-Broadway to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Maybe it fits with the story, which I guess partly takes place in a nightclub, and it'll be done in a way that won't bother non-drinking theatergoers, but I don't know.
  • I've decided that there are simply some things I don't particularly want to see or hear on stage - the farting and belching competition in Shrek may have worked in the movie but in a Broadway musical I just didn't care for it. And the urinating porter in Macbeth was one special effect I definitely could have done without. This poses a bit of a dilemma. I really want to see Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage on Broadway in the spring. (Although it'll have a different cast than the London production. Sadly, no Ralph Fiennes.) But I know there's a particular bodily function in the play which I'm not too eager to experience. Still, the Broadway cast reportedly includes James Gandolfini, and for a chance to see Tony Soprano, I'll steel myself.
  • Speaking of Macbeth, I've mentioned a few times before that I'm pretty squeamish and I knew last spring's production was a particularly bloody one. I was looking forward to seeing Patrick Stewart on Broadway but I got a little nervous when Ben Brantley compared the horror level to a Wes Craven movie in his New York Times review. Now, I've never actually seen a Wes Craven movie but it sounded ominous. Well let me tell you, it was quite a letdown. I didn't feel squeamish at all. I only took my glasses off briefly and I didn't once have to put my head between my knees to ward off fainting. Don't get me wrong, what I saw was plenty, but given the buildup, I was prepared for more blood, more guts. Thanks Ben, for getting me all worked up for nothing!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Chanukah Suite

I've become a big fan of composer Jason Robert Brown's musical theatre scores from seeing productions of Parade and 13 and listening to the cast recording of The Last 5 Years.

You can get a great taste of Brown's music on his Web site, and I always find something interesting poking around there. For example, I had no idea he'd written the Chanukah Suite in 2004. Since the eight-day holiday began last night, it's perfect timing!

Here's how Brown describes the piece:

The Chanukah Suite was borne of two separate desires: 1) to make the celebration of Chanukah an exuberant musical experience that both draws on tradition and looks forward to new ideas; and 2) to write a piece for chorus which combined the "Broadway" idiom in which I most often work with more traditional liturgical choral techniques. Therefore, this challenging medley requires both a strict fidelity to the written rhythms and pitches and a real sense of spontaneity. When it's done in the right spirit, this piece should make Chanukah a powerful, soul-stirring, swinging, rock-and-rolling Festival of Lights.

You can listen to the Chanukah Suite here, in a 2005 performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale. It's really cool. I love how Brown has taken several traditional holiday songs and turned them into a stirring 8-minute choral work. Don't worry that it's all in Hebrew. There's a translation.

And just in case you have any last-minute Chanukah or Christmas shopping left to do, here's Brown's holiday gift guide.

Happy Chanukah, everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"It's all illusion"

This was a very nice surprise in my Sunday Parade magazine: an interview with Angela Lansbury! Here's what she has to say about her role in the Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit, with Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett, which begins previews Feb. 26 at the Shubert Theatre.

"I had no intention of coming back to work, only of coming back to New York to enjoy the city as a part-time resident," said Angela. "But my agent called, saying, 'They're interested in having you play the psychic, Madame Arcati.' I'm a bit long in the tooth [83], but that's the great thing about the theater - it's all illusion."

Here's a link to the interview, by James Brady, and a slideshow of Ms. Lansbury through the years. And you can take a 50-question movie musicals quiz here.

Chilly scenes of winter

Some memorable moments from 2008

It's hard for me to pick my favorite shows of the year because truly, I loved almost everything - just some more than others. These are some of the songs, choreography, scenes and characters that amazed me, made me laugh or cry or simply made me think a little bit harder about the world this year. There were probably another dozen I could have picked, too.

One of the things that struck me as I looked over the list of plays and musicals I saw in 2008 was how many of them dealt with adolescents struggling to find their place in a world that's not always very accepting.

Some have done things that their parents simply can't understand. Others dream of a life that their parents simply can't imagine. They want desperately to fit in with their classmates, to live up to the expectations that their families have of them. But they also want to be true to themselves. While they're not all on this list, to some extent all of their stories resonated with me. Maybe it has something to do with the power of theatre, but I felt for them all.

1.) For thrilling spectacle, it's hard to beat the opening minutes of Disney's musical The Lion King. Once a pair of giraffes ambled across the stage followed by a parade of animals up the aisles of the theatre in the opening number, "Circle of Life," I was hooked. My jaw dropped in amazement and my inner child was activated. Director (and designer) Julie Taymor uses elaborate costumes, masks, puppets and video projection to create a show that's so visually rich and vivid. I'm not a big fan of comic book stories but knowing that Taymor (and Bono!) are two of the creative forces behind the new Spider-Man musical definitely makes me interested.

2.) Black Watch brought home the experiences of a Scottish regiment in Iraq in such an imaginative, visceral way. Soldiers silently act out reading letters from home; one member of the unit relates the history of the Black Watch as he's being dressed, undressed and turned every which way with military precision. At one point near the end of the play I closed my eyes and winced in anticipation of a bone being broken. It was a moment of potential violence that was unexpected and it seemed so real.

3.) I had the pleasure of seeing Harvey Fierstein on stage twice this year - in A Catered Affair and last month, reprising his Tony-winning role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. When Harvey sings "Coney Island" at the end of A Catered Affair, suitcase in hand, ready to start a new phase in his life, it was so touching. And in Hairspray, I had a chance to see Harvey's wonderful comic timing. I just have to smile whenever I think of him jumping on the hot dog cart in "Welcome to the Sixties" or the hilarious duet with Wilbur Turnblad in "You're Timeless to Me." They were priceless moments.

4.) Brooks Ashmanskas is an adorable, teddy bear of a man. I loved him and Kate Baldwin as feuding coworkers who don't realize they're pen pals in She Loves Me at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. What a sweet, wonderful little musical. Baldwin has a great comic touch in "Vanilla Ice Cream" and I got choked up when she sang "Dear Friend," while waiting in a cafe to meet her pen pal. But I think my favorite moment was watching Ashmanskas, a truly expressive, physical actor, dance his way across a bare stage bathed in blue light while performing the title song.

5.) I remember as a kid watching Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals when they came on television - Oklahoma! and The King and I and above all, Cinderella with Lesley Ann Warren. But until I saw the revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center this spring, I had never seen a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on stage. From the opening strains of the overture, when the stage slid back to reveal a 30-piece orchestra, I was captivated by this production. There were many great moments with Kelli O'Hara, Paulo Szot and Matthew Morrison as the leads. I especially loved the lively staging of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." But really, it was all great.

6.) Seeing Patti LuPone as Mamma Rose in Gypsy was on my list of top theatrical moments of 2007. When the musical moved from the City Center Encores! series to Broadway, I saw Gypsy again. And once again, it makes my list of top theatre moments. This time, I want to mention Laura Benanti's performance. The moment when we first see Benanti transformed from gawky, plain-Jane adolescent Louise to glamorous, confident stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was stunning. Her hair is different, her clothes are obviously different, even her personality seems different. I could hardly believe she was the same person. Really, the brilliance of her Tony-winning performance just blew me away.

7.) I've written numerous times about my admiration for Daniel Breaker's performance in Passing Strange, especially the moment when he leaps across the stage in imitation of a big Broadway dance number. There's another scene that's stayed with me, too. When Breaker's character, Youth, is living in Berlin, he's made friends with a group of left-wing artists and activists. He fully expects that one of them will invite him home for Christmas. But they're not too keen about bringing a young black man to their small towns to meet the family. It's a painful moment when Youth realizes that there are limits to acceptance and friendship.

8.) I really enjoyed In the Heights, winner of the 2008 Tony for Best Musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda was great as bodega owner Usnavi, rapping his way through the opening number, featuring Andy Blankenbuehler's awesome choreography. But Mandy Gonzalez really won my heart as college student Nina, whose story is at the center of In the Heights. She returns to her Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City from Stanford feeling like a failure. I think her voice is beautiful and she's heartbreaking in "Breathe," when she sings about her guilt at having let down her family and her community.

9.) I though Laurence Fishburne was mesmerizing in Thurgood, as he took us through the life of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court. This was my first time seeing a one-person show on stage. Fishburne is a great storyteller as he goes through the details of Marshall's life and the fight to end school segregation in this county, culminating in the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. For me, he was such a commanding presence. I was in the third row, on the aisle, so when he sat down in a chair on stage at one point, he was literally right in front of me. I didn't dare take my eyes off of him - he was looking right at me, or at least that's what it felt like.

10.) The more I think about it, the more I like 13, Jason Robert Brown's musical about Evan Goldman, a Jewish kid who moves from New York City to Indiana after his parents get divorced. He's trying frantically to get the cool kids in his new school to come to his bar mitzvah. I loved the energetic young cast and the choreography and the rock 'n' roll score. At the end of the musical, in a very nice scene, we see Evan, played by Graham Phillips, 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 moment out, soft-pedaled the religious angle, but it didn't - to its credit.

11.) Just about any moment that involves dancing in the musical Billy Elliot is memorable. I loved the dream ballet between Billy, played by Trent Kowalik at the performance I saw, and an adult dancer, played by Stephen Hanna. I loved seeing Billy in the middle of all those tutu-clad little girls in "Shine" and the big scrum of kids, miners and police in "Solidarity." I loved a very tender and bittersweet embrace between Billy and his father, played by Gregory Jbara. And any moment with Haydn Gwynne, who plays Billy's dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, is wonderful. But the scene where Billy reads a letter from his dead mother is heartbreaking. Listening to it on the cast recording, I'm in tears.

12.) I can still picture Brian J. Smith as Brandon Hardy, a high school senior in the 1980s in Roberto Aguirre Sacasa's play Good Boys and True. At one point, Brandon angrily denies to his friend Justin (Christopher Abbott) that he's gay. He hurls vile, homophobic insults, taunting Justin that he'll have a better life, he'll make more money, be more successful, be happier, because he's not going to be gay. To me, it was a powerful moment not solely because of what Brandon does to Justin - although that's bad enough - but because it shows, in a very stark way, what Brandon is doing to himself out of fear.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Exit Jeremy Piven

Wow, a second actor I saw on my recent trip to New York has been forced to leave a show early. First, Christian Hoff pulls out of Pal Joey with a foot injury and is replaced by his understudy, Matthew Risch. Now, Jeremy Piven has left his role as Hollywood producer Bobby Gould in Speed-the-Plow because a high level of mercury in his system has made him sick.

According to a statement from the show's producers released today, "We have been advised by Jeremy Piven's medical representatives that he is seriously ill and is unable to fulfill his contractual obligation to Speed-the-Plow. Consequently, he has left the production ten weeks early."

Well this is live theatre, after all, and I do understand that people get sick. I certainly wish Piven a quick recovery. What I don't understand is this bizarre quote playwright David Mamet gave to Variety: "I talked to Jeremy on the phone, and he told me that he discovered that he had a very high level of mercury. So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer." Huh?

Speed-the-Plow continues at the Barrymore Theatre with Raul Esparza and Elisabeth Moss. Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz will play Gould from Dec. 23 to Jan. 11, followed by Academy Award nominee William H. Macy from Jan. 13-Feb. 22.

While I didn't love the play, I thought Esparza gave an amazing performance. If I could, I would definitely be interested in seeing it again with Butz or Macy. I feel sorry for Moss, of AMC's Mad Men, who's making her Broadway debut. The whole second scene is her character and Gould. Now, she'll have to get used to playing off two different actors.

So far, there's been some anger on the part of fans, judging from these comments on a New York Times message board. Several people said they had bought tickets to Speed-the-Plow as Christmas presents for spouses or made plans to see the play themselves solely because they were fans of Piven's from his role on HBO's Entourage.

I can certainly understand how they feel. Moss and Piven were the two main reasons I had for wanting to see Speed-the-Plow and I would have been very disappointed if they'd been out. (Even though, in the end, I enjoyed Esparza's performance much more. It was definitely the highlight for me.)

I've been extremely lucky (knock on wood) with nearly all the actors I've come to Broadway to see. The handful of times that I've had understudies, I thought they were great - including Ariana Grande in 13 and Saycon Sengbloh in The Color Purple.

Interestingly, the producers of Speed-the-Plow are going for established actors to replace Piven, rather than give the role to his understudy, Jordan Lage. (Who's playing the role for a few performances.) I guess that's simply a reflection of the fact that you almost always need a "name" in a play on Broadway.

There's a story in The New York Press by Dana Rossi about the actors who are understudies to celebrities on Broadway. "Let’s face it; we’re such a fame-obsessed culture that celebrity alone often draws people to theater in droves."

Rossi takes issue with fans who come just to see a star and questions why they're at the theatre in the first place. "It comes down to this: Why are you seeing this show? If it’s just to see Shirley Famouspants in a role anyone could play, maybe you belong at the venue where the performers are inside the big screen."

I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to see a play or musical because it features an actor you know from television or the movies. That's often the reason I'm interested in seeing a play. Whenever I go to New York, my coworkers want to know "who" I'm seeing that they might have heard about.

But honestly, the actors who end up impressing me the most are people like Eve Best, Raul Esparza, Hallie Foote, Gregory Jbara, Laura Benanti, the entire cast of August: Osage County. They're actors most people have probably never heard of unless they're theatre fans.

In some cases, I'd never heard of them before seeing them on stage. But they totally won me over and they've become the reason to see the show. And that's become part of the thrill - which actor will I see for the first time who'll really excite me?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My year of living theatrically - 2008

My year of living theatrically - 2008 edition - has drawn to a close. I saw 38 performances this year, eight more than in 2007. Among them were 35 plays and musicals, 1 opera, 1 concert and 1 Christmas spectacular.

There were so many terrific show-related moments, and I'll get to those later. But first, I want to mention some other ways in which this year has been memorable:

Oh, the places you'll go! I attended my very first opera, the poignant and lyrical Madama Butterfly, at the Metropolitan Opera. (And they really, really like me at the Met. They call, they write, they e-mail!) I saw the high-stepping Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I heard the smooth Scottish singer Euan Morton at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room. I traveled to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where I watched the premiere of the very appealing musical Little House on the Prairie and saw the Mississippi River for the very first time.

Making my list, checking it twice: I checked some more names off the list of Broadway houses I've visited. In a little over 18 months I've been in 25 of the 39 Broadway theatres. By the end of next spring I'll hopefully check off a few more, and I could well be into the single digits. But I still have some long-running shows to see on the Great White Way. That means someday in the not too distant future I could be down to Wicked, Jersey Boys, The Phantom of the Opera, The Little Mermaid, Chicago and Avenue Q if I want to complete the list. (Oops, I wasn't quite clear on this: I've seen Wicked on tour, just not on Broadway, so I'll be seeing it again to cross the Gershwin Theatre off my list!)

Stage door stories: I had many memorable encounters this year, including a delightful conversation with Rondi Reed a month before she won the Tony for August: Osage County. It was the culmination of quite a day. Standing there on the sidewalk for more than a half-hour, laughing and chatting with Ms. Reed until they actually shut off the marquee lights at the Music Box Theatre, was so much fun. What a great actress and what a genuinely warm and friendly person. I hope she's back on Broadway soon.

A TKT with a view: After 18 months of passing by a construction zone whenever I went to Broadway, I finally had a chance last month to see the newly refurbished Times Square TKTS booth. It's so much nicer now. I love the view from the top of the shiny red staircase. It looks like a great place to sit in nice weather and someday, I may even buy a half-price TKT there!

Getting to know you: Becoming a theatre fan has been fun and thrilling and it's been a way for me to start writing again. But it's also enabled me to make some new friends. I'm so glad we got together in March at Angus McIndoe's for our first bloggers brunch. Every time I've gone to New York this year I've had a chance to meet people I'd only known previously through their blogs and e-mail. Getting to know everyone been wonderful. Thank-you for making 2008 such a memorable year for me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Receptionist

Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

In Trinity Repertory Company's production of The Receptionist, we get an idea of just how mundane and routine that job can be: answering the phone, zealously guarding office supplies, gossiping with coworkers.

But things aren't what they seem at the drab and dreary Northeast Office of an unnamed concern. (Pay close attention to the prologue by Timothy Crowe, who plays the boss, Edward Raymond, and you'll get some idea.) Adam Bock's dark comedy is an attempt show what nefarious goings on can lie beneath the most ordinary settings.

This is my second time around with The Receptionist, so it's difficult for me to review the play as if I'd never seen it before. And it was a mixed bag - some things I liked better this time around, some things didn't work as well for me.

Seeing the show for a second time definitely helped make the plot more understandable. But it still seems to me like there's too much small talk in The Receptionist, too much waiting around for something to happen. When the tone switches from comedy to something more ominous, it comes kind of abruptly. In the end, the play remains kind of unsatisfying.

Also, honestly, I preferred the cast and some of the costume and set design choices in the production I saw last fall, at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

Okay, I know I'm starting to sound like a theatre snob - well, you know, when I saw it in New York. I know I'm supposed to judge each production on its own merits and really, I did go in with an open mind. The problem is, and I know this is unfair, I've already got a picture in my mind of what these characters should look like and sound like.

In the Trinity Rep production, Janice Duclos plays the title role of receptionist Beverly Wilkins and she's got her hands full. There's Lorraine, the flighty and flirtatious coworker, played by Angela Brazil; Martin Dart, a rather mysterious stranger from the Central Office, played by Timothy John Smith; and her mostly absent boss, Mr. Raymond, who seems to be harboring some qualms about his job.

Bock, who used to work in the theatre's marketing department, wrote the part with Duclos in mind, and it's
a great comic role. Duclos is very funny - she's got the office banter down pat, she's overly protective of pens and pencils as if the money for them came out of her own pocket and she's constantly dispensing advice, all the while coping with her own problems at home via a steady stream of personal phone calls.

But while everyone else around me was laughing and nodding their heads in recognition with Duclos' performance, I was thinking about Jayne Houdyshell, who played the role off-Broadway. She was truly inspired, more witty and satirical and totally spot-on. For me, she was the best part of the play. Duclos is very good but she simply couldn't make me forget what Houdyshell did with the role.

And something about Brazil just grated on me although, again, the audience seemed to love her. Brazil's Lorraine is excessively emotional and loud and over the top - a little too theatrical for me. I've seen Brazil give some fine performances but this one just rang false. Plus, William Lane's costume design - short, tight-fitting black skirt, lots of jewelry and a shimmery purple blouse - seemed wrong for this kind of office. (Although it did fit with Brazil's character.)

And in my humble opinion, set designer Eugene Lee has made Beverly's desk too high, so the audience can't see over it. Part of the fun off-Broadway was watching Beverly wipe down her workspace with disinfectant, seeing the pens and pencils and stapler and pads of Post-It notes. When you saw that desk, it really set the scene.

Except for me, director Curt Columbus (who's also Trinity Rep's artistic director) and the playwright, I doubt anyone who goes to see The Receptionist will have seen the New York production. So I realize that a lot of my criticism is moot.

There is a lot of humor and the subject is thought provoking. Someone seeing The Receptionist for the first time may enjoy it more than I did. I just wish Bock had given us a little more to chew on in terms of what this office really was all about.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Open mouth, insert foot

I wonder if Nancy Coyne regrets saying this to a New York Times reporter. I mean, the last thing New York City - and Broadway - need in the middle of a recession is to be seen as unfriendly to tourists. I'm sure she meant it tongue-in-cheek, but still!

“The last 15 years have been boom years for theater — I always expected the pendulum to swing, and I simply see this as a correction,” said Nancy Coyne, chairwoman of the theater advertising agency Serino Coyne. “The good news is that so many straight plays are now coming in the spring, and I think New Yorkers will come out for them once the tourists go away. We’re horrible snobs. We hate tourists from Cleveland.”

Just for the record, during all of my trips to New York City over the past 18 months, this tourist has found New Yorkers to be incredibly helpful and friendly. I've never detected a shred of hatred - just the opposite, people have gone out of their way to be nice. Although, I'm not from Cleveland.

The state of the stage

The National Endowment for the Arts has released its first report on nonprofit theatre in the United States and the findings are sobering, although they're hardly a revelation to anyone who's spent any time in a theatre audience.
  • The percentage of the U.S. adult population attending non-musical theater has declined from 13.5 percent (25 million people) in 1992 to 9.4 percent (21 million people) in 2008. The absolute size of the audience has declined by 16 percent since 1992.
  • The number of adults who have attended musical theater has grown since 1992, but remains largely constant as a percentage of the population.
  • Attendance trends do not seem primarily related to ticket prices. Statistical models predict that a 20 percent price hike in low-end subscription or single tickets will reduce total attendance by only 2 percent. These data suggest that other facts are likely affecting the demand for theater.
  • The number of nonprofit theaters in the United States has doubled over a 15-year period. In 2005, there were 1,982 nonprofit theaters with annual budgets of at least $75,000, up 100 percent from 991 in 1990.
  • Among the top ten states with the highest per capita concentration of theaters are Vermont, Alaska, Montana, Oregon, Connecticut, and Minnesota.
  • Although theaters continue to cluster in high-population states, the number of theaters in small and mid-sized population states has grown substantially. From 1990 to 2005, the sharpest growth rate occurred in Nevada, Arkansas, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Mississippi.
Even though there are more theatres today than there were 15 years ago, they apparently haven't had much success in attracting an audience, especially for plays. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans went to see nonmusical theatre this year. And the problem doesn't seem related solely to ticket prices.

Even if we weren't in a recession, I do think cost is a factor. I saw a play yesterday for $15 but I think even that's too much for people who are used to spending much less on a movie or are already paying for plenty of drama on television through their cable bill. And you'd have to spend far more to attend a touring production of a Broadway musical.

But a bigger factor is that we're simply not a culture of theatergoers anymore. I hardly know anyone, outside of my blogger friends, who goes to the theatre. Maybe, if I think of all of my friends, there's one or two couples who go semi-regularly and a few who might go to see a special musical if it comes on tour. As for the rest well, honestly, I don't know if they could be enticed at any price.

Can anything be done? Would better plays help or more marketing? Is American drama a lost art form or has it simply migrated over the past half-century to movies and television? Think about it - how many people can even name an American play written over the past 25 years? (Unless it was turned into a movie, of course.)

This is kind of like the discussion about soccer - plenty of kids grow up playing it in the United States but it's never translated into a big audience for the professional game. Plenty of kids get involved in theatre in high school or college, but it's never again going to be a form of mass entertainment in this country.

So while the NEA report is interesting, it's just a story we've all heard before. Maybe we should simply resign ourselves to being a niche and leave it at that.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

An early closing for Gypsy

I just read, via a Twitter from Broadway & Me, that Gypsy is closing Jan. 11. The last performance had been scheduled for March 1, but producer Roger Berlind told Broadway World that "due to these uncertain financial times" he and his partners made the difficult decision to shutter the musical early.

Last week, Gypsy was playing to 64 percent capacity at the St. James Theatre and with winter being a traditionally slow time on Broadway, the decision to close a couple months earlier than planned is understandable. Still, it's so sad.

I had the pleasure of seeing Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines twice - in July 2007 at City Center as part of Encores and in the spring on Broadway. I loved this production of Gypsy the first time I saw it, and I think it got even better the second time, with the three leads accompanied by a wonderful supporting cast and 25-piece orchestra on stage.

This was the first Gypsy I've ever seen on stage and it was a thrilling experience. I'll always remember the standing ovation we gave Patti at City Center after she finished "Everything's Coming Up Roses." I'd never been part of a standing ovation for a song before. I turned to the person next to me and said, "that was incredible." He responded, "Just wait."

LuPone was so fierce as Mamma Rose, watching Benanti's Louise transform from gawky teenager to elegant stripper was amazing and Gaines made a truly sympathetic and heartbreaking Herbie. Their Tony-winning performances are three of the best I've seen in my brief theatergoing career. Most likely, they'll be three of the best performances I'll ever see.

Yes, Billy's gotta fly

When I saw Billy Elliot, one of my favorite scenes was the dream ballet between Billy and an older version of himself, played by ballet dancer Stephen Hanna. I especially loved the moment when the younger Billy takes flight.

Well, in this morning's New York Times, Charles Isherwood writes an entire article about how much he dislikes Billy's flying. (Although he loves the scene up until that point.) He calls it a "cynical manipulation" and a "glib crowd-seducing trick" designed to appeal to children brought up on a diet of video games and action movies.

I disagree. I don't think there's anything cynical about it at all. It's a beautiful way of showing us the strong, graceful, athletic man that this scrawny little boy will become. The whole musical, after all, celebrates the joy of movement.

Like I wrote in my review, my jaw literally dropped at the moment when Billy flies. To me, it's saying that ballet may be the closest thing we have to taking flight. Yes, it's a special effect designed to elicit "oohs" and "ahhhs." But I found it visually stunning and magical and I loved it. (And I don't own any video games or particularly like action movies.)

Plus, is it any less manipulative when Billy reads a letter from his deceased mother? That really got my tear ducts working. And if we weren't manipulated, what would be the point? After all, isn't that what art is supposed to do - to get a reaction out of us, to manipulate our emotions?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Can Wolverine rescue the Oscars?

Three reasons why the multi-talented Australian actor Hugh Jackman has been picked to host the 81st annual Academy Awards, according to The Hollywood Reporter:

"The hope is clearly that Jackman can bring in both a younger audience (because of his X-Men roles), a female audience (because of his People-endorsed sex appeal) and can also revive the theatricality of the event (because of his song-and-dance cred evidenced when he hosted the Tonys)."

Here's what Oscars coproducer Laurence Mark had to say about Jackman, a 2004 Tony winner for Best Actor in a Musical for The Boy From Oz, possibly performing on the Feb. 22 telecast:

Would Jackman be doing a musical number himself? Mark hedged: "Let's just say that with Hugh, there'd be a good reason to do it. It's certainly extremely appealing. He's definitely not going to be doing a 10-minute comedy monologue."

I'm not a comic book fan but I really liked the X-Men movies, in which Jackman played the superhero Wolverine. If you want to see him without his facial hair and retractable claws, and hear him sing, check out Jackman's performance as Curley in the London revival of Oklahoma!, which is available on dvd.

And honestly, I think having an actor host the show will be a nice change from the comedians, whose jokes were getting a little stale anyway. Now I have to get out and see some movies.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rating the Critic-O-Meter

There's an interesting discussion going on regarding the Critic-O-Meter, a new theatre blog that summarizes the critical consensus regarding Broadway and off-Broadway productions and assigns each show a letter grade.

The blog is a project of Rob Weinert-Kendt of The Wicked Stage and Isaac Butler of Parabasis who wanted to create a theatre equivalent of the Web sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

Well, not everyone thinks this is such a great idea. In the L.A. Weekly, writer Steven Leigh Morris commends the pair for their passion but decries the cultural shorthand that he believes the Critic-O-Meter represents:

"Ours is a culture with a prevalent and public rush to judgment, to a letter grade or score, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down mentality that appears to be replacing the love of investigation, which comes from curiosity."

And Morris apparently finds the very notion of assigning a letter grade offensive:

"Teachers have been complaining for a decade that the test-scores results mandated by the No Child Left Behind program are an irrelevant reflection of a child, of his or her abilities and potential. A theater production, too, is a kind of child, intricate and multidimensional, born of a family history lodged in some cultural context. To assess a play with a grade is mildly insulting to the critic but deeply insulting to the creators."

I have to respectfully disagree. We do this all the time for other aspects of popular culture - movies, books, music, television. Stars or letter grades don't automatically shut off discussion. They're just clear, concise starting points in a world where we're short on time and bombarded with information.

From what I can see, the love of investigation is alive and well in our culture. The Internet may have its share of crackpots, haters and conspiracy theorists, but it's also home to passionate, knowledgeable and well-thought-out discussion on movies, books, music, television and theatre.

If anything, I believe a site like Critic-O-Meter can actually encourage discussion. It presents the whole range of choices - Broadway and off Broadway - in a convenient, familiar way. Information about theatre - especially plays - needs to be more accessible, more widespread. The more voices, the better.

When I was in New York last month, whenever I struck up a conversation with a fellow out-of-town theatergoer I always mentioned Gypsy and August: Osage County. Some people had heard of Gypsy but no one had heard of August: Osage County, winner of the Tony award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. When the movie comes out in a few years, then they'll know about it.

So if the blog does become a stop for people who are looking for some guidance, I think it could help rather than hurt. For some shows, like Wicked, the critics don't matter. But for others, maybe it'll give them a little boost.

And Critic-O-Meter doesn't just give a letter grade. It summarizes how critics in general felt about the show, gives a brief overview of each review and provides a link to the full piece. If you read a handful of them you'll get a pretty lively debate.

(Morris also points out that the site give equal weight to reviews from the New York Times and Theatermania but that doesn't bother me, as long as the critic can write well and make a compelling argument.)

Like it or not, this is the way popular culture gets judged. The question is: Do we have to treat theatre differently because plays - and the people who create them - are too fragile to exist in the rough-and-tumble world of the critical marketplace? I don't think so. That, I would argue, is truly offensive.