Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I'm shocked, shocked - well, not really

Boston Globe critic Louise Kennedy has an interesting article about whether theatre has lost its power to shock audiences.

Kennedy admits that "The more I hear that a play is full of startling revelations, daring honesty, fearless confrontations with hard truths, the more I dread what I'll be seeing onstage." (She's spoilerish about some of the plays she discusses, most notably David Harrower's Blackbird.)

So, what's the problem?

For one thing, Kennedy believes that theatre is trying too hard to compete with movies and television in terms of graphic imagery and turbo-charged plotting. But theatre is verbal, not visual.

"In moving away from the essence of drama - that is, the subtle and expert use of language and carefully developed action to illuminate human life - toward thrill-seeking and adrenaline jolts, playwrights give up their own most precious gifts."

I think Kennedy has a good point - that what sets theatre apart is the richness of the language. A lot of what I remember about plays or musicals are dialog or song lyrics that moved me.

Violence certainly still has the power to shock but that's because it's so visceral. There was one point in Black Watch, for example, when I really believed that someone's arm was going to be broken right in front of me, and I winced.

I guess it depends on how you define "shock." While I've seen plenty of surprises and unexpected plot twists, I'm not sure they rise to the level of "shocking." Still, I've had many emotional and compelling moments that have made me gasp or put a lump in my throat.

I don't think that's the fault of playwrights, though. We live in an age of information overload. What is left to shock us after we've seen almost every form of human frailty and depravity and interaction and family situation reported in real life?

But one of the comments on Kennedy's article did crack me up. Lou the Fig wrote, "What about Cats? I was shocked to learn that felines can talk, sing & dance."

Okay, maybe there's one thing left that can still shock us!

Monday, March 30, 2009

My Hair collection is growing

I'm really excited that the Broadway revival of Hair is getting a recording.

According to Playbill, the cast heads to the studio on April 6. There's no word yet when the Ghostlight CD will be released but apparently they're putting it on a fast track.

When it comes out, I will have five recordings of Hair. Here they are: the 1968 original Broadway cast, the 1970 Israeli recording in Hebrew, the 1979 movie soundtrack, the 2005 Actors' Fund benefit recording featuring an all-star cast of Broadway performers and the soon-to-be-released 2009 revival.

I hope that's not the actual cover art, though. Frankly, it's not very appealing. The original is a classic but I'm kind of partial to the Actors' Fund artwork.

I think that's the most I own of any musical. I have three versions of Sweeney Todd, three of Evita and two from lots of other shows - most of which I've acquired over the past two years. But five will definitely be a record!

Hair opens tomorrow night at the Hirschfeld Theatre. The original Broadway production opened on April 29, 1968. In his review for the New York Times, Clive Barnes alluded to some of the more controversial aspects of the musical:

"Since I have had a number of letters from people who have seen previews asking me to warn readers, and, in the urbanely quaint words of one correspondent, "Spell out what is happening on stage," this I had better do. Well, almost, for spell it out I cannot, for this remains a family newspaper. However, a great many four-letter words, such as "love," are used very freely."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Catching up on theatre TV

The only time I watch The View is when they have Broadway-related guests. Otherwise, I'm not really into the banter. But this week featured a great lineup. You can watch the interviews here.

On Thursday, the guest was Angela Lansbury, currently appearing as the medium Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. Miss Lansbury looked wonderful - so fit and full of energy. "I love being back on stage again," she said. "It gives me a tremendous lift and it's made me feel not my age - which you probably all know." I do, but I'm not going to tell.

Then today, Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon, the royal couple from Exit the King, made an appearance, walking into the studio looking appropriately regal in their floor-length robes. It was hilarious, and what a great way to promote the play. "We had to wear them today," Rush explained, "because Susan and I are both deeply method actors." Although Rush's crown did look like something they hand out at Burger King.

And Theater Talk took a road trip from New York to visit the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Since I made my first trip to the Guthrie in September, to see the Little House on the Prairie musical, it was neat to learn a little bit more about its history from artistic director Joe Dowling.

A highlight: Getting to see the backstage area where the sets and costumes are put together. This video shows how the Guthrie craftspeople made the individual stalks of wheat for the Little House on the Prairie set.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

When I lived in Israel, I knew a few people who had become more religious than their parents. In some cases, the Orthodox Judaism that they chose was different than the religion in which they had been raised. Sometimes their families were understanding and accommodating. Other times, they were hurt and bewildered.

So I was looking forward to seeing the Gamm Theatre's production of Grace, by Mick Gordon and A.C. Grayling. Gordon, a playwright, and Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, examine what happens when a son raised in a fervently nonreligious home decides to give up a law career and become an Anglican priest.

The story is told mostly in flashbacks by Grace Friedman, a professor of natural science, played by Wendy Overly. A firm atheist, even though she doesn't like the word, Grace is taking part in an experiment to determine the parts of the brain responsible for spiritual experiences.

Overly does a great job portraying Grace's shock and anger. She's very secure in her nonbelief and her son's decision is a personal affront. It's a rejection of her values to side with "the nutters," the the bigots, the people who blow up innocents in the name of God.

As her son, Tom, Kyle Blanchette is appealing and sincere. He wants to show that religion can have a tolerant, moderate face, telling his mother: "I don't provide cover for sexist, homophobic, bigoted people who put bombs on planes. I did that when I was a lawyer."

I know faith is a difficult thing to portray and there's that stereotype about British reserve, but I wish the playwrights had done a better job explaining what really moved Tom to become a priest. I never got a clear sense of why religion had become such an important part of his life.

Still, it's interesting to see how each person in Tom's life reacts to his newfound faith.

Grace's husband, Tony, played by Jim O'Brien, is a secular Jew who seems content to let his son follow his own path. Whatever conflict he feels is deflected with humor. Tom's girlfriend, Ruth, played by Karen Carpenter, is an agnostic who loves him but wonders how his new calling will affect their relationship.

But while Grace is about religion and its use or misuse in the world, it's also about the relationship between parents and children. What I liked best was the back-and-forth between a son who has made a choice and a mother who can't accept it.

Unfortunately, that kind of pointed verbal sparring between Grace and Tom doesn't happen often enough. While the issues are intriguing and the characters are memorable, I felt that too often, they sounded like they were making speeches.

Call me old-fashioned but I like a good, linear story and realistic, convincing dialog. For me, Grace was a little too philosophical, a little too academic.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Kevin Spacey on picking the best seats

Apparently, people are always asking artistic director Kevin Spacey for advice on the best seats at The Old Vic Theatre. He doesn't really give an answer but he does look great in this ad for American Airlines.

How a theatre season comes together

All right, my third post about Trinity Repertory Company's upcoming season. That's some kind of record. But I think this is interesting to theatergoers everywhere.

After reading about Trinity Rep's 2009-2010 lineup of plays (and one musical) I wondered how a company goes about deciding what to put on. Well, my question has been answered. The task falls to artistic director Curt Columbus and associate artistic director Craig Watson. Next year's theme is second chances. Here's some of what they had to say:

Twelfth Night
(This is Trinity Rep's annual selection for its education program, Project Discovery Plus, which alternates Shakespeare with classic American plays.)

Curt: "Thousands of students will see it and host our actors in their classroom workshops. I love what it has to say about second chances! The play fits our company extraordinarily well."

Craig: "It's Shakespeare's best comedy, the one I enjoy the most."

Dead Man's Cell Phone
Curt: "Our audiences loved The Clean House, and Sarah [Ruhl] is a Brown alumna and friend. It’s a great complement to Twelfth Night."

Craig: "Sarah’s work has such lyricism, which rhymes well with Shakespeare."

Craig: "It’s a musical that we can do well with our resident company and students. The second chances theme is strong in Cabaret, but in a very different sense."

Curt: "It’s all about the world in motion, and how we make our way in that world with courage."

Shooting Star
Craig: "Shooting Star is one of those plays which was chosen through serendipity. I was reading plays in the days before Christmas, and I read this new two-hander by Steven Dietz and rather liked it, I saw the possibilities."

Curt: "It’s a warmhearted, generous romantic comedy, with very human details.''

The Odd Couple

Curt: "It's just so good. You know, there were lots of raised eyebrows when we announced Our Town three years ago. People said “Oh, I’ve seen that before, in high school.” Maybe The Odd Couple gets even less respect because it’s a comedy."

Craig: "It’s a very thoughtful and well written play. It stands as an American classic, and we’re proud to do it. Particularly because it was NOT an obvious choice for us! It says something that a lot of people may not expect, having experienced only the TV show, several generations removed from the original story."

The Syringa Tree

Craig: "This piece was written by and has been largely performed by Pamela Gien, about her experience growing up under apartheid in South Africa, leaving, and returning to South Africa after liberation. It’s especially attractive to me because I spent a couple of years working in South Africa right after liberation in the mid-1990s. As a nation, it’s a model for change and second chances, and third and fourth chances, which tends to be overlooked on our continent. Aside from all that, it’s just a beautiful piece of writing."

Curt: "It’s a lovely complement to The Odd Couple, strangely enough. The Odd Couple is a really well-made play. The Syringa Tree is almost a poem, sometimes, monologue or choral piece. It resides in the imagination, whereas The Odd Couple provides all the mechanics, if you will, for the thing itself. It’s a terrific balance, a great way to end the season, as Craig says. A beautiful complement to Cabaret, because it speaks about a second chance, when a second chance seemed impossible."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stepping into Judy Garland's slippers

Last week I wrote about how I'd love to see Anne Hathaway in a musical - and now it looks like I'll get that chance. The Oscar nominee is going to play Judy Garland in movie and stage versions of the biography Get Happy, by Gerald Clarke.

The rights have been scooped up by The Weinstein Company, and Harvey Weinstein told Variety that Hathaway "will be a true class act in this challenging role." He said Clarke's biography "is particularly outstanding because of its exclusive details from her [Garland's] own writings."

I'm not quite sure how it will work. Will they make the movie first and release it simultaneously with a stage version? The only thing remotely resembling this is when Kevin Spacey did a concert tour singing Bobby Darin songs to promote his biopic Beyond the Sea.

I'm assuming Weinstein is planning a full stage production, which isn't a bad idea. You'll get twice the buzz. People who like Hathaway as Judy Garland in a movie will probably want to see her on stage as Garland. Didn't the movie of Chicago gave the Broadway show a boost?

Now, I think Anne Hathaway can do just about anything. Supposedly, she's always wanted to make a musical and this is her dream role. But one possible roadblock: according to the Hollywood Reporter, she has about eight inches on Garland, who was barely 5 feet tall.

Of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a lot taller than Truman Capote, too. And he did fine in the movie Capote, winning an Oscar for his performance. Although it's easier to mask that height difference in a movie than it is on stage.

Monday, March 23, 2009

13 gets a makeover

I really enjoyed the musical 13 when I saw it on Broadway in November. Sure, it was kind of gimmicky, with its all teenage cast and musicians.

But I thought it was a sweet story told with a lot of humor and poignancy about Evan Goldman, a Jewish teenager who moves from New York City to small-town Indiana on the eve of his bar mitzvah and struggles to fit in.

It's too bad the show couldn't have opened in the spring because I think it could have attracted tourists with teenagers visiting New York City this summer. Instead, it opened in the fall to lukewarm reviews and closed in January.

Anyway, now 13 will make its regional deubt at Theatre Under the Stars in Houston in September. According to Playbill, composer Jason Robert Brown and librettists Dan Elish and Robert Horn will test out a revised version at the French Woods Performing Arts Camp in Hancock, New York.

This is what puzzles me. Brown told Playbill that he and his collaborators "loved the show we put on Broadway, but felt that 13's future life would be well served by taking one more shot at certain sections of the piece, particularly those sections that might not make as much sense to an audience outside of New York City."

What is he talking about exactly? The only thing I could think of is, maybe they're toning down some of the Jewish references, the gentle pokes at the Gentiles and small-town America? I don't know.

I hope they're keeping the culture clash. To me, what really resonated was Evan's sense of feeling out of place and desperately wanting to fit in. We've all felt like a gefilte fish out of water at some point in our lives, haven't we?

I'm a fan of Brown's music and I hope that 13 has an afterlife in schools and regional theatres. But it would be interesting to know what wouldn't make sense to an audience outside New York City!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

John Cullum pulls double duty

I have a soft spot for John Cullum. We go way back - in the 1980s I saw him on stage in Syracuse, in Look Homeward, Angel. This was years before I saw him on Broadway in 110 in the Shade.

So I really enjoyed this interview Jeff Lunden from NPR did with the 79-year-old Cullum about what it's like to perform in two plays at once.

As patriarch Beverly Weston, Cullum has the opening scene in August: Osage County. The 3 1/2-hour play begins at 7:30. But he's only on stage at Broadway's Music Box Theatre for about 15 minutes. Then that's it, he's done. Well, not really.

Six days a week, the two-time Tony winner leaves the Music Box on West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, and takes a brisk 11-minute walk to the Harold Clurman Theatre on 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. (New York magazine has a timeline.)

He arrives at the off-Broadway venue roughly 20 minutes before curtain time for his second role of the evening. In Heroes, Cullum portrays one of three World War I veterans who dream of escaping from an old-soldiers home. (That's him on the right, with costars Jonathan Hogan and Ron Holgate.)

There's a nice interactive map showing Cullum's route and you can hear more from him at several points along the way. As he passes the Majestic Theatre, for example, he talks about auditioning for his first Broadway role, in Camelot, in 1960. "It was a hard drinking, wild partying extravagant musical."

I have to hand it to him. Cullum could have just done his August: Osage County bit and gone home. But he truly loves being on stage:

"More people see you in one episode of a big TV series than will ever see you [in] your entire career onstage," he says. "Something very strange about that. But look at how many actors come back to New York to recharge their batteries, so to speak. Or else they just want to do stuff onstage, because there's nothing quite like performing in front of a live audience. It's infectious."

Of course, Cullum isn't the only actor who's pulled double duty. In a 2006 interview with the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program, Cynthia Nixon talks about appearing simultaneously in Hurlyburly and The Real Thing for a span of about three months in 1984.

(And if the person from the American Theatre Wing who left a comment yesterday is reading this, I hope Downstage Center returns soon!)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

For your reading and viewing pleasure

I'm not usually into mob stories but I loved The Sopranos. It's so hard for me to separate James Gandolfini from Tony Soprano that I can't imagine what it would be like to see him on stage.

Gandolfini is currently starring on Broadway in God of Carnage and there's a good, short interview with him by John Heilpern in Vanity Fair. Part of the interview is conducted in Gandolfini's Toyota hybrid SUV, as the pair drive around Manhattan looking for a quiet spot for lunch on a Saturday.

In 1995, Gandolfini appeared on Broadway in a very short-lived production of On the Waterfront. He tells Heilpern that he was fired for "being too mouthy." In 1992, he was an understudy in A Streetcar Named Desire that also featured his Sopranos sister, Aida Turturro.

But he says he's had a lot of experience playing small roles in small theatres. “Standing in public in other people’s clothes, pretending to be someone else. It’s a strange way for a grown man to make a living.”

Then in Variety, Gordon Cox wonders whether nonmusicals can give Broadway a boost. I like this quote from Geoffrey Rush, who's starring in Eugene Ionesco's absurdist drama Exit the King, which Cox says some theatergoers might consider a "gloomy existentialist downer."

The youngest theatergoers might be the ones with the fewest preconceptions, Rush theorizes. "Anyone under 25 has no problem with Ionesco," he says. "They all grew up with Ren and Stimpy and SpongeBob SquarePants."

Okay, I never connected Ionesco with those two television shows but maybe I should check them out.

And finally, Sheila O'Malley, at The House Next Door, writes a very moving tribute to Natasha Richardson. She remembers what it was like to see her on Broadway in 1998 as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. "It was one of the most exciting nights of theater of my life."

It was really interesting to read how Richardson took a role that had been so inextricably linked to one actress - Liza Minnelli - and made it her own. O'Malley gives you a great sense of what it was like to see that memorable, Tony-winning performance.

Also, while she was doing Cabaret, Richardson took part in an American Theatre Wing Working in the Theatre panel discussion, which you can watch here. She also participated in an ATW panel in 2005 on interpreting Tennessee Williams and in a 1993 program on Anna Christie, with her soon-to-be husband, Liam Neeson, among others.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Theatre in a time of recession

A couple weeks ago, Isaac Butler at Parabasis wrote about regional theatres and how their choices don't exactly inspire him. The example he picked was Trinity Repertory Company's 2009-2010 season, which struck a nerve with me, since I'd just written about it.

And Trinity Rep's choice of The Odd Couple seemed to disappoint him the most.

"There is perhaps no safer play to do than The Odd Couple. It's so safe - having been immortalized in a pretty good movie, and having no angles into the material other than the obvious one - that there's actually no reason to produce it (unless you want to use it as a star vehicle, as the recent Broadway version did, a dubious reason to do a play if you ask me)."

Now, Butler sympathizes with artistic directors, he understands the challenges they face and he's not trying to single out Trinity Rep. I think he just wishes that theatres could be more adventurous instead of turning to what he calls "the rock solids." It's a well-thought-out piece and it engendered some discussion, including from me.

I guess I'm more excited about Trinity Rep's season than Butler or any of the other people who left comments. While some of these plays may seem like old hat, they're new to me, and probably to most of the audience. One thing I think we have to keep in mind is, a lot of theatergoing is local. People go to the theatre where they live.

To me, it's all about striking a balance. Sure, The Odd Couple is a known quantity, just like Cabaret, which opens the season in the fall. But I've never seen either of them on stage and I'll admit I'm looking forward to both of them. Other plays, by Steven Dietz, Sarah Ruhl and Pam Gien, will be new to me - and probably to most of my fellow theatergoers.

I don't think there's anything wrong with including plays or musicals that you think will fill seats, especially in difficult economic times. I've seen shows at Trinity Rep, like Our Town a few years ago, that I guess you could place in the not-very-daring category. But it was my first time seeing this classic American play and I thought it was very compelling.

And it's not like the theatre hasn't tackled difficult topics or hasn't tried to be relevant. In 2006, Trinity Rep commissioned a play called Boots on the Ground, which used oral histories to tell the story of the impact of the Iraq war on Rhode Island.

In announcing the upcoming season, artistic director Curt Columbus said, “We wanted a season that people would have fun with – giving us all a second chance, a second wind, with music and laughter."

You know, I have to agree. Not everything has to have a message, not everything has to be edgy. Sometimes it's okay to simply sit back and be entertained.

Hopefully, there'll be occasions over the next season when I'll be at the theatre and feel choked up or moved in some way. But by spring 2010, I may really just need to laugh. And Felix and Oscar may be just the ticket.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Opening night for West Side Story

The Broadway revival of West Side Story opens tonight, at the Palace Theatre.

Here's part of what New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson had to say about the original production, which opened on Sept. 26, 1957 and ran for 732 performances:

"Gang warfare is the material of West Side Story, which opened at the Winter Garden last evening, and very little of the hideousness has been left out. But the author, composer and ballet designer are creative artists. Pooling imagination and virtuosity, they have written a profoundly moving show that is as ugly as the city jungles and also pathetic, tender and forgiving."

Of composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins, he wrote:

"Using music and movement they have given [Arthur Laurents'] story passion and depth and some glimpses of unattainable glory. They have pitched into it with personal conviction as well as the skill of accomplished craftsmen."

While Atkinson mentions other members of the cast, he reserves his highest praise for the performances of Larry Kert as Tony and Carol Lawrence as Maria:

"Their balcony scene on the firescape of a dreary tenement is tender and affecting. From that moment on, West Side Story is an incandescent piece of work that finds odd bits of beauty amid the rubbish of the streets."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Travels with Fred and Hank

I can't resist a good travel story or a good dog story.

One of my favorite books is Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck's account of a cross-country trip he made in 1960, accompanied by his French standard poodle.

This one is about Fred and Hank, two very photogenic beagles traveling across America with their best friends/owners, Jim and Joan Brady. Jim used to work for The Washington Post and handles the writing. Joan takes most of the pictures.

The foursome are in New Orleans, where they celebrated St. Patrick's Day, and Fred and Hank went a little wild with the funny hats. I definitely need to bookmark this. Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the tip.

I'm looking forward to the movie, because you know there'll be one - and then, the musical!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New York magazine on Arthur Laurents

I guess everyone will have their favorite parts of New York magazine writer Jesse Green's article on the irascible 91-year-old Arthur Laurents.

Laurents comes across as both fearsome and vulnerable. Mary Rodgers Guettel declined to be interviewed, saying "Call me back when he's dead." There's also this tender side that I wasn't expecting, mostly when Laurents talks about his partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher, who died of lung cancer in 2006.

But this bit, about casting for the Broadway revival of West Side Story, I found among the most interesting. (And this is from Green, not Laurents.)

"The cast would be younger, and the Puerto Ricans, if not Puerto Rican, at least Hispanic. (This wasn’t always easy; Josefina Scaglione, the 21-year-old Argentine who plays Maria, was tracked down on YouTube.)"

I understand that perhaps he wanted a young, fresh face. But Green makes it sound as if Laurents was almost desperate. Thank God for YouTube. Otherwise, well I don't know what they would have done. Because, you know, young Hispanic actors and actresses are not easy to find!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

When I lived in Connecticut, I always got a chuckle reading about a certain St. Patrick's Day tradition in the city of New Haven.

To mark the occasion, the state representative, an African-American man, would present a giant green bagel from New Haven-based Lender's Bagels to the mayor, an Italian-American.

Let's go over that again: the black state representative, the Italian mayor and the Jewish bagel-maker come together to honor the patron saint of Ireland. Only in American politics!

Happy St. Patrick's Day, and may all your bagels be green.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The versatile Anne Hathaway

I just finished watching Rachel Getting Married. Wow, I love Anne Hathaway. I know she's had parts in serious movies before, but I still think of her as sweet and innocent and princess-y, like she was in The Devil Wears Prada or The Princess Diaries.

In Rachel Getting Married, she plays a drug addict who gets a pass from rehab to attend her sister's wedding. Hathaway is beautiful, but she looks so pale and drawn here. Her character is defensive and angry and generally irritating but never in a way that's over the top. It's a terrific performance and she deserved her Oscar nomination.

Anyway, Nathaniel at the Film Experience asked his readers to weigh in on their dream cast for the movie version of Wicked, when it finally gets made. And Hathaway's name came up quite often for the role of Elphaba.

Yeah, I know, we can play this casting game endlessly. By the time the movie gets made, they'll probably go for someone younger and more hip with the kids.

Still, I can dream, can't I? Here's taste of Hathaway's singing, from a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 in honor of Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday.

Big Theatre flexes its muscle

Okay, maybe "Big Theatre" is an exaggeration and maybe I just don't know how things work in the world of licensing agreements. But both of these stories seem so unfair:


Dario Fo is a Nobel Prize-winning Italian playwright. Last week, his representatives withdrew permission for a Live Arts, a small theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia, to mount a production of his play Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

The reason they gave was a pending Broadway engagement, although there's been no official announcement.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist did have a run on Broadway, a 1984 production that included Jonathan Pryce, Bill Irwin and Patti LuPone. It closed after 20 performances.

“This is a heartbreaking development for us,” said Live Arts Artistic and Executive Director John Gibson. The play was scheduled to run April 3-25. Live Arts is searching for alternative programming but the theatre does not have a full production to replace it.

Act II

Thunder & Lightning Ensemble, a small theatre company in Chicago, got permission to put on Bob Glaudini's comedy Jack Goes Boating. Unfortunately, the contract with the Samuel French Agency contained a stipulation prohibiting the theatre from inviting the press to review it.

Kris Vire, from Time Out Chicago and the Storefront Rebellion blog, contacted the French Agency. "A rep explained that they agreed to allow a production on the no-reviews condition in hopes of securing a larger production later."

As a result, Vire says, the 35-seat theatre "is stuck with a production it can’t promote through traditional means, and no press clippings they can use when applying for grants."

Although, as some of the comments noted, the contract is between the French Agency and the theatre. There's nothing to prevent Vire, or anyone else, from buying a ticket and writing a review. Jack Goes Boating runs through April 4.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Another blogging milestone

This is my 500th post, so it's time for a blog tuneup.

Hard to believe that 18 months ago I wondered whether I'd have anything to say. The limitless capacity of cyberspace has allowed me to blather on for as long as I want. Too long, really.

If you've stuck with me, thank-you. I'll try to make posts 501-1,000 shorter and snappier, be less obsessive about linking, maybe use more photos and video.

Of course, it's much more difficult to write short than it is to write long. So I'll just stop here for now.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Steve Martin: Serious about free speech

Actor and comedian Steve Martin has come to the aid of high school students in LaGrande, Oregon, after the school withdrew its permission for them to perform his 1993 play Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Apparently, some parents were concerned over the play's content - specifically sexual references and profanity - and its setting in a bar. At a school board meeting, they expressed concern that the content would preclude them from coming to see it.

That prompted a great retort from teacher and director Kevin Cahill, who noted that the meeting drew a bigger crowd than school plays. “Let’s be honest here. You have not been coming (to the plays),’’ Cahill said.

Good for you, Mr. Cahill! Let's hope whatever noncontroversial show you put on next draws a sellout crowd.

Now I'll admit I've never read Picasso at the Lapin Agile, so I don't know how appropriate or inappropriate it is for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds. But here's Martin's description from a letter he wrote to the LaGrande Observer:

"Focusing on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and Picasso’s master painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the play attempts to explain, in a light-hearted way, the similarity of the creative process involved in great leaps of imagination in art and science. Pablo Picasso, as a historical figure, does not come gift-wrapped for the sensitive. He lived as he painted, fully sexual and fully daring, and in the play he is chastised by a sage bartendress for his cavalier behavior toward women."

It's a fair letter. Martin says he understands why some parents might object to some of the dialog being uttered by teenagers. Still, he believes that the play can be an uplifting experience.

"I do believe that the spirit of the play and its endorsement of the arts and sciences are appropriate for young eyes and minds." Seeing it "may help them to understand the potency, power and beauty of the arts and sciences."

As a result, Martin offered to pay for a nonprofit, off-campus production, "so that individuals, outside the jurisdiction of the school board but within the guarantees of freedom of expression provided by the Constitution of the United States, can determine whether they will or will not see the play, even if they are under 18."

So LaGrande residents, and anyone else, can see the students' production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile at Eastern Oregon University, May 16-18. Sadly, Cahill says that Martin won't be able to attend.

But never fear: "His presence will be palpable even if he can't come," Cahill tells Entertainment Weekly. "We will leave a seat open to him in the middle of the front row."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Looking back on A Raisin in the Sun

It was the play, wrote then-New York Times drama critic Frank Rich in 1983, that "changed American theater forever." Fifty years ago this week - March 11, 1959 - A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway.

The Great White Way's first drama by a black woman, Lorraine Hansberry; and the first with a black director, Lloyd Richards, debuted after only one preview at the Barrymore Theatre, and closed at the Belasco on June 25, 1960, after a total of 530 performances.

In his review for the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called the story, about a working-class black family on the South Side of Chicago, an honest, illuminating work that is "likely to destroy the complacency of any one who sees it."

He had high praise for the entire cast, many of whom I know from their later work in movies and television: Ruby Dee as Ruth, Diana Sands as Beneatha, Louis Gossett Jr. as George Murchison, Ivan Dixon as Joseph Asagai, and a very young Glynn Turman as Travis.

But Atkinson singled out Sidney Poitier's portrayal of Walter Lee Younger and Claudia McNeil as his mother, Lena Younger.

"As the matriarch, Claudia McNeil gives a heroic performance. Although the character is simple, Miss McNeil gives it nobility of spirit."

"Mr. Poitier is a remarkable actor with enormous power that is always under control. Cast as the restless son, he vividly communicates the tumult of a highstrung young man. He is as eloquent when he has nothing to say as when he has a pungent line to speak."

Seeing the original production as a teenager was electrifying, remembers San Francisco Chronicle theatre critic Robert Hurwitt in his anniversary appreciation.

"As a high school senior already involved in the civil rights movement, I found the play an unprecedented mainstream depiction of the social and economic constraints on urban black families and a stereotype-smashing portrayal of a diversity of black ideas and aspirations."

Harvard University Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls his first encounter with the play, thorough the 1961 film, in which nearly the entire Broadway cast reprised their stage roles. (At top is a still from the movie, with Dee and Poitier.)

He writes about how contemporary the message seems. "The tension between Walter’s anxious yearning and Mama’s careful planning sums up the crisis among our people today."

Gates interviewed Ruby Dee, who reflects on A Raisin in the Sun 50 years later. It was interesting to hear her thoughts about why Lena, not Walter Lee, became the center of the play for audiences. And she talks about what it was like to see the 2004 Broadway revival.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A new award for Kevin's shelf

This is my week for Trinity Rep news.

Oscar winner, Tony winner, artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in London and Gratuitous Violins favorite Kevin Spacey will accept the 2009 Pell Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts on June 20 in Newport.

Tickets are $500 and $1,000, so I won't be attending. But since I've already met Kevin and gotten his autograph, I'm not too disappointed. I figure he'll be so busy with the big donors that evening, he won't have much time for small talk anyway.

The event is a major fundraiser for Trinity Rep and artistic director Curt Columbus says Kevin "is a natural choice to receive this award because of his commitment to the live theater, the medium of film, and good works around the globe. He is a great director, actor, artistic director, and humanitarian."

This is definitely a well-deserved honor. Kevin has talked often about his love for the theatre, like in this interview:

“You get to come in every day and experiment and then you get a chance to get up every night and work on a different part of your game. I just happen to love the thrill of that - the high-wire act of it and the ritual of it. I love the ritual of coming into the theatre every night and working with the same people, creating a family, because everyone’s up for it.”

And he'll be in esteemed company. Previous honorees have included Jason Robards, Arthur Miller, Beverly Sills, Stephen Sondheim, Toni Morrison, Robert Redford, Maurice Sendak, Jane Alexander, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Chita Rivera and Olympia Dukakis.

Trinity Rep's new season: second chances

I love this time of year, when regional theatres announce their shows for the upcoming season. I can only imagine how difficult it must be in this economy to put together a mix of crowd-pleasers and new works that you hope will draw an audience.

Trinity Repertory Company unveiled it's 2009-2010 lineup this week. The theme for the season, according to artistic director Curt Columbus and associate director Craig Watson, is second chances.

Here's what they have to say:

“Starting over and taking up the challenge is something we’re all facing, regardless of ideology,” Watson says. “We wanted a season that people would have fun with – giving us all a second chance, a second wind, with music and laughter,” adds Columbus.

Trinity Rep doesn't usually tackle a lot of musicals, so I'm really looking forward to Kander and Ebb's classic Cabaret. And The Odd Couple, wow. I've seen so many of the movies made from Neil Simon's plays but I've never had a chance to see one on stage. In fact, I only know either of those shows from their film and television incarnations.

I saw Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House a couple years ago and really enjoyed it. She has a good ear for witty dialog and creates some great, quirky characters. I'm hoping Dead Man's Cell Phone will be another insightful look at modern life.

I have to admit that I've never heard of Shooting Star or its playwright, Steven Deitz. But I do love romantic comedies. Likewise, I'm not familiar with Pamela Gien, but the Syringa Tree sounds like a very moving personal story.

As for Twelfth Night, well, after seeing a few of Shakespeare's tragedies in a row, it'll be nice change of pace.

Here's the lineup: (And of course, A Christmas Carol is returning, from Nov. 20 to Dec. 27.)

Cabaret book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
September 11 – October 11 in the Chace Theater
Berlin, 1931: music, money, and love are there for the taking. Cliff seeks inspiration for his novel. He finds it in Sally Bowles, the Kit Kat Klub’s chanteuse, who charms him into sharing his apartment. The emcee has not one but two ladies to keep him company. The landlady’s found new love with the grocer. Yet outside the cabaret the world is changing: what's in store for Sally and her friends? Cabaret celebrates the indomitable human spirit.

Shooting Star by Steven Dietz
October 16 – November 22 in the Dowling Theater
A young man and woman fell in love in college, and promised each other they’d change the world. Twenty years later, they meet unexpectedly in a snow-bound airport. Sharing stories deep into the night, they discover who they’ve become as they recall who they were. When morning comes, all flights are cleared for departure – what’s the final destination for these two? The author of God’s Country and Lonely Planet gives us that rare thing: a truly smart romantic comedy.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
January 29 – March 7 in the Chace Theater
Shipwrecked, orphaned, separated from her twin brother, disguised as a boy in a hostile country – when Viola thinks things can’t get worse, she falls for her new boss, the Duke. He pines for Olivia, who’s sworn off men – till she met Viola’s male alter-ego. Spurned suitors, servants with delusions of grandeur, and Viola’s big, big love for the Duke – it’s a giddy mess that’ll put someone in the madhouse. Shakespeare’s meditation on love and identity is one of his most nuanced – and funniest – comedies.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl
February 19 – March 28 in the Dowling Theater
Why doesn’t he answer that phone?! Jean picks it up, and finds herself holding his legacy in her hand, along with the phone. Think about it: when we leave our bodies, do we live on in our cell phones, iPods, GPS’s, and PDA’s? Do these indispensable tools, these grown-up toys, hold the secrets to the afterlife? From the author of The Clean House, another whimsical comedy about life, death, and love in these modern times – and the connections, real and virtual, holding them together.

The Odd Couple by Neil Simon
April 9 – May 9 in the Chace Theater
Oscar’s wife has left him. Alone in his big apartment on Riverside Drive, his slovenly ways run happily amok. Then, Felix’s wife kicks him out. Concerned about his poker buddy, Oscar takes Felix in, but there’s a problem: Felix is a neat-freak, and his compulsive cleanliness drives Oscar to distraction. What will these woefully, wonderfully mismatched roommates learn from each other? Can they stay together, or is their living situation hopeless? Hilarity ensues in Neil Simon’s beloved touchstone of American comedy.

The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien
April 30 – May 30 in the Dowling Theater
Growing up under Apartheid, six-year-old Lizzie confronts rules she cannot understand. Why must her nanny keep her daughter hidden? Among twenty-eight characters capturing four generations, she paints an evocative portrait of the abiding love between two families – one black, one white. History’s shocking events unravel, mingled with the resonant rites of passage all families share. As Lizzie comes of age, we experience her sacrifice and liberation, and the bonds which cannot be broken.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Secret Rapture

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

I'm a hopeless information junkie and usually when I go to the theatre, I know way too much about what I'm about to see.

But this time, I didn't know very much about David Hare's The Secret Rapture, at Trinity Repertory Company, other than it was set in the 1980s, in Margaret Thatcher's England, and revolved around two sisters dealing with the aftermath of their father's death.

The sisters, Marion and Isobel, are polar opposites. Marion, played by Phyllis Kay, is a junior environment minister in Thatcher's Conservative government. She's blunt, unsentimental, all business. Isobel, a graphic designer played by Rachael Warren, is softer, compassionate, an idealist where Marion is a hard-headed realist.

Their stepmother, Katherine, is played by Anne Scurria with a vaguely northern accent, which I guess is supposed to highlight the class differences between them. Where Marion and Isobel are polished, educated and speak like the Royal Family, Katherine is brassy, unstable and an alcoholic. Even though I think Katherine is supposed to be played by a much younger woman, Scurria is terrific.

Rounding out the cast are Fred Warren Jr. as Marion's husband Tom, who tries to combine business with his born-again Christianity; Stephen Thorne as Irwin, Isobel's possessive boyfriend and partner in her design firm; and Patricia Lynn as Rhonda, Marion's flirtatious assistant.

The play moves pretty briskly through the first act, as the sisters bury their father, then try to figure out what to do with their demanding stepmother, who clearly can't take care of herself. Out of pity and a sense of obligation, Isobel gives Katherine a job. It's a decision that will have ramifications for her and for everyone else.

Hare, better known today for his screenplays for The Reader and The Hours, wrote The Secret Rapture in 1988. In an introduction, Trinity's artistic director, Curt Columbus, who also directed the play, calls it his "response to the political and social climate of that time, to a perceived sense that 'greed is good' had won out over good deeds."

One of the questions I think Hare asks is: Does a good person stand a chance?

Clearly Isobel, the "good" character, is the center of the play. She's an almost saintly figure who does her best to help everyone, no matter what the personal cost. Her role model is her father, a man who never made much money as a bookseller but was generous and admired. But she's up against a self-centered society that considers getting ahead the most important value.

The one criticism I have is that Hare paints Isobel with a broad brush. She's so innocent and easily manipulated by just about everyone else. Some people are that way, I guess. I wanted her to show some backbone, though. I mean, it's one thing to be compassionate and another thing to let people walk all over you. Right?

Still, there were parts of the play that definitely rang true, especially the way Isobel is persuaded to make decisions about her business that may not be in her best interest. I could definitely hear echoes of today's financial crisis, where so many people have been convinced to overextend themselves.

I have to admit that I left the theatre a little bewildered. Some things happen in Act II that I didn't expect at all. But the more I thought about it, the more it all began to fit together. And believe me, this is a story that you will leave the theatre thinking about.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Break a leg, Steve

If you look at the lists on the right side of this blog you'll see the names of all the plays and musicals I've attended in the past couple of years. Without a doubt, my enthusiasm for the theatre started when I found Steve on Broadway.

As I've written before, I came upon Steve's blog in November 2006, when I was searching for information about A Moon for the Misbegotten. I sent him an e-mail and his reply was so gracious. He was excited for me and wanted to help make my first trip to Broadway a memorable one. He did and it was.

Now that Steve on Broadway has gone into blog semi-retirement, I'll miss reading him every day. He's had a great run - nearly three years - that would be the envy of most shows on the Great White Way.

And there's always the possibility of a revival or a special theatrical event. Steve's promised to post occasionally, if there's a headline he wants to write about or a personal experience he wants to share. He may also post capsule reviews of shows he's seen. And I hope he does!

Until then, browse through his archive. You'll find a passionate and knowledgeable voice, humor and wit, a fierce commitment to freedom of expression and an incredible generosity of spirit. Of all the posts he's written, this one is among my favorites.

I am so grateful for the gift of Steve's time - how he always finds a few minutes in his busy day to answer my e-mail, the hours I've spent with him and the love of his life at the theatre, sharing a meal, walking around New York City and staying as a guest in their home.

Steve, you've made me an enthusiastic theatergoer, you encouraged me to start my blog and most importantly, you remain a treasured friend and brother. Thank-you for welcoming me into your life at a time when I needed some welcoming.

As you take a well-deserved breather and move on to other pursuits, break a leg. Know that you have a permanent place on my blogroll and in my heart.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Stepping into Violet's slippers

So Phylicia Rashad is taking over the role of acerbic, pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston in the Broadway production of August: Osage County starting May 26. She'll replace Estelle Parsons, who will be part of the Tony and Pulitzer-winner's national tour this summer.

I only know Rashad from The Cosby Show and A Raisin in the Sun on television. I can't say whether this is an inspired move on the part of the producers or a misguided piece of stunt casting.

And I know the audience might find it difficult to suspend disbelief having a black actress on stage with white children and a white sister. It might make August: Osage County seem primarily about race when it's not about that at all. (Update: Ok, there is a Native American character and it is partly about race. I've only seen the play once and that was 18 months ago, so I'll admit I've forgotten Violet's racially charged dialog.)

Still, I do find the prospect of an African-American Violet Weston intriguing. And Rashad is a veteran stage actress, winner of a Tony for her portrayal of Lena Younger in the Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun.

Over the past couple of years, I've seen quite a bit of colorblind and nontraditional casting. Trinity Repertory Company has a tradition of doing it, so I've seen plays with women in roles that have been written for men and African-American actors playing historical figures who were white.

On Broadway, I saw Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade and she was wonderful. The fact that white actors played her father and one of her brothers didn't bother me at all. Maybe because it was a musical or the story, involving a mysterious stranger, had a fantasy quality, but I thought the colorblind casting worked.

With August: Osage County, the aspects of Tracy Letts' play that were the most memorable were the ones about family: the relationships between parents and children, between husband and wife, and among siblings. What makes this family interesting is their history - the secrets they keep, the things that bind them together and tear them apart.

When it works, nontraditional, colorblind casting offers an opportunity for actors and the audience to stretch themselves. Whether it'll work in this case, I don't know. But if Rashad can pull it off, more power to her.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A new age of Aquarius

It's finally Hair! (I know, that was pretty lame. But I couldn't resist.)

The Broadway revival of the American Tribal Love Rock Musical begins previews tonight at the Hirschfeld Theatre, on the heels of a widely praised production in Central Park last summer. Opening night is March 31.

Earlier in the week, the cast performed for group ticket brokers. You can watch "Aquarius" here. You can also listen to four songs from the show: "Aquarius," "Hair," "Let the Sunshine In" and "Good Morning Starshine."

Even though the musical is more than 40 years old and its hippy, trippy, anti-Vietnam War, free love message might seem a little dated, the producers are clearly doing their best to tap into the current zeitgeist:

"Just in time to usher in the dawning of a new age in America, the Public Theater's joyous production of Hair comes to Broadway. A celebration of life, a love letter to freedom, and a passionate cry for hope and change, Hair features some of the greatest songs ever written for the stage."

Hope and change? That's so 2008!

And maybe some of the greatest songs ever written for the stage is a bit of hyperbole but I do love the score by Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot. I don't know the lyrics to many songs by heart but I probably know more of the words to the songs in Hair than any other musical:

When the moon is in the seventh house
and Jupiter aligns with Mars

then peace will guide the planets
and love will steer the stars.

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

I wrote that from memory, honest. Singing along from the audience is frowned upon, right? No, I don't have my ticket yet but hope is what it's all about.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Remembering Horton Foote

This is so sad. Playwright Horton Foote, one of America's "living literary wonders" in the words of former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich, died yesterday at age 92 in Hartford, Conn.

He had been adapting his nine-play Orphans' Home Cycle into three productions that will be presented by Hartford Stage Company and the Signature Theatre next fall.

While I've enjoyed Foote's movie work, until last fall I'd never seen one of his plays on stage. I'm so happy I took in his family saga Dividing the Estate, featuring his daughter Hallie Foote, when the Lincoln Center Theater production was on Broadway in November.

You know, sometimes you just want to sit back and be entertained - and I was, tremendously so. I laughed, the characters were memorable and the situations the family finds itself in rang true to life. I enjoyed the entire cast, including Elizabeth Ashley, Gerald McRaney, Penny Fuller and Devon Abner. But I especially loved Hallie Foote's performance.

While he started out wanting to be an actor, Foote's acclaim came from his writing - for movies, television and the stage. He won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play The Young Man from Atlanta and an Emmy in 1997 for a television adaptation of Old Man, a story by William Faulkner.

But it's his film work that probably garnered Foote the most public recognition. He received 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.

The Times obituary says that Foote "depicted the way ordinary people shoulder the ordinary burdens of life, finding drama in the resilience by which they carry on in the face of change, economic hardship, disappointment, loss and death."

Like many of his plays, Dividing the Estate was set in the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, a place not unlike the community near Houston where Foote grew up and where his father ran a clothing store. I'm sure many of the characters he included in his plays were people he knew from childhood, too. In 2003, Foote delivered a lecture at Baylor University on "Writing with a sense of place," which you can watch here.

After seeing Dividing the Estate, I waited with a few other hardy fans outside the stage door of the Booth Theatre. Hallie Foote and the rest of the cast were very gracious about talking to us and signing autographs on a blustery fall afternoon. I'm so glad I had a chance to tell her how much I loved her performance and how much I enjoyed her father's work. He was a great storyteller.

Hallie Foote, one of his four children, is currently performing in the Hartford Stage production of To Kill a Mockingbird. According to the Hartford Courant, she went on last night as the adult Scout Finch. "He was a wonderful father and a fine man, but I can hear him say 'Get to the theater, darling.' ''

Horton Foote is survived by four children: daughters Hallie and Daisy, a playwright; sons Walter, a lawyer and Horton Jr., an actor; and two grandchildren. In his honor, Broadway marquees will dim tonight at 8 p.m. for one minute.

His family asks that donations in his memory be made to one of his artistic homes: the Goodman Theatre in Chicago
, Lincoln Center, Signature Theatre Company and off-Broadway's Primary Stages.