Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A trio of cast changes

Was it something I said?

Three shows made a major cast change in midstream during the Broadway season that just ended and what do they have in common? I saw all three of them before the unexpected departure of the performer in question.

First, hoofer Christian Hoff hurt his foot on Nov. 21 and withdrew from the musical Pal Joey while the Roundabout Theatre Company revival was still in previews.

Then, in mid-December, Jeremy Piven told the producers of Speed-the-Plow that he had to leave the revival of the David Mamet play because of a high level of mercury in his body, presumably caused by eating too much fish.

And yesterday, the producers of the musical Rock of Ages announced that Amy Spanger would be leaving for "personal reasons" after being out of the show on vocal rest since the Tony Awards in early June.

I know people get hurt and I'm sure performing eight times a week can be a strain on your vocal chords. I suppose it's not unheard of that an actor has to drop out. And sometimes cast changes are made before a show starts previews or in between an out-of-town tryout and Broadway.

But still, isn't three major cast changes during the season unusual? And what are the odds that I would have seen all of them, especially since Hoff wasn't in Pal Joey for all that long and Spanger has been in and out of Rock of Ages?

Next season, I hope everyone stays healthy.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Blogging on the Rhode to Fitness

There's (almost) nothing I love more than introducing people to the joy of blogging, so I'm thrilled that my friend Kathy Garmus has taken the plunge. Please check out her blog, Rhode to Fitness.

A little bit about Kathy: She's a lifelong fitness and outdoor enthusiast (that's her at left, enjoying one of her favorite activities). And she's studying for the American Council on Exercise personal trainer certification. Here's how she describes Rhode to Fitness:

"I'd like to think that my biggest credential is that I'm 50 (soon to be 51), and feel great. I'm as active and strong as ever, and more open to all the possibilities that life has to offer. I think I can bring a unique perspective to the discussion of fitness. So I plan to be here most days, serving up what I hope will be some nutritious food for thought with a Rhode Island flavor and a side of humor and fun."

Kathy's blog comes at a great time for me, since I'm going back to New York City in a couple of weeks. Crossing all of those avenues and walking up the stairs from all of those subway stations requires a lot of stamina. And it's a lot more enjoyable if you're in shape.

So welcome to the blogosphere, Kathy!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Goodbye to August on Broadway

As a tribute to this afternoon's final Broadway performance of August: Osage County, I wanted to list my favorite lines from Tracy Letts' play. Unfortunately, I can't find my copy. Someday I'd like to have enough bookshelves to display all of my books - but that day won't be today.

Instead, here's a Steppenwolf Theatre Company video with cast members Jeff Perry, Francis Guinan, Amy Morton and Mariann Mayberry, who talk about bringing a new play from Chicago to New York without any "movie stars."

You can find more videos on the Steppenwolf site, including all the Tony acceptance speeches from Letts, Deanna Dunagan, Rondi Reed, set designer Todd Rosenthal and director Anna D. Shapiro.

Also, the American Theatre Wing's Working in the Theatre program has a great hourlong video featuring a panel discussion with Morton, Perry and Reed.

And if you didn't get a chance to see the play on Broadway or in Chicago, you can catch up with it on tour. There'll be a different cast but the same memorable characters and witty, insightful dialog.

Finally, I can't say goodbye to August on Broadway without sharing Rondi Reed's Tony acceptance speech. I've talked with her twice and Reed, currently playing Madame Morrible in Wicked, is a genuinely warm and friendly person. Definitely a Gratuitous Violins favorite.

One of my favorite scenes happens early on, when her character, Mattie Fae Aiken, is sitting on the couch with Guinan, who plays her husband, Charlie. I was laughing hysterically. Like the great actors they are, they made their banter look so natural, so real.

When I met Reed at the stage door afterward, I mentioned that scene and she told me how much it helped that she and Guinan had known each other and worked together for years.

Frank Rich on Stonewall

I truly admire the way New York Times columnist Frank Rich continually reminds us that this country's work on civil rights is not yet complete.

Last month, he took the Obama administration to task over its failure to push for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act. Today, he has a column on the 40th anniversary of Stonewall and he's still holding the administration's feet to the fire.

(I love this line: "If the country needs any Defense of Marriage Act at this point, it would be to defend heterosexual marriage from the right-wing “family values” trinity of Sanford, Ensign and Vitter.")

Rich recalls how he was caught up in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s but never heard about the demonstrations that followed a police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969. Even if he had, he wonders whether he would have cared. After all, he didn't know anyone at his Ivy League university who was openly gay.

"It was typical of my generation, like others before and after, that the issue of gay civil rights wasn’t on our radar screen. Not least because gay people, fearful of harassment, violence and arrest, were often forced into the shadows."

I'm younger than Rich, but I've always been interested in the history of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights and antiwar movements. I read widely on those subjects when I was in college in the late '70s and early '80s. And I never remember reading anything about Stonewall. Like Rich, when I was in college, I didn't know anyone who was openly gay.

Well, things are, thankfully, different today. Frank Rich cares, and so do I.

My audience may not be as large as the Times' but I intend to keep writing, too. How could I not? How could I tell my friends who happen to be gay or lesbian - people I love and admire - that there are some rights they don't deserve, that our laws shouldn't protect them as much as they protect me, that they shouldn't be allowed to marry the person with whom they want to spend the rest of their life?

On Monday, Rich notes that President Obama will mark the Stonewall anniversary at the White House. And he repeats his disappointment in the administration, which I share. Congressional Democrats, too. I'm not letting you off the hook. Judging from this Times story, there's plenty of foot-dragging in the legislative branch.

One line in Rich's May column gave me pause, when he said that "changes aren’t coming as fast as many gay Americans would like." I noted that there are plenty of "straight Americans" who want equal rights extended to everyone in this country. It's important for our elected officials to know that this isn't a "gay issue."

Apparently, he's been reading my blog because this time, he gets my point:

"It’s a press cliché that “gay supporters” are disappointed with Obama, but we should all be. Gay Americans aren’t just another political special interest group. They are Americans who are actively discriminated against by federal laws."

"If the president is to properly honor the memory of Stonewall, he should get up to speed on what happened there 40 years ago, when courageous kids who had nothing, not even a public acknowledgment of their existence, stood up to make history happen in the least likely of places."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Women and playwrighting

So, I know I'm a bit late with this but I wanted to say something about the study by a Princeton University student on why female playwrights find it so difficult to get their work produced.

The study's author, Emily Glassberg Sands, found some validity to the argument that there simply are more male playwrights and they tend to be more prolific. She also says that female artistic directors and literary managers tend to be harder on female playwrights, which I guess feeds into the stereotype that we're always tougher on "our own."

Sands examined the 329 plays and musicals produced on Broadway over the past 10 years. She found that shows written by women have sold more tickets and tend to be more profitable overall. But they weren't kept running any longer than less-profitable plays written by men.

Here's an article from Salon discussing the report. One of the comments makes an interesting point that playwrights have to sell themselves and culturally, women have been discouraged from pushing themselves agressively. Blogger Monica Reida, at Fragments, offers some thoughts as a reader and writer of plays.

Over the past 2 1/2 years of theatergoing I've seen about 40 plays, only a handful of which have been written by women.

Three of those I saw at Trinity Repertory Company: Kathleen Tolan's Memory House, Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. (During that time, Trinity Rep has produced other plays by women that I didn't see.) In New York, I've seen Liz Flahive's From Up Here off-Broadway and Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage on Broadway.

(And one of my favorite musicals, Wicked, was written by a woman, Winnie Holzman, who also wrote the short-lived tv series My So-Called Life. Yeah, I know Wicked is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire. But there's way more Holzman than Maguire.)

I think part of the issue is that so few new plays of any kind get produced. Regional theatre companies tend to rely on the classics, on plays that have been theatre staples for the past hundred years or so, and we're talking about works written almost exclusively by men.

Since historically women have been the primary caregivers, we may simply have focused our literary ambitions elsewhere - toward novels, memoirs, poetry, short stories, which are far less of a collaborative enterprise.

Of course I'd like to see more plays by women, just as I'd like to see more plays by writers who have diverse backgrounds and life experiences, who deal with diverse subjects. I mean, I wouldn't want to see 80 plays about people exactly like me. That would get pretty tiresome.

And we should definitely do everything we can to encourage writers - male and female - to write for the theatre. I was glad to read earlier this year about Fidelity's FutureStage program, which gives students in New York City an introduction to acting, playwrighting and directing.

But I have to tell you, the one play that illuminates the lives of women like no other work I've seen was written by a man - Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which ends its Broadway run tomorrow.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The cherubic, charismatic Michael

Everyone loved the Jackson Five, especially the cherubic, charismatic Michael. The reasons for their out-of-the-box success boiled down to one simple truth: “The singing and the songs make us happy,” wrote soul-music biographer David Ritz. “They are moments of incandescent beauty-young, wildly optimistic.”
From The Jackson Five page at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

What a sad week - Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson all passing away. I remember seeing Jackson on tv with his brothers as a little kid, buying Thriller when it first came out, watching the videos on MTV back when MTV still played videos. Then seeing what he became over the past 25 years or so was so disturbing that I pretty much stopped paying attention.

I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York City earlier this month, and among the memorabilia on display is the jacket Michael Jackson wore during the taping of "We Are the World in 1985. You can watch the video here.

The Wall Street Journal posted a video of the Jackson Five's first appearance on American Bandstand here. I felt a little choked up watching it. And here's an appreciation from the New York Times' Jon Pareles.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Small theatres, big expenses

Last September I saw Follies at the Lyric Stage in Boston and enjoyed it very much. I don't remember how much my Follies ticket was - probably under $50. Unfortunately, I was only able to go to one show there but I would like to have seen more.

So of course I'm now on the Lyric's mailing list and I got this e-mail a few days ago letting me know about the upcoming season and asking for a donation:

How Your Gift Helps Support The Lyric Stage Company of Boston:

$15,000 The set for a major musical like Follies.
$6,000 Custom-made quick-change costumes for a comedy like The Mystery of Irma Vep.
$2,500 Specially-made Oval Office rug for the comedy November.
$1,100 One student's tuition for Lyric First Stage, summer theatre program for teens.
$600 Special effect lightning for The Mystery of Irma Vep.
$250 One stage lighting instrument.
$150 Two students' participation in Lyric First Curtain, theatre access for students.
$100 One pair of dance shoes for Follies.

I'm not sure if some of those figures, like the $15,000 for a set, include labor or if that's just for materials. But I'd never really thought before about how much a smallish theatre company like Lyric spends on things like sets and costumes.

So the e-mail was definitely a bit of an eye-opener for me and hopefully I'll be able to support them again with a visit.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I'd like some lyrics with my CD please

I picked up the new Broadway cast recording of Hair yesterday at Borders. It was on sale for $14.99 but I got it for free by using three of my Borders Rewards Visa coupons! (Okay, almost free. I had to pay $1.04.)

When I got home, I tore off the shrink wrap and started flipping through the booklet. Lots of pictures. Introductory essays from Diane Paulus, director of the Broadway revival; and Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater. But sadly, no song lyrics.

Personally, I find the absence of lyrics a disturbing trend. I first noticed it when I bought the cast recording of Curtains, produced by Manhattan Records and EMI, and it was very disappointing.

Yeah I know, most people get their music from iTunes and just download the booklet and cover art. I did go to a Web site and print the Curtains lyrics but it wasn't the same. They were too big and bulky to fit in the CD case.

A lot of people listen to their music on the go - in the car or on the subway or exercising or whatever. And obviously, reading while driving is not a good idea. But occasionally, I do listen to a CD at home, on my CD player, and I like to follow along. I even like to prop the booklet up on the treadmill while I'm at the gym.

I know there's a cost factor and cast recordings are a niche market to begin with. If you've got a single CD, there's only so much you can pack into the booklet. And maybe some people would rather have the photos and essays. Don't get me wrong, I like them.

But after producing a terrific 2-CD cast recording of In the Heights, with lyrics, I just wish that Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight could have accommodated them on the Hair CD, too.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spacey and Hepburn

Trinity Repertory Company raised more than $300,000 at a gala in Newport Saturday, where Kevin Spacey received the Pell Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts.

Kevin spoke about the vital role the arts play both in the economy and education. Apparently, he also did a hilarious impression of Bill Clinton.

Speaking of impressions, before I became a fan of Kevin's I had no idea he was so skilled at doing them.

Check out his appearance on Inside the Actors Studio, where he does, among others, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, and his mentor, Jack Lemmon. You can find it here. (I'd include it with this post but it seems to start playing automatically.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Audra McDonald, your lips are fabulous

I love this comment from the lovely Anne Hathaway, doing Shakespeare in Central Park through July 12, when the weather cooperates.

Hathaway, whose character in Twelfth Night is masquerading as a man, tells the women of The View what it's like to kiss costar Audra McDonald:

"We did a photo shoot yesterday and the photographer wanted us to kiss. So we kind of spent a good 15 minutes making out and I've never really focused on it before but Audra McDonald, your lips are fabulous. I mean they're just pillowy and soft. And I was just like, wow."

Here's Hathaway's appearance on The View:

And here's an article on the production from The New York Times:

“I have a double learning curve, not only because it’s my first time with Shakespeare but because this is my first major theatrical production,” Ms. Hathaway said. “So just staving off a nervous breakdown has been the main thing for me.”

Even though I'm not a big Shakespeare fan, the cast for this play really makes me wish I could make it to Twelfth Night. The whole Shakespeare in the Park experience sounds great - theatre under the stars, with a gentle summertime breeze.

I'll have to put it on my list of goals to accomplish next year.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Waiting for Godot

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

When I made plans for the Broadway shows I saw earlier this month, I figured Exit the King would be an absurdist appetizer before the main course - Waiting for Godot. (Pronounced God-oh here, but which I'd always pronounced Guh-doh, on the rare occasion when I needed to pronounce it at all.)

Written in French by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett in the late 1940s, Waiting for Godot is considered the masterpiece of theatre of the absurd. And according to at least one survey, conducted in 1998 by Britain's National Theater, it's the most significant English-language play of the 20th century.

Whoa, pretty heady stuff, no?

So I was looking forward to the Roundabout Theatre production, featuring Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane as the two forlorn tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for the mysterious Godot. (I just realized that Estragon is kind of an anagram for strange or stage. Hmmm.)

But knowing that theatre of the absurd often has very little plot and kind of nonsensical dialog, I was worried it might not make much sense. Sadly, my instincts were mostly correct. Maybe I'm not smart enough or patient enough but I have to admit that I just didn't get it.

Irwin and Lane are kind of funny being sad and hapless. I thought John Glover was terrific as the nearly mute slave, Lucky. And it was fun to see John Goodman, as Pozzo, his master.

In the end, though, neither Irwin nor Lane one made a very lasting impression on me. I didn't laugh very much and I didn't take away any deep meaning. It's not that I expected a physical comedy with lots of slapstick. But I didn't care about these two characters as much as I should have. Honestly, I was a little bored.

Like many absurdist plays, Waiting for Godot was written in the aftermath of the death and destruction of World War II and the advent of the Cold War. Santo Loquasto's set design - a stage filled with boulders and one scraggly tree, certainly conjures up some post-apocalyptic world.

I guess you could say that Vladimir and Estragon represent two sides of human nature - Vladimir is more philosophical, Estragon more concerned with the necessities of everyday life. And the fact that one day in their lives seems pretty much like the next could be taken as some kind of metaphor about the futility of human existence, like Camus' Myth of Sisyphus.

Or maybe it's about God, even though Beckett always denied that. I don't know. You can read a ton of theories here.

My favorite theory is that Beckett is teasing the audience, that there really is no profound, deeper meaning in Waiting for Godot, even though we continually look for one. Personally, I think the answer to what this play is about can be found in the very first word.

I was so interested in philosophy and theatre of the absurd when was younger but I never had a chance to see any of the plays. Now, I've seen two and I think that may be enough for quite some time. I'm still game for a challenging play but I like a plot, too.

So, after all these years, was Godot worth the wait? I'm kind of torn. Even though this production didn't engage me all that much, the play is considered a landmark. Now I've seen it - and I can move on. I'm done waiting for Godot.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Broadway in Boston 2009-2010

Broadway Across America finally released its Boston lineup for 2009-2010 this week. There are a few shows I really want to see that we're not getting in Providence, (which isn't part of BAA) including August: Osage County.

(But we are getting Xanadu in Providence, so life's a tradeoff. Sometime I would like to find out how these things work, how the producers decide which shows to put in which cities. For example, why is Little House on the Prairie bypassing the Northeast, except for the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey?)

Also coming to Boston are the national tours of In the Heights and Dreamgirls. They're both arriving in the winter, so let's hope it's a mild one.

I really enjoyed In the Heights on Broadway, the 2008 Tony winner for Best Musical. The story, set in a Latino neighborhood in New York City, is a joyous reminder of the vitality that immigrants bring to this country, along with their hopes and dreams. And it's got great music and choreography, too. In the Heights plays at the Opera House Jan. 12-24.

I've only seen the movie Dreamgirls, so I'm very interested in catching the stage version that tells the story of a Supremes-like singing group. The national tour is being launched at the Apollo Theater in November. Dreamgirls is playing at the Colonial Theatre Feb. 2-14.

Luckily, I won't have to worry about the weather by the time August: Osage County comes to the Colonial, from May 4-16. As I mentioned the other day, I only had a chance to see it once in New York so I'm looking forward to a return visit with the dysfunctional Weston family.

I can also recommend Fiddler on the Roof, which is coming to the Opera House from Nov. 3-15. It was a thrill to see the musical in Providence last February, with 73-year-old Chaim Topol as Tevye. Apparently his farewell tour is quite extensive. And he should keep doing it as long as he can - he's still terrific in the role.

There is one other musical coming to Boston that I'm kind of curious about: Cats, which will be at the Colonial April 13-18. I've never seen it and, truth be told, while I like cats I'm really much more of a dog person. If they ever make a musical called Dogs, I will be there.

Still, I'm kind of curious about a show that played 18 years on Broadway. And according to the Web site: "There's no better way to introduce your family to the wonders of live theater than with the magic, the mystery, the memory of CATS."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Welcome, Kevin Spacey

Breaking news via Twitter: Kevin Spacey has wrapped up work in Toronto on the movie Casino Jack and is on his way to Rhode Island - or maybe he's even here already!

When I met Kevin at the stage door after A Moon for the Misbegotten and told him he'd gotten me to come to my very first Broadway show he replied, "Well, welcome." I'm happy to extend a welcome in return to an actor who is talented, dedicated and so gracious to his fans.

Tomorrow night, the Oscar winner, Tony winner and artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre will receive the 2009 Pell Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts.

The gala event will be held at Pelican Ledge, in Newport, home of the late Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, and hosted by his widow, Nuala.

Pell sponsored the landmark legislation that established the National Endowments for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965, and chaired the Senate Education and Arts subcommittee.

Proceeds from the event benefit Providence's Trinity Repertory Company.

And Trinity Rep's 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."

Kevin has been a great champion of the performing arts, especially theatre. He's done so much to encourage young people to get involved, both as participants and audience members, through the Old Vic New Voices program and his production company, Trigger Street.

According to the invitation on Trinity Rep's Web site, dress is casual elegance - a description that fits Mr. Spacey to a T.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

August: Osage County closing in June

Sadly, Tracy Letts' Tony and Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County is closing June 28, after a total of 18 previews and 648 regular performances on Broadway.

I guess I shouldn't be too disappointed.

At a time when most Broadway plays have limited runs, August: Osage County, which began life at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, beat the odds. It was an original, contemporary American drama with an open-ended run. It will have played 18 previews and 648 regular performances since October 2007, first at the Imperial and then at the Music Box.

I still remember how excited I was about this play after reading Steve On Broadway's review of the Steppenwolf production, in August 2007, fittingly enough.

Luckily, one of my trips to Broadway coincided with the beginning of previews for August: Osage County. It was one of my most memorable theatre experiences. I'm so grateful I was able to see the play with its original cast, including the playwright's father, Dennis Letts, several months before he passed away.

What a wonderful ensemble, with witty, insightful dialog and characters and story that resonate. The 3 1/2 hours went by so quickly. I especially appreciate the way Tracy Letts illuminates the lives of women who find themselves pushed and pulled between the competing roles of wife, mother, daughter.

The national tour of August: Osage County kicks off in Denver in July, and if it comes near you, definitely go see it. I'm happy that it's coming to Boston's Colonial Theatre from May 4-16, 2010.

Estelle Parsons, who took over from Tony-winner Deanna Dunagan on Broadway, will play family matriarch Violet Weston. Although I never saw Parsons in the role, the Oscar-winner for Bonnie and Clyde is supposed to be terrific.

It's pretty amazing to think that come July, there won't be any American plays on Broadway. When Mary Stuart ends its limited run on Aug. 16, the only play on Broadway will be a very funny British import, The 39 Steps, until Sept. 15, when a revival of The Royal Family opens at the Friedman Theatre.

It's not that there aren't any great American plays in New York. I'm excited about seeing David Cromer's acclaimed production of Our Town, another transfer from the Windy City, at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village next month.

(One of the things that August: Osage County made me realize is that in addition to being hog butcher to the world, Chicago has a lot of great theatre and wonderful actors.)

And if you want to see a contemporary American drama on Broadway, well you'll have to wait until sometime in September, when Letts' Superior Donuts, another play that originated at Steppenwolf, begins previews. It's definitely on my list.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Words of wisdom from Carole and Oskar

I've been trying to catch up on my Playbill Radio podcasts. There are a lot I haven't listened to yet and at this point, some of the shows have opened and closed already. But these two are going strong:

I liked this quote from Carole Shelley, who plays the grandmother in Billy Elliot, as she politely declines to describe a particular scene in the musical:

"I don't really want to spoil it because I think it is one of the most stunningly choreographed pieces I have ever a., seen in my life and b., been a part of. So I would rather not say anything about it, if that's all right with you. I think surprises are the most exciting part of going to the theater."

You're right, Ms. Shelley, and I'm trying to be less spoilerish in my reviews! I know I do way too much research before I go to a show. (What can I say - I'm an information junkie. I was the type of kid who loved doing term papers.) Most of the time, knowing less is better.

Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, does engage in a little hyperbole here, but I think he makes a good point about Hair's place in American popular culture. Part of the reason, of course, is that entertainment has become more diffuse. I mean, do we even have a common pop culture anymore?

"Hair is on the one hand, one could make the case it's the classic American musical. It was the last American stage show that became the soundtrack for a generation. There's been no show on stage since Hair that actually the whole country knows. Phantom of the Opera? I don't think so."

Okay, Phantom's an easy target but I bet the Public and Mr. Eustis would be happy to have Hair run on Broadway for 21 years - and counting!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gay rights = human rights

This New York Times editorial is totally on the mark in taking the Obama administration to task for its downright offensive lack of commitment to equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans.

The Times criticizes a brief submitted by the Justice Department on a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act in which government lawyers used hurtful and just plain wrongheaded language, comparing gay relationships to incest and adults marrying children.

Personally, I'm offended at having the committed relationships of my friends, of people I love, referred to in such a derogatory manner. As someone who voted for Mr. Obama, this is very disappointing and unacceptable.

The editorial quotes a letter to the president from Joe Solomonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign: “I cannot overstate the pain that we feel as human beings and as families when we read an argument, presented in federal court, implying that our own marriages have no more constitutional standing than incestuous ones.”

The Times notes that the president has a lot of pressing issues on his plate. But it urges the administration to work toward the repeal of DOMA and "don't ask, don't tell" and for a federal law banning employment discrimination. "Busy calendars and political expediency are no excuse for making one group of Americans wait any longer for equal rights."

The president won in a landslide. He has a huge mandate for change. He should use it. It's time for him to acknowledge that this is a civil-rights issue, a human-rights issue, a measure of how committed we are as Americans to equal rights for everyone.

It's time for a Lyndon Johnson moment: this is not a "gay" issue, it's an American issue.

Theatre that's not for a 10 year old

Now I know why children end up at musicals that are way long for their attention span and way too mature to hold their interest.

I got an e-mail a few days ago from BosTix, which offers reduced-price tickets to Boston-area arts events, about the national tour of The Color Purple. The show begins its two-week stand at Boston's Citi Performing Arts Center tonight.

I was surprised that BosTix was advertising the musical as "appropriate for ages 10 and up." So I checked out the tour's Web site and found this advisory: "The Color Purple may be inappropriate for children 10 and under."

Maybe I'm out of touch with the maturity level of kids these days but I think 10 or 11 is way too young to see this show. It deals with some pretty somber themes - including child abuse, domestic violence and incest.

I enjoyed The Color Purple when I saw it on Broadway and I think it would be fine for a high school student - but not a 10-year-old. Plus, I just can't see it holding the attention of a child that young for 2 1/2 hours.

There are so many musicals that are much more appropriate for kids in that age range, and they'd enjoy them a whole lot more. I would rather have a child's introduction to the theatre be something that will amaze and enthrall them.

So if you really want to see The Color Purple, my advice is to get a babysitter and leave the 10-year-olds at home. The Lion King is coming to Boston in February. Wait and take them to that instead. I guarantee you they'll have a better time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A New England reading list

Hey, it's almost summer - time for a reading list! Thanks to my friend Dan at Media Nation for pointing me to The Boston Globe's interactive list of the 100 Essential New England Books (evah, as Dan says).

Some of these seem a little too recent to be on a list of the 100 essential anything and others have a tenuous connection to the region. (I guess if the author is from New England or went to school here, that counts.)

I mean, I know Dan Brown grew up in New Hampshire and his protagonist teaches at Harvard but there's really nothing very New Englandish about The Da Vinci Code! Others seem suspiciously more about New York than Boston. (Catcher in the Rye?)

The most-read books, according to votes from readers, are, not surprisingly, a pair of children's classics: Make Way for Ducklings and Charlotte's Web. I'm glad to see some love for one of my childhood favorites, too: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

There are lots of books on the list I've read and loved, lots I've been meaning to read. I'm happy Our Town is included. I'll be seeing David Cromer's acclaimed production next month at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York. (Kind of a neat synergy when you think about it: a Chicagoan's take on small-town New Hampshire comes to New York.)

The book on the list that most people want to read: David McCullough's John Adams. The Globe's number-one book is one I'm embarrassed to admit I've never read: Moby-Dick. Although I think I have a copy - somewhere.

Mary Stuart

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

I've always been an Anglophile and I loved The Six Wives of Henry VIII when the BBC series aired in the United States in the early 1970s. But I'm kind of rusty on my Tudor history, so I did some quick research on Wikipedia before seeing Mary Stuart on Broadway.

And honestly, I think I would have been a little lost without that homework. There are terrific performances but the first act of this three-hour play was a bit of a slog for me. I couldn't quite figure out what roles everyone in the supporting cast was playing, who was loyal to whom.

Still, if I was feeling dazed and confused for the first 90 minutes or so, the brilliance and clarity of the second act more than makes up for it.

Mary Stuart tells the story of the clash between the Protestant Elizabeth I of England, played with steely resolve by Harriet Walter, and the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, portrayed by a fiery and passionate Janet McTeer, whom Elizabeth has imprisoned and accused of trying to overthrow her.

This is a new adaptation, by British playwright Peter Oswald, of a work by 18th-century German writer Friedrich Schiller. It won great reviews it was staged at at London's Donmar Warehouse several years ago with Walter and McTeer.

The women, and McTeer's nurse, played by Maria Tucci, are dressed in Elizbethan (I think) garb, while all the male courtiers and advisers wear modern suits.

I've read that this was a financial decision but it also highlights the different worlds that the men and women in this play inhabit. At a time when power normally was wielded by men, it makes Elizabeth and Mary stand out even more.

While I found the first act slow going, the second act, which opens with a fictitious meeting between the two queens, carries such tremendous force and intensity that Mary Stuart redeemed itself.

Anthony Ward's costumes and scenic design, Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Paul Arditti's sound combine for a stunning effect. This is where the struggle between these cousins and bitter rivals crystallizes and it's riveting to watch.

The performances by McTeer and Walter are wonderful. What I love is how distinct they make their characters.

McTeer's Mary is impetuous and headstrong and sometimes acts without thinking. She's warm and inspires devotion. Walter's Queen Elizabeth is Mary's opposite. She thinks to the point of almost being unable to act, or maybe that's part of her act. She's calculating and cold. (When I met Walter afterward, I was surprised at how small she is - she seems so imposing on stage.)

It was pretty fascinating to watch both women interact with their male advisers, wondering whom they can trust. Elizabeth especially is very canny in the way she uses them. I liked John Benjamin Hickey as the conniving Earl of Leicester and Chandler Williams as Mortimer, who remains loyal to Mary.

Even in Act II, though, there were a few things that didn't quite work for me - a scene of comic relief that seemed out of place, for one. And I thought the play was going to end several times before it finally did.

I think it's a tribute to both actresses that I wasn't sure how I felt about Elizabeth and Mary. Was Mary unjustly imprisoned or getting what she deserved? Did Elizabeth act out of a fit of pique or did she really have no other choice if Mary and her followers posed a threat?

So I'm glad I saw Mary Stuart, just for the thrill of watching Walter and McTeer play two fierce queens.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

It's curtains for four shows

Today marks the final performance for two Broadway plays I loved, Joe Turner's Come and Gone and reasons to be pretty; along with a third I enjoyed very much, Exit the King.

I took a pass on the fourth show that's closing, Guys and Dolls. I really want to see this musical on stage someday but with lackluster reviews and a cast that didn't excite me well, I guess I'll have to wait for the next revival. According to Playbill, the producers are planning a national tour for 2010-2011, so maybe I'll catch up with it then.

Of course, like most Broadway plays these days, Joe Turner, produced by Lincoln Center Theater, and Exit the King were limited runs. Reasons to be pretty, a transfer from off-Broadway's MCC Theater with some cast changes, was open-ended.

Lincoln Center's Bernard Gersten told The New York Times that a presidential visit and a Tony for cast member Roger Robinson for Best Featured Actor in a Play weren't enough to justify an extension. “We ran the risk of extending and playing to half-empty houses."

It's too bad Exit the King couldn't have extended on the heels of Geoffrey Rush winning a Tony for Best Actor in a Play. As a dying monarch who isn't ready to leave life's stage he gives an amazing performance that's part comedy, part tragedy. Maybe Rush simply had other commitments that precluded it.

But I feel especially bad that August Wilson's Joe Turner and Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty failed to find bigger audiences. Even though they're very different they were two of the most enjoyable experiences I've had on Broadway this season and I thought both casts were wonderful.

Joe Turner is a compelling story about the lives of African-Americans at the beginning of the 2oth century that had me enthralled for close to three hours. Reasons to be pretty's story of four working-class twentysomethings had me laughing hysterically and cheering for its hero.

I'm not sure what, if anything, could have been done to draw more people to these plays.

I was looking at ibdb.com, and it seem as if the only August Wilson play to run for more than a year on Broadway was Fences, from 1987 to 1988. Most closed far short of a year. And while LaBute has a long list of off-Broadway credits, this was the first of his plays to make it to Broadway.

I know all the arguments - Broadway depends on tourists, who want to see musicals or stars they recognize from movies or tv. But that doesn't mean it's not sad all the same.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

There's nothing wrong with me!

One of my coworkers - I'll call him "Bill C." - directed my attention to a horror movie, Orphan, that opens next month and, coincidentally, has a character with the same first name as mine.

Right away, I'm thinking this is going to be a problem. I hate horror movies. I don't find anything remotely entertaining in being scared. Then I read about the plot. This is one that's definitely not going in the Netflix queue.

It was one thing when Madonna became interested in Jewish mysticism and started studying Kabbalah and picked "Esther" as her Hebrew name. That was kind of flattering.

The "Esther" in this movie is a 9-year-old who (Spoiler alert!) turns out not to be as angelic as she seemed when her new parents were smitten with her at the local orphanage. (I had no idea you could just head down to the local orphanage and pick out a kid!)

Apparently, Esther is some kind of demon child - as if you couldn't tell from those deep-set eyes, that creepy stare and the perfectly symmetrical pigtails.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, the tag line makes it perfectly clear: "There's something wrong with Esther." I want to make one thing perfectly clear: There's nothing wrong with me! Behind my sweet facade is - more sweetness, I swear!

And all joking aside, the movie has drawn the ire of advocates for adoption for a another tag line that was removed: "It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own." Really, Warner Bros., what were you thinking?

At least the studio admitted its error. "We made a mistake," said Scott Rowe, a company spokesman. "We get complaints about virtually every movie ... but in this case, we went back and said, 'You're right ... and we're sorry.'"

Friday, June 12, 2009

Joe Turner's Come and Gone

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

I planned to take in the Broadway revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone even before the president and first lady decided to drop by the Belasco Theatre for a date night. (Sadly, they beat me there by a week!)

I'd never seen a play by August Wilson and I figured that was a serious gap in my theatergoing experience. So I was excited when this production was announced.

And according to his widow, Constanza Romero, Joe Turner, the second in Wilson's Century Cycle chronicling the African-American experience, was the playwright's favorite of all his works. It was first produced on Broadway in 1988, with a cast that included L. Scott Caldwell (Rose, from Lost), Angela Bassett (in her first and only Broadway appearance. Come back!) and Delroy Lindo.

Still, by the time last Saturday night rolled around, I was feeling a bit of trepidation. I knew Joe Turner was nearly three hours long and it was my second show of the day - my fourth since Thursday. A little bit of theatre fatigue was setting in.

Well, I needn't have worried. I was totally swept up by this production from beginning to end. There is nothing like great storytelling and compelling characters to give a slightly weary theatergoer her second wind.

Joe Turner takes place in 1911 in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse operated by Seth and Bertha Holly, played with immense warmth by Ernie Hudson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson. They're a long-married couple who know each other's habits all too well.

Scenic designer Michael Yeargan has created a sparse but homey kitchen with a massive oak table in the center and a small, plant-filled garden lining the edge of the stage. The smokestacks of Pittsburgh's steel mills form a backdrop.

The Hollys' boardinghouse is a stopping point in the Great Migration of black people from the South to the North in the decades after the Civil War. They were seeking a better life, trying to find their place in a new world that was not very welcoming, in which prejudice and discrimination persisted.

Seth Holly, who grew up in the North, the son of a free black man, is one of the characters we get to know the best and Hudson, who I knew from the 1984 movie Ghost Busters, gives one of my favorite performances. Another character describes him as a "windbag" and he can be a bit disdainful of the attitudes of some of those new arrivals. But he's a good man and it's so sad to see how racism stands in the way of his ambitions.

Andre Holland made me smile with his sweet portrayal of Jeremy Furlow, one of those young ex-Southerners, an aspiring musician who fancies himself a ladies man. Roger Robinson gives a memorable, Tony-winning performance as Bynum Walker, an elderly rootworker who helps give the play a supernatural element.

And Chad L. Coleman is powerful as the mysterious and taciturn Herald Loomis, who has spent four years searching for his wife. His arrival at the boardinghouse one day with his shy young daughter, Zonia, played by Amari Rose Leigh, sets tumultuous events in motion.

One of the things I found so enthralling about Joe Turner's Come and Gone is the way Wilson packs so much of the African-American experience into the play. But he does it in a way that seems organic and natural, never forced. Bit by bit we learn more about his characters and their varied stories - where they come from, what their dreams are, the obstacles in their way.

There are also moments of great laughter and joy - like the West African juba dance in the first act and the way a neighbor boy, Reuben Scott, played by a very cute Michael Cummings, skips offstage after kissing Zonia.

Bartlett Sher, who helmed this Lincoln Center Theater production, has gotten quite a bit of attention, some of it negative, for being the first white director of an August Wilson play on Broadway.

I don't have the cultural background or theatre expertise to judge whether Sher's race made a difference. All I can say is, I was moved by the performances in Joe Turner's Come and Gone and I thought the story was riveting.

As I usually do, I went to the stage door afterward to get my Playbill signed. And I made sure to tell every cast member that this was my first time seeing an August Wilson play and I thought it was wonderful.

I was especially hoping to get Roger Robinson's signature because I knew he was favored to win the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play. The show ended at about 11 and he didn't emerge until nearly midnight. I'd almost given up hope but I was told he'd had visitors backstage and he was often the last one out.

Finally, he came and I told him how much I enjoyed myself, that this was my first August Wilson play. He said, "Well, I hope it won't be your last."

No, Mr. Robinson, it certainly won't be my last.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Exit the King

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

I think I was probably a senior in high school when I first became intrigued by theatre of the absurd.

I've always been interested in cultural history - the way artists and writers respond to events going on around them. And I knew that many of the plays in this genre had been written in the aftermath of the death and destruction of World War II and the advent of the Cold War.

Back then, the questions those works raised seemed so deep and profound. - What was the meaning of life? Was human existence ultimately futile? (I could go on but it would just be morbid and anyway, you get the idea.)

My philosophical ruminating was all so theoretical, though. In those days before cable, even before VCRs, I don't think I ever actually saw any theatre of the absurd - I'd just read the plays and analyses of the plays.

So imagine my shock three decades later when I settled into my seat at the Barrymore Theatre to watch Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King and found those theoretical questions, embodied in Geoffrey Rush's Tony-winning performance, suddenly seemed all too real. This was no longer an intellectual exercise.

Rush plays Berenger, a 400-year-old monarch who, we learn right at the beginning of the play, is dying along with his crumbling kingdom, represented so well by Dale Ferguson's set and scenic design. (Best prop - the tiny suit of armor statue. I want one!)

I know this sounds like a cliche but Rush made me laugh and he made me cry (or come close to it.) He gives an incredible comedic performance as he tries to stall, bargaining for more time, unwilling to accept the inevitable - a little bit slapstick, a little bit vaudeville. It's almost as if they invented the phrase tour de force to describe it, he's such a commanding presence in this role.

But his performance is way more than simply doing shtick. There's a point where he gets serious and talks about wondering where the years went, learning to accept his fate.

I know Rush and director Neil Armfield, who first staged this production in Australia, intended the audience to see some modern political parallels. But honestly it was the personal, not the political, that made the biggest impression on me.

As a dying monarch working his way through the stages of grief, Rush made me think of people I've loved who are gone. He made me think about how 30 years can pass almost in the blink of an eye. Isn't that really the most absurd thing of all - how quickly time passes. Watching him at that moment was almost unbearable. And I mean that as the highest compliment.

But I don't want to give the impression that Exit the King is a downer of a theatre experience. It's a very funny play.

I thought Andrea Martin was hilarious as Juliet, the royal family's long-suffering servant. Brian Hutchison was great, taking a small role as the palace guard and playing it to the hilt. Lauren Ambrose was good as Marie, the younger and more adoring of Berenger's two queens who fawns over him and wants to spare him the pain of realizing that he's dying. And I liked William Sadler as the doctor who tries to give the king a big dose of reality.

As the older Queen Marguerite, Susan Sarandon seemed to be playing things a little straighter than everyone else in the cast. To some extent, that was her role - she's tired of Berenger, has no sympathy for him and wants him to accept his fate and just go already. I'm not sure Sarandon hit quite the right note but I've enjoyed so many of her movies over the years that it was great seeing her onstage.

I think my biggest criticism is that Exit the King does drag a bit. By the end of Act II, I was getting a little squirmy and just wanted the king to finally make his exit. When he does, it's one final, stunning moment in Geoffrey Rush's amazing performance. I am so glad I had a chance to see it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

reasons to be pretty

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

Usually when I read about a new show coming to Broadway I'm at least a little bit intrigued. But when I heard about reasons to be pretty, by Neil LaBute, I was not interested. I knew that some of his work, like In the Company of Men, included male characters who treated women badly and I didn't think I'd enjoy his plays.

But several of my fellow bloggers and theatergoing friends who saw reasons to be pretty enjoyed it and I respect their opinons. On Saturday evening, several of us were gathered at Angus McIndoe for a preshow dinner and I mentioned that I didn't yet have a ticket to see anything the next day.

So everyone at the table (including me) wrote down on a slip of paper what they thought I should see. We put all the slips in a glass and I picked out reasons to be pretty. (Turns out it got two votes.)

On Sunday morning, I stood in the play line and bought my first half-price ticket at the TKTS booth - fourth row orchestra on the aisle - for reasons to be pretty at the Lyceum Theatre. And I am so glad I did. What a terrific play, what a terrific cast. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed it. I'm so sorry it's closing on Sunday.

Now, this story of four young, working-class characters might not be everyone's taste. There's a lot of profanity. I know we've become desensitized to the f-word. But realistically, do people swear that much in everyday life? And I couldn't quite believe a very public argument that occurs in a very public place.

Still, LaBute has some very witty lines. And while the behavior he depicts is pretty reprehensible and extreme at times, it rings true to life. Characters in this play say things that are hurtful but they're things I've definitely heard people say. There's also a lot of humor and I laughed - a lot.

Reasons to be pretty is often described as a play about our obsession with physical beauty. And an offhand remark that Thomas Sadoski's Greg makes about the looks of his girlfriend Steph (played by Marin Ireland) sets the action off in an explosive fashion that's both brutal and hilarious.

But rather than a story about physical beauty, I think of it more as Greg's coming-of-age story. Sadoski, who received a Tony nomination along with Ireland, is so adorable and likable as Greg, who moves giant cartons around a Costco-like warehouse at night to earn a living. Ireland is wonderful as a spitfire of a woman who's maybe acting irrationally but clearly feels hurt.

Rounding out the cast are Steven Pasquale as Kent, Greg's rougher-edged coworker; and Piper Perabo, as Carly, Kent's wife, who works with the men as a security guard. In real life, I'm sure Pasquale is a doll but he's so good playing a reprehensible character. And Perabo's Carly is very sweet - the kind of woman who makes you think, what is she doing with him?

But what I loved the most about reasons to be pretty is the way Greg evolves throughout the play. He begins to see his future and the people around him in a different way. He becomes more confident. And watching him change, come into his own, is a thrilling experience. Sadoski is so good - he wins your heart and you truly feel for him and cheer him on.

So I'm woman enough to admit that I was wrong about Neil LaBute - he's written a young, sensitive male character who treats women very well. I hope we get a sequel because I'd like to know what happens to Greg. I'm betting he'll make an excellent husband and father.