Friday, July 31, 2009

Blithe Spirit

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

The final performance of Blithe Spirit on Broadway occurred while I was in New York, so I didn't have a chance to write my review. But for the sake of blog posterity I thought I'd mention a few things about it anyway.

Written by Noel Coward and first produced in London's West End in 1941, Blithe Spirit centers around novelist Charles Condomine, who has a seance conducted at his home as research for a book. The spirit of his deceased first wife, which only he can see, is summoned, much to the dismay of Charles and his current wife.

Rupert Everett played Charles and Jayne Atkinson was his wife Ruth. I'll admit I thought Atkinson seemed too old for the part - before I realized she and Everett were so close in age! Maybe it had something to do with her hairstyle. Christine Ebersole was the flirtatious Elvira. And Susan Louise O'Connor made me laugh as Edith, the Condomines' timid maid.

This was the second production of Blithe Spirit I've seen and I had the same reaction both times: I enjoyed it but it's not one of my favorite plays - just a little too upper crust and well-mannered, a little stilted and creaky. The novelty of Elvira upsetting everything wore off after awhile. I don't know, maybe I'm simply not a big Noel Coward fan.

Still, what made the experience memorable and thrilling was a chance to see Angela Lansbury portray the wacky medium Madame Arcati, in the role that won her a fifth Tony award.

It's pretty remarkable - I've only been a regular Broadway theatergoer since 2007 and in that time, I've had two chances to see Lansbury. I was enthralled watching her and Marian Seldes in Deuce, where they played two retired tennis pros looking back on their career.

And now, I've had a chance to see some of her remarkable comic timing, which I love so much when I watch her Mrs. Lovett on the Sweeney Todd dvd. It's those comic touches as she moved around on stage that brought Blithe Spirit to life.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Young Frankenstein tour is cast

A few developments since I wrote about the Providence Performing Arts Center's 2009-2010 season:

Roger Bart and Shuler Hensley will be reprising their Broadway roles for the national tour of the musical Young Frankenstein, which kicks off in Providence Sept. 29 and runs through Oct. 4.

I was kind of surprised by this announcement, since Broadway tours are normally recast. And normally, I'd be excited that a show is coming to Providence with part of its original cast. Sadly, not this time.

Bart, probably best known as the murderous pharmacist on Desperate Housewives, plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who travels to Transylvania after inheriting the family castle. Hensley is the monster he brings to life.

Unfortunately, I wasn't a big fan of Young Frankenstein on Broadway or Bart's performance. I loved the 1974 Mel Brooks movie and the way it so cleverly spoofed the horror genre. But the musical was a disappointment. While it is a pretty faithful scene-by-scene, joke-by-joke retelling, I didn't find it nearly as clever or funny. Here's my review.

I'm more excited about a new addition to the schedule. Rent is returning to PPAC from Nov. 17-22. What's that you say, another Rent tour? Wasn't it just in Providence like a year ago? Yes, in January 2008, and here's my review.

But this time it features Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, who starred as Mark and Roger in the Broadway production. My friend and fellow blogger Chris Caggiano from Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals saw the show in Boston and you can read his review.

Finally, as previously announced, the musical Jersey Boys makes its Providence debut next spring, running from May 12 - June 6. The tour is currently in Boston and while I don't know whether it'll have the same cast in Providence, here's Chris' review.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The 39 Steps

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

It's been nearly two years since I saw and raved about The 39 Steps at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, during it's pre-Broadway warm-up.

I was so enthusiastic in an e-mail to Steve on Broadway that he encouraged me, as he'd done many times before, to start a blog. I'd always declined, thinking I didn't have anything to say, but this time I took the plunge. And my review became the first-ever Gratuitous Violins post.

So naturally, I've always had a soft spot for this plucky little British comedy. As the play moved from its limited Roundabout Theatre Company engagement to an open-ended run, I've followed its fortunes and always hoped that someday, I'd have a chance to revisit it on Broadway.

Well during my last trip I had a free Sunday afternoon and at about 20 minutes before curtain time, I walked up to the TKTS booth in Times Square to buy a half-price ticket. I'm so glad I did because The 39 Steps is just as funny and witty and inventive as I remembered it from Boston.

The story, adapted by Patrick Barlow, is an absolutely faithful and hilarious retelling of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 black and white film about a man who finds himself caught up in an international spy ring. And it includes many clever shoutouts to the master of suspense.

Sean Mahon plays Richard Hannay, a suave, self-assured 1930s-type hero. And the lovely Jill Paice (from Curtains!) handles all the female roles, including a secret agent and a woman who gets involved with Hannay quite against her will.

Through some very quick changes, two other actors - Arnie Burton, who was in the show in Boston, and at my performance, Cameron Folmar, play all of the other characters - lots of them. And they are terrific. They play a big role in making The 39 Steps so much fun to watch.

One of the things I love about The 39 Steps is that it's so theatrical - with only four actors, minimal props and no fancy special effects, it relies a great deal on the imagination of the audience. I love how it does so much with so little. It's one of the most unique shows I've seen.

And not only does it re-create the Hitchcock movie, it re-creates the style and feel of the movie. It's like seeing a 1930s thriller on stage, only with a playful yet respectful nudge and a wink that you don't get from the original.

The show won two Tony awards, for Mic Pool's sound design and Kevin Adams' lighting. The first time, I was straining a bit to hear from the back of the orchestra. But in the 589-seat Helen Hayes Theatre, I could hear everything and I was really impressed with the range of sounds Pool has to create and how much they contributed to my enjoyment of the play.

In my earlier review, I questioned whether you'd get as much out of The 39 Steps if you hadn't seen the movie. But I think it does hold up well on its own. The couple sitting next to me hadn't seen the movie and they were laughing just as hard as I was.

There's always so much new to see on Broadway, not to mention off-Broadway, that I rarely get a chance to see a show I loved for the second time. I'm so glad I had that chance with The 39 Steps. And, if I ever have the opportunity, I'd even see it a third time.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

9 to 5

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

Before I saw 9 to 5, I knew that New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley had written a pretty scathing review. After seeing it, I went back and reread what he wrote - he called 9 to 5 a "gaudy, empty musical."

I know that theatre fans can disagree and those passionate debates/arguments make the discussion interesting. But wow, did we see the same show?

I enjoyed 9 to 5 tremendously - it made me laugh and I think the story would resonate with anyone - male or female - who's ever felt unappreciated or mistreated on the job or passed over because they weren't "one of the boys."

Now, it's been years since I've seen the 1980 movie 9 to 5, - in fact, I probably haven't watched it since 1980. So I don't know how closely Patricia Resnick's book about three women trying to get the goods on their sexist boss hews to her screenplay but I'm guessing it's pretty close.

I loved Allison Janney as Violet Newstead, the sharp office manager who keeps things running but never gets credit for it. While I've seen her in a few movie roles, I only watched The West Wing a couple of times, so this really was my first introduction to the four-time Emmy winner and I thought she was terrific.

Stephanie J. Block is funny as the timid Judy Bernly, who's nervous about reentering the work force after a messy divorce. As the well-endowed and outgoing Doralee Rhodes, Megan Hilty is doing a Dolly Parton impression - but it's a darn fine Dolly Parton impression and I liked it.

And Marc Kudisch is great as the unscrupulous, womanizing boss Franklin Hart Jr. It must be a physically demanding role, too, because Hart spends much of the show in some pretty uncomfortable circumstances but Kudisch handles it well.

Speaking of Dolly Parton, I really enjoyed her score. Of course the title song, written for the movie, is great and I'm not sure there's anything else that's quite as memorable and catchy. But I liked Janney's big number, "One of the Boys," and the three women in their Act I finale, "Shine Like the Sun."

The one thing that disappointed me a bit was Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography. I admired his Tony-winning work for In the Heights, which was so vibrant and exciting. But here, it just seemed a bit generic, nothing special.

For me, movie-to-musical adaptations have been a mixed bag. Some, like Hairspray, I think are brilliant and some, like Young Frankenstein, have left me sitting there wondering what everyone else found so amusing.

Others are in the middle - maybe not groundbreaking but thoroughly enjoyable. And for me, 9 to 5 is in that category. I had a great seat - third row on the aisle, left orchestra. I wanted to sit back and have fun - and I did.

Sadly, 9 to 5 will close Sept. 6 but the producers are planning a tour beginning in 2010.

Monday, July 27, 2009

West Side Story

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

A promotional photo for West Side Story perfectly illustrates one of the things I love about the current Broadway revival - the gang of Jets in midair, knees bent, seemingly defying gravity. Oh, those leaping, pirouetting chorus boys!

In fact, there is so much I loved about this show.

I loved watching Jerome Robbins' acrobatic, ballet-like choreography, wonderfully reproduced by Joey McKneely. After seeing Fiddler on the Roof earlier this year and now West Side Story, I'm totally in awe of Robbins' work.

As if that weren't enough, there's the gorgeous, instantly recognizable score by Leonard Bernstein, with poignant lyrics from Stephen Sondeim in songs like "Somewhere," "One Hand, One Heart" and "Tonight."

Arthur Laurents' book so effectively turns Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers into a story about rival New York City gangs the Jets and the Sharks - and the prejudice faced by the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Josefina Scaglione, a 21-year-old Argentinian opera singer, is lovely as Maria, a young woman newly arrived from Puerto Rico, eager and appealing. Tony winner Karen Olivo gives a great performance as Anita. The girlfriend of Maria's brother Bernardo (George Akram), she's a wise and strong Latina woman and so much fun to watch in "America."

On the other hand, I've liked Matt Cavenaugh in other roles but here, he seems a little too clean cut as Tony, the Polish-American former Jet who spots Maria at a dance. He and Scaglione were sweet together as lovers but I had trouble imagining that he'd ever been in a gang or would ever do anything remotely violent.

Still, I think this revival does a good job of evoking the turf battle between the Jets, led by Cody Green's Riff, and the Sharks, led by Akram's Bernardo. Okay, maybe they don't all seem like gang members but Curtis Holbrook was scarily effective as Action, one of the Jets. There's one scene where Anita ventures into the Jets' territory that's truly horrifying.

But for me, the use of some Spanish dialog and lyrics in two of the songs, translated by In the Heights composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, didn't work. They ended up being distracting and I don't really think they added anything to the experience of watching the show.

It didn't matter as much to me in "I Feel Pretty" because that's obviously a comical song and it was kind of nice to hear Scaglione sing in her native language. But in "A Boy Like That," an emotional scene between Maria and Anita, I felt like I was missing something important. Plus, no offense to Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I wanted to hear Stephen Sondheim's lyrics!

True, the English translations were printed in the Playbill but I wonder how many people read them beforehand and even if they did, remembered them. Maybe super-titles would have helped, or a mix of English and Spanish so that you'd get the gist of what the song was about.

I guess the point was to accentuate the feeling of estrangement on the part of the Puerto Rican characters, of being strangers in a strange land. Laurents told New York magazine that "the idea was to equalize the gangs" by giving the Sharks their own language.

I think in West Side Story it's important to understand what the Puerto Rican characters are up against as they make new lives for themselves in New York City - and that comes through so clearly. I don't think the Spanish was necessary.

Still, sitting in the Palace Theatre, I definitely got a sense of why West Side Story, first produced on Broadway in 1957, is such a classic musical. This was my first time seeing it on stage and there were many times when I was simply swept away by the beauty of what I was watching and hearing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Happy Birthday Kevin Spacey!

Today is a very special day at Gratuitous Violins headquarters. Fifty years ago on this day, in South Orange, N.J., a baby boy was born named Kevin Matthew Fowler.

Within a few years he moved with his family to Southern California, where he grew up and where a guidance counselor would one day suggest that he direct some of his boundless energy toward the drama club.

On a school trip to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles to see Juno and the Paycock, he met his idol, Jack Lemmon, who told him that if he wanted to be an actor, he should go to New York to study.

Eventually, he made his way there, spending two years at Juilliard, appearing in Shakespeare in the Park and working at the Public Theater until Joseph Papp saw him in an off-off-Broadway play and recognized his talent. He promptly fired him and told him to go be an actor.

Shortly thereafter, in August 1982, he made his Broadway debut at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in a revival of Ibsen's Ghosts, playing Liv Ullmann's son. And he picked up a new name - Kevin Spacey.

He would go on to win the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play for portraying Uncle Louie in Lost in Yonkers and two Oscars, for roles as a small-time con man in The Usual Suspects and a suburban father in the midst of a midlife crisis in American Beauty.

But the Kevin Spacey role that had the biggest impact on me was his portrayal of singer Bobby Darin in the biopic Beyond the Sea. As I've written before, I fell in love with the movie and with Kevin's singing and did something I don't normally do - I sent him a fan letter in care of The Old Vic Theatre, where he's been artistic director since 2004.

And he was gracious enough to send me a reply from London:

I can't tell you how thrilled I was to get that note in November 2005. It truly lifted my spirits at a difficult time.

The more I read about Kevin and his work at The Old Vic, the more of a theatre fan I became. My determination to see him on Broadway in A Moon for the Misbegotten set me on a path I could never have imagined.

Without Kevin Spacey I wouldn't have my trips to Broadway, my blog and most of all, so many new and dear friends in my life to treasure. Kevin, I hope your friends make this day as wonderful and unforgettable as my friends made my birthday in May.

Playbill has a great birthday interview with Kevin, where he talks about his films and stage career. I love this quote: "In my opinion, the best actors in films are the ones who came out of theatre. You cannot go wrong by learning your craft as a theatre artist."

Coincidentally, today also marks the final Broadway performance of The Norman Conquests, winner of the Tony for Best Revival of a Play and a transfer from The Old Vic. I was lucky enough to see the trilogy a week ago and it was an incredible experience.

Here are Kevin and cast member Jessica Hynes talking about the production:

In the Playbill for The Norman Conquests, Kevin writes about The Old Vic's education and outreach efforts designed to bring theatre to a wider audience and nurture young talent. It's an effort he's expanded to New York.

As he notes, "Theatre needs dedicated champions in order to flourish and grow." Well, Kevin Spacey has certainly been a dedicated champion. And for this talented actor, a man whose gesture of kindness meant so much to me, I hope that I can be one, too.

So happy birthday, Kevin - and come back to Broadway soon!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Katharine Hepburn and Kent State

Last week, my passion for the theatre and my interest in the history of the 1960s intersected in a most unexpected way.

It happened when I went to see the Katharine Hepburn exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center. It runs through Oct. 10 and I definitely recommend a visit.

The exhibit, drawn from Hepburn's private papers, documents her stage career from the 1920s to the 1990s, including her Broadway appearances. I got a kick out of seeing her name in college productions from her years at Bryn Mawr, her first Equity contract.

But near the end, I saw something that surprised me: an unusual request made of every Broadway cast on one night in May 1970.

Regular readers of my blog know that I've always had a keen interest in the 1960s - in the culture, the music, the history of the civil rights and antiwar movements.

One thing I didn't know was that audiences on Broadway were asked to observe a moment of silence following the killing of four students at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970.

On May 7, 1970, Ms. Hepburn was appearing on Broadway in the musical Coco, based on the life of French fashion designer Coco Chanel. She received the following telegram at the Mark Hellinger Theatre from Keir Dullea, on behalf of Actors Equity:

"Would the cast join us in asking the audience for a moment of silence on Friday May 8 after the curtain to remember the four Kent State students and to ask that such a tragedy shall never be repeated."

This was such a polarizing time in American life. I'd be interested in finding out whether all Broadway casts complied or whether there was some resistance. I know Broadway marquees are often dimmed when a stage notable passes away but this was something different.

Hepburn decided not only to ask for a moment of silence but composed a short speech, which you can see as part of the exhibit.

Her niece, the actress Katharine Houghton, told The New York Times that the remarks were a surprise. Hepburn usually was “very careful not to mix politics with the theater,” and often quoted Spencer Tracy's comment that “actors who got involved in politics can suffer the fate of the man who shot Lincoln.”

But the shootings were so horrifying that she apparently felt an obligation to speak out. And what Hepburn wrote was so moving. I love that she talked about how these were "our kids" and "we belong to each other." Here's an excerpt:

"Now you may call them rebels or rabble-rousers or anything you please. Nevertheless, they were our kids and our responsibility. Our generation are responsible and we must take time to pause and reflect and do something. You can pray but we must think! And together, for we belong to each other. If we don't, we're lost."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Next to Normal

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

I've been fortunate to end each of my past three Broadway seasons with a memorable musical - Spring Awakening in 2007, The Lion King in 2008 and in 2009, Next to Normal, the best new musical I saw this year.

Now don't get me wrong - I loved Tony-winner Billy Elliot. It's just so hard to compare the two. I loved each of them for what they are - Billy's dancing and the poignancy and humor in its story of a young boy discovering his passion.

But with Next to Normal, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist and book writer Brian Yorkey have accomplished something so rare on Broadway - an original story about a complex subject. The result is a compelling and compassionate look at how one person's mental illness can devastate a family.

Alice Ripley gives a searing performance as Diana, a wife and mother struggling with delusions and feelings of depression and the side effects of her treatment. I was in the third row and I'm not exaggerating when I say I could see the pain on her face. She deservedly won the Tony award.

I think it's a tribute to director Michael Greif that despite her episodes of madness, Ripley's Diana never seemed over the top, a stereotypical "crazy person," but always believable. The sparse, almost industrial-looking design by Mark Wendland is the opposite of comforting and homey.

But Ripley isn't the only one in pain and I think that's what gives Next to Normal a great deal of its power. J. Robert Spencer, who plays her husband, Dan, and Jennifer Damiano, as their teenage daughter Natalie, are heartbreaking as they show how Diana's illness has affected their lives.

Adam Chanler-Berat is very sweet and tender as Henry, a boy who loves Natalie and Kyle Dean Massey is mesmerizing as Gabe, who hovers over this story, literally and figuratively. And Louis Hobson, who plays two of Diana's doctors, comes across as caring and professional.

I think that Kitt and Yorkey, who won the Tony for Best Score, do a very effective job of telling the story through song. The vibrant rock 'n' roll sound reminds me a little of Spring Awakening. The lyrics are rich and evocative. They convey so well what each character is going through - how they feel, their fears and frustrations.

In fact, the story is presented so powerfully, as much as I loved it I'm not sure I could ever sit through Next to Normal again. Some parts were pretty tough to watch.

I'm not saying Next to Normal is perfect. For one thing, there's a plot point that's a mystery throughout the first act and I'm not sure Yorkey and Kitt made the right decision in stringing us along. The way it's finally explained is different from what I expected. And I'm not sure I totally buy the explanation.

I know some people have criticized Next to Normal as an attack on psychiatry, as an endorsement of a very risky path for someone like Diana. (For a spoilerish but insightful discussion, check out Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals.)

While I respect those opinions, and I think my friend and fellow blogger Chris Caggiano makes some excellent points, I honestly didn't see Next to Normal as bashing psychiatry or treatment for mental illness or even romanticizing it.

For one thing, I don't think Diana ever leaves the care of a doctor. And I think that for people struggling with mental illness, events can unfold exactly the way they do in this musical. Sometimes treatment works but sometimes it doesn't. Or it works for a time and then stops. And I admire Next to Normal for not trying to tie things up neat and tidy.

I see Next to Normal as a depiction of the difficulty in treating mental illness despite the best efforts of doctors, despite all of the tools that modern medicine has to offer, despite people in the throes of it wanting to get better, despite the love and care and desperate hopes of families.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The talented and gracious Ms. Ripley

One of the thrills of going to Broadway has been the chance to meet the actors afterward and get my Playbill signed.

It's not simply the signature - it's hopefully sharing a few words with a performer whose work I've just enjoyed. You can't do that after watching a movie or a tv show.

I realize that the actors don't have to come out, so whenever they do I appreciate it. This time, like my previous trips to New York, I've had some wonderful experiences.

But seeing the herculean effort Alice Ripley made to greet fans at the stage door after Next to Normal Sunday night truly was something special.

This was her second show of the day in a very demanding role that's almost entirely sung - there's very little spoken dialog in Next to Normal. So she must have been exhausted. Still, she looked great - full of energy, talking and posing for pictures. (And as you can see, she has a pretty distinct signature. It's like a work of art!)

I'm not very good with crowd estimates but there must have been at least a hundred people waiting for her at the Booth Theatre stage door, in Shubert Alley. Her fellow cast members, J. Robert Spencer, Adam Chanler-Berat, Kyle Dean Massey and Louis Hobson, had already come out and signed.

(The only one I missed was Jennifer Damiano. This has happened to me before, where I've gotten every cast member's autograph but one. There must be a rule that one person must stay away from the stage door, just like one Cabinet member is at a secure and undisclosed location during the president's State of the Union address.)

Ms. Ripley took a long time to make her way around the circle of fans. She wasn't simply signing her name, she was stopping to talk with almost everyone. As she got closer to where I was standing, I could tell that she was having some pretty intense conversations.

My guess is that because she plays a woman struggling with mental illness, she meets a fair number of people who have a family member in a similar situation. And from what I could tell, she wasn't brushing anyone off but was taking the time to listen.

When it was my turn, I congratulated her on her well-deserved Tony award. I told her I thought Next to Normal was such a compelling look at a family in crisis.

I expected her to thank me and move on, but she kept talking, about how this was such a great role for a woman and how most musicals are centered around men and she's been waiting for this opportunity for so long. She just volunteered all of this. I didn't even have to ask a question!

The one thing that made me angry was the woman standing next to me with four Playbills. I asked her why she was getting four of them signed and she said two were for friends and two were for her.

Now, I don't have a problem with getting a Playbill signed for a friend. It's a wonderful, thoughtful thing to do and I treasure the ones friends have gotten for me. I've done it myself for other people. But four? That seemed excessive. I'm just hoping none of those end up on eBay.

As I left Shubert Alley I could see Ripley still talking to the remnants of the crowd. What a gracious, classy woman. I'm so glad that I made a point of telling her how how much I appreciated the time she spent with us.

So here's to you, Alice Ripley and to all of the other actors who've taken the time to sign Playbills, pose for pictures, share a few words with fans. For me, your graciousness is part of what makes going to the theatre so exciting and so unique.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Our Town

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

In December, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones wrote in his Theater Loop blog about the selection of director David Cromer as Theater Chicagoan of the Year. He mentioned that in May, Cromer had directed an "astonishing" production of Our Town.

Our Town astonishing? Really? That got my attention.

I found the review that Jones wrote and it was one of the most enthusiastic I've ever read. He used words like "astounding" and "brilliantly revisionist" in describing the performance, put on in a cramped basement by a small company called The Hypocrites.

I'd read Thornton Wilder's play in high school and I saw a good production in 2007 at Trinity Repertory Company. But I couldn't even begin to imagine what Cromer had done to elicit this kind of praise. I knew that if Our Town ever came to New York, I wanted to see it.

Well, last week I had a chance to make my way down to the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village for Our Town. And it was worth the trip because Jones' rave review was right on target. Seeing new life breathed into a classic American play is a wonderful experience.

First, Barrow Street, located in a community center, fits this production so well. The theatre seats about 200 people and isn't much bigger than some living rooms I've been in. The play takes place literally right in front of the audience. And in keeping with Wilder's instructions, there's almost no scenery or props.

It's easy to think of Our Town, written in in 1938 and set in the first decade of the 20th century in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, as a quaint period piece. You could call it an an elegy to a small-town America that no longer exists.

Well, maybe the milkman doesn't bring the milk by horse-drawn wagon anymore. But Cromer has made the play contemporary and relevant. For the first time I thought, it could be taking place today. Watching the daily life of Our Town's residents unfold didn't seem all that distant.

Plus, as the stage manager who narrates Our Town, Cromer gives one of the best performances I've ever seen - completely natural and unaffected.

At the center of Our Town is the story of Emily Webb, the newspaper editor's daughter, and George Gibbs, the doctor's son. As Emily and George, Jennifer Grace and James McMenamin truly embody the awkwardness of teenagers.

They give the play its timeless quality - no matter how much things change, kids are still kids. You have dreams and insecurities. You fall in love. Eventually, you have to confront adulthood in all of its joy and heartache and regrets. And Grace does an especially fine job appearing first little girlish, then a teenager, and finally, a young woman.

I've seen so many play revivals over the past few years where it seemed like there was nothing new to say and the work showed its age. But this was different. It was so satisfying and it made me look at the play in a different way.

I always felt that the third and final act of Our Town seemed a little tacked on. But Cromer makes a decision that made me gasp. It was unexpected, yet loyal to the theme of the play, about what we should cherish in life. It was visceral and vivid and reminded me so much of people in my own life that I got choked up.

I was already pretty excited about the two Neil Simon revivals that Cromer will direct on Broadway this fall - Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. After Our Town, I just cannot wait to see what he does with them.

Our Town has now been extended through Jan. 31, 2010, and Cromer will be with it through Aug. 16, when he leaves to start rehearsals on the Neil Simon plays.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Norman Conquests

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

I never intended to see even one part of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy The Norman Conquests when it transferred to Broadway from London's Old Vic Theatre.

The plot didn't particularly interest me and the thought of seeing three plays in one day was daunting. (Never mind standing in line at the ladies room for three bathroom breaks.)

But then the reviews started coming in - from my fellow bloggers and other theatergoers I respect. They were so enthusiastic, beginning with Broadway & Me, that I thought well, it'll be an experience - my first theatre marathon. I'd be at Circle in the Square from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner.

(Plus, I got to share the experience with my blogging buddy Chris, of Everything I Know I Learned from Musicals. We had a fun lunch at Vynl. Then, dinner at Pigalle with Steve On Broadway, the love of his life and some very tasty grilled yellowfin tuna. A win, win, win.)

The plays - Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden - were written and take place in 1973. They are set at different times on the same weekend in different parts of the same house. The same six characters are in all three and I knew within the first hour that I'd love spending time with them.

I definitely related to the frazzled Annie, played by Jessica Hynes, who cares for her needy but unseen mother and desperately needs a break. Ben Miles plays Tom, Annie's possible suitor, a taciturn veterinarian who seems ill at ease around people and animals.

Annie's brother Reg is played by Paul Ritter in a self-centered way that reminded me a bit of the character Ricky Gervais portrays in the British version of The Office. Reg and his wife Sarah, a prim and somewhat bossy Amanda Root, come for the weekend so that Annie can get away.

Also on hand is Annie and Reg's sister Ruth, played by Amelia Bullmore, whose nearsightedness causes many comic moments. She's just about at the end of her rope when it comes to her lothario of a husband Norman, an assistant librarian played brilliantly by Stephen Mangan.

While the entire cast is superb, Mangan was my favorite. Bearded, unkempt, with a wild head of hair, he is such a physical, expressive actor. And he delivers a performance that I will never forget.

From the way the other characters talk about him, I was prepared to despise Norman. But Mangan makes him sympathetic and charming, totally honest, lacking in guile and quite sensitive - even if he is an unscrupulous cad at times. I could never hate Norman - only love him.

I'm a fairly easy theatergoer to satisfy - just don't bore me. It's a tribute to the wonderful ensemble - and director Matthew Warchus - that even after seven hours, I never got tired of watching these six distinct, vivid personalities interact.

There was always something unexpected, some wound to be reopened, some revelation, some argument to break out - often with hilarious consequences, some new person for Norman to seduce. The plot that I didn't think would interest me, well, I ended up being totally absorbed. It was so much fun to sit there all day and watch this story unfold.

The plays are witty and hilarious with a lot of physical humor. I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard, so often, sometimes to the point of tears. But Ayckbourn also gives us some very serious moments when you truly get a sense of these characters' anxieties.

The Norman Conquests turned out to be one of the best and most unique theatergoing experiences I've had. I'm so glad I didn't miss it. Because it was in the round and because I spent so much time with them, I feel like I got to know these characters so well.

But I'm afraid that the popularity of the "trilogy days" may have led people to believe that if you can't see all three, it's not worth seeing any of them. And that's absolutely not true.

If you can only see one, I recommend Table Manners, which I think stands best on its own. Unfortunately, The Norman Conquests, which won the Tony award for Best Revival of a Play, closes on July 26. So you haven't got much more time.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I saw Paul McCartney today, oh boy!

For once, I was in the right place at the right time.

A friend from Providence came with me for the first two days of my New York City vacation. Yesterday we went to Greenwich Village and in the evening we saw Blithe Spirit on Broadway with the delightful Angela Lansbury.

Today was pretty full, too - starting with a walk up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, followed by visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of American Folk Art. They were both great, especially the Folk Art Museum, which I'd never visited before.

Around 4:45 we were walking back to the hotel. Now, we had two choices - we could have walked along Sixth Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) or up to Broadway to go through Times Square. My very wise friend decided she wanted one last walk though Times Square before catching her train home.

And that turned out to be a fateful decision.

As we made our way up 53rd Street toward Broadway I noticed an unusual number of police officers. Broadway was blocked off with metal barriers and hundreds of people were standing behind them.

I asked someone what was going on and she told me that Paul McCartney was a guest on The Late Show with David Letterman and would be performing on top of the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater. I looked up and sure enough - it was set up for a concert!

To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. Paul has always been my favorite Beatle. I've always wanted to see him in concert but never had the chance. And now, I'd get to hear him live! I couldn't believe it.

Now, I've been in the audience for a Late Show taping and I know they do it in real time, starting at about 4:30 p.m. So the whole thing takes about an hour. I wasn't sure when Paul would be playing. Someone said 5, someone else said 5:15. It turned out to be near the end of the show.

In the meantime, people were leaning out of the upper stories of nearby buildings next to the theater to get a good view. Cameras were set up on raised platforms across the street. Someone in a Beatles T-shirt was trying to sell what looked like a huge mimeographed drawing of Paul. Everyone was very patient - not much pushing or shoving.

Finally, a huge roar went up when Paul climed out onto the marquee roof. I think he had a pink shirt on but I was kind of far back, so it was hard to tell. And he was so cute and charming and funny, just like I imagined he'd be.

He asked how we all were, said this was for "the telly" so he couldn't start until they were ready. He jokingly asked the people in the office building across the street why they weren't at work.

And wow, the man can rock! He sang "Get Back," followed by a song I didn't know, and "Coming Up." Then he continued to sing after the show ended - another song I didn't recognize, followed by "Band on the Run."

All I could think of was the Beatles and their rooftop concert. Paul sounded great. I can't believe I finally got to see him. It was an amazing experience. You can watch the concert here.

After a day like today, is it any wonder I love New York?!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Will War Horse hoof it to New York?

Okay, I know it's not going to happen for a couple of years but this is so exciting: the producers of War Horse are planning to bring the play, currently a hit in London's West End, to New York in 2011, according to this story in The New York Times.

"British and American producers plan to mount War Horse in New York in 2011 and are now looking at Broadway theaters and other locations, like the Park Avenue Armory, that would be large enough to house the show, said one of the producers, Bob Boyett. The ideal, by many accounts, would be the Vivian Beaumont Theater, with its wide thrust stage."

(Update February 2010: It's been announced that War Horse will be part of the 2010-2011 season for the Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Performances begin March 17, 2011.)

The play, based on a book by British children's novelist Michael Morpurgo, is about a boy who goes searching for his beloved horse after the animal is sold to the cavalry during World War I.

In his review, the Telegraph's Charles Spencer said the story, adapted by Nick Stafford, "brilliantly captures not only the mysterious and intense relationship that can exist between humans and animals, but also the dreadful waste and terror of the Great War."

From everything I've read, all the photos and videos I've seen, this production, which began at Britain's National Theatre, looks terrific. And it has some amazingly lifelike and life-size horse puppets from South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company.

Here's the trailer:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Karl Malden warned me this would happen

I gave up my American Express card because I didn't feel like paying the annual fee and increasingly the Broadway presale wasn't of much use, since it's tough for me to map out my theatergoing months in advance.

But I did feel a slight twinge of regret after reading about A Steady Rain, starring Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, which begins previews at Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre Sept. 10 for a limited 12-week engagement.

According to Blooomberg News, I may be out of luck. The tickets will be scooped up fast when they go on sale Saturday at 8 a.m. to Amex cardholders.

(Yes, I know, what would the recently departed Karl Malden have thought. He warned me. I have no excuse.)

If there are any left over, they'll be available to the general public on July 25. But it doesn't look promising.

“I don’t think there will be a ticket available by the end of next week, and I’m being a little conservative,” said Scott Mallalieu, president of Group Sales Box Office, a Broadway ticket agency.

Actually, I'm betting he's engaging in a little hyperbole. I'm sure there'll be a few tickets available. And I only need one. Plus, I'm assuming for $301.50, I could always get a premium seat. Not that I would ever pay that much, of course. (Fingers crossed behind my back.)

Mallalieu went on to say that both men and women should be attracted to Keith Huff's two-character play. "These are two very sexy men, and male theatergoers will be attracted by the fact that it’s a drama about two cops."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ruhl's next room will be the Lyceum

Congratulations to playwright Sarah Ruhl, who will finally be making her Broadway debut this fall. In the Next Room or the vibrator play, produced by the Lincoln Center Theater, will begin previews at the Lyceum Theatre Oct. 22 and open on Nov. 19.

The announcement attracted my attention because it comes on the heels of a recent study about the lack of opportunities for female playwrights. (For a great follow-up discussion with artistic directors, check out Kris Vire's blog post at Time Out Chicago.)

Ruhl is the recipient of a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, which referred to her as a young playwright who is "emerging as a powerful presence in the American theater." I'm not saying being on Broadway is the end all and be all if you're an American playwright but I bet it's pretty thrilling. And I'm glad she's getting this opportunity.

In the Next Room, set in the twilight of the Victorian era, had its premiere earlier this year at the Berkeley Rep. It "illuminates the lives of six lonely people seeking relief from a local doctor — but, despite his expertise with a strange new technology, all they really need is intimacy."

And the play garnered some acclaim during its West Coast run.

In his New York Times review, Charles Isherwood called In the Next Room "a spirited and stimulating new comedy from one of the country's brightest young playwrights." In the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty wrote about his dislike for the ending but felt that the play "still has the potential to be a modern masterpiece."

I became a fan of Ruhl's after seeing her very funny play The Clean House at Trinity Repertory Company a couple of seasons ago. And I'm looking forward to Dead Man's Cell Phone next season.

I know it's tough for a new play on Broadway without any "stars" in the cast. But presumably, In the Next Room won't be under as much pressure since Lincoln Center has a base of subscribers, who'll see it as part of a package. Also, since it isn't transferring from off-Broadway, I'm hoping plenty of Ruhl's fans will be lining up to see the play, too.

Update: Laura Benanti, who blew me away with her Tony-winning performance as Louise in Gypsy, and Michael Cerveris have been cast in the play. So that makes me even more intrigued.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Breaking my bloggers block

Okay, I've started and abandoned a couple of posts over the past couple of days. Is there such a thing as bloggers block? I might have it. Or maybe because I have a big theatre trip coming up, I'm just conserving my creative energy.

But there are a few things on my mind. First, a couple of trivia questions:

When Rondi Reed appeared in the last performance of August: Osage County in the afternoon, followed by an Actors Fund benefit of Wicked that evening, someone asked whether anyone else had ever done a Broadway play and musical on the same day. Anyone know the answer? I bet it doesn't happen often!

Has anyone ever been successful at writing a musical's book and music? The only example I could find was Rupert Holmes, who wrote the Tony-winning book, music and lyrics for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Although Drood was based on an unfinished work by Charles Dickens, so you could say he had a little help with the book.

Now, a couple of interesting observations from producer and fellow blogger Ken Davenport:

First, he summarizes a Broadway League report on touring productions. I was surprised that the number of tickets sold has been declining for six years - predating the recession. Has something changed over the past half-decade in the types of shows that makes them less appealing? Is it ticket prices going north of $100 for the best seats? I don't know. But as someone who sees a lot of shows on the road, the statistic troubles me.

At Just Shows to Go You, Patrick Lee has an interview with Ken, and it was interesting to read his thoughts on what might have kept the Jason Robert Brown musical 13 from becoming a hit. I saw the show last fall and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I wonder if it would have had a better chance opening in the spring and playing through the summer. And while it attracted a lot of attention for its all-teen cast and band, what really drew me in was the story - a Jewish kid from New York who moves to a very Gentile Indiana town. As I said in my review, the gefilte-fish-out-of-water aspect is something we can all relate to, no matter what our age.

Finally, I noticed my friend and fellow blogger Chris, of Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals, will be taking in a staged reading of the under-development musical Tales of the City this weekend. I've only read the first volume of Armistead Maupin's Tales series but I really enjoyed it. And it takes place in San Francisco - one of my favorite cities.

I'm eagerly awaiting Chris' report. Until then, Frank Rizzo at The Hartford Courant has a rundown of the cast for the reading, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. He also talked with Jason Sellards and John Garden, of the Scissor Sisters, who are writing the music.

Monday, July 6, 2009


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

I'm not a big circus fan but I was excited about the first visit to Providence by Cirque du Soleil. I knew the Montreal-based troupe's shows were visually stunning and filled with amazing acrobatics.

Cirque usually plays bigger markets than Providence but because of the recession, they're reaching out to new locations and smaller cities with 15-year-old Alegria. The next stop on this tour is Manchester, N.H.

Alegria means "jubilation" or "joy" in Spanish and the Cirque Web site describes the show as "a joyful rendez-vous with the beauty and power of the human body."

The aerialists and trampoline artists and contortionists were incredible. Watching a pair of trapeze artists was so breathtaking I felt a touch of vertigo as they flew high above me in the Dunkin' Donuts Center. And the baggy-suited clowns were pretty funny, especially with one routine involving a paper airplane.

With the music and the costumes, Cirque does a great job making the show look fantastical - like you've stumbled upon an imaginary world with these weird-looking characters who are part Alice in Wonderland, part Moulin Rouge. It really is a visual feast and I can see why Cirque is so popular worldwide - there's no language barrier to surmount.

Where I felt let down a little bit was in the storytelling itself. Alegria was great to look at but I wasn't sure what it all meant. If there was a plot, it escaped me. Maybe if I'd understood the lyrics to the songs, that would have helped.

Now I know what you're thinking: It's a circus, there's no plot!

But according to its Web site, Alegria is about "Power and the handing down of power over time, the evolution from ancient monarchies to modern democracies, old age, youth — it is against this backdrop that the characters of Alegría play out their lives. Kings' fools, minstrels, beggars, old aristocrats and children make up its universe, along with the clowns, who alone are able to resist the passing of time and the social transformations that accompany it.

Okay, maybe it was all a little bit over my head but honestly, I didn't get any of that.

I felt like I was watching something kind of generic - incredible acrobatic feat followed by a little clowning followed by a little singing followed by another incredible acrobatic feat, with nothing that really tied them all together.

To me, it all wore kind of thin after awhile - more spectacle than substance. Although I admit the spectacle is pretty terrific.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy birthday, America!

For months I was an avid follower of Fred and Hank as they made their way across America with their human companions, Jim and Joan Brady. Now, they're back home.

To mark the Fourth of July and help me deal with my beagle withdrawal, here are Fred and Hank in 2007, visiting some monuments and important buildings in Washington, D.C. Sadly, there's no audio. So you'll have to play your own patriotic music while you watch.

Friday, July 3, 2009

What's in a theatre name?

One of the byproducts of becoming a theatre fan is that I've developed a keen interest in - you might even say a fascination with - the names of theatre companies. The quirkier and funnier the better. I especially love references to forgotten places or obscure literary characters.

So whenever I come across a name that I like, I think about assembling a list and blogging about them. Then, I forget about it. But the Fourth of July weekend is here, theatre news is light and the blogging is easy.

Now, I haven't gone searching for these - I've just come across them in everyday Google-ing or reading up on theatre-related news. I'm sure there are others I've come across and forgotten about. But these are some of my favorites:

Tricycle: Based in London, I first heard of this theatre as a producer of The 39 Steps. It just seems so fitting that a very funny Hitchcock homage would be connected with a word that also makes me smile. Tricycle "aims to be a successful and accessible theatre, cinema and art gallery providing an artistic programme of the highest quality that attracts and reflects the culturally diverse local community."

Menier Chocolate Factory: The idea of seeing a show in a converted London chocolate factory circa 1870 sounds incredibly scrumptious. I wonder if they sell Menier chocolate at the concession stand? If they don't, they should! And from the description, the building sounds awesome - it still has its original exposed wooden beams, cast-iron columns and brick interior.

Single Carrot: This one's in Baltimore and I found it on the blogroll of Katie Ganem, who writes Theatreisms. The name comes from something the French painter Paul Cezanne once said: "The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution." I'm not sure what he meant, but I like it. Single Carrot's goal is to "infuse theatre with new life while entertaining and educating our community with socially significant productions."

Hypocrites: Most people would not take being called a hypocrite as a compliment so I thought it was interesting that this Chicago theatre company would take the word as its name. Their mission is to "make a Theater of Honesty," which actually seems the opposite of hypocrisy. I'm really looking forward to seeing the Hypocrites' acclaimed production of Our Town in New York next month.

Remy Bumppo: Chicago has a lot of great theatre names. Steppenwolf, of course, I knew because I've read the novel. But this one escaped me. Turns out, it comes from two of the founders' pets: a dog named Natty Bumppo (from The Last of the Mohicans) and a cat named Remy, (after Remy Martin cognac.) The company "strives to delight and engage audiences with the emotional and ethical complexities of society through the provocative power of great theatrical language."

Pig Iron: This Philadelphia-based theatre company is "dedicated to the creation of new and exuberant performance works that defy easy categorization" using dance, drama, clowning, puppetry, music and text. I don't know where the name comes from, maybe the state's steelmaking heritage? I first heard of Pig Iron last fall when I read about one of its productions, the bizarrely titled Chekhov Lizardbrain. Just from the name alone, I wish I'd been able to see it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's Ragtime again on Broadway

Eighteen months ago I wrote a blog post titled "The best musicals I've never seen,'' about scores I love listening to even though I've never seen the shows that they're from.

Well, this fall I'll be able to cross one of those off my list because Ragtime is coming back to Broadway and I'm pretty darn excited! It's kind of like an early Fourth of July present.

The revival begins previews Oct. 23 at the Neil Simon Theatre and opens Nov. 15. (Here's Vance's review of the production at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, although there will be cast changes.)

I've always enjoyed stories that mix real-life and fictional characters. And E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime does a wonderful job intertwining the lives of three New York families - Jewish immigrants, African-Americans and WASPS - with historical figures from the first two decades of the twentieth century.

I've seen the 1981 movie but until I started to become a regular theatergoer I didn't even know there was a musical version of Ragtime. I've since listened to the Tony-winning score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and I love the way they've translated Doctorow's story into song.

The original Broadway production of Ragtime opened on Jan. 18, 1998 and closed two years later. In the cast was an adorable little Lea Michele - before she grew up to be in Spring Awakening.

Has Disney lost its Broadway magic?

Even though I wasn't interested in seeing Disney's The Little Mermaid I'm still sad that the musical is ending its run at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Aug. 30.

Now, I know the House of Mouse (always wanted to write that!) still has The Lion King and Mary Poppins on Broadway. Although my fellow blogger Chris Caggiano, at Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals, wonders how long Ms. Poppins will be around.

The Little Mermaid is launching a national tour in the fall of 2010 and I'm sure it'll do just fine, just like every other Disney musical and ice show. But I'm starting to wonder whether Disney Theatrical Productions has lost some of its Broadway magic - and that's not a good thing.

Its first musical, Beauty and the Beast, ran for 13 years, closing in 2007 after 5,461 performances. The Lion King seems to be going strong, at 4,821 performances since October 1997. Aida closed in 2004, after about 4 1/2 years and 1,852 performances.

Since then, the results have been less than stellar. Tarzan closed in July 2007, after less than 18 months and 486 performances. The Little Mermaid will do better. It opened in November 2007 and by the end of August, will have played 735 performances.

In the PBS documentary Broadway: The American Musical, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner recounts telling then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that if Disney were to come to Broadway, the area had to be made safe for families. And it was. Not just for families - for everyone.

I love walking around Manhattan during the day, then going to the theatre at night knowing I can head back to my hotel at midnight and feel perfectly safe in Times Square. That's a big reason I've been spending my tourist dollars in New York City over the past few years.

So this quote in an Associated Press story from Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, has me a little concerned: "I don't have a new musical planned for New York right a way."

I'm not panicking. There is other family oriented fare, like Shrek. Plus, Schumacher went on to add that the next Disney show could be Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to Peter Pan, in the 2010-2011 Broadway season.

And I'm not saying if Disney were to leave, the peepshows and XXXX movie theatres would return to 42nd Street. Obviously New York City has a gigantic economic stake in keeping the area safe and G-rated.

And it's not just about putting butts in seats. I'm sure Disney could fill a theatre with High School Musical. Like a lot of people of my ahem, generation, the first movie I remember seeing was a Disney movie. I've enjoyed The Lion King and Mary Poppins on Broadway. It's about the wonder and the magic in the storytelling.

I think a strong Disney commitment helps ensure that Broadway appeals to as wide a range of theatergoers as possible. And that's good for everyone who loves going to Broadway.