Monday, November 30, 2009

Every Little Step

The documentary Every Little Step is about dancers auditioning for a role in a musical that's about dancers auditioning for a role in a musical. How meta!

Filmmakers Adam Del Deo and James Stern took their cameras inside auditions for the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, which opened in 2006 and ran for two years. It's the part of putting on a show that you don't normally get to see but in an unprecedented uh, step, they received special permission from Actors Equity.

More than 2,000 dancers auditioned, some from as far away as Australia, for 19 roles. Watching them leap and pirouette reminded me how much the big chorus numbers are part of what I love about Broadway musicals.

As several actors recited the same lines one after another I couldn't even imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been for them, performing in front of people like Bob Avian, co-choreographer of the original Broadway production, and Baayork Lee, the original Connie.

I wish the filmmakers had spent a little more time on some of the individual stories of the people who came to audition. We know they've been dancing since they were kids and can't imagine doing anything else, but not much more.

And of course, they're all talented dancers. As Lee says in an interview on the dvd's extras, "If I had to audition for the show now, I would never get in."

What I enjoyed most about Every Little Step was the way it alternates taking us inside the audition room with telling us the story behind the musical.

A Chorus Line, which opened on Broadway in 1975 and ran for 15 years, grew out of taped sessions with those normally anonymous "gypsies," the dancers who populate Broadway's chorus lines and move from show to show.

And it was great to hear from some of the people who helped create the musical - including composer Marvin Hamlisch, actress Donna McKechnie, who played Cassie, and on video, the late director/choreographer Michael Bennett.

One of the most touching characters - and one of the hardest to cast - is Paul, a young Puerto Rican dancer and drag performer based on the late Nicholas Dante, who won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award as the cowriter of A Chorus Line.

First, we hear Dante's voice on that original tape recording telling his story. Then, we see Sammy Williams perform the role on Broadway in a Tony-winning turn and finally, we watch Jason Tam, who would play Paul in the revival, during his audition.

That part of Every Little Step is so effective in the way it brings together the past and the present so poignantly. Avian and his colleagues are fighting back tears as Tam recites Paul's monologue. It gave me a real sense of how much A Chorus Line means to everyone involved with it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Gifts for theatre lovers - 2009 edition

It's time to pick out a gift for the theatre lover in your life.

Here's my 2008 list and all of the items on it are still highly recommended. But I want to add some new choices to the mix. I've stayed away from movie musicals and cast recordings, figuring they'd have those already.

And as I noted last year, these are great for Christmas, Chanukah, birthdays or any other time of year that you want to do something special for someone special.

1.) Free for All, by Kenneth Turan. I've just started reading this oral history of Joe Papp, founder of New York's Public Theater and the man who brought free Shakespeare to Central Park, and I'm really enjoying it. I'm especially looking forward to reading about the role Papp played in bringing musicals like Hair and A Chorus Line to Broadway. The story of how Free for All finally came to be published is interesting too.

2.) The Play that Changed My Life. This compilation, put together by the American Theatre Wing and edited by Ben Hodges, features essays by and interviews with a diverse group of 19 playwrights, all talking about the works that influenced them. It's always interesting to read what inspires people, especially if you're an aspiring writer yourself.

3.) Ticket album. My friend and fellow blogger Jan, from Broadway & Me, included this item in her list last year and I thought it sounded like a good idea. Then I got one as a gift and I love it! Now, if I want to know when I saw a show, where I sat or how much I paid, I have this close by. The slots are perfect for a Broadway ticket but you'll need to do a little snipping to make bigger ones fit.

4.) For me, one of the highlights of Finian's Rainbow on Broadway was listening to the delightful Kate Baldwin sing "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" So beautiful. Her first solo cd, Let's See What Happens, includes that song and others by composers Burton Lane and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg written from the 1940s to the 1960s.

5.) Sadly, I never got to see Forbidden Broadway, the show that spoofed Broadway shows. But I have bought a couple of their cds and the songs are very funny, especially if you recognize the originals to which they're paying homage. The 20th anniversary compilation is a good mix of tunes poking (gentle) fun at some classic musicals.

6.) Who wouldn't want theatre tickets, right? Regional theatres do great work and they add so much to the cultural life in their communities. The League of Resident Theatres has links on its Web site to 76 theatre companies across the United States. This is a chance to give a memorable gift while supporting the arts at the local level.

7.) Okay, I know I was going to stay away from cast recordings but if there's a child on your list who loves Disney movies, cds from the musical versions of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins or The Little Mermaid can be a great way to introduce them to the wonderful world of show tunes.

8.) I always like to have something from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS on my list because the money it raises helps support critically needed services all over the country. Last year, I bought the 10th anniversary, two-disc Carols for a Cure. This year's catalog is full of terrific gifts. But a purple piggy bank caught my eye. It's never too early to start saving up for your first Broadway show!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Finally, a role of her own

I so was thrilled when I read this sentence in Ben Brantley's New York Times review of the musical Fela!, which opened on Broadway last night:

"Saycon Sengbloh shimmers as the seductress who introduces Fela to Marx and the American black-power movement."

She shimmers!

Now that I've been going to Broadway shows for a few years, it's great to see actors and actresses whose performances I loved work their way up the food chain.

I can remember as clearly as if it happened yesterday walking up to the Broadway Theatre with Steve on Broadway on the day we finally met after months of e-mailing. It was July 22, 2007, and we going to see The Color Purple with Fantasia, who'd gotten great reviews.

Unfortunately, Fantasia was out that day. I was a bit disappointed until Steve found out that Saycon Sengbloh would be playing the role of Celie. He told me he'd seen her in Wicked and she was terrific.

Well, Steve was right. I was so moved by her performance in The Color Purple. In May, I saw Sengbloh in Hair. And next month, I'll be in the audience at Fela!

(In this New York Daily News story, she talks about how she's known her Fela! costar Sahr Ngaujah since they were teenagers in Atlanta.)

Until now Sengbloh, who made her Broadway debut in Aida in 2003, has never done what I imagine every Broadway performer dreams of doing - create a role.

Congratulations, Saycon. As Celie would say, you are definitely here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

When Joe Papp fired Kevin Spacey

Yesterday I picked up a copy of Free for All, by Kenneth Turan, an oral history of Joseph Papp and New York's Public Theater. I've just started thumbing through it but so far, it looks pretty interesting.

I first heard Papp's name when I was a teenager. I remember watching a play from the New York Shakespeare Festival on TV and being enthralled by it. I'm fairly certain it was this production of Much Ado About Nothing that aired on CBS in 1972.

Last fall, I made my first visit to the Public, for Stephen Sondeim's Road Show. I'll admit that Sondheim wasn't the only draw. I also wanted to see the place where landmark musicals like Hair and A Chorus Line were nurtured.

And yes, there was one other important reason - Kevin Spacey worked there briefly, after dropping out of Juilliard. (There's a Kevin Spacey connection to everything!)

I don't think this story is in the book but I've heard Kevin tell it many times in interviews and it's a nice one.

Here's an account that appeared in the Oct. 24, 1999 issue of Parade magazine:

"I had no prospects, no agent, no money, nothing. Then I got an audition for the New York Shakespeare Festival in the Park by basically browbeating the casting office. I played a messenger with, like, six lines in Henry IV, Part One. It was my first job in New York as a professional actor, and it was pretty exciting, but after that I just couldn't get any acting work.

"I was working as a hat-check guy in a restaurant when I decided to see Joe Papp for a job." [Papp was the influential founder and director of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He gave Spacey a job as office help.]

"While working there, I got cast as the lead in an off-off Broadway play, The Robbers, and got my first New York review - in the Village Voice. It was extremely complimentary, because they compared me to both Marlon Brando and Karl Malden in the same sentence, so for weeks my friends called me 'Marlon Malden.'

"Joe Papp showed up at the play one night and fired me the next day. I was stunned, because it was paying my rent. Joe said, ‘I saw an actor last night onstage, and you've become too comfortable here.’ He did me the greatest favor in the world by literally shoving me out the door.

"Four months later, Joe was in the opening-night audience of my first Broadway play."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Broadway centennial for Helen Hayes

I'd like to give a shoutout to Helen Hayes, the first lady of the American theater, who made her Broadway debut 100 years ago today.

At age 9, Hayes played the Little Mime in Old Dutch, a two-act musical farce from Victor Herbert set in the Hotel Schoenwald in the Tyrol. It opened at the Herald Square Theatre, at Broadway and 35th Street, and ran for a total of 89 performances, closing on Feb. 5, 1910.

Of course Hayes went on to many more roles on stage, screen and television. She's one of only 10 people thus far to win the four major American entertainment awards - an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy.

She received two Oscars, for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, in 1932 and Airport, in 1970; two Tonys, for Happy Birthday, in 1947 and Time Remembered in 1958; an Emmy in 1953, for Not a Chance; and a Grammy in 1976, for Great American Documents.

In Time Remembered, a romantic comedy by the French playwright Jean Anouilh, Hayes played the Duchess of Pont-au-Bronc, opposite Richard Burton. In Happy Birthday, a comedy by Anita Loos set in the Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar in Newark, Hayes played librarian Addie Bemis.

When Hayes died in 1993 at age 92, The New York Times obituary noted the acclaim she received for her stage roles as Mary, Queen of Scots and Britain's Queen Victoria.

In his review of Mary of Scotland, from 1933, Times critic Brooks Atkinson noted, "Slight as she is in stature (and Mary was six feet tall), Miss Hayes raises herself to queendom by the transcendence of her spirit."

Two years later, Hayes opened in Victoria Regina, in which she aged from a young girl to an elderly woman. Atkinson said her ability "to encompass in one evening the youth, maturity and venerability of one human being" was "a humbling personal triumph."

Hayes' final Great White Way appearance came in 1970, in a revival of Harvey with Jimmy Stewart, capping a Broadway career that spanned 61 years.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Andre Holland would make my list

This week, BroadwaySpace released its list of "30 under 30: Broadway's hottest young stars." There are some great names, talented actors whose performances I've really enjoyed.

Then there are others who may be perfectly fine but I'm not sure they belong on a list of "Broadway's most remarkable and noteworthy performers under the age of 30." Hey, I realize these things are subjective.

More importantly, as a couple of my fellow bloggers have pointed out, the list is sorely lacking in African-American faces. Broadway & Me rightly questioned the omission of the very talented Daniel Breaker (Passing Strange, Shrek) and Jon Michael Hill (Superior Donuts.)

Those names would definitely be on my list, but I'd like to add one of my own: Andre Holland. I saw him on Broadway last spring in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. He was wonderful as Jeremy Furlow, a young roominghouse boarder newly arrived in Pittsburgh from the South.

I'm not sure how old Holland is, but he's definitely an actor to watch. While he may not be as noteworthy as some of the people on the BroadwaySpace list, his performance definitely sent me to my Playbill at intermission to find out his name.

And Holland is currently getting some great reviews off-Broadway, at the Public Theater, in The Brother/Sister Plays. Here's what Variety critic David Rooney says about his performance:

"The cast is dazzling, the majority of them creating indelible characterizations in multiple roles. Holland's metamorphoses are especially remarkable, from a plucky kid to a slippery adult and then an awkward teen, just beginning to understand how to use his sexual mojo."

Here's a good Q&A with Holland by Patrick Lee, from Just Shows to Go You. Holland, who grew up in a small town in Alabama and studied at Florida State and NYU, talks about how he got started as an actor.

"August Wilson is what attracted to me to the theatre in the first place. I read Fences in high school and I couldn’t put it down – it was the first time I had read characters in a play who sounded like people I knew."

I hope he's back on Broadway soon - maybe in next spring's Fences revival with Denzel Washington. Wouldn't that be great!

But more importantly, I hope there are opportunities for Holland other talented young African-American actors to do good work in all kinds of roles - and be recognized for it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Talking back at the theatre

Okay, just my 2 cents on a theatre-related story this week.

The Broadway revival of Oleanna is closing Jan. 3. According to Michael Riedel's column in The New York Post, there was a bit of a dustup between playwright David Mamet and the producers about the post-performance talkbacks. Mamet did not like them but they were popular with audiences.

I don't agree with Mamet's point of view but I understand it. Apparently he believes that the play should stand on its own and not be picked apart by experts. I know some film directors feel the same way. As much as I would enjoy them, Woody Allen doesn't do dvd commentaries on his movies.

Personally, I like talkbacks. If I'd seen Oleanna, I would have stayed for it. (And I like dvd commentaries, too.) I almost always go to the theatre alone, so it's an opportunity to discuss the play with other people who've just seen it that I wouldn't have otherwise.

They can be a great opportunity to spur discussion, help you think about what you saw on stage in a way that maybe you hadn't considered, or raise issues you hadn't thought about. I think playwrights should view them as a way to keep the conversation going. And isn't that the point?

I know Trinity Repertory Company in Providence offers them after every performance of every show. I don't always have time to attend but on the occasions I have, like for the staged reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, I've definitely gotten something out of the experience.

I realize talkbacks probably work better with shorter shows or maybe after matinees, when people have more time to stay. The 39 Steps has a talkback series on Tuesdays with, among others, comedians, Hitchcock scholars and mystery writers.

It's all about choice. If you don't want to stay, don't. I haven't had a chance to attend a Broadway talkback yet but if the opportunity arises, you know I'll take it. Of course when I go to New York, I'm on vacation so I could sit there all night!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bid on dinner with the cast of Rent

Imagine a family dinner if your family was the cast of the musical Rent. Fun times, right? All of those struggling young artists singing and dancing on the table.

Well, you and three friends can dine with cast members from the touring production of Rent after the Sunday evening show at the Providence Performing Arts Center. The dinner is being auctioned off, with all proceeds going to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

According to the description, "the Sunday 'Family Dinners' are a tradition with the company and their favorite way to bid adieu to each stop on the tour. No less than 10 members of the company will be there; a great evening will be had by the lucky winner of this auction."

The original Mark and Roger from Rent on Broadway, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, are part of the current tour. There's no indication they'll be at the dinner but hey, they've gotta eat sometime, right?

Even if they have other plans, it sounds like a fun evening. You'll probably hear lots of great stories about life on the road and you'll be helping a great cause. Who knows, you may even be breaking bread with a future Broadway star.

The auction ends on Friday afternoon and so far, the high bid is $117.50. If you miss out on that one or you don't live near Providence, here's a list of some other Broadway Cares auctions.

Also, if you're at the theatre over the next month - either on Broadway or a touring production - it's quite likely a cast member will step out of character at the end of the show, explain the work of BC/EFA and ask for your support. Please consider making a donation.

Since its founding in 1988, Broadway Cares has raised over $140 million for critically needed services across the United States for people with AIDS, HIV or HIV-related illnesses.

And remember, some of the money you drop in those buckets will come right back to help people in your community.

This year, for example, Broadway Cares awarded $7.9 million in grants, including $5,000 apiece to AIDS Project Rhode Island, AIDS Care Ocean State and Family Resources Community Action, of Woonsocket.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Superior Donuts needs a boost

I'm worried about Superior Donuts.

Yes, I know tickets are on sale through March but last week it played to 49 percent capacity at the 991-seat Music Box Theatre, the lowest of any Broadway show. And it's down 12 percent from the previous week. The average ticket price was $66.35.

Needless to say those numbers don't inspire confidence, which is a shame.

Of the six shows I saw on my last trip to New York, this play about a rundown little donut shop in a changing Chicago neighborhood is the one that moved me the most. Superior Donuts has heart and humor and it deserves a much bigger audience. (Discounted tickets are available at Playbill and Broadway Box.)

I hope the poster isn't tripping people up. One woman I talked to said she wasn't sure at first whether it was a play or an advertisement for an actual donut shop! Also, I've never been able to get the video on the show's Web site to play properly. But maybe that's just my computer.

Anyway, I thought that Michael McKean as shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski and Jon Michael Hill as Franco Wicks, the young man who comes to work for him, had better chemistry than any other pair I saw on stage. That includes Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig in A Steady Rain.

I had a brief conversation with McKean as he walked up 45th Street after the show, and one thing he mentioned was how playwright Tracy Letts creates such memorable characters. I definitely agree.

(When I saw This is Spinal Tap at a movie theater in Hartford, Connecticut in 1984, I never imagined that 25 years later I'd be walking up 45th Street in New York City with McKean after seeing him on Broadway!)

The New York Times has story today about Hill, the 24-year-old who's simply amazing in his Broadway debut. He and director Tina Landau both talk about how hard they worked to strike a balance with his character so that Franco wouldn't come across as too jokey.

“Arthur is a man who has given up on hope," Landau said, "while Franco is built around the idea of a better America yet to come. For me it was key to get those two almost primordial forces opposing each other.”

Coincidentally, last night someone left a comment on my review of Superior Donuts and it pretty much sums up how I feel, too:

"After seeing August: Osage County last season and Superior Donuts yesterday afternoon, I'm telling everybody that it was our favorite this trip. The Absolute-Must-See Play. No gimmicks or tricks. Just amazing writing and acting that truly exhausted us. This is what theater is supposed to be. An experience you can't get at the movies, etc. We would love to see it again as well."

Update: Sadly, Superior Donuts will close on Jan. 3. But you've still got another month to see it.

Monday, November 16, 2009


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

I remember being excited to read Ragtime when it was published in 1975. I love American history and novelist E.L. Doctorow did a masterful job weaving real-life characters into his fictional story of three families at the turn of the century.

But until I stumbled upon the Broadway cast recording a couple years ago, I didn't even know there was a musical. I hoped someday I'd get to hear the stirring Tony-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens performed live.

Enter the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which staged Ragtime in the spring under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge. That production won raves and transferred to Broadway, opening last night at the Neil Simon Theatre.

When Ragtime begins and you see the cast arrayed on Derek McLane's spare, industrial-looking three-tiered set, it feels like an epic story.

The prologue that introduces the WASP, African-American and Jewish immigrant characters is glorious. And there are powerful images - Eastern European Jews carrying their belongings on their backs cross paths with black migrants from the South doing the same.

Christiane Noll was a standout for me as Mother, who becomes more confident and independent as her affluent life in New Rochelle, N.Y., with her husband and son is upended. In some ways, I felt like Ragtime was her story. I also enjoyed the performance of Bobby Steggert as the impetuous Mother's Younger Brother.

Their lives become intertwined with Tateh, a Jewish immigrant played by Robert Petkoff who struggles to provide for his daughter, and with the self-assured black piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr., played by Quentin Earl Darrington, and Sarah, played by Stephanie Umoh, the mother of his infant son.

As interesting and compelling as these three stories are, they didn't grab me emotionally to the extent I thought they would.

Part of it may be that because I knew how the musical would turn out, there was no element of surprise. Plus, it's tough to distill a novel into another medium and because Ragtime has so many stories to tell, the musical seems to sacrifice depth for breadth.

I especially felt a distance from the story of Coalhouse and Sarah, which I always thought was the heart of Ragtime. I liked Darrington's and Umoh's singing but I didn't sense much chemistry between them. I also felt like we didn't spend enough time with them together. Still, I saw a very early preview so I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

A bigger problem I had with Ragtime was the way Dodge has staged a key event involving an act of racism. No one is hurt, or even targeted physically, but it's still devastating - or at least it's supposed to be. Honestly, my reaction was, "That's so lame." I know it's theatre and we're supposed to suspend disbelief but I couldn't.

Playwright Terrence McNally, who won a Tony for the book, has provided a panoramic view of New York City in the first two decades of the 20th century, a time of mass immigration, mass production and mass entertainment.

There are great cameos from, among others, Donna Migliaccio as the fiery anarchist Emma Goldman, Eric Jordan Young as African-American educator Booker T. Washington, and Jonathan Hammond as escape artist Harry Houdini. I especially enjoyed Savannah Wise as showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. Together, they put the individual stories of Ragtime's three families into a larger context.

This is an ambitious, entertaining musical and well worth seeing for its gorgeous score and its sweeping look at a time in American history when everything seemed to be changing. But I admired it more than I truly felt touched by it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Some Brighton Beach memories

When Brighton Beach Memoirs closed on Broadway a week after it opened, Noah Robbins, who was so appealing as Eugene Morris Jerome, learned the hard way that show business is first of all a business.

But the 19-year-old from Maryland, whose biggest role prior to this was Max Bialystock in high school in The Producers, sounds philosophical about the experience.

At least, he tells Robert Siegel of National Public Radio, he had a chance to perform, unlike some of the cast of the companion play, Broadway Bound, which never started previews.

Plus, after getting some pretty good reviews he's less of an unknown. And now he really knows what it feels like to be a struggling actor. I thought this answer was cute, too.

Robert Siegel
: "And what is the wisdom? What is the thing that you never would have expected about being in a Broadway show that you now know?"

Noah Robbins: "It's not as different from high school as I thought. The theaters are better, the casts are better. But there was sort of the same amount of nervousness for high school as I had for Broadway and that was something that I would have never expected."

I had a chance to meet Robbins after seeing Brighton Beach Memoirs and he's a very polite, soft-spoken young man. In fact, he looked and sounded so unlike the wisecracking Eugene I was even more impressed with his performance. (Kudos to hair and wig designer Tom Watson and costume designer Jane Greenwood, too.)

Here's a clip from the play. As Brighton Beach's narrator a lot rests on the shoulders of the actor portraying Eugene. It's a big responsibility for someone barely out of high school and making his Broadway debut and Robbins was terrific.

Robbins will enroll at Columbia University in the fall - just a little farther up Broadway, as Siegel notes. Hopefully we'll see him on stage again soon - next time in a production with a better business plan.

Friday, November 13, 2009

My next New York theatre trip

I have tickets for my next New York City theatre trip!

I'm going to see two new musicals on Broadway next month: Fela! and Memphis. Plus, I'll be taking in the revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, the premiere of David Mamet's Race and the long-running Wicked. Finally, I'll be seeing off-Broadway's Love, Loss and What I Wore, with Kristin Chenoweth in the cast!

It's tough, because I always want to see everything. Okay, there are exceptions: I could not bring myself to sit through 3+ hours of Hamlet. And I have zero interest in Burn the Floor. But I'm happy for people who love them because Broadway shouldn't be all about me and my tastes.

Sometimes events are beyond my control, in the case of highly praised off-Broadway shows that close before I get there, like Circle Mirror Transformation. Others, like A Streetcar Named Desire, are sold out the weekend I'll be in New York.

There are some shows I knew I wanted to see, including Race and A Little Night Music. But I was on the fence about a few until they started getting good buzz from my friends and fellow bloggers: Fela!, Memphis and Love, Loss and What I Wore.

Sure, I pay attention to the professional critics, too. A pan can deflate my interest and praise can pique my curiosity. But a positive word from a friend really puts it on my radar.

It also helps that Fela! has a Sunday evening performance. I've had great luck catching musicals on Sunday nights. I always keep Chicago, which I've never seen onstage, as my fallback but so far, I haven't had to use it. Someday.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When ticket prices defy logic

I saw Wicked on tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center in January 2007 and fell in love with it - with the music, with the witty and clever way it tells another side of the Wizard of Oz story.

Ever since then, I've wanted to see the show on Broadway. I just figure it'll be even grander there. But whenever I plan a trip to New York City, there's always so much to see and the lure of new shows is strong, so I always put it off.

Well, no more. With Tony-winner Rondi Reed currently playing Madame Morrible, I didn't want to put it off any longer. So I've got my ticket for December for the Gershwin Theatre. (Another Broadway venue to cross off my list!)

I paid $125, which puts me in the center orchestra, my favorite spot, but toward the rear. (Not my favorite spot.) I could have gotten much closer to the stage with a $300 premium ticket. The cheapest ticket is $65.

I can afford a premium ticket for Wicked without going into debt. But honestly, there comes a point when the price seems too high. Maybe I'll regret it once I see how far back I'm sitting in the 1,900-seat Gershwin! (And I realize that for a lot of people, even $125 is too high.)

So with that background, I was shocked to find out that a ticket reseller is charging $430 for a single ticket to the touring production of Wicked in Syracuse in January.

For that amount of money, you could buy a premium ticket on Broadway, round-trip bus fare to New York City, your meals and have a little left over for souvenirs!

What really makes me angry about ticket resellers is they perpetuate the myth that you practically need a second mortgage to take your family to see a Broadway show, even on tour. Not true! I went to Ticketmaster and tickets for Wicked in Syracuse range from $40 to $95.

Wicked is a wonderful musical - especially for introducing teens or preteens to the theatre. So go, and take the kids. (It's returning to PPAC in December.)

But please, before you spend an outrageous amount of money, check with the official ticket seller first.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Practicing the fine art of giving

Here are two nice stories about philanthropy and the arts:

Mona Webster of Edinburgh, Scotland, who died in August at age 96, left New York City's Metropolitan Opera a bequest of $7.5 million. (The New York Times article notes that 40 percent will go to taxes but it's still a sizable chunk of change.)

Webster recalled listening to the Met's weekly radio broadcasts as far back as 1939. They're aired in the afternoon but because of the time difference she heard them in the evening.

"Saturday nights were sacred,'' said Gail Chesler, director of planned and special gifts.

Those broadcasts, now sponsored by homebuilder Toll Brothers, are still being heard across the United States and around the world. They reach 11 million people in 42 countries, making them one of this country's best cultural exports. The 79th season begins Dec. 12, with Puccini's Il Trittico.

In Massachusetts, a story from the Boston Globe finds that more gay couples are choosing to be recognized as couples when they donate to arts organizations.

Stephen Weiner and Donald Cornuet, who married last March on their 20th anniversary together, began to donate as a couple after joining the Opera Boston board in 2004. This year, they co-chaired the company's annual gala.

“The issue for us has been, when you look at the program books, it’s Sally X and John Y, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be the two of us,’’ said Weiner.

And named gifts, the article notes, are gold because they encourage others to emulate them.

Dan Salera and his longtime partner, Michael McCay, recently gave $50,000 to the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown and sponsored the just-ended production of Speed-the-Plow.

“There is a sense of recognition and I would say some pride when, as a gay man, you’re sitting there before the curtain goes up and you’re flipping through the program and looking at the list of donors and you see a same-sex couple,’’ said Salera.

“Others who see those names might be more inclined to give as a couple when the time comes.’’

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rocco makes peace with Peoria

So Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, made it to Peoria. (That's him with the cast of Rent presented by the city's Eastlight Theatre.)

As you may recall, the former head of Broadway's Jujamcyn Theatres got himself in hot water for a comment to The New York Times about a certain city in Illinois during his maiden interview as head of the NEA:

"I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman [in Chicago]. There's going to be some push-back from me about democratizing arts grants to the point where you really have to answer some questions about artistic merit."

As a result, Kathy Chitwood, Eastlight's executive director, and Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners, invited Landesman to visit the city of 113,000 and sample some of its cultural offerings.

He accepted and Friday was the big day.

Landesman promoted his Art Works initiative, designed to remind Americans of both the emotional and practical value of the arts. They satisfy our need to create, imagine, inspire (and be inspired); they also provide 5.7 million full-time jobs in the United States.

He met with representatives of Peoria's arts organizations, toured a rehabilitated warehouse district where there are plans to build a waterfront museum, and took in Rent during his 13-hour visit.

Here's coverage from The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, the Peoria Journal Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (Then if you really want to get depressed, check out what some Post and Journal Star readers think about the value of the arts. Not much.)

Most interesting to me were a couple examples that Bloomberg News writer Jeremy Gerard used to illustrate "what the arts are up against in a country that pays little more than lip service to culture."

One of his examples:

"I spoke with Erich Yetter, the artistic director of the Peoria Ballet. He told me that as recently as five years ago, he had a company of nine dancers. They’ve all been laid off; one went to work for Cirque du Soleil. Now he hires freelancers from other companies and rents costumes and scenery from groups that have gone bust."

And a second:

"The well-fed youngsters of central Illinois may not have quite captured the feral look of Jonathan Larson’s Manhattan artists struggling with poverty and AIDS. But they were awfully good, and they were rewarded with resounding ovations in a packed high school auditorium. Not a paycheck, though -- they work for free."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Shooting Star

Gratuitous Violins rating *** out of ****
In Shooting Star, a man and a woman meet by chance at an airport more than 20 years after their relationship ended. What might have been a quick hello turns into something more than that when a snowstorm cancels all flights.

Playwright Steven Deitz has written a bittersweet look at two very different people who were once in love, then their relationship fell apart. Now, they have an unexpected chance to catch up with everything that implies: the fond memories, the blame, the regrets.

Reed McAllister and Elena Carson are portrayed in this two-hander by husband and wife actors Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson. The Trinity Repertory Company production is their 55th play together. (They've acted at Trinity Rep in the past and they're also veterans of New York's Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.)

The way Dietz has created this pair, it's a bit hard to imagine how they hooked up as students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

McAllister is the conservative businessman in suit and tie; Carson, the free-spirited liberal in a peasant skirt. And you get the impression they were much the same back in the day. But I guess opposites really do attract.

The set design by Patrick Lynch is very effective: a couple rows of metal seats, electronic boards announcing flight delays, big floor-to-ceiling windows that let the audience see the snow falling gently outside.

This is my first time seeing a play by Dietz, whose works are a mainstay of regional theatre companies. He definitely has a way with the clever one-liners. There's some pointed, witty red state/blue state jabs and a reference to National Public Radio pledge drives that got big laughs.

Rhoads and Williamson, directed by Fred Sullivan Jr., do a great job of taking what could be caricatures and making them seem like people you might know. These are two people who have been beaten down a bit by life and it shows. Williamson especially is terrific in the flashier, funnier of the two roles.

But the play is much more than a jokey reunion between the kooky liberal and uptight conservative. Dietz explores the pain and sadness that's occurred in both of their lives, the pent-up anger over slights that never got resolved, the disappointment at the way things have turned out.

There are some unexpected twists in the story and I have to give Dietz credit for bringing up a subject that could make some theatergoers uncomfortable. He does it in a way that I think is very sensitive and credible.

Shooting Star isn't the kind of play that wraps things up in a neat package, and I liked that.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Catching up with Jan Maxwell

One of the many pleasures of taking in The Royal Family on Broadway was being introduced to Jan Maxwell. I'd never seen the Tony-nominated actress but I'd heard great things about her - and she was terrific as the daughter in a famous 1920s theatrical family.

So to catch up on Maxwell's career, I listened to an interview from last fall with the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program. It's always interesting to hear performers talk about where they're from and how they got their start in the business.

In Maxwell's case, she grew up in West Fargo, North Dakota, the daughter of a lawyer (and later a judge) who was also a theatre lover, an amateur actor and a playwright. She's also the sister of experimental theatre director and playwright Richard Maxwell.

And a fun piece of trivia: Maxwell got her Equity card after being cast as the understudy for the role of Lily St. Regis in a bus-and-truck tour of Annie.

Since I made my first visit to Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater last year, and I wrote yesterday about the play that changed my life, I especially liked this quote:

"When I was 16 we took a field trip to the Guthrie and I saw Tennessee Williams' Streetcar and it was pretty much a life-changing event for me."

Friday, November 6, 2009

The play that changed my life

I've already ordered The Play that Changed My Life, a book compiled by the American Theatre Wing in which 19 playwrights talk about the works that influenced them and their careers.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy, and a package of other theatre-related titles from Applause Publishing, the Wing is sponsoring an essay contest.

Just write, in 350 words or less, about the show that had the greatest impact on you, when you saw it in the course of your life and most importantly, why it meant so much to you.

I'm guessing most of the people who enter will write about shows they saw when they were young children or in their teens or twenties. I didn't become a regular theatergoer until I was - let's just say older. But as my story proves, it's never too late to start.

Of course, anyone who's read this blog for any length of time knows about the play that changed my life: seeing A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway with Kevin Spacey in April 2007.

Before that, I'd gone to the theatre a handful of times over the years but it was never a habit. I didn't grow up with theatre-loving parents. My friends weren't theatergoers. And it never occurred to me that I could go alone. Plus, I thought I'd have to get all dressed up.

I'd only been to New York City a few times, never longer than overnight and always for a specific event. And I'd never been to a show on Broadway. But the draw of Kevin Spacey was impossible to resist. The problem was, where to begin? I didn't even know how to get tickets. (Yes, I was that clueless!)

Enter Steve on Broadway.

I found his blog and e-mailed him asking for help. Along with great advice, Steve gave me his friendship, the first of many wonderful theatergoing friends I've made.

He was so excited about my first trip to Broadway that my nervousness, and any thoughts I might have harbored about backing out, evaporated. What began as a pipe dream became something I could see myself doing.

And as I pored through the archives of Steve's blog, peppering him with questions about all the shows he'd seen - and it seemed like he'd seen everything, his passion for the theatre was irresistible, too.

My Broadway adventure began on April 12, 2007.

When I walked into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and saw the set for A Moon for the Misbegotten, the same one I'd seen pictures of from the London production at the Old Vic Theatre, it was thrilling.

The orchestra section was small - more intimate than I thought it would be. I was in Row A, Seat 109 and much closer to the stage than I thought I would be. And noticing how casually my fellow theatergoers were dressed, I realized that I'd packed way too much!

The first person I saw when the play began was Eve Best as Josie Hogan, and she made an entrance I'll never forget - bursting out the front door of this little ramshackle farmhouse with incredible energy and purpose. I was mesmerized.

As for Kevin well, I was a little bit in shock. All I could think was, "It's Kevin Spacey. I can't believe it. I can't believe I'm so close." My jaw dropped in amazement, a smile crossed my face, and I'm not sure it ever completely left for 2 1/2 hours.

It was such a different experience from seeing him in a movie - much more memorable because he was right there in front of me. I saw every wrinkle and line in his face, the little strawberry-colored birthmark on the back of his neck, the way his hair curls around his ears. At one point, I swear he looked right at me.

Afterward, I stood with a small crowd at the stage door, managed to say a few words to Kevin and got his autograph. I told him it was my first time seeing a play on Broadway and that I'd made the trip just for him. He said, "welcome."

You know what, I did feel welcome in New York City. I ended up walking around Times Square for about an hour, reveling in being a part of the huge crowd, snapping pictures of theatre marquees all lit up.

And I was hooked.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Royal Family

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

It would be perfectly understandable if The Royal Family showed its age. After all the play, by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, made its Broadway debut 82 years ago, in 1927. The story is based on the Barrymore clan and the only Barrymore I know is Drew.

Well, the Manhattan Theatre Club revival of this three-act play is anything but a musty period piece. As directed by Doug Hughes, The Royal Family, at the Friedman Theatre, feels immensely witty and fresh.

What a lively, stylish homage to the 1920s. John Lee Beatty's opulent Manhattan apartment and Catherine Zuber's glamorous costumes richly evoke the decade. I sat in the front row - a first for me - and I laughed, a lot. I know some reviewers felt it started out slowly but I enjoyed myself from beginning to end.

Rosemary Harris, best known these days as Aunt May in the Spider-Man movies, is so warm and regal as matriarch Fanny Cavendish. Trouper that she is, she's determined to go back on the road again after recovering from an illness.

As her daughter Julie, a Broadway star in her own right, Jan Maxwell is superb. She's trying to cope with all of the crises that erupt in this family of theatre actors, as well as dealing with some of her own mixed feelings about continuing on the stage. When it all finally becomes too much, Maxwell is amazing to watch.

I loved the supporting cast, too, including: Kelli Barrett as Julie's daughter Gwen, who wants to quit the business and get married; John Glover and Ana Gasteyer as Fanny's brother and sister-in-law, desperately trying to revive their fading careers; Tony Roberts, a favorite of mine since Annie Hall, as the family's put-upon agent.

And Reg Rogers is perfect as Tony Cavendish, the womanizing, spendthrift son who's turned his back on the stage for - horrors - Hollywood and the movies. Luckily for us, he returns to the family hearth when things don't quite work out as planned. Rogers plays this role to the hilt, including some terrific swordplay. He's hilarious and I loved every moment of his performance.

For all the deliciously witty parts of The Royal Family, there are some thoughtful ones, too.

I loved the passion for their craft, the dedication and pride that comes through when these characters talk about the theatre. As much as they try to get away from the stage, as ambivalent as they sometimes feel, it's clearly in their blood.

The Manhattan Theatre Club calls The Royal Family "a valentine to the theatre." And it is - a funny valentine, a touching one, too. I certainly gained some insight into what it's like to be part of a family business when that business is show.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Maine and the majority/minority divide

Voters in Maine appear to have approved a ballot measure overturning a never-implemented law legalizing same-sex marriage. It's infuriating and tragic and wrong and unAmerican to deny some American citizens their full and equal rights, indeed, to deny them their very humanity.

But I think the results, this year in Maine and last year in California, are also a reminder of how genuinely difficult it is for people in the majority to understand what it's like to be part of a minority group.

The year I spent in Israel was unique in many ways. As an American Jew living for the first time in an overwhelmingly Jewish country, it was a fascinating and sobering experience to be on the other side of the majority/minority divide.

There are tangible signs: the displays for your holiday are at the front of the supermarket and you don't have to take a vacation day from work to celebrate it. And you never have to fumble around for what to say when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas.

Then there are the intangible ways you know you're in the majority. You never have to listen to anyone say the United States is a Christian nation and feel like they're excluding you. And you never have to think about the minorities in your midst.

It's not even a conscious decision to ignore them. The majority in any society is so overwhelming, so omnipresent, that if you belong to it, you don't have to think about the people who can get left out - through ethnicity or race or gender or sexual orientation.

In most cases, I think it requires an unusual strength of character or a personal connection to break through that indifference. You have to make an effort to put yourself in the other person's shoes. A lot of people simply don't understand, aren't willing to take the time, don't see why they ought to do so.

For me, it's personal. As a Jew, I look at the votes in Maine and California and think: What if they want to put my civil rights up for a popular vote next? Jews are a tiny percentage of the U.S. population. We'd probably lose.

It's not personal solely because I'm Jewish.

It's also personal because I have wonderful friends who are gay and lesbian, who enrich their communities and my life every day I know them. And I don't see any reason for my friends who are in committed relationships to be denied the right to marry the person they love, to be denied the benefits and protections of civil marriage.

It's incredibly disheartening that people would vote to take civil rights away from their fellow citizens. I don't have any answers this morning. I just know how difficult it is to get through, especially to straight people who think they don't know anyone who's gay or lesbian.

I wish they would realize what they've done - to their neighbors, their coworkers, maybe even to their friends and relatives by denying them equal protection under the law. I wish they'd realize what they've done to themselves, to their state and to their country when bigotry and fear triumph over reason.

But we have to keep trying to make them understand. I have to keep trying.

A Steady Rain

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

Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of the cop genre in any form: movies, tv, books. But if there's a chance to see Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman portray two Chicago police officers on a Broadway stage, count me in.

And in A Steady Rain, it's all Craig, all Jackman, for all 90 minutes of this play's running time at the Schoenfeld Theatre. The two are onstage alone from beginning to end of Chicago playwright Keith Huff's two-hander.

Craig is Joey and Jackman is Denny, beat cops and friends since "kinneygarten" as one of them says. (I can't remember which.) Joey, a lonely bachelor with a drinking problem, is the more even-tempered and thoughtful of the two while Denny, married with children, is a hothead with a racist streak and a drug habit.

The set design by Scott Pask has Denny and Joey are sitting under bright lights on a bare stage with a black backdrop, in what could be an interrogation room. The backdrop changes a couple of times and I think it's effective. You get a sense of where the action is taking place and the change of scenery gives your eyes a rest.

At first, listening to Joey and Denny's meandering conversation, I couldn't figure out where A Steady Rain was heading. But gradually, as the talk turned to their experiences as beat cops patrolling some of Chicago's meaner streets, I really got into it.

Okay, it's hard to believe all of the things that happen to Joey and Denny, both on the job and in their personal lives, could really happen to two people. Parts of the convoluted story are probably similar to ones you've seen on dozens of cop shows or read about in the news.

Still, even though A Steady Rain was more entertaining than deeply affecting, it was great to see these two actors onstage for the first time and I was genuinely surprised at some of the twists and turns. (Maybe my ignorance of the genre was a plus!)

True, Jackman isn't entirely convincing as a rough-edged, hardened street cop but I enjoyed watching him play an unlikable character. And Craig is great as the partner who tries to rein in his friend's worst tendencies. He's the complete opposite of his most famous big-screen role. (Still, I couldn't help myself. I did think a few times, "That's James Bond!")

Huff is developing A Steady Rain as a movie and I can tell you right now it would definitely be too violent for me to watch. (Maybe after it comes out on dvd.) But onstage, where the violence is described and implied, I could handle it.

There's something mesmerizing about watching two actors simply telling a story through their tone of voice and body language, creating characters we never meet, taking us to events we never see, but feel like we do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Save marriage equality in Maine

Maine residents are voting today on whether to repeal a law legalizing same-sex marriage. The measure was passed by the legislature and signed by Governor John Baldacci in May but has never taken effect.

It's unbelievable to me that we even allow some Americans to decide whether other Americans are entitled to equal rights. Civil rights should never, ever be subject to a popular vote.

Allowing gay and lesbian citizens the benefits and protections of civil marriage does not take away anything from anyone else in Maine. Just the opposite - expanding civil rights to include groups that have historically been excluded benefits all Americans.

As Philip Spooner, an 87-year-old veteran, Maine resident and father of four sons, one of whom is gay, says so eloquently, "This is what we fought for in World War II, the idea that we can be different and still be equal."

Really, is that so difficult to understand?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Finian's Rainbow

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

On a gray, damp day in New York City I spent an afternoon taking in the vibrant, sunny revival of Finian's Rainbow at Broadway's St. James Theatre. Yes, I'll admit I was charmed.

Not everything worked for me but in the end, the timeless music, choreography and captivating performances won me over. If I couldn't quite forget the flaws, at least I made peace with them and sat back and enjoyed the show.

Tony winner Jim Norton is Irishman Finian McLonergan, a lovable rogue with a brogue, and the beautiful Kate Baldwin plays his feisty daughter Sharon.

They've come to America with a pot of gold that Finian has stolen from a leprechaun named Og, a delightfully comic Christopher Fitzgerald. (Will someone please give this talented actor a role on Broadway where he doesn't have to wear a funny costume?!)

The McLonergans, with Og on their trail, happen upon the community of Rainbow Valley, in the mythical Southern state of Missitucky, a place where black and white sharecroppers work side by side harvesting tobacco.

Among them is the very sweet and handsome Cheyenne Jackson as Woody Mahoney. (I'm not quite sure what Mahoney is supposed to be - whether he owns the land, works it or is some kind of community organizer. But no matter!)

Their idyllic existence is threatened by the bigoted white Senator Rawkins, a role shared terrifically by David Schramm and Chuck Cooper, who undergoes a startling transformation. I loved Cooper's rendition of the gospel-influenced "The Begat."

The musical, with a book by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg and Fred Saidy, and a score by Harburg and Burton Lane, is a mix of fantasy and social commentary that seems tame now but was daring when it opened on Broadway in 1947. Harburg "had to fight like hell to make sure all the blacks and whites got to dance together onstage," his son Ernie told The New York Times recently.

The plot of Finian's Rainbow is sort of silly and there isn't much dramatic tension or depth to the characters. I never felt the people of Rainbow Valley were really in any danger. Plus, in 2009, it was a little unsettling that their cash crop is tobacco. (Shouldn't the Playbill include a government health warning?)

Still, the musical has the kind of classic, exhilarating Broadway choreography - by director Warren Carlyle - that's so much fun to watch, especially the big ensemble numbers. The same goes for Fitzgerald's magic tricks. And Jackson well, even when he forgot a line once, it was cute to watch him recover - quickly and expertly. What a perfect reminder that anything can happen at a live performance!

Finally, how could I resist Baldwin's gorgeous voice - especially her absolutely heavenly rendition of "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" Of course, I couldn't. After most of Finian's Rainbow has faded away, it's the memory that will stay with me the longest.