Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lowering the curtain on 2009

Here are a few final thoughts before I bid farewell to 2009, my third year of theatergoing:
  • Speaking of posters, not that it matters but A Steady Rain had one of the worst designs I've ever seen. How can you take two handsome men like Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman and make them almost painful to look at? I guess it was designed to symbolize their friendship, the merging of their lives. But it made them look like a two-headed Cyclops.
  • Of my favorite lines in 2009 none was more shocking than one from Mary Stuart. I could not believe it when Janet McTeer as the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots taunted Queen Elizabeth I (Harriet Walter) with: "The throne of England is desecrated by a bastard." Not a wise thing to say to the woman who holds the keys to your jail and the warrant for your execution!
  • Spoiler alert: I never realized that watching someone vomit on stage could be so entertaining but Hope Davis was superb at, er, "erupting" in God of Carnage. And watching the other three actors scurry around, trying to help her and cleaning up the mess, was hilarious. This is a scene that I knew was coming but it was executed in a way that still managed to surprise me.
  • reasons to be pretty had an ending that made me laugh and cheer. Thomas Sadoski's character makes an obscene gesture after he's quit his job in the warehouse of a Costco-like chain. It was a beautiful moment and symbolized the way Sadoski's Greg became his own man. I hadn't planned on seeing this play but I ended up enjoying it so much, in large part due to Sadoski's engaging performance. Despite the ever-increasing appearance of celebrities on Broadway stages, it's most often the actors who aren't household names who end up making the biggest impression on me.
  • On the downside, I've noticed more theatergoers arriving late and is it my imagination or have candy wrappers become more crinkly and noisy in the past year?
  • I'd been dreading 2009 long before January but thanks to my theatre-loving friends, it turned out to be a wonderful year, better than I could possibly have imagined. They made sure I had the best birthday ever. I am so grateful to them for that and for so much more.
  • To everyone who read my blog, left a comment, followed me on Twitter, friended me on Facebook, sent me an e-mail, joined me for lunch, brunch dinner or a show, thank-you for the gift of your time and your friendship. Here's to a happy, healthy and adventure-filled 2010!
  • Finally, out of everything I've read about theatre in 2009, this description by playwright Adam Szymkowicz of the plays that excite him resonated with me the most:

    "I want to have a good time. I want to laugh, I want to be engaged, I want to care. I like plays about things. I like crazy off the wall experiments and I like naturalism, too. Most importantly, I like narrative. If you're not telling me a story, I get bored and I hate your play. I don't want to hate your play. I want you to show me something new. I get excited by something I haven't seen before."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some final thoughts on Ragtime

I really feel for the cast and fans of the musical Ragtime, which is closing on Sunday due to - what else - poor ticket sales. I know what it's like to have a beloved show end a Broadway run prematurely. (Update: Ragtime got a one-week reprieve, to Jan. 10.)

But I have to admit that despite a glorious score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, this revival was a bit of a disappointment.

As someone who loved the 1977 novel by E.L. Doctorow, who enjoys epic American stories, I was really looking forward to the musical. But after a terrific opening number that introduces the WASP, African-American and Jewish immigrant characters, Ragtime never again soared as high for me.

Part of it may simply be my familiarity with the story - I knew the plot so well that there were no surprises. I had the same problem with a production of Parade I saw in Boston. I knew going in what happened to Leo Frank. So there was no "gasp" moment.

Also, while I enjoyed some of the performances in Ragtime - especially Christiane Noll as Mother and Bobby Steggert as Mother's Younger Brother - none of them truly got to me emotionally.

I chalked it up to seeing an early preview but now I'm not so sure. The characters who should have hit me the hardest - Robert Petkoff as the Jewish immigrant Tateh, Quentin Earl Darrington as the black piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Stephanie Umoh as Sarah, the woman he loves and the mother of his child - didn't make a big impression. They never felt like fully developed characters.

I'm not even sure it was totally their fault. Although Terrence McNally won a Tony for his book, I don't think he was entirely successful. I liked the way he incorporated the real-life historical figures that populate Doctorow's novel but the individual stories left me feeling a little cold. They felt truncated and I was never truly absorbed in them.

And believe me, it didn't matter that there were no celebrities in the cast.

My biggest problem with Ragtime occurs (spoiler alert!) when Coalhouse Walker's prized Model T is destroyed by a group of bigots. It's an act of racism that consumes him and sets in motion the rest of the musical's tragic events.

(The "car" in this case is a red metal skeleton of a vehicle. Didn't Henry Ford say that you could have any color Model T you wanted, as long as it was black?)

The scene with the car was staged in a way that was so lame I almost laughed. And I never, ever, laugh at bigotry. The white vandals go through the motions of hitting the car without actually touching the vehicle. So even though Coalhouse is very upset, the car looks exactly the same after it's supposedly been destroyed. I couldn't see why he felt so enraged.

But most importantly, we live in a different world than when Ragtime was published in 1975 or when the musical premiered in 1996. Part of my reservation my simply stem from the fact that the events it portrays take on a different meaning in 2009.

Late in the musical, (spoiler alert!) Coalhouse begins a campaign of terror that culminates in his taking over a building and threatening to blow it up. Despite everything that's happened to him, in post 9/11 New York City, it's hard to muster any sympathy.

I'm always sad when a show closes, especially one as ambitious as Ragtime. I loved the music and I did enjoy it. There was some great imagery and I liked the panoramic view of early 20th century New York.

But I didn't leave the theatre wanting to tell everyone I knew that they simply had to see Ragtime. Maybe that was the problem.

A sweet moment at Superior Donuts

Before the curtain closes on 2009, I have one final memorable theatre moment to relate. It happened last night on Broadway, while I was a few hundred miles away. And it's one of the nicest moments of the year.

The next best thing to seeing a show myself is turning a friend on to a play or musical I've enjoyed.

So when a coworker who was going to New York City with his wife asked for a recommendation, I was happy to suggest a few. And I was thrilled when they picked one of my favorites - Superior Donuts.

On Monday I tweeted James Vincent Meredith, who is terrific as Chicago police Officer James Hailey, that I was sending a couple of friends to see the play the next evening. He quickly responded, telling me to let him know if they wanted a backstage tour.

Well, I was floored by his kind offer. And of course they did!

After the show there was a brief talkback with the cast. Then Meredith took my friends onstage at the Music Box Theatre, where they got an up-close look at the set. Needless to say, they were thrilled. And they loved the play. And I am so jealous. (But in a good way!)

One of the joys of becoming a theatergoer has been a chance to see two productions on Broadway from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, both of which I've loved, August: Osage County and Superior Donuts. It's taught me how much great theatre there is all over this country.

I've been so fortunate to see playwright Tracy Letts' memorable characters portrayed by an incredibly talented ensemble of actors. And as James Vincent Meredith demonstrated, they're an incredibly gracious group, too. I know why my friend Steve on Broadway sings their praises.

Sadly, Superior Donuts closes Sunday. But you've got six more chances to see this warm and witty play about how we relate to each other as individuals, as a community, as Americans. It truly touched me and I'm so glad it touched my friends, too.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In defense of applause

I've watched New York Times film critic A.O. "Tony" Scott on At the Movies and he seems like a pleasant fellow. But part of his essay comparing theatre and movies hit a nerve. (Thanks to Jonathan Mandell, who writes about New York theatre at The Faster Times, for the link.)

Here's what Scott had to say about the current Broadway revival of A Little Night Music and the Ingmar Bergman film on which it's based, Smiles of A Summer Night:

"You watch Bergman, whether at home or in a revival house, in a state of solitude, but you go see “A Little Night Music” in a crowd and partake of its rituals. Many of these strike me, after 10 years of moviegoing with little time for theater, as bizarre, from the apparently obligatory ovations — is there nothing New York audiences won’t stand for? — to the practice of applauding after every number."

He describes seeing A Little Music as "an encounter with celebrity" and the applause as "an act of communal congratulation for having done so."

Okay, maybe audiences are a little too quick to jump to their feet at the end of the show. In a perfect world, we'd only stand for the most incredible, memorable, take-your-breath-away performances and applaud for the most emotionally gripping songs.

But do the applause and the standing ovations really hurt anyone? Do they detract from anyone's theatergoing experience compared with, say, talking during the show or being seated late or unwrapping a piece of candy? I don't think so.

Scott has some good points - seeing a movie and going to the theatre are different experiences. But his allusion to theatre and its bizarre rituals strikes me as needlessly snooty and dismissive of an art form he admits he's barely made time for in the past decade.

Unlike movies, the people up on stage are right there in front of you. They're human beings, not larger-than-life images on celluloid. When they come out at the curtain call after having made you laugh or cry for the past 2 1/2 hours, it's natural to want to give them an ovation. It's kind of a catharsis.

Besides, I don't think people are applauding to congratulate themselves. They're doing it to acknowledge performances that they've enjoyed. (And since most of the tickets are bought by tourists for whom a Broadway show is a treat, I think part of it is the excitement of simply being in the audience.)

If people want to stand and applaud Catherine Zeta-Jones or Angela Lansbury as they take their bows at the conclusion of A Little Night Music, I don't think it's bizarre. Seeing an actor onstage whom you've loved from movies or TV is thrilling. (And is it so difficult to imagine that the audience may simply have enjoyed their performances?)

While I enjoy a good movie, it's too easy to do in solitude. Going to the theatre forces me to be part of a crowd. The fact that it's a communal experience is a good thing. Too much solitude is not a good thing.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Theatre 2009 - the ones that got away

I've now gone through most of the best of 2009 theatre lists for New York City. I thought Elisabeth Vincentelli from The New York Post had the most interesting comments, especially for Brief Encounter and Becky Shaw, two of the many shows that I wish I'd seen.

(Although I'll get a second chance in the spring with Becky Shaw at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston.)

Becky Shaw (Second Stage Theatre)

Gina Gionfriddo's cutting play opened at the beginning of January and nearly 12 months later, it remains the funniest of the year. It was also the first in a series of excellent comedies written by women -- definitely the trend of 2009. "Becky Shaw" was deservedly popular but like other hits by women, it didn't move to Broadway. Surprise surprise: Producers are willing to take chances on transferring Off shows by guys, like Neil LaBute's "Reasons to Be Pretty" and Geoffrey Naufft's "Next Fall" (reopening in the spring after a run at Playwrights Horizons).

Brief Encounter (St. Ann's Warehouse)

Director Emma Rice uses all the tools at her disposal to tell a lovely little story that draws from David Lean's 1946 movie and Noel Coward songs. The show's an import from Wales, which begs the questions: Why can't American directors come up with this type of mainstream production, which boasts smart, theatrically savvy, heartfelt but not sappy, and completely accessible storytelling?

Okay, Vincentelli brings up some excellent points.

I think Becky Shaw garnered pretty good reviews. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times included it among the year's best and in his review, called the play "a big box of fireworks fizzing and crackling across the stage from its first moments to its last." So, why didn't some producer take a chance on it?

And I also wonder why American directors can't come up with the kind of theatrically savvy productions that British theatre companies seem to do with ease. Part of the reason I loved Black Watch, from the National Theatre of Scotland, and the import The 39 Steps is because they're both so inventive, yet they're both very accessible.

Although I'd argue that Our Town, from Chicago's The Hypocrites and directed by David Cromer, is a great example of that kind of smart and heartfelt storytelling. (It also made Vincentelli's list of the year's best - and mine.)

I'm so glad I got to see Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, but I really regret not seeing Ruined or A Streetcar Named Desire or The Emperor Jones or The Orphans' Home Cycle or So Help Me God or The Starry Messenger or A Boy and His Soul or The Brother/Sister Plays.

Well, I could go on and on but you get the idea.

I guess I did pretty well for someone who doesn't live in New York and can't get there all that often. I really enjoyed almost everything I saw. Still, I feel like there were a few cases where I could have made better choices, picked things that would have been more satisfying.

Yes, it's exciting to see the shows that open on Broadway every year, and it's especially handy for filling out my imaginary Tony ballot. But this year especially, reading the best of 2009 theatre lists makes me realize how much I'm missing beyond the confines of Times Square.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bruce and I wish you a Merry Christmas

Peace, love and Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating today.

Here's Bruce Springsteen, 2009 Kennedy Center honoree and supporter of marriage equality in New Jersey, with "Santa Claus is Coming to Town":

"Like many of you who live in New Jersey, I've been following the progress of the marriage-equality legislation currently being considered in Trenton. I've long believed in and have always spoken out for the rights of same sex couples and fully agree with Governor Corzine when he writes that, "The marriage-equality issue should be recognized for what it truly is -- a civil rights issue that must be approved to assure that every citizen is treated equally under the law." I couldn't agree more with that statement and urge those who support equal treatment for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to let their voices be heard now."

Thank-you for speaking out, Bruce!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stage door stories from 2009

I'm not ashamed to admit it: I'm a fangirl. A part of me still finds it amazing that after I see a Broadway show, most of the time I can meet the actors and actresses whose work I've just enjoyed. (And it's not just the more famous ones. I'm thrilled to meet the cast of every show.)

So I can't end 2009 without mentioning some of my favorite stage door experiences of the year. And of course I want to thank the performers who took the time to sign my Playbill, talk to me or on a few occasions when I was brave enough to ask, pose for a picture.

Sadly, I did not get autographs from Hugh Jackman or Daniel Craig after A Steady Rain but I was smart enough to hand my camera to Steve On Broadway, who snapped some nice pictures of the man from Oz looking very jaunty in his gray scarf and fedora.

Among the other highlights:

James Gandolfini from God of Carnage. I'm a Sopranos fan, so this was exciting. Usually, if it's someone I know from TV or movies, I manage to say something along the lines of "loved you on this TV program or in that movie and it's so wonderful to see you on stage." This time, maybe because he came out so quickly after the play ended, I was tongue-tied. Gandolfini was quiet, although he did laugh when someone asked about a Sopranos movie. ("I don't think so.")

Neil Patrick Harris. This was completely unexpected. Apparently, NPH attended the same performance of Waiting for Godot that I did because I saw him going in the stage door. People were clamoring for autographs and he promised to sign when he came out - and he did, as well as pose for pictures. This was the day before he was hosting the Tony awards and I'm sure he had a busy schedule but he was exceedingly friendly and gracious.

Ernie Hudson from Joe Turner's Come and Gone. It was great meeting the entire cast but best of all was spending a few minutes listening to Hudson talk about it had been like the previous week, when the president and first lady were in the audience. He was clearly still excited about it. (Hudson said everyone onstage was temporarily blinded from cell-phone cameras going off when the Secret Service brought the Obamas to their seats for Act II.)

Steven Pasquale from reasons to be pretty. I saw this play in the afternoon on the day of the Tony awards. Pasquale's character is a creep and not very nice to his wife. In real life, Pasquale is married to Laura Benanti, who was hosting the Tony preshow. As he walked away with an assistant, I heard him inquire about her in a way that struck me as so sweet and caring. Quite different from the character I'd just seen him portray. Yes, I know it's called acting but the contrast just reinforced what a great job he did onstage.

Jessica Hynes from The Norman Conquests. Hynes played the frazzled Annie, who cares for her needy but unseen mother and desperately needs a break. I told her how much I enjoyed her performance, how it related to the circumstances of my life and really resonated with me. She asked me whether she'd "gotten it right." I assured her that she definitely had. And I was touched - and impressed - that she cared enough to ask.

Alice Ripley from Next to Normal. This was after her second show of the day and Ripley took a long time to make her way around the circle of fans. She was stopping to talk with almost everyone and I could tell some of the conversations were intense. 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.

Catherine Zeta-Jones from A Little Night Music. In the past three years of going to Broadway shows I've met Oscar winners and Tony winners and Emmy winners. But when Zeta-Jones came out of the stage door, looking perfectly made-up and glamorous, I thought to myself, "That's a movie star." She signed autographs, acknowledged fans from Wales and and Scotland who'd come to see her, and in minutes, was whisked away by a waiting SUV, leaving some Hollywood glitter in her wake.

Special bonus celebrity sighting - While I was waiting for the cast of A Little Night Music, I saw an elderly man being helped into the front passenger's side of Zeta-Jones' SUV. It was her father-in-law, 93-year-old Kirk Douglas! I wanted to rush over and tell him about the key role he played in my life, but I resisted. Still, it was awesome to see that unmistakable profile. (And he blogged about going to see ALNM on MySpace!)

Sarah Rosenthal from Ragtime. Sarah, who's 13 and making her Broadway debut, was very sweet at the stage door. She signed my Playbill and asked me, with all the seriousness and polish of a seasoned performer, "So, where are you from?"

In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Sarah talked about how she spent weeks practicing her signature to make it distinctive. "There have been so many times that I've waited outside a stage door in the cold to get someone's autograph," she says. "It's exciting to think that now, someone might want my autograph."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The best theatre of 2009

I've avoided making best-of lists the past couple of years because it's just too difficult. For me, going to the theatre, especially in New York City, is such a treat. Even if I didn't absolutely love the play or musical, there's almost always some saving grace.

So I usually settle for taking note of my favorite performances, which allows me to mention just about everything. But this year, there were a half-dozen shows that moved me so deeply, I wanted to recognize them. After careful study and much thought, these are my picks for the best of 2009. I saw five on Broadway and one off-Broadway. Two were transfers from Chicago and one came from London.

Next to Normal

Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist and book writer Brian Yorkey have accomplished something so rare for Broadway - an original musical about a complex subject. Alice Ripley as Diana, a woman in the throes of mental illness, J. Robert Spencer as her husband, Dan, and Jennifer Damiano as their daughter Natalie were heart-wrenching. The vibrant rock 'n' roll score conveys so well what each character is going through - how they feel, their fears and frustrations. As an outsider looking in, I gained a greater understanding of the devastating impact mental illness has on a family and how difficult it is to treat. Next to Normal was tough to watch at times, but I found it utterly compelling.


I've always loved Hair and I've always been interested in the 1960s. The current Broadway revival evokes the spirit of the decade without glossing over its tumultuous events. Will Swenson and Gavin Creel are terrific as the charismatic leader of a tribe of hippies and a conflicted draftee, respectively. Under the direction of Diane Paulus, the musical is exhilarating to watch. But Paulus also reminds us of the cost when we send young Americans into harm's way. And fittingly for a time in which inhibitions were cast aside, Hair ends with an invitation to become part of the tribe. As a result, I set foot on a Broadway stage for the very first time. I got to sing and dance (in my off-key, uncoordinated way) and see how things look from the other side. It was the most thrilling moment I've ever had at the theatre and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Our Town and Brighton Beach Memoirs

What director David Cromer did so brilliantly in Our Town off-Broadway and Brighton Beach Memoirs in its too-short Broadway run was strip them to their essence: absorbing stories of the daily lives and loves of American families.

As Our Town's high school sweethearts Emily and George, Jennifer Grace and James McMenamin embody the awkwardness of teenagers. And Cromer, as the stage manager, was incredible - so unaffected and genuine, I didn't even realize the play had begun when he started speaking. For the first time, I felt like this play about early 20th century life in small-town New Hampshire could be taking place today. Our Town runs through Jan. 31 at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. Cromer, who helmed the play in its premiere at Chicago's The Hypocrites, is returning to the play as the stage manager tonight through Jan. 3, so this is a perfect time to see it.

And in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Cromer served up a warm portrait of a family scraping to get by during the Great Depression. They're absolutely Jewish but you didn't have to be to appreciate their struggles, their humor and their hopes and fears. As Kate Jerome, Laurie Metcalf was simply awesome, getting to the strength behind the Jewish mother stereotype. And newcomer Noah Robbins was remarkable as the teenage Eugene, so appealing and making Neil Simon's quips sound so natural.

Superior Donuts

Superior Donuts, a transfer from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has Tracy Letts' razor-sharp dialogue and memorable characters, along with a great deal of tenderness and wit. And for me, it was filled with emotion. Jon Michael Hill is amazing as Franco Wicks, an engaging young black man who comes to work in the downscale Chicago donut shop run by Michael McKean's Polish-American Arthur Przbyszewski. I was laughing, hard, at their banter but when Franco pulls out of his knapsack his Great American Novel, my eyes got moist. Stories about aspiring writers always get to me. Of all the shows on Broadway this fall that dealt with race, Superior Donuts was my favorite for the way it explores how we relate to each other as a community, as individuals, as Americans. Sadly, Superior Donuts is closing Jan. 3 at Broadway's Music Box Theatre but you've still got a couple of weeks to catch it.

The Norman Conquests

At the beginning of 2009, this trilogy by British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, which started at London's Old Vic Theatre, was nowhere on my radar. But then the reviews started coming in and they were so enthusiastic I thought well, it'll be an experience - a theatre marathon from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner. The Norman Conquests turned out to be one of the best and most unique theatergoing experiences I've had. The six-member cast was superb. Even after three plays totaling about 7 hours I never got tired of watching such vivid, distinct characters interact in ways that were touching and hilarious. I loved them all but Stephen Mangan as Norman was my favorite. He played a character I was prepared to dislike but Mangan made him so sympathetic - even if he was an unscrupulous cad at times. It's a performance that I'll never forget.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My year of living theatrically - 2009

My year of living theatrically, 2009 edition, has come to a close. I saw 39 shows this year - 24 plays and 15 musicals - most of them on Broadway. (I realize that I missed out on a lot of great theatre off-Broadway and a lot closer to home, so I'll have to work on that in the future.)

I'll get to my picks for the year's best in another post but first, here's a rundown of some noteworthy events:

Crossed more Broadway theatres off my list.

That means out of 40, there are only 9 that I have yet to visit: the Ambassador, American Airlines, August Wilson, Cort, Golden, Henry Miller's, Longacre, Lunt-Fontanne and the Majestic. Not bad considering I only started in April 2007! First-time visits this year included Circle in the Square: So round! The Gershwin: Such sightlines! The Helen Hayes: So tiny!

Bought my first two tickets from TKTS.

Usually I buy my tickets in advance but this year there were two occasions when I didn't, so I ended up at TKTS in Times Square. The play-only line isn't bad but I don't know if I'd want to stand in the much longer plays and musicals line. In many cases, you can get discounts online that are just as good and you'll have your tickets before you leave home.

(Plus, it's kind of sad to listen to people standing in line who have no idea what they want to see or what anything is about, save for the shows that they won't find at TKTS anyway.)

In my case, I took a chance on Neil LaBute's play reasons to be pretty and ended up really enjoying it, especially the performances from Steven Pasquale and Thomas Sadoski as two blue-collar friends. And I finally saw The 39 Steps on Broadway. It's still as funny and clever as it was in Boston in 2007.

Saw my first two August Wilson plays.

I took in Lincoln Center Theater's production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone on Broadway (missed the Obamas by a week!) and Fences at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. They were a great introduction to Wilson's absorbing characters and compelling storytelling. Now, I want to see the other eight plays in the late Tony and Pulitzer winner's cycle chronicling African-American life in the 20th century.

Played a small role in making theatre history.

In October, I attended a staged reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later by students in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program. The play was presented on the same night in 150 venues across the country and around the world on the 10th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was murdered in an antigay hate crime. The performances were memorable and the experience made the words "theatre community" seem so real.

My claim to theatergoing fame.

In February, I saw Fiddler on the Roof at the Providence Performing Arts Center with Chaim Topol as Tevye. I also saw Topol as Tevye in Tel Aviv in 1998, in a Hebrew production, which was my first time seeing Fiddler on the Roof in any form. (At that point, I'd never even seen the movie.) So now I can say that I've seen an actor play the same role on stage in two different languages in two different countries, on different continents and in different centuries!

Got a little more Wicked.

Ever since I saw the musical in January 2007 in Providence, I've wanted to see it on Broadway. I finally accomplished that goal for one reason - Tony-winner Rondi Reed was playing Madame Morrible and I loved her in August: Osage County. Well, she was terrific. Seeing Reed play a completely different character - with a completely different accent - only increased my admiration for her.

Right back where I started from.

Since the Sunday night performance of Fela! that I was going to see got canceled, (another first) that meant Wicked turned out to be my final show of 2009. How fitting that my third year of theatergoing ended the same way my first year began.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Visiting New York at Christmas

Last year, when I went to New York City in early November, I saw The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I loved the show, especially watching the Rockettes ride around Manhattan on a double decker bus singing "New York at Christmas."

So I figured, why should the Rockettes have all the fun?

For the first time, I went to New York in December to take in the city in all of its holiday festiveness: the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the store windows all decorated, the outdoor holiday markets brimming with shoppers and eclectic gifts.

First thing I did as soon as it got dark was head over to Rockefeller Center. The tree, a Norway spruce, looks brilliant at night, illuminated by more than 5 miles of lights. I couldn't believe how big and bright it was - much more spectacular in person than on TV. And it'll be up until Jan. 7.

As I walked toward Fifth Avenue, I saw something that amazed me and made me smile - giant snowflakes lit by LEDs projected on the facade of Saks Fifth Avenue. The snowflake show, set to the song "Carol of the Bells," plays for two minutes in the evening every half hour. It was just so cool and whimsical and made me wish I'd learned to use the video function on my cell phone!

Evenings and weekends I'm at the theatre. (Which is where you are, too, right?) But on days when there's no matinee, I'm visiting museums and taking in the sights. And New York City is a terrific city for walking. (Although I also take the subway, bus and occasional taxi.)

My first full day in the city was devoted to window-gazing. It was a weekday and not too crowded. I started with Macy's at Herald Square, which has a cute Letters to Santa theme. And I went back to Fifth Avenue.

But my favorite windows were at Barneys on Madison Avenue near 61st Street. This year, Barneys is celebrating the 35th anniversary of Saturday Night Live with papier-mache figures of the show's best-known characters. I especially loved the Conehead display.

After that, I was hoping to pop into Serendipity for the famous frozen hot chocolate but the place is tiny and apparently you need to make a reservation a year in advance. (Okay, slight exaggeration.)

So I settled for a very tasty lunch of pasta and grilled salmon at the nearby California Pizza Kitchen, followed by a delicious chocolate-dipped banana from Dylan's Candy Bar.

And I did some browsing at holiday markets at Bryant Park, Columbus Circle and Grand Central Station. (There's also one at Union Square which I didn't get to.)

Columbus Circle, on the southern edge of Central Park, seemed to have mostly clothing - hats, gloves - as well as huge gingerbread cookies sold in an appropriate gingerbread house.

Grand Central is nice and the stalls seemed to have more of an international flair, but it's indoors so you feel a little squished. (There's a laser show in the ornate central terminal, too. It's entertaining but not as much as the Saks snowflakes.)

Bryant Park was my favorite of the three - lots of space to walk around, a good variety of shops, places to eat, and I had some nice hot apple cider. Plus, you can sit and watch the ice skaters or, if you're more coordinated than I am, try it yourself. It's also next door to the main branch of the New York Public Library, which has a terrific gift shop.

I know the weather can be iffy in New York at this time of year and hotel prices soar, especially on the weekends. But when the holidays are in full swing and hopefully it's not too cold, December really is a magical time to visit.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Race in America and on stage

I've now seen and reviewed five Broadway shows that deal in some way with race in America, from the fantasy of Finian's Rainbow to the history of Ragtime and Memphis to the contemporary Superior Donuts and Race.

There's no doubt Superior Donuts was my favorite. I loved the story and the characters contained in Tracy Letts' play, which sadly is closing Jan. 3. It's not a sunny, everything is perfect optimism. People struggle and they're certainly not perfect. Still, you get the sense that we can move beyond our fears and stereotypes and reach out to each other as human beings.

While these plays and musicals have strong, interesting black characters and some terrific performances - most notably Jon Michael Hill in Superior Donuts and Montego Glover in Memphis - I don't think any of them has a story or music written by an African-American. (Somebody correct me if I'm wrong.)

Now, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the fact that they were all largely created by white men - and one white woman, Lynn Ahrens, lyricist of Ragtime. We all ought to be able to write about any subject or group of people, even if we don't happen to belong to that group.

I just think that when you're talking about race, it's beneficial to have some different perspectives and it's a shame we didn't get that on Broadway this fall. Yes, I know that a revival of the late August Wilson's Fences is planned for the spring but the play was written in 1983 and takes place in the 1950s.

I'd like to see more African-American playwrights, like Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage for example, have a chance to get their works on Broadway. Because talking about race in America in the 21st century should be a two-way street.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Gratuitous Violins rating ** out of ****

Knowing how much David Mamet likes to press those hot-button issues I was really looking forward to a provocative evening when I went to see his latest play, Race, at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre.

From what little Mamet revealed about the plot in advance, I knew it concerned three lawyers - two black and one white - defending a prominent white man accused of raping a black woman.

And the cast sounded promising - James Spader from Boston Legal, comedian David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington from Ray and The Last King of Scotland. But most exciting for me was a chance to see Richard Thomas on stage - John Boy Walton in the flesh!

The tortuous history of race in America is a subject I care about - passionately. I've had numerous, lengthy discussions over dinner with friends and colleagues - black and white - about matters like affirmative action. I've heard expressions of anger, hurt, frustration and yes, bigotry. I've also heard painful accounts of discrimination. I've tried to listen as much as I've talked and I hope through that process, I've gained greater understanding and empathy.

But in all of those discussions I never experienced the overriding emotion that struck me while watching Race. I was bored. At times, the play felt more like a legal brief than an incendiary piece of theatre designed to provoke impassioned debate. It seemed so contrived and I really didn't care about any of these characters, whether they were guilty or innocent.

(I also had trouble hearing some of the actors, especially Spader and Washington, both of whom are making their Broadway debuts. But I learned later that Washington wasn't feeling well, so maybe that was part of it.)

Spader and Grier, as law partners Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, get off some good one-liners as they try to decide whether to defend Thomas' Charles Strickland, the man accused of rape.

As Lawson, Spader is an arrogant know-it-all, without his TV counterpart Alan Shore's charm or humor. "There is nothing that a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive," Lawson says early on. He then proceeds to spend practically the entire play doing just that!

Washington seems kind of stilted and unconvincing as Susan, their young associate. It doesn't help that Mamet has her behave in a way that seems unlikely for someone in her position. Grier is good in a forceful role, as the partner who doesn't quite trust her.

And Thomas, as much as I loved him in The Waltons, is disappointing here. He seems too meek and unsure of himself to be convincing as someone wealthy and prominent. His character is so mild-mannered I didn't believe he could have done what he was accused of doing.

But my biggest problem is that Mamet really doesn't have anything very interesting or revealing to say about race. Too often the dialogue sounded unrealistic. I found myself thinking, "people don't really talk that way."

He's also incredibly cynical, basically doubting that black and white Americans will ever understand each other or trust each other. Well, hello! I used to be pretty pessimistic on the subject of race, too. But now that we've elected a black man as president, I find it hard to maintain that same level of pessimism.

Maybe I'm simply not a Mamet fan, because I didn't like last year's Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow very much either. He seems to write plays that are more about ideas rather than fully developed characters and stories.

In fact, I think Race is less about the relations between black and white Americans and more a critique of the legal system.

Through Lawson, Mamet has some pointed things to say about how lawyers manipulate juries. It's as much about psychology as it is about presenting evidence. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. If I were accused of a crime I'd want my lawyer to use everything in his/her bag of tricks.)

But you know, even Mamet's digs at the legal system weren't terribly thought-provoking. If you've watched Boston Legal you've probably heard them before. And at least you would have been entertained.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


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

This evening, Wicked becomes the 20th longest-running show on Broadway, eclipsing Avenue Q which, ironically, beat it out to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2004.

I saw Wicked for the first time in January 2007, on tour, from the mezzanine of the Providence Performing Arts Center. It was the very first show in my very first year of regular theatergoing and I fell in love with it. The cast recording has been in steady rotation on my iPod ever since.

And ever since then, I've yearned to see it on Broadway, at the Gershwin Theatre. Well, this month I finally accomplished that goal.

After 2,535 performances, this show looks and sounds fresh and vibrant. Eugene Lee's Tony-winning set is more elaborate than the touring version, extending out along the sides of the stage. It's easy to see why the musical still plays to sold-out houses every week and over Thanksgiving week, took in a record $2 million at the box office.

Built in the 1970s, the 1,900-seat Gershwin is a modern venue with brilliant acoustics. The sound is crisp and clear. The seats are raked so perfectly that there's never anyone's head blocking your view. From my perch in Row V of the orchestra I could have body-surfed clear down to the stage!

If you're of a certain age, you remember what it was like in those pre-VCR, pre-cable days to watch The Wizard of Oz when it aired on television once a year. (The flying monkeys always terrified me!)

Part of the charm of Wicked is the witty and clever way the musical pays homage to the movie. Yes, it's a different plot - the back story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. But I love all of the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the movie, the way some of its most memorable lines are worked into the dialog.

Book writer Winnie Holzman (of My So-Called Life) has done an inspired job stripping away the complexities of Gregory Maguire's very dark novel - which is not for children - and refashioning it for the stage for audiences from preteen on up.

Maguire uses the Wicked Witch of the West to examine the nature of evil. And Holzman doesn't give short shrift to that aspect, with the story of animals being robbed of their power of speech. This is a musical examining how societies often blame their ills on scapegoats and how too few of us speak out, simply going along with the crowd.

The heart of this musical, though, is the relationship between two very different young women who become college roommates and friends - the rich and pampered Glinda (nee Galinda) and the misunderstood, put-upon Elphaba, mocked and shunned because of her green skin. (Among other things, Wicked is a great examination of how cruel adolescents can be.)

Broadway's current Elphaba and Glinda are Dee Roscioli and Erin Mackey and they're great. As the self-absorbed, ambitious Glinda, Mackey is funny without overshadowing her castmate. And Roscioli gets Elphaba's spunk and social conscience, as well as her feelings of awkwardness and longing to belong, to have her family be proud of her instead of embarrassed by her.

The supporting cast includes Michelle Federer, who originated the role, as Elphaba's wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose, P.J. Benjamin as the mysterious Wizard, Kevin Kern as Fieyro, the carefree prince torn between Glinda and Elphaba, and Alex Brightman as the mousy Munchkin Boq.

But the highlight was seeing Rondi Reed play Madame Morrible, the very proper and sinister headmistress of Shiz University. I loved Reed's Tony-winning performance in August: Osage County. The ease with which she captures such a completely different role - and accent - just furthers my admiration for her.

And I cannot say enough how glorious it was to hear Stephen Schwartz' score - so witty and soaring and poignant and catchy - played by a 22-piece orchestra. "For Good" is my favorite song from the score. I sobbed when I heard it the first time and I sobbed again.

How awesome is it that the most tender, heartfelt love song in this musical is not about the romantic love of two people for each other but about the enduring power of an unlikely friendship.

Since friendship plays such a big role it seems fitting to mention that I saw Wicked for the first time at the encouragement of a new friend, Steve on Broadway, whom I'd only met at that point through his blog and through e-mail.

Eventually I learned how much the musical means to Steve and to the love of his life. They have both become my treasured friends and Wicked has become one of my favorite shows. All three have left a handprint on my heart.

Let me tell you, Wicked on tour is terrific and if you have a chance, go see it. But there is something so special about taking in the tuner at its Broadway home. I'm so happy I finally did.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Little Night Music

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

Except for "Send in the Clowns," I went into the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music with pretty much a blank slate.

How blank?

I panicked when I saw an unfamiliar name listed for the role of Fredrika Armfeldt on the understudy board at the Walter Kerr Theatre. I was afraid that meant either Angela Lansbury or Catherine Zeta-Jones was out.

Not to worry. The entire cast was in and the role of Fredrika, granddaughter to Lansbury's Madame Armfeldt and daughter to Zeta-Jones' Desiree Armfeldt, is alternated by two young actresses.

My ignorance meant that I didn't have any preconceived ideas about how A Little Night Music should look or sound or how the characters should behave. I only wanted what I hope for every time I go to the theatre - to be entertained, to be moved. And I was captivated.

First of all, it's an absorbing, romantic story of how we all yearn for love - from youth to old age, from a nobleman to a maid.

The characters are involved in various romantic entanglements in turn of the 20th century Sweden, which culminate in a weekend at a country house. The waltzes, the singers who shadow the main characters and the subdued lighting by Hartley T.A. Kemp give the musical a dreamlike, fairy tale quality.

The book, by Hugh Wheeler and based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, offers a look at love in its different stages - from the clumsy inexperience of youth to the reminiscences and regrets as we get older. The characters are so interesting and very funny - there's much more humor than I thought there would be in a musical based on a Bergman film.

Oscar winner Zeta-Jones, making her Broadway debut as actress Desiree, is beautiful - actually beyond beautiful, she's radiant. You can't take your eyes off her, yet she doesn't overpower any of her fellow actors. And she looks like she's having a great time.

Desiree is still a star, still able to attract men, but you get the sense something's missing from her life. She's warm and vibrant and so loving with her daughter, played at the performance I saw by the very sweet Keaton Whittaker.

This production has a seven-piece orchestra, and I can't say how A Little Night Music would sound with more musicians. But it was was exciting to hear the first strains of "Send in the Clowns." Zeta-Jones sings it in a way that's a lament: poignant and fits perfectly with the story.

Lansbury is wonderful as Madame Armfeldt, stern, wise and regal, who doesn't quite approve of her daughter or how things are done today. She takes charge of Fredrika while Desiree is touring. I could almost envision the musical as a grandmother's story to her granddaughter. (Ok, admittedly some things you probably wouldn't tell a a preteen girl.)

And what an absolute thrill to hear Lansbury sing, practically in front of me from my third-row orchestra seat. I was literally holding my breath during "Liaisons," in which she recounts some of her past relationships. This is my third time seeing her on Broadway but the first time I've heard her sing and it was an unforgettable experience.

I also enjoyed Englishman Alexander Hanson as lawyer Frederick Egerman, a gentle widower who may have made a mistake in taking a very young bride; Aaron Lazar as the self-important, womanizing officer Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and Erin Davie as Charlotte, his long-suffering and conniving wife.

Newcomers Ramona Mallory and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka are Anne and Henrik, Frederick's wife and his son from his first marriage. Their performances are a bit over the top but accentuate their youthfulness, and I thought they were fun to watch. Herdlicka is hilarious as a lovesick seminary student. And Mallory is so bubbly as Anne, still a child despite her marriage.

And the score - gorgeous and witty and complex. It was fun thinking about connections to other Sondheim musicals. The group of singers and some of the songs reminded me of Sweeney Todd - not the lyrics themselves but the way they were styled, their rhythm.

A Little Night Music opened on Broadway in 1973, won the Tony for Best Musical and ran for 18 months. From what others have written, I gather that was a more lavish production in terms of the set and costumes and orchestration.

The revival, directed by Trevor Nunn, has a bare-bones set by David Farley to go along with its bare-bones orchestra. It originated at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, although the only holdover in the cast is Hanson. The Menier also has fewer than 200 seats and my guess is it played very differently in that setting.

Personally, I thought the set design and costumes, also by Farley, were fine. Neither seemed out of place for the time. My biggest concern was that I'd heard it had a nearly three-hour running time. But the time just flew by.

I don't know how this production of A Little Night Music compares to any other. All I can say is, it was daylight when I entered the theatre, dark when I got out. I felt like I'd been transported someplace for the afternoon. And I'd go back again anytime.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Broadway audience, 2008-2009

The Broadway League released its annual demographic report this week for the 2008-2009 theatre season. There weren't too many surprises and I don't think the numbers are all that different from previous years.

Here are some statistics:
  • The average age of the Broadway theatergoer was 42.2.
  • Forty-seven percent of theatergoers at musicals said a personal recommendation was the strongest factor in deciding which show to see.
  • Women comprise 66.2 percent of the audience.
  • International visitors accounted for 21 percent of the 12.5 million ticket-buyers, the highest ever.
  • Overall, tourists bought 63 percent of all tickets for Broadway shows.
  • Broadway theatergoers reported an annual household income of $195,700.
  • Of theatergoers over age 25, 73 percent had completed college.
  • The typical playgoer saw eight shows in the past year, compared with four for musical attendees.
  • Those who saw 15 or more shows comprised 5 percent of the audience but represented 31 percent of all tickets sold.
What interested me most was the racial breakdown: 73.7 percent white; 8.6 percent Hispanic; 3.9 percent Asian; 2.4 percent black; and 11.4 percent other.

In a news release accompanying the report, Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the league, exclaimed:

"Broadway is a national pastime! As there is more of a choice for the theatergoer than ever before, it is exciting to report that we are seeing a wider audience for Broadway. Our shows, and our audience, are more diverse than ever."

Well perhaps the Broadway audience is getting more diverse but if it's three-quarters Caucasian, largely college-educated, with a household income of nearly $200,000, I don't see how you can lay claim to being a national pastime.

Still, I'm a little hopeful that next year's figures will show some improvement.

The percentage of Hispanic theatergoers jumped from 5.7 percent to 8.6 percent in one year. Part of that could be more visitors from Spanish-speaking countries, or the success of musicals like In the Heights, which takes place in a Latino neighborhood in New York City.

Attendance by black theatergoers reached a 10-year high of 6.7 percent in the 2006-2007 season, only to drop to 2.4 percent two years later.

Now, this is my anecdotal evidence from one weekend in New York City but I noticed at Memphis, Race and waiting in the lobby at Fela! that the audiences for these shows with strong black characters seemed a lot more racially diverse than usual.

(And next spring's Broadway revival of Fences, with the box-office cachet of Oscar winner Denzel Washington, will hopefully draw theatergoers of all backgrounds.)

If Broadway truly wants to call itself a national pastime, let's hope that what I saw was part of a growing trend.

Friday, December 11, 2009


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

Really, Memphis has everything I love in a Broadway musical: choreography that's exciting to watch, songs that move me, memorable characters who truly command the stage and an absorbing story.

Like several other shows opening this fall, Memphis explores race in America. Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the musical tells a story from the dawn of rock 'n' roll: a white disc jockey falls in love with a black singer whom he's determined to make into a star.

The show opens in a smoky basement nightclub whose black patrons are shocked when a white man named Huey Calhoun comes down the stairs and into the club.

Chad Kimball is superb as Huey, a likable, irrepressible high school dropout who's passionate about rhythm and blues and has some crazy ideas about bringing the music to white audiences. His signature phrase is "Hockadoo!" - which is never quite explained. No matter!

And Montego Glover is equally terrific as Felicia Farrell, a beautiful and talented black singer who wins his heart. At first I wondered if they were too different personality-wise to fall in love but Glover's Felicia is a strong, patient woman, the clear-headed counterpart to the sometimes stubborn Huey.

The costume design by Paul Tazewell brilliantly illustrates the difference between these two people - Huey's mismatched shirts and pants are quite a contrast to Felicia's gorgeous pastel dresses, with shoes that match perfectly.

I also liked J. Bernard Calloway as Felicia's protective brother Delray, who owns the nightclub, Cass Morgan as Huey's Mama, a timid woman who doesn't approve of her son's relationship with Felicia and the sweet, funny James Monroe Iglehart as Bobby, the janitor at the radio station where Huey gets a job.

The songs from composers David Bryan (of Bon Jovi) and Joe DiPetro give both Glover and Kimball moments in the spotlight. Glover is a small person but wow does she have a big, powerful voice in her solo "Colored Woman." Kimball's "Memphis Lives in Me" is a stunning Act II song that should have ended the show.

The ensemble numbers, especially the opener "Underground" and "Everybody Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night," provide a great showcase for Sergio Trujillo's exhilarating choreography. And director Christopher Ashley keeps things moving along nicely.

As much as it horrified their parents, you can understand the appeal of the music to white teenagers - it definitely makes you want to get up and move.

DePetro, who wrote the book, doesn't shy away from depicting the obstacles that Huey and Felicia face as an interracial couple in 1950s Memphis.

I saw the musical a night after the New York Senate defeated a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and I couldn't help but note the parallels - two people forced to hide their love, who face violence from bigots opposed to their relationship, who can't get married in their home state.

Unfortunately, Memphis loses something in Act II as Huey climbs from radio dj to host of an all-black TV dance show and Felicia's career shows signs of taking off. (Although the projections by David Gallo and Shawn Sagady that illustrate Huey's rise are very effective.)

The musical spends a bit too much time on the TV show and Huey does some things that seem unbelievable. (Although he has a drinking problem so that may explain it.) Plus, DePetro has tacked on a Hollywood-style ending that while fun, robs Memphis of some of its power.

It's interesting that for all of the racial barriers that he's crossed, Huey seems naive about race. He moves between black and white worlds in a way that Felicia can't. Yet, he doesn't seem to realize how limited her opportunities are in Memphis, how limited their opportunities are.

I know some reviewers have compared Memphis to Hairspray for its story about music crossing the color line and Dreamgirls for charting the rise of a black singer. But I thought of another musical it resembles - Gypsy.

Huey has some of Mama Rose's self-destructive tendencies. And Felicia, as much as she loves Huey, has to be her own woman, just as Louise had break free of her mother.

In the end, this is such an entertaining musical with amazing performances from Kimball and Glover. They make Huey and Felicia unforgettable and make Memphis a musical that's definitely worth seeing.