Monday, April 26, 2010

Broadway Across America: Boston 2010-11

Broadway Across America has announced its Boston lineup for 2010-2011:

Wicked Sept. 1 to Oct. 17, Opera House

Rock of Ages Oct. 6-17, Colonial Theater

Jersey Boys Dec. 16 - Jan. 30, 2011, Colonial Theater

Mary Poppins Feb. 17 - March 20, Opera House

Hair March 22 - April 10, Colonial Theater

West Side Story June 19 - July 9, Colonial Theater

Okay, a few thoughts:

I think Hair is an especially great choice for Boston. I saw the Tony-winning revival on Broadway last year and loved it. Under the direction of Diane Paulus, the musical evokes the spirit of the 1960s without glossing over the decade's tumultuous events.

I really enjoyed Mary Poppins on Broadway, too, although parents should know that with an intermission, it runs nearly three hours. But I thought it was a magical show and I loved Matthew Bourne's choreography.

I was also a fan of the West Side Story revival. The score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is gorgeous and Jerome Robbins' choreography is thrilling. It's also nice to have a summer show on the schedule. People go to the movies year-round, why not the theatre?

I am a little surprised that Wicked and Jersey Boys are coming back so soon. Both have played in Boston within the past few years. (Providence has them this season, so perhaps there's some rule that they alternate between the two cities every year, along with The Lion King.)

I noticed a few comments about the new season on Facebook:

Someone asked about Billy Elliot. As much as I love Wicked, it certainly would have been nice to have a new show in the lineup. But the producers seem to be concentrating the tour on other parts of the country. I guess New England will have to wait for the 2011-2012 season.

And a few people were hoping for Next to Normal. Don't be disappointed. While the musical won't be coming to Boston, it will be an hour away at the Providence Performing Arts Center March 22-27, 2011. Here's the rest of the PPAC lineup for 2010-2011.

Finally, someone asked whether there would be any plays in the lineup. Sadly, I don't think so. There simply aren't a lot of plays mounting national tours, nothing on the scale of this season's August: Osage County.

The producers of the Tony-winning God of Carnage had hoped to tour but according to The New York Times, couldn't find enough theaters in major cities that were available for booking.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Broadway Week with Regis and Kelly

Heads-up musical theatre fans, Monday is the beginning of Broadway Week on Live with Regis and Kelly, so check your local listings and set the DVR.

Even though clips from shows are everywhere on the Web, it's still great to see a nationally aired TV program put Broadway in the spotlight for a week.

Here's the 2010 lineup:

Monday: American Idiot (Also appearing on Letterman on Thursday.)

Tuesday: Hair

Wednesday: Kristin Chenoweth, from Promises, Promises

Thursday: La Cage Aux Folles

Friday: Come Fly Away

Also, you can watch a performance by Vanessa Williams from Sondheim on Sondheim online and catch up with some of the segments from previous Broadway Weeks.

I look forward to this every year, but especially this year since other than Hair, I haven't seen any of the featured musicals. Although as much as I love the Tony-winning revival, I wish they'd given the spotlight to a new show.

Oh well, I'll take what I can get!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Three extra special 2010 Tony Awards

Awards season on Broadway is kicking into high gear and I'm thrilled with three that were announced today. Congratulations to Alan Ayckbourn and Marian Seldes, who will receive 2010 Special Tony Awards for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre and to David Hyde Pierce, this year's recipient of the Isabelle Stevenson Award.

The Isabelle Stevenson Award recognizes an individual from the theatre community who has volunteered time and effort on behalf of a charitable, humanitarian or social service organization.

I've enjoyed the work of all three on Broadway: British playwright Ayckbourn for his hilarious trilogy The Norman Conquests, Seldes as a retired tennis pro in Deuce, and Hyde Pierce in his Tony-winning performance in the musical Curtains.

I've also had a chance to meet Seldes and Hyde Pierce and they are incredibly gracious and generous with their time.

Hyde Pierce is being honored for his work in the fight against Alzheimer's disease, which claimed the lives of his father and grandfather. He's a board member of the Alzheimer's Association and has worked on the local and national level advocating for additional funding for research and care programs.

Ayckbourn, Seldes and Hyde Pierce have all been guests on the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program. If you'd like to learn more about their lives and their contributions to the theatre, those interviews are a great place to start.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Drama League nominee Jon Michael Hill

Even though Superior Donuts closed on Broadway in January it's great to see one of the play's stars, Jon Michael Hill, get some recognition. He was nominated today for The Drama League's Distinguished Performance Award.

It seems Hill's next role will be on the small screen. He's filming a pilot for ABC called Detroit 1-8-7. And adding to my excitement, it stars another one of my favorite actors, Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Molitsanti on The Sopranos.

Here's ABC's description:

"What does it take to be a detective on America's most dangerous streets? Get ready to be part of the action when a documentary crew rolls with some of Detroit's finest. The cameras give us an inside view of the homicide unit, capturing the professional crises, as well as the raw personal heartbreak and heroism of these inner-city cops."

Imperioli plays Detective Louis Fitch, a hot-tempered veteran with an impeccable record for closing cases. Hill is his new partner, Detective Damon Washington who, in addition to the pressure of his first day working in homicide, is also about to become a father for the first time.

The cast also includes James McDaniel of NYPD Blue and Aisha Hinds of True Blood.

And for some reason, the pilot was filmed not in Detroit but in Atlanta. (If you're wondering about the title, 187 is the police code for murder.)

Truthfully, I'm not a big fan of cop dramas. But I am a big fan of Imperioli from The Sopranos. I think his presence will draw some viewers, at least in the beginning. And I absolutely loved Hill in his Broadway debut in Superior Donuts.

I'm happy that Hill has this chance and more people will get to see this talented young actor. He joins a distinguished list of Steppenwolf Theatre Company members who move among theatre, television and movies.

Like them, hopefully he'll be back on stage soon. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing him on TV.

Update: It's official! The series is on ABC's fall schedule and will air Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Here's a picture of the cast:

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Bronx Tale

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

I knew Chazz Palminteri was a terrific actor and as A Bronx Tale proves, he's no slouch as a playwright either.

In his solo show about growing up in New York City in the 1960s, which I saw last weekend at the Providence Performing Arts Center, Palminteri portrays 18 characters. He brings to life in vivid detail an assortment of mobsters, his bus driver father and two versions of himself - an impressionable 9 year old and a streetwise 17 year old.

The set design by James Noone is very simple - a street sign on a tall pole announcing the location, 187th Street and Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, the concrete stoop outside Palminteri's apartment building and a neon sign lighting up the local bar, Chez Joey.

As the story opens, young Calogero (Palminteri's given name) witnesses an act of violence that leads the neighborhood mob boss, Sonny, to take him under his wing. He gives him the nickname "C" and an assortment of odd jobs.

This new relationship doesn't sit well with C's father, Lorenzo, an honest, hard-working man who doesn't want Sonny to have anything to do with the boy.

One of the most touching scenes in the show is when Lorenzo tries to explain to his son that there's a difference between being loved because you're a good person and being loved because you're feared.

But the young Palminteri is clearly in awe of Sonny and enthralled with the colorful bunch of wiseguys who surround him, men with names like "Frankie Coffee Cake" "Eddie Mush" and "Jojo the Whale."

Palminteri does a masterful job portraying all of these characters and their various idiosyncrasies with a change in his tone of voice, an expression, the way he moves on stage. He makes them all distinct and memorable and he's a wonderful storyteller.

There's a lot of humor in A Bronx Tale, including a very funny segment where Sonny tries to teach the teenage "C" a thing or two about women. But Palminteri doesn't romanticize the mob. And when C falls for a black girl, he doesn't gloss over the neighborhood's racism either.

Palminteri has been doing this show for a long time. It premiered in Los Angeles in 1990, then moved off-Broadway. In 1993, it was made into a movie with Robert DeNiro. In 2007, Palminteri did it on Broadway and for the past year he's been on a national tour.

But despite having performed it for 20 years, Palminteri isn't simply going through the motions. He makes A Bronx Tale captivating. And even though the events belong to his childhood, the now 57-year-old makes them seem as fresh as if they had happened just yesterday.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Let's expand the Pulitzer Prize for Drama

Now that I've digested the drama surrounding the awarding of this year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama to the musical Next to Normal, here's a thought: has the award outlived its usefulness in its current form?

Newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, who established the prizes in his will as "an incentive for excellence," empowered an advisory board to make changes "if in the judgment of the board such suspension, changes or substitutions shall be conducive to the public good or rendered advisable by public necessities or by reason of change of time."

For example, since the inception of the prizes in 1917, an award has been added for photography. Beginning in 2009, the journalism competition was expanded to include online-only news organizations.

Those additions reflect technological advances and changes in the way Americans view the news. They make sense.

The drama prize dates to a time when there were no movies or television. Drama generally meant theatre and theatre was a form of mass entertainment. If the prize was centered around New York productions well, there probably weren't many, if any, regional theatre companies.

So, here's my proposition: if the goal is to reward excellence in dramatic writing, preferably on an American subject, maybe it's time to expand the definition. Let's open the Pulitzer Prize to screenplays written for movies and television in addition to plays written for the stage.

Okay, I'm being a bit provocative here. I realize it's not likely to happen. Screenplays aren't generally read for their literary value. They're sometimes group efforts rather than the work of a single individual. And there's value in promoting playwriting as an American art form.

But American culture has changed since 1917. In a given year, it's possible the finest dramatic writing may appear not on stage but on television or at the movies.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Next to Normal wins Pulitzer Prize

The 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded today to Tom Kitt, composer, and Brian Yorkey, lyricist and book writer, for Next to Normal.

The citation calls it "a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals."

I did not see this one coming but I think it's a well-deserved award.

I know Next to Normal has provoked controversy for its depiction of psychiatry and of a woman in the throes of mental illness. And I completely respect people who take an opposite view. But please, hear me out.

While I don't have experience with anyone in my family, I know people who suffer from mental illness. I know people who have committed suicide, including someone who killed himself after he decided to stop taking his medication.

You can criticize the choices Diana, the main character, makes as a woman with depression and bipolar disorder but you can't deny that sometimes, people in her situation do make those choices. Depicting them is not the same as endorsing them.

What gives this work its power and emotion, what makes it so gut-wrenching is that we see the devastating impact Diana's illness has not only on her life but on the lives of her husband and daughter. I felt nothing but compassion and greater understanding of their plight.

Kitt and Yorkey, who won the Tony Award for Best Score, convey so well what each character is going through - how they feel, their fears and frustrations - to a vibrant rock 'n' roll beat.

As I said in my review, I did not take the musical as an attack on psychiatry or on antidepressants.

Rather, I think it's an exploration of the difficulty in treating mental illness despite the best efforts of physicians, despite the tools of modern medicine, despite people in its throes wanting to get better, despite the love and care and desperate hopes of families.

Because of the subject matter, Next to Normal is tough to sit through at times but it's one of the most original, compelling works I've seen on Broadway or anywhere else.

Next to Normal is playing on Broadway at the Booth Theatre. A national tour will start in the fall.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

In Iowa, a marriage-equality anniversary

One year ago today the Iowa Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in Varnum v. Brien, paving the way for gay and lesbian couples to get married.

So happy anniversary for marriage equality in the Hawkeye State!

You've shown that the freedom to marry isn't something that matters only on the coasts. It's an American issue, an issue of fairness.

A Des Moines Register poll in September found that 92 percent of Iowans said same-sex marriage had brought no real change to their lives. But they were evenly divided on whether they'd vote for a constitutional amendment barring it.

The folks at One Iowa are at the forefront of efforts to safeguard the rights of gay and lesbian citizens. So far, lawmakers have resisted attempts to overturn the court's ruling, which struck down a law banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.

I like what Iowa Gov. Chet Culver had to say this week. While he personally believes that marriage should be between one man and one woman, he says his personal views shouldn't infringe on the civil rights of others.

"I think the overwhelming majority of Iowans do not want to amend our constitution in such a way that's discriminatory. That's the bottom line. Iowans want to move forward and the Supreme Court has spoken loudly and clearly. I think it's time to move on."

Sure, it would have been nice if Culver had experienced a change of heart over the past year - and I hope he's had a chance to meet some of his fellow Iowans who've tied the knot.

But what's more important is the distinction he draws between his personal beliefs and public policy. We're free to believe what we want but we don't have the right to enshrine discrimination into law or deprive our fellow citizens of their civil rights.

While same-sex marriage hasn't affected the lives of the vast majority of people in Iowa, it's obviously had a great impact on the gay and lesbian couples who have been able to get married. It has made them more secure and better protected as they plan their lives together.

Expanding civil rights to groups that have historically been denied them only strengthens our society. All of us who have care about making the United States a more just and equal place have something to celebrate today.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Branford Marsalis, Broadway composer

When I read that Branford Marsalis was composing music for the Broadway revival of August Wilson's play Fences my initial reaction was: Why?

I saw a production of Fences last fall at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and it was terrific. But it's not a play in which music plays a big role.

Plus, isn't Marsalis, a Grammy-winning saxophone player, primarily known as a jazz musician? Is jazz even the right music for this play?

Hartford Courant theatre critic Frank Rizzo thinks more highly of the idea than I do. He wrote in his blog Behind the Curtain: "Any way to bring in talents from outside the immediate theater community is to be applauded. It's a great way to stimulate the art and attract new artists and audiences."

Okay, Rizzo makes a good point. I'm all for attracting new artists to the theatre - if their participation makes sense. In this case, I'm not sure it does. While one of the characters in Fences is a musician, he's only in a few scenes and tangential to the plot.

As for attracting an audience, the 1950s-set Fences cast already has ample star power in Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Washington will play Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage collector and former Negro League baseball player, and Davis will portray his long-suffering wife, Rose.

I just can't see fans of Branford Marsalis suddenly thinking they need to check it out when they wouldn't have been interested otherwise. It's not a concert or a musical.

For his part, Marsalis said "I look forward to the challenge of creating music that not only complements their performances, but enhances the experience for those sitting in the theater."

See, that's the thing. When I saw Fences, I didn't feel that my experience needed any enhancing. To me, Wilson's characters and storytelling in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play were compelling enough.

I wish Marsalis well and hope this works. But I wish director Kenny Leon, who also helmed Huntington's Fences, had let the powerful words of the late August Wilson stand on their own.

Fences begins previews April 14 at the Cort Theatre in a strictly limited 13-week engagement.