Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer sightseeing in Washington

Washington, D.C., has been one of my favorite cities ever since my first visit, on a high school trip with Project Close Up.

Last weekend was my first time back in about six years. I saw some dear friends, attended a bar mitzvah and on Sunday, I had a chance to do some sightseeing.

My first stop was the Newseum, which I'd seen years ago in its old location, in Virginia.

The new six-story building on Pennsylvania Avenue is impressive and there's a great view from the rooftop terrace. Even from a distance and through the summer haze, the sight of the U.S. Capitol never fails to thrill me.

I liked the displays that focused on the history of newsgathering, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, press freedom and challenges to the First Amendment.

You get a good overview of how covering the news has changed over the centuries, including the advent of online journalism, blogging and Twitter.

The headline flubs on the walls in the bathroom, taken from the Columbia Journalism Review, were funny - as long as you weren't the one who wrote them.

But I have to admit, the journalism theme park aspects of the museum left me feeling a bit cold.

I decided not to "shake rattle and roll through I-Witness! a 4-D film experience." I did walk through the "G-Men and Journalists: Top News Stories of the FBI's First Century" exhibit and some of it was a little lurid - the Unabomber's cabin and the electric chair that killed the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby.

Also, I was a little put off by the video of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They're not journalists, they're comedians. Still, I realize it's 2010. You have to be fun and interactive while you're trying to inform and enlighten. And they do offer their own unique spin on the news.

The Newseum is worth a visit - use your AAA card for a discount on the admission. And it got me thinking - aren't we overdue for a Broadway revival of The Front Page?

My next stop, after a long, hot walk across the Mall, was the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History - hands down my favorite museum in the world.

I've always been a huge American history buff and I love the way the museum tells the story of the United States - not simply through the action of great men and women but through the lives of ordinary Americans and through popular culture.

There are examples of great courage - the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where four black students sat down in February 1960 and refused to leave until they were served. And there are items from our collective cultural memory - Kermit the Frog from The Muppet Show and Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

While I've been to the museum numerous times, I have never felt as moved as I did on this visit, when I saw Michelle Obama's inaugural gown.

At the bar mitzvah on Saturday, the rabbi reminded us that it was the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington and he urged us to recall Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

Admiring the gown a day later, in a crowd with many African-American museumgoers including elderly men and women, families with young children, was incredibly poignant.

It was a tangible example of how far we've come in realizing Dr. King's dream and in fulfilling the promise of this country - the promise of equality.

Here is the first lady presenting the gown to the Smithsonian in March:

Since it was on the way to the Metro, I stopped at the National Portrait Gallery before heading back to my hotel.

There's an interesting exhibit through Jan. 2 of Norman Rockwell paintings and drawings from the collection of directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I learned how Rockwell had influenced their work as filmmakers, which I hadn't realized.

I love the Portrait Gallery, with its collection of paintings and photographs of famous Americans from all walks of life. But after seven hours of walking around, I was getting a little tired. (In my mind, you haven't done enough sightseeing until you're ready to collapse.)

Hopefully I can return on my next visit - which won't take six years - and I can include a little theatergoing, too.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"I Am What I Am"

I was excited earlier this week to read about the 22-track La Cage Aux Folles revival CD from PS Classics, which will be released Sept. 28. It comes with an extensive booklet that includes an essay by La Cage book writer Harvey Fierstein and - most exciting - lyrics!

Until then, my iPod is happily stuck on the original Broadway cast recording, released in 1983. (Yes, I'm playing it over and over again. Oh, that full orchestra.)

This week, I also listened to a Masterworks Broadway podcast with composer Jerry Herman, who recounts breaking new ground with La Cage aux Folles:

"We knew that we were dealing with a subject that had never been attempted, a musical about about two men who loved each other and who had spent most of their lives together running a little cabaret in the south of France. And I loved the story, I loved what it had to say. I thought it was both funny and touching at the same time."

Herman also talked about writing the song that has become the heart of the musical: "I Am What I Am."

It's a powerful, empowering anthem sung by the drag performer Albin, who learns that the son he raised with his partner, Georges, doesn't want him present at a family event.

Albin is, of course, terribly hurt and "I Am What I Am," which ends the first act, is his response. What I appreciate is that it's not a plea for mere tolerance - he sings "I don't want praise, I don't want pity" but a statement about living your life openly, learning to love yourself.

George Hearn, the original Albin on Broadway, won a Tony Award for his portrayal. Herman said, "I am never not moved when I hear George Hearn's interpretation of that song."

I feel the same way.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jesse Tyler Ferguson: TV & theatre

Blogging has been kind of anemic lately but I do have some good theatre-related quotes to share:

Vanity Fair has a Q&A with the very funny and sweet Jesse Tyler Ferguson. He talks about his Emmy nomination for Modern Family and the difference between theatre and television:

"The paycheck! (Laughs.) You definitely get paid much more for TV, but it’s also nice to do a show eight times a week and really hone in on what that character is. You can say, “Tomorrow I’ll try it this way or tomorrow I’ll try it that way.” But I love the immediate response you have to make with TV. Once you do it, and once it’s on film, that moment’s gone and you have to move on to the next."

Modern Family was my favorite new TV show of last season and I'd love to see Ferguson onstage someday. Hopefully he'll continue to fit theatre in around the shooting schedule, like he did this summer with Shakespeare in the Park

And one of my favorite musicals, Hair, which closed on Broadway earlier this year, earned a mention in The Wall Street Journal. It was included in a story about the Theatre Development Fund's effort to encourage theatergoing by underrepresented groups in New York City.

The program, called New Audiences for New York, is a great idea. This past Broadway season, it brought more than 30 groups - from churches, schools and senior organizations - to see shows and participate in discussions about them.

But one paragraph made me wince:

Cathy Cahn, who led a group from the Queens-based group Services Now for Adult Persons (SNAP) to "Hair," discussed how seniors valued the chance to see a show and talk about an era they remembered well: "They don't travel into the city, and Broadway is prohibitively expensive. It gave us a different insight. It gave us so much to talk about afterward."

Is that what it's come to: Hair, the perfect show for gulp, senior citizens. I suddenly feel very old.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My 2009-2010 Broadway season

Even though the Tony Awards were two months ago, I didn't wrap up my 2009-2010 Broadway season until the middle of July.

Sadly, I couldn't get to New York City in the spring, so I missed A View from the Bridge, Red and Fences. (Curse you, limited runs!)

But I made it to the short-lived revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, I heard Angela Lansbury sing in A Little Night Music and I finally saw Wicked in all its Broadway glory, with Rondi Reed as Madame Morrible.

Looking back, the shows that made the biggest impact were ones with strong personal stories: Brighton Beach Memoirs and Superior Donuts, La Cage aux Folles and Fela!

Laurie Metcalf in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Douglas Hodge in La Cage aux Folles and Jon Michael Hill in Superior Donuts could easily have descended into stereotypes: overprotective Jewish mother, flamboyant drag performer, wisecracking young black male. But they imbued those characters with such depth and humanity that they rose above caricature and captured my heart.

La Cage aux Folles entered my pantheon of favorite musicals. I loved Jerry Herman's songs so much that I got the original Broadway cast recording, which I've been listening to nonstop. The revival CD will be released Sept. 28 and I can't wait to have both of them on my iPod.

I noticed more audience participation on Broadway this season - batting beach balls at La Cage, swiveling my hips during Fela! and missing the waxed fruit that came flying into the audience during Lend Me A Tenor. While the trend could become overdone, so far I've enjoyed it!

I also crossed five theatres off my list, making my first visits to the Gershwin, Longacre, Lunt-Fontanne, Nederlander and Schoenfeld. Only seven more to go before I've seen a show in every Broadway house.

Among the theatres I've yet to enter is the Majestic, home to The Phantom of the Opera, which I've never seen. If the sequel, Love Never Dies, comes to New York next spring perhaps I'll make it a double feature.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Summer sightseeing in Manhattan

When I'm not at the theatre, I squeeze in as much sightseeing as is humanly possible during my trips to New York City. The heat and humidity didn't make it easy this time but I persevered.

First up was a return visit to the American Museum of Natural History for Race to the End of the Earth. What's better on a sweltering day than a little polar exploration?

The exhibit tells the story of the competition between British Navy Capt. Robert Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1910 to be the first to reach the South Pole.

It was a contest of unimaginable hardship, told through artifacts from the two expeditions, photographs and a time line that relates what they were up against every step of the way.

At right is an example of the wooden huts the British built at their camp. Apparently they were especially unprepared for how quickly the temperature plunged from cold to unbearably cold.

Just to give you an idea, last night's temperature at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica was -56 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill that made it feel like -90. That's MINUS 90.

Neither expedition had the high-tech gear that polar researchers use today to make their work safer, no Gore-Tex to keep them warm. (They wore parkas made from reindeer fur and you can touch a sample - it's smooth and silky.)

The exhibit tells the story very well. It explains not just what happened but why. The decisions Scott and Amundsen made about what to bring, when to start out, their backgrounds and personalities, all figured in the outcome.

Here's a segment NPR did about Race to the End of the Earth with the museum's Ross MacPhee and polar explorer John Huston. The exhibit runs through Jan. 2.

I made my first trip to the Jewish Museum for the now-closed Curious George Saves the Day.

This was another interesting story that was unknown to me: how the husband and wife who wrote and illustrated the Curious George books, Margret and H.A. Rey, fled Europe during World War II.

It was so poignant to read the handwritten letter that Hans Rey sent to his British publisher, telling him they made an "adventurous flight from Paris" by bicycle in June 1940, two days before the Nazis marched in.

After traveling by bicycle and train, the Reys reached Lisbon. They sailed from there to South America and finally to the United States, reaching New York City in October 1940. The first Curious George book was published a year later.

The mischievous monkey came from sketches of animals that Hans Rey made when he lived in Brazil in the 1920s and '30s and traveled along the Amazon selling goods. (Apparently, he also complained about the tropical heat, hence the Man with the Yellow Hat.)

The theme of narrowly escaping peril that figures into Curious George's adventures parallels the Reys' escape from the Nazis. (It's amazing how deep children's books are once you learn about the background.)

Curious George Saves the Day moves to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from Nov. 14 - March 13, 2011. Here's more about the exhibit from the WBUR radio program On Point.

I don't eat much red meat but I'd been hearing so much about the Shake Shack, which opened in midtown Manhattan, that I really wanted to try it.

Well, the line stretched out the door and down the street. I don't think I've ever stood in a longer line to get a hamburger. All told, it took about 30 minutes.

The verdict: delicious! I was afraid it would be dry, tasteless fast-food fare. Just the opposite.

My Shack Burger with lettuce and tomato was juicy, flavorful, not overly greasy. And the mayonnaise-based Shack Sauce provided the perfect condiment. Accompanied by a refreshing Arnold Palmer, it was a nice light pre-theatre dinner.

Finally, I walked by the fire station at 8th Avenue and 48th Street that houses Engine Co. 54, Ladder 4.

The "Pride of Midtown," which protects Broadway, proudly proclaims that it's "never missed a performance." Judging from the mural, they really get into the role, too.

If you pass by, stop for a moment at the memorial to the 15 men from the station who lost their lives responding to the Sept. 11 attacks. Firefighters enter places where everyone else is trying to flee. Heroes all.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Trust, at the 2nd Stage Theatre off-Broadway.
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

The description on the 2nd Stage Web site says Trust "explores the corrosive effect of power on relationships."

Actually, Power would be a better title. Paul Weitz' play deals with what happens when one person has the upper hand and how that can change depending on the circumstances, sometimes in the blink of an eye.

Weitz is best known for working with his brother Chris as a director and screenwriter (About a Boy, American Pie). But he's also a playwright and he's penned a quirky dark comedy about two couples in failing relationships whose lives intersect.

What drew me to Trust was the cast, notably Zach Braff and Bobby Cannavale, two actors whose films I've enjoyed - Braff in Garden State and Cannavale in The Station Agent.

Braff plays Harry, an Internet millionaire who sold his company before the dot.com bust and spends his days giving money away through his charitable foundation. He's sweet, funny, a little neurotic, not all that happy with his life.

On a whim, Harry visits a dominatrix. She turns out to be his former high school classmate Prudence, a no-nonsense Sutton Foster. If you only know Foster from musical comedy, it's almost worth it just to see her in a very different role.

Ari Graynor as Harry's wife, Aleeza, and Cannavale as Morton, Prudence's boyfriend, do a good job with unsympathetic characters. Aleeza, a painter who's stopped painting, struck me as a whiny and grating. Morton is a brilliant but hot-tempered tough guy who never realized his potential.

The problem is, there's not much depth to Trust. The characters were so broadly drawn, it was hard to feel much of anything for them or their problems. And while the play has its humorous moments, in the end it seemed slight and inconsequential.

I did enjoy the opening scene, with Foster in her skimpy black getup, all the tools of her trade laid out on a metal cart, and Braff as her nervous customer. The interaction between the two of them was pretty funny.

Besides shocking us with the dominatrix angle and a plot twist or two, I'm not sure of the point that Weitz was trying to make. Sometimes I think contemporary drama can be like modern art - I enjoy looking at it but the deeper meaning escapes me.

Still, I don't regret seeing Trust. It's always interesting to take in a new play. And to be fair, I saw an early preview. Perhaps this one simply was too weird for me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Foxwoods and Broadway

I was surprised yesterday to find out that Broadway's Hilton Theatre is now the Foxwoods Theatre, after Live Nation sold the naming rights to the Connecticut casino in a multiyear deal.

I'm sure Live Nation could use the money. The Hilton has been dark for more than a year in preparation for the much-delayed Spider-Man musical.

And it gives Foxwoods a major presence in Times Square, as well as a connection to the musical that marketing officer Robert Victoria calls "the most anticipated Broadway production of all time." Yes, of all time.

(As an aside, I highly recommend the book Without Reservation, by Jeff Benedict, about the Mashantucket Pequot tribe that built Foxwoods.)

Personally, I'd love it if theatres were named for people who have some connection with Broadway. But beyond that, I have a bigger concern - Does this mean the casino is dipping its toe further into the musical stream?

A full-length production of Hairspray played Foxwoods in December. As the Hartford Courant's Frank Rizzo reported, it was the first time a Connecticut casino had presented a traditional Broadway musical.

He questioned the impact on venues like New Haven's Shubert or Hartford's Bushnell if Foxwoods competes for musical theatre patrons. (Not to mention the impact on restaurants and other businesses that help keep urban downtown areas vibrant.)

At the time Bruce Flax, director of marketing for MGM/Foxwoods, said that Hairspray would be a test case and if successful, could pave the way for other Broadway-type productions."It's a big commitment for us," he said.

There's no indication the naming deal is anything more than that. But it makes me nervous. Look at where bands and musicians go now.

Over the next month Counting Crows, Stevie Nicks, Donna Summer and John Fogerty will perform at the 4,000-seat MGM Grand at Foxwoods. There was a time when they would have made tour stops in cities like Boston, Providence or Hartford.

Foxwoods is in the middle of nowhere - 2 1/2 hours from Boston, an hour from Providence or Hartford. You can take an infrequent bus or drive. It's not an easy place to reach compared with any of those cities.

I'd hate to see touring productions of Broadway shows migrate there, too.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Addams Family

The Addams Family, at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway.
Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

Even though there's nothing remotely pink about it, I've settled on cotton candy as the perfect food metaphor for The Addams Family: tasty but not very filling.

Charles Addams' macabre cartoons first appeared in the New Yorker in 1938. Since then, they've been turned into a TV series and movies, video games and a musical variety show, to name a few incarnations.

Now, his characters known for looking on the dark side of life are in a splashy musical comedy, playing to some of the biggest crowds and with some of the highest ticket prices on Broadway. If you're visiting New York, it seems like a show that the whole family would enjoy.

And it's definitely a crowd-pleaser. The Addams Family has a large cast with actors who know how to deliver a joke, imaginative special effects, an impressive-looking set and a big Broadway sound.

While I enjoyed those things (as well as Thing), for me they weren't quite enough.

The musical starts strong, with the orchestra striking up the familiar TV-show theme by Vic Mizzy. A scene in a graveyard introduces the family and a ghostly chorus of ancestors with a lively ensemble number, "When You're an Addams."

I loved the Addams house - an old, creepy New York City mansion designed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch. Together with puppetry by Basil Twist and special effects from Gregory Meeh, they created an appropriately ooky, spooky atmosphere.

If only the rest of the musical had been that stylish and clever.

Composer Andrew Lippa's songs weren't very memorable. I felt like I'd heard similar ones in other musicals and there wasn't much variety to the delivery either. Although I have to admit, it was glorious to hear a full-sized orchestra fill a Broadway theatre.

The book, from Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, had too few examples of true wit. It relied on easy topical humor, with references to texting and swing states, and tiresome stereotypes - narrow-minded middle America. Those lines got laughs but I groaned.

The plot, instead of being inventive, was borrowed from La Cage aux Folles: Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez) is bringing her boyfriend, Lucas, (Wesley Taylor) and his parents (from shudder, Ohio) home for dinner. She wants her "nontraditional" family to act "normal" for an evening.

Nathan Lane was a standout as Gomez - urbane, with a vaguely European accent. The man can wring a laugh out of me with even the most pedestrian lines. And the "Happy/Sad" ballad he sang to Wednesday, about his conflicting emotions as his daughter grows up, truly was touching.

With her tight, slinky gown and long, jet-black hair, Bebe Neuwirth looked stunning and as Morticia. I just wish she'd been given more to do besides her solo number, "Death is Just Around the Corner." (Corner - coroner, get it?)

Jackie Hoffman was a hoot as the salty, crotchety Grandma, even if the material felt mundane - telling Pugsley (Adam Riegler) to stop texting and open a book - and vulgar. (I mean, a pee joke?) And Kevin Chamberlin was sweet as the lovestruck Uncle Fester.

Lucas' parents, Alice and Mal Beineke, played by Carolee Carmello and Merwin Foard (subbing for Terrence Mann), were funny but their characters weren't the most interesting foils. Did anyone think they'd be able to keep Wednesday and Lucas apart? Did anyone care?

After a pre-Broadway run in Chicago, veteran director Jerry Zaks was brought in as a "creative consultant" to work with directors McDermott and Crouch. He tightened things up, put the focus more squarely on the Addams characters.

Maybe he did help but the problem was, after a dinner scene that ended Act I The Addams Family kind of fell apart in Act II. Everyone seemed to go their separate ways and the story drifted. I felt less and less engaged.

Still, despite the flaws I enjoyed myself. (Hey I was on vacation. What's not to like?) The Addams Family was fun - just not as inspired as I'd hoped it would be.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Send in Krusty the Clown

Now that the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have weighed in, here's one of my favorite "Send in the Clowns," courtesy of The Simpsons.

Maybe this isn't the best version of the song ever recorded and maybe Krusty does play fast and loose with Stephen Sondheim's lyrics but in its favor, it does feature an actual clown.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Proposition 8 is overturned!

Thank-you, federal Judge Vaughn Walker for ruling in Perry v. Schwarzenegger that California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, is unconstitutional.

While the case is likely headed to the Supreme Court, it's still a hopeful development for those of us who believe that all Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law. (Slate's Dalia Lithwick has a terrific analysis of the decision.)

Judge Walker notes that California had already issued 18,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples before the ballot measure passed in 2008 - and has suffered no demonstrable harm.

The state, he writes, has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians and "the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples."

The gay and lesbian couples affected by today's decision are not abstractions. They are our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, our loved ones. They're in loving, committed relationships. I believe that they are entitled to the same rights as any other American citizens.

In 2009, Broadway Impact held a rally for marriage equality in New York City. Among the speakers was actor David Hyde Pierce, who talked about marrying his partner of 25 years, Brian Hargrove, before Prop. 8 was passed.

The road to equal rights for all Americans has been a long and tortuous one and progress doesn't happen nearly fast enough. But we're getting there. And today is one of the good days, because a more just society benefits all of us.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Music for marriage equality

I love checking off new experiences during my trips to New York. This time, I made my first visit to Joe's Pub, named after Public Theater founder Joe Papp, for the Broadway Impact concert with cast members from American Idiot.

I haven't seen the musical so it was nice to hear new performers like Christina Sajous, above, and familiar ones, like Rebecca Naomi Jones, who was in Passing Strange on Broadway.

It was a fun way to end the weekend and at $25 for a ticket, very reasonable. I'm glad my fellow blogger Linda, from Pataphysical Science, invited me to go along. (Although be warned that not all cast members participate and they don't necessarily sing songs from the show.)

While I got a little squished in the packed bar (tables go fast) I was happy to be part of a crowd supporting Broadway Impact. It's a community of actors, directors, stage managers, fans - anybody who's ever worked on or been to a Broadway show - united in the fight for marriage equality.

If I never went to the theatre I'd still support marriage equality - for my friends and because it's the right thing, the American thing, to do.

But being a theatre fan makes it more personal. How can I tell people whose work I admire - onstage and behind the scenes - that if they're gay or lesbian, they shouldn't be allowed to marry the person they love?

Tickets are on sale for the final Broadway Impact concert of the summer at Joe's Pub, at 7 p.m. Aug. 23, featuring cast members from the Tony-winning musical Memphis.

I can't think of a more fitting finale than Memphis, in which a white dj and a black singer fall in love in the 1950s, when it was not only illegal for them to get married in their home state but dangerous to even be seen together as a couple.

Unfortunately, I won't be in New York City for the Memphis show but I'm looking forward to returning to Joe's Pub for another Broadway Impact concert.

It would be great if the cast of every Broadway musical agreed to do one.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lend Me A Tenor

Lend Me A Tenor at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway.
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** 1/2 out of ****

One good thing about going to Broadway after the season ends is that you've read the reviews and heard the buzz - or lack of it. And the revival of Lend Me A Tenor had great buzz.

Honestly, I'm not really into farce. Broad physical comedy, disguise, mistaken identity, slamming doors, hiding in the bathroom or the closet - a little goes a long way. It can become repetitive and tiresome.

But this terrific ensemble, directed by Stanley Tucci, had me in stitches. What a fast-paced production, with memorable characters and perfect comic timing from an expert cast. I was laughing from the beginning to the inspired curtain call.

Ken Ludwig's play is set in 1934, in a hotel room in Cleveland. An impresario, Saunders, played by Tony Shalhoub, has brought a famous opera singer to star in Otello and he's got a lot riding on the evening's success. (Without giving too much away, let me simply say that complications ensue.)

Justin Bartha, in his Broadway debut, was especially impressive as Max, the mild-mannered, eager assistant assigned to babysit the tenor - who turns out to be quite a handful.

Bartha, who was in the hit movie The Hangover, is so confident and expressive that he seems born to be onstage. I hope this is only the first of many Broadway roles.

Anthony LaPaglia is great as the egotistical tenor, Tito Merelli. And Jan Maxwell, whom I loved as a 1920s Broadway star in The Royal Family, is just as wonderful here playing his tempestuous wife, Maria. Jay Klaitz stands out in a small role as an opera-loving bellhop.

Since I couldn't make it to New York City in the spring, I missed several limited-run plays. In the summertime, a Broadway play is nearly an extinct species. Lend Me A Tenor closes Aug. 15, and I'm so glad I got to see it.