Thursday, July 28, 2011


Chicago, at Broadway's Ambassador Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating ***1/2 out of ****

When I visit New York City I'm hesitant to use one of my theatre slots on a long-running show because there's always so much new to see. But last month I was there on a Monday night, when most shows are dark.

Since I took in Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys in the fall, I figured one of their best-known musicals, Chicago, would make a good finale to my Broadway season. While I've watched the Academy Award-winning movie, I'd never seen it onstage.

Despite the 1920s setting, the story of a woman accused of murder, the accompanying media frenzy and a sensational trial seemed very contemporary. Chicago is a stark look at how the justice system can be manipulated and our unquenchable thirst for celebrities.

When the curtain went up, the first thing I noticed were the musicians - they were seated right in the middle of the stage, not toward the back or in the orchestra pit. It was unusual but they sounded wonderful - bold and brassy, with a great horn section.

While performers from TV, movies and music have been part of a revolving cast during the revival's 15 years on Broadway, I saw it with theatre veterans and Tony nominees Charlotte D'Amboise as chorus girl Roxie Hart, accused of murdering her lover, and Christopher Sieber as high-powered defense lawyer Billy Flynn.

D'Amboise was so appealing - I couldn't take my eyes off of her - and she reminded me a bit of Shirley MacLaine. As Roxie, she's got this sweet and innocent veneer that hides something steely and calculating.

Sieber is perfect as the cynical Flynn, just as expert in the court of public opinion as he is in convincing a jury. I last saw him on his knees as the villainous Lord Farquaad in Shrek but he's quite a song-and-dance man standing on his own two feet.

I was also really impressed with Chris Sullivan, who played a Green Bay Packer in Lombardi, as Roxie's devoted husband, Amos. He was so sad and pathetic in "Mister Cellophane," my heart just went out to him.

I have to admit that Amra-Faye Wright as murderous vaudeville performer Velma Kelly didn't make quite as big an impression on me. She just didn't strike me as a strong enough rival for Roxie. Still, like everyone in the cast she's a fine singer and dancer. (The role is currently being played by Nikka Graff Lanzarone, who I really enjoyed in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.)

While Chicago doesn't have room for elaborate sets what it does have is style - reflected in an energetic score, electrifying choreography and vaudeville-influenced production numbers and lots of really sexy black-clad dancers. (The Playbill credits the choreography to Ann Reinking in the style of Bob Fosse.)

My favorites were "We Both Reached for the Gun," Flynn's press conference where he manipulates Roxie like a ventriloquist's dummy; "All That Jazz," the opening number; "Cell Block Tango," featuring an array of women on Death Row; and Flynn's "Razzle Dazzle," in which he describes how a trial is really just show business.

In late August Chicago will become the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history, surpassing A Chorus Line. It remains tremendously entertaining and it could teach some musicals of more recent vintage a thing or two about holding an audience's attention.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The death of Borders and the fine art of browsing through bookstores

I felt like crying when I read that Borders planned to liquidate its inventory and close its remaining stores.

I'm old enough to remember the days when all you had were tiny Walden's and B. Dalton stores at the mall that hardly carried anything. So the past few decades have been a golden age for those of us who love to browse in bookstores, and it seems to be ending. (I loved record stores too, but those are even longer gone.)

I still remember my first visit to a book superstore - I was in high school and it was the Barnes & Noble at Downtown Crossing in Boston. I'm not even sure if it's still there but at the time, it had three floors including used books in the basement. I bought a used paperback copy of Frank Herbert's novel Dune, which I loved.

Since then, I've spent countless hours at Borders and Barnes & Noble. Sometimes it's my main social activity for the weekend. I'm beyond the age where I want to spend Sunday afternoon trying on clothes at the mall or seeing the latest new release at the multiplex. (Which probably doesn't interest me anyway.)

And I almost always buy something. I'm not one of those people who thumbs through a book to see whether I'd like it and then orders it from Amazon. In the past few years, I've also built up my collection of Broadway cast recordings at Borders. (Granted, I used discount coupons a lot but I spent money.)

Yes, there are a couple of independent bookstores near me but they're small and it's difficult to find parking. There's not much room for sitting, not much to look through, no place to get an iced tea. And I feel awkward if I leave without buying anything. The two Barnes & Noble stores are farther away.

So I'll probably just use Amazon more, which is a shame. I didn't leave bookstores - they left me.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A few thoughts on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Every year there's a summer blockbuster that I end up catching months later on DVD and wish I'd seen it at the movies.

I didn't want that to happen with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, so this afternoon I became part of a record-breaking opening weekend for the final film installment of J.K. Rowling's series.

I've been kind of indifferent toward the Harry Potter movies. I saw the first couple, then skipped a few in the middle. To me, they weren't as interesting as the books, all of which I've read and enjoyed. Still, this was the last one, so I really wanted to see it on the big screen.

I never got around to Deathly Hallows: Part 1, and I was surprised that Part 2 began without any introduction to the characters or story. It just begins, like there was a short intermission and you've returned from the bathroom or getting a snack. Luckily, I remembered enough from the book that it didn't matter.

And I can understand the point of view of director David Yates. If you've never read a word of the books or seen any of the movies, it's unlikely you'd start with this one. Still, if you're thinking about taking it in just to see what the fuss is about, don't bother. Or at least rent Part 1 first.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 has a dark, apocalyptic look that's so appropriate for a climactic battle with Voldemort. I got a bit choked up at the end, even though I knew what was coming. I liked it, although it's obviously special effects and action driven, which is why in the end, I prefer the books.

I was thinking afterward what a great job Rowling did in synthesizing British history and literature and culture. She explores this idea of a mythic, idealized English character in a strong and absorbing way.

There are shades of Shakespeare, Dickens, Tom Brown's School Days, the Arthurian legend, St. George and the Dragon, the Duke of Wellington and probably other influences that I'm not sufficiently Anglophile to pick up on.

And Rowling blends everything together in a way that's masterful. I wish there had been a series like Harry Potter when I was growing up. They're thick and detailed and wonderful books to just lose yourself in. (The closest would be Lord of the Rings but they're more for high school or college.)

The other thing I'd like to mention is Daniel Radcliffe. I was never a big fan of Radcliffe's from the movies. He always struck me as kind of a passive actor. But I realized in this final Harry Potter that he's perfect for the role.

I read online somewhere in the past few days where someone questioned (jokingly, I assume) whether Warner Bros. had been hoping for a growth spurt somewhere between the first and last films. The writer concluded that Radcliffe's size actually works in his favor, and I agree.

I think part of Radcliffe's strength as Harry is that he's not 6 feet 5. He's got this boy-man look and that gives him an appealing vulnerability and he uses it well. It heightens the underdog quality. I think his slender build also makes it easier for young audiences to identify with him. He's a life-size hero.

But the place where I've truly come to appreciate Radcliffe's talent is onstage. I thought he was riveting in his Broadway debut in 2008 as a troubled teenager in Equus. And he's utterly delightful making his Broadway musical debut this year, in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

I'm hoping Radcliffe will continue his theatre work, becoming part of a tradition of great British actors who move seamlessly between stage and screen.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Motherf**ker with the Hat

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, at Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *1/2 out of ****

A few years ago I saw a Broadway play that I didn't think I'd like. I had an open slot during one of my New York City trips and friends recommended it, so I went to TKTS and gave Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty a chance. Well, I loved it.

I was hoping the same thing would happen with The Motherf**ker with the Hat. I hadn't intended to see Stephen Adly Guirgis' play but it got terrific reviews, so I reconsidered and bought a (full price) ticket.

This time, sadly, I should have gone with my gut. It's not that I found the play so bad that I wish there'd been an intermission so I could have fled. It's just that I found it deeply disappointing and forgettable.

Let's start with the profanity.

I'll admit that The Motherf**ker with the Hat was funny. Director Anna D. Shapiro, whose work I admired in August: Osage County, kept things moving briskly. But I felt like the laughter was the titillating kind that comes from hearing naughty words. To me, going for a cheap laugh is just lazy writing - a sign that you can't think of anything witty or clever or meaningful to say. And after awhile, they lose their shock value.

Now, what was the point of this play?

I really tried to figure out what Guirgis was trying to say and honestly, I'm not sure. I mean, I know it's about people struggling with addictions - to drugs, alcohol, sex, violence. But it's not done in an especially interesting or compelling way. He's created a bunch of shallow, unsavory characters who mostly swear, shout, grow angry and betray each other for 90 minutes.

Bobby Cannavale is Jackie, an ex-convict and addict who has a longtime and volatile relationship with his girlfriend, Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez). When he finds a man's hat in his apartment, he becomes enraged, believing that Veronica is having an affair. His search for the motherf**ker to whom it belongs sets the play's events in motion.

Chris Rock, in his Broadway debut, is Ralph D., Jackie's AA sponsor who's trying to help him stay on the straight and narrow. Annabella Sciorra is Ralph's wife, Victoria. And rounding out the cast is Yul Vasquez as Julio, Jackie's supportive cousin.

Now, I have nothing against unsavory characters. For example, I thought Steven Pasquale was riveting as a total bully in reasons to be pretty. But the characters have to be more than caricatures. I need to feel something - hate them, love, them, root for them, despise them. I just wasn't drawn in by any of these people.

Cannavale was fine, but he played the same thuggish guy that I saw him play last summer in Trust. Rodriguez's Veronica is profane and hot-tempered from beginning to end. She's the latest example of an unfortunate tendency I've noticed to scream your way through a role. Rock seemed overpowered by everyone else onstage.

For me, Vasquez' Julio was the most interesting person in the play. When he talked about events from his and Jackie's childhood it put a restrained, touching and human face on the characters that I thought The Motherf**ker with the Hat sorely needed.

Anyway, this is the play's final week on Broadway. It garnered a slew of Tony nominations, critical acclaim and the producers announced that they recouped their investment. So I'm definitely in the minority. This one just wasn't for me.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Illusion

The Illusion, at the Signature Theatre off-Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating **1/2 out of ****

After being blown away by 7 1/2 hours of Angels in America during my April trip to New York City, I needed another Tony Kushner fix. So I decided to see The Illusion when I returned in June.

Kushner adapted The Illusion from the 17th century play L'Illusion Comique by Pierre Corneille. It concerns a lawyer, Pridamant, played by David Margulies, who drove his son away from home years earlier. Now, near the end of his life and filled with regret, he visits the cave of a magician to see if she can tell him what happened to his child.

The mysterious magician, Alcandre, played by Lois Smith, conjures up different visions of his son's life. There's a lot to show - unrequited love, dashing swordplay, some humorous scenes and some perilous ones. Tying them together is his attraction to a beautiful and high-born woman portrayed by Amanda Quaid.

Kusnher wrote The Illusion while he was in the middle of working on Angels in America and I wish I could say that it was as enthralling but it wasn't. While the play offered examples of Kushner's wonderfully poetic language, too much of it dragged. At 2 1/2 hours, The Illusion, directed by Spring Awakening's Michael Mayer, felt long. The ending in particular seemed to go on and on.

Part of the problem for me was, the supporting cast all seemed more interesting than the main characters. Finn Wittrock, who plays the son, and Quaid struck me as rather bland. But Peter Bartlett was great as a buffonish nobleman. I also liked Henry Stram as a mostly mute magician's assistant and Sean Dugan as a rival for Quaid's affections.

What saved the play were two things: Merritt Wever, a favorite of mine in the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, was terrific as a conniving maid; and there was an ingenious plot twist that I did not see coming. It made me smile and almost made The Illusion seem kind of wondrous.

In fact after it was revealed, I wish I could have gone back and watched some of the earlier scenes again. I certainly would have seen them in a different light. But of course I couldn't, because theatre is temporal and fleeting. I could only see them again in my mind's eye. And perhaps that was the point.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart, at Broadway's Golden Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ****
out of ****

I saw The Normal Heart and I wept.

Larry Kramer's 1985 work, this year's Tony winner for Best Revival of a Play, was so powerful and performed by such a remarkable ensemble that I don't think I've been as deeply affected by anything I've seen onstage since I started going to the theatre in 2007.

The Normal Heart is set in New York City between 1981 and 1984, when gay men were being stricken by a deadly and baffling disease that wasn't yet called AIDS. It's a largely autobiographical account of Kramer's efforts to sound the alarm and his role in founding the Gay Men's Health Crisis.

It's also the second work about this period that I've seen in the past couple of months - both by gay Jewish writers and drawing heavily on Jewish themes. While Tony Kushner's Angels in America is soaring and poetic and filled with biblical imagery The Normal Heart is searing, full of anger and references to the Holocaust.

I'm always wary of writers using Holocaust analogies but this one resonated, perhaps because I know our shared history: gays and Jews were both persecuted by the Nazis. And the story of The Normal Heart is sadly familiar: a group of people facing discrimination and unable to live their lives openly cope with a catastrophic event at a time when few know or care about their plight.

As Kramer's stand-in, activist and writer Ned Weeks, Joe Mantello is magnificent. Mantello, who directed one of my favorite musicals, Wicked, returned to acting for this role and he delivers one of the most intense and enthralling performances I've ever seen. (Interestingly, both Wicked and The Normal Heart are, in part, about feeling comfortable in your own skin.)

Abrasive and impatient with just about everyone - his brother, the medical establishment, city hall, the media and his more cautious gay friends - Weeks' outrage was always understandable and earned. It never seemed like Mantello was shouting just for the sake of shouting.

He lacerates the gay community for what he sees as its timidity: "Is this how so many people just walked into gas chambers? But at least they identified themselves to each other and to the world." And he's stirring and impassioned in his plea that gay men are more than simply sexual beings. We are, he says, unique and accomplished individuals - artists and writers and scientists. We helped win World War II.

And Mantello handled the play's flashes of wry humor, especially the self-deprecating Jewish kind, equally well. It's a perfectly modulated, riveting performance and it appears effortless.

What's so absorbing about Weeks is that Kramer gives us not only the activist but the personal side, too. Mark Harelik plays Weeks' brother, Ben, a successful lawyer who loves his sibling but falls short of understanding and accepting him. Their interaction and Harelik's transformation are compelling to watch.

At first Weeks' lover, Felix Turner, a closeted New York Times style reporter played by the Tony-winning John Benjamin Hickey, seems his polar opposite. But the two complement each other beautifully. Turner, quiet and calm, brings out a tenderness in the rumpled and caustic Weeks that's so appealing and poignant.

And Ellen Barkin, a Tony winner in her Broadway debut, is fierce as Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician treating gay men who have fallen ill with a rare cancer. Brookner, confined to a wheelchair from a childhood bout with polio, is electrifying as she rails against the indifference of government officials and medical researchers toward the disease.

The title of The Normal Heart comes from a poem by W.H. Auden, "Sept. 1, 1939." It contains the line "We must love one another or die." But what happens when you love one another and die? Brookner lectures an incredulous Weeks that in order to save their lives, he must urge gay men to stop having sex. When he asks her whether at least they can still kiss she responds, simply, that she just doesn't know.

I've seen more than my fair share of preachiness onstage and from what I knew about The Normal Heart going in, I was afraid that it would be more agitprop than anything else. I was so wrong. Directors George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey bring out the best in everyone in the superb cast and they all deliver compelling performances. Yes, it's political but Kramer never allows the audience to forget that this is a very human story.

The first time I couldn't hold back the tears that had been welling up all evening was in a scene where Lee Pace, playing closeted Citibank executive Bruce Niles, describes bringing his lover home to die. Hearing what they went through, the ignorance and prejudice they faced, was anguishing and I started to weep.

But what truly got to me in The Normal Heart, beyond the deaths and the indifference toward this nascent epidemic, as horrible as they were, was the fear.

The fear that men like Turner, Niles and Patrick Breen's Health Department worker Mickey Marcus expressed about identifying themselves publicly as gay, and possibly losing their jobs, was palpable and heartbreaking. They could barely bring themselves to be associated with an organization that had the word "gay" in its name.

I saw The Normal Heart two days after the New York state Senate voted to legalize gay marriage. Astonishingly, there are a couple of references to marriage in the play, a topic that I don't think was on anybody's radar in the 1980s. Talk about prescience. (It also struck me that the men refer to their "lovers," never to a partner or even boyfriend.)

Jim Parsons, who plays the sweet and easygoing Southerner Tommy Boatwright, got huge applause when he said, "Maybe if they'd let us get married to begin with none of this would have happened at all."

Twenty-five years after the events depicted in The Normal Heart, AIDS has become a manageable disease - if you're in the developed world and have access to health care. Today, the GMHC has a long list of corporate donors and even an official airline.

But the play's depiction of a community under stress gives it a certain timelessness. The Normal Heart is a potent reminder of how far we've come and how much work remains. (And producer Daryl Roth deserves an immense amount of credit for bringing it to Broadway. You can listen to her talk about it here.)

Everyone leaving the theatre gets a letter from Kramer telling us that what we saw was true and that the fight against AIDS continues. "Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were 41."

And while more and more Americans know someone who is gay, and support for same-sex marriage grows, homophobia certainly hasn't disappeared.

Last week, a report came out saying that half of gay and lesbian white-collar workers are not out in the workplace. It remains legal in 29 states to discriminate against someone on the job because of their sexual orientation. Those are shameful statistics. No one should fear losing their job because they're gay or lesbian.

Unfortunately, this is the final week for The Normal Heart on Broadway. But the producers are aiming for a national tour. Everyone - gay and straight - should see it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, at Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

Unfortunately, shows are closing faster than I can write reviews. The last performances of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World are this weekend, which is a shame because it's such an offbeat and absorbing musical.

The Shaggs tells the true story of the Wiggin sisters in New Hampshire in the late 1960s whose father, Austin, had a premonition - which turned into an obsession - that they were destined to become a successful rock 'n' roll band. Sadly, the girls were supremely musically untalented.

As Austin, Peter Friedman is riveting - becoming more and more unhinged and controlling. Annie Golden as their mother, Annie, watches helplessly while the blue-collar family's savings dwindle and tries to control her husband's outbursts.

As Dot, Betty and Helen Wiggin, Jamey Hood, Sarah Sokolovic and Emily Walton are terrific. They're awkward teenagers who know they're awful and hate being onstage. They want to please their father but at the same time, they're petrified of him. Dot tries to be supportive, Betty is rebellious and Helen retreats behind silence.

Cory Michael Smith is appealing as Kyle, the gangly and goofy classmate who falls for Walton's Helen. (One quibble, it's never completely explained why she remains mute for much of the musical.) Kevin Cahoon, a favorite of mine from The Wedding Singer Broadway cast recording, has a funny turn as their agent.

Now you might ask, "Who would want to listen to 2 1/2 hours of terrible musicianship?" Composers Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen have come up with a very effective work-around. When the girls are using their "inner" voices to sing about their lives, they sound like angels. It's only when they're performing that you get an idea of how they really sounded.

And I really enjoyed the score - there's a hilarious ensemble number that takes place at the local high school, "Career Day." Hood is touching in "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Dad." I was first smitten by the score of Hair from the movie, in which Golden played Jeannie, so it was thrilling to hear her solo, "Annie's Lessons."

Clearly, it would have been very easy to make fun of the sisters and their lack of talent but Gregory, who wrote the book, treats their lives with great sensitivity and poignancy. At a time when too many new musicals seem big and overblown, The Shaggs is human-scale, unique and refreshing.

As a band, you can't really say that The Shaggs faded into obscurity because they were always pretty obscure. But the sisters did get a burst of acclaim when their one-and-only album, Philosophy of the World, was re-released in 1980. Susan Orlean profiled them in The New Yorker in 1999. Here's the title song from Philosophy of the World.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Born Yesterday

Born Yesterday, at Broadway's Cort Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

I saw Born Yesterday during its final weekend on Broadway but for posterity's sake, I figured I'd post a review anyway.

Garson Kanin's 1946 play is best known as a film, which I've never seen. Still, it came with a great pedigree. Kanin and his wife Ruth Gordon wrote screenplays for two of the most famous Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn romantic comedies - Pat and Mike and Adam's Rib.

In Born Yesterday, a shady junk dealer named Harry Brock, played by Jim Belushi, comes to Washington looking to bribe a senator so he can corner the market on scrap metal in war-ravaged Europe. Accompanying him is Billie Dawn, a former showgirl who's sweet but not too bright, played by Nina Arianda.

Harry realizes that Billie could use a little refinement if they're going to move in the right social circles in Washington. He hires a young magazine writer who's been interviewing him, Paul Verrall, played by Robert Sean Leonard, to tutor her and make her more presentable.

For me, the main attraction in Born Yesterday was a chance to see Arianda, who has been getting heaps of praise since she appeared off-Broadway in Venus in Fur in 2010. (She'll reprise the role on Broadway in the fall.)

Well, she was stunning, looking absolutely gorgeous in Catherine Zuber's costumes. With her high-pitched voice, platinum blond hair and great timing, I felt like I was seeing the reincarnation of a 1940s screwball comedy actress onstage. She just totally inhabited Billie. It was a unique and memorable performance.

(I also have to give a shout-out to John Lee Beatty's terrific set design, a stylish and luxurious hotel penthouse with a view of the Capitol, done up brilliantly in royal blue and white.)

The rest of the cast was kind of a mixed bag. Belushi seemed to bluster his way through the role of a rough-edged, corrupt businessman. On the other hand, I liked Leonard's more subdued performance as the thoughtful and principled Verrall. It provided a nice contrast.

I left Born Yesterday feeling glad that I'd seen Arianda but disappointed with the play. I expected it to be much sharper, more witty and insightful. Instead, it felt plodding and dated and long. There were times, especially when Arianda's character was offstage, when I was bored.

The original production ran for nearly three years on Broadway, from 1946 to 1949. Perhaps in that less-cynical era, just following the war, the story had more power to provoke and shock. Sixty years later, it hardly raises an eyebrow.