Monday, September 3, 2012


Tribes, at the Barrow Street Theatre off-Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I love just about everything about Nina Raine's play Tribes, even the title.

It made me think how we all belong to many different tribes. Some we're born into, like our family, and others we choose, like our profession. Tribes tells the story of a young deaf man who, for the first time, becomes immersed in the deaf community and the friction that causes with his hearing family.

Billy, played by Russell Harvard, is part of an extremely loquacious British family. His father, Christopher (Jeff Still), is an academic. His mother, Beth, (Mare Winningham), is writing a novel. He has a brother Daniel (Will Brill), an aspiring academic, and a sister Ruth (Meghan O'Neill), an aspiring opera singer.

Billy's parents never wanted him to learn sign language, fearing that it would limit him in a hearing world. He's a smart guy but his parents, although well-intentioned, haven't exactly brought him up with the expectation that he'll become anything, unlike his brother and sister.

While he reads lips extremely well, Billy often feels left out of the conversation at home. There's a lot of overlapping dialogue and arguing in the play. You can  understand why it's not always easy for him to follow what's being said.

Then he meets a young woman, Sylvia, played by Susan Pourfar, who is slowly losing her own hearing. Sylvia, whose parents are deaf, is fluent in sign language. She encourages Billy to learn it and introduces him to a world to which he never felt connected before.

All of that sounds like it could be a bit mawkish but it's not. Raine has created two characters in Billy and Sylvia who are not stereotypes but imperfect and very human. And as always director David Cromer gets terrific performances from his actors, reaching the core of the person they're playing.

Harvard is very likeable as Billy but he's not saintly and doesn't always do the right thing. Pourfar is heart-wrenching as Sylvia. She's not at all stoic about her impending deafness. She views it differently from Billy, who's never known anything else.

Still is great as a snobbish intellectual. He grills Sylvia to the point of rudeness when Billy brings her home for dinner. While Pourfar is up to the verbal sparring match, it did seem over the top and made me uncomfortable. (Apparently all the education in the world doesn't teach good manners!)

What Raine demonstrates so clearly is how these people who know so much about the world, who are curious about everything, seem disinterested when it comes to their son and brother. They talk all the time and yet they don't communicate very well. They don't listen.

It's not that they're monsters, they're just exceedingly self-absorbed. Granted, it's difficult for Billy's parents and siblings, as it is for the audience, to understand what the world sounds like to a hearing-impaired person. But Cromer is imaginative in helping us try.

The play takes place mostly in the family's dining/living room with the audience seated on all four sides, so at times an actor will be speaking with his or her back turned. Super-titles translate when Billy and Sylvia use sign language. And at one point, there's a buzzing noise that makes it possible to hear sounds but not really make out what's being said.

After a poignant first-act ending, Tribes loses its way a bit in Act II. Raine has Brill's Daniel fall apart in a way that seemed kind of abrupt and forced.

But overall, this is a beautifully written, thought-provoking work with memorable characters. It's about language and communication, it's about what happens when you have a cultural identity that you don't share with your family. It's a play you want to talk about afterward. 

I won't give anything away but one of the things that impressed me most about Tribes was the ending. It was perfect in a way that endings rarely are and a sure sign of a skilled, confident writer who knows where she's taking her audience.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors

One Man, Two Guvnors, at Broadway's Music Box Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

I always say it's easy to make me cry, harder to make me laugh.

I've been to a few shows where everyone around me has been howling and I'm sitting there only mildly amused. This is especially true of slapstick, which in my opinion sometimes goes on for far too long. How much can you take of people falling down and getting hit with things?

Well, One Man, Two Guvnors has lots of physical gags and it had me laughing until the tears were rolling down my cheeks. All of my normal defense-against-humor mechanisms were rendered useless before the sight of someone eating an envelope and getting hit in the head with the lid of a trash can.

Tony winner James Corden, a teddy bear of a man, is a big part of what makes the play so irresistible. Stuffed into a three-piece suit that's a little too small and perpetually hungry, he's hapless and yet so sympathetic. He has a great command of the stage, at times addressing the audience directly to ask for help - or a sandwich.

Corden plays the down-on-his-luck Francis Henshall, who winds up working for two employers at once in seaside Brighton, England, in the 1960s. His "guvnors" are the posh Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and the tough Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), in disguise as her gangster brother Roscoe. He spends a lot of time trying to keep each one from finding out that he's working for the other.

If it were just pratfalls, that wouldn't be enough. I think the play, adapted by Richard Bean from the 17th-century Italian farce Servant of Two Masters, worked because of its quirky, off-the-wall characters, like Daniel Rigby's Alan, an incredibly hammy actor. A caricature to be sure, but in a good way.

And while the plot is convoluted - there's lots of mistaken identity - it was enough to hold my interest. I thought Nicholas Hytner's direction kept things moving along briskly, even in Act II, which isn't quite as frenetic.

One Man, Two Guvnors reaches its comic height in the first act. Henshall's employers are dining in the same pub and he's desperate to keep them apart. At the same time, Tom Edden's Alfie, an extremely elderly and accident-prone waiter, keeps bringing more food. Edden is brilliant and with the help of physical comedy director Cal McCrystal, the scene looked effortless. It was hilarious.

I have to mention The Craze, a skiffle band whose four members played 1960s-type pop tunes before the show, at intermission and during scene changes. The music, written by Grant Olding, was catchy and really got me in the mood for something fun.

Sadly One Man, Two Guvnors, which just recouped its investment, is closing Sept. 2. It's too bad the play, a production of Britain's National Theatre, couldn't have extended even if Corden had other commitments.

Sure, it's light and silly, but it's a smart kind of silly. How many comedies can say that?

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Harvey, at Studio 54 on Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

Even though it closed earlier this month, I just want to say a few things about the Broadway revival of Harvey starring Jim Parsons, of the TV series The Big Bang Theory.

I'd never seen Harvey, not even the movie with Jimmy Stewart. But I knew it was about a man and his imaginary friend, a 6-foot, 3/12-inch pooka that looks like a giant rabbit. I knew that the play, written by Mary Chase, had been awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Unfortunately, Harvey felt dated and left me wondering what the Pulitzer committee was thinking. It was amusing but it also struck me as  kind of slight and left me feeling slightly uncomfortable.

As Elwood P. Dowd, Parsons was sweet and likeable. He also got huge entrance applause. I've never seen his TV series but apparently it's made Parsons very popular. I liked him in his Broadway debut last summer in The Normal Heart.

In Harvey, I wasn't quite sure what to make of Parsons' character and what his invisible friend signified. Was Elwood supposed to be mentally ill or an alcoholic or both? He's always talking about going to a tavern for a drink yet he never acts intoxicated. 

I guess he's is the kind of character who, if he were poor, would be crazy but because he comes from money and a good family, he's merely eccentric. Except for his invisible companion, he seems pretty ordinary and doesn't appear to have any trouble functioning. He's a kind, good-hearted soul. A little strange but harmless.

Elwood's social-climbing sister and niece, played by Jessica Hecht and Tracee Chimo, consider Elwood's behavior to be an embarrassment. They're hilarious as they scheme to get him committed to a mental institution, which doesn't go quite as easily as they had hoped. (I really enjoyed seeing Mad Men's Rich Sommer as a hospital orderly.)

But this is where Harvey begins to show its age and gets kind of uncomfortable.

The head of the institution, the distinguished Dr. William R. Chumley, played by Charles Kimbrough, wants to give Elwood a shot that will stop him from seeing Harvey. It may also change his personality, and not necessarily for the better.

To my 21st century mind, that raised ethical questions about potential side effects and informed consent. Also, I don't like drama that romanticizes mental illness - if that's what Elwood has. Harvey became less of a quirky period piece and more troubling.

It's still possible to enjoy Harvey, as long as you don't think too much about the plot and its implications.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Into the Woods

Into the Woods, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

For me Into the Woods was more than a show, it was a practically 24-hour experience that I can't judge solely by what I saw onstage.

From 5:30 a.m., when I got to Central Park to stand in line for a free ticket, until the curtain call shortly after 11 that night at the Delacorte Theater, it turned out to be one of my most memorable New York City days ever.

Initially, I wasn't enthusiastic about getting up before dawn but my friend Tapeworthy assured me that it would be fun. And you know what, he was right. I couldn't have asked for a better first visit to the Public Theater's Shakespeare Sondheim in the Park.

I spent seven hours watching the park come alive on a sunny Friday morning. I was with wonderful friends I've met through theatergoing. We had breakfast and lunch delivered. I ended up with a front-row seat. And despite my obsessive worrying, not one drop of rain fell.

I'll admit that Into the Woods isn't my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical. It's about 3 hours and near the end, I was feeling the length. There's a lot going on in James Lapine's book of overlapping fairy tales - a baker and his wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and maybe some others I missed. I think some of the deeper meaning went by me.

This production, which originated at London's Regent's Park, uses a child narrator instead of an adult. But because I didn't know any better, I just assumed the role was supposed to be a child's. I imagined this young boy having problems at home and he's run away. He ends up lost in the woods and has this dream/nightmare that's a mishmash of stories he's been told.

I was thrilled by the magical elements: the Witch's transformation, the Giant, voiced by Glenn Close, appearing in a corner of the sky, the sprouting beanstalks. I liked the multi-tiered treehouse set designed by John Lee Beatty that blended in with the park's natural woods. Although I can see where it wouldn't be nearly as much fun if you were sitting off to the side or to the back.

I attended the third preview, so I realize that things were still jelling. But I thought Denis O'Hare and Amy Adams were sweet the Baker and his Wife. Their quest for a child was touching. Although Adams, whose film work I've loved, didn't make as big an impression onstage as I'd hoped. Donna Murphy was a great menacing presence as the Witch.

But four performances really stood out for me.

Sarah Stiles as Little Red Riding Hood and Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf were sexy and hilarious. As Cinderella, Jessie Mueller had such a gorgeous voice, especially in "No One Is Alone," that I wish she'd had a bigger role. And Gideon Glick was so endearing as Jack. I loved his "Giants in the Sky."

My favorite part of Into the Woods was simply being in Central Park at night for the first time.

I don't think I've ever seen any theatre outdoors before and it was lovely. You don't feel like you're in a crowded, concrete island of 1.6 million people but out in the woods somewhere. I always want to be transported by what I see onstage but this took it to a whole different level. (My only criticism: I wish there had been better lighting outside the theater when we left.)

Maybe if I'd spent $150 to see the show on Broadway I might feel differently. And honestly, I'm not sure there's a big Broadway audience for this unless it has a big Hollywood star. Despite the subject matter, it's not for kids. But the day was so perfect - a terrific introduction to a now 50-year-old New York City summertime tradition.

In short, it was the kind of day the late Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park, might have had in mind when he said, "Part of the spiritual life of the city is its art."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Married and Counting

Watching Married and Counting made me sorry that Stephen Mosher and Pat Dwyer have completed their wedding tour because I would love to have been a part of it. But I'm glad that I got to join them for the world premiere of the moving documentary chronicling their journey.

New Yorkers Stephen and Pat have been a couple for nearly 25 years when they embark on a quest to get married in every place in the United States where it's legal for gay couples to do so - including California, where its status kept changing.

I've read Stephen's blog and I met him in April. Until Saturday, I'd never met Pat. The screening at the Rhode Island International Film Festival was not only my first world premiere - pretty exciting - but the first time I've watched a film with the subjects in the same room.

It's a credit to director Allan Piper that I was so absorbed by their story I didn't think about how they were sitting a row in front of me. Ok, one time I got a little self-conscious thinking I might have laughed too loudly at an old picture of the two of them. I cried, too. How could you not at a film about weddings?

Piper says he's made a love story and that's true in more ways than one. Getting to know Stephen and Pat as they talk about their lives, seeing them with their families, watching them deal with the stress that goes into planning multiple weddings was captivating. I fell in love with them and their band of devoted friends who strive to make each ceremony unique.

Narrated by George Takei, this is also a film that gives you a great sense of place. We travel from New York City to New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, to Iowa and California and Texas, to Washington, D.C. We're in people's homes, under a covered bridge, on the steps of the Supreme Court and on the beach at Coney Island. It feels like a road trip.

But it's also a journey through the lives and experiences of these two gay men. Along the way, we hear about how Pat and Stephen met in college and fell in love. They talk openly and with great emotion about their struggles to be accepted by their families. We get a glimpse of that when they return home to Texas for a visit.

I'm glad the film focuses on a couple who've been together for so long. If they were heterosexual teenagers who'd known each other for five minutes Pat and Stephen would be able to get a government-issued marriage license anywhere in the United States. But these two responsible, taxpaying citizens - who've been together a quarter century - can't do that.

When Pat drops off their rental van in New Jersey, a state that does not recognize their marriage, he says, “It goes against my feelings about this country and what this country is supposed to be and what it can be." Mine, too. Making this country a more inclusive place does not hurt anyone. It only helps all of us. Marriage equality is the fair, decent, American thing to do.

It also struck me as I was watching how many times in movies, on TV and on stage I've seen gay men portrayed as tragic figures. The short film that preceded theirs, Rufus Stone, was a poignant contrast because it definitely fit into that category. Those are stories that need to be told but they're not the whole picture.

Married and Counting is refreshingly different - in a way, honestly, that more straight Americans need to see. This is a joyous, heartfelt film about a happy couple. Yes, they argue occasionally and there are disappointments and I'm sure there have been challenges. But they've built a strong life together surrounded by people who love them. They could be your relatives or friends or neighbors or coworkers.

After eight weddings, there's only one thing left to say: Mazel tov Pat and Stephen! May your second 25 years together be as fulfilling as the first 25.

For more information about Married and Counting, including upcoming screenings, you can visit the film's web site, follow it on twitter at 8weddings, on Facebook and on Tumblr. The film has also been featured in Time magazine.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Remembering my friend Saundra Smokes

A dear friend died this week. Saundra Smokes and I worked together for 11 years at the Syracuse Herald-Journal, where she was then a columnist and editorial writer.

Sandi was a compelling voice for people who sometimes lack one in the pages of newspapers. She was also a devout Christian who never had a harsh word for anyone and who never used her faith as a justification to hate. She was all about love and understanding.

But most of all, she was a terrific person to have as a friend. I can't even tell you the number of evenings we spent talking, over dinner with our friend Mark, about our jobs, our childhoods, about what it meant to be black in America, what it meant to be Jewish in America.

We talked about everything. We laughed a lot. sometimes we argued. But it was always with respect. When I think about my life in Syracuse, the hours I spent with friends like Sandi are what I miss above all.

When I went to live in Israel for a year, I wrote a monthly column for the Herald-Journal. Sandi paid me one of the highest compliments I've ever received as a writer. She was so moved by what I'd written about Holocaust Remembrance Day in Tel Aviv that she mentioned it in her column.

She talked about our dinners, about what unites us as blacks and Jews, and she said: "We'll keep writing and talking and learning from our two cultures and hopefully doing our parts as peace- and justice-seekers for all groups, for all people."

Sandi spent her life as a justice-seeker. In March, after the killing of Trayvon Martin, she wrote a column trying to explain to all of us who might not understand the often precarious nature of being a young black male in America.

Although we'd reconnected on Facebook, I hadn't spoken with Sandi for a long time. We never had a chance to talk about Barack Obama being elected our country's first African-American president. I'm devastated that she's not here anymore, that I won't have one last chance.

I will never forget the comforting phone call I received from Sandi after my mother died. She reassured me that as heartbroken as I felt, eventually I would stop crying and be able to go on with my life. I feel the same way today.

Thank-you, Sandi, for your friendship. I feel privileged to have known you.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya
Sydney Theatre Company at Lincoln Center Festival
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Before Uncle Vanya, I didn't think you could go into a play too cold - at least one that wasn't Shakespeare. Surprise, you can!

I'll admit that it's partly my own fault for not getting more out of the Sydney Theatre Company's production, which played for two weeks in July as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This was my first Chekhov play and I should have read the synopsis in the program.

For example, I knew that the play was about Vanya and his niece Sonya, who live on a dilapidated country estate. From what I know about Russian literature, which isn't a lot, I figured there'd be unhappy people talking about how unhappy they were. I was pretty sure there'd be vodka.

Since Oscar winner Cate Blanchett was the most famous person in the cast, I figured she was Sonya. Wrong! She was Yelena, the younger, glamorous wife of the revered Professor Serebryakov and Sonya's stepmother. They've come from the city to visit the estate that once belonged to Sonya's mother, an event that causes complications for everyone.

Another problem, for most of the first act I was straining to hear from the back of the orchestra. The 2,200-seat City Center is the biggest theatre I've been in for a play in which the actors were not amplified. I have to wonder, does a director ever sit in the house during rehearsals to make sure the dialogue can be heard?

Eventually I got a sense of what was going on. I read the summary at intermission. Act II was more emotional, with people talking louder, which helped. I ended up being moved by Uncle Vanya. It's a play about unrequited love and people whose lives have not turned out the way they had hoped, who fear for their future.

Blanchett was stunning. The way she was lit onstage, what she wore - tailored suits and a red cocktail dress - made her stand out. It was interesting to see how she related to the other characters - Vanya, Sonya, the physician Astrov, who's come to look after her husband. You could see why they all gravitated toward her, why all the men were in love with her. She really stands out amid this drab existence.

But the two performances that affected me most deeply were Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Hayley McElhinney as Sonya. They were both heart-wrenching.

Roxburgh's Vanya has devoted his life to caring for this estate, given to his late sister when she married Serebryakov. Now he faces the prospect of having it sold out from under him. He looks at Yelena and Serebryakov and thinks about what his life could have been like. McElhinney's Sonya is hopelessly in love with Hugo Weaving's Astrov, a physician bored with country life who doesn't give her a second thought.

Uncle Vanya was directed by Tamas Ascher and adapted by Andrew Upton, the Sydney Theatre Company co-artistic director along with Blanchett, his wife. Ascher and Upton have been praised for injecting humor into this production and there was a lot of laughter. But it just struck me as inappropriate.

There's a place for dark comedy - I loved John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, for instance. Sometimes a situation is so sad that you have to laugh. And several people on my Twitter feed told me that Chekhov considered most of his plays - including Vanya - to be comedies.

But I didn't see the humor in Uncle Vanya. Nothing in the main characters' situations made me want to laugh. Instead, by the end of the play, with Vanya and Sonya feeling unappreciated and unloved, I just felt a deep sense of sorrow for them.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Truth and truthiness in theatre marketing

Theatre companies love me - they call, they write all the time. I know it's because they miss me and they really, really want to see me again but some of the lines they use to lure me back are, shall we say, heightened for dramatic effect.

Here are a few recent examples of marketing pitches. While some are inaccurate, others exist in that gray area between truth and truthiness. They're anonymous because I don't want to pick on any one theatre company. I saw the Broadway musical Curtains, so I know it's a business.

We're giving you an early chance to get the very best seats to this Broadway hit before the general public.

I was excited when I got this e-mail and immediately went to the theatre's website to buy a ticket. Just one problem: their definition of "very best seats" seems restricted to the last three rows of the orchestra or to the far left and right sides. There was nothing closer on any day I checked. It's possible everything else is sold out but I think I'll wait before buying my ticket.

 The Broadway series features Tony winners Catch Me If You Can, Memphis, Million Dollar Quartet, Sister Act, War Horse and more!

Wow, look at the lineup of Tony winners! Except that Sister Act, while it was nominated, didn't win any Tonys. The awards for Catch Me If You Can and Million Dollar Quartet went to Norbert Leo Butz and Levi Kreis - actors who, to the best of my knowledge, aren't going on tour with the musicals. At least they got Best Musical Memphis and Best Play War Horse right.

Don't miss the the last three performances of what the NY Times calls a "fearless" play that "breaks the mold."

When I read that I thought one of the Times' theatre critics saw the play and reviewed it. Wrong! The quotes come from a physician who writes for a Times wellness blog. She saw the medical-themed play and loved it. But is it fair to translate her rave into an endorsement from The New York Times, the same as if critics Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood had written a review? I'm not sure.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Oreo celebrates Gay Pride Month

I'm not surprised that the haters came out in force when Oreo posted a picture on its Facebook page of a rainbow-themed cookie to celebrate Gay Pride Month. (Sadly it's only an illustration, not a real cookie.)

The nasty comments were what you'd expect but there was one that really irritated me. It went something like this: Why would a company risk alienating 97 percent of (presumably straight) consumers to curry favor with the 3 percent who might be gay or lesbian.

That argument is particularly insidious because at first glance, it sounds logical. What business wants to anger 97 percent of the people who might buy its product? But it has the effect of marginalizing the other 3 percent by setting them apart from the rest of America. It's divisive and demeaning.

(I wonder whether this person thinks it's a mistake for supermarkets to cater to Jews with displays of matzo and gefilte fish during Passover? Jews are even less than 3 percent of the population. And you know about the special Coca-Cola we get, right?)

Beyond that, the argument is 100 percent wrong because it ignores just how much American attitudes toward homosexuality have changed. This is not 1960, when gay people were forced to live furtive lives in the shadows of society or pretend that they were straight.

Surveys show an ever-increasing number of straight Americans have someone in their life who's gay or lesbian. And knowing someone who's gay translates into greater acceptance. The younger you are, the more likely that's true. So thinking about what Oreo did in terms of 97 percent versus 3 percent is a total fallacy.

To put it plainly, there are plenty of cookie-eating straight people who support our gay friends. And plenty of cookie-eating gay people as well. They're out, they're proud and we love them year-round. When a company like Kraft, whose Nabisco division makes Oreos, reaches out to them, it makes us want to support that company, too.

A spokesman said that Kraft "has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values." Well those are my values, too. So next time I'm at the supermarket, I'll toss a package of Oreos into my cart. (Here's Buzzfeed on what some other snacks would look like showing their pride.)

The anti-gay bigots may think they're the majority in the United States but the percentages - and time - are not on their side.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge takes on the man who said "Eh."

Clearly, Kirsten Greenidge would like a better calibre of people to come see her plays. You know, the kind who appreciate her talent and would give her the adulation she deserves. At least that's the message I took away from her opinion piece in The Boston Globe.

Here's part of what she wrote:

"Not so long ago I sat in one of my plays, watching the people in the row in front of me. Their hair was indeed a little gray, but just as noteworthy was their attire. The men had heavy, large-faced watches and well-made sport coats. The women had purses that might have cost three times my family’s usual grocery bill. They each looked healthy — the kind of healthy you get when you have health insurance. This country had kept its promise to them. So how would they react to a play about people whose relationship to that promise is more ambiguous than their own?

“What’d you think?” one asked her husband afterward. A Lexus “L” flashed from his key ring. “Eh,” he replied. In his hand was the program, open to my picture. Did he know I was sitting behind him? His displeasure was not malicious or callous; it was dismissive. Why go traipsing through the unfortunate experiences of others? If this play about have-nots were to implicate him in the not-having, it might ruin the effects of the perfectly lovely Malbec he’d had with dinner."

I don't even know where to begin in discussing those paragraphs. The guy with the Lexus key ring didn't like her play? So what? Is that any excuse for Greenidge to project her own stereotypes about who this man is, based on what he was wearing and what kind of car he "might" drive? And where did she develop the ability to read people's minds?

Greenidge seems particularly incensed that someone she views as well off - with health insurance! - didn't love her play. Would the "Eh" have felt better if it had come from someone younger, from a different cultural and socioeconomic background? Someone hipper? Someone who wore torn jeans and an old T-shirt, who carried a knapsack and took the subway and had a minimum-wage job that didn't offer health insurance?

I sympathize with the desire of a young African-American writer to have an audience that may share her cultural sensibilities and background, an audience she believes will appreciate her more and just get her. She yearns for an audience, above all, that cares about the issues and characters she explores in her plays. Nothing wrong with that.

And Greenidge makes valid points about audiences, ones that are apparent to anyone who's ever set foot in a theatre - they do appear older and whiter, more female. Surveys show they also tend to be more affluent. And those facts, she argues, make it more difficult for theatres and playwrights to offer plays that might upset their core patrons.

But like it or not, those are the people who come. They pay full price for tickets and buy season subscriptions. Many of them do support new work. Year in and year out they fork over their money, get dressed up and come out to see a play when it would be easier to stay home and sit on the couch in front of the TV.

Of course I want theatres to stage works that attract a younger, more diverse audience. I want them to experiment and challenge their patrons. Who doesn't want that? But as a middle class white person with health insurance, who's bought a few handbags in her day, I'm hurt by Greenidge's assertion that because I might not like a particular play, it somehow reflects badly on me. It's a sign that I'm not willing to step outside my comfort zone and try to understand experiences different from my own.

It seems to me that she could have made her argument just as strongly without holding the audience she has in such contempt because one person expressed a less than enthusiastic reaction to her play. Whatever you think about the man who said "Eh," he paid for his ticket and sat through to the end.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Some thoughts on the 2012 Tony Awards

Watching the Tony Awards last night made me so happy that I braved a storm to see The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess before it came to Broadway, that Trinity Rep snagged Clybourne Park for a 300-seat theatre and that I set aside my qualms about movie-to-musical adaptations for Once.

In other words, I'm pretty happy about the winners, especially Once, which is the most unique and captivating new musical I've seen in years. It's the one show I've been recommending whenever someone asks me what to see on Broadway.

And the speeches from the winners seemed especially heartfelt and emotional. I was tearing up hearing Tony winner for Once Steve Kazee talk about his mother, who passed away from cancer on Easter Sunday. Anyone who's lost a parent knows how he felt.

I'm not sure whether Stephen Sondheim's angry letter to The New York Times cost the Follies revival a Tony win. I think most voters would be professional enough to judge the show on its merits. But a cast and creative team work so hard and it's such a tough business. I'm sure Sondheim's criticism of a musical he hadn't seen must have stung.

The one show I haven't seen that came across especially well was the British comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. James Corden's acceptance speech was hilarious, even though it was largely recycled from the Drama Desk Awards. And the scene they showed from the play: Who knew someone hitting himself in the head with a trash can lid could be so funny?!

Despite Tony wins for Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye, I'm still not interested in Nice Work If You Can Get It. Maybe if Matthew Broderick hadn't looked so tired and as my friend Tapeworthy said, gotten a better haircut, the musical number from the show would have been more exciting. Where have you gone, Ferris Bueller?

This comment from Alan Menken, who with Jack Feldman won Best Score for Newsies, was interesting: "We really owe it to the generation of kids who adopted this movie and insisted that it be brought to the stage." Before VCRs and cable channels like the Disney Channel, seeing your favorite movie over and over again wouldn't have been possible. And Menken is so close to an EGOT. Get that man an Emmy, stat!

As a show, the Tony Awards were just ok. Host Neil Patrick Harris was his usual charming and witty self. If you're interested and you've seen the plays and musicals, you'll tune in. If not, you won't. For me the best part was tweeting along with my fellow theatre fans. They made watching it at home alone on the couch a lot more enjoyable!

The one misstep was including a snippet of Hairspray performed live from the Royal Caribbean liner Oasis of the Seas. This is supposed to be a night to recognize the best in American theatre and that was underwhelming. Although I was impressed by the enormous size of the ship's theatre.

I'm sure the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League were under a lot of pressure from CBS to include it. I wish they had stood their ground and made Royal Caribbean buy a commercial in a regular commercial slot instead of disguising it as part of the show. Besides, if I were interested in taking a cruise, I'd want to see more of the ship.

And the one thing I hate about all awards shows is how the camera is fixed on the nominees, to get their reaction as a winner is announced. I always avert my eyes. I just can't watch. It seems so cruel.

But regardless of who brought home a Tony, I loved all of the nominated performances I saw this season. You can find the complete list of winners here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My picks for the 2012 Tony Awards

The Tony Awards are Sunday night at 8 on CBS, hosted once again by the charming Neil Patrick Harris!

Here are the nominees in (most of) the categories and my picks if I had a vote. I've marked in bold the shows and performances that I've seen. It's so hard to choose because I enjoyed them all!

Best Musical
Nice Work if You Can Get It
Leap of Faith

I saw Newsies and Once on the same day, which was quite an experience. Newsies is a terrific traditional Broadway musical. But Once felt unique and captivating.

Best Revival of a Musical
The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Jesus Christ Superstar

This production of Follies got to me. Every role was wonderfully cast and hearing the score with a full orchestra was thrilling.

Best Original Score
Bonnie & Clyde
One Man, 2 Guvnors
Peter and the Starcatcher

I love the Newsies score, especially the big ensemble numbers "Seize the Day," "Carry the Banner" and "King of New York." Alan Menken's music and Jack Feldman's lyrics sing "Broadway" to me.

Best Book of a Musical
Lysistrata Jones, Douglas Carter Beane
Newsies, Harvey Fierstein
Nice Work If You Can Get It, Joe DiPietro
*Once, Enda Walsh

I think Enda Walsh did a beautiful job translating Once from the screen to the stage. His adaptation brings out the humor and heart in the story.

Best Actor in a Musical
Danny Burstein, Follies
*Jeremy Jordan, Newsies
Steve Kazee, Once
Norm Lewis, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Ron Raines, Follies

Every year there's one category where I've seen all the performances, which makes it even harder to pick a favorite! I really did love them all. But Jeremy Jordan's strong vocals, charisma and 1,000-watt smile won me over.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical
*Philip Boykin, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Michael Cerveris, Evita
David Alan Grier, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Michael McGrath, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Josh Young, Jesus Christ Superstar

I saw the pre-Broadway Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theatre and Philip Boykin was scary terrific as the bullying Crown. I can only imagine how much more terrifying he's gotten.

Best Actress in a Musical
Jan Maxwell, Follies
Audra McDonald, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
*Cristin Milioti, Once
Kelli O'Hara, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Laura Osnes, Bonnie and Clyde

Yes I know the money's on Audra but I'd love to see Cristin Milioti, who simply sparkled in her portrayal of a Czech immigrant in Ireland, walk off with a Tony.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Elizabeth A. Davis, Once
*Jayne Houdyshell, Follies
Judy Kaye, Nice Work If You Can Get It
Jesse Mueller, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Ghost

This one is easy. I've seen Jayne Houdyshell onstage twice and each time she's been a hoot. I loved her belting out "Broadway Baby."

Best Choreography
Rob Ashford, Evita
*Christopher Gattelli, Newsies
Steven Hoggett, Once
Kathleen Marshall, Nice Work If You Can Get It

I'm a longtime fan of Christopher Gattelli's work and his acrobatic, athletic choreography brought such exuberance to Newsies. It was one of the best things about the show.

Best Play
*Clybourne Park
Other Desert Cities
Peter and the Starcatcher
Venus in Fur

I didn't see Clybourne Park on Broadway. But of the three, it's the one I most wanted to talk about afterward, for its examination of race and changing neighborhoods and how America has changed.

Best Revival of a Play
Death of a Salesman
Master Class
*The Best Man

I admired Death of a Salesman and I can see why it's a classic American play. But maybe this is the history and politics junkie in me speaking - I loved The Best Man. The way this 1960 play about a presidential campaign resonates in 2012 is amazing and incredibly entertaining.

Best Actor in a Play
James Corden, One Man, Two Guvnors
*Philip Seymour Hoffman, Death of a Salesman
James Earl Jones, The Best Man
Frank Langella, Man and Boy
John Lithgow, The Columnist

I was enthralled by Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in Death of Salesman. He's such an expressive actor and he captured Willy Loman's weariness, as well as his exhilaration and confidence in the flashback scenes.

Best Featured Actor in a Play
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Michael Cumpsty, End of the Rainbow
Tom Edden, One Man, Two Guvnors
*Andrew Garfield, Death of a Salesman
Jeremy Shamos, Clybourne Park

He seemed a little too delicate for the role but Andrew Garfield brought such intensity and emotion to the role of Biff in Death of a Salesman, especially in the flashbacks showing him as a teenager.

Best Actress in a Play
Stockard Channing, Other Desert Cities
*Tracie Bennett, End of the Rainbow
Linda Lavin, The Lyons
Nina Arianda, Venus in Fur
Cynthia Nixon, Wit

As Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, Tracie Bennett was devastating. I just wish that the play had been worthy of her talents.

Best Featured Actress in a Play
Linda Emond, Death of a Salesman
Spencer Kayden, Don't Dress for Dinner
*Celia Keenan-Bolger, Peter and the Starcatcher
Judith Light, Other Desert Cities
Condola Rashad, Stick Fly

As the precocious daughter of a British diplomat, Celia Keenan-Bolger had the voice and mannerisms of a young girl down pat. I adored her character - a spunky and determined heroine.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Best Man

The Best Man, at Broadway's Schoenfeld Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

Usually I know way too much about a show going in, so I'm glad I restrained myself with The Best Man before seeing the Broadway revival. I was amazed at how Gore Vidal's 1960 play about a presidential campaign feels like it could have been written in 2012.

Set on the eve of their party's convention, when the nominee is still in doubt, The Best Man pits John Larroquette's Secretary of State William Russell, a rumpled, cerebral New Englander, against Eric McCormack's Sen. Joseph Cantwell, a handsome, charismatic Southerner.

As a history and politics junkie, I loved every minute of all three acts. What makes The Best Man so fascinating for me is that the play, which premiered on Broadway in March 1960, foreshadows changes that would take place in American politics in the coming months and years. It's uncanny.

Granted, political conventions today are scripted down to the tiniest detail and the nominee is no longer in doubt. But Vidal's writing is witty and his characters are sharply drawn. Fifty-two years later, the candidates are familiar and the issues seem so timely.

The plot involves allegations about each of the two men that could derail their campaigns. No spoilers here but they have parallels in more recent presidential bids. The only difference is that today, there's no way they'd stay private. (Another difference that jumped out at me - neither candidate is wearing an American flag pin on his lapel.)

If Cantwell is the future of presidential campaigns - slick and telegenic - then former President Artie Hockstader, "the last of the hicks" he calls himself, represents the past. James Earl Jones was riveting as the blunt and no-nonsense Hockstader. This was my first time seeing him onstage and I was awestruck by his unmistakable voice and commanding presence.

In fact, the entire cast of The Best Man is terrific - Candice Bergen as Russell's wary estranged wife; a delightful Angela Lansbury as the shrewd head of the party's "women's division"; Michael McKean as Russell's trusted campaign manager. (I saw the play before McKean's injury and I wish him a speedy recovery.) Jefferson Mays is great as a meek and intimidated figure who has some dirt on one of the candidates. And Kerry Butler plays Cantwell's Southern belle wife to the hilt.

The play takes place mostly in the candidates' hotel rooms in Philadelphia but Derek McLane's set design extends to the audience - the Schoenfeld Theatre is decorated with lots of red, white and blue bunting and the signs with state names on them that you see at conventions.

Vidal reportedly modeled Russell on the liberal Illinois governor and two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. Cantwell is supposedly a combination of John F. Kennedy's charm and Richard Nixon's ruthlessness.

But you don't have to think too hard to come up with contemporary politicians who fit those descriptions. Cantwell, with his populism and emphasis on his working-class roots, reminded me of John Edwards. (He has Edwards' hair but not his particular moral failing.) And Russell's intellectual demeanor reminded me of John Kerry.

My favorite example of how The Best Man resonates occurred when the play ended.

After the curtain call, McCormack came back onstage to make a pitch for donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Someone shouted from the mezzanine "I'd vote for you!" McCormack, a look of astonishment on his face, said, "Really?"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Getting Kindled and iPadded

I always said I'd never get an e-reader. I like the feel of paper in my hands. I spend enough time staring at computer screens as it is. Plus, browsing in bookstores and buying books is one of life's simple pleasures.

Well things change.

Borders went bankrupt, greatly reducing my browsing options. And as much as I love buying books, I no longer have much room for them. Last year, for the second time in 15 years, I had to get rid of almost all of my books because I was moving and I couldn't couldn't take them with me. What's the point in amassing another collection that I'll only have to give away again?

Then last month I took the bus to Boston to see a play. I was in the middle of a good novel and I wanted to bring it with me but it was over 500 pages. It wouldn't fit in my bag and I couldn't see the point of lugging it around all day.

I went to Staples, which sells the Nook and the Kindle. They were both lightweight and small enough to carry in my bag. But one thing bothered me: the text blurs slightly when you turn the page on an e-reader and it was giving me a headache just trying them out in the store.

I bought the cheapest Kindle, at $79, since I wasn't sure how much I'd use it. It comes with advertising, which you see as a screensaver when the device is turned off or as a small band on the bottom of your home page. You never see it within the text of a book and it doesn't bother me at all.

So far, I've read a couple of books on it and I like it a lot. The blurring isn't quite as annoying as I thought it would be, although I don't think I'd like to read for hours on an e-reader. On the downside, it's not as easy to flip through an e-reader as it is a physical book. But it's extremely portable and I never have to worry about running out of something to read.

My other big purchase was an iPad. I bought the 32GB Wi-Fi model. I wanted something faster and lighter than my laptop that I could use on the couch to surf the 'net while I watch TV, maybe stream some video and send some e-mail.

Here's the thing they don't tell you in the ads: it's difficult to get in a comfortable position with your iPad when you're sitting on the couch. When I rest it on my lap my neck feels strained from looking down at the screen. And it's too heavy to hold up for very long.

Apparently the connection between iPads and neck pain has been well documented but it was something that got by me until I bought one. Propping it on a pillow helps. If you're using it in bed, putting it against your knees might work, too.

On the other hand, the retina display is great for reading. I'm tempted to get The New Yorker for the iPad. I love the magazine but hate the way issues pile up. And the iPad makes a very good small TV when you fold back the Smart Cover to use as a stand. So far I've used the HBO GO and PBS apps.

My experience pretty much mirrors what others have said, that it's more a device for consuming than producing. For blogging and writing e-mail longer than a few sentences, I'll stick with my iMac. (I don't hate my iPad but I get the point of this Slate article.)

While I like the Kindle a little more than I thought I would, I like the iPad a little less, which is surprising given how much I've loved every other Apple product that I've owned. Maybe I bought into the hype and was expecting too much.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Woody Sez

Woody Sez, at the American Repertory Theater
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

My introduction to Woody Guthrie came in elementary school. We took a class trip to the symphony and at the end of the concert, we all sang "This Land is Your Land." It was nice and patriotic, nothing the least bit controversial.

As an adult, I read Joe Klein's biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life. I learned that Guthrie's most famous song was written in 1940 as a rebuke to "God Bless America." (I'm guessing we didn't sing the verse that included "By the relief office, I'd seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?")

In Woody Sez, David Lutken, who created the show with Nick Corley, also talks about learning Guthrie's music as a kid. He remembers singing "Riding in My Car" in nursery school. Then, he slips effortlessly into the character of the legendary folksinger, weaving together Guthrie's life and music in an absorbing and tuneful 90 minutes.

The other performers - Darci Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and David Finch - play various people in Guthrie's life and all four play lots of his music. The program lists more than two dozen songs and a variety of instruments including guitars, fiddles, harmonicas and two soup spoons from a thrift shop in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

This is an intimate show that uses folk music to evoke a turbulent time in American history: the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. There are no video projections or special effects or turntable sets. The design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella is simple - wooden benches and chairs for the actors to sit on, photos of Guthrie hanging over a scrim with a scene that looks like it could be his native Oklahoma.

Lutken doesn't have Guthrie's nasally twang and he doesn't really try to imitate him. But he's a great storyteller, with an affable, conversational style that really drew me in. He explores how Guthrie's love of music was nurtured by the ballads his mother sang to him, by the songs he learned from migrants and oil field workers, and his wanderlust, how he crisscrossed the country in the 1920s and '30s, writing about the things he saw and the people he met.

I'm a big fan of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom were profoundly influenced by Guthrie and have covered his work, so I've heard some of these songs before. But hearing them in the context of their times and in the context of Guthrie's life, played simply and unadorned, made them more meaningful.

Woody Sez paints an especially vivid portrait of the Dust Bowl, a time when hundreds of thousands of families left the Great Plains for California. Once there, life did not turn out to be the "Garden of Eden" they imagined. Many of the "Okies" ended up as migrant laborers. Guthrie wrote about them movingly in songs like "Do Re Mi" and "Talking Dust Bowl Blues."

Through his music, Guthrie targeted the inequities in society and politicians of all stripes. Woody Sez notes that he was redlisted, blacklisted and all other kinds of listed. But it struck me that his songs, for all their seriousness, could be quite funny and catchy. There's a mocking humor and a scathing indictment in "The Jolly Banker," and you can sing along.

Woody Sez moves rather quickly through the last 20 years of Guthrie's life, ending with his struggle against the debilitating effects of Huntington's disease, which killed him in 1967 at age 55. After that, a reprise of "This Land is Your Land" felt incredibly emotional. I was choked up as I sang with everyone else.

And his songs, of course, are still topical. He wrote about the unemployed, about people losing their homes to foreclosures, about the rights of workers and the plight of illegal immigrants. He also wrote children's songs and Chanukah songs and songs about the great natural beauty of America - from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters - and how it belongs to all of us.

Woody Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, so this year marks his centennial. Woody Sez runs at A.R.T. through June 3. It will be performed at the Adirondack Theatre Festival in July and this fall at the Northlight Theatre, just outside Chicago. This is a beautifully drawn portrait of an important American voice and it deserves a wide audience.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher

Peter and the Starcatcher, at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

Sure, I like plays that weigh in on serious subjects. But every once in awhile, it's nice to balance those doses of stark reality with a touch of whimsy.

Peter and the Starcatcher, an energetic and exhilarating prequel to Peter Pan, the story of a boy who never grows up, pretty much fits the bill. The inventive stagecraft - doing a lot with a few props and actors playing multiple roles - reminded me of another show I loved, The 39 Steps.

And it's a grand adventure story: there's a ship called the Never Land that embarks a perilous voyage to a tropical island, a trunk filled with a mysterious treasure, dastardly pirates and bedraggled orphans and singing mermaids and representing her majesty Queen Victoria, a British ambassador and his precocious young daughter.

Donyale Werle's set captured the dank cramped quarters of a sailing ship in the first act and the lush green island in the second act. A giant pineapple - a symbol of hospitality - hangs in the center of the fake wooden proscenium. It gave the show an old fashioned music hall atmosphere.

What truly carried the day for me were the winning performances.

As Molly Aster, Celia Keenan-Bolger had the voice and mannerisms of a young girl down pat.  I adored her character - a spunky and determined heroine. Christian Borle, as the pirate Black Stache was hilarious, with a thick Groucho Marx mustache and a zaniness that reminded me of the best of Monty Python. Adam Chanler-Berat was so endearing as the hapless orphan boy Molly befriends. And what a treat to see Arnie Burton, from The 39 Steps, in another terrific comedic turn as the feisty governess Mrs. Bumbrake.

Unfortunately, you can have too much of a good thing. There were times when Peter and the Starcatcher, adapted by Rick Elice from the children's novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, felt a little overstuffed, like it was trying too hard to be clever.

I'll admit I'm not as up on my Peter Pan as I should be and the first act whizzed by so quickly that I think I missed some key plot points. Then in the second act things slowed considerably, to the point where it almost felt too slow.

Still, I may be over-thinking this. The boy sitting next to me, who couldn't have been more than 10, told me that he'd read the books and he seemed enthralled. In fact, it was great to see so many kids in the audience so clearly enjoying themselves. Sure some of the jokes aimed at adults - a Philip Glass reference for example - probably went over their heads but there were lots of laughs.

So if I missed a few things, that's fine. Peter and the Starcatcher is an entertaining ride, with the kind of imagination that reminds you what's so unique about going to the theatre.

Monday, May 14, 2012

End of the Rainbow

End of the Rainbow, at Broadway's Belasco Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

I'm old enough to remember when The Wizard of Oz was a highly anticipated television event. Before VCRs, that was the way to see it and it only happened once a year. (Those flying monkeys still freak me out.)

As an adult, I saw Judy Garland in a couple of other movies. I knew the basics: her many marriages, her children, how she'd become hooked on drugs and alcohol and died too young. But the image planted in my brain was Dorothy Gale - a teenager in pigtails with a cute little dog, dreaming of a life beyond her Kansas farm.

So watching British actress Tracie Bennett portray Garland at the end of her life in End of the Rainbow was devastating. Bennett is delivering an amazing performance as a vulnerable, difficult woman in the throes of addiction. Unfortunately the play, by Peter Quilter, is not as good as she is. She and Garland deserve better.

End of the Rainbow takes place mainly in a room at the Ritz Hotel in London in 1968. Garland, accompanied by her fiance Mickey Deans, played by Tom Pelphrey, is poised to give a series of concerts in hopes of making another comeback. Michael Cumpsty is Anthony, a pianist who's helping her prepare and who also represents Garland's legion of gay fans.

The interaction between the three of them is wrenching. Bennett's Garland is demanding and impulsive and stubborn. Pelphrey's Deans grows more and more frustrated as he tries to ensure she's in good enough shape to sing because they desperately need the money. Cumpsty's Anthony is protective of Garland and wary of Deans' motives.

Bennett is riveting but some of the things that Quilter has her do in the play seemed over the top. We know Garland is a mess. We know she's self-destructive, that she needs alcohol and pills to help her get through a concert. Unfortunately, there's a point at which all of this becomes so degrading that it felt exploitative.

I wish the play had offered more insight into Garland's life, how she reached this point. There are a few hints in the dialogue. She mentions the pills that she and other young performers were given at MGM to help them get through a grueling filming schedule. I wanted more details like that and less dwelling on the train wreck, no matter how well Bennett portrays it.

Cumpsty is appealing as Anthony, who truly cares about her and watches what's going on with dismay. At one point Deans accuses Garland's gay fans of showering her with more adulation the  more pathetic she grows, as if they were were responsible for her decline. Maybe it was the character and not the playwright speaking but that was unfair.

The way Bennett's Garland manages to pull herself together during the concert scenes was a highlight for me. You got a glimmer of what a captivating performer she'd been, her is evident. Listening to her sing "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis, her youthful voice now raspy, was heartbreaking.

Judy Garland was defined by her early film roles - and perhaps trapped by them, too. I'll admit I was teary hearing "Over the Rainbow." I know there have been other child actors whose lives have ended sadly but maybe because The Wizard of Oz was part of my childhood, this one felt saddest of all.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Evita, at Broadway's Marquis Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Years ago, someone loaned me a VHS copy of Evita - yes, it was that long ago - and I loved it. The story was fascinating, the score was exhilarating and Antonio Banderas was so sexy.

So when a Broadway revival was announced, I was excited. This would be my chance to see Evita onstage and it would be my first Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ever. (I've never seen Phantom of the Opera or Cats or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Jesus Christ Superstar.)

Of course with anticipation comes the possibility of disappointment, and for a few reasons this didn't totally turn out to be the Evita of my dreams. But hearing the music performed live and watching Eva Peron's story unfold was captivating.

I was really looking forward to Elena Roger, who garnered great reviews in London in the title role. Roger, a petite woman, is a dynamo and she brought out Evita's tenacity and ruthlessness so well. But her voice didn't seem as powerful as I'd hoped and she sounded kind of screechy on the high notes.

I liked Ricky Martin as Che, the everyman narrator. He's charming and good-looking and a great singer and dancer. Still, his character could have used more of an edge. He was less the revolutionary Che Guevara commenting sardonically on Evita's rise, which is what I'd been expecting, and more of an impartial observer.

And her story is such an interesting one.

Born out of wedlock in 1919, Eva Duarte makes her way to the Buenos Aires to become an actress, latches on to a rising Army officer, Juan Peron, played by a powerful Michael Cerveris, and becomes first lady of Argentina, only to (spoiler alert) die of cancer at age 33.

I found myself swept along by the music from Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Director Michael Grandage's staging and Rob Ashford's choreography told Evita's story in a way that enthralled me: her hopes and dreams in "Buenos Aires," the cynicism of "The Money Kept Rolling In" and the grief surrounding her death in "Oh What a Circus."

The scenic design by Christopher Oram is somber but it seemed appropriate. Grandage kept things moving briskly. And there were small touches that gave me a sense of Eva's character - the way she casually dismisses a suitor when she meets Peron, for example. The balcony scene, where Roger sings "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," was breathtaking.

I also like the fact that this is a complex story, not merely a fawning portrait. I got a sense of why Evita was so beloved but I didn't feel like I was being manipulated to buy into it. I wasn't sure whether she was an opportunist or someone who really cared about the poor and working class of Argentina. Maybe she was both.

It's hard to explain what makes you fall for a musical's score. But I know that each time I walked by the Marriott Marquis and heard it playing, I got tingly with excitement. After all these years of waiting and despite some flaws, I still love Evita.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

President Obama's "We Shall Overcome" moment on gay marriage

President Obama finally had his "We Shall Overcome" moment today when he endorsed the right of gay and lesbian Americans to marry the person they love.

Congratulations, Mr. President. It's about time. 

Forty-seven years ago, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act. He talked about the efforts of black Americans to secure for themselves "the full blessings of American life." He said, "Their cause must be our cause, too." He even invoked the words of the civil-rights anthem, "And we shall overcome."

The president's remarks today saying that he believes same-sex couples should be able to get married were not as dramatic or momentous as Johnson's a generation earlier. Made during an interview with ABC News, they lacked the eloquence of a prepared speech.

There was no mention of repealing the odious Defense of Marriage Act. He didn't vow to fight for same-sex marriage. His deference to the states on the matter was a bit troubling. (States' rights, did that not ring a bell for anyone at the White House?)

Yet despite all of that his words, based on his own experiences and his religious convictions, sounded sincere. I like that he mentioned the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. And they are powerful for the way they frame the debate. The president finally figured out how to use the White House as a bully pulpit.

It's practically impossible today for any straight American to say that they don't know a gay person. They are our friends, our family, our teachers, our colleagues, our loved ones, our neighbors.

As President Obama said, they are members of his staff, people in committed relationships. They are soldiers and sailors fighting on his behalf. Their children are friends with his daughters. The president of the United States made the issue personal. There are people in his life who are gay and lesbian. And he doesn't see any reason why they should not be allowed to get married.

Anyone - and by that I mean my fellow straight Americans - who cares about this country becoming a more equal place for all of its citizens has a stake in this. The president's comments don't change anything but they push homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric a little further to the fringes of American society - where they belong.

A couple of years ago, Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times that as more people have come out of the closet, we've learned about those in our lives who are gay. "It is hard to deny our own fundamental rights to those we know, admire and love."

I believe that with all of my heart. Today, I'm proud that my president believes it as well and was not hesitant to say it. Their cause must be our cause, too. That statement rings as true today as it did in 1965.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Newsies, at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre 
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

A plucky girl reporter and a story ripped from the pages of the history books. If the musical theatre gods came together to create a show just for me, it would be Newsies.

Unlike some of my friends, I'm a newcomer to Newsies. Until a year ago, I'd never seen the Disney movie and I'd never heard of the event on which it was based, the 1899 newsboys strike in New York City that pitted a ragtag bunch of teens against the press barons Hearst and Pulitzer. While the movie flopped, I enjoyed it.

And watching Newsies onstage was even more fun. It reminded me of the Disney musicals from the Sherman brothers that I loved as a kid: The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band and The Happiest Millionaire. Like Newsies, they combined real-life people and events with incredibly catchy songs, parts of which I could probably still sing.

Now I'll admit this a very traditional musical. It doesn't break new ground for Disney. It's not as imaginative as The Lion King or as magical as Mary Poppins. Tobin Ost's set is basically lots of scaffolding. It's not subtle, either. We don't get deep inside these characters and you don't need a road map to know where the story is heading.

What Newsies does it does with tremendous enthusiasm from beginning to end under Jeff Calhoun's direction. There's electrifying, acrobatic choreography from Christopher Gattelli, a rousing score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and plenty of humor amid the pointed social commentary in Harvey Fierstein's book.

How can you not love newsboys singing and dancing their way into your heart for the right to earn a living wage and bargain collectively? Newsies is at its most exciting when they're in midair, leaping and pirouetting and backflipping. I loved the ensemble numbers: "King of New York," "Seize the Day," and "Carry the Banner."

As Jack Kelly, the street-smart ringleader of the newsboys, Jeremy Jordan has a powerful voice and a 1,000-watt smile that made me smile just watching him. Kara Lindsay as the eager cub reporter Katherine is as delightful as I remembered from Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis four years ago.

Sure, some of the portraits are broadly drawn, like John Dossett's Pulitzer, who precipitates the strike by charging the newsies more for the "papes" they hawk in order to increase his profits. And lots of critics have remarked on the similarity to Annie, subbing New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt for his cousin Franklin.

But you're not going to Newsies for complex character studies. Sometimes there's merit in taking a traditional formula and executing it well. And in its own entertaining way, this is a thought-provoking show. It touches on corporate greed and child labor and the rights of workers to form unions, topics that are certainly in the news today.

Every once in awhile, I like to let down my cynical guard and revel in some good old-fashioned idealism.  Newsies is a testament to the thrill of song and dance but it's also a reminder of how powerful words and images can be, especially when they're used as a force for good.