Wednesday, December 30, 2009

NEWS Zoo Revue

Rory O"Malley, Christine Pedi, Christina Bianco and Michael West in NEWSical.

If Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert decided to sing their way through an episode or two of their politically charged TV shows, the result might sound something like the Off-Broadway revue NEWSical the Musical, albeit with a battery that's been partially drained.

When I caught Last Cargo Cult, the new Mike Daisey monologue, I was glad to see him performing in an actual theater for the first time in three shows, instead of at Joe's Pub. His verbal wordplay is too clever and finely honed to be lost amid the inevitable bustle of a cabaret room. NEWSical, however, would likely be enhanced in such an atmosphere – and slight inebriation could only add to an audience's enjoyment.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Let It Snow

New York magazine devoted its year-end double issue to "Reasons to Love New York." Although lately I'm more likely to be contemplating reasons to leave New York, after this cold, snowy, slushy weekend, I'd like to add my own accolade to their extensive list: New Yorkers are extremely hearty people. Either that, or their apartments are so small that they'd sooner face frost bit and hypothermia

As a snowstorm engulfed the city on Saturday, I was certain that that evening's Winter Solstice contra dance would be sparsely attended, if not canceled altogether. But the basement auditorium at the Church of the Village was as packed with people as it would be on any other ordinary night. And we weren't the only ones. The Good Stuff diner on 14th was doing a steady stream of business earlier in the evening, and the subway to Brooklyn was packed as we headed home. (Still, if I'd known how windy it would be or how much snow I'd have to climb over to get home that night, or that I'd have to walk in the street to get to my apartment building, I probably wouldn't have been so bold as to venture out for the evening. Above is what happened when I tried to take a photo.)

The next day I thought anyone longing to see part one of the Signature Theatre's excellent production of Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle would have ample seating opportunities at the 2 pm matinee. But not only was every seat filled, a few people were even stuck sitting off to the side, on the steps for nearly three hours.

This weekend was enough to put me in the holiday spirit. How many more reasons could one need to love New York?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cult Favorite

The always provocative Mike Daisey has a new monologue at the Public, The Last Cargo Cult, a provocative, political and personal look at the global financial crisis. And this time he's performing in an actual theater, not at Joe's Pub -- a definite improvement.

So is the fact that you get a playbill and a dollar bill. when you take your seat, as I explain in my Time Out New York review.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Courageous Colleen

Three years ago I had the chance to interview Australian novelist Colleen McCullough who, even if she'd never written another book, would be a literary legend for The Thorn Birds. (Her people requested that the interview be via fax, but it still counts in my mind.)

At the time she was battling macular degeneration, a disease that affected her vision and her ability to read and write. Amazingly, she was able to save her sight but, according to this piece in the Times of London, she's still not well. Next year she's due to undergo brain surgery for another serious ailment, trigeminal neuralgia, also called the "suicide disease" because of the extreme pain it causes in the face.

She is one talented, courageous lady and I hope she'll be able to overcome this adversity as well.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Questions and Landers

Some theatergoers I know avoid monodramas so vehemently you'd like they feared contracting mono from them. I can understand why, especially when they're biographical. A person's life story hardly ever falls into neat dramatic structure, and too often I feel like I've been plopped down into a classroom instead of a theater.

But when The Lady With all the Answers became heavy on the biographical data, the pleasure of watching Judith Ivey embody advice-lady Ann Landers pulled me through.

Friday, October 9, 2009

All's Very Well

What a difference a few months can make! In June (the day Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died, no less) my colleague and all-around pal David and I caught Phedre, the first show in the National Theatre's new initiative to broadcast plays via satellite to move theaters around the world. There were journalists and press agents galore, a reception for VIP patrons (we were not among them) and a line of regular ticket buyer stretching down the block.

Of course, it was that was the project's debut and production starred Helen Mirren, but somehow I expected more fanfare for the second screening, All's Well That Ends Well, even though there were no above-the-title names in the cast (although Clare Higgns and Conleth Hill have been on Broadway and Oliver Ford Davies is a familiar face to PBS junkies like myself).

But the theater (City Cinema 123) was barely half full (or half empty if you're an optimist) for the three- hour screening, and what a shame! It was a visually splendid, thoroughly enchanting production of one of the few (only?) Shakespeare plays in which a woman (Helena) drives the plot. (During the pre-show and intermission coverage director Marianne Elliott and designer Rae Smith explained their fairy tale concept of the show.)

It's certainly worth checking out if you can get to one of the theaters where it's yet to be shown, including the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU tonight. It could be just what's needed to chase away any ghosts left over from Peter Sellars' ill-received Othello.

I also saw that production with the aforementioned David, who said that the way an actor delivered one of play's final lines reminded him of a line delivery from the Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic Teenagers from Outer Space. That's when you know it's time to go home and get some sleep.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Panych Attack

The Kids in the Hall introduced me to the joys of Canadian comedy during those long post-college days that I struggled to find a job. Since then many other Canadians have brought me great laughs, especially Don McKellar, whose written and/or starred in films I adore (Last Night), TV series (Twitch City, Slings and Arrows) and a hilarious and heartwarming musical (The Drowsy Chaperone).

Earlier this year I enjoyed the comedic panache of Canadian Morris Panych's play The Dishwashers at the Americas Off Broadway festival, so I had high hopes when I was assigned to review the New York premiere of Vigil. Although I give Malcolm Gets props for tackling such a demanding role, I couldn't help wondering what a fellow Canadian like Bob Martin, who so deftly balanced humor and malaise in The Drowsy Chaperone, could have done with the role.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tales of Two Stories

Over the last two weeks I took in a pair of testosterone-laced two-handers, both of which were undone largely by too-familiar tropes: Richard Hoehler's Fathers & Sons (pictured), which I reviewed for Time Out, and Keith Huff's much ballyhooed A Steady Rain, starring James Bond and Wolverine, also known as Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman.

Whoever it was that sat me a mere three rows from the stage and Hugh Jackman, I thank you. He's lovely to look at, but why, oh why, did he pick a play that amounts to such hokum to mark his return to Broadway after a five-year absence. Maybe my response to the show would have been kinder if I hadn't just finished reading an excellent new Joseph Wambaugh novel, Hollywood Moon, on the subway before the show. He may have left the LAPD 35 years ago, but he understand police work from the inside.

After seeing A Steady Rain I wasn't surprised to read that Huff graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, not the police academy. He does a nifty job introducing the characters and laying the groundwork for their story, but about halfway through this 90-minute enterprise, believability evaporated. Hugh's character, a Chicago patrol cop, talks about the night bullets were fired into in house, sending his young son to the hospital … but he's back out on duty with Craig's character — the next day!

No major police force would send one of their own back out on patrol 24 hours after their home and family had come under attack! There would be reassignments, visits to shrinks, a procedure to follow before he could be cleared for duty. Once that happened the play never reestablished its credibility, despite the charisma of its capable stars.

Ah well, at least only one ringing cell phone was heard, and that a faint one, and at a point in the show where there was a natural pause, so no actor-audience interaction to report.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ragtime Redux

Fall officially arrives Tuesday and with it, an exciting array of new (and old) Broadway shows. One that I'm quite excited about is the revival of Ragtime, and interviewing composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens for this Time Out New York online feature brought back sweet memories of seeing the original production in 1998 at the then-brand-new Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now the Hilton).

I was in tears before the end of the opening number, a big, beautiful, buoyant showstopper that outlined the different ethnic and racial factions whose worlds soon collide in early-20th-century New York. Not just because it so deftly depicted the fear and frustration that ensue when everything around you changes too quickly, but for the way it also demonstrated that when song, dance and story come together in perfect harmony, no other medium is quite as moving as musical theater.

It was a hard act for the rest of the show to follow, and even though I was fairly close to the stage of the cavernous 1,800-plus seat theater, I felt distanced from the characters and story as often as I felt a connection to them. But this time around the show's in a more accommodating house, and I'm excited about the possibilities.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Twisted Sister

Since there was a heavy metal band called Lizzy Borden in the '80s, why not a 21st-century rock musical called Lizzie Borden that's as sharp as an axe and more melodious than many new tuners?

My only regret is that I couldn't work a "twisted sister" reference into my review, hence this blog title.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Q Rating

The passes to the swank Avenue Q "closing night" party at Del Posto Sunday night contained a subtle clue about producer Kevin McCollum's surprise announcement that the show wasn't actually leaving New York but returning to Off-Broadway glory next month at New World Stages. "A 'for now' closing party," they read, and given the size and the scope of the festivities (three levels in a Meatpacking District enclave), I'd say producers aren't terribly worried about selling enough tickets (top price now down to $86.50) to keep the show solvent.

I hope the move pays off. I agree that Avenue Q's final Broadway performance was nearly as solid as it was when I first caught it at the Vineyard in 2003, and the show has aged gracefully. I was happy to see two actor-puppeteers that I interviewed a couple of years ago for an article about the touring production were part of the cast, Robert McClure (one of John Tartaglia's successor) and Christian Anderson.

There were only a couple of instances when it seems as if the times had caught up with the show. Closeted gay puppet Rod's fear of coming out to his roommate and neighbors didn't seem as weighty as it did six years ago — a positive sign of how far we've come. On the other hand, the scene where he sighs to Christmas Eve, "I'm an investment banker. And a Republican," and she replies, "Stay in the closet then. You're good for nothing" drew quite the applause — also a sign of the times.

I was among those clapping at that and, along with many others in the audiences, at the line, "Crabby old bitches are the backbone of this nation!" Perhaps that was in honor of my late grandmother — or perhaps because I feel I'm already on my way to crabby-old-bitchdom!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Genesis of Genesius

Some of my fondest memories as a teenager involve the rehearsals and performances of the high school plays I performed in — not that far from Reading, Pa., where the new musical Genesius, which I reviewed for Time Out New York, is set.

It's not without its charms (audience members even receive a St. Genesius charm as they leave the theater), but ultimately, this show, which chronicles the life of the woman who founded an amateur theater company for teenagers named after the patron saint of actors, is likely to have a longer life at high schools and community theaters than in New York. Still, it stirred lots of sweet memories for me, and even prompted me to Google Steve Hatzai, the high school drama teacher who impacted my formative years. (He's now a theater professional in Philadelphia.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On the Fringe

Since I didn't make a summer theater pilgrimage to the Berkshires this August, I had more time to check out a few shows in the New York International Fringe Festival. I would have preferred less from this musical version of The Fall of the House of Usher and more from Afterlight, an ambitious piece from a theater company called Threads, whose goal is the "weaving together [of] faith and art."

Monday, July 20, 2009


I wanted to be sure I was caught up with the Torchwood crew before I left for a vacation to San Francisco Tuesday, so I took in a marathon screening of the Children of the Earth (at an undisclosed location) a week ago.

The five-hour miniseries, which airs on consecutive nights this week, is powerful, sobering stuff, and I expected to like it, but I didn't think it would stick with me the way it did. I slept fitfully the night I saw it, rather disturbed at how children, especially kids of the lower classes, are put at risk not just by alien invaders but by a society that sells them out, not out of cruelty as much as expedience. It's not unlike the careless way we treat disadvantaged children in this country by depriving them of quality schools and health care because we can't be bothered.

A few days later I discovered this article in last Wednesday's New York Times (thanks to Meg Cabot), "The Cathartic Pleasure of a Good Cry," and was reminded of my younger self. The author describes how her three daughters, ranging in age from 13 to 21, are enraptured by tear-jerker books and movies. I was like that once, eagerly awaiting new seasons of TV shows like the brutal and bloody Oz, but as I get older and watch friends have children and the people around me become more important to me, my taste in entertainment seems to be mellowing. Lighter fare that seems to promise that the world will be set right by the time the curtains falls or credits roll holds increasing appeal.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sing a Song of Shakespeare

According to this Chicago Tribune article, musicals are the dominant art form at this year's financially strapped Stratford festival. It seems a curious case of life imitating art, as anyone who's seen season one of the hilarious and heartfelt Canadian series Slings and Arrows can attest.

About 5:50 into this clip, two executives of a fictional Stratford-esque festival plot a similar scheme as they diss the Bard. Fortunately, the series, like Shakespeare, sets everything right at the end. Let's hope Stratford does too.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Femme Fight

Am I the only one who was surprised by this intriguing study from Princeton University grad Emily Glassberg Sands that found unintentional discrimination against female playwrights — at the hands of female artistic directors, no less?

Looking back on the past New York theater season, the new plays that resonated the most with me were all written by women, Lynn Nottage's Ruined, Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw and Lisa Loomer's Distracted. And the first two were staged by theater companies whose artistic leaders are women. I also admired Annie Baker's Body Awareness and Yasmina Reza's Tony-winning God of Carnage and look forward this fall to Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy. (I caught last year's Williamstown Theatre Festival production, and it was a riot.)

When I interviewed Gionfriddo and Sara Ruhl, both agreed that women playwrights had a tougher time getting produced but, though I’m not contradicting the study’s findings, I think that were the economy as robust as it had been several years ago, Ruined would be playing on Broadway. But is it so terrible that it isn’t? The run keeps getting extended (it’s now playing through Aug. 2.

But is it so terrible that Ruined hasn’t transferred to Broadway? It’s ideally suited to Manhattan Theatre Club’s intimate 299-seat space. How much would it lose in the way of atmosphere if it ended up at the Belasco or the Lyceum? The bigger-is-always-better philosophy seems like a product of the old boys club that we should be rallying against.

As for women artistic directors giving lower scores to the plays the women had written when they thought men had scripted them, could it be that they were simply more impressed when they wouldn’t expect a man to be as insightful when it came to depicting female characters?

Of course even if this were the case, isn’t that a form of discrimination as well?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hearts for Harlequin

I seem to be running just a little bit behind whatever I do these days. It's far too late for me to comment on the spry and smart Tony Awards broadcast from two weeks ago, one of the best I've seen in years. (The cuteness of the three Billy Elliots as they accepted their Tonys was matched only by the adorableness of host Neil Patrick Harris who, dare I say it, may have even topped my all-time favorite Tony emcee, Hugh Jackman.)

And it's too late to recommend the Heart of a Woman: Harlequin Cover Art 1949—2009 exhibit at Soho's Openhouse Gallery, in honor of the romance novel publisher's 60th anniversary, because I didn't catch it until two Fridays ago, its final day. But it was a hoot, as much from a social history perspective as an artistic one. Forget what they say about not judging a book by its cover; in the world of publishing you certainly can.

As the doctors and nurses on the covers of the novels from the '50s and '60s gave way to the more glammed-up heroes and heroines of the '60s and '70s and then to the chesty Fabio-esque cover models of the '80s, the change in cover art mirrored what was happening in the lives of the women reading these books. How appropriate that some covers from the early days of women's lib 1960s and '70s prominently featured the heroines front and center, while the men were relegated to the background. Nowadays it's not unusual for a cover to feature just the hero, and I'm certainly not sure I like what that implies. Frankly I find the quaint cover illustrations from those days much more appealing than the photographs of the finely chiseled but often generic cover models that so often grace today's novels.

My pal Connie hoped Harlequin was planning some sort of catalog or coffee table book to commemorate the exhibit, but I haven't heard anything to confirm this. If you want to catch a peek at what was, these blogs have some fine photos.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Vieux from Tennessee

Attentive New York theatergoers have had more than a few opportunities to catch the little known latter-day plays of Tennessee Williams over the past few years. To varying degrees of success, Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater companies have staged revivals of Small Craft Warnings, Out Cry and now, Vieux Carre presented by the Pearl Theatre Company.

They get a lot of runners on base, even if they don't always bring them home. Still, ambitious theatergoers looking for challenges and rewards might want to check it out. It's also your last change to see a Pearl production at the company's longtime 's the last stand for the Pearl at their East Village home before a the company moves uptown next season.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Not So Perfect Union

Catching Epic Theatre Ensemble's new Supreme Court romance/political drama A More Perfect Union with about 100 New York high school students certainly made for a memorable evening. Despite their youth they were well ahead of some of the play's plot twists. But with a new Supreme Court nominee this week, it at least seems timely.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hurts to Be Kind

Critics weren't terribly philanthropic to the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of The Philanthropist, a play by Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Atonement) produced when he was still a 23-year-old Oxford grad student. For comparison, I was a receptionist at a sperm bank in the Empire State Building when I was 23.)

Regardless of what you think of the play, which riffs on Moliere's The Misanthrope, or the current production, I'm sure you'll enjoy my interview with Hampton for Front & Center. The playwright-screenwriter-translator-adaptor-etc. made news earlier this week with the announcement that he would write the English-language adaptation of a German-language musical version of Daphne du Maurier's suspenseful novel Rebecca.

That book was one of my favorite reading assignments freshman year of high school. I was already enraptured with musical theater at the time and contemplated turning Rebecca into a a musical I wanted to call Our Beloved Manderley. Plans for the musical have long since been abandoned, so if Mr. Hampton is considering a title change for his adaptation he's more than welcome to mine.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Wet and Wild

After the success of its five-year-old Brits Off Broadway festival, 59E59 is keepin' it local and inaugurating the Americas Off Broadway festival. I quite enjoyed the first offering, The Dishwashers, and will try to have more appreciation for clean forks and plates when I go out to eat.

Much of the appeal comes from its wacky yet understated sense of humor, something Canadians seem to do terribly well. Did you know that many of my favorite TV shows are Canadian? I'm talking about The Kids in the Hall, Twitch City and the one that's currently in my DVD player, Slings and Arrows, a series every theater lover, whether you hate Hamlet or not, has to see.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Dreams and Dreamcoats

Curse you, Andrew Lloyd Webber and BBC America, for getting me absolutely hooked on a two-year-old British reality TV show — the outcome of which I already know — to cast a West End musical that I can't even see. I'm talking about Any Dream Will Do, the series that plopped 12 wannabe musical theater performers in front of a British TV audience and asked viewers to vote on which one they wanted to see play the lead in A West End revival of the Lloyd Webber–Tim Rice musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

After a rather chaotic first episode, which took viewers through the audition process and involved a lot more crying than singing, I've become swept up in the contestants' stories and struggles as they perform a song each week to impress a panel of judges that includes a surprisingly bitchy John Barrowman and producer Bill Kenwright, even though episodes are a whopping 90 minutes.

I'm not sure why I like this series so much more than Grease: You're the One That I Want, the American reality show that cast the leads for a Broadway revival of the popular musical that nearly every high school (mine included) does at some point. Perhaps the it's delicious ceremonial stripping of the colored coat from the contestant who's eliminated each week as he sings "Close Every Door," one of the show's ballads. Maybe it's the chance to see Andrew Lloyd Webber as a smart, caring man of the theater, not the caricature he's usually depicted as. Or it could just be that the wannabe Josephs are just more appealing than the Grease contestants, if not more talented.

It's probably also because it's the Lloyd Webber musical I'm most fond of, having seen the original Broadway production in 1982 or '83, when Allen Fawcett, who played Kelly McGrath on my favorite soap opera, The Edge of Night, was playing Joseph.

The show stuck with me. I sang along to the cast album, memorized the lyrics and longed to have a voice like Laurie Beechman so that I could one day play the Narrator (and soon learned that, despite the musical's message, it doesn't always pay to be a dreamer). I used a lyric from the show in my high school yearbook, and still love the song "Any Dream Will Do," though as an adult I've come to realize that the lyrics makes absolutely no sense. And I know some of my more puritanical musical theater friends must cringe when they hear some of the songs' false rhymes. ("All these things you saw in your pajamas,/ are a long-range forecast for your farmers" is one.)

But I will be tuning in for the final two installments, because beyond having the pleasure of watching young hopefuls aspire to musical theater stardom (something that is worth celebrating in and of itself), I'm enjoying being reminded of the sheer joy I felt when I first fell in love with musical theater.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Soul of Souleymane

With the Drama Desk Awards this Sunday and the Tonys following two weeks later, it's easy to forget that theater, at least Off-Broadway, is a year-round business, and a serious one at that. Although warmer weather traditionally heralds the arrival of lighter theatrical fare, the New Group's new production, Ian Bruce's Groundswell, is a heady drama concerning the struggles of three men trying to find their place in post-apartheid South Africa. My interview with one of the cast members, newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane, is in the current Time Out New York.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Norman and Other Conquests

Have to agree with a colleague who said this is probably the best theater season we've had in New York in some time. Too bad it comes during a time when so many people are facing economic hardship and may not be able to afford even a half-price ticket.

I'm glad to see that so many critics have lauded The Norman Conquests. After the needlessly dense Coast of Utopia trilogy two years ago, I was skeptical about investing so much time in another three-play cycle, but the two I've seen so far were not only hilarious but also moving, something I didn't expect. Tonight I see the third play, actually the first in the cycle, and I expect the theater to be a bit more crowded than it was last week, when the show was previewing and the audience seemed heavily comped.

It's also great to be able to make three trips in so short a time span to the Circle in the Square when it's in its rightful theater-in-the-round configuration. I hadn't been there in four years, since The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee opened, and at that time the setup was more traditional proscenium.

Before I (attempt to) leave the computer behind for the weekend, here's a roundup of some of my recent reviews for

the delightful Blithe Spirit

the discomfiting God of Carnage

the disappointing Irena's Vow

Monday, April 20, 2009

Goin' to Solo

As I await the release of new X-Men and Star Trek movies next month, I'm also excited about a much less splashy film, The Soloist, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, based on Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez's relationship with s schizophrenic homeless man from skid row he befriended. It touches on some things that I find particularly moving: the power of music to soothe and heal, the tragedy of mental illness and the contrast between the beauty and the hardship of downtown Los Angeles.

But for a completely unrelated reason, I particularly appreciated the last paragraph of the Hollywood Reporter review:

"One thing is for certain: This will probably be the last movie ever to focus on a newspaper columnist. The filmmakers insist that the story takes place in a newsroom where laid-off employees are escorted by guards off the premises and bloggers are replacing guys like Lopez. You do have to wonder, though, if a blog about Ayers would have anywhere near the impact of Lopez's column. Doubt it."

No matter how wide-read a blog is, it still won't have the impact of a newspaper, and I'm kind of glad about that.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Don't Crowd Whoopi

The first time I glanced down to the end of my row at the surprisingly adorable Rock of Ages last night, I thought the woman in the red shirt and blue jeans looked an awful lot like Whoopi Goldberg. It took only a few more minutes, and another glance, before I realized it was Whoopi Goldberg, looking great and trying (unsuccessfully) to blend it.

She was sitting on the aisle, there was an empty seat next to her, a person sitting in the third seat and an unoccupied fourth seat. (I was in seat five.) Everything was rocking along until the arrival of the latecomers, those folks who thought the show started at 8 instead of 7. A couple was erroneously directed to the two separate empty seats in our aisle, and when the man tried to sit down in the empty seat next to Whoopi she gently but firmly refused to let him plop himself down there. He got up to go, as did the woman, who had already sat down next to me, and she didn't make as graceful an exit. After she scooted by Whoopi she fell right down into the aisle.

Fortunately, this wasn't a performance of Desire Under the Elms, so one couldn't easily tell if the banging was coming from the stage or the audience. Another lesson in the importance of arriving on time and giving celebrities their elbow room.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What Would Audrey Do?

Why is it so hard for musical theater writers to create shows in which something vital is at stake? And to put that something vital onstage? Yes, all good musicals do contain an element of fantasy, but the ones that work are grounded in reality. And I'm really not that hard to please when it comes to musicals. If interesting characters sing a few nice songs and entertain me, I'm generally happy.

Which is why the Transport Group's homage to Audrey Hepburn, Being Audrey, was so disappointing. (My Time Out New York review.) On paper, the seeds for a good story are there: a woman struggles to reinvent herself after tragedy strikes. But rather than show her travails and perhaps call on Audrey Hepburn's grace and charm to help her through them, the play consists mostly of her interacting with fantasy characters from films. Because these aren't people she has any actual relationships with, it's hard to become invested in what happens.

Quite a contrast from the dream sequence in the electric revival of Hair that I caught (with my mother, no less!) on Saturday, or even the dream ballet in Oklahoma! where we take a brief respite from reality to venture into a character's mind in a way that only musical theater can. In those instances we're already familiar with the characters and their dilemmas, and they're not escaping reality, they're pushing their struggles to their breaking point before the show reaches its denouement.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Happiness is …

Don't even get me started on the unjustness of a universe that forces you to pick only one moment from your life to live in for all eternity. You're beloved grandmother died when you were 15, but you didn't meet the love of your life until you turned 30? Too bad, you can't spend the afterlife with both of them, so choose!

But even if you accept that life-after-death scenario, Happiness, the new Susan Stroman-John Weidman-Michael Korie-Scott Frankel musical that I reviewed for Time Out New York, still has more than its share of disappointing moments and textbook characters. Even a ballad that a man sings to his AIDS-stricken partner feels canned, with obligatory Fire Island references thrown in. And of course there's Brooklyn girl whose eternal moment takes place on Coney Island. (Is there any other Brooklyn locale where life-altering events can occur?)

The most evocative numbers involved Phyllis Somerville reliving a memory of first love circa World War II and Fred Applegate singing about sitting in the bleacher seats during the 1954 World Series for Willie Mays' catch. The most disappointing: the number sung by the married Jewish/Chinese couple (Robert Petkoff, Pearl Sun), who quiz one another with flashcards about about the other's religious and cultural traditions in preparation for family gatherings. That's the moment they want to live in for all eternity? C'mon! I think most couples, regardless of their outward differences, would have picked a moment that simply expressed the love they shared, not emphasized the things that made them different. That's the main reason why this show left me so emotionally unconnected. It focused too much on character "types" and didn't allow its characters simply to be individuals.

Monday, March 23, 2009

High School Musical

The story of the Southern California high school whose production of Rent was canceled in February, only to be reinstated a couple of weeks later, is really turning ugly and divisive. Now the ACLU has gotten involved on behalf of a female student who allegedly received rape and death threats from male students.

That's enough to sour a teenage thespian's memory of her high school days for years to come. But as more musicals with potentially controversial content like Hairspray and Spring Awakening become available for high school productions, I'll be interested to see how communities respond to schools wanting to stage these show.

Thinking back to my own senior high musical days, to borrow a phrase from the learned Alex Rodriguez, things were more loosey-goosey back then. When I was a sophomore, my public high school staged the moderately racy Sweet Charity (they're not whores, they're dance-hall hostesses!), and two years later we did Grease (both of which featured moi in small but pivotal roles).

For Grease, we poked holes in the bottom of beer cans and drained them, so that the tops could still be popped during the show. But there were no herbal cigarettes; we used the real thing. (Fortunately, I didn't have to light up.) I still remember the surprised look on my mother's face when I told her that the cigarette were the real thing.

That Rent can cause such controversy in 2009 makes me feel like we were such trailblazers at Allen High School. (And apparently, they still are. A couple of years ago the spring musical was Jekyll & Hyde.) Although we were all public school students, we came from diverse socioeconmic backgrounds and never had a problem coming together as a team. Of course, our musicals didn't have any openly gay characters, and although many gay students were involved in the shows, nobody was particularly out in those days. No matter how much has changed in the last 20 years, where teenagers are concerned, sexual identity, in life or in art, will never be an easy topic.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Help Me, Hedda

During the second scene of the Roundabout Theatre's flat and ill-conceived revival of Hedda Gabler, I started thinking about brighter days. My mind kept straying to memories of all the wonderful shows I'd seen featuring the talented cast and creative team whose work seemed so lifeless: Mary-Louise Parker in Proof, Michael Cerveris in great Sondheim shows like Assassins and Sweeney Todd, Paul Sparks in Blackbird and a slew of other Adam Rapp plays, director Ian Rickson's terrific production of The Seagull, playwright Christopher Shinn's fantastic Four.

How could so many talented people go so far astray? I've heard from a reliable source that problems started early on in rehearsals. Hedda Gabler is one of the shows I reviewed for; one that pleasantly surprised me in a lot of ways is Pal Joey.

So far, though, I'd have to say that the best shows I've seen in 2009 are the previously mentioned Becky Shaw, the wonderfully dynamic Uncle Vanya, starring Denis O'Hare at CSC and the Atlantic's finely honed Cripple of Inishmaan, a holdover from last year. I didn't seen the much maligned original Off-Broadway production, but about 10 years ago I caught the show, starring Fred Koehler, the kid from Kate & Allie, at the Geffen during a trip to Los Angeles. A good production, but not as intimate or stirring as the Garry Hynes one currently on stage. And I'd forgotten the many plot twists that unfold in the final scene.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Art the L.A. Way

Got a kick out of this recent article — with slideshow and video — from the L.A. Times about the fabulously fun Downtown Art Walk. Until a trip to Los Angeles in November, I hadn't spent much time in Downtown, except to see a couple of plays at the Taper. But I'd heard quite a bit about the area's resurgence from office buildings and hotels to art galleries and (very!) pricey lofts and wanted to do something that was definitely off-the-beaten tourist track.

A friend had warned me that it was quite a scene, but I thought he just meant by California standards. I couldn't imagine a savvy New Yorker like me would be particularly stunned. Oh, was I wrong. You may notice that very little of the visuals involve people actually looking at art, and that was largely my experience. Not that I didn't want to, but with so much music, activity, wine and people around, I was suffering from sensory overload. When I passed a young man balancing a live black cat on his shoulders I knew it was time to go home.

Actually, my favorite part of the evening had been an earlier trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art on Grand Avenue, where I first got a look at art-viewing L.A. style. I was comfortably dressed in jeans and sensible shoes, my usual attire for an activity that requires copious amounts of walking, and I soon noticed most of the 20-somethings around me looked like they were right out of Central Casting: Women wore heels and short skirts, men had the perfect hipster hats. The whole environment was easily as photogenic as the exhibits themselves.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Little Night Whedon?

I shouldn't have been surprised that Stephen Sondheim's name came up in the "Dollhouse" panel at Comic-Con on Sunday. (I was there only for professional reasons, of course!) Famed "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon, there to unveil his new Fox TV series, is a known admirer — and they're both artists who inspire cultish worship. A woman who'd seen Whedon wax about Sondheim at a panel four years ago in honor of the consumate musical theater composer-lyricist's 75th birthday wanted to know if he aspired to adapt and direct a Sondheim musical for the screen, and if so, which one.

Whedon was quite enthusiastic about the prospect, although he noted with some regret that the musical that most appealed to him was recently filmed by Tim Burton — "Sweeney Todd." Still, he didn't rule out the possibility of doing his own version somewhere down the line — which prompted a cry of "James Marsters as Sweeney Todd!" from an audience member. His second choice? Not "Assassins," which would have been my guess, but the wistful and romantic "A Little Night Music."

"I want to be on Broadway," he added, and broke into a few lines of Sondheim's "Broadway Baby." And Broadway could really use Whedon's passion, smarts and talent right now. Dr. Horrible meets Buffy on the Great White Way, perhaps?

This week I vow to find the time to re-watch Whedon's Internet musical "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," starring another Sondheim follower, Neil Patrick Harris. You should too.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Seeger & Springsteen

In case anyone missed Sunday's inaugural festivities, I highly recommend taking a look at Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen's inspiring rendition of "This Land Is Your Land." Although I hadn't sung or even thought about the lyric in years, I was amazed at how quickly it came back to me as the music played.

Beyond whetting my appetite for Tuesday's inauguration, it also transported back to my kindergarten days during the U.S. Bicentennial. At the end of the school year we put on a pageant celebrating Amercia's 200th birthday, for which we learned and sung various patriotic ditties. I vividly recall stomping around with a toy rifle on my shoulder, singing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again." But my favorite memory is the grand finale, when we all stood on the risers and belted out "This Land Is Your Land," to our enthusiastic parents, though only the first couple of verses. There was nothing about "relief offices" in the lyric we learned, and I'm glad I was able to hold onto my innocence about those things for at least a little bit longer.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Albee and the Baby

Because it takes very little to amuse me, I couldn't resist snapping a photo of this "Albee Baby Carriage" van when I spied it driving through Brooklyn Heights the other day. I hope at least some of you will be nerdy enough to find it humorous too.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Great Things From Gina

Gina Gionfriddo

Not only did I have an enjoyable conversation with rising-star-scribe Gina Gionfriddo about her disturbing and provocative new play Becky Shaw for Time Out New York, I felt as if I'd found a kindred spirit who shared my interest in true-crime TV.

When I saw a preview of Becky Shaw a couple of nights later, I was pleasantly amused to see that in the opening scene, as a character sits on hotel bed watching the Court TV series Forensic Files, they used sound from an actual episode. Having seen nearly every episode of that show, I recognized the voice of narrator Peter Thomas immediately.

Gionfriddo's also a longtime Law & Order writer, and as a longtime fan of that fictional-crime franchise, I must confess I thought the business card she handed me with the show's logo on it was quite cool. You can also read about her in this New York Times profile.