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.