Tony Nominations 2014

My first thoughts when it comes to Tony nominations and awards are always about the shows I’ve taken “ownership” of for one reason or another. Since I saw all of them before I even started this blog, I thought I’d talk a bit about my reactions to the nominations (or lack thereof) for some of my big favorites of the season.

As a caveat, I haven’t seen three out of the four best musical nominees. (Good grief! That sounds so embarrassing! What kind of Broadway blogger am I?) I do want to see Beautiful and After Midnight in the weeks to come, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to snag a ticket for Aladdin. For the plays, I’ve seen All the Way, Outside Mullingar and Mothers and Sons, but not Casa Valentina or Act One. I’m not convinced I’ll get around to seeing either, so my fairly uninformed pick for Best Play is currently All the Way.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
My pick for best musical of the year (since Fun Home isn’t eligible), and my current go-to selection for those who ask me what show they should see on Broadway. So naturally I was really delighted with all the nominations for this piece. Both actors (Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham) are wonderful and I’d love to see either win (though I know they won’t, not with Neil Patrick Harris in the running). I was happy for Lauren Worsham, though her nomination made me wonder if Lisa O’Hare (who is also terrific) got her feelings hurt a bit. I know I would, if I was the only one of the four major actors in a show not to get a nomination. She’s probably way more professional than I am, though. In any case, I’m rooting for this show to win nearly everything but best score, though the songs are terrific. A friend pointed out that a comedy like Gentleman’s Guide doesn’t even need to have songs that are this good. But it does, and it’s wonderful. I just think the score was bettered, just by a teeny tiny bit.

The Bridges of Madison County
I’ve been pretty apologetic about my regard for this show. When people ask me how it is, I say something along the lines of this:

“Yeah, I really do think it’s great, but then of course I’m a Jason Robert Brown fan and I tend to love his music. And you know, I don’t even care about the love story that much, because Robert Kincaid isn’t even all that interesting of a character*. Mostly I love it for Francesca and her story.”

You know what? The heck with that. I’m going to stop apologizing. It’s a lovely show, full of heart and intelligence. (And oh that music! My favorite score of the year. Again, the caveat is that Fun Home isn’t eligible.) I got really irritated with the New York Times review, which seemed to imply that Kelli O’Hara’s performance was the only real reason to see this show. I agree that she is marvelous, but there’s plenty to like about this show. The writers did a great job of opening up the story, it’s beautifully staged, the sets are evocative, the cast is all-around terrific. Basically, the whole thing is a really strong effort. I agree with Jesse Green, who said “That the musical succeeds in extracting something so smart and powerful from the treacle is little short of miraculous.” It deserved a nomination for best musical, for crying out loud. Tony committee, what’s the matter with you people?

* – I still don’t think Robert Kincaid is nearly as interesting as Francesca is, though. I get that theirs is a Great Love, but geez. He really doesn’t ever experience intimacy except for those four days in Iowa? That’s totally neurotic! I want to see a musical about how nuts that guy is. The gorgeous, heartfelt song “It All Fades Away” doesn’t actually do him any favors in my book, because who wants to live a life like that? I tend to justify it to myself, however, by saying it’s a song basically along the same lines of “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific. Yes, over the top, but since when did Broadway shows shy away from “hearts on sleeves” moments? Still, though, next to Francesca’s lovely and complex “Always Better” immediately afterwards, it’s a bit hard to swallow.

Bullets Over Broadway
Boy can Susan Stroman ever stage a musical. Wow. Every number, every transition is winning and clever and joyous. I just love to watch her dancers move onstage. Particularly during that gangster tap dance number, which is a real old-fashioned showstopper. (Do they get a Tony number? Can they pretty please do the gangster tap number on the Tonys?) Of course, transitions and choreography don’t necessarily make for a wonderful show. To be honest, I prefer the movie. I keep telling people who ask me about it “Well, the whole reason I like musicals is for the new songs and this show doesn’t have any of those.” (Which is why I haven’t gotten around to After Midnight or Beautiful yet.) (I shouldn’t mention my unabashed love for Jersey Boys as it might contradict my point.) But the lack of new songs probably isn’t the real reason. I just wish it was a bit funnier, and that it didn’t take out some of my favorite moments from the movie, like Cheech’s final script suggestion, and the film’s lovely closing scene. I don’t think I would have picked it over Bridges for a nomination, but snubbing both Bridges and Bullets just seems mean. But I’m really happy for Nick Cordero as Cheech, who is just as good as you’ve heard. Marin Mazzie’s lack of a nomination was a bit of a shock, though. What more does the woman have to do? Geez louise.

Twelfth Night
After I saw this, I told all my friends that “Twelfth Night makes SO MUCH SENSE now! It should always be an all-male cast!” Finally, the Viola/Sebastian mixups are just as funny as they were written to be! I never thought the Anne Hathaway Central Park production could be topped, but then I wasn’t accounting for Mark Rylance. Obviously I’d love to see him win for both lead actor (for Richard III) and featured actor (Twelfth Night), just because of the possibility of seeing two of his kooky Tony acceptance speeches in one evening. I didn’t see Richard III, though, so I can’t say for certain that he’s likely to top Bryan Cranston. Anyway, just about everything in this production was delightful, and I’m very happy the Tony committee seems to agree, with nominations for Stephen Fry, Samuel Barnett, and Paul Chahidi.

Best of luck to all the nominees! I look forward to toasting you on Tony night from home, a glass of Prosecco in hand.

Review: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

2014-04-24 20.04.20Awhile back I was at Marie’s Crisis with a few friends when they started playing a song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Everyone happily began to sing along. Everyone except me, that is. To be honest I didn’t even recognize the song. Somehow Hedwig had passed me by: I’d seen the original production, I believe (with Michael Cerveris) as well as the movie, but I barely remembered either. I’m most certainly not OK with being the only person who’s unfamiliar with a modern classic of the musical theater, so right there and then at Marie’s Crisis I decided I needed some good quality bonding time with the original cast recording.

I listened to it a bit, but am not sure I ever really got it. And I wasn’t planning to see this new production, mostly because tickets are so pricey. But then a journalist friend (thank you Jada!) came to the rescue, and I got a last-minute ticket for this past Thursday. (When I found out I’d be able to see Hedwig, I’d just bought a sewing machine and ended up having to lug it to the theater with me. A friend wondered if I may have been the first person in the history of the Belasco Theatre to drop a sewing machine off at the bag check?)

But enough of my story. Want to hear about the show? Hedwig is, of course, an East German emigrant to the United States, and a victim of a botched male to female sex change operation. (Hence the “Angry Inch”.) She’s arrived on Broadway for one night only, to perform in protest to the massive Times Square concert her ex, superstar Tommy Gnosis, is putting on just outside the theater. There’s an elaborate backstory to justify how Hedwig ended up at the Belasco, complete with fake Playbill. This sort of falls apart, however, when you see the outstanding projections (Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions), fancy costumes (by Arianne Phillips), and uberprofessional physical design (by Julian Crouch). This show (directed by Michael Mayerfeels like a big Broadway production; all this razzle-dazzle is probably antithetical to the spirit of the show.

Oh well. I’m not complaining. That’s because of what we get in return: Neil Patrick Harris‘s performance. He yet again proves himself to be the consummate entertainer: outstanding energy, terrific rapport with the audience, unwavering commitment, and wonderful comic timing. Lena Hall was another real stunner as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband. Goodness what a voice. Could both of them have dug a little deeper into their characters, in terms of pathos? Possibly. But given the sparkly tone of the production, both are just about perfect.

As a piece, Hedwig really stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of contemporary musical theater. It feels brave, clever, and best of all unapologetically individual. And still edgy even 16 years after the original production. Geez Louise, even the rock sound of the piece is rarely matched all these years later. (Come back, Stephen Trask!) I can’t imagine ever seeing another musical quite like it. Which is why I’m so glad I really got to experience it properly this time around. Third time lucky, eh?

However, I don’t think it will ever be an absolute favorite of mine, because I could use a bit more clarity in terms of storytelling. (Sorry. I get like that sometimes. I need to have things spelled out for me. I’m not being sarcastic or cutesy. In grad school my theater criticism professor used to tease me about this.) Wait, so why did Tommy reject Hedwig: is he a closeted gay guy, or was he under the impression that Hedwig was born a woman and he got grossed out by the dangly bits? If Yitzhak is a drag queen, why is he performed by a woman? Is he transgender too? Why exactly does Hedwig show herself to be so… male at the end of the show? In fact, that muddle is probably what this show is all about — here, gender isn’t clear, answers aren’t obvious, and you have to do a little thinking for yourself.

Review: Red Velvet

IMG_20140420_185622Overheard at the intermission of Red Velvet: “It’s like being at a daytime talk show!” Heck yeah. By this I mean the audience at Sunday evening’s performance of Red Velvet (a London hit at St. Ann’s Warehouse) was basically responding to the show the way a Jerry Springer audience would react to an episode. Ok, maybe a little more subdued than a Jerry Springer audience, but I certainly heard groans and “oooohs” when a character said something nasty, and spontaneous applause after a particularly memorable speech, and even a bit of hooting here and there.

It’s the way a 19th century audience would probably have responded to a melodrama, and it really added to the performance. That’s because this play is set in the world of the 19th century English theater. It’s the story of Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester), a black American actor who shocks the London theater world in by playing the title role of Othello in the 1830s, in an era where this kind of casting was unheard of. (Ordinarily, white men would play Othello in blackface.) Aldridge, who went on to become a respected Shakespearian actor all over Europe, was basically the Jackie Robinson of his day.

So the premise alone is incredibly promising: an interesting story and a fascinating glimpse into the theater scene of that time. The playwright, Lolita Chakrabarti (who is married to Mr. Lester), certainly researched Aldridge thoroughly and we get a detailed picture of his life. One real delight of this piece was seeing Shakespeare as it might have been performed in the 19th century, complete with dramatic posturing and exaggerated expressions. What fun! Their acting style looks pretty ridiculous now, but one of the reasons Mr. Lester and Charlotte Lucas (as the actress Ellen Tree, Aldridge’s Desdemona) were so great is that they still vividly expressed Shakespeare’s dramatic effect, even through all the overwrought gesticulations. Actually, the acting is great throughout Red Velvet: Mr. Lester in particular gives a phenomenal performance as Aldridge: equal parts talent, commitment, and rage (at the limitations imposed on him by the color of his skin). And Lester-as-Aldridge-as-Othello (and later, King Lear) was incredibly compelling. It had me wanting to watch the entire Othello as performed by Aldridge. (Well, Lester-as-Aldridge. You know what I mean.)

From these first three paragraphs, you might assume that I really liked the show. I didn’t, actually. It’s an interesting subject, with a great cast, and a very strong production, but none of that takes away from the fact that it’s not a very good play. I found it ham-fisted, beginning with its clunky framing device: Aldridge as an old actor in Poland is interviewed by a spunky young lady reporter, whose determination echoes some of his in his youth. The characters don’t feel real, with the exception of Aldridge. They’re more like stand-ins for the opinions of the time. (Though I did love Ms. Lucas as the very saucy Ellen Tree). The dialogue is more like an exploration of ideas about race, progressiveness, theater than genuine reactions from real people. And I felt unsatisfied, too, with the resolution: how did Aldridge become such a legend in Europe after his spectacular failure in London?

Ultimately, it’s just not as complex or textured as I’d have liked. Come to that, if a historical subject is handled with texture and complexity and a light touch, it’s rarely going to be the type of piece an audience can really “ooooh” the way they did Sunday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Review: King Lear

2014-04-17 19.22.45I write this wanting to say that Shakespeare failed me, but I’m actually pretty sure that I failed Shakespeare.

Last night I went to see King Lear at Theater for a New Audience. An extra treat, as it was my first time attending their lovely new Brooklyn performance space (verdict: looks great; I love the double balcony). I went to see it because I’ve decided to completely buy in to the #yearoflear marketing ploy and go see that great tragedy as many times as possible this year. I’ve already seen Frank Langella at BAM, and bought a ticket to the screening of the Simon Russell Beale London production in a few weeks. Plus I’m hoping to see John Lithgow Shakespeare in the Park, and, erm, I think there’s another one this fall.

All this to say last night was my second out of five Lears this year. It was a thoughtful, clear production (Arin Arbus directs), and Michael Pennington was a composed Lear. (My pull quote: An intelligent Lear in an intelligent production from an intelligent theater company.) But if I’m going to be truthful I have to say that I had trouble keeping my eyes open. To begin with, it was loooong. 3 hours, 15 minutes; the first act alone was 1 hour 45 minutes. (I think this production could have done with two intermissions.) And the production never ignited the way the BAM one did a few weeks ago. I usually laugh at Edmund’s two-timing Goneril and Regan, and the Fool’s witticisms, but neither I nor many others in the audience seemed to respond much to what was onstage. Perhaps we were just a quiet bunch. But not until Gloucester’s eyes get plucked out (oh that scene is so gross) was I really sitting up and taking notice. The rest of the time, I let the verse wash over me like a lullaby.

But I still think it was mostly my own fault. I’d been out late the night before celebrating my birthday and to be honest, I was operating on just a few hours sleep. I’m no Shakespeare expert, but I have seen enough of his plays to know that if you aren’t feeling sharp that day, you’re unlikely to appreciate it much. In fact, I generally try to book tickets for matinees if I’m going to see Shakespeare. Daytime Julia is always a little more appreciative of that stuff than nighttime Julia.

Moral of the story: please learn from my mistakes (though I never seem to). Those with hangovers shouldst not attend Shakespeare plays. Julia, thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.

Review: The Realistic Joneses

CAM00371When he was little, my nephew Zach told me that his “favorite thing about the zoo is the animals!” I thought of this after seeing The Realistic Joneses, because my initial reaction after seeing Will Eno’s acclaimed new play was that “my favorite thing about this play was the dialogue!”

If that intro doesn’t make it obvious enough, then I’ll just go ahead and say that this play is all about the interaction, far more so than plot or character. Four characters (portrayed by a quartet of terrific actors), married pairs of neighbors who share the surname Jones, bump into each other at the store, wander over to each other’s houses, and just chat about stuff. They’re John and Pony (Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei), new to the neighborhood; and Bob and Jennifer (Tracey Letts and Toni Collette), who are struggling with Bob’s terminal illness. Serious thoughts, funny exchanges, minor annoyances, moments of romance and intimacy, glasses of wine together. This play is full of little moments; the question is do all these moments really add up to something?

Before I get into that, I thought I’d try to explain what I’m talking about when I discuss Mr. Eno’s dialogue. Going entirely from my memory — I’m not going to start taking notes for a blog, that would be ridiculous — here is an illustrative exchange (you can find more in the NYT review linked above):

John: (peeking at Bob’s watch): Is that the real time?

Bob: It’s a WATCH.

Or another:

Pony: I wish I had a sweater on.

Bob: Do you want me to get you a sweatshirt?

Pony: Oh, I’m not cold. I just wish I had a sweater.

Or this one (which is probably totally inaccurate, but honestly people. I wasn’t taking notes. I can’t start taking notes at plays like a huge dork. I’m sure Mr. Eno’s version is way better.)

Bob: I won’t get the wrong idea.

Pony: What’s the wrong idea?

Bob: I don’t know. I just want to make sure I don’t have it.

Imagine 95 minutes of dialogue like this. One witty exchange and the characters make a hairpin turn to another topic. Another clever interaction, and they’re on to the next subject. Pony at one point admits to lacking much of an attention span; I felt like she might have been speaking for the play itself. To be fair, the meandering lets up a little bit towards the end of the show, though it never disappears entirely.

All that said, this play did feel like a bit more than the sum of its parts. Of course the cast helped quite a bit. Marisa Tomei is bubbly and likable, but Michael C. Hall, portraying her husband, is hilarious and lovable. His comic timing is just perfect, and he has a way of zoning out mid-conversation that is both scary (the character is clearly ill) and very, very funny. Toni Collette’s role is a little less showy (she seems to be the only grownup among the four), but whenever I see her perform I’m reminded just what a terrific actress she is. Finally, Tracy Letts always manages to be a wonderful actor (in this, just as he was in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and playwright (August: Osage County) without making me want to throttle him for being so annoyingly talented.

Still though, I’d have liked a bit more clarity. A bit more depth. I get that these characters, written as they are, would only refer obliquely to an affair, or an illness, but I’d have liked to see a little more explicit conflict. Talk about the affair, people! Explain your illness! Say how you feel! Too often I felt like I was only getting a glimpse of the story, and I’d have liked more. I had friends who saw the show and didn’t like it much because “nothing really happens.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but they definitely had a point.

Review: Cabaret

2014-04-16 07.42.31Last night I went to see Cabaret. It was a sort of birthday present to myself, and a farewell to the Roundabout Hiptix program. It’s for 35 and under, so I’ve aged out of it as of today. In fact I’d seen this production before, but not with Alan Cumming. I’d actually seen it with Michael C. Hall and Susan Egan (and I think, Michael Hayden as Cliff? I’d have to dig around and check the Playbill) on one of my visits before I moved here permanently. My sister and I saw it the night after we had attended LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, and I remember thinking, “Wow. Cabaret does a lot of what The Wild Party was trying to do, only much, much better.” The whole production was in terrific shape when I saw it; I walked away thinking that this is definitely one of the greats. Top ten for certain. This is also the kind of musical I’d take a friend who doesn’t like the form, because boy does it ever show you what just how powerful of a medium musical theater can be.

In any case, it was well worth revisiting on a rainy, snowy night in April. First and foremost for Alan Cumming. What a performance. Basically all he had to do was grin during “Wilkommen” and he had the entire audience (including me) eating out of his hand. That naughty smile; that angular frame; that magnetic stage presence. He was the absolute perfect tour guide to Weimar Berlin, both its sexual excesses and its dark foreboding. Boy am I glad he returned to the role, and anyone with a few bucks to spare should go ahead and scoot over to Studio 54 for a real treat.

Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles, on the other hand? Well, the news is not so good in that direction. She’s just all wrong for the part. Her soft, retiring stage presence is basically the opposite of Sally: she doesn’t have the desperation, the charisma, the fearlessness you’d need for a good Sally. She was soft where she needed to be hard and I found myself rarely looking at her onstage. As I told my friend on the way out of the show, I’ve never seen a Cabaret in which the title song isn’t a devastating coup de theatre*, but sadly enough, this is the first. Both of us felt bad for her that she is trying so hard and clearly failing, but then as my friend pointed out, “I have to do things in my job that I’m not cut out for either. It happens to all of us.”

Because Ms. Williams is so uneven, the whole production feels a little out of whack. I don’t remember having a huge problem with the lack of subtlety back when I saw the production in 2000. Back then, it felt harsh, but unflinching and brave. Necessary. This time it was more apparent, and more bothersome. Does everything need to be so… obvious? Rob Marshall’s choreography for a start (constant bumps and grinds everywhere! pelvic thrusts! crotch grabs!), the   concentration camp ending, even the costumes. All this darkness was already in the text and I’m not sure that making everything so utterly blatant is really what this show calls for. We all know how things ended in 1930s Berlin; the Emcee’s “Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! No troubles here!” is all I need. The gas chamber, therefore, was overkill.

I hope that’s not because I’m getting old and prudish. Does turning 36 do that to you?

—–

* — Oh great. Now I’m the type of person who uses the phrase “devastating coup de theatre”.  A hundred apologies!

Review: Violet

A few weeks ago a friend proclaimed Jeanine Tesori as the best composer currently writing for the musical theater. I was surprised to hear her say that so baldly (and I instantly started quibbling with her), though I don’t know why, because I tend to think her scores are delightful.

Beginning, of course, with Violet, which I saw in revival Sunday at the American Airlines theater. If you aren’t familiar with the story: a girl named Violet (Sutton Foster) goes on a bus trip from North Carolina to Tulsa, where she hopes a televangelist faith healer will heal her scarred face. It doesn’t sound like much, and it really isn’t. But what catapults this musical beyond its slight storyline is all that gorgeous music. I’ve listened to the cast recording many times since I originally bought it back in college, but hearing it live in the theater really brought home what an accomplished and impressive piece of work Violet is. Take “On My Way”, the first big number, which manages to transform a few people on a bus to a chorus of faith and hope and yearning. And “Bring Me to Light” — that rare closing number which surpasses every other number that has come before it. (And THAT is saying something!)

But enough about the score, right? We all know the score! How’s the production?

It’s excellent. It retains that Encores feel, though I suppose any show with an orchestra onstage has an Encores feel to me. I only watched a few episodes of Bunheads, but what I did see proved that Sutton Foster showed herself to have a great feel for snarky dialogue. Her Violet is sarcastic and sulky but likable and funny enough to explain why the two soldiers she meets seem so fond of her. (Her accent is also less irritatingly twangy than Lauren Ward’s on the original cd — I may buy this cast recording for that reason alone.) As usual, Violet’s scarred face is left completely to the imagination: No garish makeup at all. I would love to see an actress who’s not gorgeous take on the role, but I suppose that’s asking too much. Joshua Henry (Flick) continues to be terrific in just about everything he does — the audience was so excited by the end of his big number (“Let it Sing”) that the ovations started before he even stopped singing. And Colin Donnell (Monty) is also charming and talented as ever. And I’m not just saying that because I automatically like any actor who has announced themselves to be a Cardinals fan. (Ok, I do automatically like any actor who has announced themselves to be a Cardinals fan, but that doesn’t take away from his performance.)

But seriously. I can’t go on anymore without talking about the book. It just doesn’t really hold up. The characters aren’t fully realized, and worse, neither of Violet’s flirtations seem very plausible. So much so that the love scene at the end was completely out of left field. (And this coming from someone who knows the show and was expecting it!) You just don’t feel like Violet has really connected with anyone, except her late father (Alexander Gemignani — yet another strong cast member). I’d have been so much happier if this show were really about Violet’s personal journey, without the tacked-on romantic happy ending.

Of course, in that scenario I might not get to hear that gorgeous closing number, which atones for many of Violet’s sins. By the end of show, my thoughts amounted to “Wow, hmm, that doesn’t really make any sen— Oh who cares. This song is gorgeous.”