Review Roundup for Spring, Part 1

“I’m in a fallow period,” I announced to my roommates the other day. I was referring, of course, to my infrequent updates to this blog, despite having seen lots (LOTS!) of shows in the past month. In the interest of catching up, I thought I’d post fairly brief thoughts on the plays I’ve seen since my last update. The first four are here, and I’ll post the next four as soon as I can. And once that is taken care of, I hope to be back to my regular posting schedule.

2015-03-08 13.55.41The Iceman Cometh (March 8): I’d managed to avoid Eugene O’Neill’s famous tragedy for my entire theatergoing life. Up until the recent production at BAM starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, that is. Why avoid an American classic? Well, in my experience Eugene O’Neill plays are often a bit of a slog; I rarely respond to his work with much emotion or enthusiasm. This production of Cometh, however, was acclaimed as an outstanding, and so I gave it a shot. It’s the story of despondent, dejected barflies, who look forward to the periodic visits of a charismatic salesman friend, Theodore Hickman (Nathan Lane). Hickey (as they call him) decides to rouse everyone from their drunken stupor; the consequences are ultimately tragic.

I spent much of the play frustrated — “Good grief,” I thought, “Eugene O’Neill never takes one minute to say something when he can take 15! — despite the many excellent performances. (Especially Nathan Lane, who is always terrific, and Brian Dennehy, who looked every bit the broken anarchist.) Now this play was nearly five hours long, so you understand my impatience with all the wordy passages. I continued to resist it throughout the first three acts (and through all three intermissions). I could see the writing was skilled, but I found little to connect with. By the play’s final curtain, however, I felt differently. It’s just so rare to see a play with that kind of expansive vision and grand ambition these days, and to my surprise, the wordiness and lethargic pace of the earlier acts ultimately really built towards something very moving indeed. I don’t know that I’ll bother with The Iceman Cometh again, but I’m glad I saw it this time around.

2015-03-14 20.04.33Hand to God (March 14): It just opened Tuesday night, but it was already in very good shape a few weeks ago. The show is about a teen named Jason (Steven Boyer) whose hand becomes possessed by his sock puppet, a truly vile, foul-mouthed, ugly creature named Tyrone. Violence, sexual repression, and buried emotions quickly bubble up to the surface when Tyrone is around — and since this play is set in the meeting room of a Texas church, you can imagine the shock waves that result from Tyrone’s reign of terror. I found it scathingly funny and very dark; it’s chock full of excellent performances, especially Mr. Boyer’s performance as both Tyrone and Jason. Over the weeks since I saw Hand to God, though, I’ve rarely given it much thought. A friend asked about it the other night and I was surprised at how little I had to say about it. (“Well, yeah, I really liked it” followed by a stony silence.) Perhaps its darkness put me off a bit somehow. It’s a play that I found viscerally compelling while watching it, but its sharp edges may have made me too uncomfortable to ponder outside the theater. My loss, I suppose.

2015-03-17 19.50.44It Shoulda Been You (March 17): Everything I’d heard about this wacky wedding day musical was incredibly negative, so I went into the theater expecting incompetence. Now, I know incompetent musicals. I’d even say I’m deeply familiar with them: I spent several years as a script reader for the New York Musical Theater Festival, and man, did I ever come across a ton of clunkers. All this to say It Shoulda Been You is NOT actually a clunker. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a great musical, probably not even a good musical. Don’t go unless you’re willing to turn your brain off: if you start to think too much about the ridiculous plot twists that crop up throughout the show, you’ll probably want to bang your head against a wall. I actually enjoyed myself, though, because it sets out to be a fun, frothy, silly piece and mostly succeeds. This might have been mostly thanks to the hilarious performances of Tyne Daly (as the bride’s nasty mother) and Harriet Harris (as the groom’s nasty mother), and the very winning leading lady Lisa Howard (who actually plays the sister of the bride). It Shoulda Been You doesn’t feel like it belongs on Broadway. It’s a dinner theater piece. My guess is that it only got to Broadway because of David Hyde Pierce’s involvement (he directed the show, and his husband Brian Hargrove wrote the book). But hey, like I said, it’s not a complete clunker!

2015-03-20 20.10.10Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2 (March 20 and 21): If you want to know how I felt about Wolf Hall the play, you’ll have to hear about Wolf Hall the book first. In brief: I thought the first book was a real slog, and didn’t entirely understand the acclaim for it. Then a friend loaned me Wolf Hall‘s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and I simply flew threw it. We puzzled over this, because Hilary Mantel’s writing style is exactly the same in both novels. And you can’t skip the first novel and just read the second (you’ll have missed too much).

In any case, I’m glad I read the books before seeing the plays, which are really wonderful. Beautifully staged, compelling, tense. The cast is terrific (no surprise from this Brit import) and the stark, open-staged production moves at a really fast clip. Intelligent, illuminating historical plays are one of my favorite genres, and this one comes to life beautifully. Plus it’s clever. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the books: I kept recognizing lines and thinking “Wow, I remember this from the book. I didn’t realize how witty it was.” The tickets for the two plays were bundled together, so I saw Part 1 on a Friday, and Part 2 on a Saturday. And it was a great way to spend a weekend: the shows were Interestingly enough, I found the first play to be clearly better than the second (the exact opposite of how I felt about the novels). To be fair, I’d gone out for a few beers before the second play, and may have been in less of a theatergoing frame of mind.

Four down, four to go. Stay tuned for even briefer thoughts on the other shows I’ve seen since then: Something Rotten, It’s Only a Play, Living on Love, and The King and I.

Review: Rocky

2014-05-14 19.59.58Ever heard of the Long Count Fight? Neither had I, until reading Bill Bryson’s latest book. One Summer: America, 1927 contains a description of a famous championship boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Apparently people gathered around radios all over the country to experience the big fight as it happened. Obviously we still have boxers and championship fights (I guess — Do we?) but any notion of it being so central to popular culture is long gone. The same could be said about Broadway musicals, which carry nowhere near the cultural influence they did several decades ago. Let’s bring these two once-ubiquitious, now-peripheral forms of entertainment together and see what we get, shall we?

We get Rocky. We all know the story (underdog Rocky versus champion Apollo Creed) so I won’t bother rehashing. The classic boxing movie was adapted with the blessing and collaboration of Sylvester Stallone, its original author and star. The musical hasn’t been terribly well received: the reviews were lukewarm, it didn’t get a Tony nomination for best musical, everyone’s complaining about the lackluster score, and there’s a general annoyance at the wasted potential given all the talent involved in its creation.

So I basically expected to hate it. But lo and behold: I had a good time! Two major reasons stand out: the staging (from Alex Timbers, with choreography from Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine), and the star, Andy Karl. Andy Karl is absolutely heroic in his performance. His nightly to-do list includes the following:

  • Make us forget Sylvester Stallone
  • Stay onstage for most of the show
  • Sing lots
  • Show incredible athleticism in all the workout and training sequences
  • Win over the audience with charm and lunkheaded appeal
  • Get beat up at the end of the show (or pretend to, at least)

Plus he’s obviously incredibly fit, so clearly he has to work out for hours every day as well. I’m trying to decide what Mr. Karl does after each performance. Either he faceplants into his dressing room sofa from complete exhaustion, OR he eats four cheeseburgers, an entire pizza, and a bucket of ice cream.

2014-05-14 19.48.42The other star of the show is the production, which is really slick and splashy. Normally I’d say that with scorn (“Well, Bullets over Broadway is definitely slick, if THAT’s what you’re looking for”) but in this case it suits the material so well that I mean it as a compliment. The story (book by Mr. Stallone and Thomas Meehan) is just as slight and sentimental as it was in the movie; what it needed was a production that justifies telling this story theatrically. Which we definitely got. Mr. Timbers, Mr. Hoggett and Ms. Devine show off their best stuff: quick cuts, effective movement, nice use of an ensemble to recreate the feel of South Philly. They’re especially masterful in the “Eye of the Tiger” training sequence in Act 2 (the audience goes a bit loopy during the opening bars of that song, by the way).

Timbers is also clearly a fan of immersion, gradually escalating the use of the auditorium-as-extension-of-the-stage concept until the final fight scene, when the stage actually moves into the auditorium itself. (I didn’t want to put that in bold, but I can’t help myself: The stage actually moves into the auditorium itself.) It’s stunning and this scene alone justifies the price of admission. The fight is just as impressive choreographically as it is technically: every movement between Rocky and Apollo Creed feels spontaneous, though it’s actually planned down to the second. I was sitting on the far right side of the orchestra, near the front, and my entire section stood up to watch the fight. Theater usually isn’t particularly good at showcasing the excitement of sports — movies are far better in that regard — but Rocky‘s final scene really gives you a sense of just why people find boxing compelling.

All that said: everyone is probably right to be disappointed with Rocky. In a less dazzling production, without a star like Andy Karl, this thing is going to fall flat. Mostly because the score (by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) doesn’t sing the way it should. Actually, listening to it made me think of Woody Allen. Let me explain: in a recent New Yorker profile on Susan Stroman, Woody Allen’s sister said: “He hates the new music for shows, the new composers,” a comment which doesn’t make much sense to me (I mean, all of them? But there are so many! I mean, is Sondheim included? How far does this go back? Does he like show music from the 1980s? 1970s? 1960s? A lot of it isn’t so different from the standards he adores!). But I imagine the score for Rocky was the exact type of score Woody Allen would think of as typical modern show music. It sounds pleasant enough. But it’s totally forgettable; it’s probably too earnest; it just doesn’t really do anything in terms of the story. And this from some of Broadway’s better talents!

On my way out of Rocky, I heard a few people around me chatting about which of the Rocky movies were their favorite. (A compelling case was made for Rocky III with Mr. T.) That’s the kind of show this is, I suppose. You’ll have a good time, and you’ll leave talking to your friends about how much you loved the movie.