Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Other Side of Eden

Photos by Nate Jensen at
Click on images to enlarge

Eden Espinosa’s career is like the childhood fantasy of being on Broadway come true.  Plucked out of theme park shows and into the original company of Wicked, she could never have known as a standby and ensemble member during the rocky rehearsals and previews in San Francisco that in just a couple of years her name would become synonymous with the starring role of Elphaba on the West Coast (or that the writers would hone the sprawling, disjointed show into a generation defining spectacle!).  She left the Broadway production of Wicked to star as the title character in the Broadway premiere of Brooklyn.  That unjustly short-lived production served as the catalyst for her acclaimed return runs in Wicked; two in San Francisco, multiple re-engagements on Broadway, and finally originating the third U.S. company in L.A. at the Pantages Theatre.  Crown all this with her starring as Maureen in the final Broadway company of Rent (which is available on DVD) and it’s clear that her first five years in New York were the actualization of that childhood fantasy. 

Unlike other women of the theatre with her voice type Eden possesses a sound that is truly beautiful and completely even in all registers.  Her belting is like a laser beam that cuts through the biggest orchestrations, but she also has a rich and velvety chest register, and a surprisingly strong and lovely head voice.  In the old days she would have been classified as a Mezzo Soprano, but make no mistake, unless she’s pulling back for a musical effect there is nothing “mezzo” (half) about Eden 

All of these vocal qualities were in full force when she performed her show “Celebrating Life: Remembering Eva Cassidy” at New York’s newest and classiest cabaret Below 54.  Even though we have friends in common her final show there on September 17 was my introduction to Eden in live performance and it was remarkable for several reasons.  First I’d like to ask “How could I possibly not have known about Eva Cassidy my entire life”? Well it seems that many people didn’t, and it was only posthumously that her musical legacy gained popularity with the masses.  She was primarily a cover artist who recorded many genres of music – folk, jazz, pop, country, and blues – and had a purity of sound that was uncommon.  For further info I will suggest to you what Eden said to me after her show, “Go look her up on and discover her for yourself, it will change your life”.  I did look her up and it did change my life, but that’s for another review.  

Another remarkable thing was Eden's encyclopedic ability to represent each style of music with authenticity and musical meaning (something Cassidy has been heralded for) throughout the entire evening.  She was supported by a terrificly versatile band of four who I am certain any singer in the city would commit a felony to work with.  I’ve seen my share of Broadway women perform in concert or cabaret and witnessed many an attempt by said women to 'contemporize' their image with pop/rock music.  Sometimes it works, but frequently stylistic limitations don’t allow the artist complete fruition of musical ideas; basically they just belt it.  Eden’s performance was based soundly in musical ideas, and in such a chameleon-like way she altered her own vocal production to serve the music fully.  And even though she used all of Eva’s original arrangements Eden did not straight jacket herself into replicating the other singers mannerisms or style, but as a true artist would, she discovered the musical subtleties and meanings herself while staying true to the spirit of the woman she was paying tribute to.  The breadth of style she presented would confound another singer but there was success with every number throughout the 90 minute program. 

A funky and bluesy “Drowning in the Sea of Love” opened her 10 song set, and it immediately set the tone.  No Mr. Schoenfeld, we won’t be singing any show tunes tonight!  With all the instinct of a great musical actress, no, a great musician, she was right on the beat, every musical change given correct emphasis…basically Eden GOT DOWN!  Then she went right into a cigarette smoke and Manhattan cocktail tinged version of  "Wayfaring Stranger" and a juicy arrangement of the R&B "Time is a Healer" (with her all male band providing nice back up vocals too).  She told the audience she was suffering from allergies, perhaps to excuse any rough singing that might come up, but she needn’t have worried because there wasn’t a wrong note to be heard.  It was then on her fourth number “I Know You by Heart” where the magic really began.  It’s one of those ballads that can transfix you with the beauty of the lyrics and the melody and the meaning, and it brought out the most beautiful part of Eden’s voice, a burnished, tender sound infused with the bittersweet sentiment of the song.  It was during this song that a transindental moment occurred where she seemingly made time stand still as only the truly gifted are able to do.  In pin-drop silence we all breathed every word together, and everyone at my table surreptitiously brought hand to cheek to wipe away tears by the end of it.  It was exquisite.  Then off came her high heels and she planted herself comfortably kneeling on the floor to sing a gleaming “Fields of Gold” delivered in a sort of half-lit, soft sound that gently rode the arpeggios in the accompaniment; the epitome of “heart-felt”.  Her song set rounded out with The Beatles “Yesterday”, Fleetwood Mac's “Songbird” (my personal favorite),  and a sexy/sassy riff on the Peggy Lee standard “Fever”.   But then Eden pulled off something that impressed me greatly; she got her audience to participate vocally and rhythmically in the most comfortable way, devoid of the usual embarrassment that we often feel when clapping or singing along at a live show, as she delivered a swingy “Wade in the Water”.  When introducing the song she casually instructed the audience about how to participate and I am certain by the end of the number she made even the most uneasy audience member feel fully a part of that song through finger snapping and back up singing.  After her final selection, a Sunday Sermon-like “Oh, Had I A Golden Thread” which brought out her exciting big voice, she pulled off another feat I could not have foreseen – a pop/folk version of “Over The Rainbow” (a Cassidy classic that would ultimately begin her posthumous fame in England) that made me want to listen anew since it usually is a bleak comparison to Judy's original, but here as with the entire set it was full of musical surprise and variety.   

Eden broke a predetermined stereo type with this show; I could see a few of her fans who weren’t expecting such an evening making a mental adjustment as she announced right off the bat she would not be performing Broadway music - "No 'Defying Gravity' tonight folks", and she told an anecdote about a band member questioning if she was really a “Broadway” performer because of how much feeling she had for the different styles in the program.  I came away from this cabaret concert definitely enriched by Eden’s choice of material, and true to her word I have been a bit obsessed with Eva Cassidy ever since. 

In this day and age of electronic music when not only the instruments are synthesized but voices too, when people think that the beat of a song is all that matters and we don’t have many popular voices valued for interesting, skilled singing, it is a true ray of light and a breath of fresh air to have an artist such as Eden Espinosa perpetuate the sacred flame of true live performance and illuminate the greatness of the one and only Eva Cassidy.


Eden’s first solo album is due out in time for the holidays and interestingly enough it is a selection of modern Broadway tunes performed with a pop sensibility.  She is recording it on the heals of these shows so she is sure to be in top form, and the concept of treating each of them as a stand alone song that you might hear on the radio sounds intriguing.  I will try my best to get any advanced information on the song list, but we all might just have to wait and be surprised upon it's release.  Either way I think I’ve found my stocking stuffer gifts for this Christmas!

And if you'd like to know more about the incredible story of Eva Cassidy you can see The Eva Cassidy Story on ABC Nightline here:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blair Underwood and Nicole Ari Parker in A Streetcar Named Desire

In the 26 years I have lived in Manhattan Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire has been revived on Broadway roughly once each decade.  Even with top notch productions and star-studded casts they just can't seem to get it right.  Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange did not generate any electricity onstage and came off as passionless in 1992.  John C. Reilly was horribly miscast opposite an indulgent Natasha Richardson in 2005.  Both of those productions tanked at the box office, leaving me to wonder if this play can't be produced due to overfamiliarity with its original, iconic performances.  However in 2009 the Aussies got it right in a searingly emotional production starring Cate Blanchett that played Washington, D.C. and BAM which completely blew me away.  The same cannot be said of the current revival which opened tonight.

Regarded as a pinnacle of the American theatre “Streetcar” is arguably Williams’ masterpiece.  The provocatively themed work served as an excellent vehicle to showcase the talents of young Marlon Brando (he was 23 when the play debuted) who epitomized American "Method acting" and helped bring it to the  forefront of theatre and cinema.  The "method" involved portraying real emotions based on sense memory and directly opposed the old style "presentational" technique which indicated feeling, and Williams' writing spectacularly captures this change in the way he depicts his main characters.  At first glance Blanche may appear the gentile, fluttery Southern belle, but through absolute verisimilitude of writing layers of humanity are uncovered and she becomes accepted and pitied by the audience despite her hysteria and character flaws.  And it is precisely the lack of this hysteria that sinks the current production. 

Nicole Ari Parker and director Emily Mann have apparently worked in tandem to strip Blanche of every bit of crazy and as a result the entire evening plays off-kilter.  Parker's Blanche is still too much the lady, not emotionally devastated enough that the home and life she once knew have been torn away through the indiscretions and deaths of her ancestors.  I felt that her portrayal almost had feminist undertones, that she could handle all that had happened to her and accept her subsequent promiscuity, and while I can admire an actress wanting to put her stamp on a role, she went very much in the wrong direction here.  Blanche DuBois simply cannot be played as a strong Southern woman who only breaks down in the end; this robs the story of tension and makes the climactic scene play as melodrama.  When Parker's Blanche understands what it is to drink too much Southern Comfort every night and entertain bus loads of boys from a military base all to mask her inability to cope with death and the demise of her lifestyle then she will have my interest.  Unfortunately that is not going to happen this time around at the Broadhurst theatre.

A further misstep of director Mann is that she does not trust the script and feels the need to interpolate extraneous business to enhance the show.  I found no reason for the (weak) depiction of a New Orleans funeral at the top of Act 2, and was perplexed by her need to incorporate dance movement, as though she felt the play would drag without a pick-me-up.

When the main character is so off it is difficult to properly evaluate the other actors, but I will commend Daphne Rubin-Vega for juxtaposing unbridled sexuality with strength of intelligence and giving us a Stella who I believed would leave Stanley tomorrow if his outbursts went any farther.  Wood Harris as Mitch also gets points in my book for some very unexpected line readings and a unique take on a typically bland role.  Blair Underwood, whose presence I am certain is the raison d'etre of this production, is a good if not very original Stanley.  I would have hoped that casting leads with different ethnicity would distance the actors from the long cast shadows of their predecessors, but apparently Brando's original reaches quite far.  From his first scene where he strips off his shirt and displays a ripped, muscular physique the hoots and catcalls from the audience tell exactly why much of the largely female audience came to see the play.  What Underwood does bring is a strong sexual magnetism and a powerfully dangerous masculinity that made me concerned for the women at each of his outbursts, and the final rape scene was as brutal as I could imagine it being. 

Fundamentally though this "Streetcar" is hard to accept simply because I don't know if there is a precedent for a family of African decent to have a mansion for hundreds of years in Laurel, Mississippi.  I appreciated the experiment, but I believe this play would become more interesting with truly interracial casting; Stella and Blanche cast as white, with Stanley and Mitch cast as black.  However as a marketing ploy the current production will hopefully bring new audiences to the theatre who might otherwise never get to experience Williams' classic story.

Visit or phone (212) 239-6200. The Broadhurst Theatre is located at 235 West 44th Street.

Production photos courtesy of the official web site

Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Evening with Linda Eder at Town Hall

Unless you are a hard core theatre fan you might not know who Linda Eder is, and even then she only appeared on Broadway in one show, "Jekyll & Hyde" in 1997. 

My first exposure to her was an evening in 1996 when I was sitting in Barrymore's restaurant in the heart of the theatre district.  They were known for the novelty of playing only show music for their clientele, and on this night I heard a fantastic voice singing something I didn't recognize.  After listening a few moments I turned to my friend and said "Barbra sounds AMAZING!".  I was almost instantaneously corrected by our waiter, an "actor/waiter" type of guy who knows everyone and everything about the theatre.  "That's not BAR-BRA!", he corrected with an over-enunciated clip,   "It's LINDA EDER!  And if she learns to stop copying Barbra then she's going to be a huge star."  What we were hearing was the concept album for "Jekyll & Hyde", recorded before the show was staged in New York, and considering the level of detail with which I recall my first exposure to her it would be correct to say she made a huge impression on me.  In 1988 after a 12 week winning streak she won "Star Search" which brought her national exposure and was the catalyst to her meeting Frank Wildhorn, the composer of "Jekyll & Hyde", whom she would marry in 1998 after making her Broadway debut in the show.

This is the song I heard Linda singing that night in the restaurant.  It's called "Someone Like You":

Linda has a phenomenal voice.  That she sounded like Streisand in the beginning has more to do with the intrinsic tone and vocal production they share than any direct imitation of style.  Both women are considered "belters", yet neither sings with full chest voice.  They both produce their voices from a soprano position (as does Celine Dion, who could be included in the same vocal category) yet beef up the sound through resonance and breath support which gives them that incredible spin and ability to hold notes longer than most other singers in their genre.   What I mean by a "soprano position" is that every note she sings begins from a lifted, higher placement rather than from a lower chest sound.  This allows her to sing in a most tender, feminine, youthful way even though she just turned 50.  And I'm not talking about the "little girl" voice that someone like Idina Menzel uses, because in her case that is simply a mannered way of pronouncing words, and her vocal production is diametrically opposed to the technique Linda uses.  To use examples from the past to make my point:  Linda creates her sound in a similar way to Judy Collins, Idina creates hers more like Liza (but Liza never affected the little girl sound).  Linda also has perfect breath control and sings with a full range of dynamics, not relying on a sound mixer or her microphone to shade a song.  Live in concert she sang through long lines of difficult music in one breath a number of  times and I found myself shaking my head and wondering how she could possibly do it.  That was one of Barbra's tricks back in the day, because she also had a fully supported voice and was able to play with dynamics and hold notes forever.  All of the highlighted names above link to examples of the points I just made.

This is fun example of the way Linda likes to use her range to "play" with her material:

Linda has recorded over a dozen albums, focusing mainly on pop or Broadway type power ballads in which she excels, jazz, a touch of country, and standards.  After "Jekyll & Hyde" the song that got me hooked on her is a fully orchestrated power ballad written by Wildhorn (possibly from an unproduced musical) titled "Vienna", and it's got one of those key changes that makes me tingle all over.

So if you've listened to both of those clips you have an idea of how great her voice is.  In concert last night she sang both "Vienna" and "Someone Like You", plus a handful of selections from her latest album, as well as some jazzy tunes, mostly original, and even one song she wrote herself. 

I'm not criticizing her when I say she is not really a good actress.  I think she might say the same about herself.  In "Jekyll & Hyde" she was passable; but a leading role in a high profile show requires more than that.  While I am certain she worked hard at creating her character it is indicative of her performance that she did not get a Tony nomination, didn't win any of the other theatrical awards, and has not appeared in a fully staged musical in New York again.  I think she knows her strengths and chooses to focus on them, and it is definitely in the concert setting that her gifts are displayed to full advantage.  In her concert last night the only perceived flaw in her entire show, or any time I have seen her in the past, is that because she comes at songs from a vocal standpoint and not a dramatic one she doesn't have the same type of word emphasis that say Streisand does, which in the hands of someone with less voice might make the evening boring.  With Linda there is such an abundance of voice that it almost creates drama aurally, and I find myself being so stimulated by the sheer sound she puts out that I frankly don't care anymore that she generally has a smile on her face and visually isn't "acting" her songs.  She's not a Liza, Bernadette, or Bette.  She likes to make her music in her own relaxed way and take the audience on a journey with her warm presence, and she still creates a huge impact that way.  In the world of opera some people put sopranos into two categories - Stimme Dive and Kunst Diva.  Roughly interpreted they mean Voice Diva and Drama Diva, categorizing sopranos who either focus on creating the most beautiful sound (Renee Fleming, Montserrat Caballe, Renata Tebaldi), or those into creating a believable dramatic characterization, emphasizing the text, sometimes at the expense of beauty of tone (Maria Callas, Leonie Rysanek, Renata Scotto).  I have never preferred one over the other, because I can be taken on a journey by an artist in either, or both ways.  Linda is definitely Stimme. 

As we walked out of the theatre last night I turned to my two friends and said "If there is a heaven I think Linda Eder is singing there all the time".  I recommend if you like this type of music and this type of singing then go buy one of her albums.  She's a total original and she'll blow your socks off with the power and gorgeous tone of her voice.

Happy Theatre-going!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Priscilla Queen of the Desert the musical

"Priscilla Queen of the Desert" is fun, glitzy, glamorous, and GAY.  This must be the gayest show that has ever happened on Broadway and I loved every minute of it!  Tonight was my second trip to The Palace theatre to catch this show, and we got our tickets by winning the 6pm ticket lottery.  It's based on the movie of the same name which tracks the journey of two drag queens and one transsexual across the Australian outback in an old school bus they christen "Priscilla".  In keeping with the breezy and upbeat feel of the movie, adapted by the film's original writer/director Stephan Elliot, the stage version is an entertainment extravaganza packed with great songs and some of the most wonderfully ostentatious costumes you will ever see.  The show opens with a giant disco ball descending above the audience and three disco divas flying in from above singing "It's Raining Men".  Can you think of a better way for "Priscilla" to start?  I certainly can't!  

In what is probably the best entrance of the season the delicious Nick Adams as Felicia flies in from above on a giant dollar sign, dressed in a pink satin gown and a blond wig, singing "Material Girl".  He quickly strips off the wig and dress to reveal a corset, stockings, and heels, giving what we might call "androgynous realness".  In Act 2 he has an equally fun time with "Girls Just Want To Have Fun".

I mentioned in my posting about the 2011 Tony Award nominations that Nick has a fabulous moment near the end of Act 1 lip-synching to "Sempre Libera" from La Traviata from the inside of a giant high heeled pump that extends out into and above the audience.  The image is straight out of the movie, but seeing it happen takes it to a dazzling, whole other level.  It definitely merits another photo!

One thing I really love about writing my own theatre blog is that I don't have to be impartial.  It's about me expressing my views on what I see.  So please forgive me if I'm getting a little "Bessy Obssessy" on Nick Adams, but the guy really impressed me in this part.  I've seen Nick in several other shows, and he was always good, but no other part showcased his talents like this.  He gives so much energy and joy when he's onstage I couldn't take my eyes off of him.  Perhaps that also had something to do with sitting in the front row and that he is in various stages of undress much of the time!  The boy is working a drool-producing, perfect physique which makes his excellent dancing that much more of a surprise since usually very muscular guys aren't that limber.  And when he quickly drops down into the splits and then BOUNCES up and down it's a sexy, humorous, awe-inspiring moment.  You can see a glimpse of him doing that in the video clip I posted below.  Nick also gives back to the community by actively participating in Broadway Bares and other charitable events, and I just heard that he raised $25,000 on Sunday, May 15 doing the AIDS Walk in NYC.  Below is a photo of him in Broadway Bares a few years ago...

Did I mention he's easy on the eyes.  ;-)  I will end my obsessive rave about Nick by saying again that he deserved a nomination for a Tony, probably would have won it, and he emerges from "Priscilla" a bona fide, triple-threat Broadway star.  Both times I saw this show the audience gave their standing ovation at his curtain call.  I hope that nightly experience goes a long way toward giving him the sense of recognition he absolutely deserves.

UPDATE:  Congratulations to Nick for winning "Favorite Breakthrough Performance" and "Favorite Diva" at the Audience Choice Awards!

The reason he doesn't quite steal the entire evening is the formidable Tony Sheldon as the older transsexual Bernadette.  He is so convincing in his role that a friend of mine who saw the show last week at first thought he was a real woman!  After years in the part, originating it in Sydney, then moving to London, then to Canada for the pre-Broadway run he completely owns the role.  In the movie, as played by Terrence Stamp, Bernadette is more of an embittered dowager deigning to dispense only as much energy as needed, whereas Sheldon sees Bernadette as more earthy, someone who is happy being a bit frumpy whilst still retaining the necessary comic bite. 

The reasons to go see "Priscilla" are many.  Sheldon and Adams create strong characters and have talent to spare.  The score which includes "Hot Stuff", "MacArthur Park", and "I Will Survive" is a very satisfying selection of popular music that is immediately recognizable and lots of fun. 

Completely over-the-top costumes are at the heart of the show and they will "wow" you from beginning to end. 

And then there is "Priscilla" herself - a little piece of technological magic that I thought would upstage the actors but literally becomes another character in the show, which is befitting since it's named after her. 

"Priscilla" gets an A+ from me and if you go see it I guarantee you will leave the theatre feeling extremely fabulous.

You can catch a sneak peak video of "Priscilla" here:

Happy Theatre-going!

PS - A note on how we got our seats:

Starting at 5:30pm you can fill out a card with your name and it is put in a bag.  At 6pm if your name is picked you can buy up to two seats in the front row for $40 each.  They do this for every performance including matinees, always 2 1/2 hours before curtain.  Be advised that you need to have cash and photo ID to purchase the tickets.  Check out the link to "Broadway for Broke People" in the right margin of this blog for info on lotteries and rush ticket policies for every Broadway show. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Thoughts on the 2011 Tony Nominees

This season I have seen more of the new shows on Broadway than I ever have before in a single season.  When I saw the 2011 Tony nominees today I was reminded I have several major productions to catch before the awards on June 12.  The nominations this year were quite evenly dispersed, even with a few of my personal favorites left out, and I think the committee did a fair job of honoring the vast range of artists involved in the 2010-2011 season. 

The surprising inclusion of "The Scottsboro Boys" was a joyful recognition by the committee for this incredible show.  It lived for only 49 performances and then closed on December 12.  It's heavy, yet moving subject matter was skillfully presented, but even an excellent score by Kander and Ebb (their final collaboration) couldn't help it find it's audience.  In the form of a minstrel show it told the story of a group of black men wrongfully accused of rape in 1931 Alabama.  When a show closes before the Tony Awards it's chances of winning Best Musical become very small because the voters may not have seen it and Tony guidelines require them to see the show to vote for it.  It was the sleeper, artistic hit of the musical season and surely would have given every show a run for it's money if it were still open.  If enough of the committee saw it's brief run I wouldn't be surprised if it usurps the top honor of Best Musical.  And today it received 12 nominations, the second highest number behind "Mormon". 

For years now I have had a knack for picking the winners for Best Featured Actor and Actress in a musical.  Ask my friend Axel, because as we walked out of the theatre after "Million Dollar Quartet" last year I said "Levi Kreiss has the Tony in his pocket." 

Ask my friend Mair, because I said the same thing about Karen Olivo after "West Side Story" the year before. 

And so it has been for about 10 years now, picking the winner in this category is just "my thing".  However, the well deserved inclusion of Coleman Domingo and Forrest McClendon this year nudged out my personal favorite in this category - Nick Adams for "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert". 

I guess my streak of picking the winners is over, because I thought Nick was the stand out by a mile, and I can't help but wonder if "Scottsboro Boys" were still open would the nominating committee been so generous to them?  It brings up a larger issue for me, less artistic and more practical, of how much should a show that has closed be recognized and honored with nominations when shows that are still open and struggling to find audiences can use the boost in publicity? 

In a show that goes full throttle from the get go, Nick is giving a high octane performance as Adam/Felicia, the Madonna-obsessed free spirit who provides Tony Sheldon (nominated as Best Actor for playing Bernadette) with numerous set ups for his biting one liners and then hits him right back with his own.  Sentimentally, I wanted Nick to get nominated because this is really a break out role for him.  After supporting roles in "A Chorus Line" and the wonderful revival of "La Cage aux Folles" this is the show in which he really gets to shine.  Aside from camping it up and frequently getting to display his much discussed physique, Nick is an excellent dancer and has the best singing voice out of the three leads.  He simply shines on stage opposite the formidable Sheldon and co-star Will Swenson, providing plenty of laughs and physical comedy throughout, and toward the end of Act 1 creates a fantastic coup de theatre on a giant high heeled shoe. 

While his omission is not nearly as "egregious" as "Victor/Victoria" being passed over for the musical review "Swinging on a Star" in 1996, I regret that Nick is not receiving the recognition he deserves for his efforts.  Oh, and did I mention he's easy on the eyes too?  :-) Better luck to you next time, Nick, and there will be plenty of them I'm sure.

Two other surprising upsets are Aaron Tveit and Daniel Radcliff for their starring roles in "Catch Me If You Can" and "How To Succeed" respectively.  Both of them carry their shows, and both of their co-stars got nominations.  I am a little shocked that Norbert Leo Butz got the nomination in the Leading Actor category over Tveit because I saw the show and both give solid performances but Butz is not the stand out.  Tveit is virtually on stage the entire evening, has some very difficult singing to do, and really gives the show it's core of energy.  Butz is certainly a supporting player and I felt he underplayed the part (and personally I do not care for his raggedy singing, but that is just my opinion). 

It's not quite so bad when it comes to Radcliff, because John Larroquette got a nomination as Best Featured Actor.  I'm hoping the Tony Committee is seriously going to woo Daniel Radcliff to be this years Tony host and will give him a couple of featured numbers to shine in.  It might actually be the ratings boost they have been looking for. 

I'm extremely pleased that the nominating committee remembered another of my favorites, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" with nods to Patti Lupone and Laura Benanti, and for Best Original Score.  Laura was my favorite to win Best Featured Actress when I saw the show, and I'm hoping that even though it closed in December she still has a shot at it.  She is up against stiff competition from Victoria Clark in "Sister Act", but since I have not seen that yet I cannot make the call who's going to win. 

Kudos to Bobby Cannavale, Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Frances McDormand, Edie Falco, Tony Sheldon, Donna Murphy, Ellen Barkin, Mark Rylance, and Elizabeth Rodriguez, all of whom I felt were stand outs this season and are currently giving excellent performances.  Go see any of their shows - "M*therF*cker with the Hat", "Good People", "The Normal Heart", "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert", "Jerusalem", or even "People in the Picture", and each of these artists will make it worth your while even if you are not completely enamored with the material they are performing (which might only be the case with "People in the Picture", the rest are definitely the best of the season.)

I can't make my own Tony predictions at this time because there are still a number of major shows I need to see.  Between now and June 12 my list includes:

"The Book of Mormon" - I always knew that if the creators got it right it would be the hit of the season.  Without an out-of-town try out, a recording released in advance, or any word of mouth there was no way to determine if they would produce a hit, which obviously they did considering their 14 nominations today.  From what I've heard it is well deserved and I better get there before it becomes a sold-out mega hit after the Tony's.

"Sister Act" - is a known property with a built in audience.  From the few clips I've seen it looks extremely fun and true to the original movie.  It got 5 nominations today including Best Musical, Best Actress for Patina Miller in Whoopi Goldberg's role, and Best Featured Actress for Victoria Clark. 

"The Importance of Being Earnest" - Brian Bedford apparently has them rolling in the aisles with his Tony nominated performance as Lady Bracknell, and since I have never seen a professional production of this play it's on the top of my list.

"Anything Goes" - Sutton Foster is nominated as Best Actress in a musical, and Kathleen Marshal is nominated for choreography.  This has always been one of my favorite classic musicals, and the songs are delicious and de-lovely. 

"How To Succeed in Business" - Starring Daniel Radcliff in his second outing on the Great White Way.  He spent a year training to sing and dance for this production and his efforts seem to have paid off.  John Larroquette for Best Featured Actor in a musical and Best Musical revival were two of the eight nominations this show received.

"Born Yesterday" - A revival of this comedy stars Jim Belushi and Nina Arianda, both making their Broadway debuts, supported by the considerable talent of Robert Sean Leonard.  Arianda is nominated as Best Actress in a play for her debut in the role.

I'll be reporting on each one as I see it and with a bit of luck I will have my list of Tony predictions in time for the big night on June 12.

Happy Theatre-going!

Monday, May 2, 2011

"Wonderland" and "Baby It's You!"

When I go to a show that turns out to be not very good the banter between me and my friends afterward can be extremely funny.  There is always a pregnant silence as we exit the theatre, mindful of the fact that someone may have enjoyed the performance, but once out on the street it becomes a battle of who can come up with the funniest derogatory remarks.  It's not that we are rejoicing in failure, far from it, in our own way we are emotionally recouping our investment at the disappoinment of having seen a show that does not work.  How bad the show is will set the tone for how much we rip it to shreds, and after a couple of torturous hours sitting in the theatre this can feel damn good!  And on this level "Wonderland" did not disappoint.

It sounded promising to me; a classic story in a fantastical setting, a Broadway composer known for tuneful melodies, and three extremely talented leading ladies.  And yet it all went so horribly wrong.  This reinvention of the story, if this sappy and convoluted book can be called a story, brings us Alice as a newly single mom who goes down the elevator shaft of her New York apartment building into Wonderland and meets up with the characters you might expect...except now the Cheshire Cat is El Gato, because...see, we're in New York and Alice is Latina.  Get it?  Wink-wink.  There is so much "wink-wink" in "Wonderland" it became impossible to take any part of the show seriously.  Act 1 became tedious in it's format of introducing a character, they sing a song, then they all go dancing off to meet the next character.  If you think that this sounds like "The Wiz" you are correct.  Someone actually said "I liked it better when it was called 'The Wiz'".  The songs are completely forgettable, and Frank Wildhorn, the composer, was not up to the task on this one.  We were not treated to even one of his soaring pop/theatre ballads, the type that made his ex-wife Linda Eder a star in "Jekyl & Hyde".  Janet Ducal as Alice does not have that type of soaring voice so I might have thought that the reason, but also in the cast are Kate Shindle as The Mad Hatter and Karen Mason as The Queen of Hearts, and they both have considerable voices.  All of them are saddled with material so banale that it is painful to watch.  At one point in the song "Off With Their Heads" poor Karen Mason actually has to say "It's BOOTYLICIOUS" and somehow have it make sense, but at that point, already late in the evening, "Wonderland" was completely lost to me. 

I don't know who the target audience for this show would be.  Certainly not literature lovers because everything one could love about the book is missing here.  People who like musicals in general will be put off by how derivative and hackneyed the music and story are.  Perhaps it is supposed to appeal to children, but this show's conceit of being an adults journey ultimately makes it unrelatable for kids.  With a top ticket price of $139.75 "Wonderland" is the most expensive ticket of the season.  We paid a significantly discounted price and I still had to keep my friends from leaving at the intermission.  I wish now that they had convinced me to leave with them.

I am not a fan of "jukebox" musicals.  I don't enjoy hearing music shoe-horned into a weak story just for the sake of being able to hear the songs performed live.  My favorite musicals have always been those with strong books whether serious or comical.  That said, if I have to go see a "jukebox" musical I like the ones that are based on real life people; "Jersey Boys", "Million Dollar Quartet", etc.  My expectations were low for "Baby It's You", which tells the story of Florence Greenberg, a New Jersey housewife who discovers and brings to stardom The Shirelles, and goes on to become a record producer and label owner, and unfortnately my expectations were met.  Even with a free ticket by Act 2 I couldn't wait for it to be over, and unlike "Wonderland" I felt that "Baby It's You" could have been a good show if it were in other hands.  First off if you're going to do a show about The Shirelles then can you please tell me a little about them?  Ok, I get that the focus of the book is Florence their agent, but seriously to go for almost 2 1/2 hours and not really tell me anything about those girls in the group seems weird.  This show is crammed full of great music, more than 38 songs are listed in the program, some of which are just snippets or one verse of a song, others reprises, but there is certainly no shortage of music.  One major thing that is lacking is a big musical climax in the show, perhaps a mini Shirelle's concert, even an extended medley of their songs performed by the four very talented young ladies that have been cast.  So many of the songs are fragmented that musically the show never really takes off, and even at the finale, when the Shirelles are supposed to be "in concert" we get saddled with a reunion scene between them and Florence that once again stops the music.  One particularly annoying idea that kept popping up all evening was when a song would be performed by the group, immediately afterward  Florence would come on stage and sing a slow version of it, in character, presumably to advace the plot.  It's a nice trick if you do it once and it actually means something, but most of the time the song had no relevance to what was going on in the story, so it just held up the momentum of the show.  Beth Leavel is a super talented lady who won a Tony for "The Drowsy Chaperone" a few years back, and here as Florence she looks strikingly like a young Valerie Harper in her period costumes and wigs, and while this script doesn't allow her the opportunity to make the audience feel much for her, Ms. Leavel is always interesting.  Unfortunately Geno Henderson who is cast in four different roles (many in the small cast take on multiple roles) does not diffentiate them clearly enough, so at times we do not know what character we are listening to.  If a good writer were to have had a hand in the formation of this script I think "Baby It's You" could have been something special.  Sadly, it is sub par and most likely will not remain on Broadway much longer.

Happy Theatre-going!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Normal Heart

To say I enjoyed "The Normal Heart" by Larry Kramer is true but difficult.  Does anyone enjoy confronting painful truth?  When we go to the theatre should it only be a happy, enjoyable experience?  What I felt tonight at this performance was not happy.  It was not enjoyable.  It felt important, truthful, painful, and very current, and I am profoundly gratetful to have seen these actors tell me a story that moved me, made me remember, and made me think.

I was not expecting to have an emotional experience.  Possibly I was anticipating it to be a period piece - something of it's time but no longer relevant today.  I could not have been more wrong.  This play broke my heart and wrenched my soul.  The play begins by showing a small group of people going to a Doctor dealing with various severe illnesses, and as this "plague" increases so does the horror, passion, and outrage of those affected by it.  I was painfully reminded of friends I have known in my 25 years living in New York City who succumbed to the disease, recalling time spent in hospitals holding hands, and having to say goodbye much too soon to young men who were my own age.  The story surrounds the semi-autobiographical character of Ned Weeks, based on playwrite Kramer, and his call to arms at the onset of the AIDS epidemic.  The confusion surrounding the swift deaths of several people he knows leads him to become active in finding answers, and bolstered by unofficial yet definite medical information provided to him by Dr. Emma Brookner he takes on City Hall and the government demanding they recognize what is going on.  This leads to the formation of what we know today as The Gay Men's Health Crisis organization and the militant activist group ACT UP.  Along the way Ned finds love for the first time, only for them to discover that his lover, Felix, is infected and will pass away during the course of the play.  Kramer simply doesn't hold back in his hard core depiction of the disease and the governments lack of repsonse, nor should he; the subject matter demands this type of treatment.  Ned becomes passionately outspoken on the issue, unrelentingly so, spirited on and seconded only by Dr. Brookner. 

These characters, respectively played by Joe Mantello and, in a remarkable Broadway debut Ellen Barkin, push the government, and at many times we the audience almost to the breaking point in beautifully calibrated rises of outrage and fury.  I have seen this play in several other stagings, and so much about this production feels fresh and newly explored.  The first is Joe Mantello, who takes what could be an obnoxious and overwrought character and fleshes him out tenderly.  His Ned is full of insecurities yet becomes unafraid to shout the ugly truth when his sense of fairness is threatened.  To his credit he has the audience on his side from the beginning, and even when confronted with being removed from the organization he gave everything to create, it is the group of less controversial, less passionate men who remain in control that we demonize.  The play itself is very compact in it's writing, which is good because we are given a slew of information throughout, one shocking point after another.  The theatrical highlights, if they need be chosen in an evening that is full of them, came for me in Act 2.  One of Ned's co-founders recounts a harrowing tale of taking his ailing lover on an airplane, the details of which I simply cannot bring myself to repeat.  I found myself uncontrolably in tears as he spoke of indignity and inhuman behavior to the point that I had my face buried in my hands.  I was upset further knowing that this agonizing story could have been retold by countless others who faced illness during the time when no one knew what to do and so few even cared.  Immediately following came the scene with Dr. Brookner.  Paralyzed from polio at an early age, she confronts from her wheelchair a government agent in charge of funding, facing rejection of funds for her medical research while other less deserving organizations receive it.  In what might be the dramatic performance of the season Ellen Barkin blazes with anger and determination as she runs down a laundry list of lies, homophobia, and lack of humanity and common decency, attempting to bring rational thinking to a system that cares very little for the plight of suffering, ill homosexual men.  She builds this monologue to a fever pitch and sustains it for minutes, ultimately receiving an ovation from the audience more common to opera divas or big musical numbers, literally stopping the show cold.

As we walked out of the performance there was a man handing out flyers saying "This is a message from Larry Kramer."  I would like to share a few of the things that this flyer said:

1)  Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.
2)  Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or acknowledged is as a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.
3)  Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category.  In much of the rest of the world-Russia, India, Southeast Asia, Africa-the numbers of the infected and the drying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged.

And the most important to me:

Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 MILLION DEATHS.  When the action of this play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.

My note:  The Black Plague of Europe in the late 1300's was estimated to kill between 75 and 100 million people and it took the population 150 years to recover.

I want to dedicate this post to Bill, Keil, and Richard, my good friends who did not live long enough to have this experience with me, but who live in my heart and always will be with me.  God bless you.