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.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"La Cage aux Folles" with Harvey Fierstein

Before we had "Drag Race", before we had RuPaul, before Wigstock, Lips restaurant, Lucky Cheng's, "Too Wong Foo", and "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (the movie) there was Harvey Fierstein.  In 1978 he wrote a little play titled "International Stud", the first part of what was to become "Torch Song Trilogy".   He created the role of Arnold, an effeminate, Jewish female impersonator who struggles to find love and acceptance.  For this production he would win Tony Awards for Best Actor and Best Play in 1982.  He continuted to pioneer the humanization of the protrayal of gay men with his book to "La Cage aux Folles" in 1983, winning another Tony.  Both were acclaimed hits; "Torch Song" ran for over 1200 performances and "La Cage" for over 1700, and both deal with gay men who have chosen to live alternative lifestyles and are attempting to deal with people's bigotry.  Both shows deal with LOVE.  And for some reason Harvey is one of those actors who knows how to play love.  I have never met the man, but I have a feeling he must have a huge heart.  Witnessing his performance for the first time I saw someone capable of portraying every aspect the character Zaza/Albin;  the performer, the lover, the mother, the human being.  

I don't have to look far back to his portrayal of Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray" (I did not see him live in "Torch Song", only the movie)  to know he creates loving, sympathetic characters, but the extras we get in "La Cage" are the glamour he brings to the role, probably reminiscent of his personal experience with drag performing, albeit on a much seedier level back then, and the fact that he is playing opposite the dashing Christopher Sieber as Georges.  It's the first time ever that two gay men have played the roles together on Broadway, and it definitely shows in the chemistry between them.   When Albin refuses to go onstage thinking Georges might be cheating on him it is clear he only wants Georges to butter him up with promises, that he is waiting to be wooed and charmed, as we are sure he has been many times in the past.  And so it goes between them in scene after scene, the most comically effective being when Georges is trying to teach Albin how to be more masculine.  Albin is sitting with legs closed and bent to the side, and George tells him to spread his legs and sit like a man.  Albin finds this impossible to do, so Georges walks behind him and tweeks his nipples and BOING Albin's legs open.  It may be a silly choice but it's a choice two straight actors playing the roles would not make, probably would never conceive of, and it got one of the biggest laughs of the night! 

The chemistry they have is what makes this current cast so successful; we feel their love.  The humor of the script always lands no matter who is in the cast, but without the love then Albin's "betrayal" doesn't sting, and his big Act 1 closer "I Am What I Am" loses impact.  I won't sugar coat Harvey's singing - and in interviews he doesn't himself - at times it sounds like a bass-baritone frog croaking, but he did surprise me by using more voice than I thought he had.  A friend told me that the same was true when Harvey went into "Fiddler on the Roof" which I unfortunately did not see.  While it can't compare to the booming voice of George Hearn who originated the role, Harvey pulls out enough sung notes to make the anthem of the show the moment it needs to be.  And as can be the case with singing-actors who don't have pretty voices, something about his tone actually made the song more real and moving for me.   Both times I saw it I had tears in my eyes at the end of the number, and one friend I brought was also completely reduced to tears.  It's musical theatre drama played to the hilt.

Harvey nails every joke in the script with comic precision (as one would hope since he wrote it) and with a perfected ease.  His portrayal of the glamorous Zaza is larger than life, swathed in beads and sequins, topped with giant wigs;  think Mae West playing Dolly Levi, she's a big lady who isn't afraid to play funny and sexy.  Chris Sieber has a beautiful voice, sings his role very well, has the requisite charm for when Georges is onstage (including some very funny 'improv' bits with audience members), and is happy to play the 'straight man' enough for Harvey's comic antics to land.  He might be a few years too young for the part, but it's not inconceivable that two men of these ages would be together, and to his credit not for one moment did I forget that Georges is IN LOVE with Albin.  Even though Georges is technically the larger role, "La Cage" belongs to Zaza, and Harvey Fierstein is giving one of those performances people will talk about for years to come.

Sadly about a week after the year anniversary of it's opening on Broadway this revival of "La Cage" posted it's closing notice.  It will play it's final performance this Sunday, May 1 at 2pm.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys musical theatre.  If you can catch one of the last performances you're sure to have a great time.

Happy Theatre-going!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The New York Premiere of "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" by Stephen Schwartz

Tonight I had the great opportunity of seeing the New York premiere of "Seance on a Wet Afternoon", the opera written by Stephen Schwartz and produced by the New York City Opera.  I call it a "great opportunity" because 1) It was the New York premiere of a highly anticipated work by one of Broadway's most accomplished composers, 2)  My friend Axel scored us free tickets through Theater Mania Gold Club and we were seated in row B of the Orchestra!  If "Broadway" is one of my favorite words then you can imagine what "Free Broadway" means to me, and let's face it, in this economy I like to grab a bargain when it comes my way.  Of course logistically this was not Broadway being that we were seeing an opera at the New York State Koch theatre, but I think "Free Opera" is right up there with "Free Broadway" for me (and much rarer too!) given that I see almost as much opera as I do theatre.   

Prior to this evenings performance all I knew about "Seance" was that it was composed by Schwartz and had it's world premiere at California's Opera Santa Barbara in 2009.  I found out from my program that the source material is a novel and a 1964 movie starring Kim Stanley.  I was impressed from the outset by the "Hitchcockian" mood set by the prelude, and being unfamiliar with the story I found myself wondering what would happen next, and the first act built to a suspenseful climax.  Lauren Flanigan portayed Myra Foster, the medium seeking fame and fortune through devising a kidnapping plot, and is known for her penetrating studies of dramatic opera roles, and here she performed as though the role were written with her voice in mind.  It's rough to bring off a part that deals with the supernatural and not appear hokey or fake, and here Ms. Flanigan's immersion in the character was absolutely complete and often riveting.  Her voice was not perfect tonight, the one flaw being that she would occassionally go flat on phrase endings in the middle range, but everything else including some blazing high notes and excellent dramatic singing was fully in place.  As a mid-to-late career role she is in amazing form.  Another excellent and memorable performance was given by Melody Moore as the mother, Rita Clayton.  She really connected dramatically in the poigant and dramatic aria about her kidnapped child.  She has a fantastic soprano and looks stunning onstage too.  No doubt New York will be seeing more of her in the future.  The other principals were uniformly excellent, but a real stand-out performance for me was from Michael Kepler Meo, a boy soprano, as Arthur.  I struggle to enjoy this type of voice because usually they are under-powered or insipid (or both) but this boy can SING.  He has one of those fluttery vibratos which is very exciting and his voice had a full, rich quality that I don't normally associate with children. 

The score of "Seance" will no doubt be controversial among the members of the New York classical music world, many of whom tend to be snotty and arrogant.  I imagine Mr. Schwartz being written off as a Broadway composer or a scorer of saccharine movie soundtracks, but tonight was an accomplishment that I hope will not be disregarded (and the cheering crowd at the curtain call indicated this may be a popular, if not critical success).  What Schwartz has written is a somewhat complex but totally accessible work that is tuneful and atmostpheric that can be enjoyed by opera and theatre lovers alike.  His orchestrations are gorgeous and interesting, and he acheived something special in that even though this is his first opera the "sound" of it let's you know it is by Schwartz.  I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea about this serious work, but I am certain I heard brief strains of music reminiscent of "Godspell" and "Pippin" (maybe only a few bars), which is not to say he's ripping off his own tunes, I'm just pointing out that Schwartz has his own musical vocabulary that he works from, similar to what we refer to as the "Sondheim sound".

In the today's world of music writing a lyrical piece like "Seance" is rubbing against the grain of what a modern opera is often expected to be.  Using the twelve tone scale (Schoenberg), a mathematical approach which creates extreme dissonance, or a repetitive pattern (Glass) that conjures up a hypnotic quality have been the forms that for years defined the genre.  What one might call "pretty" music does not get taken very seriously.  Music scolars like the more dissonant stuff, yet audiences always seem to respond to the more lyrical pieces.  Such was the case with two productions I saw at The Metropolitan Opera - "The Ghosts of Versailles" and "An American Tragedy".  "Seance" will please those looking for lyricism. 

After seeing him take his writing to this level I hope Schwartz will turn back to my personal favorite of his works, "The Baker's Wife", and rework that lovely score with a problematic book and turn it into the Broadway success that it could be.

"Seance on a Wet Afternoon" is playing through May 1 at the New York City Opera.  Go see it! 

Happy Theatre-going!

Update 4/27/11 - As expected the reviews for "Seance" came in mixed to negative.  One reviewer kept comparing it to the movie "The Lovely Bones" (???) and called it kitschy, while The Times said it doesn't know whether it's an opera or a musical.  It's sad to me that these so-called music professionals are so jaded that they can't take a work like this for what it is and enjoy it as much as the thousands of people in the audience did.