On Stage: Three Nights of Theater

With my free time going quickly, I got to do something I’d come to miss during the fall semester.  I went to the theater!  In the course of five nights, I saw three plays, each of them featuring favorite actors of mine.  There were hits, and there were misses.  Read on, but beware some spoilers!

Golden Boy

Last Friday I saw Golden Boy, a Clifford Odets play about an Italian immigrant’s son who inhabits every creative person’s struggle: the battle between art and commerce.  A skilled violinist, Joe Bonaparte (played by Seth Numrich) doesn’t believe that music can be his living.  He’s determined to prove himself as an independent American success, and sees his chance in the world of boxing.  As his natural talent develops, plucky Joe turns into something else entirely, alienating his family, friends, and love interest in his violent pursuit of validation.

If this sounds like your typical early 20th century American drama, that’s because it is.  Nothing about the 75-year-old Golden Boy is terribly surprising.  Fortunately, its masterful execution saves it from being a bore.  Numrich is fine as the angry Joe, though by halfway through the second of the show’s three acts, you might have a hard time feeling any sympathy for him.  The trio of father figures he alienates are all expertly played: Danny Mastrogiorgio as his manager, Tom; Danny Burstein as his trainer, Tokio; and Tony Shalhoub as his actual father.  Shalhoub stands out, physically and verbally inhabiting the older Mr. Bonaparte so completely that perhaps he’s the reason why I was so eager for Joe’s inevitable fall from grace.  How could you be so mean to that sweet old man?

Shalhoub and Numrich in "Golden Boy"
Tony Shalhoub and Seth Numrich in “Golden Boy”

Yvonne Strahovski plays Joe’s love interest Lorna, doing a textbook Depression Era New York moll.  Joe’s brother-in-law Siggie, played by Michael Aranov, was one of the few characters I wished we’d seen a little more of, even if he was aping Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire at times.  Anthony Crivello heaped an extra layer of sleaze on his menacing promoter character, Eddie Fuseli, but his exaggerated old country accent kept him from being all that threatening in my eyes.

The action is all meticulously staged by director Bartlet Sher.  For a show concerned with the sport of boxing, Sher seems to have paid special attention to how the characters use their hands outside the ring.  Delicate touches prove just as powerful as right hooks.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Sher show where he wasn’t paired with an amazing design team.  Golden Boy is no different.  The sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting by Donald Holder, and costumes by Catherine Zuber are all absolutely top-notch.  Yeargan’s sets, in particular, take the surprisingly large dimensions of the Belasco Theater and create a much more intimate feeling, whether the action be in the crowded Bonaparte home or a stuffy gymnasium.

Golden Boy closes on January 20.

The Piano Lesson

On Tuesday I saw The Piano Lesson at the Signature Theater.  Part of August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the African-American experience in 20th century America, The Piano Lesson concerns a brother and sister, Boy Willie and Berniece, and the fate of their most treasured family heirloom: a one-of-a-kind upright piano that is literally filled with their family history.  Boy Willie wants to sell it and use the profit to buy land in the south.  Berniece can’t bring herself to part with the piano, yet neither can she open the lid and tickle the ivories.  It may not sound like the most explosive conflict, but it serves as a solid foundation for some really strong drama about family, identity, grief, and forgiveness.

The Piano Lesson featured solid performances all around.  Brandon Dirden is perfectly sly, charming, and dangerous as the scheming Boy Willie.  His brother, Jason Dirden, plays Boy Willie’s would-be accomplice, Lymon, with an appropriate man-child’s innocence.  Eric Lenox Abrams plays Avery, the humble local preacher with an eye on Berniece,  with kindness and sincerity.  Playing the object of his affection is Rosyln Ruff, who was completely captivating.  She fills Berniece with all the bluster, fragility, pride, and fear the role requires, playing this titanic role effortlessly.  Chuck Cooper plays Wining Boy, Willie and Berniece’s mischievous uncle.  His antics amuse, but there’s an underlying sadness there that does not go unnoticed–even when he performs on the titular piano, letting loose with his brassy, bluesy voice.  The role of Doaker, the more responsible uncle, is usually played by James A. Williams, but at the performance I attended, Keith Randolph Smith was on.  He may have tripped over a line here or there, but he was otherwise perfect as the wise but weary patriarch of this family.

Jason Dirden and Roslyn Ruff in "The Piano Lesson"
Jason Dirden and Roslyn Ruff in “The Piano Lesson”

The show is smartly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and impressively designed by set creator Michael Carnahan, costumer Karen Perry, and lighting artist Rui Rita.  My only complaints with the play come from the text itself.  August Wilson was an extremely talented writer, but he was not a diligent editor.  Coming in at just over three hours, The Piano Lesson could easily be forty minutes shorter and lose none of its impact.  Portions of dialogue are redundant, as if Wilson didn’t trust the audience to remember the fairly simple motivations of his main characters.  The bigger problem I had with the play wouldn’t be as easy to fix.  Spirituality is a constant in all of Wilson’s works.  It’s a theme present throughout The Piano Lesson, but at practically subliminal levels–until the ending.  I really don’t know how anyone could have seen that coming.  I don’t want to give anything anyway, but let’s just say that the play’s climactic scene could have been called  The Poltergeist Lesson.

The Piano Lesson closes January 20.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

My last theater adventure of the month was to see the latest revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Tennessee Williams classic that many a star has taken their turn in before–Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Kathleen Turner, to name a few.  The current production, which just opened last night, is not short on star power either, headlined as it is by Scarlett Johansson.  She plays the saucy Maggie, wife of broken-down former golden boy Brick (Benjamin Walker, AKA Meryl Streep’s son-in-law), who tries to get to the root of her husband’s gloom during a weekend celebration for Brick’s father (the unstoppable Ciaran Hinds).

I have to say that while Cat on a Hot Tin Roof wasn’t the most recently written of the plays I saw this week, it managed to feel the oldest.  The main drama of the play concerns Brick’s friendship with an old teammate named Skipper, a relationship that is only discussed in euphemism and cautious allusion.  Perhaps in 1955 this kind of thing would have scandalized an audience, but in 2013 the ruckus raised by Maggie, Brick, and Big Daddy over what did or did not exist with Skipper seemed peculiarly quaint.  As such, the second conflict of the piece–that being, what will happen to Big Daddy’s heirs when he dies–seems to lack the attention it deserves.  Brick and Maggie won’t see a cent of inheritance if they remain childless–a fate that we are to assume is all but guaranteed, given what’s so heavily implied.  Nevertheless, Maggie begs Brick to put up a fight against his brother, Gooper, and Gooper’s two-faced wife, Mae.  I thought the couples’ confrontation in the third act was the biggest pay-off of the evening, but something tells me Williams never intended it to be.  

Benjamin Walker and Scarlett Johansson in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
Benjamin Walker and Scarlett Johansson in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof gets revived as often as it does because it’s a well-known play, and it can be an excellent star vehicle.  That being said, even though this was a sturdy production, few members of the cast were truly exceptional in my eyes.  Johansson was fine as Maggie, but did nothing to make her take on the role unique.  In fact, sometimes she even sounded like Elizabeth Taylor (albeit from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for whatever that’s worth).  Walker might have given a better performance if he ever picked his head up.  He’s so dependent on the body language of his character that it distracts from his performance.

The two stand-outs for me were Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy and Emily Bergl as Mae.  Hinds’s Big Daddy is a monster unchained, a man who has decided that instead of cowering in the face of death, he is going to ruthlessly settle all accounts before his time is up.  He’s powerful, threatening, lecherous, and horrible–and impossible to take your eyes off of.  Bergl’s Mae is the kind of passive-aggressive, perfectionist PTA mother that’s now practically an archetype of suburban satire, but Williams gives the character an insatiable, sinister greed that makes her even more monstrous.

Director Rob Ashford usually works on musicals, but he does a nice job here with his first straight play, even if the set by Christopher Oram seemed to get in the way.  The oversized balcony doors from Brick and Maggie’s guest room, and the expansive playing space of that chamber itself, lead to some crowded blocking and empty space, respectively.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is running through March 30.

Version 3.0

Hello again, readers new and old.  It’s your friendly blogmaster, returned after an extended absence from the interwebs.  We’ve got a lot to catch up on!  I’ll start by explaining exactly why The Honestly Blog has been dormant for so long.

The main reason that I wasn’t blogging this year was because I was spending most of it undertaking a project that I wasn’t comfortable having on the public record.  That project was applying to graduate school.  From Christmastime through the middle of February, I was hitting the books for at least 90 minutes each night, studying for the GREs.  After that, springtime was spent working on application essays, accumulating writing samples, and seeking letters of recommendation.  My applications went out right before Easter, and I am happy to report that it was about a month later that I found out I had been accepted to the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at NYU.  Starting very soon–Tuesday, in fact–I will begin my course of study towards my masters degree in public relations and corporate communications.

The eternal flame of knowledge…or an albino artichoke

Now you might be thinking, “But Tyler, that’s awesome!  You write so well and you’re so engaging and so effortlessly handsome that this program sounds like it’s tailor-made for you.”  (You are thinking that, aren’t you?)  “Why wouldn’t you be shouting that from the digital rooftops?”  Well, you rascally flatterers you, the reason I was keeping this under wraps was because I hadn’t told anyone at work that I was pursuing this.  To be as frank as I can be, this has not been a very good year for me on the job.  2012 has been a year of extreme ups and downs in the office. Our normally slow summer was upended by the much deserved yet unexpected retirement of one of my bosses.  It was only in the last two weeks that we wrapped up the majority of the unfinished business left in her wake, and it was only then that I felt comfortable sharing with my remaining employers that I would be spending my evenings learning how to make myself a more marketable applicant to other businesses.  Since I can only afford to go to school at night if I keep my job during the day, the whole situation has required a level of decorum I usually wouldn’t have to keep.

The air might be cleared now, but that doesn’t mean that I can go back to being a blogging machine.  Given the amount of schoolwork I have coming my way and the rigorous standards of the program (less than 3.0 each term and you’re out on your ass!), I’m afraid that my postings may not be as frequent or as lengthy as in the past.  Couple my course load with the fact that I’m also going to be actively searching for new employment (that retirement doesn’t seem to be yielding any promotions), and you can imagine just how little spare time I  might have.  But I also recognize that the months ahead are going to be very strenuous, and I’m going to need an outlet, a place to turn when I near a burn-out, a way to exercise the wackier parts of my brain, a place where everyone knows my name…wait, scratch that last one…

So my game plan for The Honestly Blog is to write one post each week; a weekly installment of the shenanigans and sass you’ve come to enjoy over these past few years.  I’m hoping to write about a wide variety of things in an array of different styles; maybe have some guest writers; perhaps even experiment with video content.  I hope you’ll continue to drop by.  I’ve also become quite a Twitter fiend this year, so follow my bird to get some giggles on your smart phone in 140 characters or less.

Before I give you the abridged run-down of my 2012 adventures thus far, I have to give a special thank you to my family and friends who persisted in getting me back to writing this blog.  Special shout-outs go to the kickball gang (especially fellow blogger Jill), my bestest best friend and budding blogger herself, Lauren, and no less a cewebrity than the talented J.T. Riley, whose prodigious and enjoyable output can be tracked via his Twitter.  Mille grazie, everyone!

So, what else was I doing while operating in Sith-like secrecy?  Well, the first thing I did after taking the GRE was to get on a plane bound for Austin, TX!  Literally, I went from the test location to the airport.  A handful of Hobos and I went to the liberal center of the Lone Star State to cheer on one of our own, Stacy, while she ran the Austin marathon.  She set a new personal best with her running, and I set a new personal best eating ribs.  Success all around!  Other far-off adventures this year have included a visit to Syracuse and its surroundings to see my pal Stef, an extra-long Fourth of July holiday in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts with most of my cousins, and more trips to the Long Island beaches than I can recall making in previous summers.  There were many more local adventures as well: nights out in Hoboken and Jersey City, and the annual multi-borough epic affair known as Handicapable Ice Cream Day, a weekend whose history would require a posting of its own to fully explain.

An aquatic event on this year’s Summer Olympic-themed Handicapable Ice Cream Day

There were sporting events aplenty.  My brother and I sat twenty rows off the floor of the Prudential Center when Blake Griffin and the Clippers came to town to play the Nets, I made numerous trips to both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, and I even won a few shekels at the Belmont Stakes.  Sadly, my kickball days are over, as my NYU schedule won’t allow enough time for that much drinking athleticism.

There were cultural outings, as well.  For every excellent book I read (Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding being the best among them), I saw a terrible movie (Honestly, Prometheus?).  I saw musicals good (Now. Here. This.), bad (Merrily We Roll Along), and ugly (Leap of Faith).  I made my first trip to the Metropolitan Opera.  I also hit a few concerts, including my favorite one to date: the incomparable, insatiable, insane Scissor Sisters.  Don’t take my word for it; Anderson Cooper was there right next to me.  (No, really, he was.  I got a drink at the bar, turned to walk away, and bam–Silver Fox!)

Scissor Sisters having a kiki at Bowery Ballroom

And if, like me, you’re in your late twenties and actively maintaining a social life, you probably spent your summer going from one wedding to another.  I know I did, and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend those weekends any other way.  Each celebration was special in its own way, and each of them was an absolute blast.  Congratulations again to Christina and Charlie, Matt and Jess, and Kaitlyn and Matt!  May you spend Summer 2013 judging other people’s nuptials against your own.  They’ll be tough to beat.

That about brings you up to speed, faithful readers.  It’s Labor Day weekend now, the unofficial end of summer.  Big changes are about to take shape, and I’m looking forward to them.  Stay tuned.

~ T

On Stage: “The Submission”

A few weeks ago, I ventured Off-Broadway to see The Submission at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Written by Jeff Talbot and directed by Walter Bobbie, The Submission is a smart, tight, and engrossing piece all about our prejudices and how we perpetuate, challenge, and exploit them.  It had a wonderful cast, a clever set, and was generally pretty flawless for a writer’s debut.  The only thing holding it back from having a second life at a larger venue may simply be whether or not there are enough people who want to sit through a one-act that can be as discomforting as this one.

The Submission focuses on Danny Larsen (played by Jonathan Groff), a young, white, and gay playwright who has struggled to get his work produced.  When the next major theater festival rolls around, Danny submits an incendiary work under an assumed name.  When the play is quickly snatched up by producers, Danny decides to continue the ruse, and hires an aspiring black actress named Emilie (played by Rutina Wesley) to pass herself off as the author of the piece.  For the first half hour, I wasn’t sure which road author Jeff Talbot was taking us down.  At this point, the show had the potential to be an outstanding, outlandish farce.  But Talbot keeps things serious, as Emilie begins to take ownership of the story she feels she’s more qualified to tell, and Danny struggles to maintain control of something he admittedly did not always believe in.  Caught up in this push-and-pull are Danny’s boyfriend, Pete (played by Eddie Kaye Thomas), and his best friend, Trevor, (played by the unironically named Will Rogers), who becomes smitten with Emilie.

Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley

I respect Talbot’s decision to maintain a serious tone.  He wants this play to provoke, not to amuse.  I’d argue that he could have made the same points with a satire that he does with his drama, but in the age of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, tackling these topics without a roll of the eyes is commendable.  Danny and Emilie have some great and uncomfortable exchanges on the topics of reverse discrimination, stereotyping, and the ownership of language.  Even their earlier, more innocent talks often come to abrupt, awkward halts (whereas the later climaxes sometimes stray too close to hysterics).  I never felt that anything said in the play was gratuitous.  Some things were repetitive, but I took that as the hallmark of a bad editor, not a shock artist.  I know at least one person walked out of the show less than halfway through.  I have to say, I really don’t understand why.  For one thing, who doesn’t do a little research on what they’re going to the theater to see before they get there?  I know plays don’t come with MPAA-certified ratings for content and subject matter, but honestly, make a little effort.  For another, you go to the theater to have something to talk about.  Sure, sometimes it’s more about who sucked and who didn’t, and which dance numbers were your favorite; but every once in a while, you leave the theater with an idea.  And if you leave the theater early, you’re probably leaving with the wrong idea.  And finally, it’s just a play!  It’s fiction!  It’s pretend!  Jonathan Groff didn’t hop off the stage, come over to your seat, and call you a nigger.  Rutina Wesley did not warm up the crowd by telling a string of jokes about two fags walking into a bar.  They were actors interpreting the lines of a script written by a guy who said, “Let me see if I can get all these thoughts I have on this extremely delicate topic onto paper, and see if I can use them to tell a story that might get people thinking.”  Like I said, that’s kind of what theater is.

The Submission really should get a second staging in the mainstream theater district, perhaps after another visit from the play doctor.  (I still think the final scene, all of seven minutes long, could be completely scrapped).  Keep your eyes open for this one, either on stage or in the bookstore.  I think it’d be worth your time.

~ T

On Stage: “Catch Me If You Can”

After the dizzying heights of Follies, it was destined that I would have to come back down to the muddy earth.  My means of conveyance out of the theatrical stratosphere was, appropriately enough, Catch Me If You Can.  The musical version of the movie about the infamous airborne con artist, Frank Abagnale Jr., Catch Me If You Can doesn’t crash and burn so much as its engines combust upon ignition and the whole thing smolders in flames on the runway for an excruciating two and a half hours.

The main reason this show fails the moment it begins is because of the framing device used to tell the story.  The curtain comes up on a chaotic chase through Miami International Airport, where hangdog federal agent Carl Hanratty (played by Norbert Leo Butz) has finally apprehended young Abagnale (played by Aaron Tveit).  Before Hanratty can close the cuffs, Abagnale has convinced the curious witnesses to listen to his story.  Butz is forced to deliver some horribly baiting line along the likes of, “No more song-and-dance for you, buddy!”, and suddenly we’re being dragged against our will into The Frank Abagnale, Jr. Variety Hour.  Flanked by flapping chorines, Frank invites us to hear his story, “Live in Living Color”.

Tveit and his sexy stewardesses

The real Frank Abagnale, Jr. insinuated himself into a lot of professions.  He ran his schemes in fields like travel, law, and medicine.  Do you know what professional world he never once had anything to do with?  Television!  Television was never a part of Frank’s life story.  He didn’t do what he did to be famous.  There is no reason for his story to be told anyway but straightforward.  It’s already an outrageous and singular tale.  It doesn’t require any help in standing out from the way you tell it.  My guess is that this decision is partly because book writer Terrence McNally and the composer/lyricist duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman could think of no other way to turn this story into an integrated musical, and partly to cash in on the completely misplaced 1960s nostalgia that is so in vogue these days (and which I plan to systematically dismantle in a forthcoming post).

My heart goes out to the members of the cast, Butz and Tveit especially, because they do have genuine talent.  Sure, Butz’s big number in Act I devolved into a vaguely minstrel-like gospel/R&B frenzy, and Tveit may be easy on the eyes and ears even though he lacks serious stage presence, but they deserve better.  The score by Shaiman and Wittmann is terribly underwhelming, with lazy lyrics and derivative melodies.  Jerry Mitchell must have passed this off to his latest associates, as there was nothing remotely memorable about the choreography.  And director Jack O’Brien fails to make proper use of the space available, or to create any character with depth besides the male leads, who are already admittedly quick studies.  Save for McNally, this is the same creative team that gave us Hairspray, one of musical theater’s most infectious confections.  What the hell happened, guys?

Norbert Leo Butz, looking pretty much like how I felt during the show

Don’t let the hype around its Labor Day closing con you.  Catch Me If You Can should not be caught.

~ T

On Stage: “Follies”

My trips to Broadway this year have been hit or miss (mostly miss).  Last week, I saw a show that I was very excited for, a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.  I’m happy to report that it met my expectations.

Still in previews at the Marquis Theater, right in the heart of Times Square (an appropriate location given the story), this production of Follies comes straight from a lauded run at the Kennedy Center in Washington.  Follies takes place in the early 1970s, and is set in the fictional, decaying Weismann Theater in New York.  On the eve of its destruction, the performers who once sang and dance across its stage and chattered in the wings have gathered for a final reunion.  Chief among them are four friends: former roommates and famed “Weismann Girls”, Sally and Phyllis, and their respective husbands, Buddy and Ben.  There’s over forty years of history between these characters, and among many others, and in the course of a single evening it all catches up to them.  Leave it to Stephen Sondheim to be the one to have assigned physical and emotional side effects to simple nostalgia.

Sally (Bernadette Peters) and the ghosts of the Weismann Theater

The core plot of Follies, as much as I’ve just described it, may seem muddled by the book, by James Goldman, which fleshes it out.  But taking a step back from what seems to be an increasingly disjointed musical, you can see that Follies is actually rather clever.  It uses two framing devices to tell the story of Sally and Phyllis and Buddy and Ben, both perfectly suited for the piece.  The rest of Weismann’s starlets may not seem as deeply characterized, and their songs may seem to come in from short left field; but when you consider them more as commentaries on the four principals than as narrative necessities, it brings even more shading to thoroughly textured characters.  And in Act II, when past regrets combine with present mistakes, we find ourselves in the imaginary Loveland of Weismann’s famous Follies; only now the older characters perform warped, bitter versions of the vaudeville routines that were the mainstays of their youth.  Follies, perhaps more than any other of Sondheim’s musicals, spends plenty of time getting into its characters’ brains, and subsequently into the audience’s.

Phyllis (Jan Maxwell) in Loveland

It is not, by any real appraisal, a happy story.  A particular directing decision on the part of production leader Eric Schaeffer had me convinced that when Sally sang the lovelorn ballad, “Losing My Mind”, she actually had.  Still, that isn’t to say that it isn’t a good story.  What Goldman’s book lacks in smooth transitions, it makes up for in efficiency and brevity.  It only takes six bitchy bon mots between surly Ben and vivacious Carlotta to convey decades of complicated history.  In fact, the show’s full of great zingers; but one-liners do not  a great script make.  Sondheim’s wonderful music buoys the book, and Schaeffer’s all-star cast brings both to vivid life.  Ron Raines cuts the perfect figure of the empty suit that is elder Ben, and his booming voice was a great surprise.  Jan Maxwell fully embodies Phyllis, the statuesque socialite who’s been slowly crumbling inside.  Danny Burstein shows he’s every bit as adept at drama as he is at comedy (I’m still not sure which is harder) as the broken-hearted Buddy.  And Bernadette Peters gives a tremendously interesting performance as Sally.  She may not look as faded as Sally as supposed to, but she still appears every bit as fragile.   Standing out among the large ensemble are Mary Beth Peil as Solange, Jayne Houdishell as Hattie, Terri White as Stella, and Elaine Paige as Carlotta.  Special mention should also go to the younger ensemble members who float spectrally across the catwalks, and to the positively luscious twenty-eight piece orchestra below the stage.

The women brought the house down with "Who's That Woman?"

There’s one last thing that I wanted to mention about this production of Follies, because it really caught my interest.  The score for Follies contains some of Sondheim’s more legendary songs, songs which have been performed since by any number of vocalists.  Two in particular, Phyllis’ furious “Could I Leave You” and Carlotta’s defiant “I’m Still Here”, are both musically and lyrically outstanding.  Yet it seems that Eric Schaeffer’s choice as director has been to put the onus on the latter over the former.  He has directed Jan Maxwell to treat “Could I Leave You” as simply a continuation of the no-holds-barred argument between Phyllis and Ben which precedes it, and has Elaine Paige nimbly tripping over the rhythms of “I’m Still Here” with a lounge-y, devil-may-care attitude.  As such, your first impression is that Maxwell appears to be racing through “Could I Leave You”, while Paige appears to have at times forgotten the next verse of “I’m Still Here”.  Schaeffer hasn’t directed them to perform these musical numbers so much as to inhabit them.  It’s a bold choice.  I’m still deciding whether or not it worked (especially when considering that both ladies, especially Elaine Paige, have solid voices that would be better showcased in a more straightforward approach), but it was interesting to see that the director made his choice and stuck with it.

For these geeky reasons and more, I recommend Follies to you, dear readers.  Get in while you can; it’s a limited engagement through early next year.

~ T

On Stage: “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”

Yes.  It’s true.  I saw it.

Last Tuesday, co-worker Chris and I were treated with complimentary tickets to Broadway’s most infamous production, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.  For those unfamiliar with the fabled history of the project, Spider-Man swung on to Broadway last fall without the benefit of an out-of-town try-out, buoyed by its celebrity creative team (director Julie Taymor and musicians Bono and The Edge of legendary rock band U2) and an heretofore unheard of $65 million budget.  It was slated to open in time for Christmas.  What happened instead was a series of creative conflicts, unbelievably bad word-of-mouth from preview audiences, and multiple accidents that hurt the show’s actors as well as its reputation.  Opening night was repeatedly delayed.  Finally, New York theater critics decided to uniformly break one of the cardinal rules of theatrical journalism–reviewing a show before opening–and gleefully reported to their readers that what was playing in the Foxwoods Theater on 42nd Street was so awful that it almost had to be seen to be believed.  Taymor was fired and the show shuttered its doors, at the cost of $1.3 million per week, to go back to the drawing board.  It re-opened mere weeks ago, billing itself as “newly re-imagined”.  So it was that I took in Spider-Man 2.0.  And was it, in fact, as bad as you’ve heard?

Have I seen more disappointing shows?  Certainly.  But have I seen worse shows?  No.  Simply no.  Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark will now (and forever, God willing) hold the distinction of being the worst Broadway show I have ever seen.

Where exactly shall I begin?  The soundest structural piece in this condemnable, slanting crack house of a musical is actually the plot, which sticks close to the origin story of Peter Parker and Spider-Man as told in Stan Lee’s famous comic books…with one large, intrusive exception.  Ms. Taymor put her own spin on the tale (awful pun intended) by linking Peter’s journey to that of Arachne, the seamstress of Greek mythology who is transformed into the world’s first spider by the goddess Athena.  Functioning as something of a guardian angel, Arachne (played by the permanently airborne T.V. Carpio), accomplishes only one thing: derailing the progression of Peter’s story.  It would have probably saved the creative team unnecessary stress and spending had Arachne been thrown out along with Taymor herself.  Instead, we’re forced to endure no fewer than three of her wailing, whining Enya-esque interruptions.

Let me be clear to specify that while the plot may not be terrible, the book–that is, the dialogue and scene structure that is used to bring life to and advance that plot–is laughably amateur.  On paper, this would read like fan fiction written by a high schooler with a mild learning disability.  As performed by the cast, these pages, better suited for mopping up one’s own hindquarters after a particularly diarrhetic dump, are done no extra favors.  None of the actors have a presence of their own or any chemistry with each other.  They also, by and large, lack that crucial component that most working Broadway actors seem to have: visible talent.

As for the songs, they fall into two categories.   Half of them all sound the same, reminiscent of pieces of U2’s later, lesser catalog of music.  The other half all sound like “Where the Streets Have No Name”.  None of them could ever hope to be stuck in your head days later, particularly not when performed by a cast as weakly voiced as this one.  Reeve Carney, the young man playing Peter Parker (and who I am sure was born with a far less teen soap opera-friendly moniker than his current one), seems to have won the role because out of all the aspiring twinks with stars in their eyes, he was the one who did the most convincing Bono impression.  But the rasping voice of middle-aged Bono sounds totally wrong coming out of an awkward high schooler.  It sounds even worse when that voice barely reaches past the eighth row of the orchestra.  Peter’s climactic moment of self-realization was less of a triumph and more of a shitty American Idol audition.  Jennifer Damiano, a bland and unassuming actress tasked with playing the vivacious and ambitious Mary Jane, is equally lackluster with her vocals.  You just might not notice it as much because she doesn’t get as many.

Going the extra mile in trying to single-handedly sculpt this staggering, shapeless pile of dog shit into  something approaching tolerable entertainment is Patrick Page as Dr. Norman Osborn.  With Doc Brown’s hair and Foghorn Leghorn’s voice, Page chews every inch of the production’s suffocating scenery as the good doctor gone bad.  Once transformed into the villainous Green Goblin (by means of unintentionally side-splitting set pieces, props, and stage direction), Page slums it with the same campy, self-satirizing shtick he employed as another emerald-skinned ne’er-do-well: the title character in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a production that actually could have imparted volumes of wisdom to Spider-Man‘s creative team on how to properly adapt a beloved if flimsy cartoon.

But my biggest gripe with Spider-Man is not the awful writing, the embarrassing vocals, or the groan-inducing performances.  It’s with the design.  I assume that the bulk of that $65 million budget went towards the intense aerial choreography; and yes, the web-slinging, mid-air action sequences are impressive.  But if I wanted to see that shit, I’d go to Universal Studios, for fuck’s sake.  This is Broadway, damn it, and once Peter Parker puts his pajama-clad feet back on the ground, there is no ignoring the fact that he’s standing in front of a set that looks like it was made out of cardboard, on a stage crowded with props and pieces that are infuriating in their cheapness.  Peter’s opponent in his first fight is a surprisingly immobile, nine foot tall, inflatable WWF action figure.   Dr. Osborn’s physical transformation is rendered by a faceless, pinwheeling Ken doll strung through with blinking Christmas lights.  And I don’t even know that I can explain the giant two-dimensional baby cut-out that fell from the proscenium.

This is to say nothing of the costumes, which seem to have been gathered from innumerable Broadway productions of decades past.  If I were deaf–well, primarily, I would have been spared hearing this awful score–but if I were deaf, I would have no visual cue as to when this story takes place, because the costume designs are all over the place.  Peter’s classmates at the fictional and lazily named Midtown High are dressed like dancers and fly girls from In Living Color, from their flat-top hair down to their parachute pants.  The staff at Dr. Osborn’s laboratory would fit right in to a Mystery Science Theater worthy Cold War science fiction film, with their genderless silver tunics.  The offices of newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson are staffed by secretaries at typewriters–motherfucking typewriters–who peer down at their keypads over cat-eye glasses, beehive bouffants carefully balanced on their heads.  What the fuck?

I’ve already expended too much time reliving this theatrical nightmare.  I can’t imagine there’s any more to say.  Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a cheap, careless, amateur abortion of a musical that, if there were any justice in this world, would bring the era of the adapted musical to an immediate, permanent end.

You, sir, should be squashed.

~ T

On Stage: “Sister Act”

Last Wednesday, I skipped kickball to take advantage of complimentary tickets to Broadway’s latest movie-to-musical adaptation, Sister Act.  Was it worth missing our first win of the season?  Almost.

Based on the hit Whoopi Goldberg comedy, the  musical of Sister Act adheres almost completely to its source material, save for one smart, significant change.  The tale of Deloris Van Cartier, the fish-out-of-water in a loaves-and-fishes crowd, is not set in the present day west coast, but in late 1970s Philadelphia.  This revision has allowed composer Alan Menken, the patron saint of Disney musicals, to craft a score of disco, R&B, and gospel-flavored hits that occasionally and spectacularly soar.

It should come as no surprise that it’s the numbers with Deloris and the nuns that are the most rocking, but the other numbers could have kept pace if their lyrics, by Glenn Slater, had not been so tongue-in-cheek and self-referential.  Slater should have taken his characters’ own words to heart: sing from the heart.

The major thing holding Sister Act back from breaking through from “good” to “great” is its book, written by Bill and Cherri Steinkellner, with additional material by Douglas Carter Beane.  The Steinkellners seemed to have relied too much on the assumption that Broadway audiences already know the story, because the first fifteen minutes are a hurried, harried mess.  I’ve read and watched other works of Mr. Beane’s, so for me, his jokes stood out like a sore thumb.  The guy who wrote something as post-modernly flippant as Xanadu shouldn’t have been called upon to bolster a musical that’s trying to stick to the old school mission of imparting some kind of emotional wisdom.

The cast is led by Pattina Miller, who ably steps into Whoopi’s habit as Deloris, the déclassé disco diva.  Miller plays her strong and sassy, and has a big pop-friendly voice that was a treat from the orchestra, but may have been less impressive in the mezzanine above.  Victoria Clark plays the stodgy Mother Superior.  Known for her more serious and dramatic roles, Clark enjoys laying Mother Superior’s sarcasm on thick and her zingers are timed perfectly.  She has a gorgeous voice, but one more suited to Andrew Lloyd Webber than Alan Menken.  Menken did his best, giving her two solo numbers, but neither was particularly memorable.  The trio of nuns most welcoming to Deloris’ new style of worship (Sisters Mary Robert, Mary Patrick, and Mary Lazarus) are portrayed by Marla Mindele, Sarah Bolt, and Audrie Neenan (respectively).  All three stick close to the templates laid out by their cinematic forbears.

The men of Sister Act are mere supporting players.  Deloris’ gangster boyfriend is played by Kingsley Leggs, with plenty of charm but not enough menace.  His trio of henchmen (John Treacy Egan, Caesar Samayoa, and Demond Green) take up far too much of the show’s time with their antics.  Green, who looks like and seems to be playing a younger Tracy Morgan, was particularly distracting.  Chester Gregory plays Eddie Souther, the police officer tasked with keeping Deloris safe.  He’s an outstanding song and dance man, and it was too bad he only got one number of his own (though it did include one of the most awesome quick-changes I’ve ever seen on Broadway).  Finally, there’s Fred Applegate as the fatherly Monsignor O’Hara, who is among the first to giddily embrace Deloris’ injection of soul into the Queen of Angels parish.

All of these actors and actresses are well-directed by Jerry Zaks.  They run, sway, shimmy, and slide through sets expertly designed by Klara Zieglerova, clad in simple but smart costumes by Lez Brotherston, all while being brilliantly lit by Natasha Katz’s eclectic lighting scheme.

I’ll put Sister Act in the same “go if you can get cheap tickets” category as I did Anything Goes.  The choreography here is less impressive, but the story and music are fresher.  Here’s just a taste of one of the better numbers.

~ T

On Stage: “Anything Goes”

Last Saturday I made what I am embarrassed to say was my first trip to a Broadway theater this calendar year.  Given the crop of shows that lingered on the Great White Way this winter, you can’t exactly blame me.  But spring has sprung in the theater district, if nowhere else, and a bevy of new productions are opening like so many flowers.

With some faithful theater-going friends at my side, I took in a matinée performance of the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of the oft-revived Anything Goes.  I’m pleased to report that the show, much like the ocean liner on which its action is set, sails smoothly under the stable though static direction of Kathleen Marshall.

Anything Goes is an old-fashioned musical of the highest order.  Its pliable plot is a jumble of missed connections, mistaken identities, and star-crossed romances.  Its book is filled with wink-wink puns and barbless innuendo.  It traffics in archetype and stereotype just up to the point of being insulting to modern audiences.  Suffice to say, it’s harmless though not purposeless entertainment; it’s purpose just so happens to be nothing more than to entertain the hell out of you for two or so hours.

The show does so almost solely on the strength of its score, written by one of the early 20th century masters, Cole Porter.  The original score was solid enough.  It included the invigorating title number, the electrifying gospel anthem “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”, and the playful “You’re The Top”, which is like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for the Depression Era set.  But over the show’s many revisions and revivals, a number of Porter’s other songs have been added to the piece.  This production follows the set list concocted for the Lincoln Center revival in the late 1980s, which means we get the delightful “De-Lovely” and bawdy “Buddy, Beware” as well.  Porter’s songs lend themselves to exciting and eye-catching movement, and Kathleen Marshall outdoes herself also acting as the production’s choreographer.  It’s clear after the outrageous tap dancing at the end of Act I that this is where he strengths truly lie.

Hoofing their way through the show is a cast that appears to be having a ball.  Their enthusiasm almost makes up for the lack of charisma or chemistry.  As the show’s central charming rogue, Colin Donnell makes a decent debut, even if he lacks the magnetism the book suggests his character possesses.  His love interest is played by Laura Osnes, she of Marshall’s infamous Grease revival.  She’s not much of an actress, but is a surprisingly accomplished dancer.  The two Fred-and-Ginger-esque dances Donnell and Osnes share radiate more emotion and sex appeal than any of their dialogue together.  Adam Godley plays the bumbling British bachelor keeping them apart with solid timing and rubbery physicality, but his voice is too weak to not be distracting, even in a hammy role such as this.  Also chewing the scenery are John McMartin as a blue-blood with a very high blood-alcohol content, and Arrested Development‘s Jessica Walter, playing yet another manic matriarch.  Broadway legend Joel Grey plays Moonface Martin, a hapless gangster who is more Droopy Dog than Dillinger.  He’s endearing, but in playing it so meek, the already diminutive Grey almost disappears.  I adored Jessica Stone, who played Moonie’s man-crazed moll, Erma.  She easily stole the show at least three times, and her number late in Act II was a welcome surprise.

Standing head and shoulders above them all, literally and figuratively, is Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney, the sultry saver of souls who couldn’t possibly practice what she preaches.  Foster is like the beautiful maiden’s likeness mounted on the prow of an ancient vessel; she leads this ship and its passengers fearlessly into the deep.  Her voice is big and strong, her delivery is dry and droll, and her dancing is exact and eye-popping (propelled, as it is, by the two longest legs on Broadway).

Sutton Foster and her version of Hell's Angels

Anything Goes isn’t perfect, but Marshall and her cast can’t be faulted for starting with some of the shallowest material in the theater canon.  Some jokes don’t land and some performances don’t click, but you rather quickly forget about that when you see 35 people pounding the crap out of the floorboards in their tap shoes.  Honestly, if you can get cheaper seats up in the mezzanine, the last ten minutes of the first act and the first ten minutes of the second are worth the price of admission.

~ T

On Stage: “Women On the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown”

What was intended to be my first theater outing of 2011 wound up becoming my last of 2010.  Lincoln Center’s Women On the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown announced that it would be closing before its previously announced end date in late January.  Despite chopping weeks off their run, I was able show up at the theater one night between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and buy a ticket on the spot.

I knew nothing of the Pedro Almodovar film upon which the musical was based.  I was attending solely on the show’s theatrical pedigree.  Directed by Bartlett Sher, who helmed Lincoln Center’s outstanding South Pacific, with a script and score by Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek, the duo behind the vastly underrated musical adaptation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and featuring a cast of Broadway stars so plentiful and luminous that they could keep the entire theater district in perpetual daylight, this was one of my most anticipated trips to the theater to date.

You can only imagine, then, the depths of my disappointment.

I’m still not even sure how to explain what went wrong here.  It just seemed that from the moment the curtain went up, this show had no idea what to make of itself.  The people involved were still, even in these final performances, valiantly trying to figure it out.  As such, there were jarring clashes in tone and approach, which did nothing but highlight the hollowness of the story.

As for what that story was, Women On the Verge… centers on Pepa, a Spanish actress of minor fame who is abandoned by her lover and occasional co-star, Ivan.  Over the course of the next 48 hours, Pepa’s attempts to reunite with Ivan before he departs Madrid lead her to encounters with his estranged wife, his buttoned-up son, the son’s joyless fiancee, a double-crossing lawyer, and a particularly ditzy and desperate friend, who may be unintentionally harboring a terrorist.  There’s seduction, gunplay, and even drug-laden soup.  It had all the makings of a farce of the highest, gut-busting order.  But sadly–oh, so sadly–the show barely had any life.

The absurdly talented cast of "Women On the Verge...". What happened?

I mostly blame Mr. Lane and Mr. Yazbek.  Lane’s script gave so little to anchor on to with his protagonists.  There’s a message of female empowerment to be gleamed from the action in Women On the Verge…, but Lane never gave it legs.  Mr. Yazbek’s music and lyrics were no better.  The tunes were a bad attempt at generalized Latin styles, with lyrics that were distractingly crass.  It worked for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a comedy that by its very title let you know what kind of humor to expect.  But Women On the Verge is a different animal, leading me to believe Mr. Yazbek might only have one style to call his own.

Mr. Sher is also at fault here, as he and his design team apparently did not know how to fill the surprisingly expansive space of the Belasco Theater.  The scant set pieces were swallowed up by the far-reaching and underutilized upstage area, and the graphics and videos that served as backdrops along the rear-most scrim were distracting and, with two exceptions, stylistically and narratively unnecessary.

Doing their best with what they’d been given was a cast that deserved so much better.  If you’re a Broadway fan, these names will mean something to you: Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Danny Burstein, and Patti LuPone.  I mean, honestly…  Throw in Bernadette Peters, Sutton Foster, and Nathan Lane, and that’s like the Ocean’s 11 of Broadway.  I am a fan of all of these performers, and it was crushing not to have them delivering material that was blowing me away.  Benanti fared best, stealing the show with an increasingly wild patter song called “Model Behavior”; but that’s because she took the shallowness of her character and ran with it, right into the realm of stereotype.  Sherie Rene Scott, as Pepa, and Patti LuPone, as Ivan’s slighted wife, should have be giving heart to the piece, but they just couldn’t.  Gamely filling out the supporting cast were Nikka Graff Lanzarone, de’Adre Aziza, Mary Beth Peil, and original American Idol loser Justin Guarini, who deserves recognition for holding his own alongside these seasoned vets.

It’s really too bad that Women On the Verge… turned out this way.  There was abundant potential for this to be a major hit, and somehow the fire just never lit.

~ T

On Stage: “The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival”

One of the most popular and well-received productions in this year’s Fringe Festival was The Hurricane Katrina Comedy Festival, written by Rob Florence and directed by Dann Fink.  Given its success, it was chosen for the Fringe Encores series and was granted an additional block of performances at the Lucille Lortel Theater.  I was able to get to its closing performance on Sunday night.

Despite the seemingly offensive paradox of its title, THKCF is actually a sensitive piece of theatrical docudrama that does right by its subjects.  It treats the victims and the survivors of this disaster with honor and integrity.  A collection of monologues, all true stories told to playwright Florence, the play chronicles the unfolding catastrophe through different perspectives: those who stayed and those who fled, those who were eager to return and those who never looked back, those who hoped for the best and those who were filled with bitter disappointment.

Fink’s cast of five take on multiple identities throughout the show, but they each have one constant they return to.  Maureen Silliman’s is Judy, a quirky older woman who casts her lot with some unusual neighbors.  Philip Hoffman’s is Sheldon, a tour guide who is among the first to understand how quickly and steeply the stakes are rising.  Gary Cowling plays Rodney, the consummate Southern gentleman who is determined to keep his cool while evacuating with his fussy octogenarian parents.  Evander Duck plays the simple-minded Raymond, who has perhaps the most unique assessment of the disaster.  Arguably the heart of the piece is Lizan Mitchell as Antoinette, the bar-owning, shotgun-toting grandma who defends her home, her property, and her granddaughter with a cool determination that just barely sees them through.

The sets and lighting were minimal, leaving appropriate emphasis on the performances.  Florence keeps each of these competing narratives fresh in your mind at all times.  Fink gets polished, honest, and engaging performances out of all of his cast members.  THKCF might be too small to make it to Broadway, but in regional venues–particularly down south–I think this show could have quite a life.

~ T