Hedwig and the Angry Inch Reviews and Photographs: Neil Patrick Harris Rocks Broadway In A Dress

Neil Patrick Harris stars as an “internationally ignored” East German transgender rock singer in the first Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask that began life 20 years ago in a downtown drag-punk club called Squeezebox.

The musical’s name is also the name of the band, whose lead singer, Hedwig (Harris), tells his over-the-top story in some dozen rock songs and the monologues in-between. Harris, best-known for his roles on the TV shows “Doogie Howser  MD” and “How I Met Your Mother” and for his hosting duties on the Tony and Emmy Awards, has performed in three previous Broadway productions.the last time in Sondheim’s “Assassins,” which opened April 22, 2004 ten years ago to the day that “Hedwig” is opening at the Belasco.

What did the critics think?

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “a pile of toxic swill..pointless androgynous freak show …Mr. Harris has many talents, but I have no idea what attracted him to this creepfest, staged by Michael Mayer with a G-string sledgehammer.”

Ben Brantley, New York Times:  “Do not be alarmed by recent reports that Neil Patrick Harris, an irresistibly wholesome television presence, has fallen deeply and helplessly into the gap that separates men from women, East from West, and celebrity from notoriety. There’s no need to fear for his safety, much less his identity. Quite the contrary. Playing an “internationally ignored song stylist” of undefinable gender in“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Mr. Harris is in full command of who he is and, most excitingly, what he has become with this performance. That’s a bona fide Broadway star, the kind who can rule an audience with the blink of a sequined eyelid…while Mr. Harris may let you see him sweat as he struts, slithers and leaps through this shamelessly enjoyable show, rousingly directed by Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”), he never makes it feel like heavy lifting.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: Director Michael Mayer has been twice blessed. He has an undervalued score — some of the 10 songs here like “Wicked Little Town,” ”Origin of Love” and “Wig in a Box” deserve to be on iPods everywhere — and a stunning leading man who is willing to eat cigarettes and lick the stage ….Rarely does a role fit a performer so well. Harris is funny, twisted, poignant, outrageous, bizarre, silly and very, very human.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: The screaming starts when a bespangled Neil Patrick Harris parachutes onstage in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and doesn’t stop until he’s back in his dressing room. That’s the kind of rock-star performance he gives in this spectacular revival… It’s astonishing how polished a physical performance Harris gives. Channeling his inner Rockette, along with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed by way of the Ramones, he carries off some advanced dance and acrobatic moves, while showing a lot of shapely leg.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: “Harris is beyond fabulous, holds nothing back and plays it any way but safe in Michael Mayer‘s exhilarating production…As to the other question of how the scrappy, subversive 1998 cult performance piece about gender identity, transformation and pop mythology would sit on Broadway, the show, its protagonist and her pulse-pounding band tear up the Belasco stage like they own it. If screaming rock concert-style veneration is not your thing, stay home.”

Elizabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: 3 out of 4 stars:  In cutoff denim shorts, teetering platforms and gigantic blond hair, he relentlessly prowls the stage, occasionally lunging into the audience for a lap dance or two. But it all feels a little too rehearsed, and Harris doesn’t look entirely comfortable clambering over the bombed-out set. Only when he finally clicks with the material — as on the heartbreaking “Wig in a Box,” about the process of becoming someone else — is the show suddenly worth the effort he’s poured into it.

Matthew Murray, Talkin’ Broadway: “With Hedwig less a has-been on the way out than a hasn’t-yet-been on the way up, the emotional surge that should drive the show is absent.. [Neil Patrick Harris's] aching sweetness and deft ad-libbing about everything from drum fills to David Belasco’s ghost draw you in….For what’s supposed to be an acquired taste, this time around [Hedwig is] certainly content with being as bland as her surroundings allow.”

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: A- “Purists may balk at Harris’ punk-lite vocals on Trask’s infectiously rockin’ score — he’s less Iggy, more pop — and his threats to ”cut you, bitch” come off with more of a wink than actual menace. But in a bravura performance, the actor proves the perfect instrument for Hedwig’s transition into world-class superstardom. He’s honed his showmanship on four Tony Awards gigs, of course. But he’s looser here, and lewder, more spontaneous and quick on his pumps.”

Matt Windham, AMNY, 3 1/2 stars out of four: “While no one can doubt Harris’ fierce theatricality, strong voice and expert handling of the comedy aspects, his Hedwig has yet to come together as a fully-developed, vulnerable character. But given the role’s extreme complexity and grueling physical demands, that’s more than understandable. Chances are that his performance will improve as the run continues. The new setting affects the show’s credibility. Would a strange, struggling performer really be invited to perform on a Broadway stage? But as it is, this remains a wildly enjoyable production of one of the most exciting and inventive rock musicals of all time.  

David Cote, Time Out New York, five stars out of five:  “Harris makes Broadway rock harder than it ever has before….”


Brendan Lemon, Financial Times, four stars out of five: “Audiences….have come to see Harris, a major American television star owing to How I Met Your Mother, give glam rock a workout. But the evening, even with the longueurs of its storytelling, manages to make us think about not just gender-based aspects of love but also the cold war, cheap American pop music, and the price of fame.

 

Here are photographs from the production. Click on any one to see it enlarged.

 

 

 

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The Velocity of Autumn Review: Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella Fight, Age

With the best title of any Broadway play this season, two always-impressive actors as the cast, and a theme of loss and aging that hits close to home, “The Velocity of Autumn” is the sort of play you want to root for, even when its premise is preposterous, and its outcome predictable.
Estelle Parsons plays Alexandra, a 79-year-old painter who has barricaded herself in her Park Slope brownstone, and filled her parlor with Molotov Cocktails, holding her father’s ancient zippo lighter at the ready, although as Eric Coble’s play begins, she has fallen asleep.
Suddenly, we see a man, a pony-tailed aging hippie, climbing up the mammoth tree outside her home, and entering through the window.
Alexandra wakes up and screams.
“Hey mom,” the intruder greets her.
Chris (Stephen Spinella), who is also an artist (albeit working in a shoe store) and the youngest of Alexandra’s three children, has been estranged from the family for decades, but he has come for a visit, at the urging of his two siblings, to try to convince his mother to stop threatening to blow up the block.
She is doing so because her children are worried about her lapses, and wonder whether she might not be better off in a nursing home. If Alexandra is feeling old, it is all the more so because of the way her children treat her.
In the conversation that follows over 90 intermission-less minutes, we get some insights that feel spot-on about what it feels like to be aging – the indignities, the unexplained aches, the constant surprises, the hidden benefits that one could do without: “One of the few pleasures, I have to say, of growing old,” Alexandra says wryly at one point, “is that I can re-read some of my favorite mysteries and still have no idea who’s going to do it.”
In “The Velocity of Autumn,” we sense who’s not going to do it within the first few minutes. The playwright’s plot device can’t stand up to even a few seconds of scrutiny. But at his best, Coble, making his Broadway debut, offers a line or an exchange odd or intriguing enough to feel like just compensation for the missing dramatic tension. Chris’s being gay was not a “dealbreaker” to his father, the widow Alexandra explains. “It just made him uncomfortable. Like Gorgonzola cheese. … Your father was a big cheese fan. You must remember that. ‘Milk’s bid for immortality’. That’s what he used to say.” What follows is a long, loopy story about the father’s unfortunate encounters with Gorgonzola cheese.
“So my being gay was like distasteful cheese to him,” Chris says after a moment.
“I’d say so, yes.”
“I have no idea how to respond to that.”
Spinella, who made his remarkable Broadway debut as Prior Walter in Angels in America some two decades ago, is enough of a pro to make the most of Chris’s monologues full of yearning and regrets, and he seems the right choice to match up with Estelle Parsons, whose most indelible performances include her roles in the movie Bonnie and Clyde, and in the play August: Osage County, one of some 30 Broadway productions in which she’s appeared over more than half a century. She can turn any part into something worth watching, and she certainly can handle a woman who’s fighting to keep from falling apart. That indeed is the underlying irony behind “The Velocity of Autumn.” Parsons is actually older than her character by seven years, but we never quite believe she’s capable of falling apart.

The Velocity of Autumn

Booth Theater

by Eric Coble. Directed by Molly Smith. Scenic design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Linda Cho. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Sound design by Darron L. West.
Cast: Estelle Parsons, Stephen Spinella
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: 65 to 135

The Cripple of Inishmaan Review: Daniel Radcliffe Back on Broadway

Daniel Radcliffe

Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan on Broadway

 

There was no applause for Daniel Radcliffe when he first enters “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” the first and first-rate Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s harsh 1996 comedy. I’m sure the many Harry Potter fans in the audience would have applauded if given the chance, but director Michael Grandage’s staging discouraged such behavior – proof that a good director can hire a movie star without turning a play into a mere vehicle.

cripplelogoIt’s undeniable that Radcliffe is the marketing draw – the poster and Playbill cover show his face three times – and unlikely that this play, which has had two previous Off-Broadway productions, would now be on Broadway without his being in the cast. But it doesn’t take a Radcliffe fan to appreciate his physically impressive performance as the character everybody else calls Cripple Billy. Radcliffe persuasively inhabits the cruelly deformed body with which Billy was born, and subtly shows the sensitive intelligence bombarded daily by the even crueler behavior of his neighbors.

Many a theatergoer is sure to find more than just Radcliffe’s performance winning, providing they are able to make two adjustments. First, we must adjust to the thick ladling of Irish accents. Then we have to submit to the dark, violent and belittling sense of humor of the playwright, who makes every character blunt-speaking and eccentric to the point of caricature. One character talks to stones, another likes to throw eggs at people, a third is obsessed with telescopes and sweets, another is trying to kill his mother with drink, yet another likes to stare at cows. They are all, as we might say by the end of the play, a wee daft.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Is this because they all live on Inishmaan, the most isolated of the three actual remote Aran islands in Galway Bay? The play takes place in 1934, when in real life the Hollywood filmmaker Robert Flaherty traveled to the islands and recruited locals to make “Man from Aran,” a feature film disguised as a documentary. When the island’s gossip Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) spreads the news, 17-year-old Cripple Billy decides this is his chance to escape the island. He hatches a plan that will enable him to attend the auditions, although it upsets several of those closest to him. Billy is the one who likes to stare at cows. He also likes to read. It’s not clear which behavior that his two aunties find odder. Aunty Kate (Ingrid Craigie) and Aunty Eileen (Gillian Hanna), proprietors of the island’s only shop – mostly stocked with peas and sweets — have been caring for Billy since his parents drowned when he was an infant.

Kate: A fool waste of time that is, looking at cows.

Eileen: If it makes him happy, sure, what harm? There are a hundred worse things to occupy a lad’s time than cow watching. Things would land him up in hell.

Kate: Kissing lasses.

Eileen: Kissing lasses.

Kate: Ah, no chance of that with poor Billy.

Eileen: Poor Billy’ll never be getting kissed. Unless it was be a blind girl

Kate: Or Jim Finnegan’s daughter.
Eileen: She’d kiss anything.

Kate: She’d kiss a bald donkey.

Eileen: She’d kiss a bald donkey. And she’d still probably draw the line at Billy. Poor Billy.

The key to the humor of this and many similar passages is in its credible, deadpan delivery, and the mastery of its rhythms. It is hard to picture a better ensemble than the nine-member cast that Grandage has put together.

Although he is loathe to admit it to anybody, Billy would love to be kissed by Slippy Helen McCormick (Sarah Greene) – so-called because, while she works for the egg-man, she is just as likely to throw the eggs as to deliver them. Helen is the meanest person in all of Inishmaan.

“It doesn’t hurt to be too kind-hearted,” Helen’s dim brother Bartley McCormick (Conor MacNeill) says to her.

“Uh-huh,” she replies. “Does this hurt?” – and she pinches him, twists his arm, then breaks some eggs on his forehead.

Helen is the most violent of the characters in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” but, hers is not the only violence. Christopher Oram’s Depression-era costumes and rotating sets full of cracked stone walls and broken-down wood furniture, as well as Paule Constable’s stark lighting,  help underscore the bleakness of their environment.

Still, Cripple is among the least gruesome of the plays by McDonagh (who is probably better known now as the director and screenwriter of the film “Seven Psychopaths.”) McDonagh’s plays include the very bloody “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” as well as “The Beauty Queen of Lenane,” and, his last foray on Broadway, in 2010, A Behanding in Spokane, with its severed hands littering the stage. That was the only one of his plays set in the United States, and its failure was instructive. “The Cripple of Inishmaan” has a plot of sorts, made up mostly of a series of twisty revelations and teases that play with the audience’s expectations, and a tentative resolution that could be called bittersweet, if it were somewhat less bitter and somewhat more sweet. But, although born and raised in London (albeit of Irish parentage), what McDonagh most has to offer in this play is the culture and characters and context and above all the language of the Irish.

 The Cripple of Inishmaan

At the Cort Theater

Directed by Michael Grandage

Scenic and costume design by Christopher Oram, lighting design by Paule Constable, sound design by Alex Baranowski

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Billy), Ingrid Craigie (Kate Osbourne), Pádraic Delaney (Babbybobby), Sarah Greene (Helen McCormick), Gillian Hanna (Eileen Osbourne), Gary Lilburn (Doctor), Conor MacNeill (Bartley McCormick), Pat Shortt (Johnnypateenmike) and June Watson (Mammy).

Running time: About two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Tickets: $27 to $152

The Cripple of Inishmaan is set to run through June 20, 2014

Act One Review: Moss Hart’s Beloved Theater Memoir Brought to Broadway Stage

“Act One,” the  well-meaning stage adaptation of the beloved theatrical memoir by Moss Hart, aims to explore the intoxicating appeal of the theater, but it instead demonstrates the theater’s mysterious alchemy in ways that it surely did not intend. Nearly every element of this play promises sparkling entertainment – the terrific source, the experienced creative team, a huge and hugely talented cast that features Tony Shalhoub, Santino Fontana, Chuck Cooper and Andrea Martin, even an elaborate three-tiered set that rotates – but somehow “Act One” doesn’t even begin to deliver on that promise until, ironically, Act II.

Written and directed by James Lapine, Sondheim’s frequent collaborator, as a way of celebrating his own three decades as a theater artist, the play uses some of Hart’s choice lines and presents many of the incidents from the book.

Three different actors portray Moss Hart at different stages of his life. Matthew Schechter is the child growing up in poverty in the Bronx in the early 1900s, whose love of the theater is inspired by his  crazy aunt Kate (Andrea Martin.)

Santino Fontana plays the young man, forced to leave school in eighth grade to help support the family. His first job is in a smelly fur factory, but he is serendipitously hired as an office boy for a theatrical producer, who keeps on calling him Mouse. Hart has a series of theater-related jobs – more like adventures, one more improbable than the next. Still an office boy, he writes a play that his boss takes on the road aiming for Broadway, with disastrous results. At age 17, he debuts as an actor on Broadway, playing a 60-year-old man in “The Emperor Jones” by Eugene O’Neill, opposite the great (if often drunk) performer Charles Gilpin (Chuck Cooper.) That Broadway debut, however, did not launch his career as an actor; it ended it. From there he became a social director at a Catskills hotel – a world now gone, and one Hart writes about extensively in the memoir, but is here given just a single scene. (This is not a criticism; something had to go.)

But more than half of  “Act One” the play – as more than half of Hart’s memoir – is taken up with the lengthy process that resulted in Hart’s first big hit on Broadway, the comedy “Once in a Lifetime.”

Tony Shalhoub plays Moss Hart as the older adult (the age he wrote the memoir), and performs the duties of narrator. As with most of the actors in “Act One,” Shalhoub plays multiple roles. His two other parts are as Hart’s embittered immigrant father, and as Hart’s mentor, George S. Kauffman, who co-wrote “Once In A Lifetime.” Kaufman apparently shared many of the quirks of Shalhoub’s most beloved character, Monk. He washed his hands a lot, obsessed over pieces of lint on the rug. He also literally ran away whenever anybody tried to offer him heartfelt thanks. The scenes between Hart and Kaufman as they try to hammer out the script offer a liveliness and a lightness that are the most rewarding parts of the play.

There is plenty here to keep your attention. Beowulf Boritt’s set alone is a complicated contraption three stories tall, that seems always in motion, full of staircases and tenement apartments that spin around into rundown offices and theater balconies, and then that are transformed in the second act to plush offices and Kaufman’s elegant townhouse. The cast of some two dozen, most playing multiple parts, also seem always in motion as they populate scenes that unfold from 1914 to 1930.

Yes, there are some obvious missteps, such as Lapine’s choice to begin with the staging of a scene from Oscar Wilde’s “A Man of No Importance,” which he presents as the first play that Hart ever saw, at age 11. The scene doesn’t feel witty; it certainly doesn’t communicate why a boy would find it the stage so wondrous. At best, it’s confusing, and since we’re presented no context for this drawing room comedy, it seems pompous.

But many of the scenes are more or less faithful re-creations of moments in the memoir. On page, they are moving or amusing or otherwise delightful. And yet on stage, they seem mostly… informative.

It approaches something of a cruel irony that the second act of “Act One” focuses so extensively on how to fix the play-within-the-play, since surely the creative team was having some similar discussions about the play itself.  What is on stage most of the time seems…. respectful, as if striving above all for accuracy;  the earnest, straightforward scenes rarely capture the lively, passionate, slyly humorous tone Hart establishes in his memoir.

As I wrote in my profile of Santino Fontana, Moss Hart’s name is no longer widely known, but at the time he wrote Act One in 1959, he was one of the most celebrated men of the theater.  As a director, he won a Tony for  the original production of My Fair Lady. As a playwright, he won a Pulitzer  for You Can’t Take It With You, and gained great success with such evergreens as The Man Who Came To Dinner. As a book writer of musicals, he worked with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers; a play he wrote inspired Stephen Sondheim to create a musical adaptation with the same name, Merrily We Roll Along.  He wasn’t just a playwright and director. He produced  Camelot. He was even the co-owner of the Broadway theater (the Lyceum) where Born Yesterday debuted.  As if all that were not enough, Moss Hart also wrote the screenplays for the popular movies Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck, Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye,  and A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland.

None of this is in his memoir – which is why it’s called “Act One. ” The book, which was a number one bestseller when it was first published, takes the readers on a funny, hair-raising and often moving journey from Hart’s poverty-stricken childhood to his first big Broadway hit.

 The best thing to say about “Act One” the play is that it will remind those who have read  “Act One” the memoir just how charming it is, and it will inspire theatergoers who have not read it to get hold of that wonderful book

Act One

Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center

Written and directed by James Lapine, from the autobiography by Moss Hart; sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Ken Billington; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; music by Louis Rosen

Cast: Bill Army (Eddie Chodorov), Will Brill (David Allen/Dore Schary/George), Laurel Casillo (Roz/Mary), Chuck Cooper (Wally/Charles Gilpin/Max Siegel), Santino Fontana (Moss Hart), Steven Kaplan (Irving Gordon/Pianist), Will LeBow (Augustus Pitou/Jed Harris), Mimi Lieber (Lillie Hart/Helen), Charlotte Maier (Phyllis/May), Andrea Martin (Aunt Kate/Frieda Fishbein/Beatrice Kaufman), Deborah Offner (Belle/Mrs. Rosenbloom), Matthew Saldivar (Joseph Regan/Jerry), Matthew Schechter (Moss Hart/Bernie Hart), Tony Shalhoub (Moss Hart/Barnett Hart/George S. Kaufman), Bob Stillman (Priestly Morrison/Sam Harris/Pianist) and Amy Warren (Mrs. Henry B. Harris).

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

Act One is scheduled to run through June 15.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill Review: Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday

click on any photo to see it enlarged

Audra McDonald is the same age as the Billie Holiday she is depicting in the first Broadway production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a remarkable performance that transcends the two singers’ differences, which far outweigh such superficial similarities as age and race.

In her early 40’s, McDonald — the offspring of a solidly middle class family (both her parents educators) who became a Juilliard-trained opera soprano — has an ever-ascending career, with five Tony Awards (a number matched only by the 88-year-old Angela Lansbury and the late Julie Harris) and two Grammys.  She is embraced for her performances on stage, on screen, in the concert hall, on iTunes.

At the same age, Holiday, often called the world’s greatest jazz singer,  was appearing in a dive in North Philadelphia, strung out on drugs and all but abandoned by the public, a few months before she died in 1959. Only seven people reportedly attended the actual club performance that inspired playwright Lanie Robertson to write the play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” almost three decades ago.

Just looking at the photographs of Holiday in the period of the play show the challenge that a clean liver and radiant beauty like McDonald would have in depicting her. McDonald meets that challenge successfully — but a question remains: Why?

billie holiday 25

Billie Holiday near the end of her life

Over 90 intermission-less minutes, McDonald sings 15 of Holiday’s songs in Holiday’s distinctive style. Although she had no formal training as a singer, and had a limited vocal range of little more than an octave, Holiday, the abandoned daughter of jazz guitarist Clarence Holiday, had an innovative ear that turned her voice into a jazz instrument. Influenced equally by the Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records she heard as a child, she in turn influenced generations of singers that came after her. For this role, McDonald has adjusted her very different singing voice to resemble Holiday’s to an impressive degree.

McDonald doesn’t stop there. She effectively alters her speaking voice, even her posture, while presenting the monologues about Holiday’s life story that are presented to the audience as if random, rambling patter in-between the songs.

In turn witty, coarse, playful, angry, or matter of fact – and BHlastalways in a haze and a daze brought on by alcohol and drugs — McDonald’s Holiday tells us as if in passing about her rape at age 10; her prostitution at 13; the abusiveness of her first husband, trombonist Jimmy “Sonny” Monroe, who turned her on to heroin and her subsequent life-long/life-ending addiction; her imprisonment on drug charges; her cruel banning from New York City nightclubs because her felony conviction prevented her from acquiring the required “cabaret card.”  Even her successes as an artist provoke sad stories. One of her longest is about the bigotry she encountered while touring as the first African-American singer in an otherwise all-white big band, Artie Shaw’s; she talks of a maitress d’ in the South refusing to allow her to use the restaurant’s rest room, and calling her Miss Day. “Listen, honey, you have me confused.  I’m not Doris Day.  I’m Billie Holiday.  Lots of folks has said she and me resembles each other….”

Not all of what we hear is reliable information. Billie Holiday stopped touring with Artie Shaw in 1938, and Doris Day wasn’t well-known until 1945. One can charitably chalk up some of the insignificant errors in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” to the character Billie Holiday’s drug-addled memory, or to the real Holiday’s penchant for fabrication, as in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, but this one rests squarely with the playwright.

BillieHolidayinherprime

Billie Holiday during her prime

Only the producers can answer why this play is being revived now, just a few months after Dee Dee Bridgewater’s portrayal of Holiday in Stephen Stahl’s similar play “Lady Day” Off-Broadway, and it would probably take a sociologist to explain why so many shows continue to be built around the sad ends of great talents, such as the nearly unwatchable performance of Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow on Broadway just two years ago.

McDonald is more watchable, although she deteriorates before our eyes, because “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is much more of a genuine cabaret concert. She is backed by a competent trio:  Shelton Becton at piano, Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass. Only Becton has a speaking role, portraying Holiday’s music director and fiancé Jimmy Powers. James Noone’s set attempts, unsuccessfully, to turn the huge, 700-plus-seat Circle in the Square into an intimate club,  placing some two dozen small tables around the small stage. But little of this matters, when McDonald is singing. She shares with her subject the ability to translate feeling — even feelings of misery — into something glorious.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Circle in the Square
By Lanie Robertson
Directed by Lonyy Price
Scenic design by James Noone, costume design by Esosa, lighting design by Robert Wierzel, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, animal training William Berloni, musical arrangements by Tim Weil.
Cast: Audra McDonald, SheltonBecton, Roxie (that’s a dog.)

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is set to run through August 10, 2014.
Musical numbers:
I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone
When A Woman Loves a Man
What a Little Moonlight Can Do
Crazy He Calls Me
Pig Foot (And A Bottle of Beer)
Baby Doll
God  Bless The Child
Foolin’ Myself
Somebody’s On My Mind
Easy Livin’
Stange Fruit
Blues Break
T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I do
Don’t Explain/What a Little Moonlight Can Do
Deep Song

LadyDaysign

Bullets Over Broadway Reviews and Photographs

"Don't Speak!" Marin Mazzie shuts up Zach Braff in Woody Allen's Broadway musical Bullets Over Broadway

“Don’t Speak!” Marin Mazzie shuts up Zach Braff in Woody Allen’s Broadway musical Bullets Over Broadway

“Bullets Over Broadway,” based on Woody Allen’s 1994 movie about a novice playwright in the 1920s whose show is saved by a mobster, is opening tonight at the St. James Theater. Allen himself is not a novice; this is his sixth show on Broadway. But it is his first high profile musical. (His first and only other musical, in 1960, “A to Z,” lasted just 21 performances.) The new musical, using music from the period, marks Zach Braff’s Broadway debut

What do the critics think?

Ben Brantley, New York Times: “occasionally funny but mostly just loud new show…This production, directed in heavy italics by Susan Stroman and featuring a score of 1920s standards and esoterica, is inspired by Mr. Allen’s 1994 film of the same title. It features the same story line, most of the same characters and much of the same dialogue. Yet while the movie was a helium-light charmer, this all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing reincarnation is also all but charm-free….like being head-butted by linebackers. Make that linebackers in blinding sequins.”

Marilyn Stasio, Variety:  “Susan Stroman’s energetic direction almost compensates for a weak book and a few key miscastings in Woody Allen’s showbiz tuner.”

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: “The book is funny, the staging inventive, the cast outstanding, the sets and costumes satisfyingly slick. All that’s missing is a purpose-written score, in place of which we get period-true arrangements of pop songs of the 1920s and ’30s. Does that matter? It did to me—a lot—but I doubt that many other people will boggle over the absence of original songs from “Bullets Over Broadway.” Except for a flabby finale, it has the sweet scent of a box-office smash.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter:  There’s a ton of talent onstage in Bullets Over Broadway, evident in the leggy chorines who ignite into explosive dance routines, the gifted cast, the sparkling design elements and the wraparound razzle-dazzle of director-choreographer Susan Stroman‘s lavish production. So why does this musical, adapted by Woody Allen from his irresistible 1994 screen comedy about the tortured path of the artist, wind up shooting blanks? Flat where it should be frothy, the show is a watered-down champagne cocktail that too seldom gets beyond its recycled jokes and second-hand characterizations to assert an exciting new identity.

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times: Stroman’s staging moves with an effervescent fluidity — gangsters and flappers glide by, each in high Cotton Club style — yet the book isn’t as spry. Scenes that could be distilled into a few lines are belabored. For all the frenetic Jazz Age motion, the show feels dramatically sluggish. Something’s slightly out of whack with the performances. There’s some strong singing (Mazzie and Ziemba are vocal standouts), some expert clowning (Ashmanskas really knows how to chomp on a drumstick while selling a musical number) and some solid acting (Braff’s characterization has a few extra notes of authenticity), but only in Cordero’s performance do all three strengths triumphantly merge.

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: A- “From [the] rat-a-tat start to the utterly bananas finale, Susan Stroman produces one of the sprightliest and most effervescent new musicals in years….captures the screwball spirit of the time period while remaining entirely fresh and new”

Brendan Lemon, Financial Times, 3 stars out of 5: “Helen Sinclair, portrayed by the wonderfully self-assured Marin Mazzie, is one of the reasons to see Bullets Over Broadway, the new musical birthed by Woody Allen from his 1994 movie of the same title. The Broadway show makes a Sinclair-sized effort to persuade us of the value of early-20th-century songs shoehorned into a 1929 setting. The attempt is intermittently enjoyable, extremely well crafted by the director/choreographer Susan Stroman, and progressively unthrilling.”

Robert Kahn, NBCNewYork: terrific new screwball thriller from perfectionist duo Susan Stroman and Woody Allen….While not without some curious choices, “Bullets” is certainly the best of the musicals to open on Broadway so far this season, though make note … it’s a new musical with old music.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap Stroman gave us dancing elephant buttocks in “Big Fish” earlier this Broadway season. In “Bullets,” she gives us very large dancing hot dogs, and a vendor selling frankfurters of various lengths and girths. The number achieves a level of low vulgarity not encountered even among the non-stop obscenities of “The Book of Mormon.”

Matthew Murray, Talkin Broadway:  Whatever else it may be, Bullets Over Broadway certainly isn’t cohesive….The best Woody Allen comedies, Susan Stroman musicals, and revues are characterized by excitement, innovation, and integration. And these are just what Bullets Over Broadway, however strongly it evokes its individual components, lacks most.

Meanwhile, here are photographs from the production:

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

 

 

 

 

Poll: What Broadway Show Opening in April 2014 Are You Most Looking Forward To?

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Mothers and Sons Review: Tyne Daly as Andre’s Mother, Still Angry, Grieving

Tyne Daly

Tyne Daly

In “Mothers and Sons,” Terrence McNally’s well-acted, sometimes touching new play, Tyne Daly as Katharine Gerard pays an unexpected visit to Cal (Frederick Weller) the lover of her son Andre, who died long ago from AIDS.  To understand why McNally wrote “Mothers and Sons,” it is necessary to go back 25 years. To understand why it doesn’t quite work as a play on Broadway, one must linger at the curtain call.

In 1988, McNally wrote a brief monologue that he expanded two years later into “Andre’s Mother,” an episode of American Playhouse on TV starring Sada Thompson and Richard Thomas that showed a memorial service where Katharine Gerard, the dead man’s grieving mother, would not speak to Cal, Andre’s grieving lover.

McNally has decided to write something of a sequel for the stage.  Cal is now a money manager living in a beautiful apartment on Central Park West with his husband Will (Bobby Steggert) and their seven-year-old son Bud (Grayson Taylor.) Katharine is now a recent widow, and she has traveled from her home in Dallas on her way to a European vacation, and dropped by unannounced, having not seen nor communicated with Cal for decades, although she has kept in touch with Cal’s sister.

Over the 95 minutes of “Mothers and Sons,” McNally uses the four characters to explore a range of issues and updates.

There is much talk of the novelty and marvel of two men now being able to be wed. (In real life, it has been three years since New York State legally allowed same-sex marriage.)

“Andre and I were what people called boyfriends then,” Cal says. “Or partners. Lovers was another word people used. We didn’t like any of them. Boyfriends sounded like teenagers, partners sounded like a law firm and lovers sounded illicit. They all seemed insubstantial, inadequate. Then along came the new- but-old-and-obvious name for it. It’d been there all along: husband.”

There is talk of gay fatherhood. ‘The sight of two men hand in hand with a child waiting for the light to change in Central Park West rattles an occasional cage,” Will tells Katharine. “Gay dads still merit more than passing interest even in the metropolis known as Manhattan.”

There is an exploration of the guilt, grief, rage and resentment that comes with loss.

“It will never be ‘our’ loss,” Katharine snaps at Cal. “You lost a man and quickly found other men. I lost a son.”

There is also a consideration of homophobia — “After all these years, it still sickens me,” Katherine says about gay love – and whether there is any possibility of change and reconciliation.

All four performers are first-rate, and do what they can to make their words more than positions. But my trouble with this play seemed to come into focus at the curtain call for the performance I saw. Bobby Steggert made a plea to the audience to support Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS. This was not because the play was centered on a character who died of AIDS. Such solicitations from Broadway stages to fight AIDS are routine, and have been for more than two decades. Yet “Mothers and Sons,” despite its interludes of eloquence and feeling, too often seems written for a different audience – an audience in great need of enlightenment about AIDS and issues affecting gay people. The script is not so much preachy as obvious.

The character of Katharine offers some intriguing possibilities. Credit McNally for making her something more than just a bigoted yokel; she has a subscription to the New Yorker magazine, and in the infrequent times she is in New York, she stays at the Algonquin. She says “I don’t understand how my life turned out like this,” but what little we know about her life makes clear she has always been unhappy.

Would that McNally had explored Katharine or his other characters in “Mothers and Sons” with the same depth as the characters in some of the other plays in his 50-year career as a playwright – “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Master Class,” and his trio of pioneering plays about gay life, “The Lisbon Traviata”, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart”  and “Love! Valour! Compassion!”

Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons

Bobby Steggert, Frederick Weller, Grayson Taylor and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons

 

Les Miserables Review: Darkened Stages, Brilliant Broadway Cast

When the grim-faced actors in the revival of “Les Miserables” man the barricades and wave the red flag at the Imperial, to my surprise, I didn’t just see red.
For this third production on Broadway, the producers and directors have made choices that have won me over…mostly. It’s hard to call this Les Miz low-key exactly, but it is less of an assault on the senses.  Paule Constable has created a spare, focused lighting design, making most scenes seem dark and dusty. There are few special effects, but what is done is done well, especially the video projection of the dangerous sewers to which our hero escapes. Yes, there is the requisite stage smoke, and some bulky-looking sets that quickly move in and out by computer, but the backdrops are paintings based on sketches by Victor Hugo himself.  The 20-member orchestra plays the tuneful score without the 1980′s amped-up feel of the original; there is no longer any electronic keyboard. But, above all, what makes this “Les Miserables” appealing even to those of us who retain reservations about the show’s conception, are the performances. This is a cast full of familiar faces shown in a new light, and talent new to Broadway that will bowl you over.

Click on any photograph to enlarge it.

Don’t Ask Me What Your Sacrifice Was For

As I wrote when the film of Les Miserables was released at the end of 2012,  I was always struck by the song in Les Miz, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” when Marius sings “Don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.”  Don’t ask me either; they never bother to explain.

Hugo’s nineteenth century novel is a sprawling, complex work that centers on the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, then hounded by Javert, his prison guard and later a policeman, for breaking his parole. Like Charles Dickens, Hugo wrote “Les Miserables” as a blazing call to action against the injustices of the age. Hugo’s first words in the novel: “So long as the three great problems of the century – the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light – are unsolved…books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”

In condensing Hugo’s pointed 1,000-page novel into an operatic Broadway musical a century later, composer and librettist Claude-Michel Schönberg with co-librettist Alain Boublil and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer pumped up the volume and played down the substance. There is little attempt to connect the suffering of that era to our own, nor even to show how the oppressive conditions led to rebellion. The result struck me as largely laughable or insufferable. The “revolutionaries” come off like kids playing war, rebels without a cause, puffing up their chests and posing as toy heroes under melodramatic lighting.

There are still too many empty gestures on crowded stages in the Les Miz at the Imperial. But there is definitely a change. In past productions, I wasn’t moved when the pint-sized street urchin waves the flag before the parapet in support of the (unexplained) cause and then is shot multiple times, jerking his body dramatically at each shot, and then dying in a heap. I reacted by shaking my head and literally laughing.

This time I was moved.  In the earlier productions, a turntable revolved to bring us both behind the barricade and in front of it.  The turntable is gone now. We only see the revolutionaries behind the barricades. Little Gavroche (Gaten Matarazzo in the performance I saw) climbs to the top of the barricade, there is the sound of a single shot, a bright light, a frozen moment, and then he falls. That’s it. A comrade then lifts his fallen body.  It works.

Stellar performances

Caissey Levy, who was splendid in Ghost and as Sheila in Hair, gives a fine if unexceptional performance as Fantine, a role that is close to thankless for two reasons. First, her travails are so over the top that they border on the camp.  Second, her songs are so popular that it’s a challenge to make them your own.  A search for “I Dreamed A Dream” on iTunes yields hundreds upon hundreds of recordings, not just Susan Boyle, Randy Graff , now Anne Hathaway, and the cast of Glee, but Aretha Franklin, Patti LuPone, Neil Diamond, Mandy Patinkin.

The most gratifying performances are by three actors who first wowed Broadway audiences in parts that seemed tailor-made for them – but in Les Miz, they prove that they have the gift of versatility. Will Swenson, who is best known for his previous roles of Broadway as Berger in “Hair” and Tick/Mitzi in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” here effects a completely credible transformation into the stern, obsessive (and full-throated) Javert.

Nikki M. James, who won a Tony for her Nabulung in The Book of Mormon, here portrays  Eponine, the character who is little more in the musical than the losing side in the triangle that includes Marius  (Andy Mientus, best-known for Smash, making his Broadway debut) and Cosette (Samantha Hill, who made her Broadway debut as Christine in Phantom).  James’s rendition of “On My Own” is a highlight of the show, yes a power ballad like all the others, but James makes it affecting.

Keala Settle, who had a show-stopping gospel number in “Hands on a Hardbody,” shows off her comic chops as well as her big voice as Madame Thenadier.

Two stand-outs are making their Broadway debuts. Kyle Scatliffe makes for an intense and persuasive Enjolras, even if I do wish he had thrust his rifle defiantly in the air just a tad less frequently.  But the heart of the show is Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean. Karimloo is an Iranian-born Canadian actor who is a ten-year veteran of the West End (and a frequent performer in Les Miz.) It’s nearly a shock that he hasn’t been on Broadway before. He is a powerful tenor; his huge, high-pitched, pure-voiced “Bring Him Home” brings down the house. There is something that feels especially unposed about him, at least partially fulfilling producer Cameron Mackintosh’s promise of greater “gritty energy.”

I’m relieved I largely liked this “Les Miserables,” and hope it’s not because the relentless repetition of the music has worked its way past my cerebral cortex and drilled itself into my brain stem.  Some 65 million people in 42 countries reportedly have seen a stage production of Les Miserables.  Even the recent movie version of the musical, which received a mostly tepid critical response, grossed $450 million. It’s nice to be able to join the masses, even if I am not ready to wave the banner, or buy a $40 Les Miz t-shirt.

Les Misérables

At the Imperial Theater

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, additional material by James Fenton; adaptation by Trevor Nunn and John Caird; based on the novel by Victor Hugo; directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell; original orchestrations by John Cameron, new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker; lighting by Paule Constable; costumes by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland; set and image design by Matt Kinley, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo; musical supervisor, Mr. Brooker

Cast: Joshua Colley or Gaten Matarazzo (Gavroche), Emily Cramer (Old Woman), Natalie Charle Ellis (Wigmaker), Jason Forbach (Feuilly), Nathaniel Hackmann (Constable/Foreman/Courfeyrac), Samantha Hill (Cosette), Nikki M. James (Éponine), Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean), Andrew Kober (Innkeeper/Babet), Caissie Levy (Fantine), Chris McCarrell (Laborer/Fauchelevent/Joly), Andy Mientus (Marius), Dennis Moench (Farmer/Claquesous), Adam Monley (Bishop of Digne/Combeferre), Betsy Morgan (Factory Girl), Angeli Negron or McKayla Twiggs (Little Cosette/Young Éponine), Max Quinlan (Jean Prouvaire), John Rapson (Bamatabois/Grantaire/Major Domo), Terance Cedric Reddick (Lesgles), Arbender J. Robinson (Constable/Montparnasse), Cliff Saunders (Thénardier), Kyle Scatliffe (Enjolras), Keala Settle (Madame Thénardier), Will Swenson (Javert), Christianne Tisdale (Innkeeper’s Wife), and Aaron Walpole (Champmathieu/Brujon/Loud Hailer).

 Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes, including one intermission

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