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

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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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There are 12 shows opening on Broadway in April, 2014.

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

Aladdin Video

New teaser for Aladdin

Aladdin Review: A Genie Works His Magic on Broadway

Genie James Monroe Iglehart

Genie James Monroe Iglehart

In Aladdin, the new Disney musical on Broadway, the genie grants theatergoers the first of their wishes – to be entertained. The genie is James Monroe Iglehart, and he is the one who provides the bulk of the entertainment, morphing from showbiz master of ceremonies to carnival barker to infomercial huckster to game show host to Cab Calloway-like zoot-suiter to disco dj to hip-hopper in a Hawaiian shirt, to yes, a sparkling-suited magical genie who emerges amid smoke from a little lamp. Every number over which he presides – nearly every moment he is on stage –  answers the question that fans of the 1992 film Aladdin might have wondered about: How would Disney be able to translate to the stage the protean cartoon character of genie voiced by Robin Williams at his peak? The answer is James Monroe Iglehart, and the answer satisfies.

An hour elapses, however, between Iglehart’s opening number and his next appearance in this two-hour show. If there is much that dazzles in his absence – though perhaps not quite as brightly – not all happening on the stage of the New Amsterdam Theater is everything that every theatergoer might wish for.

I do not mean to imply that Iglehart carries the whole show singlehandedly. He has exquisite help from director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw who has created the kind of old-fashioned razzmatazz choreography (with allusions to Broadway history, from “West Side Story” to “Hello, Dolly” to “Beauty and the Beast”)  that’s been wowing them at “The Book of Mormon.” This shouldn’t be surprising; Nicholaw also directed and choreographed that show, although here he’s replaced the snark and foul-mouthed irreverence with a hyperkinetic playfulness. “Aladdin” doesn’t scrimp with the colorful sets, aggressively sparkling costumes (337 “handcrafted” costumes in all, we’re told in the program), glistening chests, alluring midriffs, and — most spectacularly — every trick in the Broadway special effects playbook – stage smoke, a confetti cannon, dreamy night skies, loud thunderous bangs, deep menacing voices, even fireworks – as well as much  stagecraft that feels unique. The ensemble members swallow swords….while dancing. Aladdin appears amid the smoke that has drifted up from the stage. Sure, it must have been a video projection, but it made me a believer – of Jim Steinmayer, in charge of the “illusion design.” (There are in all, we’re told, 84 illusions and effects.) This is a show that is massively fun to look at.

Click on any photograph to enlarge.

“Aladdin” the musical restores the songs that were cut from “Aladdin” the animated film, and adds a new one.  For all the excitement this might generate among “Aladdin” or Alan Menken fans,  the score is not Menken’s best. Still, we’re talking about the composer of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Newsies” (and ok, “Sister Act” and “Leap of Faith.”) Even middling Menken can be rousing and mellifluous, and one song in “Aladdin” is both:  “A Whole New World” won an Oscar and reached number one on the Billboard charts, and it remains a charmer. Knowing what they have in that song, the creative team stage that number with Aladdin and Princess Jasmine on a flying carpet persuasively floating in mid-air (no wires!), amid a night sky festooned with rabidly shimmering stars.

Street Rat Hearts Princess

The story itself is not outright painful. It is only slightly altered from the animated film on which it is based. Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) is a young thief, “a street rat.” (His companion in the movie was Abu, a monkey; now he has three human friends.) After a random encounter on the street with the Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed), who’s in disguise, Aladdin falls in love with her. There are at least two problems with this. 1. Jasmine has rejected every suitor that her father the Sultan has encouraged to come calling. 2. The law of the kingdom decrees that a princess can only marry a prince, and Aladdin is far from that.

Meanwhile, the Sultan’s royal advisor, the evil Jafar (Jonathan Freeman, reprising the role he voiced in the animated film), has designs both on Jasmine and on the crown. But first he wants to get hold of the magic lamp. The lamp is in the Cave of Wonders and the cave will only allow a “diamond in the rough” to enter. As Jafar sees in the smoke that I mentioned earlier, that diamond is Aladdin.

This leads us to the genie and the three wishes – at which point the show comes alive…as long as the genie is on stage.

Dumb Jokes and Bland Beauty 

In the very beginning of “Aladdin,” right before the awe-inspiring, all hands-on-deck opening number “Arabian Nights,”  the genie introduces us to “the fabled city of Agrabah,” the fictional Arabian city that is the setting for the story, by digging in his pocket to show us what Agrabah is famous for. He takes out a miniature Statue of Liberty such as is for sale in the tourist shops just down the block from the New Amsterdam Theater. “Oops, sorry. Did a little pre-show shopping,” he says and takes out the magic lamp.

It’s a cute joke, calculated to appeal to the tourists who are likely to make up much of the audience for “Aladdin.” But it’s also a clue to what’s in store. Beneath all that shimmer and talent is a unmistakeable Disney product. Masquerading as an attempt to be more anarchic than the average Disney show, Chad Beguelin’s book exceeds the acceptable quota of dumb jokes. The dialogue seems to reflect Disney’s commitment to making its characters, whatever their station in life or period in history, sound like modern-day pre-teen girls who watch too much television. (“You and your stupid heart of gold,” one of Al’s pals says to him when he gives a stolen piece of bread to a beggar woman.)

The lyrics, by Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman, with some additional lyrics by Beguelin, fare  better. They include some clever rhymes (Agrabah is “a land of high intrigue with tricky logistics by prophets and mystics”)  – and some uncomfortable ones (“I come from a land …where the caravan camels roam…It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home“)

The cast is made up of more than three dozen complete professionals, with many stand-outs, such as Don Darryl Rivera as Jafar’s bumblingly evil sidekick Iago, who in the movie is a parrot, but here is apparently just a short toady. Rivera, making his Broadway debut, performs with an ideal comic voice and great timing; one wishes the lines he’s given to deliver deserved him. (Sample: “Like my mother used to say, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, kill everyone.’)

The two leads, Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed, have fine voices and even finer features. They are both gifted Broadway veterans – he played Marius in Les Miz and Simba in The Lion King; she has been in both In The Heights and Mamma Mia. It’s not their fault that their ideal bodies and perfectly symmetrical features add to the impression that a Disney animator has drawn them in 3D. It’s unfortunate that Jacobs has to sing the lyric “…I can’t make myself taller or smarter or handsome…” since he is impossibly handsome (and there are lines in the show that make it clear that Aladdin is supposed to be; women drool over him.) It’s also not really their fault that their characters are so bland, despite efforts to give them some personalities.  Jasmine, for example, is something of a feminist (“Why do I even have to marry at all?” she demands of her father “What’s wrong with a woman running the kingdom?”)

But whatever the billing, let’s face it, the star of “Aladdin” is James Monroe Iglehart. When he appeared in “Memphis” five years ago, he had a relatively small part as an oversized janitor who becomes a sexy singing sensation (nods to Chubby Checkers.) Shaking and rocking it to the roof in a song called “Big Love,” he delivered a showstopper. It is too much to say he is the show in “Aladdin,” but he certainly gives – and deserves – some big love.

Aladdin
At the New Amsterdam Theater
Music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; book and additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin (based on the Disney film written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, directed and produced by Musker and Clements);
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; music supervision, incidental music and vocal arrangements by Michael Kosarin; orchestrations by Danny Troob; sets by Bob Crowley; costumes by Gregg Barnes; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by Ken Travis; hair design by Josh Marquette; makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira; illusion design by Jim Steinmeyer; dance music arrangements by Glen Kelly; music coordinator, Howard Joines; fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth
Cast: Adam Jacobs (Aladdin), James Monroe Iglehart (Genie), Courtney Reed (Jasmine), Brian Gonzales (Babkak), Brandon O’Neill (Kassim/Spooky Voice/Voice of the Cave), Jonathan Schwartz (Omar), Clifton Davis (Sultan), Don Darryl Rivera (Iago) and Jonathan Freeman (Jafar).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

Tickets: $49.50 – $115.50

Beautiful Cast Recording: Hear Jessie Mueller sing Will You Love Me Tomorrow

JessieMuellerasCaroleKing

 

The cast recording of the Broadway musical Beautiful will be released digitally by Ghostlight Records (Sh-K-Boom) April 1, 2014 and in stores May 13.  Beautiful - The Carole King Musicalabout the early life and career of the the singer/songwriter, opened on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theater on January 12, 2014.

Here Jessie Mueller sings Will You Love Me Tomorrow. Lyrics below — and below that, the track listing.

“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”

Tonight you’re mine completely

You give your love so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrowIs this a lasting treasure
Or just a moment’s pleasure
Can I believe the magic of your sighs
Will you still love me tomorrow

Tonight with words unspoken
You say that I’m the only one
But will my heart be broken
When the night meets the morning sun

I’d like to know that your love
Is love I can be sure of
So tell me now and I won’t ask again
Will you still love me tomorrow
Will you still love me tomorrow
Will you still love me tomorrow
Will you still love me tomorrow

Track Listing for Beautiful - The Carole King Musical:

 

1.            Overture

2.           So Far Away

3.            1650 Broadway Medley

4.           It Might as Well Rain Until September

5.            Some Kind of Wonderful

6.           Happy Days Are Here Again

7.            Take Good Care of My Baby

8.           Will You Love Me Tomorrow

9.           He’s Sure the Boy I Love

10.          Will You Love Me Tomorrow

11.          Up on the Roof

12.          On Broadway

13.          The Locomotion

14.          You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling

15.          One Fine Day

16.          Chains

17.          Walking in the Rain

18.          Pleasant Valley Sunday

19.          We Gotta Get Out of This Place

20.         Uptown

21.          It’s Too Late

22.         You’ve Got a Friend

23.         (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

24.         Beautiful

25.         I Feel The Earth Move

Rocky Review: The Italian Stallion on Broadway

Halfway through Rocky, a crowd-pleasing musical that’s a faithful stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1976 movie, the lights flicker to show Rocky Balboa, his face shrouded in a grey hoodie, training for his chance-in-a-lifetime boxing match against the heavyweight champion of the world.   Rocky is shadow-boxing upstage, then the lights blink again and he is  working out downstage, then there are a dozen Rockies all in grey sweatpants and hoodies are lithely punching and skipping and leaping.  An unbidden association suddenly springs uncontrollably to mind: The ensemble all dressed like Rocky recall the ensemble all dressed like Spider-Man in “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.”

The two musicals have much in common, superficially. Both are based on an iconic brand, a money-making franchise in another medium.  Both are a story about a main character that everyone considers a loser, who starts off as a shmo – as an everyday you or me — and becomes a hero….and gets the girl-next-door of their dreams. Both end in a climactic fight scene.  The different theater artists adapting both thought it a good idea to translate the story using elaborate stagecraft with state-of-the art technology.

But there’s a crucial difference.

In “Song of Spider-Man,” playwright Glen Berger’s account of his involvement in the Spider-Man musical, he writes that the most important lesson he learned from what he considers a fiasco was: “Before something can be brilliant, it has to be competent.”

Julie Taymor and U2 wanted “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” to be brilliant, but, Glen Berger is saying, the musical wasn’t even competent.

“Rocky” is competent. Nearly everything about it works.  The direction by Alex Timbers is smooth and professional, if not as innovative as some of his previous work (Here Lies Love; Peter and the Starcatcher; Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.) The songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Seussical) have vitality if not originality nor especially memorable melodies, and they’re supplemented by Bill Conti’s  familiar rousing  “Gonna Fly Now” (the tune when Rocky climbs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) and “Eye of the Tiger” from the movies.

The story is credited to Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers) and Sylvester Stallone, the original screenwriter and star of the film. No fan of the original movie is likely to object.  The performers — some two dozen strong — do a fine job, not a single wrong note (literally or figuratively) among them.

Above all, the eye-catching, detailed design and complicated stagecraft provide a uniquely theatrical form of entertainment, without obviously undermining or overwhelming the story. And everything ran without a hitch the night I saw it.

Is “Rocky” brilliant? I wouldn’t say so, no. But I don’t think it tries to be, and that may be one of its strengths. It’s fun. And fun, if you can afford Broadway prices, can be enough.

My Nose Ain’t Broken

Rocky, portrayed by Andy Karl with a credible Philly working-class accent, is an appealing Palooka, an aging boxer who works as an enforcer for a loan shark (a nearly unrecognizable Eric Anderson, star of Soul Doctor) to make ends meet, but is too sweet to break a deadbeat’s thumbs.  Rocky is friends to animals, with a pair of pet turtles named Cuff and Link, and enamored of pet shop clerk Adrian, whom he’s known since fifth grade. (Margo Seibert, in her Broadway debut, makes Adrian feel real.) She is way too shy even to look at him as he awkwardly woos her with silly puns.

The irascible owner of the gym where Rocky works out,  Mickey (Dakin Matthews, a persuasive stand-in for the films’ irreplaceable Burgess Meredith), views Rocky as a over-the-hill loser who wasted his talent, and should leave boxing and go into auto repair. But Rocky, a small-time club fighter whose biggest boast is that he’s never had his nose broken, doesn’t want to give up.

Songwriters Ahrens and Flaherty effectively translate Rocky’s Everyman personality in such songs as “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” which has a playful kind of Randy Newman vibe:

I got ten sore knuckles
And a ringing ear
I got a bruise over here and here and over here.
I got a swelled up eye and a real flat beer.
But hey,
My nose ain’t broken.

The Italian Stallion

Rocky’s world is suddenly rocked by Apollo Creed (a solid Terence Archie), the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a character whose showmanship seems clearly inspired by Muhammad Ali. Apollo has arrived in Philadelphia to fight a contender on New Year’s Eve, 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. But the contender backs out (as we’re informed by a TV sports reporter whom we see live both on the stage and on a video projection), claiming to have broken his hand. Not willing to cancel the lucrative match, Apollo has an inspiration:

“We find a white local fighter and I’ll be all his,” Apollo sings in the song “Patriotic” 
“If that ain’t American,what is?”

Apollo picks Rocky entirely because of the boxer nickname Rocky gave himself, the Italian Stallion.

Rocky — reluctant at first, ridiculed by the press and his new opponent — decides to go after his two dreams; going the distance in the championship fight….and becoming Adrian’s boyfriend. Does he get his dreams? The answer to that is as obvious as the many ballads along the way.

Realistic Fish, Fake Eggs, Rousing Ring

“Rocky” is distinguished by a design that includes, amid its industrial aesthetic (metal scaffolding on the move and banks of lights shining in our faces), meticulous attention to details.

There are realistic-looking fish in the pet store aquariums. When Rocky visits the industrial butcher where he’ll wind up training, 15 huge, convincing slabs of beef descend from the rafters. As part of his training routine, Andy Karl opens his refrigerator, breaks raw eggs in a glass, and drinks it before our eyes – to a round of audience applause. (The eggs are reportedly fake, thank God for Karl’s sake.)

Most impressive is what the designers do with the boxing ring. Those seated up front (including the winners of the $35-a-ticket lottery) are escorted to bleachers onstage, and told to take all their belongings. The reason soon becomes clear: The boxing ring slides into the center of the theater. The effect of this is electric; those with newly created ringside seats are especially rewarded. (“Rocky” is choreographed by Steven Hoggett, who also choreographed  “Once, “and Kelly Devine, responsible for “Memphis” and “Jersey Boys.”)

All of this is what makes “Rocky” fun.  The musical does not have the charm of the original “Rocky” movie, which, despite its obvious emotional manipulation, remains both irresistible and moving. It’s hard to feel as moved at the Winter Garden.

Sylvester Stallone on Broadway

Part of the appeal of Rocky the movie is its own underdog aura. It reportedly cost $1 million and was shot in just 28 days,  yet grossed $226 million and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Rocky the musical, by contrast, comes with a $16.5 million price tag (less than one-quarter the cost of Spider-Man, I  should point out), and the bloated baggage of following an endless number of Rocky sequels. I said earlier that the performances are fine and the expensive stagecraft doesn’t undermine the story. I believe this to be true. But the overall effect of the big Broadway treatment is to offer an entertaining experience, not an emotional one.

One must give credit where it is due, especially since Sylvester Stallone’s only previous association with Broadway, if you can call it that, was his having directed and co-written the single most ignorant and ludicrous movie I have ever seen about Broadway. “Staying Alive,” supposedly a sequel to the far superior “Saturday Night Fever,”  tells the story of Tony Manero (John Travolta) after he escapes from Brooklyn and is now aspiring to make it on Broadway. Yet, decades later, Stallone really has made it on Broadway.

It is my guess that Rocky the musical will remain at the Winter Garden for fans to enjoy for some time to come – and my fervid hope that, whether on screen or on stage, there are no more Rocky sequels.

Rocky

At the Winter Garden

Book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone; music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; based on the MGM/United Artists motion picture
Directed by Alex Timbers; choreography by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine; produced by Joop van den Ende and Bill Taylor; sets by Christopher Barreca; costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound by Peter Hylenski; video by Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina; special effects designed by Jeremy Chernick; wig and makeup design by Harold Mertens; orchestrations by Stephen Trask and Doug Besterman
Cast: Andy Karl (Rocky Balboa), Margo Seibert (Adrian), Terence Archie (Apollo Creed), Dakin Matthews (Mickey), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Paulie) and Jennifer Mudge (Gloria). 
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including one intermission.

The Bridges of Madison County Broadway Review: Lush and Lovely

“If you went away for a week and I spent the whole time in bed with a
photographer, would you be mad?” nosy neighbor Marge asks her husband Charlie in “The Bridges of Madison County,” the new lush and lovely Broadway musical.

“You’d have your reasons, I
guess,” Charlie eventually answers, not looking up from his paper. “I mean, look at me.”

Marge and Charlie are a terrific addition to the story of the affair between Francesca, an Italian-born Iowa farm wife, and world-traveling National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid — not least because of the performers Cass Morgan and Michael S. Martin, with their perfect comic timing and strong voices full of feeling. Marge’s question and Charlie’s answer seem the musical’s acknowledgement that its story, in bold outline, is a tad…silly. That didn’t stop the 1992 novel by Robert James Waller from selling 50 million copies, nor the 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep from critical acclaim and healthy profits. And it improbably strikes gold again in this swoon-worthy musical adaptation composed by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years”), with a book by Marsha Norman (best-known for the play “‘night, Mother” but also the book writer for the musicals “The Secret Garden,” and “The Color Purple”)
If you’re going to do a big Broadway musical about a four-day adulterous affair that occurred 50 years ago, this is the way to do it.
There is no question that the two leads, Kelli O’Hara as Francesca and Steven Pasquale as Robert, deserve much of the credit for the appeal of this show, which can only have its full impact when seen live. (The videos and audio to promote it do not do it justice.) O’Hara (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific) is in fine full voice, a voice that envelopes you in its lusciousness. But she is also convincing and sympathetic as a lonely housewife – even her Italian accent is spot-on. Those of us who saw the two perform together as an alienated married couple in Far From Heaven can’t help but be impressed by their transformation here, into a pair with immense chemistry — magnetic, electric (nuclear?) Pasquale manages to fulfill the romance novel requirements of the perfect manly fantasy and yet exist as a credible character.
O’Hara hooks you from the moment she comes out on stage, alone, singing of her life up to this point, how she met her husband on his tour of duty in Italy, and settled for the life he offered, in To Build A Home.

I learn to speak, I learn to sew,
I learn to let the longing go,
The tractor wheel, a foot of snow, I build myself a home.

As she is singing, we see the cast bring various pieces of the home onto the stage – the refrigerator, a window – and put them into place, do-it-yourself Iowans building the home.
It’s a lovely touch, an antidote to the high-tech projection-crazy sets on Broadway. And it sets the tone for a show that has broadened to include a cast of 14 – all with amazing voices, and all in my view, used well.

We hear a folk song from Robert’s ex-wife, Marian (Whitney Bashor), playing guitar.
Husband Bud (Hunter Foster) sings of how he met “Frannie” (Something from a Dream)
And to me she’s still like something from a dream.
And to her, I’m like the guy who keeps the lights turned on. I’m gonna take her on a trip this year.
Maybe next summer.

Marge sings the bluesy “Get Closer,” one of the best songs in the show, while Robert Kincaid and Francesca dance.
Marge’s husband Charlie sings a song near the end, When I’m Gone, that is deeply touching.

Are any of these songs – or singers — strictly necessary to the story? That’s not the right question. They are all wonderful, and allow Brown to paint a musical picture, using a palette that ranges from folk to the blues to honky-tonk to 50’s-style rock to art songs that reach operatic intensity.

Smirk at the story if you want, but the Bridges of Madison County is well-written, well-acted, lusciously sung, beautifully and cleverly designed — from Michael Yeargan’s sets to Catherine Zuber’s costumes to Donald Holder’s lighting. And, damn the last ten minutes, which catches us up quickly and absurdly on the half century of pining after the affair, but instead of rolling your eyes, there are tears there.

The Bridges of Madison County
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
Book by Marsha Norman; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, based on the novel by Robert James Waller; directed by Bartlett Sher; music director, Tom Murray; movement by Danny Mefford; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Jon Weston; hair and wig design by David Brian Brown; orchestrations by Mr. Brown; music coordinator, Michael Keller
Cast: Kelli O’Hara (Francesca), Steven Pasquale (Robert), Hunter Foster (Bud), Michael X. Martin (Charlie), Cass Morgan (Marge), Caitlin Kinnunen (Carolyn), Derek Klena (Michael) and Whitney Bashor (Marian/Chiara).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

Falling Into You

Montage

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