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Favorite New York Stage Performances of 2014

“As an actor, you’re often the most visible part of a project while having the least amount of say over its final form,” James Franco said recently.  Although at the time he was making both his Broadway acting debut and his Off-Broadway directorial debut, he was talking about movie actors.  Stage actors have it better, artistically that is — not in monetary compensation or recognition.

So here are some of the New York stage performances in 2014 that deserve more recognition.

The individual performers are listed alphabetically, but let’s begin with some noteworthy ensembles.

Jose Joaquin Perez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as busboys in "My Manana Comes"

Jose Joaquin Perez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as busboys in “My Manana Comes”

The four actors who portrayed busboys at an Upper East Side restaurant in Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes – Jason Bowen, Jose Joaquin Perez, Brian Quijada, Reza Salazar – achieved a level of synchronicity that was a pleasure to watch, while at the same time each performer communicated both his character’s particular struggles and the tensions among the group.

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk and Lisa Ramirez working in the poultry plant

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk and Lisa Ramirez working in the poultry plant

Similarly, the performers in Lisa Ramirez’s To The Bone, play characters who have attained a machine-line efficiency both in their jobs in an upstate chicken factory and in the house they share unhappily together, but they never let us lose sight of their individual humanity. As one character observes, there is an order “that is much like a heart- an artificial heart – borne out of necessity- but functioning nonetheless.” So kudos to Dan Domingues, Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk, Paola Lazaro-Munoz, Lisa Ramirez, Gerardo Rodriguez, Xochitl Romero, Haynes Thigpen

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway in Bryant Park shortly before the show closes on Broadway

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway in Bryant Park shortly before the show closes on Broadway

Nick Cordero, the best thing by far in Bullets Over Broadway, played Cheech, a 1920s thug who turns out to be a brilliant playwright. Cordero turned out to be a terrific song-and-dance man

Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow photo2 by Carol Rosegg

Appearing on a Broadway stage after an absence of 35 years, Mia Farrow felt ideally cast as Brian Dennehy’s half-century love interest in Love Letters. With her translucent beauty and educated diction, she seemed believably rooted in the upper crust enclave in which the character is raised, but which never serves her well. Farrow ranges from flighty to flirty to fragile, with a suggestion of great feeling – much of it all the more communicated, paradoxically, because it is not expressed on the surface.

James Iglehart in Aladdin

Whatever the billing, the star of “Aladdin” is its genie, James Monroe Iglehart, a worthy heir to a role originated on film by Robin Williams. A winner of a 2014 Tony Award for his performance, Iglehart morphs 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.

When he appeared in “Memphis,” 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.

Red Velvet4AdrianLesterbyTristram_KentonIn honoring Adrian Lester‘s mesmerizing turn in “Red Velvet,” a play written by his wife Lolita Chakrabarti, we also pay homage to the real-life character he is portraying, Ira Aldridge, a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles. To put this in perspective: When Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies.
LadyDay4

Praising a stage performance by Audra McDonald – who won a record-breaking sixth competitive Tony Award for portraying Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – is a bit like praising bread, or Meryl Streep. Still, she transformed what could have been another tiresome play about a self-destructive star into a precise study of character, and sang in a style totally unlike her own.Year of the Rooster 6  Delphi Harrington, Bobby Moreno, Thomas Lyons Credit Russ Kuhner

Bobby Moreno began the year 2014 portraying a touching love scene between poultry in The Year of the Rooster.  He was Odysseus Rex, a young rooster permanently crouched, an angry punk with a knife, who is charmed by genetically over-engineered top-heavy hen. At the end of the year, Moreno stood tall in Grand Concourse as Oscar, the maintenance man and security guard in a soup kitchen in the Bronx, who is an adorable lug. Streetwise, charming, good-hearted, well-meaning, he is also slightly awkward, especially in scenes with Emma, who teases, taunts and seduces him.

Over the past few years, Moreno has stood out in charismatic roles from the dog-like military veteran in Ethan Lipton’s “Luther” to an evil teenager in Robert Askins’s “Hand to God.” Will 2015 be the Year of the Bobby Moreno?

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre
As Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Alexander Sharp, a recent graduate of Juilliard, literally climbs a wall, and plays with a rat, and is thrown in the air and carried about by the other cast members.
His is a physically demanding role – all that getting lifted through the air. But it requires balancing of a different sort as well, offering a convincing portrait without condescension. Sharp nails the gestures, the lack of eye contact, the matter-of-fact tone.

It’s impossible to cap an appreciation of stage performances at only ten. So nods to Annaleigh Ashford in You Can’t Take It With You, Kieran Culkin in This Is Our Youth, Patricia Clark in The Elephant Man, the ensemble cast of Dinner With FriendsHeather Burns , Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie and Jeremy Shamos; the ensemble cast of Casa ValentinaReed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham. Ok, I’ll stop.

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Denzel, Menzel, Michael C. Hall. RIP Mickey Rooney. The Broadway Effect. NYC on Stage. Week in New York Theater

NewYorkTheaterWeekApril6

If/Then with Idina Menzel, A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington and The Realistic Joneses  with Michael C. Hall opened on Broadway; Adrian Lester gives a star turn portraying the first African-American actor to play Othello in Red Velvet. The actor, Ira Aldridge, performed the role in London in 1833, but he was a native New Yorker.

New York is the setting for nearly half the shows of Broadway’s Spring 2014 season (See April 1 below, but it’s no joke.)

Of course, Broadway is not the only place for shows in April. Here is a list of April New York theater openings — more than one per day.

Also, check out the update Broadway 2013-2014 Season Guide: What’s closed, what’s opening; reviews,

 

The Week in New York Theater

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With a  few exceptions (shows with “rock” in the title), Broadway shows have trouble attracting men. Men now comprise just 32 percent of Broadway audiences. Men and women go in equal numbers to sports events, rock concerts, even movies. Why not theater?

NeilPatrickHarrisasHedwig

Neil Patrick Harris AS Hedwig, Complete With Blonde Wig, Custom Heels

Red Velvet4AdrianLesterbyTristram_Kenton

My review of Red Velvet

When Ira Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies. Aldridge is the real-life African-American actor portrayed by Adrian Lester in “Red Velvet,” the fascinating play written by Lester’s wife Lolita Chakrabarti in a production by London’s exquisite Tricycle Theatre now opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse through April 20th. It manages not just to dramatize a little-known 19th century figure but provide insight into the art of acting and of theater.
Aldridge was a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles.

Full review of Red Velvet

Idina Menzel

Idina Menzel

My review of If/Then

In “If/Then,” Idina Menzel portrays two different versions of the same character Elizabeth, and at the beginning of the musical, I was feeling like two versions of myself as well.  Elizabeth as Liz pursues love, and as Beth goes after a career as a city planner, in order to try to make a difference in the world.  I, Jonathan, initially felt both like Joe and Nathan – as Joe, irritated at the premise, and as Nathan, excited by the promise of entertainment from so much proven stage talent,  with various past successes in Next to Normal, Rent and Wicked.

By the end, we (I) could agree: The way the premise plays out is more intelligent than it at first seems. The entertainers themselves deliver on their promise. It is terrific to see (and hear) Idina Menzel back on Broadway after an absence of nine years.  She is employed wisely — on stage nearly all the time, she’s given songs that emphasize character as much as vocal gymnastics; we must wait for the occasional  full-steam pop arias like “Always Starting Over”; making them all the more flooring.

But this is a story that would have worked better as a novel, or perhaps a serial on Netflix.

Full review of If/Then

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March 2014 Theater Quiz

New York Theater March 2014 Quiz

Stars in the Alley, The Broadway League’s annual concert, returns to Shubert Alley 11 a.m. to 12:30 pm Wednesday, May 21

More on Maries Crisis, a theater piano bar where nobody knows your name, but they know Ethel Merman’s http://bit.ly/PcxY30

Theater artists, don’t give up! Expand your skills, redefine success, bond with your network, says Jennifer Lane.

How do YOU keep from giving up as a theater artist? (Or shouldn’t I ask this on a Monday morning?)

Harriet: @harriet75
I have given up on the dream if being on bway but now I find community theatre is my outlet.

 

Sinisha Evtimov ‏@SinishaEvtimov Just move to Europa… give it a try somewhere where it is truly appreciated

Aleisha Force ‏@aleishaforce  remembering that this is my work, not my entire life.

April 1, 2014

Nearly one half of all Broadway shows in Spring 2014 are set in New York City.

“This is probably a sure way to get applause in New York, but I was born in Brooklyn,” Jessie Mueller as Carole King says from the stage of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre at the beginning of Beautiful.
These are the first spoken words in this Broadway musical, which is set in locations around New York City. The line about Brooklyn does get applause, without fail.
New Yorkers may be applauding a lot this season. Nearly half the shows opening on Broadway in spring 2014 are set wholly or mostly in New York City.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” says Brian Yorkey, who, with composer Tom Kitt, has written the book and lyrics for If/Then, which stars Idina Menzel as a city planner who moves to New York. “New York is our home, and it’s what we know, and what we love.” That’s true, he says, of many of the other writers of shows set in the city this season, from Woody Allen to James Lapine.

Full story: The Many New Yorks This Season on Broadway

Rosie O’Donnell to receive 2014 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her commitment to arts education through her org Rosie’s Theater Kids

Touring stage productions that hold their tech rehearsals in upstate theaters to get tax break.

Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas

Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas in Fun Home

Nominations for 2014 Lucille Lortel Awards: Fun Home; Here Lies Love; Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 get the most nominations.

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Here Lies Love 4

Cast recording for Here Lies Love coming April 22, a week before show opens again at the Public Theater.

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain

Courtney Love wants to see a Broadway musical about Kurt Cobain

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Artists are more educated and more unemployed than the general workforce. Sixty-five percent have BAs or higher (v. 32% overall). 7.1% are unemployed

TheMysteries4Jesus Baptism

A preview of The Flea’s epic irreverent The Mysteries — 48 playwrights adapt tales from The Bible

ARaisinInTheSun3

My review of A Raisin in the Sun

“… a masterpiece on just about every level…Much of the reaction from the moment this new production was announced concerned Denzel Washington’s age. He is 59; the character he is portraying, Walter Lee Younger Jr., is supposed to be 35…His age doesn’t bother me.  Consider it a new form of innovative casting — age-blind casting… Director Kenny Leon has rethought this play, in ways that work better, and perhaps a few ways that don’t work as well. Denzel Washington works better…”

Full review of A Raisin in the Sun

 

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Aladdin1Adam_Jacobs_Cave_of_Wonders_Photo_by_Deen_Van_Meer

The Broadway Effect

The musical Aladdin on Broadway has gotten rid of Abu, Aladdin’s trusted if mischievous monkey companion, as well as the pet tiger Rajah, both of whom were in Disney’s 1992 animated film. In Rocky on Broadway, you cannot see the real streets of Philadelphia, nor in Les Miserables on Broadway can you see the performers’ nostrils; both loomed large in the film versions.

About a third of the forty two new shows in the 2013-2014 Broadway season were either adapted from a movie or so closely associated with one that the film serves both to lure an audience into the musical, and to raise audience expectations—the former a godsend for the producers, the latter a terror for the creative team. How do you offer something both comforting and exciting, familiar and surprising; what can Broadway offer as compensation for the loss of Abu, Philadelphia and Hugh Jackman’s shapely nose?

The answer is what we can call The Broadway Effect

over the past few decades have entered the standard Broadway playbook of stage effects:

Stage smoke/fog

Confetti shot out of (on-stage or off-stage) cannons

Banks of bright lights shining directly in the audience’s eyes

Shimmering stars against a deep black night (I mean the celestial bodies, but of course celebrities are also now standard.)

Weather (usually rain), accompanied by somber black umbrellas or loud crashing noises.

Magically moving scenery (via computer automation)

Video projections

It’s not just such stage special effects that contribute to the Broadway Effect; one must include Broadway’s traditional elements that continue to thrive, such as massive synchronized ensemble tap-dancing.

Complete story on The Broadway Effect

 

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Times Square Billboard

BlahTimesSquareBillboard

Paul Rudnick on straight men and theater: A straight guy’s ‘I want” song is “I want to leave at intermission”

ATCA New Play Award

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“I was a 13-year-old boy for 30 years” — Mickey Rooney, who has died at age 93. The movie star was on Broadway twice. Sugar Babies is said to have made him a star once again.

The Realistic Joneses Lyceum Theatre

 

My review of The Realistic Joneses

Ninety minutes and a dozen scenes after it began, this often comic, sometimes cosmic and thoroughly cryptic play by Will Eno, a downtown playwright making his Broadway debut, was over….Fans of Michael C. Hall expecting “Dexter”-like intrigue and plenty of plot, or those of Marisa Tomei hoping for a light comedy like “My Cousin Vinny” are likely to be disappointed, and baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” Actually, most people are likely to be baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” But not everybody will be disappointed. Those who know Will Eno’s work will be in familiar unfamiliar territory.

Full review of The Realistic Joneses

Red Velvet Review: Adrian Lester as First Great Black Shakespearean Actor

When Ira Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies. Aldridge is the real-life African-American actor portrayed by Adrian Lester in “Red Velvet,” the fascinating play written by Lester’s wife Lolita Chakrabarti in a production by London’s exquisite Tricycle Theatre now opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse through April 20th. It manages not just to dramatize a little-known 19th century figure but provide insight into the art of acting and of theater.
Aldridge was a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Chakrabarti, an actress who with Lester first became interested in Aldridge in 1998, has focused the actor’s vast story on two pivotal moments in his career. The bulk of “Red Velvet” dramatizes his assumption of the role of Othello at London’s famed and prestigious Covent Garden in 1833, when he was 25 years old. The great tragedian Edmund Kean has suddenly taken ill, and the manager of Kean’s company, Pierre Laporte (Eugene O’Hare), hires Aldridge at the last minute to be Kean’s replacement. The other members of the company know him only by his reputation, if at all, and are astonished when he shows up.
“Oh my god: Black as your hat,” one says, out of his hearing.
“When I read ‘black’ in the reviews I presumed it was the mood,” says Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), who is playing Desdemona.
Charles, Kean’s son (Oliver Ryan), who plays Iago in the Kean company’s production, is dead set against the new casting: “If we bring Jews to play Shylock, blacks
to play the moor, half wits to play Caliban we decimate ourselves in the name of what? Fashion? Politics? Then any drunken fool on the street will play Falstaff. You, my darling,” he says to Ellen, “will only be allowed to play what you are – too old for Juliet, too bland for the Queen!”
The playwright uses the various Kean company members’ reactions to explore an argument over theater that still exists – “theater is a political act, a debate of our times” versus “Acting is an art. Transformation is an art….People come to the theatre to get away from reality.”
What follows is a hilarious scene of the old style of acting, all exaggerated gestures and declamation. Then Aldridge coaches Ellen Tree in the new style – what everybody calls “the domestic style,” which involves actually looking at one another on stage, and expressing emotion.
Lester, known primarily in the United States for his starring role as the campaign manager opposite John Travolta in Mike Nichols’s film “Primary Colors,” also starred in British TV series “Hustle” and has racked up an impressive track record playing classical roles in his native England, including Othello in the National Theatre last year to great acclaim; the production was broadcast as part of NTLive to movie theaters throughout the United States. So when, after the comical rehearsal, Lester offers up a scene of Aldridge on stage as Othello, it is riveting.
The episode in Aldridge’s life is not a happy one, and “Red Velvet” makes it one long flashback, bracketed before and after by a scene 35 years later, when Aldridge, age 60, ill and clearly dying, is about to play King Lear in Lodz, Poland.

“Red Velvet” is directed by the artistic director of Tricycle, Indhu Rubasingham, who spent years helping to shepherd this play into production. Everything from the performances by the eight-member cast to the lighting to the costumes to the very makeup work to bring the story of Ira Aldridge to life — the obstacles he faced; what’s changed and what hasn’t about the theater in the past 200 years.

Like “The Great Game,” the terrific theatrical marathon about Afghanistan that Tricycle brought to New York a few years back, this play is unmistakably from a British perspective, despite its New York protagonist, with some references that the average New York theatergoer won’t get. The first scene is also conducted in German – but that is to emphasize how foreign the place where Aldridge is performing; it’s not strictly necessary to understand what the characters are saying.  The play is most watchable when Lester is performing; I might have wished that he was on stage more frequently, but understand why it was necessary to show the reaction of his fellow actors among themselves (a stand-in for the reaction of society as a whole.) These brief lulls and inaccessible moments at worst create little hills that require patience to climb over in order to get to the next rich field.  “Red Velvet” pays off with a last scene that is captivating, and thoroughly devastating, yet involves nothing more than something a stage actor – then and now – does for every performance.

Ira Aldridge 2Ira Aldridge 3I defy you to attend “Red Velvet” and not want to know more about Ira Aldridge. Here is an excerpt from the recently published third volume of Bernth Lindfors’ biography of Aldridge.  “He initially toured with an experienced British troupe he recruited, but eventually he started performing with local actors and actresses who spoke their parts in their own language while he continued to deliver his lines in English. This bilingual collaboration worked well in Western Europe and introduced him to audiences in Hungary, Poland, and other East European terrtories he might not otherwise have reached. This venture abroad changed Aldridge as a performer.

“Audiences in Europe wanted to see him in Shakespearean roles rather than in the racial melodramas and farces that were popular in the British isles. As a consequence, Aldridge concentrated almost exclusively on performing as Othello, Shylock, Macbeth, and Richard III. In the course of his travels he won more major international awards and honors, often conferred by royalty, than any other actor of his day.”