Sunday, November 27, 2016

FALSETTOS: First Class Revival of William Finn's Quirky, Funny, Touching, and Honest Musical




In a 2005 interview posted at Broadway.com, theater composer/lyricist William Finn said there are two others whose work he especially admires. One is Frank Loesser who, he said, “can musicalize anything and make it sound musical.” The other is Stephen Sondheim, who “can do anything and make it sound natural.”

I would argue that Mr. Finn is minted from the same gold ore as these two. 

Just imagine, for example, what Sondheim might write if instead of tailoring his songs to characters created by others, he were to openly express his own deepest feelings – both emotionally raw and psychologically complex – through his music and lyrics. That’s what it is like experiencing Finn’s work, with melodies and words that are smart and moving, quirky and personal and honest. Only he knows if what he writes about expresses the literal truth, but it is certainly some of the most truthful work you’ll every hear on the Broadway stage. 

In loving testament to Finn’s talent is the current revival of Falsettos, a Tony winner from 1992 with a book by James Lapine, who has long been associated with both Finn and Sondheim. Mr. Lapine is on hand once again to direct this production, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre.    

Falsettos presents the tale of a group of very neurotic and complicated people, starting with Marvin, a competitive, self-centered man who wants it all, including the good will of his wife and son after he leaves them for another man. His self-deprecating ex-wife Trina is unsure of what she wants or even if she can allow herself to want it. Their pre-adolescent son Jason is moody and worried about his future (will he be gay like his dad?). Marvin’s on-again off-again man-child boyfriend Whizzer has commitment issues. Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel who, after Marvin departs, becomes Trina and Jason’s psychiatrist, and, later, Trina’s second husband. Oh, and there’s the lesbian couple from next door, a caterer and a physician.  

The story unfolds through its songs, with staging that makes use of modular geometric forms (by set designer David Rockwell) that the cast pushes and pulls into various positions for the individual scenes that make up the show. 

In its design, Falsettos may remind you of Sondheim’s 1971 musical Company with its “scenes from a life” approach. At its best, it may also remind you of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, dealing as it does with a gay relationship at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Act I takes place in 1979, while Act II is a mere two years later. Yet in that brief ensuing time, a dark shadow has begun to fall over everything; as Dr. Charlotte, the physician, sings with heart-wrenching frustration:bachelors arrive sick and frightened/They leave weeks later unenlightened/We see a trend, but the trend has no name.”

The central character of Marvin is played by Christian Borle, who won a Tony last year for his strutting portrait of Shakespeare in Something Rotten and who will be taking on the role of Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come spring.

This is a much different role for the actor generally associated with offbeat comic performances, yet Borle shows he has the chops to carry it off, just as he did when he took on and nailed the role of the AIDS patient Prior Walter in the Signature Theater Company’s production of Angels In America in 2010. The rest of the cast is equally strong: Andrew Rannells as Whizzer, Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel, Anthony Rosenthal (terrific as Jason), Tracie Thomas as Dr. Charlotte, and Betsy Wolfe as Cordelia, who winds up catering Jason’s unusual bar mitzvah, which takes place in a hospital room.   

But if anyone steals the show, it is Stephanie J. Block as Trina, who is “tired of all the happy men who rule the world” and wants a piece of that elusive happiness for herself.  Here’s Trina in the midst of a meltdown singing of her erstwhile marriage to Marvin, in a song titled "I'm Breaking Down." 

Oh, sure, I'm sure he's sure, he did his best.
I mean, he meant to be what he was not.
The things he was are things which I've forgot.
He's a queen.
I'm a queen.
Where is our crown?

Ms. Block makes this a showstopper that will almost assuredly guarantee her a Tony nomination. 

Despite all of the dysfunction, Falsettos is full of surprises, many of them capturing life’s funny-awkward moments. A great set piece, for example, has all of the adult cast members sitting on bleachers at a little league baseball game, there to support Jason as he fumbles at bat.   

We’re sitting, and watching Jason play baseball
We’re watching Jason play baseball
We're watching Jewish boys,
who cannot play baseball, play baseball.

Only occasionally are there puzzling choices with respect to how a couple of the numbers are staged, as if Mr. Lapine could not think of how to absorb them into the plot. There’s the opening song, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” in which the characters parade around in Biblical attire, and “March of the Falsettos,” which comes off as an outlier that does not seem to serve a purpose. It possibly is a dream sequence based on Jason's insecurity, but that is not at all clear.  

Falsettos is the finalized version of what started out as two separate one-act shows. March of the Falsettos from 1981 has become Act I, while Falsettoland from 1990 has become Act II. Both are available on CD, and plans are afoot for Ghostlight Records to produce a two-disc set of the current production. (Now would be a good time to interject kudos to Mr. Finn's favorite orchestrator, Michael Starobin, who worked on these, plus Finn's A New Brain and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Starobin is responsible for making the tiny Falsettos orchestra sound so rich.)    

But even before March of the Falsettos was produced, William Finn wrote another show called In Trousers (1979), which essentially serves to provide Marvin’s backstory. It didn’t do well as a theatrical production, but, truly, it contains some of Finn’s best songs. “I’m Breaking Down” is the only number that made the transition to Falsettos, but pretty much every one is a gem. 

William Finn at ATCA lunch at Sardis
Photo by Howard Miller


At the recent 2016 American Theatre Critics Association party at Sardis, I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Finn if there were any plans to revive In Trousers. He did not seem to feel that was likely, but he did throw me a bone by saying that Encores! was interested in presenting a semi-staged version at City Center. Last summer, Encores! did a terrific production of A New Brain, so maybe something further will come out of that successful experience.  

Falsettos would be well served by being reunited with In Trousers, and the many fans of Falsettos would be thrilled to be able to see this prequel.  So let me end with a plea to Mr. Finn. Please, please, please allow Encores! to do it.  


Meanwhile, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of the In Trousers CD. It is a marvel.   


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

CONVERSING WITH DANNY BURSTEIN at American Theatre Critics Association 2016 Bash

Danny Burstein at ATCA Event at Sardis


A few days ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with six-time Tony Award nominee Danny Burstein at the 2016 American Theatre Critics Association bash at Sardis.  

Although he is best known for his work in Broadway musicals (The Drowsy Chaperone; South Pacific; Follies; Cabaret; Fiddler on the Roof), I took the opportunity to single out his performance in the glorious 2013 revival of Lanford Wilson's play Talley's Folley and to ask why he doesn't do more straight plays.  (Here's a link to my review - TALLEY'S FOLLY).

He told me he loved working on that show (a Roundabout production at the Laura Pels) with his co-star Sarah Paulson. But, he said, he sustains his career through a mix of musicals, straight plays, television, and movies. Because he is best known for his performances in musicals, those are the offers he generally gets when it comes to theater work. 

It certainly can't hurt that, as he pointed out, musicals generally run longer than straight plays. Longer runs mean longer periods of time for receiving a pay check, cuz even Tony nominees gotta pay the bills! 

Still, I'm hoping to see him back in a straight play like Talley's Folly or like Clifford Odets' Golden Boy, in which he performed the same year (a production that was helmed by his director from South Pacific, Bartlett Sher.) Burstein nabbed a Tony nomination playing the role of the kind-hearted boxing trainer Tokio. (Here's a link to my review of that show - GOLDEN BOY

By the way, Burstein is as down-to-earth and friendly as anyone in the business.  While many performers are cautious about even shaking hands, especially while they are in a show (germs, you know!), Danny was giving out bear hugs like they were going out of style.  

You can catch him in his Tony-nominated, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk-winning performance as Tevye in the stellar Broadway revival of Fiddler On The Roof (directed by none other than Bartlett Sher, who is clearly a Burstein fan). Just so you know, the show is closing December 31, so best get your tickets now!  

Oh, and Danny, if you are reading this, tell your wonderful co-star Jessica Hecht that I've had a burning question I've been wanting to ask her for years -- about a Christmas tree. I didn't have a chance to talk to her at Sardis, but she can reach me at middledoc@gmail.com.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

MEN OF TORTUGA: What's a Little Corporate Murder If It Keeps the Stockholders Happy?



Men of Tortuga

Assassination as a business strategy is, one hopes, not too common a practice. But for the high-level muckety-mucks gathered in the conference room that serves as the setting for Living Room Theatre’s funny scary production of Jason Well’s toothy satire Men of Tortuga, it seems to be the last best opportunity for defending themselves against an apparently ruthless rival. 

The play, on view at TADA! Theater, opens with three upper-tier management types in a secret meeting with a man called Taggart (Ken Forman). Think of him as their assassination consultant. He’s there to help them work out a plan to annihilate their unnamed enemy before some unspecified deal takes place (a really hostile takeover, perhaps?). The head honcho, Kit (Curzon Dobell), absolutely loathes their target, and the other two, Tom (Allen McCullough) and Jeff (Benim Foster), can see no other option but to take him out. 

In exploring their options, Taggart makes the strongest possible case for raising the firepower well beyond what the others believe is called for. “You can’t just put your man in the crosshairs and let fly,” he explains, not if you want to be absolutely certain of success.  As the evening progresses, the plan to eliminate this one man evolves into a complicated scheme that includes a missile, poison gas, a suicide killer, and a briefcase rigged like something out of a James Bond movie.   

If this all sounds disturbing, it is. But it is also very funny in an absurdist sort of way as the plot gets more and more convoluted and the schemers dig deeply into their psyches in order to justify what is turning into a plan for a mass killing spree. As Taggart rhetorically puts it, “Would they have nuked Berlin to get Hitler?” 

While all this is going on, a second front opens up as a lower-level wonk, Allan (Michael Broadhurst), tries to sell Kit on a compromise plan that will perhaps save the corporation but which will also grant concessions to their archenemy. It becomes Kit’s burden to decide how they should proceed. But the deeper they all march into the mire, the harder it is for him to commit one way or the other. 

In the end, Kit chooses an irreversible path and leaves the others to face the consequences of the conspiracy. Not that they are too worried, even if they are caught red-handed. After all, as Jeff notes, “it’s not like we screwed our stockholders.”

That’s a line that should reverberate in today’s climate, where unscrupulous business practices are being met with greater public awareness and cynicism. Under Randolyn Zinn’s fine-tuned direction, the five cast members do a beautiful job of balancing the twin foci of the alarming nature of the murderous plot and their increasingly farcical behavior. 

Men of Tortuga, the meaning of whose title is elusive but calls to mind the kind of cryptic titles favored by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross; Speed-the-Plow), was first produced in 2005 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. It was well received at the time as a dark dig on cutthroat business practices. However, in the ensuing years, our growing understanding of the tactics of actual terrorism adds another layer to the goings-on, with conversations about hand-held missile launchers, chemical weapons, beheadings, and martyrs giving us a dual lens for viewing the action in this most intriguing play about business intrigue.  

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  




Wednesday, October 19, 2016

HOLIDAY INN: Only Corbin Bleu Stands Out in Otherwise Bland Celebration of Irving Berlin



Holiday Inn, the “new Irving Berlin musical” now playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, is not exactly new. How could it be, when its composer died in 1989 and not a single song in the show was culled from previously unpublished works? Instead, it is a rewrite of the 1942 movie musical of the same name, following the same general plot line with some tinkering by Gordon Greenberg (who also directs) and Chad Hodge, along with additional Berlin tunes that originated elsewhere.  

To be clear, I have no problem with shows that are built around compilations of pre-existing, even familiar songs.  However, I do expect a certain degree of imaginative directing, snazzy orchestrations, stellar performances, or, really, anything to lift it above the pleasant but bland evening that is being offered here in a production better suited to community theater than to Broadway. 

Bryce Pinkham (deservedly a Tony nominee for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) plays Jim Hardy, a man who has traded in a career as a nightclub performer for what he supposes will be a bucolic life on a farm he has purchased in Connecticut. 

Jim comes off as a stick-in-the-mud dreamer, ready to give up and give in at every turn. A fatalist, he basically shrugs it off when his fiancĂ©e and showbiz partner Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora) decides she’s not ready to retire after all and elects to remain in the business with Jim’s more ambitious buddy Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu). 

So it’s off to the farm for Jim, who mopes around, overwhelmed by a place in sore need of refurbishing and drowning in a pile of overdue bills and the threat of foreclosure.  

Sigh.  What’s a fellow to do?

Lucky for Jim, he has a barn filled with theater props, a knack for writing Irving Berlin-type songs, and friends back in New York who would be delighted to pop up to Connecticut on occasion to put on a show – say, during various holidays throughout the year. They can sell tickets, and even fill up the farmhouse’s 15 bedrooms with paying guests.  Yay! 

That’s essentially the story of Holiday Inn. The songs, some two dozen of them, are performed by a talented cast, who are unfortunately constrained by listless orchestrations and vocal arrangements of some of Berlin’s gems (among them Blue Skies, Heat Wave, Shaking the Blues Away, Easter Parade, White Christmas) as well as others that fall into the lower-tier category.  Again, it’s as if everything were planned for easy transfer to smaller local productions around the country, with many of the numbers staged and performed as the might appear on an old television variety show. (Lawrence Welk came to mind while watching a sweetly-rendered version of Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk.) 

Jim does not remain unattached for long. His new love interest is Linda Mason (Lora Lee Gayer), the former owner of the property, a local school teacher, and – quelle surprise – a singer!  He is also aided and abetted by his jill-of-all-trades and everybody’s pal, cheerleader, and matchmaker Louise (Megan Lawrence, though played by understudy Jennifer Foote at the performance I attended.) Louise brings Linda and Jim together, although, to provide a teensy amount of suspense, Ted Hanover shows up, having been dumped by Lila for a Texas millionaire. Guess who’s looking for a new dance partner, and guess who he has his eye on!!!

Of the lead performers, only Corbin Bleu, a talented dancer, manages to make something of his role. He is featured in two of the stronger numbers of the evening, You’re Easy to Dance With, performed with a string of women as he searches for the perfect replacement partner, and Let’s Say It With Firecrackers, more-or-less a re-creation of one of the movie’s better-known numbers danced by Fred Astaire. Mr. Bleu, of High School Musical fame, has a certain impish charm that suits him well, and he has his own surety of dance style that lets him pull off the Astaire role without worrying about the master’s shadow. 

The rest are fine, but not necessarily right for their roles. Bryce Pinkham has a lovely tenor, but, really, can a tenor pull off White Christmas without being crushed by the memory of Bing Crosby’s iconic baritone?  Megan Sikora does the ditzy blonde thing quite well, but she is given precious little to do that would allow her to take that kind of performance to the rafters where it belongs. Likewise, Lora Lee Gayer’s operatic soprano is not suited to the role of the girl-next-door she is playing.  

In smaller parts, Lee Wilkof does nicely as an agent striving to get Ted a Hollywood contract, and young Morgan Gao gives a gutsy performance in an outlandish role as a kid who represents the bank every time foreclosure is mentioned. The role of Louise is at least fun, and certainly Ms. Foote, the understudy, carried it off well.  

What you have in the end is the Irving Berlin songs. The problem is, only a couple of them are staged with any panache.  If you’re out to highlight these well-worn standards, then do it up big. Clever. With original staging and exciting choreography. But generally, none of these elements is part of this production. The biggest number comes near the end of a tedious Act I, an exuberant version of Shaking the Blues Away that finally wakes things up. Act II is decidedly better than Act I, but, other than Mr. Bleu’s two numbers, it rarely rises above the banal.  

One thing I did like is the clear effort to put together a diverse company, with a racially and ethnically mixed ensemble and varied body types (tall, short, curvy, thin, short-legged, long-bodied, etc.), so the cast as a whole looked like a gathering of real people and not like a collection of interchangeable magazine covers. I was also curious what they would do (or not do) with a number from the movie that attempted to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and his role in the fight to end slavery, but which unfortunately (in a plot twist) put white performers in black face. Here, a few bars of the song were interpolated into the score as a nod to Berlin, and then disappeared. 

Nice touch, that. But the show as a whole is lacking in so many of its elements that it fails to satisfy, even on the light-and-fluffy entertainment scale. 



Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.