Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Tony Nominations Are Announced: Let the Speculation Begin!

2013 Tony Award Nominees

'Kinky Boots' leads with 13 Tony nominations

Kinky Boots, the Harvey Fierstein/Cyndi Lauper collaboration leads the list of Tony Award nominations. Great for box office, but how will it fare in the end? Its stiffest competition for Best Musical:  the British import, Matilda.

In the past, I've avoided speculating on the Tonys, but what the heck.  Below is the list of nominees, with my predictions in boldface.  I have Matilda edging out Kinky Boots, by the way, though I have given best original score to Lauper.    

The Assembled Parties
Lucky Guy
The Testament of Mary
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Author:

Bring It On: The Musical
A Christmas Story, The Musical
Kinky Boots
Matilda The Musical

A Christmas Story, The Musical
Kinky Boots
Matilda The Musical 
Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

A Christmas Story, The Musical
Hands on a Hardbody Music:
Kinky Boots 
Matilda The Musical Music & Lyrics

Golden Boy
The Trip to Bountiful
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy
Nathan Lane, The Nance
Tracy Letts, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
David Hyde Pierce, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Tom Sturridge, Orphans

Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place
Amy Morton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Holland Taylor, Ann
Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful 

Bertie Carvel, Matilda The Musical
Santino Fontana, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
Rob McClure, Chaplin
Billy Porter, Kinky Boots
Stark Sands. Kinky Boots

Stephanie J. Block, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Carolee Carmello, Scandalous
Valisia LeKae, Motown The Musical
Patina Miller, Pippin
Laura Osnes, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

Danny Burstein, Golden Boy
Richard Kind, The Big Knife
Billy Magnussen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy
Courtney B. Vance, Lucky Guy

Carrie Coon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Shalita Grant, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Judith Ivey, The Heiress
Judith Light, The Assembled Parties
Condola Rashad, The Trip to Bountiful

Charl Brown, Motown The Musical
Keith Carradine, Hands on a Hardbody
Will Chase, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Gabriel Ebert, Matilda The Musical
Terrence Mann, Pippin

Annaleigh Ashford, Kinky Boots
Victoria Clark, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
Andrea Martin, Pippin
Keala Settle, Hands on a Hardbody
Lauren Ward, Matilda The Musical

Pam MacKinnon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Nicholas Martin, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Bartlett Sher, Golden Boy
George C. Wolfe, Lucky Guy

Scott Ellis, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots
Diane Paulus, Pippin
Matthew Warchus, Matilda The Musical

Andy Blankenbuehler, Bring It On: The Musical
Peter Darling, Matilda The Musical
Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots
Chet Walker, Pippin

Chris Nightingale, Matilda The Musical
Stephen Oremus, Kinky Boots
Ethan Popp & Bryan Crook, Motown The Musical
Danny Troob, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella 

Santo Loquasto, The Assembled Parties
David Rockwell, Lucky Guy
Michael Yeargan, Golden Boy

Rob Howell, Matilda The Musical
Anna Louizos, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Scott Pask, Pippin
David Rockwell, Kinky Boots

Soutra Gilmour, Cyrano de Bergerac
Ann Roth, The Nance
Albert Wolsky, The Heiress
Catherine Zuber, Golden Boy

Gregg Barnes, Kinky Boots
Rob Howell, Matilda The Musical
Dominique Lemieux, Pippin
William Ivey Long, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, Lucky Guy
Donald Holder, Golden Boy
Jennifer Tipton, The Testament of Mary
Japhy Weideman, The Nance

Kenneth Posner, Kinky Boots
Kenneth Posner, Pippin
Kenneth Posner, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella
Hugh Vanstone, Matilda The Musical

John Gromada, The Trip to Bountiful
Mel Mercier, The Testament of Mary
Leon Rothenberg, The Nance
Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg, Golden Boy

Jonathan Deans & Garth Helm, Pippin
Peter Hylenski, Motown The Musical
John Shivers, Kinky Boots
Nevin Steinberg, Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

'Pippin' Revival Finds Its Corner Of The Broadway Sky

The Cast of 'Pippin':  They've Got Magic To Do!

It's been 40 years since Broadway has seen a production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Pippin, and its arrival has been anticipated by many as a much-desired breath of fresh air in what has been, until very recently, a bland and disappointing theater season.

Pippin was never wildly loved by the critics, but audiences kept it going for close to 2,000 performances between 1972 and 1977, and it did garner Tony Awards for its director/choreographer Bob Fosse, its set designer Tony Walton, and its lead actor Ben Vereen, who has been indelibly associated with the show since creating the role of the Lead Player.

The show has remained popular through many, many high school and college editions over the years, which makes perfect sense since its theme of youth seeking a purpose in life is one that speaks to young people.  Indeed, Mr. Schwartz originally conceived of Pippin as a student production while he was attending Carnegie Mellon University, just a few years prior to the show’s Broadway opening. 

There is much to commend about this revival, and I do expect that it will be a strong contender for Tony awards in at least three categories:  best revival of a musical, best directing for Diane Paulus, and best supporting actress for Andrea Martin, whose over-the-top crowd-pleasing performance of her solo (with audience participation) number is a master class in musical theater.

I do not normally warm to smoke-and-mirrors production values, especially when they are intended to distract the audience from an insipid play or musical.  Yet it is impossible not to yield to Ms. Paulus's production, which mixes circus, vaudeville, and burlesque motifs in a way that is a perfect match for this show.  The most brilliant decision was to bring in members of the Montreal-based acrobatic company called Les 7 Doigts De La Main ("7 fingers of the hand,") whose skills at tumbling, juggling, and flying through the air are extraordinary.  Gypsy Snider of 7 Doigts is responsible for the circus motif, and it is magnificently woven throughout the show.

In a way, the story of Pippin is circus-like, with elements of sideshow sleight-of-hand and illusions, and headed up by an indefatigable and omnipresent ringmaster.  In the original production, it was Mr. Vereen who inhabited this role.  Now it is in the capable hands of Patina Miller, who previously announced her presence as a London and Broadway performer to be contended with in the musical adaptation of the popular movie Sister Act.

All right, Ms. Miller is not Mr. Vereen, who had the advantage of working closely with Bob Fosse in the creation and development of the role. But she does give a gutsy and out-there performance as the Lead Player, and she does a creditable job with Chet Walker's choreography (which is identified officially as being "in the style of Bob Fosse.") Professional dancers in the audience, or others very well versed in the Fosse oeuvre, will cavil that "in the style of" isn't quite in the same league as the real thing, but it is Fosse enough for most audience members.

Matthew James Thomas, in the title role, is personable, a fine singer with a strong pop singing voice ("in the style of" American Idol and that ilk).  He comes to Pippin after serving as alternate in the role of Peter Parker in Spider-Man:  Turn Off The Dark.  If you want to picture his performance style, think of Aaron Tveit in Next to Normal

I almost feel like a grump saying this, but on the whole, Pippin is not a great work of musical theater.  The biggest problem—and I am about to get literary here—is that it has the design of a picaresque bildungsroman, an episodic coming-of-age story like Candide, for example, but without the necessary moral growth of the main character.  

Pippin doesn’t learn much from the various experiences he has (war, sex, revolution, politics, and so forth), and even when he gets in over his head (like killing his father, Charlemagne, and taking over the kingdom), he finds he can undo his actions and move on.  Even the finale, or THE FINALE as it is called, carries very little real threat with it.  The choice our hero makes—life over death—is kind of a no-brainer.  It should be his soul, not his life, which is at stake. While watching, I thought of the wonderful novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which creates a great sense of souls-at-risk in connection with a circus theme.  If you haven’t read it, check it out.

Regardless, there is no doubt that this production of Pippin delivers what it promises:  “sets, costumes, lights, magic.”  It is filled with sizzling moments, and there is no faulting the spectacle of it all, nor the performances.  In addition to leading star turns by Ms. Miller and Mr. Thomas, Andrea Martin is truly exceptional in the role of Berthe, the advice-giving grandmother, and Terrence Mann (excellent as Charlemagne), Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada, and Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine all grab hold and make the most of their own little corner of the sky.

I expect that Pippin has settled in for what will, once again, prove to be a long and successful run. 

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

'The Trip To Bountiful': A Revival To Cherish For Bringing Cicely Tyson Back to the Stage

Cicely Tyson and Condola Rashad in 'The Trip To Bountiful'

Music suffuses the endearing new revival of The Trip To Bountiful, on view at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre and starring the indomitable Cicely Tyson as Carrie Watts, an elderly widow bound and determined to escape her stultifying urban existence and return to live out her days at her family home in rural Texas. 

The music comes from many sources:  from Perry Como crooning on the radio, from the chirping of the redbirds and scissortails that floods Mrs. Watts with joyful memories, and, most of all, from the hymns she loves to sing and in which she finds great strength and comfort.  (I don’t know whether this is occurring at every performance, but at the one I attended, many in the audience joined Ms. Tyson in singing one of the hymns; far from distracting, it felt like a spontaneous and transcendent moment.)

Playwright Horton Foote originally wrote The Trip to Bountiful as a teleplay in 1953, during the Golden Age of Television when first-rate theatrical dramas and live televised productions were standard fare. The original TV production starred Lillian Gish as Mrs. Watts, and the iconic actress took the play to Broadway shortly thereafter. Over the years there have been several theatrical revivals, along with a movie (1985) that garnered an Academy Award for Geraldine Page.  Later, in 2006, Lois Smith won a  Drama Desk Award for her portrayal of the same character in an off-Broadway production at the Signature Theatre Company. 

In short, Mrs. Watts has been very kind to actresses of a certain age.  At the time she entered into their lives, Ms. Gish was 60, Ms. Page was 61, and Ms. Smith was 76.  But Ms. Tyson beats them all.  At what has been widely reported to be the age of 88, she grabs hold of the character, the stage, and our hearts from start to end. 

The plot of The Trip to Bountiful is a simple one (the title pretty much says it all), and the play would be most resistant to any sort of fussy production.  Thankfully, Michael Wilson, who has had a lot of experience directing Mr. Foote’s plays, helms the evening with a gentle hand.  The story unfolds without a lot of sentimentality and avoids melodrama during several potentially melodramatic scenes. 

Mrs. Watts feels trapped, living as she does with her hapless son Ludie (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and sharp-tongued daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) in a two-room flat in Houston.  The only thing to do is to make her escape and return to her family home in Bountiful, where she intends to live with a childhood friend. 

Along the way, she shares a bus ride and swaps stories and hymns with a young woman (Condola Rashad), loses her handbag with her pension check inside, and spends the night in a bus station just a few miles from her destination. 

It is not difficult to imagine a version of the play in which the final miles of Mrs. Watts’s journey are made in a pine box, but this is an ending that Foote wisely stayed away from in the writing. Instead, he sends a kind-hearted sheriff (Tom Wopat), who has been dispatched to find Mrs. Watts and reunite her with her family. 
It is the sheriff who drives her the rest of the way to Bountiful, where she finds her childhood friend has passed away, her family home is in ruin, and the world of her dreams has long since returned to nature.  Still, it is enough that she has made the journey, and she is able to conjure up a sense of satisfaction and inner peace.  When Ludie and Jessie Mae show up, she is content to return with them to Houston, carrying Bountiful inside her. 

The acting company does a fine job all around, mostly performing roles that are only modestly defined and that serve largely as foils to the central character.  Mr. Gooding, who is making his professional stage debut with this production, does seem somewhat ill-at-ease onstage, and when I saw him, he was losing his voice.  Yet I found him to be most appropriately cast in the role of the befuddled Ludie, trying to little avail to be the peacemaker in the constant struggle between his mother and wife.   

The more experienced Ms. Williams, as the self-centered and mean-spirited Jessie Mae, and Ms. Rashad and Mr. Wopat make the most of their parts.  

But, of course, it is Ms. Tyson who carries the play. She is in turn charming, devilish, forthright, sweet, stubborn—and always fascinating to watch.  Whether she is 79, as her official biography has it, or 88, as The New York Times has declared, It hardly seems to matter.  To quote Shakespeare, writing of Cleopatra:  “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” 

Brava, Ms. Tyson, and yet again brava!!!

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Monday, April 22, 2013

'The Testament of Mary': Fiona Shaw Solos In A Lacerating Version of "The Greatest Story Ever Told"

Fiona Shaw in 'The Testament of Mary'

It’s getting so that if you are on time to the theater, you are actually late.

If, for instance, you have tickets for the hit musical Once, you need to arrive a good half hour before curtain time in order to enjoy the exuberant live pre-show performance of Irish music, along with the opportunity to buy expensive drinks at the on-stage bar. 

Productions of other musicals (Fela! comes to mind) and even non-musicals (Brief Encounter) have offered live music as the audience settled in, and it’s hard to find even a straight play—especially a period revival—that doesn’t set the mood through the use of recordings from the era (Golden Boy, Happy Birthday).  Even the Pearl Theatre Company’s lighter-than-air production of This Side of Neverland, a pair of one-acts by J. M. Barrie, entertains us with an on-stage pianist playing turn-of-the-20th-century tunes. 

So, what’s a director to do to grab the audience’s attention without resorting to the ubiquitous pre-show musical performance?

Deborah Warner, director of The Testament of Mary—the stimulating, if overly stimulated new play at the Walter Kerr Theatre—gives the pre-show a new twist, what you might call the pre-show art exhibit.  

While waiting for the play to begin, audience members are invited to come onto the stage to walk around and view the pre-show set, designed by Tom Pye in the manner of an exhibition of Dada art.  The set is, indeed, a sight to behold, rife with symbolism and found objects, only some of which remain onstage as the play begins, to be used as props during the 90-minute rigorous workout of a performance by Fiona Shaw as the Virgin Mary.

Ms. Shaw, the gifted Irish actress best known to many Americans for her recurring role as Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter film series, was last seen on Broadway a decade ago in a modern-dress version of Medea (another visceral performance directed by Ms. Warner).  Here she portrays an angry, depressed, and frustrated Mary, whose own version of the events surrounding her son’s last days has been ignored and distorted beyond redemption, save for the 90 minutes in which she is allotted to give testament. 

In case you are thinking of attending the play, I’ll not reveal any more about the pre-show exhibition, save to say that it is quite an eyeful and is sure to hold your attention.  As for the pieces of it that serve as props during the play, they must be made of strong materials, indeed, to be able to withstand Ms. Shaw’s physical workout of a performance.

The Testament Of Mary was written by Colm Toibin, both  as this play and as a novella. In it, Mary has been badgered to support the version of Jesus’s story that suits the hierarchy of the Church—and she wants no part of it.  As far as she is concerned, her son’s life was usurped by the band of hangers-on who followed him everywhere and turned him, essentially, into Jesus Christ Superstar.  The “miracles” were either sleight-of-hand parlor tricks (water into wine) or disturbing misfires (the reanimation of Lazarus, akin to something out of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.)  Every effort she made to get him to come home, to save him from his fate, was thwarted.  In the end, she could not stomach bearing witness to the crucifixion, and fled. 

This is territory that Mary does not want to revisit, yet which she cannot avoid.  As she give testament, Ms. Shaw chews up the stage, hurls herself from one end to the other, stomps her feet, strips naked and plunges into a pool of water, plays with a coil of barbed wire, and rearranges and batters the furniture and other props.

This is, indeed, a tour de force performance, one that is likely to bring Ms. Shaw a Tony nomination.  The thing is, though, The Testament of Mary could do with rather less of the relentless assault that marks the actress’s work here. This is a version of “the greatest story ever told,” after all; that ought to be able to hold an audience’s interest without all of the sturm und drang

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

‘The Assembled Parties’: Light and Hecht Shine In Richard Greenberg's Quirky New Play

'The Assembled Parties':  14 Rms Pk Vu

In The Assembled Parties, the new play by Richard Greenberg, the buzz begins almost as soon the audience members take their seats at the Friedman Theatre and begin to peruse their programs. 

There it is, right beneath the cast list.  Place:  A fourteen-room apartment on Central Park West.  Let me-GASP-repeat. A fourteen-room apartment on Central Park West. Now, that’s one sure way to get the attention of real estate-obsessed New York theatergoers!

So before saying a word about the play itself, let me tip my hat to scenic designer Santo Loquasto for his amazing multi-room revolving set, which gives us a sense of what it would be like to call such a magnificent expanse of space “home.”  If only… [sigh!]

But, I digress.

If I were to give an executive summary of The Assembled Parties, I would say it is about the truths that hurt and the lies that heal, and the unexpected acts of kindness that people are capable of bestowing on one another from time to time.  

Be warned, though; the play is something of a puzzle box.  It takes some patience to get through the opaque exposition of Act I, in which we are privy to only just enough information to lead us down the path to faulty conclusions.  It isn’t until Act II, as the characters—particularly those played most compellingly by Jessica Hecht and Judith Light—reveal themselves more fully, that we come to appreciate the play’s most satisfying heart. 

Act I and Act II take place on a two different Christmas Days, one in 1980 and the other in 2000.  In both instances, members of a Jewish family have gathered at the upscale apartment of Julie (Ms. Hecht) and Ben (Jonathan Walker), and their sons Scotty (Jake Silbermann) and Timmy (Alex Dreier).  The occasion is Christmas dinner. 

Mr. Greenberg never does explain why the Jews in his play are celebrating Christmas, nor why the apartment is filled with “goyishe tchotchkes,” as Ms. Light’s character declaims.  I will say, however, that I was reminded of playwright Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1997), which opens on a character called Lala Levy busily and happily decorating a Christmas tree, until her mother chastises her: “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars!” 

[The link between the two plays is not, I think, a random coincidence, as Lala Levy was played on Broadway by an actress by the name of Jessica Hecht.  Hmmm!  And, for the record, the Christmas tree onstage at the Friedman does not have a star, but an angel on top.]

But I digress again.

As, actually, does the playwright, who appears to be toying with us throughout Act I, replete as it is with tantalizing red herrings about the relationships among the characters.   These include, in addition to the apartment dwellers, Ben’s sister Faye (Ms. Light), her husband Mort (Mark Blum), and their daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld), along with Scotty’s college friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos). 

Questions will surely fill your head:  Why have Faye and Mort remained in a clearly loveless marriage for so long? Why does their daughter Shelley seem to be such a misfit, reminiscent of Lisa Loopner, one of Gilda Radner’s iconic characters from Saturday Night Live?  And what is the real story behind the ruby necklace?   Do note that only some of these questions will be answered in due course. 

And any lover of language will have a field day with the play.  Characters use words like “feckless” and “quixotic” and “gravitas” in their everyday conversation; drop references to e. e. cummings, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Gail Sheehy; toss around mouthfuls like “hemidemisemiquaver” and “oasis-less desert” (try saying that one three times fast!); incorporate Yiddish expressions as if they had air quotes around them; and, in the case of Ms. Hecht, employ a heightened affectation of speech that is uniquely her own (or that of her character, a former and apparently famous movie actress).

As I said…a puzzle box.  And yet, despite the odd layers and the fragmented bits of information that Mr. Greenberg has piled on top of one another, The Assembled Parties has a rich vein of humanity running through it.  By the end, you may find yourself caught unawares and surprisingly moved, especially by the amazingly strong, caring, and optimistic women played so well by Ms. Light and Ms. Hecht.   Expect those names to appear on the list of Tony nominees. 

The cast as a whole is uniformly strong, and Lynne Meadow has directed with a sure hand.  And if the title is a little obscure, think of it in the same vein as the set of directions that might come with a Christmas present:  "some assembly required."  

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