Sunday, May 29, 2011

And the Envelope, Please: Announcing the 2011 ProfMiller Kudos Awards

In the spirit of the theater community’s annual awards season, I bid you welcome to our own ProfMiller Kudos Awards for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement, 2010-2011.

Once again, I am please to report that as a committee of one, I was able to reach unanimous decisions in all of the categories.  Needless to say, the selection criteria I have employed reflect my personal biases and judgments, and ties are not unheard of when I deem them to be appropriate.  As I am an equal opportunity theatergoer, these awards encompass both Broadway and Off Broadway productions.

And so, without further ado, the envelope, please:

We begin with a special award, for the Most Underappreciated Show, which goes to The Scottsboro Boys.  While I imagine the Kander and Ebb trunk holds more songs that may yet see the light of day, this was the team’s final fully realized musical following lyricist Fred Ebb’s death in 2004.  But no sentiment need be attached.  This simply was an excellent show, an edgy retelling of the true story of a group of African American teenage boys who were falsely accused of raping two white women in segregated Alabama in the 1930s.  This was one of the few transfers from Off Broadway to Broadway that made a fitting transition to the big stage, with a first-rate cast and strong directing and choreography by Susan Stroman.  It’s nice that it received 12 Tony nominations, but it is likely to be squashed under the juggernaut that is The Book of Mormon.   
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In the category of Best Revival of a Play on Broadway, we declare a tie between The Merchant of Venice and The Normal Heart—the former, exquisitely directed by Daniel Sullivan, the latter by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe.  At the performance of Merchant that I attended, the audience, many of whom had quite probably come to see Al Pacino and had little prior knowledge of the play itself, audibly gasped at a couple of key plot turns.  When is the last time Shakespeare was able to garner such a reaction?  As for The Normal Heart, it could easily have come off as mired in yesterday’s headlines.  Instead, it resonates deeply with today’s audiences and reminds us of the potential for theater to fully envelop viewers in both powerful drama and emotional intensity.  When is the last time a speech given by a character in a play (in this instance, by Ellen Barkin) stopped the show by drawing waves of sustained applause? 

In a similar vein, we declare a tie for Best Revival of a Play Off Broadway.  The Kudos Award goes to the Atlantic Theater Company’s production of a double bill of one-act plays by Harold Pinter, The Collection and A Kind of Alaska, and to the Signature Theatre Company’s brilliant production of Tony Kushner’s masterwork, Angels in America.  The Pinter plays, under the direction of Karen Kohlhaas, were a revelation of flawless style and splendid acting. Angels in America, stunningly directed by Michael Greif, managed to juggle all of Kushner’s deeply complex ideas without once dropping a ball, and boasted a cast that poured themselves into layered and emotionally honest performances.   

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For his performance in The Normal Heart, the Kudos Award for Best Actor in a Play goes to Joe Mantello. This has been quite a season for Mantello.  In addition to his tour de force performance in Larry Kramer’s drama about the early days of the AIDS crisis, he directed two terrific productions—Other  Desert Cities at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, and The Other Place at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Other Desert Cities, a family drama steeped in politics, takes the Kudos Award for Best New Play, while The Other Place serves as the vehicle for Laurie Metcalf’s outstanding performance as a mentally and emotionally fragile medical researcher, a portrayal that earns her the Kudos Award for Best Actress in a Play.

For Best Featured Actress in a Play, the Kudos Award goes to Estelle Parsons, for her turn as a busybody landlady in Good People.  It’s unfortunate she was not nominated for a Tony for this funny, quirky, and compelling performance. 

For Best Featured Actor in a Play, the winner of the Kudos Award is Christian Borle, who did outstanding work in both Peter and the Starcatcher and Angels in America.   Watch for him in Steven Spielberg’s new NBC TV show, Smash, which depicts the efforts of a group of people to put on a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe.

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Moving on to the musicals, we’ll start with the Kudos Award for Best Actress in a Musical. The winner is Laura Benanti, for her wigged out performance in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  She’s likely to win a Tony for the same role, but in the category of Best Actress in a Featured Role.  I’m not bound by the Tony rules, and thought hers was the one truly outstanding performance in this mishmash of a musical. 

For Best Actor in a Musical, the winner is Rob McClure, for his  funny and charming performance in Where’s Charley? Mr. McClure played the title role in the Encores! production of Frank Loesser’s lighter-than-air musical, and was outstanding in taking on the mantle that has been indelibly associated with Ray (“Once in Love With Amy”) Bolger.  

Both Mr. McClure’s performance and the show itself were a real treat, earning Where’s Charley? the Kudos Award for Best Musical Revival.  A sheer delight, thanks to a stellar cast, sharp directing by John Doyle, and brilliant musicianship of the orchestra, under the baton of Rob Berman.  

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Finally, in the category of Best New Musical, the Kudos Award goes to The Book of Mormon.  Likewise, the show’s directors Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker win for Best Director of a New Musical. This odds-on-favorite to win the Tony Award for best musical deserves all of its accolades.    

And that’s a wrap. Cue the music and call it a night!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Obscure Rock Band with Mythic Roots Becomes the Stuff of Compelling Musical Theater

As the decade of the 1960s was coming to a close, an oddball rock group known as The Shaggs briefly appeared on the scene. By most accounts, the band—consisting of three sisters from the small town of Fremont, New Hampshire—displayed little talent for songwriting, musicianship, or singing. The group's one album, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, came and went in a flash and the band sank into obscurity.

Except…inexplicably…long after the sisters, Helen, Betty, and Dot Wiggin, had happily pushed the entire experience behind them, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World continued to cling to life by being passed around among outsider music aficionados, drawn to the band’s uniquely unpolished and unaffected style.

And now, forty years on, the outrĂ© yet compelling Wiggin sisters find themselves the subjects of a outrĂ© yet compelling theatrical work, a musical titled—what else?—The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, currently on view at Playwrights Horizons.

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, the musical, is the story behind the recording—a story that, if the Shaggs were coming on the scene now, would surely be on display as a reality TV show.

So, who are the Wiggins, and why are they deserving of a musical about them? And why, like The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World (the album), has The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World (the show) kept popping up in productions since its inception eight years ago: Los Angeles (2003), Chicago (2004), and New York (2005 and now)?

I’ll leave it to you to decide what to make of The Shaggs’ music. You can hear samples on YouTube, or you can buy a copy of a limited edition of the band's album through the run of the show, now scheduled to end July 3. You can also hear snippets of the band’s actual music in the show, although the bulk of the tunes are original numbers penned by Gunnar Madsen (with co-lyricist, Joy Gregory), a composer whose eclectic career has encompassed writing music for television, movies, the Minnesota Opera, and the National Beef Council.

As for the tale itself, its complicated, disturbed, and self-deluding heart lies not within the would-be rock star Wiggin sisters, but within their father, Austin, a textile worker with a dream born of some inner need to raise his family’s name out of the mundane world it inhabited into the rarer air of fame and fortune.

Austin, a strict paterfamilias who was no fan of rock-era music and kept his children (there were six in all) under tight rein,  got it into his head one day that he was destined to turn Helen, Betty, and Dot into rock stars.

Austin’s near mythic conviction—which he connected with a prediction made by his late and sorely-missed mother—was so strong that he dragged everyone along, including his loyal if confused wife Annie, plunging the family into debt and pulling the girls out of school so they could rehearse under his always watchful eye. It was Austin who named the group The Shaggs, coerced the local community hall to hire them to perform on a regular basis, and paid to record and press their album—of which perhaps 100 copies ever saw the light of day. Despite a total failure through every phase of this enterprise, Austin kept his daughters performing until 1975, when he died and the spell was finally lifted. The story lived on through the cultish devotion of a handful of followers, an occasional re-release of the album, and an article about the band written by Susan Orlean that appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1999.

And, eventually, that is the story that became the musical, The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.

Madsen and Gregory have written songs that serve the story well, and that nicely blend touches of humor, irony, and earnestness. The performances throughout are strong. Peter Friedman, a better actor than singer, brings a real sense of fervor to the role of Austin, and Annie Golden, a better singer (actually, a terrific singer) than actor, shows us both devotion and doubt as his wife. Sarah Sokolovic (Betty), Emily Walton (Helen), and Jamey Hood (Dot) do well as the sisters, overwhelmed by their father's demands and expectations of them, but also showing healthy signs of rebellion. Kevin Cahoon, Corey Michael Smith, and Steve Routman round out the cast, and John Langs does a sold job of directing.

I’ve got to say, the true story behind the show is so compelling that it is difficult to even guess whether the musical would be nearly as interesting if it has been completely invented. Since seeing it last weekend, I have spent a lot of time reading about the Wiggin family and the Shaggs, and listening to their music. I cannot separate the experience of seeing the musical from the rest of these activities.

If you brush off The Shaggs as simply another wannabe rock band, this is not the show for you. If, on the other hand, you are intrigued by the real life story of the Wiggins, then I encourage you to get to Playwrights Horizons for a performance of The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World before it, too, becomes a piece of The Shaggs' underground cult.

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Tonys, Yes, But Don’t Forget About Off-Broadway

Now that the Tony Award nominees have been announced and everyone else is busy picking at the list and making their predictions, I thought I might use this time to talk about some of the Off Broadway offerings from this season.

I recently gushed about a little gem of a downtown show called Peter and the Starcatcher, a clever, funny, charming, and delightful prequel to Peter Pan.   If you missed it but wish you hadn’t, the buzz is that a move uptown, possibly to a Broadway theater, may be in the offing.  Since the play was commissioned by Disney Theatrical Productions, there may be some real money behind the buzz. So keep your eyes open and don’t let the grass grow beneath your feet should the transfer happen.

Another “second chance” show you should be looking out for is Other Desert Cities by playwright Jon Robin Baitz.  This is a smart, sharply drawn family drama with political undertones, directed by the multi-talented and ubiquitous Joe Mantello.  Montello just came off directing Laurie Metcalf’s Obie-worthy performance as a mentally damaged woman in Sharr White’s The Other Place (sorry, that one’s closed, too), and he is now knocking them dead as an actor in the lead and Tony-nominated role of Ned Weeks in the revival of Larry Kramer’s masterful The Normal Heart on Broadway.  Other Desert Cities had a sold out run at Lincoln Center and boasted a stellar cast that included Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, and Linda Lavin.  Ideally, a Broadway transfer would keep director and cast intact.   My advice: don’t miss it this time!

Or course, you haven’t missed everything.  So here are some Off Broadway shows you might want to see before they, too, are gone.

High on my list is By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, now on view at the Second Stage.  The play, by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage (for Ruined) is a funny and satirical look at the life and career of an African American actress whose claim to fame was her featured role as a maid in the fictional but authentic-seeming 1933 film, “The Belle of New Orleans.”  Nottage takes jabs at Hollywood racism, both then and now, and also at the over-intellectualizing of serious questions of race in America.  Act I is presented as a very funny screwball comedy that, in Act II, segues into rich satire. If you need more convincing, go to the website for a video glimpse of a mockumentary about “The Belle of New Orleans” and Vera Stark’s place in cinematic history.

This is also a big year for playwright Tony Kushner, who hit the headlines this week when the City University of New York Board of Trustees chopped his name from a list of intended recipients of honorary degrees.  The brouhaha was triggered when one trustee challenged Kushner’s alleged criticism of the State of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.  I’ll confine my comments here to my view that the decision was a pretty foolish one that makes the trustees look like a bunch of idiots, and turn instead to Kushner’s current season in the sun as the focus of the Signature Theatre Company's annual single-playwright showcase.

To begin with, we had a glorious revival of Angels in America, one of the great American plays of the twentieth century, given a grand production in the small confines of the Peter Norton Space.  I’ve already praised it to the skies in a previous blog entry, so let’s turn to the second of the season’s three Kushner plays, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, now on view at the Public Theater. 

IHO,” as the lengthy title is sometimes abbreviated, lacks the cohesion of Angels, but it does contain a spinning array of plots and subplots, fine acting, and brilliant discourse about politics, unionism, Marxism, theology, suicide, fidelity, family ties, birth order, same-sex marriage, prostitution, and more--often told with humor (an early line about cell phone users in the theater draw a hearty laugh and a round of applause) or sharp-tongued sarcasm ("I came here to tweeze your head off and spit in the stump!" is one memorable line). Kushner will say whatever is on his mind when he is writing a new play, and this one, coming in at nearly four hours, could use some editing.  Still, it is well worth a visit and beats the heck out of the pretentiousness that is Jerusalem

Finally, I'd like to tell you about three new Off Broadway shows that are about to open. 

Now in previews at the Little Shubert Theatre is Lucky Guy, a campy romp of a musical featuring Leslie Jordan, best known for his role as Beverley Leslie on the TV sitcom "Will and Grace," and Varla Jean Merman (aka Jeffery Roberson), a very talented drag performer.   Willard Beckham provides the book, lyrics, and music, which ranges from country to rockabilly to novelty numbers to ballads. The story line, such as it is, centers on a plot to steal a song from the winner of a talent contest. If you go, expect a lot of burlesque-type humor, but also take note that within all the silliness, Kyle Dean Massey, who sings the lovely title song, emerges as a star to be reckoned with.  

If you long for more tales of Neverland while you await another opportunity to see Peter and the Starcatcher, you should head on out to the New Victory Theater for the return engagement of Mabou Mines' wistfully poignant production of Peter and Wendy (yes, another Peter Pan play, this one adhering close to J. M. Barrie's original story).  Peter and Wendy features the always brilliant Basil Twist doing duty here as the lead puppeteer, and Karen Kandel as the storyteller, a role for which she has earned a truckload of highly deserved awards.  This is a short run that began yesterday and is scheduled to end on May 22.  Hesitate and you become one of the Lost Boys!

Also something to look forward to is a co-production of the New York Theatre Workshop and Playwrights Horizons of the musical The Shaggs:  Philosophy of the World, based on the true story of a working class father who is determined to find fame and fortune by promoting his not-particularly-talented daughters as a great rock band in the late 1960s. 

Playwrights Horizons, where The Shaggs will be performed, is offering discount tickets of $40 (for performances between May 12 and May 19) and $60 for the rest of the run, through July 3.  You can order online at, using the code SHAGGLOG, or by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 between the hours of noon and 8 p.m. dailty, or by presenting a printout of this blog post to the Ticket Central box office at 416 West 42nd street at the hours listed above.   

So there you have it, a reminder that Broadway alone does not make New York the greatest theater city in the world.  Catch an Off Broadway show today!

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.