Thursday, May 28, 2015

CAGNEY: A Musical Biography of Actor James Cagney Is Trumped By George M. Cohan

Robert Creighton and the Cast of CAGNEY

After the nasty winter we’ve just slugged our way through, it seems incredible that the good old Fourth of July is just around the bend. Might I suggest you add to your Netflix queue Yankee Doodle Dandy, that grand old 1942 movie musical starring James Cagney as the renowned composer and performer George M. Cohan?

Such a thought may very well have inspired Cagney, the limp and meandering musical now at the York Theatre, whose only truly spirited moments come during the scenes where the original songs (some written by the show’s star Robert Creighton, and some by Christopher McGovern) are cast aside in favor of a medley of classic Cohan tunes. Add some thumping tap routines choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (Tony-nominated for On The Town; love to know how he got involved with this project), and suddenly Cagney sputters briefly to life. 

Unfortunately, there is little about the rest of the show that lives up to those few minutes of pleasure.

Cagney, with a book by Peter Colley and directed by Bill Castellino, is essentially a bio-play with songs, sketchily relating the career of the feisty Irishman from New York—from his early days as a dancer and comedian in vaudeville to his rise as a Hollywood superstar, mostly under contract to Warner Brothers and its kingpin Jack Warner. 

Mr. Creighton (you might remember him as Durdles in the delightful The Mystery of Edwin Drood from a few years back) does a creditable job in the lead role, with enthusiasm and charm to spare. And Bruce Sabath manages to surmount the material to turn in a fine performance as Jack Warner. 

But even allowing for the minimal staging at the York, there’s not much “there” there. The six cast members, all of whom except for Creighton gamely take on multiple roles, run through what amounts to a checklist of moments. We meet Cagney’s mother (Danette Holden), apparently a big influence on his life; his wife Billie (Ellen Zolezzi) whom he hooks up with during his early stint in vaudeville; and some of his friends, including Bob Hope (Jeremy Benton). Check. Check. Check.

It’s mostly routine stuff—including the musical numbers (except for the excellent Cohan setpiece at the top of Act II)—until, finally, the germ of an interesting theme emerges, dealing with how Cagney fought in vain against being typecast as a hoodlum, and then later reshaped those very characters into memorable, haunting individuals. The strongest scene depicts Cagney seizing hold of the movie White Heat and turning it into a masterpiece of its genre. Creighton handles it beautifully, quite likely because there is finally something of substance for him to work with.

So what is it to be?  Not a musical, I think.  As much as I enjoyed the Cohan material, the new original songs really don't add much and, in fact, simply heighten our awareness that Cagney is caught in a clash of two approaches. There are tantalizing bits, though not nearly enough, about the star’s pro-union stance and his outspoken position on social issues (he was a supporter of the battle for justice for the Scottsboro Boys, for instance). That side of the Cagney story, along with his efforts to change his image as an actor, would make for a far more compelling play.  As it stands, however, give me Yankee Doodle Dandy any day!

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tonys 2015: A Close Look at the Nominees in the Musical Categories and the Qualities that Define the Best

Two weeks ago, I made my predictions for the winners of the 2015 Tonys.  Now let’s take a closer look at the various categories for the Musical awards and why it is I made the choices I did. 

Nominees for Best Musical
An American in Paris
Fun Home
Something Rotten!
The Visit

An American in Paris is noteworthy for its choreography and for the Gene Kelly-like dancing by a thoroughly charming Robert Fairchild. But few of the other elements stand out in any way. Musically, it relies on the audience’s familiarity with an array of Gershwin songs, an approach that crops up with some regularity on Broadway, such as in 2012’s Nice Work If You Can Get It and 1992’s Crazy for You. ‘S not all that wonderful. ‘S not terribly original, either.

Something Rotten! is more of a crowd-pleaser, but it’s one of those smoke-and-mirror productions that leans quite heavily on its fast pace, over-the-top performances that shout “look at me!,” and an array of jokey references to other musicals. The various productions of Forbidden Broadway frequently have done just as well in that department, and The Book of Mormon remains the champ. Even Fun Home incorporates playful references to A Chorus Line. Nudge Nudge Wink Wink, anyone?

The Visit has more potential. It has an original Kander and Ebb score and stars the legendary Chita Rivera. But there are too many problems with it, including the way it has been compressed into 90 minutes; a 2011 one-shot concert performance presented a longer two-act version and allowed the story to unfold more fluidly and with greater integrity to the source material. Musically, the show would be better served by sardonic Kurt Weill-ish songs than by the pleasant, bouncy tunes penned for it.       

But Fun Home is the standout for the overall production, for the book, for the performances (5 performance nominations out of a cast of 9!) for the direction, and for the score. It tells a moving family and coming-of-age story, and it tells it exceptionally well. This is an outstanding ensemble work that soars above the rest. Its nearest rival is a musical that unfortunately did not make this list of nominees, The Last Ship.  

Nominees for Best Revival of a Musical
On the Town
On the Twentieth Century
The King and I

Unlike the nominees for Best Musical, the rivals for Best Revival of a Musical are all outstanding. And even though I have made my choice, I’d be equally pleased to see any of these walk away with the top prize. 

On The Town is a joy from start to finish. You’ve got Bernstein’s terrific music performed by a superb, full orchestra; Comden and Green’s witty and polished lyrics; and Joshua Bergasse’s jaunty and creative choreography that pays appropriate tribute to Jerome Robbins while decidedly putting an original stamp on things. Beowolf Boritt’s set and projection design are glorious as well, and the cast, under John Rando’s direction, could not be topped. 

The King and I has also been given a first-rate production by Bartlett Sher, beautiful to look at and performed by another outstanding cast, headed up by Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe. My one hesitation has more to do with the show itself, which feels more dated than, say, South Pacific, which Mr. Sher and Ms. O’Hara turned into a 24-caret gold production a few years back. 

But it is On the Twentieth Century that garners my thumbs-up for the best revival. All of the elements, under Scott Ellis’s direction, work magnificently to bring this screwball musical comedy to glorious life.  Kristin Chenoweth’s lead performance as Lily Garland shoots it into the stratosphere.  She is at the height of her skills here, both as a coloratura soprano and as a physical comedienne. Truly this is a performance of a lifetime, and she takes Cy Coleman’s smart and witty score and Comden and Green’s equally smart and witty lyrics with her into the realm of bliss. 

Best Leading Actress in a Musical
Kristin Chenoweth, On the Twentieth Century
Leanne Cope, An American in Paris
Beth Malone, Fun Home
Kelli O’Hara, The King and I
Chita Rivera, The Visit

One of the astounding things about the production of Fun Home is the exceptionally fine quality of the performances by the entire cast. Not only is Beth Malone rightfully nominated in the Best Leading Actress category, but four of the other cast members also are deservedly nominated in their respective categories. This is an exceptional ensemble effort, deserving of a group Tony, if, of course, there were such a recognition. But for this year’s Tonys, it really is neck-and-neck between Kelli O’Hara who plays Anna in The King and I as a woman who is both fiercely independent and infused with a deep-seated romantic streak, and Kristin Chenoweth, who absolutely nails the demanding role of Lily Garland in On The Twentieth Century. For my money, this is Ms. Chenoweth’s year. 

Best Leading Actor in a Musical
Michael Cerveris, Fun Home
Robert Fairchild, An American in Paris
Brian d’Arcy James, Something Rotten!
Ken Watanabe, The King and I
Tony Yazbeck, On the Town

What thrills about Michael Cerveris’s performance in Fun Home is the way he has mined his character – who could easily be portrayed as a monstrous narcissist – for layers and layers of complexity, even shaping his voice to give us a man who is in a constant state of barely contained self-loathing, frustration, and quite possibly clinical depression. It is a stunning and Tony-worthy portrayal.      

Best Featured Actress in a Musical
Victoria Clark, Gigi
Judy Kuhn, Fun Home
Sydney Lucas, Fun Home
Ruthie Ann Miles, The King and I
Emily Skeggs, Fun Home

As I’ve mentioned, it is not possible for me to single out any one of the performances in Fun Home in this category; all are equally terrific. And while Victoria Clark stands out in the general misfire of the Gigi revival, it is Ruthie Ann Miles who has my nod for her dignified and heart-felt portrayal of Madam Thiang in The King and I.     

Best Featured Actor in a Musical
Christian Borle, Something Rotten!
Andy Karl, On the Twentieth Century
Brad Oscar, Something Rotten!
Brandon Uranowitz, An American in Paris
Max von Essen, An American in Paris

Andy Karl, who wowed audiences in the otherwise less-than-stellar Rocky a couple of years back, offers up a great sense of silly playfulness as Lily Garland’s boy toy in On The Twentieth Century, without resorting to the kind of cartoonish bombast that might have thrown things off balance. That’s hard to do within the confines of a screwball comedy, where things can easily get out of control. Hence, Mr. Karl rises to the top of the list for the Best Featured Actor Tony. 

Best Director of a Musical
Sam Gold, Fun Home
Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten!
John Rando, On the Town
Bartlett Sher, The King and I
Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris

Fun Home succeeds on so many levels, it is impossible not to honor its director for the outstanding production. 

Best Choreography
Joshua Bergasse, On the Town
Christopher Gattelli, The King and I
Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten!
Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris

Great choreography was in abundance this season, so much so that even one straight play was nominated for its choreography. But, really, welcome to Broadway, Mr. Wheeldon!  

Best Book of a Musical
Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, Something Rotten!
Lisa Kron, Fun Home
Craig Lucas, An American in Paris
Terrence McNally, The Visit

All of the nominees wrote books that served their productions well, but Lisa Kron’s work emerges as the best. It was a daunting task to turn Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir into a theatrical narrative, but Ms. Kron has found a way to tell the story within the bounds of the musical format while keeping the wry tone intact and fine-tuning the story’s emotional punch for audiences.

Best Score
John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Visit
Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, Something Rotten!
Sting, The Last Ship
Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, Fun Home

The score of Fun Home fits its characters to a T, but Sting’s music and lyrics for The Last Ship are among the best for a musical in many a season. 

Best Orchestrations
Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky and Bill Elliott, An American in Paris
John Clancy, Fun Home
Larry Hochman, Something Rotten!
Rob Mathes, The Last Ship

Rob Mathes took Sting’s terrific score and provided outstanding orchestrations, so much so that it was a joy to remain after the final bow to listen to all of the exit music. 

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Bob Crowley and 59 Productions, An American in Paris
David Rockwell, On the Twentieth Century
Michael Yeargan, The King and I
David Zinn, Fun Home

Michael Yeargan’s set design for The King and I supports a vision of keeping the show as intimate as possible, quite a challenge when faced with the vast space of the stage at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. The opening sequence offers up an exciting and smart way of bringing the musical directly into the audience, and it rarely leaves there, no matter how many of the cast members are onstage at any given time. Yeargan’s work is nearly matched by the David Zinn’s design for Fun Home, in which seemingly solid furniture takes on the ephemeralness of memory. 

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Something Rotten!
Bob Crowley, An American in Paris
William Ivey Long, On the Twentieth Century
Catherine Zuber, The King and I

This was a great year for costume work, and all of these designers served their shows well. The challenge on The King and I, which Ms. Zuber met most effectively, was to capture the looks of the two different worlds. That Kelli O’Hara could dance the polka in that massive hoop gown is a tribute the designer’s imaginative creations.  Ms. Zuber, it should be noted, did the lovely fin de si├Ęcle designs for Gigi as well.

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Donald Holder, The King and I
Natasha Katz, An American in Paris
Ben Stanton, Fun Home
Japhy Weideman, The Visit

This is a category for which extra attention must be paid while watching a performance, for good lighting design makes its contribution without calling that much attention to itself.  Natasha Katz’s lighting work for An American in Paris provided much of the atmosphere for the depiction of the City of Light on the heels of World War II, and thus earns my vote. 

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And there you have it – my rationale for making the selections I have made as the Tony Awards loom ever closer. 

Even with the occasional clunker, it’s been an exciting season, with plenty of original and thoughtful work happening on Broadway.  And, guess what, the 2015-16 season is already underway, with Jim Parsons starring in An Act of God, in previews now with its official opening scheduled for this coming week.  Hot on its heels are Amazing Grace, a new musical about the story behind the famous hymn of the same name, and the Broadway transfer of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s thrilling musical, Hamilton.  Sounds like a great start to another wonderful year of theater!

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

2015 Tony Award Predictions: Yours Truly Takes on The Guys From The New York Times

The two chief critics for The New York Times -- Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood -- today announced their picks for the winners of the 2015 Tony Awards.  Yours Truly now lines up his own predictions against theirs and even offers his selections for several categories the pair did not address.

For Best New Broadway Musical

Brantley sez:  An American In Paris
Isherwood sez:  An American in Paris
Miller sez:  Fun Home

For Best New Broadway Play

Brantley sez: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Isherwood sez:  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Miller sez:  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

For Best Musical Revival

Brantley sez:  On the Twentieth Century
Isherwood sez:  The King and I
Miller sez:  On the Twentieth Century

For Best Play Revival

Brantley sez:  Skylight
Isherwood sez:  Skylight
Miller sez:  The Elephant Man

For Best Actor in a Musical

Brantley sez:  Michael Cerveris (Fun Home)
Isherwood sez:  Brian D’Arcy James (Something Rotten!)
Miller sez:  Michael Cerveris (Fun Home)

For Best Actress in a Musical

Brantley sez:  Kristin Chenoweth (On the Twentieth Century)
Isherwood sez:  Kelli O’Hara (The King and I)
Miller sez: Kristin Chenoweth (On the Twentieth Century)

For Best Actor in a Play

Brantley sez:  Alex Sharp (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time)
Isherwood sez:  Steven Boyer (Hand to God)
Miller sez:  Alex Sharp (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time)

For Best Actress in a Play

Brantley sez:  Helen Mirren (The Audience)
Isherwood sez:  Helen Mirren (The Audience)
Miller sez:  Carey Mulligan (Skylight)

For Best Featured Actor in a Musical

Brantley sez:  Brad Oscar (Something Rotten!)
Isherwood sez:  Max von Essen (An American in Paris)
Miller sez:  Andy Karl (On the Twentieth Century)

For Best Featured Actress in a Musical

Brantley sez:  Judy Kuhn (Fun Home)
Isherwood sez:  Judy Kuhn (Fun Home)
Miller sez:  Ruthie Ann Miles (The King and I)

For Best Featured Actor in a Play

Brantley sez:  Richard McCabe (The Audience)
Isherwood sez:  Micah Stock (It’s Only a Play)
Miller sez:  Nathaniel Parker (Wolf Hall)

For Best Featured Actress in a Play

Brantley sez:  Annaleigh Ashford (You Can’t Take It With You)
Isherwood sez:  Annaleigh Ashford (You Can’t Take It With You)
Miller sez:  Lydia Leonard (Wolf Hall)

For Best Direction of a Musical

Brantley sez:  Christopher Wheeldon (An American in Paris)
Isherwood sez:  Christopher Wheeldon (An American in Paris)
Miller sez:  Sam Gold (Fun Home)

For Best Direction of a Play

Brantley sez:  Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time)
Isherwood sez:  Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time)
Miller sez: Marianne Elliott (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time)

For Best Book of a Musical

Brantley sez:  Lisa Kron (Fun Home)
Isherwood sez:  Lisa Kron (Fun Home)
Miller sez:  Lisa Kron (Fun Home)

For Best Score of a Musical

Brantley sez:  Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron (Fun Home)
Isherwood sez:  Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick (Something Rotten!)
Miller sez:  Sting (The Last Ship)

Other Categories that Brantley and Isherwood did not predict: 

For Best Choreography

Miller sez:  Christopher Wheeldon (An American in Paris)

For Best Orchestrations

Miller sez:  Rob Mathes (The Last Ship)

For Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Miller sez:  Michael Yeargan (The King and I)

For Best Scenic Design of a Play

Miller sez:  Bunny Christie and Finn Ross (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time)

For Best Costume Design of a Musical

Miller sez:  Catherine Zuber (The King and I)

For Best Costume Design of a Play

Miller sez:  Bob Crowley (The Audience)

For Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Natasha Katz (An American in Paris)

For Best Lighting Design of a Play

Paule Constable (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time)

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Stay tuned:  CBS broadcasts the Tony Awards live from Radio City Music Hall on June 7.  

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