Friday, April 11, 2014

In Praise of Bullets Over Broadway's Nick Cordero

Should I start with the good news or the bad news? The good news is that if you like big Susan Stroman dance numbers, Bullets Over Broadway has plenty of them. The other good news is that the show introduces many of us to the talents of Nick Cordero. The bad news is that for a musical comedy, it's not very funny.
Woody Allen wrote the book for this musical version of his 1994 movie of the same name. The backstage story seems like a no-brainer for a Broadway musical. It worked for Kiss Me Kate. But that musical had an original score by Cole Porter. This one uses pre-existing songs from the '20s, the era in which the show takes place. David Shayne (Zach Braff) is a struggling playwright, but gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) agrees to invest in one of his plays on the condition that Nick's girlfriend Olive (HelĂ©ne York) gets a role. Cheech (Cordero), Olive's bodyguard during rehearsals, has a natural talent for playwriting and starts giving David advice to improve the dialogue. Much like Cheech saves Shayne's play, Cordero saves this one. Whenever he is onstage, the show picks up some energy. He is able to make his jokes land with ease. The others in the cast are not amateurs--it also includes Marin Mazzie as diva Helen Sinclair and a wasted Karen Ziemba who is reduced to carrying around a dog. Even Braff is well-cast as the nebbishy Shayne. But there never seems to be much of a point to anything that is happening. Even though lives are on the line, the stakes never seem that high. Part of that is the lack of an original score, which gives the musical a disjointed feeling of thrown together novelty songs--like the innuendo-heavy "The Hot Dog Song" or the inexplicable closer "Yes, We Have No Bananas."

I enjoy double entendres and old-fashioned musicals, but when what passes for humor is an overeating Brooks Ashmanskas in a fat suit, there are more groans than laughs. That is, until Cheech gets his big number, "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do," complete with tap-dancing gangsters. If only the rest of the show were that fun.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Getting to Know Rodgers & Hammerstein at 92Y

Any evening with talented Broadway stars performing Rodgers & Hammerstein is going to be a good one. Especially when those stars are Jonathan Groff (Frozen), Mandy Gonzalez (In The Heights), Rebecca Luker (most recently seen in Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella), Phillipa Soo (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812), and Lewis Cleale (currently in The Book of Mormon). But what made Lyrics and Lyricists: Getting to Know You: Rodgers & Hammerstein even better than your standard concert was host Ted Chapin's (president of Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company) knowledge of the songwriting team. He shared tidbits about their collaboration and illustrated them by having the cast read letters that they wrote to each other.

And what better way to study their process than by hearing three incarnations of a song. Groff sang the never-before-performed "My Friend," which was supposed to be the song Lieutenant Cable sings after meeting Liat in South Pacific, but co-librettist Joshua Logan did not think was appropriate for such a life-changing moment. "My Friend" became "Suddenly Lovely," also nixed by Logan, but the tune was later used for "Getting to Know You" in The King And I. Finally, Groff performed the song which stayed in the show, "Younger Than Springtime." 

Every performance was a highlight, but Soo was the biggest surprise. I had seen and enjoyed her performance in Natasha, but was not aware of her range, evident in her sassy "I Cain't Say No" and affecting "Mr. Snow." I hope to see her in something else soon. Maybe in The King and I that Ted Chapin unofficially announced is coming to Lincoln Center next year?

If you don't have plans tonight, you can still catch the final performance of the show at 7:30 at 92Y. Tickets are only $25 if you are 35 and under. 

Contest: Win Tickets to Under My Skin

Update: The contest is now closed. Congratulations to the winner, @omgitzfern!

Do you want to see Kerry Butler in a new off-Broadway play? I'm giving away a pair of tickets to Under My Skin at the Little Shubert Theatre. It's about an eligible bachelor and a single, working mother who switch places and get to experience each other's lives. It's written by the husband and wife team known for the shows The Nanny, Three's Company, and Who's the Boss--Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser.
In order to win a pair of tickets to see the show, leave a comment on this post telling me who you would like to trade places with if you had the chance. You can also tweet about the contest or retweet one of my tweets about it (if you enter this way, you must be following on Twitter to win). You can enter once each way for a total of two entries. A winner will be chosen at random from all the entries on Friday, April 11, at 4 p.m. Please include your e-mail address or Twitter handle in the comments so I have a way to contact you if you win. Good luck!

A Musical For Our Times?

In 2004, Stephanie D'Abruzzo was nominated for a Tony for Avenue Q. Now she's starring in the unimaginative Greed: A Musical for Our Times at New World Stages.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
You have to hand it to Greed for delivering what it promises: a bunch of songs about greed. But the problem is that none of them (by Michael Roberts) say anything that insightful or funny. There's a song called "It's Mine" that is repeated three times. There are generic songs about cheating on your taxes and other things people do for money. There is even an offensive number called "Another Kid" about a mother continuing to get pregnant to get welfare money, which gets even more uncomfortable when Julia Burrows gets to the line about drinking and smoking while pregnant so that she can have a baby with birth defects and get even more money. The funniest line had nothing to do with the premise, but it was about how Greed shares a stage with The Gazillion Bubble Show.

We get it. People are greedy. But we don't need to go to a musical to learn that. If Roberts wants to write a musical for our times, maybe he can visit Avenue Q, which is playing in the building, for some research.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Farewell to How I Met Your Mother

Tonight, How I Met Your Mother ends after nine seasons. A sitcom's ending hasn't been this significant to me since Friends, so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what this show has meant to me.

I watched every episode of Friends from the pilot, which aired when I was in middle school. It ended the year I graduated college. It was fitting, like I grew up while watching the show, and now I was entering the real world (ha). I also grew up while watching How I Met Your Mother, in a different way.
Photo credit: Ron P. Jaffe/Fox © 2014 Fox Television
I was 22 when the first episode of How I Met Your Mother aired. I started watching mostly as a Neil Patrick Harris fan, but from the end of the first episode, when Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) said, "That, kids, is the true story of how I met your Aunt Robin," I was hooked. At first I wanted to know who the mother was, but that started to matter less and less and I grew attached to the characters and the method of storytelling. I loved the way the show played with time and brought back recurring jokes. But setting aside the conceit of the show, it was really about being in your '20s in New York City. When I was watching Friends, I got older watching the show, but it's not like I could relate to the characters. I wasn't experiencing what they were. With How I Met Your Mother, I was growing up with them. I related and continue to relate to so much about the show--Ted's struggle to meet someone, making bad decisions, staying out too late with friends, feeling nostalgic for the past. I still use the parameters established in "Subway Wars" to determine if I'm a real New Yorker. (I'm happy to say I'm not--I've never stolen a cab from someone, seen Woody Allen, or killed a cockroach with my bare hands.)

Now that I've transitioned from my 20s to my 30s, I'm ready to say goodbye, and thanks to Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, I have a lot of quotes to bring with me into the next phase of my life.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Theatre For A New Audience Keeps Things Simple, In A Good Way

If you think Shakespeare is hard to understand, it could be because you haven't seen a Theatre For A New Audience production. The company's simple new production of King Lear, directed by Arin Arbus, is easy to follow. The minimalist set (by Ricardo Hernandez) means there are few distractions, and you can really focus on the language.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
Michael Pennington plays Lear, the aging king who foolishly divides his estate between his two oldest daughters, casting out his youngest and truest daughter Cordelia (Lilly Englert). If the performances aren't revelatory, they do bring a humanity to the play. Even the villains--Goneril (Rachel Pickup), Regan (Bianca Amato), and Edmund (Chandler Williams)--are more sympathetic than in any production I've seen. If you listen to what these characters have to say, you'll see that they are just people like us--who want to get by, who worry about getting older, and who want to be loved.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jasper in Deadland is a Blend of Mythologies

First thing's first: Allison Scagliotti, best known as Mindy, Josh's girlfriend from Drake & Josh, is co-starring in Jasper in Deadland. I say this because I had no idea before the show (and it took me the first act to figure out why she looked so familiar). Now I know she probably wants to make a name for herself in theater apart from that and she definitely proves she has the chops with her work in this show, but I think there are a lot of Drake and Josh fans out there, and the marketing team should be playing her up more. Anyway, back to Jasper in Deadland, the Orpheus and Eurydice-inspired musical, which opened last night at the West End Theatre in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
In this modern version of the Greek legend, high school student and swimmer Jasper (Matt Doyle) loves his best friend Agnes, but not in the way she wants him to. He prefers to just stay friends because he doesn't want to end up like his separated parents. Agnes, angry at him and wanting to prove herself, dives off a cliff. He jumps in after her to save her, but it's too late--she's already dead. So he goes to the underworld to bring her back. The show isn't just based on Greek mythology, but also picks and chooses from Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythology. There is something fun about combining different stories and giving them a modern twist, but sometimes the choices don't make much sense. (Why was Persephone with Pluto and not Hades?) The book by Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver could cut some characters and modern references (it's cool to set it in the modern day, but there are too many unnecessary mentions of cell phones and the Internet). But the bigger problem is that although the stakes are high, none of the obstacles, like the three-headed dog Cerberus, Jasper faces end up seeming that scary as he goes from one to the next with relative ease.

Though the book is overstuffed, Brandon Ivie's staging and Patrick Rizzotti's set work simply and beautifully together. The use of blue fabric for water is especially effective (see photo). But the main reason to see the show is Oliver's memorable score. I still have "Stroke by Stroke" in my head, which Doyle delivers effortlessly. Doyle and Scagliotti are appealing performers and it's hard to take your eyes off them, so it's a credit to the rest of the cast that they also leave an impression, especially Ben Crawford (as Mr. Lethe) and his powerful baritone.

I've been going to concerts of Oliver's music for years, and Jasper in Deadland leaves me hopeful for what's to come from him in terms of book musicals.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

When Jukebox Musicals Work

Theater fans often look down on jukebox musicals, but as grateful as I am for musicals that are ambitious and original, I also don't care what the source material is if the show is entertaining. In the case of Beautiful, the music and the cast are good enough to mostly overcome the book problems that plague most jukebox musicals. But you don't go to see jukebox musicals for the book (in this case written by Douglas McGrath).

From left: Jeb Brown as Don Kirshner, Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Jessie Mueller as Carole King, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann, and Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil; Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Beautiful, as you may know, is the Carole King musical. Jessie Mueller plays the singer-songwriter from her days as a teenager in Brooklyn, back when she was Carol Klein, through recording the 1971 album Tapestry, arguably one of the best albums of all time. The musical of course deals with her relationship with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (played by Chris Peluso, filling in for Jake Epstein, at the performance I saw), with whom she wrote songs like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Some Kind of Wonderful." What you may not know (at least I didn't the first time I saw it) is that the musical is also very much about Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen), the songwriting couple behind songs like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "On Broadway." They were close friends and competitors with the Goffins.

The show covers a lot of ground, so the transitions aren't always seamless (though they are sometimes comical, like when Goffin asks their babysitter to think of someone to sing "The Locomotion" by saying, "Come on Little Eva, think," right before she goes into the song). But the cast really makes the most of the material. Mueller isn't imitating King, but creating a lovely three-dimensional portrait of the woman. Peluso manages to make Goffin sympathetic even when he's acting like kind of an asshole. Spector and Larsen have great chemistry, provide comic relief, are both in fine voice (a highlight of the show is Spector's rendition of "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place"). And every song is good. Every single one. How many new musicals can you say that about?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Contest: Win Tickets to The Cripple of Inishmaan

Update: The contest is now closed. Thanks to everyone who entered. I loved reading all your responses. The winner was picked at random from the entries here and on Twitter. Congratulations @lady_dayna!

If I had to pick one production that I'm most looking forward to this spring, it would be The Cripple of Inishmaan. I love Martin McDonagh, this play (I saw it at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2008), and having Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway. So I'm really excited to have a pair of tickets to give away. And I'm going to be really jealous of whoever wins. Radcliffe plays Cripple Billy, who lives on the remote island of Inishmaan off the west coast of Ireland and wants to be in the movies.

In order to win a pair of tickets to a Tuesday through Thursday performance, you have a choice of one of two questions to answer in the comments. You can either tell me your favorite Martin McDonagh play or tell me which actor from the Harry Potter films you want to see on Broadway next. You can also tweet about the contest or retweet one of my tweets about it (if you enter this way, you must be following on Twitter to win). You can enter once each way for a total of two entries. A winner will be chosen at random from all the entries on Friday, March 7, at 6 p.m. Please include your e-mail address or Twitter handle in the comments so I have a way to contact you if you win. Good luck!