Sunday, April 23, 2017

Pure Imagination On Broadway

Sometimes touching something near and dear to so many people is a risky business. Broadway producers know that risk when they take a classic like Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and create a new musical for the stage. The musical opening April 23rd on Broadway first appeared in London in 2013 and ran for almost four years. With a book by David Greig and a score by March Shaiman and Scott Wittman (the duo behind Hairspray and TV's Smash), director Jack O'Brien (after coming on board when Sam Mendes left) still felt the show needed to be tinkered with more before allowing American audiences to see it. And they have tinkered. Songs have been thrown out. Adults now play kids on stage and well - it appears that scenic and costume designer Mark Thompson had his budget cut in half as the look of the show is very different from what was on The West End. (Note: IF you plan to see it on Broadway, DON'T google the trailer for the London production.)

I'll admit that I was never a huge fan of the film growing up, plus I read theater forums religiously and the word of mouth was not good on this show. Still, my husband loves BOTH films and wanted to see this so we went once the show was frozen just a few days before the official opening.

I was VERY entertained!

Sometimes it's best to go in without certain expectations for a show. This is a musical for kids and adults alike - lots of adult humor that can go right over the heads of children. There are a few songs from the film that you will recognize, but then Shaiman and Wittman have written an original score that has a great sound. Fine - it may not be as good as their Hairspray score (and I'm sure some reviewers will say that), but why must everyone be compared to what they've already done. The View from Here is a BEAUTIFUL song and so fitting for this show. (Hear some of it in this clip below.)

The musical follows the darkness of the original book more than the film. Willy Wonka has also been added to the beginning of the musical so gone is the anticipation of seeing him at the Factory, but I like the character he has now as the candy man early on. Christian Borle has had a busy year on Broadway with both Falsettos and this show. He takes bits and pieces from previous Wonkas before him, yet makes the devilish role his own. He sounds great, he's working up a storm, and seems to be enjoying the part of child tormentor. 

Three little boys split the role of Charlie and Ryan Foust was absolutely adorable at our performance. At first I thought it would bother me to see the other children played by adults, but not at all. Violet, Augustus, Veruca and Mike Teavee are all portrayed wonderfully by these adults. The parental arms of each on the journey through the factory are pretty darn great too with a special shout out to Ben Crawford (who I always love seeing on stage) as Veruca's dad and Jackie Hoffman sharing her comic genius with us. 

Emily Padgett is a loving mom trying to keep it all together for Charlie and his grandparents and seeing John Rubinstein (the original Pippin) back on Broadway as Grandpa Joe is worth the price of the golden ticket! The entire ensemble looks to be having an awesome time playing everything from reporters, to other kids to yes...Oompa Loompas! Special holler to Talya Groves who shines in whatever she does!

I have a tendency to pick shows a part, but I will say that I enjoyed this more than some other musicals (I will not name) that are on Broadway this year as well last. My hubby is a regular Joe/audience guy. He loved the performances, the darkness of it, but even he said he wished there was more 'magic' with the scenic design and not leaving so much up to our imagination. (You can see from the photos that the factory is the same set over and over with some light changes and usually one set piece pushed to the middle of the stage.) I simply say it looks like they are ready for the bus & truck tour of the show so they've already cut it down to make it easier to take Charlie all across the country so that more families get a chance for that golden ticket!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hello And Welcome Back, Dolly!

As the commercial says, years from now there will be those that saw Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! on Broadway and those that say they did. I am SO lucky to be one of those that will be able to say I saw her. What a night! What a production. The 1964 multi-Tony Award winning musical (synonymous with Carol Channing) was revived in 1975 with an all black cast starring Pearl Bailey and then Carol Channing returned to the staircase in 1995. But this 2017 production feels fresh and new - even though it's an old-fashioned musical. It has already set records (before opening) with more than $40 million in advance ticket sales. And one of the biggest reasons for that is summed up in two words: Bette Midler.

Ms. Midler has turned this iconic role of Dolly Levi into her own. It's part what's on the paper in Michael Stewart's book of the lovable, meddling matchmaker trying to find romance for several people...including herself - but it's also part Bette on that stage. Adorable. Charming. Sassy. Sexy. All at the age of 71! (PS: She isn't the oldest to play the role as Carol was 74 in the 1995 production.) But it seems Ms. Midler hasn't aged. I've seen her in concert and all that love and warmth (and bawdiness) she conveys in concert plays beautifully in the Shubert Theatre which holds just under 1500 people. 

She is a joy from the moment she enters. Speaking fast to confuse her potential clients, lifting her dresses to show her fancy footwork, tenderly speaking to her dearly departed former husband, and that voice - that voice which is half rasp/half's all there for the audience to eat up and we do. Hearing her sing these Jerry Herman classics such as "Before The Parade Passes By", "Dancing", "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" is sweet music to our ears. I can't recall hearing the roars of cheers as I witnessed in this theater...and I've seen many a legend in Broadway shows. When she finishes the title song in that infamous red dress, the audience rose to their feet welcoming Dolly back to the Harmonia Gardens and Bette back to Broadway! She made her debut in '67 in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof and while she's done some of her concerts and a play back in 2013 on Broadway, this return to her musical roots is glorious and appreciated by every single person in the audience.

So it's Ms. Midler that brings them in, but the entire company and every creative person involved deserves just as much kudos. This production is truly a wonderful production of the old chestnut. Jerry Zaks is known for directing broad comedies and he has put his own touch on this production; stepping away from some of the standard ways we've seen past productions. The pacing reminds me of Lend Me A Tenor and he allows the actors to explore these characters in new and exciting ways. I found it refreshing. Starting with casting David Hyde Pierce as half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder - what a plumb role for this man and he does it masterfully. His comic timing is impeccable. He is not simply a grumpy old man, but exasperated while still lovable. 

Gavin Creel is a perfect Cornelius...the energy, the persona, and that voice! I've never heard "Ribbons Down My Back" sung so well as by Kate Baldwin. Her Irene Molloy has more "umpf" to her than those that have come before her. Taylor Trensch is a wonderful ying to Creel's yang as Barnaby. And Beanie Feldstein gives a Broadway debut as Minnie Fay that is scrumptious! Will Burton, Melanie Moore, and Jennifer Simard are all delightful in their roles bringing the right amount of comedy. And that ensemble...those waiters...they make the Shubert stage seem much larger than it is dancing Warren Carlyle's choreography. I honestly can't find one thing that I would nitpick about this production. Santo Loquasto's set and costumes, Natasha Katz lighting, Scott Lehrer's sound design - all brilliant and leaves us with a huge smile on our faces. Sometimes we simply need a musical comedy to make us leave the theater on a high. Jerry Herman's score and Michael Stewart's book of this funny and heartwarming musical does just that. (Plus the wonderful orchestrations by Larry Hochman - I forgot how much I love everything he does with counter melodies in this score.)

I've seen numerous regional and dinner theater productions of this show, but I've never seen it on Broadway. To see it at the Shubert where I saw my first Broadway musical in the summer of '84 made  it all that more special. Leaving the theater after Dolly, my friend said that her heart was full and I can't agree more. That's the power of amazing live theater. That's the joy of a Herman score. That's the euphoria of seeing a living legend giving her all, surrounded by a company that realizes they are all part of something truly magical. We feel it. We know it. We 'get' it. Thank you to the smart producers that knew Broadway needed this comedy back where it belongs.

Bette Midler and Carol Channing
I'd say get a ticket if you're in the area, but honestly...I'm not sure you can. I bought mine the morning they went on sale. Smartest thing I ever did. 

Thank you to this incredible cast for giving me a night I'll never forget.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Greed, Deceit, Betrayal On Broadway

In spring of 1984, I was in a high school production of The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman and 33 years later I was finally able to see it on Broadway brought to us by the always wonderful Manhattan Theatre Club. What a great production it is! Every technical element in the production is perfectly fitting of the family drama set in 1900. From the incredible set by Scott Pask to the period costumes by Jane Greenwood to the lighting by Justin Townsend that gives us three completely different days...all in light and shadows.

The show first ran on Broadway in the 30s and that entire cast (except Tallulah Bankhead in the lead role of Regina Giddens) did the film version...that role went to Bette Davis. I read that Ms. Davis changed the character of the sister fighting her brothers and husband in this story of greed and power after seeing Ms. Bankhead's incredible performance on stage. Regina had been played more as a victim trying to get her own when it first came out, yet Ms. Davis created a cold and stern woman in the role and ultimately, that's what people came to know the character to be.

Linney as Birdie & Nixon as Regina
In MTC returning director Daniel Sullivan's production, Regina isn't so much as cold as she is sly and calculating - sly like a fox. She attempts an air of kindness to achieve want she wants - at all cost. It's an interesting take except that her brother Ben mentions towards the end of the play she should try more kindness to get what she wants...hmmm....isn't she doing that with the constant 'grit behind a smile' performance that she is giving? I bring this up, as I'm not sure how Regina is always played in this production. Producers have decided to split the role. At some performances Laura Linney plays Regina while Cynthia Nixon plays her much more frail, alcoholic sister-in-law, Birdie. And then other performances, they switch each witnessing what the other does in each role every night. I saw Cynthia play Regina. She was stoic, dignified, and a woman slightly on the edge noticing she could lose it all at any moment. At first I was uncertain of this portrayal, but she absolutely won me over. Ms. Linney was incredible as Birdie. She layered Birdie's normal mousy portrayal with a wonderful array of choices. While Birdie is more of a supporting role - it's a juicy one with a monologue worthy of a Tony nomination...for sure. I love both of these actresses and was so glad to get to see them. (Now I'm wondering if I will have time to return and see them in the other roles.)

Set Designer Scott Pask's instragram photo of the set
The rest of the cast is also so wonderful - including the brothers that you just want to hate. Michael McKean as the older brother Ben Hubbard transforms into a true southerner in the role. Darren Goldstein with an over bloated ego the moment we see him unravels as Oscar. These two have some wonderful moments with sister Regina. We don't see Richard Thomas until act 2 when Regina's sick husband Horace comes home, but what a force he is on the stage. A sick man, still in charge of his destiny, but with a love in his heart - well, at least for his daughter Alexandra. Francesca Carpanini plays that role and along with Michael Benz as Leo represent the younger generation from 1900 (both making their Broadway debuts). One that wants to be like the family and one that doesn't. I love Carolina Stefanie Clay as Addie and Charles Turner as Cal. Every moment they are onstage, they ground the play in a way the family members caught up in deceit simply can't. It was also great to see David Alford on stage as Mr. Marshall as I only know him from his TV show. 

The play may be an older one, but the family drama could be playing out today. The Hubbard family represents those men that constantly need to climb the financial ladder no matter the cost. And there is Regina...fighting every step of the way to have women viewed on the same playing field as men. The world hasn't changed much in over 100 years.

This is a definite must see on the list of plays for this season even with it's three acts and 2:40 running time - the time flies by! There are many revival choices this season, but from the ones I've seen...this one is placed at the top. (Now I'm anxiously wondering how the Tony committee will view the two women when it comes to nominations for June.)