Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sliding Doors on Broadway

IF I had not loved Next to Normal so much, THEN I would not have seen If/Then. IF I had not seen this show, THEN I would have missed out on hearing this amazing score sung live.

Somehow I waited a year to finally get to Broadway to see Next to Normal when it was running, but fell in love instantly. Saw it twice and even got the chance to play the dad in a production in New Jersey. Like many others, I was anxiously awaiting this new musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. I have to say kudos to these two for continuing to offer original musicals in a sea of movie-based shows. And where they shine is in telling a story through song. Personally, I think they shine so much in that area that this score would make for an amazing song cycle like Songs for A New World or Elegies. Each song feels like a lesson song that stands alone. Had I seen these songs performed at 54 Below, I would have left feeling uplifted and renewed as I dissected my own life choices.

This cast sings and belts their faces off lead by the incredible Idina Menzel. But they are all wonderful musicians and do it with such ease that you can't believe they are all singing in the stratosphere so much. Each song made me think of a moment in my own life where I chose a different path. I thought about the life I might have had if I'd taken the international tour of Man of La Mancha I was offered in the early 90s instead of staying in New York and ending up in Corporate America. Two completely different things. I even recently shared about taking different paths for those choosing college or deciding another road. For me - those are big and different choices.

While I thought the premise of If/Then is interesting (we follow one woman's journey through several years of her life if she had taken two different paths), the stakes never felt high enough for me. The concept was unique (if you haven't seen the film "Sliding Doors"). The character of Elizabeth goes by Liz and Beth and at times switching back and forth in the middle of a scene, but all the time Ms. Menzel's somewhat trademark "this is me, folks…love me" attitude shines through no matter which character she is playing. She is surrounded by a group of friends and we get to see how their lives also change in each setting (yet somehow, no matter the choice made - they are all still there). And really - the two lives are not so drastically different. One of my largest issues with the two worlds is the relationship between Ms. Menzel and the character played by James Snyder. Every musical needs a good love story and somehow, I wasn't buying into the relationship set up between these two. (I'm not sure if that was the writer's or director's doing - but the 'meeting' of the two lacked a certain spark to set the theme of fate in motion.)

I love so many of the performers in this show and have seen them in numerous productions. I've seen LaChanze in four different Broadway shows and have always been
captivated by her. It is wonderful to see Anthony Rapp back on stage with Idina Menzel (once again, chasing his Maureen around) and to hear his voice. And I always want to see more and more of Jenn Colella (I'll go on the record as saying I'd love to hear her sing the role of Elizabeth). So I wanted to love what they were doing on stage. But unfortunately, what they were doing wasn't as compelling as what they were singing. Intermission came and I really didn't care about any of the characters I was watching. Michael Greif is a director that is in love with sets utilizing levels and if I were to be completely honest, I felt I was seeing things on stage that I'd see from a college or community production. People making pointless crosses upstage so we'd remember we are outside in New York where people are always walking by. I actually became so annoyed by the choreography that I let out an audible 'ugh' when they returned at the very end to do their strange moves once again. And both my theater companion and I felt the show could have been cut. While Act II raises the stakes more than the first, themes started to repeat and I was longing for something new.

With all of this said, I still am thankful for an original musical being produced. But I think perhaps the reason we are seeing so many movies turned into musicals is because many of them already have a heightened plot built in. This one rode the line of a cross between a Lifetime Movie and an episode of <insert witty New York-centered TV show that spends much time bashing other parts of the country>.

But the Idina/Adele Dazeem fans will keep this show going as long as she is in it - if we judge by the shrills and screams at her entrance and the end of the show.  All in all, I'll definitely be buying the cast album once it comes out. So something new and wonderful has come from my evening at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. If I had to sit through a night just to come out with that, then I am grateful.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It's My Birthday & I'll Blog if I Want To!

That time again. Waking up another year older. This time the calendar says 45 so instead of thinking back on all of those years, I look at what's been happening recently. I've had some losses that have really hurt and some gains that have been amazing. After 14 years together, I was able to legally marry the man I love! And while still publishing books (the latest kid's book just recently out), I'm also expanding into film and learning so much about it.

I love to learn. I think what makes me the most crazy is being complacent. If I'm not growing, learning, trying something new…it's as if I've given up. Reading everything I can about film and screenwriting, attending classes - all part of learning. Some other exciting things are on the horizon that I can't discuss just yet, but I can't help but contemplate on those as well today.

One big thing with this year was waking in January and deciding it was time to make a change to the man in the mirror and I'm now almost 40 pounds lighter which makes this 45 year old body feel much better. (I say 'almost' as the scales change depending on the day.) But like Frank DeCaro said recently on his Sirius radio show, losing that much weight makes larger people like us think everyone must be looking and thinking

"Damn…how much did you weigh?" I so relate to Frank, but also inspired by people like him that know we can make changes with ourselves at any time we put our mind to it. And while I'm about 25 pounds away from next goal (yes…I've broken up those goals & I hit my birthday one), I need to stop and be happy with this person now that is lighter than he was on January 1st.

If I could share anything with people today it's to never, NEVER think you're too old to make a change in your life. Don't become paralyzed into thinking you are stuck. Life is too short to not be happy. It may be something as simple as opening the windows and cleaning your house (or cleaning house on your Facebook page), or it may be larger like a huge leap with your career (that a dear friend of mine is doing now and says she thanks me for my book Cool Side of the Pillow for pushing her along) - but whatever it is: GO FOR IT! Don't wait for your own birthday to decide if you're where you want to be in life. 

Use mine today to make that decision and start right now!

(How's that for a rah-rah speech & my pseudo-Ted Talk?)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Knock Out On Broadway

In December of 1976, the movie Rocky was introduced to the world. An indie movie that showed triumph of not only the underdog - but of the man, Sylvester Stallone, that made a low budget film that brought in millions. As a second grader, I didn't understand the backstory of this man following his passion to get the movie made, but I sure experienced something like never before when my parents took me to see the film. I was up cheering along with the rest of the audience as we could not be contained to our seats. Had anyone told that wide-eyed kid that movie would one day become a Broadway musical, I probably would have laughed.

But here it is on Broadway all these years later with a book by Thomas Meehan and a score
by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. One of my favorite writing teams that brought us Ragtime, Dessa Rose, and Once on This Island. Not exactly the team one would expect to write about the tough guy from Philly. Nor would I think the man behind Annie, Hairspray and The Producers would be penning the story. But the cream of Broadway was brought together to share this story on stage.

It is obvious the producers are going after people that love the film and especially attempting to get men into the theater. The commercials airing on television never even mention it's a musical. And yes, they've included songs from the movie. The excitement I felt as a child seeing the film - well, I can tell you it happens again in the last 15 minutes of this stage experience. They even bring audiences members up on stage to surround the fighting ring during the infamous fight, the ring comes out over the audience, and certain audiences members are instructed to stand to capture the feeling of what so many felt back in the 70s seeing this movie for the first time.

Let me get this out there - it's entertaining. There, I said it. Everyone wants to hate on it, but when you hear the Rocky theme, you can't help but smile. So naturally they are playing into our memory and nostalgia to get to us. When things like drinking raw eggs and climbing steps gets applause, you know it's because of the movie. The scenic design by Christopher Barreca is truly incredible. The stage changes constantly, yet keeps us in an industrial feel, lighted wonderfully by Christopher Akerlind. Director Alex Timbers and choreographers Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine keep the evening moving. And boy is the choreography during the fight incredible. All of this makes for a very impressive and entertaining evening. 

But this is a Broadway musical. Something I've spent a lifetime studying, so I feel I should discuss it from that standpoint. A song should occur in a musical when a character is so overcome by emotion or a feeling that they must sing. There are a few of those moments in this show, but they are few and far between. There was a small glimpse in Act II where Rocky started to sing what he was feeling as everyone was riding the wave of the big fight and suddenly I went "that is a true musical moment", but it ended before it began. Even his big '11 o'clock number' "Keep on Standing" felt flat. Personally, the score is just serviceable. I was very disappointed because I love this writing  team so much, but the best musical moments in the show was the use of "Eye of The Tiger" and the Rocky Theme. I think this would have played so much better as a play with music. And I can't help but think the producers feel the same since they keep quiet about it being a musical. 

The ensemble in this show (with every male perfectly chiseled, I might add) are working their butts off, often singing lyrics that can't always be heard. Still, the cast is all doing a really great job telling the story written by Meehan (which is why I say a play would have worked). Dakin Matthews and Terence Archie are giving memorable performances in roles  we recall well from the film as Mickey and Apollo. Archie is always strutting around with his entourage and boxes like a real pro. Margo Seibert makes her Broadway debut as Adrian and has the best vocal moments in the show. I wasn't sure if was because the writing team chose to write her the best songs or if it was just her voice was so amazing. I really thought her acting and singing were some of the best in the entire evening. She felt connected to her role in a way I didn't see from anyone else on the stage. I will definitely be watching for her name to show up again on Broadway after this. Danny Mastrogiorgio is strapped with playing the waste of a brother Paulie which appears even more one dimensional on stage than it did in the film. And then there is Rocky.

Andy Karl has been part of the Broadway scene for several years and it is wonderful producers took a chance with him to carry this show. He has the swagger. He has the moves. He has the bod. But personally, there was a spark missing for this audience member. I did not want to compare him to Stallone as that would not be fair. But as I look at other leading men from this season (Norbert Leo Butz, Steven Pasquale) that shined brightly in their roles, Karl plays his role at a lower key as he attempts to convey the street "Italian Stallion" and I never get the sense of a star in the making. Maybe that was the point. To show that Rocky is an "everyman" and nothing that special about him. My issue may not actually be with Karl himself, but with the way in which he was directed. But for a show that centers around this man, I needed more charisma. (For the record, my friend attending with me did not feel the same way.)

The other big issue I had with this mammoth show is that like another show based on a movie that ran on Broadway (the swinging spiderman), this show lost the heart of the show. The love story between Rocky and Adrian was so small, it never soared for me. There have been other big love stories on stage this year. Big Fish, the lovers had me with one look and time stopped. Bridges of Madison County - they were smoldering and we could feel it. This show spent so much time on the spectacle that I lost that love that you cheer for in the film. Yes, we were all cheering for Rocky to win in the ring, but we were just as excited when he was screaming for Adrian at the movie's end. For this, I went out reliving the moment of my youth, but not feeling the love between the two I had seen on stage.

Still, as numerous reviews said, it is well worth the experience…even for those that don't care about musicals. You may not even feel you're watching a musical by the time you leave the Winter Garden Theatre. You will think you've been to a fight at that other garden in town - Madison Square.  

Monday, March 31, 2014

Autism Awareness Month Begins

April is Autism Awareness month, but I believe we can be aware of others and their differences in any month. Still it is great that so much occurs during this time all around the world. I have friends putting the blue light bulbs on the porch to light it up blue and here in Northern New Jersey, there are a list of events happening over on BaristaKids.

I am lucky for the third year in a row to be a part of different events as I share my children's book based on my godson. If you have not seen the video of him reading the first book just last week, please check it out here. It was a very moving experience as I've never heard him read it. 

I'll be taking that book up to Holliston, Massachusetts where I return to an elementary school for two days to share the book and discuss autism with the entire school. Next Saturday, I get to share the book with a school in Mt. Tabor, NJ before they have their own autism walk. I absolutely love being a small part of the many people that bring awareness to those that have autism.

I'm also thrilled that MeeGenius has published the sequel to my book two years after the first book came out. They are the world's largest virtual store for enhanced children's books and available on numerous platforms. Children can read books or have them read to them via the computer, iPads, smart phones, etc. 

MeeGenius on different platforms
It took a while for me to write this book as I wanted to stay true to our superhero, but cover new territory. After talking to so many people in the autism community, I knew I needed to cover sensory overload and issues around visits to the doctor or dentist. I'm excited for those that loved book one to get a chance to see our superhero in this environment - with beautiful illustrations by Morgan Swofford. (Thank you, Morgan for bringing this book to life!)

The new book continues the adventures of our superhero and is called: 

Chicken Boy: A Super Hero With Autism Deals with Doctors & Dentists 

While the first book introduced us to our superhero, this book shares why a visit to a
illustrations by Morgan Swofford
doctor or a dentist may be difficult for certain children. The buzz of a dental drill, the cold of a stethoscope, the smell of rubber gloves, the taste of the toothpaste; all of these can be intensified for children with autism and yet many children can relate to the fears that can surround these visits and can use our superhero's tips to help make these trips just a little bit easier. 

MeeGenius has Voice & Text
Please help me spread the word during this month by sharing the link for parents to find this book. The Chicken Boy Series was created to bring awareness by giving those with autism a chance to see parts of themselves in a book and those without autism the knowledge to not be fearful of someone that is different.

Join Chicken Boy in the doctor's office and talk to your own children about the fears they may encounter when making that necessary visit that may cause them to be slightly frightened and bringing awareness to autism at the same time.  BAHCAAAAAA!

Chicken Boy waits in the doctor's office

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mothers and Sons on Broadway

When Terrence McNally writes a script, this fellow Texan listens. I've seen numerous shows of his (he is celebrating his 50th anniversary on Broadway), I've produced and directed productions of his works, and I cling to his words like few other playwrights. He can hit me in the gut with a simple sentence that makes a lightbulb go over my head with a 'why haven't I seen it like that before?' type of feeling. And he says things we feel - especially many in the gay community. What do you call your significant other? Boyfriend seems so trite and husband is hard to say - I know it was for me when I said my wedding vows because I never thought I'd say those words.

With his latest play Mothers and Sons, McNally has returned to a familiar territory in which he has traveled before. In 1990, he won an Emmy award for Andre's Mother - a PBS series that first introduced the characters from this play. Then, we were at the memorial service for Andre. The latest work is set in the present when Andre's mother Katherine visits New York from Dallas and goes to the upper west side apartment of Andre's former lover, Cal. The two have not spoken in twenty years since Andre passed away and the audience can feel the tension, though we are given plenty of laughs to counter our tears in this 90 minute drama.

I was so lucky to have witnessed Tyne Daly's Mama Rose in Gypsy on Broadway and once again, she gives a powerful performance as the mother waiting for 'her turn', her identity. She says things that are not PC and while maintaining Katherine's outer wall, the fragility of this recently widowed woman is always right underneath. It is in the hand's of a master like Daly that such a performance can shine through and one can't help but love Katherine through all her flaws and faults. 

I have never seen Frederick Weller, but that is my loss. What a nuanced performance he gives as the former lover dealing with an unexpected visit. He volleys with Daly and gives it right back to her matching her move for move. We witness two lives in one character: the former Cal that spent six years with his boyfriend before losing him to AIDS and then the older man that has finally been able to legally marry and raise a son. But the struggle of the past and present are always there in the beautiful living room designed by John Lee Beatty. Bobby Steggert (who I love in everything), plays the husband in a wonderful balancing act of respect for the elderly and the dead while still holding his own as a father going about a nightly routine in his home. Grayson Taylor rounds out the cast as an adorable little boy with very poignant moments in this production directly beautifully by Sheryl Kaller.

The play affected me in many ways. Like the character we never see, I too left Texas at 18 years old to move to New York to be an actor. I had my coming out moments with my own mother during that time, but unlike Katherine, my mother has accepted all aspects of my life and loves my husband as her own son. But more than anything, it is the period of which they speak in the early 90s. A time we were losing so many to the horrible disease. A time I was going to memorial services and watching friends die. I was only in my early 20s at the time, but the impact of that period was overwhelming. When the character of Will says he can see generations forgetting it all now, once again Mr. McNally punched me in the gut.

Do yourself a huge favor if you're in New York and get to the Golden Theatre to see this magnificent production. Then if you're as lucky as I am to still have your mother around, go home and give her a call.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Chicken Boy Sequel On The Horizon

It's been two years since Chicken Boy was introduced to the world and finally another book is coming soon. It's amazing how a project can take on a life of its own - but that's exactly what happened. If you follow this blog, you know that my children's book is based on my godson with autism. It won the People's Choice Award by MeeGenius publishing and was released in the spring of 2012.

I have been so fortunate to travel to schools and bookstores bringing this story of autism awareness to many. And everywhere that I went, I heard new stories. Many teachers, parents, school nurses talked to me about sensory issues as well as children with autism and doctor visits. And the sequel to Chicken Boy was born. This time, I've expanded Chicken Boy beyond my own godson to give him traits that others have shared with me.

In this superhero series, a little boy with autism pretends to be "Chicken Boy" in order to cope with the outside world. Book one introduced us to the quiet boy who comes alive in the rain and book two sheds some light on sensory issues often encountered by children with ASDThe Chicken Boy Series was created to bring awareness by giving those with autism a chance to see parts of themselves in a book and those without autism the knowledge to not be fearful of someone that is different. 

This second book shares why a visit to a doctor or a dentist may be difficult for certain
children. The buzz of a dental drill, the cold of a stethoscope, the smell of rubber gloves, the taste of the toothpaste; all of these can be intensified for children with autism and yet many children can relate to the fears that can surround these visits and can use our superhero's tips to help make the trip to a doctor or dentist just a little bit easier. 

I started working with MeeGenius back in the fall and while the original illustrator was not available to work on this project, the publisher felt our superhero can be open to interpretation and brought in Morgan Swofford to give her take on our hero. And already from the cover…I LOVE what she's done! It's amazing to see something you've lived with for so long grow and change and take on a new meaning. 

I hope all of those that helped me spread the word of the first book will come on board as we follow Chicken Boy on his latest adventure. I'm grateful to MeeGenius for working so hard to get it ready for digital download by Autism Awareness Month and once again…a print book is in the works and will hopefully follow later in the spring!


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Religion, Sex and Puppets - Oh My!

The last time I was at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, there was a religious mother on stage with a fairly odd daughter that was taunted by friends and eventually got her revenge on them on. I return to the play Hand to God where a religious mother is on stage with a fairly odd son that allows a puppet to do his speaking for him. The play by Robert Askins had a sold-out run at the Ensemble Studio Theatre back in 2011 and MCC Theater has brought it to a full off-Broadway run in its current incarnation. 

Alex Mandell
A stellar cast gives their heart and soul to everything they do in this play. For that, I give a huge kudos to each and every one of them. They sell this odd story that has shades of Little Shop of Horrors with the black comedy of Batboy and the puppet sex of Avenue Q. We were lucky enough to witness Alex Mandell take on the lead role of teen Jason whose mom Margery (Geneva Carr) leads a puppet ministry class in the basement of a Texas Lutheran Church. The fact that Mandell was on for the first time in the role that Steven Boyer usually plays (and played in 2011) was an amazing feat unto itself. I was completely impressed and would not have known for a moment I was witnessing the debut of the actor in this role. He must play a shy teenager as well as a loud mouth sock puppet named Tyrone that has a mind and action of its own. He wrestles with himself, does the "Who's On First" routine, and is an all around joy to witness on stage. The audience (I’m sure full of some of Mandell’s friends) gave him the ovation he rightly deserved. Carr (who also played the mother in 2011) also gives a wonderful performance of the Texan widow unraveling before our eyes. With a quirkiness that reminded me of Annie Potts mixed with one of the woman from the former ABC show Good Christian Bitches, this Texan recognized that character right away. Religion, sex, and foul language abound in this play that touches on numerous taboo subjects. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has created a fast-paced evening – though personally, I found that evening to be a bit uneven.

This past weekend after the Oscars, there were numerous conversations on social media about the performance of Pink singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Can someone love the performance without caring for the overall production? People were moved by Pink's performance even though others felt she had destroyed the lyric by her choice of phrasing and breathing. In Hand to God, I absolutely loved each performance from the macho stud student of Michael Oberholtzer and wackiness of Sarah Stiles to the balancing act of a minster (Marc Kudisch) wanting to declare his love for Margery. Yet the phrasing choices made by playwright Robert Askins pulled me out of what could have been an amazing original night at the theater. After reading a Q&A with Askins, I discovered he was working through his own past and demons of the church, the loss of his dad at an early age and yes…he was even part of a puppetry ministry as a child. I think it is smart to use what you know when writing, but when the tone of a piece completely shifts midway through, it can take audiences a while to catch up.  

Case in point: intermission hit and I was declaring my love for the show. I thought it was fresh, clever and a great comedy! I understood all the accolades that had been bestowed from its earlier run and was so happy I was finally able to see it. And then Act II came taking a dark turn with the demonic puppet, a questionable subplot with the mother, and suddenly I felt as if I was in a different play. Mind you, through all of it the performers were still giving their all, the creative team delivered triumphantly in both acts (puppet design by Marte Ekhougan, set design by Beowulf Borritt, lighting design by Jason Lyons, costume design by Sydney Maresca, and sound design by Jill BC DuBoff), but the show was going down a black rabbit hole that didn't quite mesh with what had transpired in the first act.

My personal take: I wish the playwright had trusted his first instincts and allowed the show he was writing at the start to flourish into that same wild comedy in Act II. I wish quirky had not been replaced with black. And I definitely wish a producer or director would have pointed out that a preachy prologue and epilogue are not necessary simply because the piece is grounded in religion. The show - the point of a possessed puppet speaking for a teen that can’t always say what’s on his mind - can stand alone without the need to give us a sermon. But I suppose theater and church are so intertwined in this black comedy the playwright felt he needed to go the extra mile to give us his interpretation of good and evil. 

In the end, I recommend the show to people who enjoy twisted black comedies; that want to see the devil as a puppet stuck on a man’s hand; that can appreciate amazing live performances. But is it the Second Coming that it has been touted…I think Audrey II and the puppets of Avenue Q might have something to say about that.