Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Thinking Outside The Box with Theater

I love theater. In some ways, I'm a theater junkie. Being transported away while sitting in that dark room during a play or musical is like a drug. But like everyone, I too have things that I like and that I don't like. So let me go on record as saying I'm not big on experimental theater that one usually finds in some small space down in the village of New York City. (Once I watched a person get dressed on stage and THAT was their 'art'.) I've heard so much about The Realistic Joneses and was actually nervous about going into the Lyceum Theatre because of how it has polarized audiences.

Put me on the list with Charles Isherwood of the New York Times. I really enjoyed this wild, quirky world of playwright Will Eno. I didn't know this man who had previously been a finalist for the pulitzer prize, but have heard much about him. It's his world, and we're all just there to experience it. His latest (that would usually not find a home in a Broadway theater) introduces two couples that are neighbors -both with the last name of Jones. When the couple first meet, we feel we are witnessing a witty comedy that kept the audience laughing and sometimes missing the return line. There is amazing joy and life coming from the faces of some of the characters on stage. But the piece turns into something darker and stranger and I was very intrigued. 

If you love dark comedy movies, then Eno's work is for you. He has his own pace in a show, keeping this at 90 minutes, but creating small scenes that often end with a line that smacks you in the face and causes you to go "hmmmmm." The dialogue feels as if a group of people are sitting around drunk or high as they try to address the greater issues of life. Other playwrights have traveled into the world of existentialism, but Eno has given a reason of two of the characters suffering from a health disorder to explain away some of the actions we witness on stage. I don't want to give away what the show is about except that it's two couples meeting for the first time as neighbors. While I did (at times) feel the show got stuck and could have moved - it was never long enough to make me think about my 'to do' list for the next day. Not with this cast!

What a cast it is! I have never seen a more committed set of actors on stage that totally believed every carefully chosen word coming out of their mouths. The quick witted volley among them all is amazing. Three 'Hollywood' actors that are just as comfortable on stage and one theater actor that gives new meaning to the words 'deadpan delivery'. Toni Colette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei are all incredible in this show directed by Sam Gold. Each of them with their own set of quirks, ticks, oddities - but all covering a deeper pain. The pain of the disorder that is eating away at two of them. The pain of the caregivers, frightened by what's in store. Death and the unknown looming over the stage dark and vast as the set designed by David Zinn. There is no way I could chose a favorite
performance in this group which is why I was thrilled the Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble went to them because they are all equally wonderful. Toni Colette grounds the show in her natural performance while Tomei gives us offbeat and endearing. Michael C. Hall is allowed to run the gamut of emotions and we get to go with him. And Letts - I'm in awe of and in love with the man that is not pushed into one box: a Tony Award winning actor and a pulitzer prize winning playwright. (Only three years my senior, I'd kill for his career!)     

So do I believe this play is for everyone? No, I don't. Even among my own theater-going friends - we do not all agree. And obviously the Tony committee felt it wasn't Broadway worthy...snubbing them from every category. (I did see it the night the nominations came out and this cast did not let it faze them a bit.) But I am so glad I didn't listen to the naysayers and stay away from this show. My own website says I don't believe in staying in one box and told I have to do something a certain way. Thank you, Mr. Eno for bringing that concept to the masses. Thank you to the producers for taking a chance and not allowing the 'will the tourist come?' be the reason to bring a show to Broadway. And thank you to the audiences that are going to this show and allowing themselves to experience a show with a structure unlike the other plays they have seen for years - but can be just as powerful. Even the day after, the themes and questions in this show - told in such a unique way - still have a hold on me.

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.