Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Mountain of a Play in 90 Minutes

Many times I can rush home from a play and start writing about it instantly. Tonight after seeing Sharr White's Annapurna presented at The New Group, I had to first devour a bowl of low fat ice cream while reliving the powerful piece I had witnessed. I was at The New Group earlier this season and saw this listed on their lineup. Knowing that I had loved Sharr White's The Other Place - I knew I had to see what other amazing stories he could tell as a one act play.

I love to go into a new play knowing as little about it as possible. It was obvious that some have come expecting a sitcom when the two person play is helmed by Megan Mullally and real life husband Nick Offerman. The Emmy Award winning actress is best known as Karen Walker on "Will & Grace" while  Offerman is from "Parks and Recreation" (though the two did share an episode of "Will & Grace" too).  From the moment we see Offerman, I knew I was in the presence of an actor who understands not only the stage, but how to inhabit a character. He bares it all - literally - as he starts the show with nothing but an apron. A hermit of a writer living in a trailer in the Colorado mountains, he is completely thrown when his ex-wife walks in after having left him twenty years earlier with their son. But it's how author Sharr White and director Bart DeLorenzo choose to reveal layers of our anti-hero Ullysses that is so wonderful. Slowly showing an oxygen tank, bandages on his chest and we realize this is a man on his last legs and thus doesn't care that he lives in squalor. (And that's exactly what the small trailer is.) I spent the evening in awe of this man's performance that could match anything I had seen this season on Broadway (if this show had been playing a few blocks away).

Wife Emma is the opposite of everything this man seems to be and one wonders how the two ever were a couple to begin with. But as the meeting awkwardly progresses, we see that past and all of it's secrets. Mullally works hard at finding a level of comfort while hiding her true intentions for being there. She cleans, she cooks, she wrings her hands and she travels the length of the well-designed, meticulously messy set by Thomas A. Walsh over and over. (Yes…I loved the realness of this set. It actually is another character of 20 years of pain that I felt for Ullysses.) I've seen Mullally on the stage in other shows through the years, but it is always hard when someone becomes so known for one character. Kudos to her for pulling Emma in a direction far away from that of her iconic TV personality. 

Sharr White has tackled the question head on of what would you do if you could return to the ghosts of your past. And he does it with such ease and natural speech that I leave feeling lucky for having spent an evening witnessing his talent. I love that he can pack so much into so little time on stage and always make me feel as if I've run a marathon at the end of one of his productions.

The show closes June 1st, so I'm really glad I was able to see it before it leaves. If you are around NYC the next few days - get to 42nd Street and see it for yourself.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The 80s Movie Heathers Song & Dance

Add another movie-turned-musical to the ever growing list of movies as source material for the stage. This time, it's the 1988 cult film "Heathers" - a black comedy starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty. The film came before several other films such as "Mean Girls" and "Easy A" that gave us looks into the life of high schoolers simply trying to make their way through that rough rite of passage. The difference (for those that never saw the film) was that the mean kids were killed off with blame placed on suicide.

This was before Columbine and the endless other horrible acts that have happened in schools the past 25 years since the film came out (including the latest shooting in California). That the creative team of Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe would even attempt to bring Daniel Waters screenplay to the stage speaks volumes about the type of writers these two men are. It's the same men behind Reefer Madness, Bat Boy and Legally Blonde - other subjects one wouldn't think screamed to be made into a musical. But I must say, these men know how to write catchy tunes, clever lyrics and send us out humming their songs. I found that I enjoyed this just as much as the dark musical Bat Boy - even if watching it 25 years later changes my viewpoint on the storyline. (However, I also felt it best to know the film as we miss some backstory in this incarnation.) I did believe there was a conscious decision to keep everything in a surreal place so as not to muddle the lines of the reality we now live in 2014 versus the different world of the late 80s.

Seeing it on Memorial Day weekend, there were some understudies stepping into roles - but this ensemble is a well-oiled machine and boy, do they work hard. The never-stopping choreography. The 'adults' playing multiple roles and changing clothes constantly. And everyone in the show belting flawlessly to the rafters at New World Stages. The audience I saw it with was eating up every moment of it - either cheering on the memory of the film or perhaps recalling their own days in high school. No matter how old we get, we realize that high school works on a class system and this musical illustrates it all too well.

Barrett Wilbert Weed is wonderful as Veronica - making it her own and not giving us a carbon copy of Ms. Ryder (which sometimes occurs when a film is turned into a musical). She has an amazing voice, an infectious laugh and an adorable quality which can't be stifled. Dan Domenech stepped into the dark trench coat of J.D. at the performance I saw and definitely gave a layered performance of the character - never once slipping into the Jack Nicholson parody that Slater did in the film. The "Heathers" were all amazing as were each ensemble member of the company. (Seeing Anthony Crivello on stage again after seeing him in Kiss of the Spider Woman so many years ago was also a real treat.)

Heathers: Film
I couldn't help but wonder how these 20-somethings feel about sharing such a story on stage when we hear so much about bullying and are in constant debate over gun control because of school shootings, but in some way I suppose…they are still keeping the dialogue alive and making us discuss it. You can't help but leave this show and think about all of those horrible acts that have played out in real life. For this show - it's all filtered through song and dance. Like Carrie turning against those that did her wrong, this story deals with similar subject matter - yet with more of a redeeming second act. 

I definitely recommend it for a fun time at the theater when one is looking for an escape from the outside world and go out singing about being seventeen.

As a side note, our visit to the theater is often shaped by what happens around us. At this particular performance, I was seated near someone who made it clear he worked for the marketing team of the show. He also sang along, indicated what was coming next (sometimes with over exuberance of laughter and excitement), shook the seats in front of him with his eagerness to get others involved in the clapping and cheering and pretty much left a sour musical note experience for this theater-goer. I'm all for showing support for those you know on stage, but when you're employed by the production in one way or another - sometimes less is more.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Change in Scenery

Last week I started a new job at a quaint village along the Hudson River in Westchester County, NY. Irvington-on-the-Hudson is one of the Rivertowns in that beautiful area. While doing similar work to what I had previously done in NJ where I managed an arts center, one still must take time to transition into the job to learn the procedures set in place for that organization. So occasionally, you need to get away from the desk and get outside.

I did just that twice this week when I knew I'd be staying into the evening for events at the theater. Not being from the area, I had no idea about the Old Croton Aqueduct Trails. A former water distribution system that brought water from the Croton River to New York City between 1837 and 1842, it is now an amazing set of trails. Do you ever notice how a change of scenery can give you a change of mindset? Not only was I happy that I was able to get my steps in for my Fitbit to stop yelling at me, but it offered a calming effect in what can usually be chaos when one is starting a new job (another change in scenery). 

The trails take you past historical homes and monuments and one can't help but get caught up in the history and be in awe of the fact you are only 30 minutes outside of a huge metropolis like New York City. My mind cleared and the sights, smells, and sounds actually took me back to my childhood. My grandparents lived in the country in Texas and I would spend summers at their house and playing in the woods with cousins. Memories flooded my mind as I walked along those trails and it was wonderful to spend that time in my mind thinking about something other than thoughts that usually fill my brain.

Thank you to those that had the smarts to keep this amazing trail as it is for so many people to use as we all enjoy walks for different reasons. I have a feeling this will become a great refuge for me as I make this new village my home-away-from-home when I'm at work at the Irvington Town Hall Theater. And if you ever need a change of scenery and find yourself in this part of the country, be sure and take in these amazing trails.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Endings & New Beginnings

If you follow this blog, you know I'm not one to shy away from change. Moving out of our comfort zone at times can be thrilling. Trying something new. Setting a goal and going for it. I've tried to live this way in many areas and so much can be pointed back to 2006 when I left Corporate America to manage a theater at a college campus. Being there sparked my creative juices in a new way. My writing took off. I pushed myself into new areas. But I was also doing something I love by managing that space. Meeting amazing artists that would come through our doors. Gaining new arts partners with a common vision to turn that town into an arts destination. Seeing thousands of patrons walking through the doors and leaving touched by the experience of live performances. Truly happy with all we've accomplished in the past seven and 1/2 years.

Today is my last day at that job. Yes…I can't be like everyone else, I leave in the middle of the week! (Joking: I'm actually driving to Penn State to watch my niece graduate at the end of this week so that's why it's a Wed.) There are always such mixed feelings when something ends. You might have made the decision to leave, but there can be fear and sadness when leaving. You'll miss those co-workers/friends you have made. The route your car is used to taking to arrive at your daily job. The comfort of knowing everything and everyone needed to accomplish your job. And there is that time from when you gave notice to the last day that feels like a land of limbo with a 'do I belong here' each day. 

But that all ends now. I go in and say my goodbyes to those people. I bid farewell to the ghost that lives in our theater. I feel grateful for the experience and what it has done for me creatively. I've had a wonderful staff that not only shared my vision for the arts center, but who I will definitely miss. And I leave with the knowledge that the center will thrive as they head into next season - still bringing wonderful productions to the community. 

And I prepare for the next leap in my journey. All coming soon. Full of excitement and newness. Yes, an ending does mean something else begins.  And by next week, today's feelings will be replaced by brand new ones.

Thank you to WAC, Bloomfield College, and all those amazing arts partners for almost 8 years of great times.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Well Worth Long Trip to Broadway for Hedwig

Walking into the Belasco Theatre where Hedwig and the Angry Inch is playing and one can feel the energy - that something amazing is happening every day in this space. But it's not the first time that Hedwig has caused such a commotion. The show ran for two years from 1998 to 2000 in a small Off-Broadway Theatre and has actually spent the last 16 years with productions all around the world. Created by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, the show has had a cult following for most of those years and was even turned into a film in 2001. The excitement of that earlier time was that Mitchell was performing the title role and singing the amazing score by Trask. He and Hedwig were one in the same.

That 16 years later, that show could end up on Broadway with new faces coming to see the baby of those two is incredible in and of itself. That an Off-Broadway show that some believe should be in a dive bar in the village can be embraced by the Broadway community is yet another amazing feat. We've witnessed other rock musicals move into the 'mainstream' with Rocky Horror and Tommy, but a musical about a German transgendered rock and roll singer with a botched sex change doesn't seem like the kind of shows Rodgers & Hammerstein would write for the Great White Way. But boy, this gender-bender experience is an event NOT to be missed. 

Everything about this production is perfection. And it shows with the amount of nominations it is collecting during awards season. The staging, the lights, sound, costumes, projections, set (which has been changed for Broadway to be on the fictional set of the musical version of the Hurt Locker), direction by the always brilliant Michael Mayer - there is not one single weak link in this production. I always marvel when small shows, basically told in monologues can grab an audience and convey a powerful story - and this one does not disappoint. The angry inch band (all onstage) are Rock and Punk and everything loud rolled into one. And songs that are memorable with lyrics that cause you to feel for the character of Hedwig. And her husband Yitzhak (played by the Tony Award nominated Lena Hall) is in a word…magical. That woman has been on the boards for several shows, but man she gets to shine in this one playing a man. What a powerhouse of a voice and I'm thrilled the Tony committee has remembered her with a nomination.

But many of the new faces coming to see Hedwig are coming because of the man now donning the wig made famous by John Cameron Mitchell and that is Neil Patrick Harris. He's had quite a career in film, TV, stage, hosting numerous awards shows. I've actually seen him in four other stage productions, but believe he has found his role with the glam goddess Hedwig. He embodies her - and I wasn't sure I'd buy someone other than the original who had written the show. But I bought him COMPLETELY in the role as he immerses himself in her. With a commitment and connection not always seen on stage. And he does back-to-back shows on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon/evening. Everything feels natural and new. As if experiencing it for this 'one-night-only' performance that he is sharing. His hosting skills have paid off as he talks to the audience, never being thrown by what comes back. He is honest and raw. Calculating and captivating. Changing voices as he shares his story to become each character. Working up a sweat (and must be working off pounds) as he runs all over that entire stage in some pretty high heels. And he has the audience in the palm of his hand right where we all belong. Well done, Mr. Harris.

I'd say go see this, but I doubt you can get a ticket. It's the hottest show in town and the hardest ticket to get. But if you do - treat yourself to the wild world of Hedwig (and don't forget to look for the Hurt Locker Playbills left around. I got mine!)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Secrets in The Catskills: Casa Valentina on Broadway

The LGBTQ (ever changing list of letters) community is a huge group that covers a diverse set of people. What ties us all together is that we are different - set apart from what others consider 'the norm'. And yet even within our own community, there is much division and lack of understanding of each other. Harvey Fierstein has addressed some of those issues in his new play Casa Valentina which has been nominated for Best Play for a Tony Award. The play is set in the 60s at a resort in the Catskills where heterosexual men who love to dress as women gather to share their secret in a non-judgmental environment. The play is also inspired by a true story that was reported in the New York Times several years back (and is a very interesting read). 

There is a great ensemble of actors that work so well together to share this story as it slowly unravels. We see the men arriving at the resort, changing into women's clothing and learning about each of their personal lives. Married men. Judges. Older men. Younger. George (whose female name is Valentina) runs the resort with his wife, Rita (underplayed with realness and truth by the Tony nominated Mare Winningham) and eagerly await the arrival of the others. Yet as it starts, we are unsure who these men are. Are we dealing with transgendered? Transsexuals? Homosexuals? Fierstein moves the play along slowly - sometimes too slowly for this audience member - as he gets to the conflict of the story. Charlotte (played by the wonderful Reed Birney) has flown in to get the group to officially register as a society in order to bring cross-dressing into the mainstream. But in order to do that, they must distance themselves from homosexuals - and therein lies the theme that Fierstein so adeptly addresses. How this community of society outcasts turn on each other to make themselves better than the next.

That is what I came away with from this rather lengthy play. A play that runs as long as a musical. While I enjoyed much about it, I felt it could have been edited and still had the same social impact the show is making. There are some beautiful moments. There are some funny moments. All directed very well by the talented Joe Mantello (with shades of his Love! Valour! Compassion!).  The show has it all and the cast handles each moment brilliantly; never making fun of the very group they are representing. I must give a shout out to John Cullum who tenderly creates a wonderful elderly woman that is so beautiful to watch as he is held while dancing with others. I also really enjoyed Nick Westrate as Gloria - a firecracker of a 'woman' that doesn't back down from any one and Tom McGowan as Bessie who rides a fine line delivering one-liners with heart. But it is hard to pull out any from the others as it truly is an ensemble work. Still, it is George we are supposed to feel for during his plight and while I have always loved Patrick Page in everything I've ever seen him do - I didn't feel he got to all of the layers of George the way his onstage wife was able to find with her character. Theirs is a marriage of total transparency and she is so accepting that I wish we could get inside of him just a little more.

Huge thank to the Manhattan Theatre Club for always offering such diverse productions. What a great asset to the Broadway community!