Saturday, March 26, 2016

Frank Langella: A Masterclass in Acting

Wow. I'm still stunned, shaken, emotionally spent from Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Father written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. As someone who has reviewed for several theater sites, I usually follow the rules of not reviewing a preview even for my own blog. The Father just started previews this week, but I MUST share this experience with others as it's a limited run and people must RUN to the theater to see this production.

Sometimes it is best to go into a show knowing little to nothing about it. Others want to be told what a show is about. If you want the full surprise, stop reading now and buy a ticket. For others, one should know that the father is dealing with dementia and Florian Zeller has created an immersive evening of theater that takes us as close to inside the man's brain as possible. Yes, there are comic moments, but the laughing stops when we watch how difficult it is for a person attempting to hang on to normalcy as everything shifts and changes around them. Forgetting people, places, and time: this production plays with ALL of those in a most brilliant way. You think you are missing something as you sit in the audience and that is completely the point.

Doug Hughes has directed this fine ensemble with such precision, keeping them on track in the slightly shifting scenes where you believe they are repeating themselves. The slight difference noticed in a look, a delivery (and Kathryn Erbe is incredible as the daughter attempting to hold it all together). A huge kudos to the running crew on this show too....that will make sense to you after seeing it.

And then... there is The Father: Frank Langella. For 53 years the man has been sharing his craft on stage, film, TV and is always so brilliant in whatever choices he makes as an actor. But seeing him live on stage - especially in this role - I was blown away. He had me in the palm of his hand and could go anywhere on that stage and I'd follow. The range of a man living with dementia - repeating scenes - I couldn't help but wonder how the 78 year old actor memorized this show.  Yet you don't feel you are watching an are watching Andre as he crumbles before us and it is gut-wrenching and somehow still beautiful in its sadness. I'm in awe of the masterclass I received tonight and so grateful to my friends for taking me to see this. I DEFINITELY want to return before it ends June 12th.

Warning: this show may be hard for those who have a family member that is dealing with this...I think it may hit very close to home for those as I heard plenty of sniffles around me. But man, this is what theater is about: making you feel, live, love. Thank you, Manhattan Theatre Club.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Religion and Passion Go Hand in Hand

When I was a child, we would travel up into Oklahoma from Texas in the middle of the night to see a passion play at sunrise during Holy Week. Every time I would hear the hammering sound of nails going through the hands of Jesus, it would kill me. Was that from my Christianity or my humanity? Or was the production such a well produced show that the young theater person inside of me already understood the power of good story telling? I've grown up on the story of Christ's final days seeing it in so many different plays, musicals, church events, movies, Broadway shows...the story has been told over and over. 

Fox jumped on it this past Sunday night with The Passion Live which retold the story in modern times, set in New Orleans and using secular pop songs to tell the story. Perhaps they wanted to show that music we listen to on the radio can have many messages in it. I give huge props to music man Adam Anders for his song choices and the amazing arrangements of those songs. Plus the use of incredible musicians singing the songs. (Trisha Yearwood slayed me every time she opened her mouth.)

I watched how social media treated it like any other TV Musical - hate-tweeting, poking fun, sometimes bashing. But I also saw Christians in love with it, never complaining of no church songs being sung - they were moved by the evening and thrilled to see someone take this on during this holiest of times for Christianity. 

Then two days later, there is a terror attack on Brussels and some of those same Christians that watched the persecution of the man that has taught them to love and to forgive start attacking an entire religion because of the terrorists involved. They spew venom at our president for not discussing religion when talking about the horrible people that carried out these attacks. I for one think there is already enough finger pointing at religions. Just as we Christians have a right for Tyler Perry to produce an event like The Passion Live on Network Television, we should give other religions their rights as well. Starting hashtags that say Stop Islam is an attack and not one that the Jesus I learned about would agree with. But I guess today's Christians feel they know what is best. They feel persecuted and in turn believe they can turn and persecute others. 

So as a child was I moved by the story of the last days of Christ because of my beliefs, humanity, or the theatrics of it? I think it was a mixture of all of the above. And today - I still believe in being humane to others even if they don't share the same religious beliefs as me. It's Easter week. Christ arose - that was the point. I hope my fellow Christians stop and think about that before throwing stones at others based on religion. To claim Christianity as the reason to treat others the way they continue to do embarrasses me and makes me clam up in my beliefs - keeping them to myself. However, I don't think that's what Jesus - the man they claim to follow and believe in - would want me to do. Instead, I embrace all humanity and I'm happy that others have their beliefs to hold on to and I'm sorry that terrorists use their name to do heinous acts. Love and peace - if only there was a little more of that.  

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Bright Star Shines Bright

There is a new phenomenon happening on Broadway this season. Being able to walk into a musical and have no idea where the story is going's original and not based on a film or book. That's one of the big joys of seeing Bright Star playing at the Cort Theatre. With a story idea by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell after they collaborated on their 2014 Grammy winning album Love Has Come for You, Martin wrote the book for the musical and together they wrote the music and lyrics for this Southern tale of love, hope, and perseverance.

Many know Steve Martin as an actor, but his love of bluegrass is evident in this toe-tapping score where we watch the band on stage as their musical emotion adds to the overall feel of this show. At first it had shades of the musical Big River (and my theater partner and I swore we heard a motif from Cats a few times), but that quickly was gone as it took on a life of its own: new, fresh and paying no attention to what many believe to be the standard ways of writing musical theater. I was pulled into the lushness, the exuberance and the care in which you feel every actor, performer, and creative member of this show are working on this piece. It's a small flower that blossoms as the story pulls back layers sharing more and more. Set in the 1920s & 1940s, Bright Star tells two stories that intertwine and connect as we go back and forth. A young man returns from WWII and wants so desperately to be a writer that he meets a successful literary editor and off we go. Doesn't sound like a big Broadway musical, but the less you know of the story; the more enjoyment you will find in discovering it first hand.

Now I must stop and sing the praises of Carmen Cusack making her Broadway debut as that literary editor Alice Murphy and say what a star she is. A voice that killed me. Her tone, belt, mix - everything I enjoy in a female singer. She colors her voice for this role with an ache and a quiver that would resonate through the Appalachian mountains. She switches from young as an adorable, care-free Loretta Lynn type to a mature, reserved, guarded woman (that reminded me a little of the cutting Dixie Carter as Julia Sugerbaker). She transforms physically as she goes back and forth and absolutely feels every moment of this story - and we see it all in her eyes. (I didn't realize until afterwards when talking to a friend that I saw Ms. Cusack off-broadway as the gym teacher in the revival of Carrie.) I do believe Broadway will be seeing MUCH more of her in the future.

As the boy that steals her heart, Paul Alexander Nolan has the voice that any male singer longs to have. I can't believe this is the same man I saw last spring in Doctor Zhivago as he knows how to escape into a character. From stern Russian then to Southern gentleman now, he is an incredible actor with so much range - the two of them together are absolutely beautiful to watch.

The rest of the wonderful cast includes performers I've loved watching through the years (Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Emily Padgett, Jeff Blmenkrantz, Stephen Lee Anderson, Michael Mulheren) along with some I'm happy to see for the first time such as A.J. Shivley and Hannah Elless. Everyone in this show seems to know they are experiencing something very unique with this production and it shows in those performances.

The show has been worked on at the Old Globe in San Diego and at the Kennedy Center this past fall and has gone through many changes (as I read up on it after seeing it). Characters were cut and changes made. There are still flaws in the book: the lyrics are sometimes too simple and stay truer to country music story-telling instead of what we're used to in a Broadway musical (and for this BMI Musical Theater writer - the imperfect rhymes would bother my ear occasionally), and I wish the big 11 o'clock number had more depth to the lyrics that matched the joyous moment happening on stage. But there is so much that makes up for those shortcomings that I found it beautiful and powerful and an honor to get to witness. Walter Bobbie as director and Josh Rhodes as choreographer have done an awesome job with this piece so that it moves from period to period stunningly; yet never over the top. Even the set moves are so fluid as we whisk in and out of periods and locations. The ensemble is used as a greek chorus in a way that Bridges of Madison County wishes would have worked for them. Here, it works wonderfully. 

Do I wish the flaws could have been addressed prior to coming to Broadway? Of course, but only because I'm afraid of how critics may treat this piece once it opens. However, I applaud this creative team for doing something different. Much like Hamilton has taken Broadway into a new territory, and the musical Once didn't follow the usual convention, Bright Star gives audiences something different from the norm. That makes the 2015-2016 season very exciting! Last summer, I started this new 'season' with a show that played downtown at the seaport. I called it a theatrical musical experience because they too were creating art outside the norm. Bravo to those that continue to challenge us and not feed us the tried and true over and over. Either on stage or on film, I'm all for those that think outside the box, color outside the lines, and in doing so - create beautiful gems that we get to share.

Go the Cort Theatre to see one of those gems and as a bonus, see a rising star shine so brightly on that stage you'll leave remembering the name Carmen Cusack. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Disaster is Anything But...

Onstage with Seth Rudetsky after the show
Seth Rudetsky is a staple in the New York Theater scene as an author, actor, accompanist, arranger, MD, radio personality, Playbill columnist - all around theater enthusiast. Now with Disaster! he must be pinching himself to have a show he co-wrote and co-conceived playing the great White Way...with himself driving the ship (or as Professor Ted Scheider, trying to save everyone that is on it).

Rudetsky and co-writer Jack Plotnick (who skillfully directs the piece) first produced this campy, nod to the 70s disaster films off-broadway to raves. (It actually ran at an off-off-broadway house for 3 months in 2012 and then a longer run at St. Luke's Theatre in 2013/14.) I missed it then, but will admit I was listening to those neigh-sayers that said a show like this should stay off-Broadway like Silence the Musical or BatBoy and not move to a larger venue on Broadway. that wrong.

Broadway has room for all kinds of shows and guess what...we need to laugh. Like Xanadu, Rock of Ages and Mama Mia - Disaster! gives an audience permission to not only enjoy nostalgic music from the past, but laugh with the characters on stage. Disaster! uses more than 30 songs from the disco era - sometimes as full songs, sometimes just a snippet - and you never know what's coming. That is part of the joy of it all. A line is spoken and BOOM...we are in the middle of a disco song.  Being on Broadway also allows for production values around sets, costumes, lighting to be upgraded - but they still stay true to their roots in how they portray water rising on this sinking vessel or other comic bits that I won't ruin.

There is so much that is so sublimely ridiculous in this show that it is hard to share too much as I don't want to give away any of the jokes or what to expect. The premise is an opening of a floating casino leaving New York City where all of these disasters occur. The professor, the aging disco diva, the older married couple, the reporter, the ship owner, the star performer and her children, the ship workers....they are all there. 

Just like The Love Boat would have a star-studded cast, Disaster! has assembled some of the best in the business. This entire ensemble works so hard, fully committed to the characters as broad as they may be, and seems to be having so much fun just letting loose that you want to be up on stage singing these 70s hits with them.  It's interesting to note that two of them are originals from the 2012 production and another is a carryover from the off-Broadway run. Roger Bart, Kerry Butler, Kevin Chamberlin, Adam Pascal (returning to the Nederlander Theatre where he played RENT forever), Faith Prince, and Rachel York are names theater-lovers have known for many years. Together they have tons of credits and Tonys among them. They are all amazing performers and bring so much comic timing and incredible vocals to this production. 

Add in Seth Rudetsky, Max Crumm (who won the role of Danny in Grease on TV's You're the One That I Want), Lacretta Nicole (who was in the 2012 production and making her Broadway debut in a huge way), Baylee Littrell (awesome son of Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell), the incredibly brilliant in all senses of the word Jennifer Simard as the nun (remember this name...I'm sure she will be remembered at Tony time), and six ensemble members getting a work out singing/dancing and changing costumes non-stop through the night to fill out the people on this ship, and you have the hottest new cast on Broadway today!

I can't say enough about this show. Go with a group of friends. Laugh until your sides ache. Pay no attention if a person next to you checks their watch or doesn't crack a smile because they are the party-poopers on this boat and they need to go down. You need to party until the dawn comes up. I KNOW I'll be returning!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Bronx Tale in Song

There is something exciting about seeing a world premiere of a new musical: a musical that is based on a film which was based on a one-man show. A Bronx Tale the Musical premiered at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and brought in heavy hitters like Chazz Palminteri to write the book (as it is based on his play and film), Robert De Niro (from the film) to direct along side Jerry Zaks, and Alan Menkin and Glenn Slater to provide the music & lyrics.

I will admit that it's been a while since I saw the film so I didn't recall much about it. This story has been around since 1989 when Palminteri first started writing it as small monologues and performing it in LA. Based on an actual event when he saw a man killed right in front of him as a small boy, it is about family, relationships, racial tensions, and a certain part of New York in the 1960s. There is a sense of a throwback to old-time musicals with this production that feels very different from the current landscape of Hamilton and Fun Home. It is Jersey Boys meets West Side Story with a little Capeman and The Life thrown in. Yet it still manages to have a sense of self that feels new and fresh and completely entertaining. 

With a production team that includes Beowulf Boritt and William Ivey Long, this felt like a full Broadway show and I'm sure that's where this entire team hopes to head. I can definitely see it finding a home and audience in New York City. Menkin's score is period appropriate while one can always tell who's keyboard it came from. Slater's lyrics are crisp and well suited (though at times goes into the generic on some of the 'lesson' ballads). I did find myself bopping along to it and even humming a few as I left the theater. I read that Palminteri sees this piece as a fable the way Menkin has written so many Disney films and I see some of those archetype characters.

Jason Gotay as narrator splits the role of our young hero Calogero (think Hercules) with an amazing little boy, Joshua Colley. At the center of the story is Calogero's relationship with two men: his father played by the golden-voiced Richard H. Blake and mafia-man Sonny played wonderfully by Nick Cordero. Calogero has to see that his dad's job as a bus driver may not be as glamorous as a mafia man, but an important one just the same. 

Naturally this tale has many other characters and everyone is top notch in their roles. I found myself wishing it could focus in more on the core of the story and do away with a few subplots. For me, that is all that is missing in this piece. I want to feel Calogero's struggle between these two men. Perhaps giving the mom a little more to do would also enhance the story-line of family. Act 2 is jam-packed with so many actions/plot lines that the main struggle of our hero gets a little lost. It's's just hidden in events that lead to the finale and I felt his journey became rushed. 

As a writer who works on adapting novels into screenplays, I see how hard it is to let go of certain moments and scenes I had previously written. Sometimes I feel like I'm telling a different story when I change mediums. But perhaps that's what we're meant to do. A Bronx Tale is a beautiful tribute to fathers and sons and maybe as the creative team continues to work and hone before bringing it to Broadway, they can focus that amazing story more so that all that heart is left on the floor by the end of the performance.

So glad I got to see it before it closes this weekend. Can't wait to watch the journey of this piece. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Face of Honesty?

If you live in New Jersey and have ever questioned the sincerity, integrity, and honesty of our governor all one needs to do is have followed him on his quest to become the next president of the United States.

He went into it believing he could bully his way through as he has done with teachers, police, and fire fighters in our state. Little did he know a bigger bully with a much larger platform would take that spotlight right off of him. So what does he do? He decides to be the one to go after the big bully on the playground calling him a carnival barker and entertainer-in-chief. That backfires and he can't gain any traction in his crusade towards being president even though he has spent months away from his home state as he campaigns in other states. 

The man who cut pensions for state workers and who was embroiled in Bridge-gate goes home defeated where he is met by constituents upset that he has spent so much time away and has forgotten his mop to assist in cleaning up his own state. He finally makes a public appearance and when reporters try and ask questions that he deems off topic, he shuts them down as fast as he can. See, the bully is back on his turf and feels like the big man on campus once again.

But with aspirations beyond the garden state, he turns around and gives the big bully running for president his first endorsement by someone within the political world. Everyone is shocked that the man that had said the entertainer-in-chief could never lead the free world has done an about face and now is supporting that entertainer. Is it because he truly believes in the bully? Is it because he despises someone else running so much that he'll do anything to go up against him? Or maybe he loves the fact the entertainer has a private jet and he can play in a new world he wasn't used to being in. 

So once again, he leaves his state behind and becomes a stump speaker for the carnival barker. Who knows what position he is being promised, but it's obvious that it has nothing to do with New Jersey. And suddenly, he is seen on TV in the great state of Florida, standing behind the bully like a spouse, whipping post, or pet and his face says it all. The "my God, what have I done?" look that all of social media is talking about. He has placed all his political eggs in one gilded, gaudy basket. Six papers in his state have asked for his resignation and if the bully doesn't go all the way (taking him with him), there won't be much left in the political arena for the man who has shown his true colors and sincerity, integrity, and honesty have all gone out the window.

Enjoy the ride, Chris Christie. It looks like this may be your last.