Thursday, March 23, 2017

Amélie Is Magical and Adorable

When the world is in a crazy and unsettling time, sometimes you want to escape in the theater with a light-hearted musical. That's exactly what Amélie offers which opens on Broadway April 3rd. It is magical, charming, quirky, and adorable! Based on a 2001 French film, Amélie grows up in a sheltered family. Her parents believes she has a heart defect so they home-school their lonely introverted daughter. Touching and connecting are not common with her parents so a fish becomes her only friend and she lives in a fantasy world. Once grown, she moves to Paris, works in a cafe with very eccentric people, and inspired by Princess Diana decides to perform random acts of a hidden attempt at searching for love, connection, and acceptance. 

Not your average story for a musical, but Craig Lucas who brought us the mystical Prelude to a Kiss and the book for An American in Paris and Light in the Piazza (to name a few) has taken the film characters and given them theatrical purpose that makes sense in this one act musical. The moment the first notes started from the small orchestra, I felt transported to a magical place. Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen have written a score that I know I will want to return to again. Reminiscent of William Finn, the score evokes emotion, excitement, and wonder. The writers chose to stay away from standard "French sounds" and have created a universal musical voice for the piece. 

While I complained about direction from War Paint, I am in awe of the world Pam MacKinnon has created (who is known for directing plays) in this musical. There is constant movement where ensemble people play multiple roles. The fact that Amélie mixes fantasy with reality, the musical is a stylized piece of those two worlds that makes one think of Dr. Seuss with the feeling of Matilda. (I actually liked this better. Perhaps because they chose NOT to do French accents and I understood everyone on the stage which I did not during Matilda.) Sam Pinkleton's musical staging is a delight to watch and the set, costumes, lighting, projections are all a marvel in this show. A huge kudos to those designers for transporting us in a fun and fresh way.

The cast is lead by Phillipa Soo who left her lead role in Hamilton to work on this musical out on the road before they brought it to Broadway. (Interesting note: she also created the female lead in The Great Comet which is also now on Broadway.) She is absolutely adorable to watch on stage with a voice like silk. Joy permeates on her face and you can't help but be affected by it in your seat. (There are obviously some Hamilton groupies that attend the show because of this young rising star.) Adam Chanler-Berat (from Peter and the Starcatcher and Next to Normal) brings his normal youthful exuberance to this role which is also infectious. 

I was also happy to see Tony Sheldon back on Broadway along with the other 10 performers who is the most diverse cast I've seen in a long time. By that I mean it is a quirky assortment of people that each stand out in a very unique way, making the evening all that more irresistible. (Come on, one guy gets to do a riff on an Elton John type character and another gets to be the traveling gnome...where else will you get to see this?)

As the show did run out of town, I was able to read previous reviews. The show has gone through changes from those productions and even during previews they have removed songs and added others. I've read some say if you have not seen the movie you will be lost seeing this musical. False. I went in cold knowing NOTHING of the show and followed along with no problem. 

Hopefully they can get it cut down to a more manageable running time since there is no intermission. While it may not follow the regular rules of other musicals, there is something very special and wonderful about Amélie's world. Trimming it a bit would make the sweetness of that world taste better, leaving the audience wanting seconds.

If you are looking for something different, light, and unique - treat yourself to the endearing Amélie.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Journey of An Artist

Recently I watched an amazing documentary. One that will speak to some more than others as it deals with a musical on Broadway in 1981 that closed quickly, but became a legendary tale. Merrily We Roll Along was written by the amazing Stephen Sondheim and George Furth based on a 1934 play. It was directed by Hal Prince reuniting this dream team that had brought the world so many incredible musicals. The show used young 16-25 year olds to portray the characters who age to their 40s. 

New Yorkers turned against it before the musical ever opened, sharing tales of issues with the show, preview audiences couldn't follow the story, and people walked out mid-show. The show only ran for 16 performances. Skip ahead to 2016 and Broadway director (who was an actor in the original production) Lonny Price made a documentary on the film and it is pure JOY to watch.

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened shares the story of the making of this musical from how these young kids felt to what they are doing today. Price captures BEAUTIFULLY the joy of every theater kid who has dreamed of being on Broadway. I watched with a full heart as Sondheim himself attends a party in Price's family apartment and plays on of the new songs for the show on his piano. It is amazing and incredible for every little kid who lived with show posters on their bedroom wall. (Raises hand.) A theme of the musical is that life doesn't always take us where we think we're going and the documentary picks up on that as they talk to those actors all these years later to find where they are now. (Some stayed in the business; others didn't.)

I will admit I watched with tears in my eyes at points. Both from the love I have for theater, Sondheim, the hard working people that create ART as well as thinking about my own life. Fall of 2017 will mark 30 since I moved to NYC from Texas with suitcase in hand and stars in my eyes. Much like the people in this documentary, I look back on my life and see how the path twisted and turned in ways I never expected. I'm just three years away from the age Sondheim was when he was writing this musical and the words ring true - so true. We take for granted so much when we're young and it all goes by so quickly. If only we understood that when we were young and eager, but perhaps if we did...fear would paralyze us and we wouldn't believe we could do anything. 

If you have Netflix, the documentary is streaming now and I can't recommend it enough. If you love theater. If you want to understand why people are so upset that a certain administration wants to attack the arts. If you want to witness how a Broadway musical takes form - it's all there.

As I write this blog, I realize it's Stephen Sondheim's birthday and I must wish him a very happy one. For all the joy he has brought so many with his writing through his entire career. I cherish a note he responded to me in the early 90s when I invited him to a staged reading of one of my own musicals and he couldn't attend. He is a genius of a writer, a nurturing individual to younger artists, and a legend that America is lucky to have as part of the landscape of this glorious thing we call musical theater. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Two Powerhouses at War on Broadway

When you get the chance to see two amazing performers together on stage, you run to that show even if you know very little about it. Patti LuPone is a living legend with a belt like no other. Christine Ebersole may not be as large a name to some, but the two time Tony Winner has more emotion in a single phrase than many can muster in an entire song. Her voice is pure and something beautiful to witness live. The two star as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in the new musical War Paint about these two entrepreneurs that did more for the cosmetics industry than many even know - all the while being fueled by trying to outdo the other. 

And that is the premise of the 2 hour and 45 minute musical.

Feuds between women are huge. Ryan Murphy has offered the one between Joan and Bette on TV now. In the 80s there was a play called Legends (that never made it to Broadway) about two feuding legends that starred Mary Martin and Carol Channing. (Read the book Diary of a Mad Playwright by James Kirkwood where the story behind that play was even bigger than what was on stage.)

I need to start by saying I am a fan of so many involved in this show. Composer and Lyricist Scott Frankel and Michael Korie are often compared to Sondheim in how they write - where one needs another listen to allow their ear to catch a melody. I love their Grey Gardens (which also starred Christine Ebersole) and their score to Far From Heaven. Here they have given a score that is true to the multiple periods they take us through from 30s-60s while sticking to the musical voice they know.  I had the pleasure of sitting next to fellow Texan playwright Doug Wright on a plane many years ago and had the most amazing discussion. He won the Pulitzer for I Am My Own Wife and also wrote the book for Grey Gardens. Michael Greif has been at the helm of many Broadway 'wonders' from Rent to Next to Normal to the current Dear Evan Hansen and is in the director's chair for this one as well.

With this dream team, my hopes were high and they were quickly dashed. While trying so hard to keep this show even between the two lead roles, they see-saw back and forth until it is one huge muddled mess of a story. Act 1 stays on one note of "I don't like that other woman" and yet we don't get enough "why?, what's motivating them to be the pioneers that they are?, why do I want to care about these two women?" The subplots are so small there isn't truly a reprieve from the main story line. They each have a man in their life handing marketing and sales, Arden's husband Tommy Lewis played wonderfully by John Dosset and Rubinstein's Harry Fleming played by the dashing Douglas Sills (enjoyed seeing him back on Broadway). However they have two of the more cringe-worthy songs in the show. The ensemble is full of people with huge Broadway credits and each are so under utilized in this flimsy book of a musical, it's a shame. 

In trying to be so even - Mr. Greif stages it in such a repetitive, boring manner that I knew exactly what the next scene was going to be - down to when the man would sit on a desk - it's the same scene over and over told for a different character. (Sorry, we already have Groundhog Day opening this same season.) I was complaining at intermission about the direction having no idea it was someone that I loved and respected so much. Everyone crosses and circles each other all night long with no intent behind their movement. I get that we wanted to show these women on parallel paths, but I would have preferred something deeper in the storytelling to pull us in. I actually believe concentrating on one over the other would have made for a more compelling story. There is only one true moment that comes close to any emotional depth that we saw in Grey Gardens and that's when the incredible Ms. Ebersole sings the song "Pink" about her legacy. Ms. Lupone is allowed to belt every song and the audiences eats it up. (She is in amazing voice!) She delivers one-liners throughout the show that feel we've been plopped into the middle of RuPaul's Drag Race

There are over 20 songs that start to go together because the book needs to be given room to breathe before jumping into yet another song. And then when we finally do get a true book scenes, it's at the end of the night when (stop reading if you don't want any spoilers) the two women finally meet face to face and the musical stops everything to give them a true scene...which for this audience member came much too late. To do an entire musical where the two leads never interact is probably the biggest disservice of this entire show.

There are musical moments in the show that are glorious for the two leads. There are moments in the book that take a swipe at what is happening in America today as it's about two immigrants who chased the American dream and succeeded. (Listen for the line about fighting the bully - the audience eats it up.) I must also give a huge shout out to Catherine Zuber for her incredible costume design. However in a season full of so many new musicals (both original and based on films), I'm not sure the two powerhouses will be enough to keep this seesaw of a musical teetering back and forth. I guess we'll wait and see. It's still in previews. Much could change. They've already changed some since it's run in Chicago. However, the main things I point out above will not change as I went and read reviews from Chicago right before hitting the publish button on this blog and many felt the same way then...and I think they'll feel it again.

These stars deserve better. These real life women deserve better. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Finding Your Significant Other

In a season which seems crowded with new musicals, the play Significant Other finds its way to The Booth Theatre after playing off-Broadway last year. Joshua Harmon, a young 30-something playwright, has written a millennial play that people of all ages can enjoy. Four best friends (3 women and one gay men) have created their own family as many do when they live in the huge city of New York. Staying focused on their own worlds, paying little attention to things outside of their neighborhood, and playing the role of therapist, friend, and even wedding date for each other. However it is in those late 20s when so many watch their friends marry and one can't help but ask the question: what happens to me?

Those are Jordan Berman's issue as he watches his girlfriends find love and futures while he can't seem to find a boyfriend and even create a present - let alone a future. Gideon Glick is absolutely wonderful as the glue that holds this group together. Neurotic, energetic, funny, moving - he runs the gamut of emotions...with hardly ever leaving the stage. He also lovingly cares for his grandmother (played beautifully by Barbara Barrie) and listens to her sage advice. (Side note: I was told Ms. Barrie made her Broadway debut at this very theater and it's so wonderful to see her back on stage.) 

I owe Mr. Glick a HUGE apology (and a compliment) because I didn't think I cared for him...only because of a role he played on a web series that I watched. I now realize he played THAT character so well, it was the character I didn't care for! He is an incredible actor and I actually feel this season could see lead actor in a play and a musical Tonys BOTH going to young men.

The three  female friends are all wonderful creating very different young professionals in New York City. Sas Goldberg starts the play off with a bang as Kiki and never lets up, Rebecca Naomi Jones gives Vanessa a wonderful arc as we see her views on marriage (and funerals) change, and Lindsay Mendez is so real as the best friend Laura as I believed she and Jordan have been friends for years. John Behlmann and Luke Smith round out the cast with the task of playing three characters each and every man is so different that you find yourself wondering if the cast is actually larger. Bravo to this awesome ensemble of performers...some of which are making Broadway debuts.

Trip Cullman has done a great job at directing this piece which often reads as a sitcom (Friends meets Will & Grace), but also has a lot of heart to it. A shout out to Mark Wendland for the inspired set design which takes us to numerous locations.

I attended with my own group of girlfriends (we are all in late 40s/50s) and each of us commented how we can relate to portions of this show. We can either remember what it was like to be that age and wondering what all was yet to come, being the one calling a friend and it going to voicemail because they have a new love in their life, or creating a family of friends that you can turn to whenever you need them. Age doesn't matter...those significant people in our lives stay significant for a reason. 

If you're visiting New York and you are looking for an alternative to a musical or a revival this season - go see this show! 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Canada Gives A Gift With Come From Away

Our neighbors to the north have always been known for being a kind and compassionate country. It's no secret that during the last US elections, many Americans were eyeing it as a potential home. Well that happened for several days for people from all around the world on Sept 11, 2001. When America was under attack, 38 planes carrying almost 7,000 passengers were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland by the FAA. The small town's population was doubled and this community opened their hearts, homes, and wallets to all of these strangers. It was 'home' for these people for several days until they were able to get back in the sky and on to their final destinations.

Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein were drawn to this story and used it as the basis for their new musical Come From Away. Once again, Canada has opened their hearts and are giving Broadway a wonderful gift with this show. The original show had an out of town run before hitting NYC in La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Ford's Theatre, and Toronto and has already settled in beautifully into their home at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre where it opens March 12th. With the power of the musical Once and the story-telling style of The Laramie Project, this show has a uniqueness that should stand out in a busy spring season of new musicals.

I'm breaking my own rule as I usually don't write about shows during previews, but it's obvious this show is a well-oiled machine and I want as many people as possible to know about it and go see it! It's about love, compassion, unity - all things we need to hear. The show starts with a bang and in 100 minutes with no intermission tells the story of the people of Gander as well as "the plane people" that have come from everywhere to their small town. Director Christopher Ashley keeps this ensemble constantly moving - sometimes without giving pause for applause - which the audience desperately wants to give. This ensemble of amazing performers are giving their all on that stage and we feel every bit of it. They switch characters in the blink of an eye and we never lose sight of who they are at any given moment. I say ensemble as it truly is an incredible group of people working together: no star turns in this show (though I must say that I love seeing Jenn Colella and Chad Kimball back on stage.) But I truly fell in love with every single performer on that stage including the band who plays on stage, adding to the overall energy and passion.

Sankoff and Hein have written a beautiful piece that many people may not know. In the middle of a horrible time in our country's history, these people found community and it's stunning to witness. It's also wonderful to know so many in this show are based on real people, real stories - and you can sense it. It's not maudlin, it's uplifting. It's funny. It's powerful. (There is a moment where many religions converge during The Prayer and it's stunning.) The music is different from what we're used to from Musical Theater (being a former BMI Musical Theater Workshop student - I always notice this), but it fits perfectly with the rhythm of this show. Sometimes it's best to break the rules! Bravo to these two nuanced writers! Beowulf Boritt has designed a simple set on a turntable with mismatched chairs. Howell Binkley provides wonderful lighting and both of these elements let us know where we are every step of the way.  

We all have our own stories from 9/11. I had not made it to work that day and was watching from across the river in Hoboken, NJ at the train station. However it was poignant for me that I saw Come From Away just two days after the 24th anniversary of the '93 World Trade Center bombing where I had just started a part-time job on the 98th floor of Tower One and recall taking an hour to walk down all those stairs. (Yes, this arts guy chose a corporate America "stay-alive job" while living out my arts dreams in the early 90s.) One of the beauties of Come From Away is that it allows us to recall our own memories from that week while seeing a completely new story that displays in such a dark moment, there was a diverse group of people that found each other and celebrated those differences. Wow.