Friday, April 17, 2015

An American in Paris: Who Could Ask for Anything More?

     At the close of their curtain call, the cast of An American in Paris sang one line from the show, “Who could ask for anything more?” Who could, indeed?  I certainly couldn’t have. This new stage incarnation of the 1951 Oscar-winning film is absolute perfection. The only thing more I could ask for is to see it again.

     Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, artistic associate of the Royal Ballet, the show brings to the Palace Theatre two stars of the New York City Ballet, Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope, making their Broadway debuts with breathtaking performances. As ballet principals they are unaccustomed to doing eight shows a week but one would never know it.  Whether dancing classic ballet, jazz or ballroom, they are mesmerizing.  They and the entire cast well deserved the rousing standing ovation they received.

     A second element of the greatness of this show can be captured in one name — Gershwin.  George and Ira’a score, adapted, arranged and supervised by Rob Fisher, includes such classics as “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “Liza,” “S’Wonderful, “But Not for Me,” “An American in Paris” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”   The musical’s book is by playwright Craig Lucas. 

     And the story is charming.  Jerry Mulligan (Fairchild), an American ex-soldier, has decided to stay on in post-World War II Paris to paint and live the artist’s life.  Of course boy has to meet girl, and he does, falling hard for a Parisian ballerina, Lise Dassin (Cope). She struggles to resist her attraction to him because she is expected to marry Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), a Frenchman whose family is sending him — and they hope her — to America to run one of their textile factories.  We find out in the second act why Lise feels obligated to marry Henri.

     To complicate matters, but only slightly, another America also is captivated by Lise, Adam Hochberg, played with delightful comic flare by Brandon Uranowitz. Adam composes the music for Lise’s ballet while Jerry creates the designs. 

     And speaking of designs, Bob Crowley’s sets, along with 59 Productions’ projections, are multidimensional feats of creativity, combining the realistic and abstract, brought to life by Natasha Katz’s lighting.  I sighed with delight with their scene beside the Seine, with two boats floating on the bright blue river. It was lovely, and a perfect setting for Jerry to woo Lise with “Liza.”  Ahh, so romantic.

     Crowley also did the exquisite costumes.  I loved the full-skirted sherbet-colored dresses in the Galleries Lafayette scene, a lively number in which Jerry goes to the famed department store to court Lise, a shopgirl there, and  shoppers and clerks end up dancing in the aisles and atop the counters.  S'Wonderful! 

     An American in Paris had its world premiere in Paris in December.  How blessed we are now to have it in New York.    

Thursday, April 16, 2015

No Fizz in Gigi's Champagne

     Catherine Zuber’s costumes are gorgeous and Derek McLane’s impressionistic sets colorfully portray Paris and its levels of society, but unfortunately they are the highlights of director Eric Schaeffer’s anemic revival of Gigi at the Neil Simon Theatre.  

     While stunning to look at, the show suffers most from its lack of a strong lead.  In her Broadway debut, Vanessa Hudgens (of “High School Musical” fame) makes the title character seem like a squirmy brat rather than an effervescent young girl on the brink of womanhood at the turn of the 20th century.

     In the canon of musical theatre, Gigi is one of the lightweights.  My friend Mary rightly labeled it “a second-hand My Fair Lady,” a good comparison because like that great musical, it has a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, with a plot hinging on transforming a spirited young girl into a cultured woman of the world. In the case of Gigi, the makeover is to mold her into a graceful woman who will snag a rich man and enter into a lucrative contract to be his mistress.

     But Gigi’s songs lack the power of My Fair Lady’s.  "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," "I Remember It Well," "The Night They Invented Champagne" and the title song, “Gigi”, (which won an Oscar for the 1958 movie version), are pleasant, but they pale in comparison to “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and even “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

     Still, with a stronger cast, Gigi would make for a lighthearted evening of theatre.  It’s been successful before.  As a straight play, adapted by Anita Loos from the 1944 novella by French author Colette, it introduced Audrey Hepburn to the New York stage in 1961.  Seven years later it was made into a movie starring Leslie Caron that won nine Oscars, including Best Picture.  It was presented as a musical on Broadway in 1973, winning a Tony for Best Musical Score, but critics were not impressed and that version flopped. 

     This new adaptation of Gigi features a book by Heidi Thomas.

  The exceptions to the bland cast are Victoria Clark as the grandmother who has raised Gigi and Dee Hoty as the great aunt who is striving to school her niece in sophistication — “insinuate yourself into the chair,” she says as Gigi prepares to plop into it — and the important things in life — “men are temporary, jewels are for life.”

     Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is, for the most part, mechanical.  The number “Paris is Paris Again” should be joy-filled, but its only spark is from the costumes.  Similarly, “The Night They Invented Champagne” needs more fizz.

     If you are feeling the urge to reconnect with Gigi, get the movie and skip this revival.  

Amazing Grace is coming to Broadway!

Following Sold-Out Acclaimed Engagement in Chicago
To Play Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre (261 West 41st Street)
Previews Begin Thursday, June 25 
For Thursday, July 16 Opening Night

Principal Casting & Creative Team Announced

Amazing Grace, a new musical, will play Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre (261 West 41st Street) with performances beginning Thursday, June 25 for a Thursday, July 16 opening night. 

The new musical features music and lyrics by Christopher Smith and a book by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron, directed by Gabriel Barre (Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party) and choreographed by Tony Award winner Christopher Gattelli (Newsies). 

The cast for Amazing Grace on Broadway will include members of the show’s acclaimed, sold-out world premiere in Chicago: Tony Award nominee Josh Young (Jesus Christ Superstar), Erin Mackey (NY Philharmonic's concert production of Sweeney Todd, Chaplin), Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper (Act One, The Life), Chris Hoch (Matilda, Far From Heaven), Stanley Bahorek (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Big River), Harriett D. Foy (Mamma Mia!, Crowns), Laiona Michelle (The Book of Mormon national tour), Rachael Ferrera (Broadway debut), and Elizabeth Ward Land (Scandalous, The Green Heart). 

Additional casting for the 33-member company of Amazing Grace will be announced in the coming weeks. 

Amazing Grace is based on the awe-inspiring true story behind the world’s most beloved song. A captivating tale of romance, rebellion and redemption, this radiant production follows one man whose incredible journey ignited a historic wave of change that gave birth to the abolitionist movement.

John Newton (Tony Award nominee Josh Young), a willful and musically talented young Englishman, faces a future as uncertain as the turning tide. Coming of age as Britain sits atop an international empire of slavery, he finds himself torn between following in the footsteps of his father – a slave trader – and embracing the more compassionate views of his childhood sweetheart (Erin Mackey). An unforgettable musical saga, Amazing Grace captures the spirit of history’s sweetest and most powerful sound: freedom.

Additional members of the creative team include Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce (scenic design), Toni-Leslie James (costume design), Ken Billington and Paul Miller (lighting design), Jon Weston (sound design), Robert –Charles Vallance (hair design), David Leong (fight and military movement), Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach), Kenny Seymour (orchestrations), Michael Keller (music coordinator), and Joseph Church (music director, arranger, incidental music).

Amazing Grace is produced by Carolyn Rossi Copeland and Alexander Rankin.

The production premiered last October in Chicago and was embraced by theatre critics and played to sold out houses. 

“Hearing ‘Amazing Grace’ sung by this cast makes for an undeniably stirring theatrical moment; it brought tears to my eyes. Amazing Grace features stirring, romantic music and lyrics by Smith with catchy, accessible melodies and is vividly staged by director Gabriel Barre sending characters up and down masts.”
  • Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

“A stirring musical. An epic romance. Artfully produced on the lavish scale of Les Mis. Amazing Grace is a soaring piece of work full of well-crafted lyrics and character-driven melodies”
  • Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times

Amazing Grace is nothing short of amazing!”
  • Hank Mendheim, Windy City Live ABC-TV

“This emotional and gripping story ensures you will never hear the beautiful hymn Amazing Grace the same way again.”
  • Paul Lisnek, Comcast

“A musical of raw power with superb, intense performances.”
- Steve Oxman, Variety

Monday, April 6, 2015

Your Self-Sabotage Survival Guide

From the Producer of the PhilHallmonics
Songs For A New Chapter
Kicking off the launch of best-selling author Karen Berg’s newest book, YOUR SELF SABOTAGE SURVIVAL GUIDE, the evening will feature veterans of Broadway theater and Fortune 500 business sharing their stories of reinvention. “Open A New Window” is a tapestry of toe-tapping music and inspirational tales woven together with some of Berg’s best from her more than three decades as an author and motivational speaker. 
The evening includes performances from Emmy and Tony nominee Ron Raines, Broadway conductor and musical director Phil Hall, and Phong Vu, CEO, of Six Sigma Management Institute, James Gerth, Kevin B McGlynn,  Linda Moshier, John DiBartolo and Karen Berg
“YOUR SELF SABOTAGE SURVIVAL GUIDE: How To Go From Why Me to Why Not?” empowers people of all ages to overcome their obstacles, reinvent themselves, and finally claim the success that's always seemed just out of reach.
Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center (111 Amsterdam Avenue-64th & 65th Sts.)
Admission is free.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

An ancient Vietnamese myth inspires play about contemporary HIV warrior

     As a playwright who was born in Vietnam, Don Nguyen saw dramatic possibilities in a New York Times story about an HIV positive woman in Haiphong, a large port city near Hanoi, who started the country’s first support group for infected women. He wasn’t sure, though, that he could turn it into a play. Not only was it a heavy subject, but having lived in this country since he was 3, he questioned his ability to capture the women’s reality.

     “I’m Vietnamese but I grew up in Nebraska,” he said.  “They felt very foreign to me.  I wasn’t sure how I could write their voices. It was a fascinating subject but seemed daunting to take on.”

     Like most writers, he had a number of ideas rumbling around in his head. One that had been nudged at the back was of an ancient Vietnamese legend of the Trung sisters who gave their lives in a fight against the Chinese army.  In a lightbulb moment, Nguyen saw a creative challenge in combining the factual story with the myth as both were about strong women fighting for liberation, from a disease and its stigma and from a threatening military.

    The play that resulted, Red Flamboyant, will have its world premiere at the Parish of Calvary-St. George, an Episcopal church in Manhattan, from April 24 through May 16, produced by Firebone Theatre, an Off, Off-Broadway company dedicated to producing plays “where the human meets the divine.”

     With casting set to begin, Nguyen, 42, and Firebone’s artistic director, Chris Cragin-Day, 37, took time out on a cold January afternoon to talk about the production in Cragin-Day’s office at The King’s College, a Christian college in New York’s financial district, where she is an assistant professor of English and theatre. 

     “I love the feminist aspects of this story,” Cragin-Day says.  “I love these women who are just so powerful, not in a social sense but in a soul sense.”

     The real-life inspiration for the main character, Mrs. Hue, is Pham Thi Hue, who was featured in the 2006 Times story Nguyen had read.  Although AIDS was widespread in the country, many of those who had it were shunned by their families and fired if their employers found out. Most of the infected women had received the virus from their husbands who were IV drug users.

  Hue called her shelter Haiphong Red Flamboyant after a Vietnamese flower. Not only did she receive no government funding, the article said, but she had to endure bricks being thrown through her windows and a constant struggle to find money for food and medicine.

     Nguyen hadn’t know HIV/AIDS was so prevalent in Vietnam.

     “It affected me, being Vietnamese, and that the country I was born in had such a huge problem.  The stigma around it was shocking to me and I wondered how I could get a germ of a play from that.”

     He began writing in 2008.  To create a naturalistic play about Hue and all those dying of AIDS would be “an overwhelming experience for the audience,” he said.  “I had to find a less realistic way.  The Trung sisters legend demanded more heightened reality. It dictated the voice of the play.”

     In short, the Trung sisters formed an army to seek revenge after the Chinese killed the husband of one of the sisters.  The Chinese fought back and demanded the Vietnamese give up the sisters. They sacrificed themselves by jumping into a ravine.

    Nguyen recognized a connection between Hue and the legendary sisters. 

    “She was a modern day warrior who could be juxtaposed with the ancient female of Vietnam to make a great story.”

     But by 2010 and his “20th draft,” he was frustrated.  “I felt like I was writing from a distance with these people.”

     He decided to go to Vietnam to get a feel for the country and possibly meet Hue.  Since he didn’t speak Vietnamese, he asked his parents to go with him and they readily agreed. 

     A cousin in the country found Hue for him and told her about the play he was writing.  She agreed to a meeting.  It was then that it hit him, suppose the real Hue was nothing like the character he had created?

     “It became really stressful.  All I had had was one article to base her off of.”

     His appointments with Hue kept getting canceled, meaning rescheduling flights a couple of times.  After three weeks, it seems ill-fated.  

     “I thought, ‘I’m not going to see her and that’s fine.  I got close.’”

     But when yet another meeting was scheduled, he went for it. 

    “It was really a good test of faith.”  

     And it paid off.  With his father as interpreter, he talked to Hue for an hour. When he mentioned he was incorporating the sisters’ legend, “her eyes lit up” and she told him it is the Vietnamese belief that “if you do something great, you are a sibling of the Trung sisters.”

     She told him to make it clear that she receives no government support.  In that strong insistence he recognized the character he had created was very much like the real Hue.

     As Nguyen was leaving, Hue said something to him in Vietnamese.  He smiled and nodded.  In the taxi his father told him she had said, “Don’t forget about me.”

     And he hasn’t.  Ten percent of Red Flamboyant’s ticket sales will go to support the real-life women through the Vietnam Relief Organization, an American-based foundation. 

     The four female and one male characters will be played by Vietnamese actors if possible.  If not, definitely by Asians.  The actors will play instruments since the play incorporates live and recorded music. The play also will feature puppetry, possibly water puppets, which are immensely popular in Vietnamese culture.

     And some of the actors will have to fly, using single harness bungees for a more free-flowing choreography.  These ariel feats alone would be challenging for a small Off, Off-Broadway company like Firebone, but Cragin-Day sees advantages in its size.

     “We take risks.  Companies like ours don’t have much money at stake.”

     Still, the company bought extra insurance and hired Karen Fuhram of Grounded Ariel, an expect in the field, to do the choreography. 

   “It gives us the freedom to experiment with the human body in flight,” Cragin-Day says.

     She believes the play will speak to many people, especially women.

   “I feel like it’s not just about Vietnamese women,” she says.  “This play captures that spiritual strength that is the legacy of women and that’s beautiful.”

Friday, March 20, 2015

Kristin Chenoweth: Back on Broadway in "On the Twentieth Century"

     I saw The Kristin Chenoweth Show at the American Airlines Theatre last night and was mesmerized by every movement, facial expression and note from the tiny star.   She’s better than ever, and that’s saying a great deal.

     Oh, wait a minute.  I got that wrong.  Actually, I saw the Broadway revival of On the Twentieth CenturyChenoweth is just so magnetic that even with the first-rate cast, shimmering costumes and art deco sets that fill the stage, she is the center of the universe in this madcap musical, directed by Scott Ellis for the Roundabout Theatre Company.

     It’s Chenoweth’s show all right, even though the main story is about another character, Oscar Jaffee (played with energy and great humor by Peter Gallagher), a down-on-his-luck producer looking for a hit to revive his career.  He believes he can be on top again by luring his former lover and protégée Lily Garland (Chenoweth’s character) back to Broadway from Hollywood where she has become a big star.  The action takes place on a Chicago to New York train, the Twentieth Century.

     Chenoweth’s timing is impeccable and she uses her 4’ 11” body in hilarious ways.  I loved seeing her lying like a board across the arms of her current lover, Bruce Granit (a hilarious Andy Karl), an young actor obsessed with his image — he slaps multiple copies of his headshot up on the walls of the train compartment — and his well-sculpted body.  Lily’s in -- on -- his arms for a reason — he lifts her up and down to do his bicep curls.  When he does his pushups, she sits on his back.  It’s a visual delight, precisely choreographed, as is the whole show, by Warren Carlyle. 

     Then, of course, there’s her singing.  The music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (both of whom also wrote the book) give her ample opportunity to exercise her operatic chops.  I’m so glad she’s been lured back to Broadway from Hollywood, where she’s made some really lame comedies, not at all worthy of her gifts.

     The songs are upbeat, although only the title song sticks with me.  David Rockwell’s sets, William Ivey Long’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting do stay with me.  They and everyone onstage have created a shiny gem of a show.  I wish I could go back.

     A shoutout also needs to go to Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King as the tap-dancing porters and Mary Louise Wilson as a batty old woman who offers to bankroll Oscar’s next show.

     On the Twentieth Century will only be in the station on Broadway through July 5.  Hop aboard it you can.  The ride is bliss.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Helen Mirren reigns in The Audience

It’s wonderful to see Helen Mirren once again assume the role of Queen Elizabeth II.  I just wish she was doing so in a vehicle with more depth than Peter Morgan’s entertaining but somewhat superficial play The Audience, now on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through June 28.

     As she was in Morgan’s movie “The Queen,” Mirren is spot-on in depicting Britain’s long-serving monarch. She won an Oscar for that part and well could win a Tony for this one. Under the direction of Stephen Daltry, Mirren portrays Elizabeth from 1951 to the present, often decades apart from one scene to the next, under the guise of imagined meetings with each of her prime ministers — “the dirty dozen,” as she says.  They come to Buckingham Palace once a week to update her on matters of “cabinet, Parliament, and foreign affairs,” as Winston Churchill (Dakin Matthews) explains in his first sessions with her as a young woman readying to assume the throne following her father’s death.

   Bob Crowley’s minimalist design is effective for focusing the attention of the conversations.  His costumes are impressive for the way they portray Elizabeth’s frumpy dignity, yet can be rapidly changed, often onstage, to present an Elizabeth decades earlier or later.

     Elizabeth is the thread that keeps the show together, although it can still feel more like a series of sketches strung together than an actual play.  I will say the scenes do blend well one into the other, rather like movie fade ins and fade outs.

     The elected officials often share elements of their pasts and Elizabeth reveals a dry wit in many of her responses, at times revealing her own feelings about her life’s role, which each time sounded contrived to me.  I can’t imagine the real queen opening up to her prime ministers, but I guess it’s necessary for dramatic purposes. Politics are discussed, but largely in a modern English history lite way.

     Elizabeth does display some spunk, especially in her first PM meeting, with Churchill.  When he proposes delaying her coronation by 16 months, she is quick to discern the reason — he hopes to stay in office longer.

     “I may be young and sheltered, but I am not a fool,” she says.  “Prime Minister, I feel you’re not taking me seriously.”

     Her anger is even stronger when John Major (Dylan Baker), prime minster from 1990 to 1997, suggests the Royal Family has an image problem and because the economy is so weak could bolster its standing with the public by paying income tax.  The queen is appalled.

     “That would make us like everyone else,” she says indignantly.  “We’re not like everyone else. … This family has given every minute of every day to the country.”

     She tells him her role as queen was “a consecration in God’s house.”

     She never forgets who she is, although years later she wonders about the importance of showing up for ribbon cuttings and being “a postage stamp with a pulse.”

     After meeting with Gordon Brown (Rod McLachlan), who was prime minister from 2007 to 2010, she reflects on the down side of “sticking around” for so long and hearing “the same ideas and the same people coming around again and again, just wearing a different color tie.”      

     Most of what I liked was in the first act.  By the second, the show began to drag for me, especially in the scene with Margaret Thatcher (Judith Ivey, left in photo). The concept of conversations with rotating prime ministers had begun to wear thin and, at two hours and 20 minutes, the show was too long.

     One feature I did consistently like was the appearance of her younger self, played the night I was there by Sadie Sink, who presents the child Elizabeth’s feeling of confusion upon her father’s sudden assent to the throne and her dislike for Buckingham Place, which she likens to living in a museum with no neighbors.  At times she and the adult Elizabeth talk and I always liked that.

    The Audience comes to Broadway following a record-breaking run at London's Gielgud Theatre in 2013 for which Mirren won the Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Play.  Her performance here, and that of all of her cast members, is award-worthy.  The play may be a bit weak, but the production still provides a good evening of theatre.