Friday, May 15, 2015

'Divinely Inspired' Godspell




     Many people talk about theatre as a transformative experience, but few experience that transformation quite as drastically as Carol de Giere did when she discovered Godspell.

     Growing up in Madison, WI, she mostly saw movie musicals or what was being done at school.  Somehow one of the most widely produced musicals of all time never crossed her path until she was in her late 40s and living in Fairfield, Iowa, a town of about 10,000 residents.  Artistic offerings were limited in Fairfield, so when the local community theatre presented Godspell, de Giere was there.  And that was the beginning of the end of her days in Fairfield.

    “I felt myself being emotionally expanded,” said de Giere, 63, during a phone interview from her home in Bethel, CT.  “The score and the performances were so joyful.  It was just exhilarating to watch.  I felt like it had a spirt to it that was different from other musicals.  It lifted me out of the boundaries of the moment.”

     It also lifted her out to the midwest.  She quit her job as a librarian and with her husband, who had been laid off, moved to Connecticut to explore the musical theatre work of Godspell’s composer. 

     “I felt I needed to be near Broadway.  I wanted to be close to the creative pot to see what the chefs were brewing.”


    “I like writing behind the scenes,” she said. “Rather than write about a musical, I like to recreate the experience of being present at the creation.”

     She found Schwartz and cast members willing to talk about their experiences with Godspell, a show that began as a master’s thesis for John-Michael Tebelak at Carnegie Mellon University, a thesis that was initially rejected by his advisor.  It then had a stint Off, Off-Broadway where its potential was spotted by producers who brought on Schwarz, giving him five weeks to compose new music.  Godspell as we know it now opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971, then moved to Broadway for a total New York run of six years.  It has been translated into more than a half dozen languages, made into a movie and is still produced a couple hundred times each year somewhere in the world. 

     It all started with Tebelak, whose affection for religious material dated back to his childhood. His sister told de Giere that John-Michael loved the religious pageantry he experienced at the Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland and would “redo the church service” when he got home, creating an altar, burning candles and offering a communion, “all the dramatic parts.”

     Years later when searching for a thesis topic, Tebelak considered several miracle and passion plays, but determined they were too heavy.  He started reading the gospels and discovered their joy. 

     “Tebebak resolved to attend a church service, and it was there that a spiritual experience, or lack thereof, completed the inspiration for the new musical,” de Giere writes.  

     On a snowy Easter morning in 1970, Tebelak attended the Anglican Cathedral in Pittsburgh and later told Dramatics Magazine about his experience: “An old priest came out and mumbled into a microphone, and people mumbled things back, and then everyone got up and left.  Instead of ‘healing’ the burden, or resurrecting the Christ, it seems those people had pushed Him back into the tomb.  They had refused to let Him come out that day.”

     As he was leaving the service, a policeman tried to frisk him, suspecting him of carrying drugs because of his hippie appearance.  “At that moment — I think because of the absurd situation — it angered me so much that I went home and realized what I wanted to do with the gospels: I wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and re-create the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service.”

     And so the roots of Godspell were grounded in Tebelak’s positive and negative experiences in the Anglican tradition.  

     Considering how many lives the show has touched, de Giere felt called to do a second book just on Godspell while the original cast members were still available to share their stories. The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical, for which de Giere conducted nearly 40 interviews, features engaging anecdotes, exhaustive research and an analysis of the show’s songs, several of which come from the Episcopal hymnal.

     “I thought, ‘I’m probably the only person who’s going to do this.’  This is a time when people will remember.  They’re all in their 60s or deceased.  I’m writing for future generations.”

     Cast members tell lively stories about the creative process with Tebelak, who was the original director as well as the creator of this show drawn from the gospels. What made the musical so different was that it didn’t start with a script.  Tebelak, who died in 1985, had the actors improvise Jesus’ parables. What worked became part of the show.  It was confusing for the actors at first, but Tebelak had tapped into what was to become big time entertainment — improvisation, which later would be wildly successful in shows like “Saturday Night Live.”

     When Godspell was headed for Off-Broadway, the producers hired Schwartz to set the Episcopal lyrics to livelier music.  He drew from the artists he was listening to — James Taylor, the Mamas and the Papas, The Supremes, Elton John — to create a pastiche of his favorite pop styles. When additional lyrics were required, he turned to Biblical passages.   

     “Stephen was one of the first people to integrate popular music into the style of musical theatre,” de Giere says.  “It was innovative and it spoke to people musically.”

     Schwartz had rich material to work with in the Episcopal hymns.  Most of the lyrics for “Day by Day,” which was a breakout hit, were penned by Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), a bishop of Chichester in the United Kingdom who was canonized by Pope Urban IV in 1262. He wrote it in Latin without the beginning and ending words “day by day,” and it became hymn 429 in the 1940 hymnal. Schwartz simplified Chichester’s lyrics slightly and added some repetition.    

     The beautiful “All Good Gifts” was a harvest song from the hymnal that Tebelak remembered from Thanksgiving services, hymn 138, “We Plow the Fields, and Scatter.”  

     “Turn Back, O Man,” was inspired by hymn writer Clifford Bax, who wrote the piece in response to World War I.  Bax’s hymn was published in 1919.

     When Schwartz was looking for an uptempo number, the song often referred to in musical theatre as the “Eleven O’clock” number, Tebelak suggested hymn 229, with lyrics attributed to Thomas Benson Pollock, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin who was ordained in 1870. The following year Pollock wrote “Father Hear Thy Children’s Call,” which, with Schwartz’s adaptation, became the lively “We Beseech Thee.”  
     
     Godspell’s score is one of the reasons for the show’s enduring popularity, de Giere says. Another is the non-didactic way the parables are presented. In clowning around, the actors draw out the humor, but not in a satirical way. When done properly, the show leaves the audience with a strong appreciation for Jesus’ message of compassion and fellowship.  

   In her epilogue, de Giere offers a reflection from former cast member Don Scardino: “I got letters from people who had quit drugs (including heroin), or gone back to their Bible, or patched up relationships with their mother or father after seeing Godspell.  They would say it’s the power of the show and you playing Jesus, and I knew it had nothing to do with me.  I would always write back and say it is the show.  The show is divinely inspired.”
     

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Renée Fleming makes her Broadway debut in Living on Love




     Opera superstar Renée Fleming looks as if she is having a ball with her Broadway debut in Living on Love, Joe DiPietro’s charming new comedy at the Longacre Theatre.  Actually the entire cast appears to be enjoying themselves, hamming it up in this show that seems modeled after a 1930s screwball comedy.

     Like those earlier shows, the outcome of this one, set in 1957 and based on the play Peccadillo by Garson Kanin, will never be in doubt.  It’s the getting to the end that is fun.  Director Kathleen Marshall keeps the action hopping for two hours.

     The plot centers around two fading luminaries of the music world, Fleming as Raquel De Angelis, an opera singer who has played the world’s great stages and now must settle for upstate New York and Fort Lauderdale — “Do they sing in Fort Lauderdale,” she asks — and her husband, Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills), a once renowned conductor who spends his days mostly in bed or drinking wine.  

     Trying not to acknowledge their changing circumstances, they insist on being referred to as The Diva and The Maestro.  And don’t dare mention the name Maria Callas to her or Leonard Bernstein to him, not to these raging egos.  

     In keeping with this style of comedy, their rage is often directed at each other.  I thought of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart song “I Wish I Were in Love Again” with its line “the conversation with the flying plates,” only in their case it’s snow globes, given to each other from locations on their concert tours, that go flying. 

     Of course this mix is going to need a younger, on-their-way-up couple to balance The Diva and The Maestro and these parts are filled quite nicely by Robert Samson (Jerry O’Connell), a would-be novelist, and Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky), a publishing house assistant who dreams of being an editor.  

     Robert is the latest in a long line of ghostwriters — “spooky helper,” as the Italian-born Maestro says — hired by the publisher to help the great conductor write his memoir.  After Robert quits in frustration, Iris — “Irish” in The Maestro’s pronunciation — arrives to push for the manuscript’s completion or the return of the company’s $50,000 advance, which has already been spent, along with an additional $20,000.

     Realizing he has to finish the book, The Maestro asks “Irish” to help him. Seeing this as a way to fulfill her desire to be an editor, she readily agrees. When The Diva finds out, she wants a memoir of her own, to come out first, and brings Robert back to write it.

     So now two couples are rushing to finish competing books in the living room of the De Angelises’ lush penthouse (gorgeous set by Derek McLane, enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting). And, you guessed it, not getting too far with that but young love is blooming. One of my favorite lines is when Iris says to the shy Robert, it’s so refreshing to meet a man lacking in self-confidence.  When I mentioned that comment to my friend Mary after the show she agreed it was great, adding, “isn’t it a shame you could never use it?”

     But that’s contemporary thinking, so let’s get back to our screwball world. We have two more stock characters and they are hilarious, the joined-at-the-hip butlers played by Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson, who also happen to sing opera and play the Steinway when their employers aren’t around.

     Everyone plays their parts to the hilt, just as they should with a show like this.  Fleming, wearing gorgeous dresses (costumes by Michael Krass), breaks into song from time to time, which is wonderful. She has seen enough divas in her day and she knows just how to satirize one, complete with her little dog, Puccini (Trixie) on her arm.  She has great comic timing and such an expressive face.  I hope she returns often to Broadway.

     Before opening here, Living on Love was seen in Williamstown, MA, but it fits nicely as well on Broadway, where it is scheduled to play until Aug. 2. More than 100 seats are set aside to be sold for $25 at every performance.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Kelli O'Hara is something wonderful in The King and I




     When our Drama Desk nominations were announced yesterday afternoon at 54 Below, I was surprised Kelli O’Hara wasn’t included in the Outstanding Actress in a Musical category for her performance in the revival of The King and I at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. After seeing the show last night, I remain surprised. Her Anna is a strong, warm woman with a sense of humor and nothing stands between O’Hara and her character. She was wonderful and deserves to be nominated.

     The show, directed by Bartlett Sher, was nominated for Outstanding Revival of a Musical, but the only other nod it received was for Scott Lehrer’s sound design. This is partly because the contenders this awards season are strong so the show faced stiff competition, but also because the production, although lovely to look at and listen to, falls just short of the spark of life this great musical deserves. With the exception of O’Hara, the cast of more than 50 seem to be doing their parts rather than being the parts, at least in the first act. 

     I had heard much about Ken Watanabe as the King and none of it was good.  A theatre actor in his native Japan, he has appeared as Japanese characters in American films but is just now making his American stage debut, in a large-scale Broadway musical no less. A friend and fellow critic who knows the show well told me she couldn’t understand a word he said. I had heard from others that his accent was a problem, but I had no trouble following him. I think, though, that he is working so hard to master the dialogue, singing and dancing that he isn’t able to concentrate on giving the King much dimension.  Still, I liked him.

     The show is blessed with a strong supporting cast, especially Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang and Ashley Park as Tuptin.  

    And blessed with a wonderful 29-piece orchestra, under the direction of Ted Sperling. The musicians are on view during the overture, then Anna’s ship sails into harbor and the stage extends to cover them.  When I saw this large prop (sets by Michael Yeargan) veering toward us, I thought I was in for a Lloyd Webber evening of excess, but this was the only such example, and quite a nice one for a dramatic entrance.

   The ship, of course, brings Anna Leonowens, a Welsh widow, and her 9-year-old son, Louis (Jake Lucas), to 1860's Bangkok.  Anna has been hired by the King of Siam to teach his multitude of children by his multitude of wives about the western world.  Not only do cultures clash, but personalities as well. Anna is an independent-minded woman and the King is used to submissive wives and concubines. O’Hara always does a good job of bringing out the tension between these to conflicting characters and Wananabe does often enough to carry the story. 

   This theme of differing worlds learning to bend to one another is brought out in some of musical theatre’s most beloved songs, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and they are all richly sung.  It’s a joy to hear O’Hara sing “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?,” and fun to watch her infuse humor through movement and tone into “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”  And Miles’ “Something Wonderful” is just that.
     
     The creative teams is excellent as well. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, based on that created by Jerome Robbins for the show’s original production in 1951, is mesmerizing, especially in the dramatic “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.  

     Catherine Zuber’s costumes are stunning and should have been nominated, but this season brought us a wealth of award-worthy costumes. Zuber was nominated in this category for Gigi.

     Donald Holder’s lighting also was worthy of a nomination.

     The show is three hours, brought down (thank God) from three and a half in early previews.  The first act dragged and I was wishing it wasn’t going to be such a long night, but the second act picked up and I left the theatre in good spirits.  It’s not a great revival, but it’s a quite good one, and that’s probably the next best thing to great.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Judith Light and Jessie Mueller announce 2015 Drama Desk Awards nominations



Nominations for the 2015 annual Drama Desk Awards were announced this afternoon at 54 Below by previous Drama Desk winners Judith Light (The Assembled Parties, Other Desert Cities) and Jessie Mueller (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical).

Both women were beautifully dressed, with hair and makeup just right, as opposed to some announcers in years past who have shown up looking as if they were taking time out from clearing out the garage. They also left their egos behind and were complete professionals, in contrast to others in the past who seemed to think the announcements were all about them.  Interestingly, both wore sapphire blue.  “I see you got the memo,” Light joked to Mueller.

The Drama Desk nominees will receive their official nomination certificates at the nominees' reception on May 6 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at New World Stages.

The 60th Annual Drama Desk Awards, hosted by Laura Benanti, will take place on Sunday, May 31 at The Town Hall in Manhattan. 

In keeping with Drama Desk's mission, nominators considered shows that opened on Broadway, Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway during the 2014-2015 New York theater season.


About Drama Desk
Drama Desk was founded in 1949 to explore key issues in the theater and to bring together critics and writers in an organization to support the ongoing development of theater in New York. The organization began presenting its awards in 1955, and it is the only critics' organization to honor achievement in the theater with competition among Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway productions in the same categories. 

2014-2015 DRAMA DESK AWARD NOMINATIONS

Outstanding Play
Clare Barron, You Got Older
Lisa D'Amour, Airline Highway
Anthony Giardina, The City of Conversation 
Stephen Adly Guirgis, Between Riverside and Crazy
Elizabeth Irwin, My Manãna Comes
Simon Stephens, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Jack Thorne, Let the Right One In 

Outstanding Musical
Hamilton
Fly By Night
Pretty Filthy 
Something Rotten
The Visit

Outstanding Revival of a Play
The Elephant Man
Fashions for Men
Ghosts
The Iceman Cometh
Tamburlaine the Great
The Wayside Motor Inn

Outstanding Revival of a Musical
Into the Woods
On the Town
Pageant
Side Show

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Reed Birney, I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard
Bradley Cooper, The Elephant Man
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Between Riverside and Crazy
Ben Miles, Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2
Bill Pullman, Sticks and Bones
Alexander Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Brooke Bloom, You Got Older
Kathleen Chalfant, A Walk in the Woods
Kristin Griffith, The Fatal Weakness 
Jan Maxwell, The City of Conversation
Carey Mulligan, Skylight

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Brian d'Arcy James, Something Rotten!
Robert Fairchild, An American in Paris
Jeremy Kushnier, Atomic
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Matthew Morrison, Finding Neverland
Ryan Silverman, Side Show 

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Kate Baldwin, John & Jen
Kristin Chenoweth, On the Twentieth Century

Leanne Cope, An American in Paris
Erin Davie, Side Show
Lisa Howard, It Shoulda Been You
Chita Rivera, The Visit

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
F. Murray Abraham, It's Only a Play
Reed Birney, You Got Older
K. Todd Freeman, Airline Highway
Jonathan Hadary, Rocket to the Moon
Jason Butler Harner, The Village Bike
Jonathan Hogan, Pocatello
José Joaquin Perez, My Mañana Comes

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Annaleigh Ashford, You Can't Take It with You
Beth Dixon, The City of Conversation
Julie Halston, You Can't Take It with You
Paola Lázaro-Muñoz, To the Bone
Lydia Leonard, Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2
Julie White, Airline Highway


Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
Christian Borle, Something Rotten!
Peter Friedman, Fly By Night
Josh Grisetti, It Shoulda Been You
Andy Karl, On the Twentieth Century
Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton
Brad Oscar, Something Rotten!
Max von Essen, An American in Paris

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Carolee Carmello, Finding Neverland
Tyne Daly, It Shoulda Been You
Elizabeth A. Davis, Allegro
Renee Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton
Luba Mason, Pretty Filthy
Nancy Opel, Honeymoon in Vegas
Elizabeth Stanley, On the Town 

Outstanding Director of a Play
Marianne Elliott, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Jeremy Herrin, Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2
Anne Kauffman, You Got Older
Lila Neugebauer, The Wayside Motor Inn
Austin Pendleton, Between Riverside and Crazy
Joe Tantalo, Deliverance
John Tiffany, Let the Right One In

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Carolyn Cantor, Fly By Night
Bill Condon, Side Show
John Doyle, The Visit
Thomas Kail, Hamilton
Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten!
Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris

Outstanding Choreography 
Joshua Bergasse, On the Town
Warren Carlyle, On the Twentieth Century
Steven Hoggett, The Last Ship
Austin McCormick, Rococo Rouge
Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten
Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris 

Outstanding Music
Jason Robert Brown, Honeymoon in Vegas
Michael Friedman, The Fortress of Solitude
John Kander, The Visit
Dave Malloy, Ghost Quartet
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Sting, The Last Ship

Outstanding Lyrics
Jason Robert Brown, Honeymoon in Vegas
Fred Ebb, The Visit
Michael Friedman, The Fortress of Solitude
Karey Kirkpatrick & Wayne Kirkpatrick, Something Rotten!
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Benjamin Scheuer, The Lion 

Outstanding Book of a Musical
Hunter Bell & Lee Overtree, Found
Karey Kirkpatrick & John O'Farrell, Something Rotten!
Craig Lucas, An American in Paris
Terence McNally, The Visit
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly, & Michael Mitnick, Fly By Night

Outstanding Orchestrations
Christopher Austin, An American in Paris
Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Allegro
Larry Hochman, Something Rotten!
Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton
Rob Mathes, The Last Ship
Don Sebesky, Larry Blank, Jason Robert Brown, & Charlie Rosen, Honeymoon in Vegas

Outstanding Music in a Play
Cesar Alvarez, An Octoroon
Danny Blackburn & Bryce Hodgson, Deliverance
Sean Cronin, Kill Me Like You Mean It
Bongi Duma, Generations
Freddi Price, The Pigeoning
Arthur Solari & Jane Shaw, Tamburlaine the Great

Outstanding Revue
Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging! 
Lennon: Through a Glass Onion
Lonesome Traveler

Outstanding Set Design
Bob Crowley, An American in Paris
Christine Jones, Let The Right One In
David Korins, Hamilton
Mimi Lien, An Octoroon
Scott Pask, The Visit
Daniel Zimmerman, Fashions for Men

Outstanding Costume Design
Bob Crowley, An American in Paris
Bob Crowley, The Audience
Christopher Oram, Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2
Paul Tazewell, Hamilton
Andrea Varga, The Fatal Weakness

Outstanding Lighting Design
Howell Binkley, Hamilton
Paule Constable, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Paule Constable & David Plater, Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2
Maruti Evans, Deliverance
Natasha Katz, The Iceman Cometh
Ben Stanton, Our Lady of Kibeho

Outstanding Projection Design 
59 Productions, An American in Paris
Roger Hanna & Price Johnston, Donogoo
Darrel Maloney, Found
Peter Nigrini, Our Lady of Kibeho
Finn Ross, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Austin Switser, Big Love

Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical
Peter Hylenski, Side Show
Scott Lehrer, The King and I
Scott Lehrer & Drew Levy, Honeymoon in Vegas
Brian Ronan, The Last Ship
Nevin Steinberg, Hamilton
Jon Weston, An American in Paris

Outstanding Sound Design in a Play
Nathan Davis, The Other Mozart
Ien Denio, Deliverance
Ian Dickinson (for Autograph), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Gareth Fry, Let the Right One In
John Gromada, Lives of the Saints
Matt Tierney, Our Lady of Kibeho

Outstanding Solo Performance
Christina Bianco, Application Pending
Jonny Donahoe, Every Brilliant Thing
Joely Richardson, The Belle of Amherst
Benjamin Scheuer, The Lion

Unique Theatrical Experience
Catch Me!
Everybody Gets Cake
The Human Symphony
Queen of the Night
A Rap Guide to Religion

Special Awards: Each year, the Drama Desk votes special awards to recognize excellence and significant contributions to the theatre.

For 2014-15, these awards are:
This year the nominators chose to bestow a special award for outstanding ensemble to the actors who so brilliantly shared a room in the world of A. R. Gurney's The Wayside Motor Inn: Kelly AuCoin, Jon DeVries, Quincy Dunn-Baker, Rebecca Henderson, Marc Kudisch, Jenn Lyon, Lizbeth Mackay, David McElwee, Ismenia Mendes, and Will Pullen

To Bess Wohl, the Sam Norkin Off-Broadway Award: For establishing herself as an important voice in New York theater, and having a breakthrough year with the eclectic American Hero, Pretty Filthy, and Small Mouth Sounds. Her writing expresses sensitivity, compassion, and humor with a sure hand. 

To John Douglas Thompson: For invigorating theater in New York through his commanding presence, classical expertise, and vocal prowess.  This season he demonstrated exceptional versatility in Tamburlaine the Great, and The Iceman Cometh.

To Ensemble Studio Theatre: For its unwavering commitment to producing new works by American playwrights since 1968, and enriching this season with productions of When January Feels Like Summer, Winners, and Five Times in One Night. EST's Youngblood program fostered and nurtured Hand to God, setting Tyrone off on his devilish path to Broadway.           

To Andy Blankenbuehler: For his inspired and heart-stopping choreography in Hamilton, which is indispensible to the musical's storytelling. His body of work is versatile, yet a dynamic and fluid style is consistently evident. When it's time to "take his shot," Blankenbuehler hits the bull's-eye. 

Hand to God was considered in the 2011/2012 season in its first production at Ensemble Studio Theatre. New elements were considered in the MCC production in the 2013/2014 season. There were no new elements in the Broadway transfer.

Fun Home was considered in its run at the Public Theatre in the 2013/2014 season. It received nominations for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical, Outstanding Director of a Musical, Outstanding Music, Outstanding Lyrics and Outstanding Book of a Musical.

Disgraced was considered in its Off-Broadway premiere at Lincoln Center in the 2012/2013 season, and only new actors and technical staff were eligible in the Broadway transfer.

The 39 Steps was considered in its initial Broadway production in the 2007/2008 season and won for Unique Theatrical Experience.

Nominations by Numbers

13        Hamilton
12        An American in Paris 
9          Something Rotten!
7          The Visit         
6          The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
5          Honeymoon in Vegas
5          Side Show
5          Wolf Hall
4          Deliverance
4          Fly by Night
4          The Last Ship
4          Let the Right One In
4          On the 20th Century
4          You Got Older
2          Airline Highway
3          Between Riverside/Crazy
3          The City of Conversation
3          It Shoulda Been You
3          On the Town
3          Our Lady of Kibeho
2          Allegro
2          The Audience
2          The Elephant Man
2          Fashions for Men
2          The Fatal Weakness
2          Finding Neverland
2          The Fortress of Solitude        
2          Found 
2          The Iceman Cometh
2          The King and I
2          The Lion
2          My Mañana Comes
2          Pretty Filthy
2          Tamburlaine the Great
2          The Wayside Motor Inn
2          You Can't Take It With You
1          Application Pending
1          Atomic
1          The Belle of Amherst
1          Big Love
1          Catch Me!
1          Donagoo
1          Everybody Gets Cake
1          Every Brilliant Thing
1          Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging!
1          Generations
1          Ghost Quartet
1          Ghosts
1          Gigi
1          I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard
1          The Human Symphony
1          Into the Woods           
1          It's Only a Play
1          John & Jen
1          Just Jim Dale
1          Lennon: Through a Glass Onion
1          Lonesome Traveler
1          Kill Me Like You Mean It          
1          Lives of the Saints
1          An Octoroon
1          The Other Mozart
1          Pageant
1          The Pianist of Willesden Lane
1          The Pigeoning
1          Pocatello
1          Queen of the Night
1          The Rap Guide to Religion
1          Rasheeda Speaking
1          Rocket to the Moon
1          Rococo Rouge
1          Skylight
1          Sticks and Bones
1          To the Bone
1          The Village Bike
1          A Walk in the Woods
1          Wiesenthal

Photo by David Gordon, Theatermania.com.  Jessie Mueller, left, and Judith Light.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dr. Zhivago -- happily ever after?



     I don’t know when two hours and 45 minutes have flown by as quickly as they did at the new Broadway musical Doctor Zhivago, which opened last night at the Broadway Theatre. Under Des McAnuff’s direction, with a book by playwright Michael Weller, the span of years between 1903 and 1930, covering a world war, bloody revolution, love, betrayal, marriage, death and so much more, fly by.

   Based on the 1958 Nobel Prize-winning novel by Russian author Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago tells the story of Yurii Zhivago, an upper class doctor and poet, and Lara Guishar, a struggling seamstress turned revolutionary.  Both are married to someone else but their love affair plays out through all the strife and turmoil of early 20th century Russia.  Tam Mutu, a leading man in London who is making his Broadway debut, plays Yurii and Kelli Barrett (Wicked, Rock of Ages) is Lara.

  Composer Lucy Simon provides an appropriately sweeping score and Michael Korie and Amy Powers offer rousing songs and some nice duets.  Ron Melrose is the music director.

     I was involved throughout, but at a distance.  I didn’t feel a sense of intimacy as we whirled from scene to scene, pausing for a song or two then moving on, ending on an upbeat note with the final number.  If you liked the 1965 movie, which I did, you’ll catch glimpses of it, but the tone and pace are brighter and faster. It’s an entertaining evening of musical theatre, but without the sense of history of its predecessor. And I don’t know why Weller changed the ending so much.  

     Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets are often incomplete, taking up just the sides of the stage, which helps convey the large scale of the story as well as enhance the feeling of destruction and desolation of the country.  But they also contribute to the lack of intimacy, except in the scene in the ravaged country mansion where Yurii and Lara are able to shut out the world for 10 days and be together. Large icicles hang from the ceiling and the windows are covered with frost.  Howell Binkley’s lighting casts a blue glow over the room, giving the sense of deep cold that was so much a part of the movie and yet is otherwise missing from the musical. 

     The opening number “Two Worlds” sets the theme of the show — aristocracy and peasants, humbled aristocracy (those lucky enough not to have been murdered) and revolutionaries, White Army and Red Army, wife and mistress.  These opposing world are often presented together at opposite sides of the stage.  This is most effectively done in the library scene when Tonia Zhivago, Yuri’s wife (Lora Lee Gayer), and Lara meet for the first time and find a bond between them. On the left, in “It Comes As No Surprise,” Lara sings of her guilt over her love for Yurii and Tonia on the right sings of her love for him and her discovery that she can’t hate Lara after meeting her.  “I feel him closer when she is near,” they sing. 

   Barrett, whose voice is especially lovely, portrays a more innocent Lara than Julie Christie did in the movie.  It’s harder to understand why men are so obsessed with her — Yurii, as well as her husband, Pasha Antipov (Paul Alexander Nolan) and the aristocrat Victor Komarovsky (Tom Hewitt), who had an affair with her when she was a vulnerable teenager in need of financial support.  When she and Yurii sing “On the Edge of Time” in the decaying mansion just before they are to part, their love seems more tender than passionate. Yurii had sung a similar duet, “Watch the Moon,” when parting from Tonia at the train station on his way to fight in the war against Germany.     

     Kelly Devine choreographs some lively Russian dances and Paul Tazewell’s costume’s nicely carry out the two worlds theme — “the oppressed and the elite and never shall they meet.”

     Dr. Zhivago has been making its way to Broadway for nearly a decade.  It premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in May 2006.  In 2010 it was revised in Australia with McAnuff as director.

     My friend Janet and I left the Broadway Theatre in high spirits after the stirring “Finale,” but a feel-good ending is not what Dr. Zhivago is about.  It is, though, what Broadway is about, so, to borrow from one of the songs, it comes as no surprise.
   

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.