Saturday, April 30, 2011

Dance Against Cancer: A benefit for the American Cancer Society

By Mary Sheeran
It’s become commonplace to say that we all know someone who has cancer.
            If this were a sane world, we would stop all wars, oppression, persecution, discrimination, and the drive of certain among us to plunder the earth and our souls – and devote all those energies to defeating cancer.
            So it was a good and sane thing, in fact a wonderful thing, when New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht got together with Erin Fogarty of the Carolina Ballet and, with a “let’s put on a show” mentality, partnered with the American Cancer Society to arrange a modest but powerful benefit called Dance Against Cancer, which I hope can be an annual event.
            Ulbricht and Fogarty put together a mouth-watering lineup of companies (NYCB, Alvin Ailey, Keigwin + Company, Lar Lubovitch, and the Carolina Ballet) and such dancers as Sterling Hyltin, Wendy Whelan, Amar Ramasar, Maria Kowroski, and Craig Hall of NYCB; Matthew Rushing from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Krisina Hanna, Matt Baker, Liz Riga, and Aaron Carr (Keigwin + Company); Attila Joey Csiki (Lar Lubovitch Dance Company); Lara O’Brien and Attila Bongar (Carolina Ballet) as well as Alex Wong, Tara Jean Popowich, and Martin Harvey.
            The performing space had been donated by the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, and the proximity between audience and performer in this intimate space was such that we could feel the sweat and hear the breathing of the performers – and marvel at subtleties in performances and execution too easy to miss in larger theaters.
           George Balanchine was splendidly represented: Kowroski danced the opening to Mozartiana, prayerfully evocative even without the four little girls; “The Man I Love“ from the contrasting Who Cares? featured Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar (pictured) and seemed more poignant close up. I enjoyed the sprightly excerpts from Larry Keigwin’s Love Songs that were interspersed throughout the program, and Daniel Ulbricht’s choreographed solo, Tatum Pole Boogie, showcased his high flying abilities and whimsy. Earl Mosley and Attila Bongar provided two enjoyable world premieres (That’s Alright featuring Matthew Rushing and A Memory featuring Lara O’Brien and Bongar, respectively), and Benjamin Millipied also contributed (On the Other Side, featuring Janie Taylor and Tyler Angle). The music was equally as diverse:  Georges Bizet, Dave Brubeck, Philip Glass, George Gershwin, Moloko, Roy Orbison, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Robert Schumann, and Peter Tschaikovsky.
            The program’s final offering was the last movement of Christopher Wheeldon’s near miraculous After the Rain. Most of the music for this program, understandably, was taped, with occasional piano accompaniment by Kathy Tagg, but when I saw the NYCB musicians Cameron Grant (piano) and Arturo Delmoni (violin) come onstage to perform Arvo Part’s exquisite music, I could not have been more thrilled; and Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall danced, too!  It would have been the closest we’ve come to the divine realm if two photographers had not been clicking their shutters without interruption (if you are taking pictures at every second of the dancing, do you actually see the dance?), my only quibble of this evening. Part’s music is too delicate and meditative to sustain the constant noise of the camera. Even so, it was lovely to watch this ballet under such circumstances.
            Before the program, a video captured all the participants’ own wars with cancer – mostly fathers, mothers, sisters. Maria Kowroski had shown her mother a tape of her dancing Mozartiana, the last ballet her mother saw her in, which lent her performance that evening a greater sense of prayerfulness than it already evokes. Having lost my mother to lung cancer some years ago, I prayed right along with her. I’m sure I had plenty of company.
            It’s become commonplace to say that we all know someone who has cancer.
Dance Against Cancer: An Evening to Benefit the American Cancer Society. Produced by Erin Fogarty and Daniel Ulbricht. Presented April 25, 2011 at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, New York City.

Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer whose recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.

Friday, April 29, 2011

56th Annual Drama Desk Nominations Announced; Book of Mormon Scores 12

By Andrew Gans/

Tony Award winners Audra McDonald and Liev Schreiber announced the nominations for the 56th Annual Drama Desk Awards, honoring productions that opened on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off Off-Broadway during the 2010-2011 New York theatre season, April 29 at the New York Friars Club. Awards will be presented May 23.

The two best-reviewed musicals of the season, the new musical The Book of Mormon and the Sutton Foster revival of Anything Goes, received 12 and 10 nominations, respectively, the most of any shows of the season.

Other productions that fared well include the Al Pacino revival of The Merchant of Venice (seven nominations); Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Catch Me if You Can, See Rock City & Other Destinations and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (six nominations each); and Hello Again, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Peter and the Starcatcher, Sister Act and The Kid (five nominations apiece).
The following awards were voted by the nominating committee and will be presented by the Drama Desk at its awards ceremony:


Outstanding Ensemble Performances

This year the nominators chose to bestow special ensemble awards for acting to the casts of two shows. Therefore, individual cast members for these shows were not eligible for acting awards in the competitive categories.
In Transit
The Normal Heart

Special Awards

Each year, the Drama Desk votes special awards to recognize excellence and significant contributions to the theater. For 2010-2011, these awards are:
• To A.R. Gurney for his enduring, keenly observed portraits of American life over a prolific four-decade-long career.
• To Reed Birney for his versatile and finely nuanced performances over the past thirty-five years, and for his exceptional work this season in Tigers Be Still, A Small Fire and The Dream of the Burning Boy.
• To The New Group and Artistic Director Scott Elliott for presenting contemporary new voices, and for uncompromisingly raw and powerful productions.
• To The Pearl Theatre Company for notable productions of classic plays and nurturing a stalwart resident company of actors.
• To the creative team of War Horse for thrilling stagecraft: Paule Constable, Marianne Elliott, 59 Productions, Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company, Tom Morris, Rae Smith, Christopher Shutt, Toby Sedgwick, Adrian Sutton and John Tams.

The following are the nominations for the competitive categories. Winners will be selected by the voting membership of the Drama Desk. (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Brief Encounter and The Scottsboro Boys were considered for their productions Off Broadway in the 2009-2010 season. Under Drama Desk rules, only new elements in their transfers to Broadway were eligible this season.)

Outstanding Play

Jon Robin Baitz, Other Desert Cities
Adam Bock, A Small Fire
Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Motherf**ker With the Hat
Samuel D. Hunter, A Bright New Boise
Rajiv Joseph, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
David Lindsay-Abaire, Good People
Nick Stafford, War Horse

Outstanding Musical

In Transit
Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical
See Rock City & Other Destinations
Sister Act
The Book of Mormon
The Kid

Outstanding Revival of a Play

Born Yesterday
The House of Blue Leaves
The Importance of Being Earnest
The Merchant of Venice
The Normal Heart
Three Sisters

Outstanding Revival of a Musical

Anything Goes
Hello Again
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Outstanding Actor in a Play

Charles Busch, The Divine Sister
Bobby Cannavale, The Motherf**ker With the Hat
Al Pacino, The Merchant of Venice
Geoffrey Rush, The Diary of a Madman
Mark Rylance, Jerusalem
Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made
Paul Sparks, Dusk Rings a Bell

Outstanding Actress in a Play

Nina Arianda, Born Yesterday
Stockard Channing, Other Desert Cities
Frances McDormand, Good People
Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place
Michele Pawk, A Small Fire
Lily Rabe, The Merchant of Venice

Outstanding Actor in a Musical

Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me if You Can
Colin Donnell, Anything Goes
Daniel Radcliffe, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon
Tony Sheldon, Priscilla Queen of the Desert:The Musical
Christopher Sieber, The Kid

Outstanding Actress in a Musical

Sutton Foster, Anything Goes
Beth Leavel, Baby It's You!
Patina Miller, Sister Act
Donna Murphy, The People in the Picture
Sherie Rene Scott, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play

Brian Bedford, The Importance of Being Earnest
Christian Borle, Peter and the Starcatcher
Boyd Gaines, The Grand Manner
Logan Marshall-Green, The Hallway Trilogy
Zachary Quinto, Angels in America
Tom Riley, Arcadia
Yul Vázquez, The Motherf**ker With the Hat

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play

Lisa Emery, The Collection & A Kind of Alaska
Edie Falco, The House of Blue Leaves
Julie Halston, The Divine Sister
Sarah Nina Hayon, A Bright New Boise
Celia Keenan-Bolger, Peter and the Starcatcher
Linda Lavin, Other Desert Cities
Judith Light, Lombardi

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical

Adam Godley, Anything Goes
John Larroquette, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Brian Stokes Mitchell, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Rory O'Malley, The Book of Mormon
Bob Stillman, Hello Again
Tom Wopat, Catch Me if You Can

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical

Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Kerry Butler, Catch Me if You Can
Victoria Clark, Sister Act
Jill Eikenberry, The Kid
Nikki M. James, The Book of Mormon
Patti LuPone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Laura Osnes, Anything Goes

Outstanding Director of a Play

Trip Cullman, A Small Fire
Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, The Normal Heart
Moisés Kaufman, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Davis McCallum, A Bright New Boise
Daniel Sullivan, The Merchant of Venice
Kirjan Waage and Gwendolyn Warnock, Baby Universe

Outstanding Director of a Musical

Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Joe Calarco, In Transit
Jack Cummings III, Hello Again
Jack Cummings III, See Rock City & Other Destinations
Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes
Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, The Book of Mormon

Outstanding Choreography

Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, Beautiful Burnout
Steven Hoggett, Peter and the Starcatcher
Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes
Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon
Siudy, Between Worlds

Outstanding Music

Brad Alexander, See Rock City & Other Destinations
Alan Menken, Sister Act
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, The Book of Mormon
Marc Shaiman, Catch Me if You Can
Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, The People in the Picture
David Yazbek, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Outstanding Lyrics

Rick Crom, Newsical The Musical — Full Spin Ahead
Jack Lechner, The Kid
Adam Mathias, See Rock City & Other Destinations
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, The Book of Mormon
Glenn Slater, Sister Act
Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Catch Me if You Can

Outstanding Book of a Musical

Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, In
Iris Rainer Dart, The People in the Picture
Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical
Adam Mathias, See Rock City & Other Destinations
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone, The Book of Mormon
Michael Zam, The Kid

Outstanding Orchestrations

Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Hello Again
Bruce Coughlin, The Burnt Part Boys
Simon Hale, Jim Abbott and David Yazbek, Women on the Verge of a Nervous
Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus, The Book of Mormon
Marc Shaiman and Larry Blank, Catch Me if You Can
Lynne Shankel, The Extraordinary Ordinary

Outstanding Music in a Play

Wayne Barker, Peter and the Starcatcher
Kathryn Bostic, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Lars Petter Hagen, Baby Universe
Alan John, The Diary of a Madman
Tom Kitt, The Winter's Tale
Dan Moses Schreier, The Merchant of Venice

Outstanding Revue

Fyvush Finkel Live!
Newsical The Musical — Full Spin Ahead
Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway

Outstanding Set Design

Rachel Hauck, Orange, Hat & Grace
David Korins and Zachary Borovay (projection design), Lombardi
Derek McLane, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Derek McLane, Anything Goes
Tony Straiges, Treasure Island
Mark Wendland, The Merchant of Venice

Outstanding Costume Design

Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical
Desmond Heeley, The Importance of Being Earnest
Ann Hould-Ward, A Free Man of Color
Martin Pakledinaz, Anything Goes
Ann Roth, The Book of Mormon
Paloma Young, Peter and the Starcatcher

Outstanding Lighting Design

Jean Kalman, John Gabriel Borkman
R. Lee Kennedy, See Rock City & Other Destinations
David Lander, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Laura Mroczkowski, Spy Garbo
Ben Stanton, The Whipping Man
David Weiner, A Small Fire 

Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical

Lindsay Jones, The Burnt Part Boys
Michael Rasbury, Hello Again
Brian Ronan, Anything Goes
Brian Ronan, The Book of Mormon
Jon Weston, In Transit

Outstanding Sound Design in a Play

Acme Sound Partners, The Merchant of Venice
Acme Sound Partners and Cricket S. Myers, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Ian Dickinson, John Gabriel Borkman
Brett Jarvis, Baby Universe
Bray Poor, Wings
Eric Shimelonis, The Hallway Trilogy

Outstanding Solo Performance

Daniel Beaty, Through the Night
Mike Birbiglia, Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend
Juliette Jeffers, Batman and Robin in the Boogie Down
John Leguizamo, Ghetto Klown
Colin Quinn, Colin Quinn Long Story Short
Joanna Tope, The Promise

Unique Theatrical Experience

Being Harold Pinter
Circus Incognitus
Play Dead
Room 17B
Sleep No More


12 The Book of Mormon
10 Anything Goes
7 The Merchant of Venice
6 Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
6 Catch Me if You Can
6 See Rock City & Other Destinations
6 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
5 Hello Again
5 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
5 Peter and the Starcatcher
5 Sister Act
5 The Kid
4 A Small Fire
4 In Transit
4 Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical
3 A Bright New Boise
3 Baby Universe
3 Other Desert Cities
3 The Importance of Being Earnest
3 The Motherf**ker With the Hat
3 The People in the Picture
2 Born Yesterday
2 Good People
2 John Gabriel Borkman
2 Lombardi
2 Newsical The Musical — Full Spin Ahead
2 The Burnt Part Boys
2 The Diary of a Madman
2 The Divine Sister
2 The Hallway Trilogy
2 The House of Blue Leaves
2 The Normal Heart
The Drama Desk nominees will receive their Official Nomination Certificates at a gala cocktail reception May 2 at 3 PM at Bombay Palace Restaurant.

The 2010-2011 Nominating Committee includes Barbara Siegel (chairperson),,; Jason Clark, Slant Magazine,; Anita Gates, freelance, The New York Times; Lawrence Harbison, senior editor & columnist for Smith & Kraus, Inc.; Gerard Raymond, freelance, Back Stage; Richard Ridge, Broadway Beat TV; and Douglas Strassler,, Show Business Weekly.
The 56th Annual Drama Desk Awards, which will feature musical numbers from the nominated New York stage productions, will be held May 23 at 8 PM at the Hammerstein Ballroom. There will be a gala sit-down dinner, prepared by celebrity chefs, during which the awards will be presented to outstanding productions and creative talent for the 2010-2011 season.

The Drama Desk Awards ceremony, which will be directed by Jeff Kalpak, will be filmed in HD for a television special that will be given two primetime airings plus four additional national broadcasts on Ovation between June 2 and June 15.

Tony winner Harvey Fierstein will be the host of the awards ceremony and the TV special.

"This is the most exciting announcement I have made since becoming Executive Producer of the Annual Drama Desk Awards in 1999," said Robert R. Blume in a statement. "In the 13 years since, my team and I have diligently worked to enhance the visibility and importance of the Drama Desk Awards. We have made giant strides in that direction but none bigger than the ones we are announcing here today. We are delighted to welcome television marketing executive Mark Stroman and Lance Heflin of Heflin Filmworks to our team, and we are excited that the Drama Desk Awards will be seen nationally on Ovation."
Drama Desk covers all areas of professional theatre in the greater New York area, including Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway and not-for-profit theatres. The organization was founded in 1949 to explore key issues of the theatre community.

For more information visit

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Book of Mormon stirs reaction


David Brooks is a brilliant man, who on occasion really bugs me. His article in The New York Times last week, Creed or Chaos, is almost right but not quite.

Reacting to having seen The Book of Mormon on Broadway, which he liked, he writes, "The Book of Mormon is not anti-religious. It just endorses a no-sharp-edges view of religion that is all creative metaphors and no harsh judgments." Brooks decries what he views as our devolving into a less sectarian view of religion: "Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn't actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False."

I believe in practicing a particular faith. Passionately. I believe in embracing a story that unlocks the great mysteries of life. Deeply. I believe in attempting to live according to the way of life Jesus set forth. Faithfully. These passionate, deep and faithful convictions rest on what are absolute truths for me.

The problem arises when I conclude that absolute truth is truly knowable and that I know it. I don't. I know a culturally prescribed, deeply cherished version of the truth. It resonates at the deepest core of my being, and I am (often) willing to stake my life on claims about it that I make for myself. It is my way to God.

What bothers me about Brooks' surprisingly non-nuanced claims about religiosity is that he fails to address how religions, which claim unmitigated absolute truth, can successfully live in a world that is instantly and deeply interconnected. Not addressing that is a problem. Those who reject religion all together on the basis of its role in wars throughout history have a point that requires an even more serious answer in our era.

Christianity (and for that matter an Episcopal version of it) is unmistakably my way. But, of course, it relies upon "creative metaphors" in the teaching and inculcation of its followers. How else are we to speak of what is ineluctably unknowable? Any words or images that we use to describe God are all human derived. Getting world religions to admit that single fact may be the next great step in promoting peace in this world.

I am all for theological rigor, arduous practice and definite beliefs. We just need to admit their origin and to claim their primacy in our lives without assuming that others hold the same understanding.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"It's not who you are that holds you back, it's who you think you're not."
-- Anonymous

Thursday, April 21, 2011

“When I dare to be powerful -- to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
-- Audre Lorde

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained."
– Marie Curie

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Searching Sopranos: Monodramas at the New York City Opera

By Mary Sheeran

I was amused to read that the New York City Opera’s production of Monodramas, three one-act operas, each for soprano and orchestra, featured “new music,” even though composers Arnold Schoenberg died in 1951 and Morton Feldman passed away in 1987, although John Zorn is still around at age 57. But give New York City Opera credit – it is tackling its tough economic reality with imagination as it tries to find a niche in this most nichified cultural world of ours. With Monodramas, the company is giving all it’s got: The visual aspect of each of the operas is stunning, as is the singing of the three women who perform quite demanding music: Anu Komsi (La Machine De L’Etre), Kara Shay Thomson (Erwartung), and Cyndia Sieden (Neither).

Although I am left wondering if anyone has composed a one-act monologue for voice other than soprano, or written a libretto other than deadly serious, there was one absolutely gorgeous image in the second opera, Erwartung (Waiting). Of all the three operas, Erwartung was the most vivid and the most dramatically coherent, if that last word fits any of them. A woman wanders in a forest, which is either symbolic, dream, or real. The core of the piece focuses on one desperate moment in her life, and as she stands on stage, a projection (like a cartoon bubble) emerges from her head and grows. Soon we see in that “bubble,” bountiful trees in springtime, blooming pink blossoms tossing in a breeze that take over the stage as they fall to their death, leaving the bare branches. It is stunning. During the opera, blossoms float down from above, and they have a somewhat mystical physicality – they never quite land on anyone or anything. Are they a real or a dream?

The woman wanders in the forest, singing of her lover and of her nightmare. “I used to believe,” she tells the forest, “that I was happy.” As she wanders, a small house appears – she can hold it in her hand. It is placed in back, as if on a hill, a light in the upper story indicating that this is where all the action she sings of takes place. Her singing veers from love to anger to grief to wailing lament. Her lover, whom she trips over in the forest like a tree trunk, is dead. Or is he going to be dead? Did she kill him? Will she? Did someone else? Is this all a dream or a wish? Something in her has died, or he has died, and the house vanishes with the closing dark. Thomson holds our attention in a story that may seem tired; she has a lush, powerful voice that I would even call courageous. It goes anywhere fearlessly.

Whereas Thomson summoned her words from her soul and threw them at us, in the first opera (La Machine De L’Etre), Anu Komsi rarely sings any words, just sounds with an occasional sputtering of words that are frustrating because they don’t come close to what is inside her and what she must tell us. Pictures emerge above her in that “bubble”, often nonsensical, but in their nonsense, they do make sense of the singing, or you think they do. Then a blaze of light, or fire, ends it all.

During the third piece, Neither, Cyndia Sieden manages the feat of singing for three quarters of an hour a mere 87 words by Samuel Beckett and touring with frustration (yes, again!) a stage resembling a cross between a disco and a photography exhibit. Watching, I suddenly found another voice in my head, that of Judy Garland in that moment in "A Star Is Born," where she is saying, “searching, searching,” in mock serious tones. Exactly. I try to turn Judy off (impossible) for this was Very Serious, after all, being Beckett: “from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither.” Got that? Honestly, for all the effort put into this with an ensemble and rotating mirrors rising up and floating down, neither here nor there, and flashing colors all around – well, seriously, this really ought to have been a concert piece.

Uniting these pieces were our emcees, if you want to call them that, one very fashionably skinny woman and one quite handsome fellow both in evening dress and who stood very still in front of the curtain as the audience settled in. The curtain went up to reveal an ensemble, each person draped in what could be called a burka. Our emcees would roam through these and unveil a person or a soul beneath. Sometimes they would unveil several similarly dressed people and choose who would do the singing for us. In Neither, our emcees wandered through the disco/gallery along with other fashionably dressed people who looked like each other.

The audience, which extended the three singers well deserved ovations, otherwise seemed cool to the productions. One woman remarked, “It’s like the emperor’s new clothes. There’s really nothing here to see.” Another summed it up rather accurately, “These three pieces are about the same thing.” Searching, searching, sang Judy. Even so, the discussions continued in the lobby. Was it real or a dream?

I hope the talking continues. New York City Opera has contributed so much to the music world, and it’s struggling for its life now as it aims for the brave and not the safe. I hope that the spareness of its winter will give way to a long, blossoming, and gorgeous springtime.

Monodramas: La Machine De L’Etre; Music by John Zorn; Sung by Anu Komsi. Erwartung; Music by Arnold Schoenberg; Libretto by Marie Pappenheim; Sung by Kara Shay Thomson. Neither; Music by Morton Feldman; Text by Samuel Beckett; Sung by Cyndian Sieden. Conductor: George Manahan. Production director and set designer: Michael Counts. Choreographer: Ken Roht. Costume designer: Jessica Jahn.

The New York City Opera at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. For information, go to

Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer whose recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Have a restful weekend.

How to Succeed…Without Really Trying

By Mary Sheeran
            If someone were to write a book about how to succeed in musical theater without really trying, the first goal, I think, would be to engage the audience’s affection for a leading character. If that character is somewhat narcissistic and self-absorbed, then the objective should be to make him or her sympathetic either through plot development or through someone else’s eyes.
            Wait, I guess that would involve trying, wouldn’t it?
Well, then, you can hire an actor who has a screaming base of fans who are delighted at that actor’s being able to simply deliver a line. Rob Ashford, the director and choreographer of Broadway’s current revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, chose that path. He doesn’t bother with bringing us a fresh look at the satiric Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that opened in 1961. No, Ashford simply brings us Daniel Radcliffe of “Harry Potter” fame and lets him work up the sweat and bring in the cash. Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t succeed, it just gets by.
            If the actor playing J. Pierpont Finch (aka, Ponty), who climbs out of his window washing rig and in a matter of days (or is it minutes?) sinks into the seat of the Chairman of the Board at the World Wide Wicket Company, doesn’t have the charm to engage us, nothing in this play is going to work – not mediocre choreography, not ugly scenery, not unfocused acting, nothing. Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics are bouncy and often witty (“Company Way,” “Brotherhood of Man”), but they need to be brought to life.
Radcliffe, who gave Broadway a thoughtful and intelligent performance in Equus, doesn’t have the charm for Ponty, even though he really tries, and worse, he looks scared. He’s not having any fun. He looks as if he’s gearing up for another bout with Lord Voldemort.
            Obviously, Radcliffe has prodigious gifts, and in its backhanded way, How to Succeed proves this, but one would wish that, since the guy can certainly sing and dance, that for now he’d take on a role requiring more from an ensemble so that success doesn’t only depend on him. How to Succeed could have worked that way, but a director would have had to understand how to highlight Radcliffe without simply making him the focus of every single scene (“He sings! He makes us laugh! He dances!”). A strong ensemble could have helped Radcliffe shake off the intensity he’s gotten in the habit of resonating as a performer. Instead, this callous production milks Radcliffe as a cash cow presence as much as possible, making sure that he is the focus of every scene, throwing the show off balance, and shortchanging other gifted performers. That’s a shame because they, and Radcliffe, deserve much better. So do we.
            Judging only by Ashford’s production, it is astounding to consider that How to Succeed won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1962 as well as seven Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Book, and played Broadway for 1,417 performances. Based on a 1952 best-selling satire of the same name by Shepherd Mead, the original Broadway production included the not so undistinguished talents of Frank Loesser (music and lyrics), Abe Burrows (book), and Bob Fosse (choreography, although he was credited as doing the musical staging). The concept – snide, satirical, yet affectionate ribbing of the corporate world – is certainly timeless, even if the culture of corporate life has distinctly changed.
            Those cultural changes must have been of some concern to anyone producing this show from the late 1960s on. It certainly absorbed the creative energies of those who were behind the 1967 film – the same writing team from Broadway was behind it. By 1967, many of the songs and attitudes in How to Succeed would have been heading toward anachronism (coffee break, anyone?). To refocus on the characters, the film cut the wince-inducing songs,  “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” “Coffee Break,” “Rosemary’s Philosophy,” and “Paris Original,” as well as the song between Biggley and Hedy La Rue, and really jabbed at the men in “A Secretary is not a Toy.”  The film then focused on Ponty as a real person, capitalizing on the boyish charm and energy of star Robert Morse. To add to his sympathy, “I Believe in You”  (which in the stage production Finch sings to himself in the mirror in the second act) moved to the first act, so that Rosemary, a secretary with her sights set on Ponty, could sing it to a nervous Ponty. That scene  created a more vulnerable character and also allowed us to see Ponty through Rosemary’s loving eyes. (She wasn’t just out to get married.) Consequently in the film, when Ponty reprises the song to the mirror in the Executive Washroom, it recreates the warm affection for the character.
Such reconsiderations of the material helped the film. Almost out of date when it came out, its characters and satire remained fresh, and Morse’s boyish energy was used wisely, if sometimes cloyingly.
            But in the current Broadway production, Ashford stuck to the original, didn’t rethink anything, and hardly paid attention to anyone other than Radcliffe from the looks of it. This left others on the production team to go their own way, with only Catherine Zuber’s costumes showing some imaginative whimsy. The set reminded me of the prison scene in “Chicago,” with some help from the 1960s Star Trek. Well, it’s a concept.
            John Larroquette suffers the most as Mr. Biggley. His office flies through the air in Act 1, which takes him far away from the audience so that we miss subtleties that would add some depth to this buffoonish exec. The “Old Ivy” number, which would have helped the character, too, is lost in an inane effort to put Radcliffe through a football game – missing the point of the song by one hundred yards. By the time Mr. B’s office comes down to earth, and he sings a warm duet with La Rue (Tammy Blanchard who, takes her role way too seriously), we don’t care anymore.
            Signs of real life come from Rose Hemingway (in photo with Radcliffe) in her Broadway debut as Rosemary Pilkington . She makes it gamely through that “Dinner” song, and is so warm and honest in the short “I Believe in You” reprise, you do believe her. Unfortunately, the applause she deserves is cut off by another entrance. Christopher J. Hanke does well as Bud Frumpe, although his boyish charm made me think that he and Radcliffe should have changed places in the casting line. Ellen Harvey does well in the role of Miss Jones as does Mary Faber in the thankless role of Smitty.
            Oh, and I almost forgot Anderson Cooper, the voice of the book Ponty is reading. That part should be all ham on wry, but it looks as if you don’t even have to show up to be witless in this production.
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert. Based on the book by Shepherd Mead. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford. Music direction and arrangements by David Chase. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. With Daniel Radcliffe, John Larroquette, Tammy Blanchard, Christopher J. Hanke, Rob Bartlett, Mary Faber, Ellen Harvey, and Michael Park. At the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
Mary Sheeran is a singer and writer. Her recent novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess takes place during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet ( Her CD recording, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."
~ Berthold Auerbach

Friday, April 1, 2011

"To choose what is difficult all our days as if it were easy, that is faith."
-- W.H. Auden