Thursday, April 26, 2012

Clybourne Park

I wish I could share the enthusiasm of the multitudes for Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s play about race and resistance to change, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The Pulitzer committee appreciated it enough to award it the prize for drama last year. Audiences loved it so much when it was staged in 2010 at Playwrights Horizons (then and now directed by Pam MacKinnon) that it moved to Broadway this spring where theatre buzz has it winning the Tony for best new play. This would be a repeat of the London run, where it was acclaimed by critics and applauded by audiences and went on to win the Olivier Award for best play.

 The idea is definitely a creative one. Act One is set in 1959 in the Clybourne Park area of Chicago. A white couple, played by Christina Kirk and Frank Wood, are selling their house to a black family (whom we don’t meet) who will be the first in the neighborhood. Cleverly on Norris’s part, they are the Youngers, the black family of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun that was moving to Clybourne Park at the end of that play.

 Norris twists this devise in Act Two by having a white yuppie couple, played by Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos, buy this same house 50 years later, in 2009. Integration has become gentrification as white professionals, wanting to avoid long commutes to their downtown jobs, reclaim the neighborhoods their parents had fled.

 The only white character in Raisin, Karl Lindner, appears in Norris’s Act One, played by Shamos. (All of the actors appear in each act as different characters.) His mission is the same in both plays. As the head of the Clybourne Park neighborhood association, he attempts to prevent the integration of his community. In Hansberry’s play we see how this affects the black family after he visits them and tries to pay them off to stay out of his world. In Norris’s, we see his attempts to do the same with the white family.

 In Act Two, a black couple, played by Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton, represent the neighborhood association in an area now largely Africa-American. They are worried that the yuppies’ plans to tear down the house and build a larger one will destroy the “historical value” of the community.

 That historical value was black ownership of a sturdy house in a decent neighborhood. As Lena Younger, the family matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun, explains it to her son, “It’s just a plain little old house, but it’s made good and solid, and it will be ours. Walter Lee, it makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him.”

 The 2009 house holds special memories for a new Lena, representing the current community association, because it was her great aunt who who bought it a half century before. Now she is the one who doesn’t want Clybourne Park to change. “It happens one house at a time,” she says, echoing a comment made by Karl in Act One, as well as in Raisin when he explained his reasons for not disrupting the racial balance. “It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.”

 Prophetically, it is the daughter of the first Younger family, in Raisin, who sums up what seems to the at the philosophical crux of Norris’s play. “An end to misery,” she asks. “To stupidity! Don’t you see there isn’t any real progress, there is only one large circle that we march in, around and around, each of us with our own little picture in front of us, our own little image that we think is the future.”

 That’s the kind of dialogue I missed in Norris’s play. I know he wanted to satirize the misunderstandings and mistrust between the races from one generation to the next, but his characters, and especially their conversations, seemed forced, more like talking points for a discussion of race than people interacting, however poorly. I felt only mildly involved on an intellectual level, and not at all on an emotional one. I guess I’m just not ready to welcome this newcomer into Hansberry’s artistic neighborhood.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Ah, I like a Gershwin tune. In January I was in tears at the end of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Just three months later, I was nearly dancing out of the theatre after seeing Nice Work If You Can Get It, a new Broadway musical featuring George and Ira’s greatest hits, along with several unknown gems. Being a critic is definitely nice work, and in the case of these two standout shows this season, I’m glad I’ve got it.

And as if all that clever and romantic music (21 songs under the musical supervision of David Chase) weren’t enough, the show stars one of my favorite Broadway performers, Kelli O’Hara, lighting up the stage at the Imperial Theatre with her full triple threat singing, dancing and acting radiance. Throw in the nebbishy, deadpan charm of her costar, Matthew Broderick, the exhilarating choreography of director Kathleen Marshall, a hilarious supporting cast and a megawatt chorus that definitely has rhythm and you’ve got the kind of good old-fashioned romantic musical comedy of yesteryear. S Wonderful!

The madcap story (book by Memphis book and lyric writer Joe DiPietro) centers around Billie Bendix (O’Hara), a bootlegger in 1927 New York and Jimmy Winter (Broderick) the “plastered playboy” she meets by chance on the eve of his fourth wedding. Her only concern at first is where to conceal her latest shipment of illegal booze. When Jimmy passes out after mentioning his Long Island mansion that he never uses, Billie steals his wallet, looks at the address and figures that the basement of that unused house will be the ideal hiding place.

This little plan hits a major snag the next day when a sober Jimmy shows up at the house that is going to be very much used that day -- for his wedding. As his fiancé, family and guests arrive, mayhem has its jolly reign as Billie and her cohorts try to keep their stash secret. Along the way, as you might guest, Billie and Jimmy just happen to fall in love.

O’Hara holds nothing back, unleashing her talent for screwball comedy, most especially in her “Treat Me Rough” number when she tries to seduce Jimmy in his bedroom. Judy Kaye, as the Prohibitionist Duchess Estonia Dulworth, also has a wacky high point when, crocked on spiked lemonade, she ends up swinging from the chandelier and singing “Looking for a Boy.” Michael McGrath is great as Cookie McGee, one of Billie’s bootlegging friends posing as Jimmy’s butler.

It’s hard to single out only a few wacky scenes in this show, which has so many. I also loved Jimmy’s fiancĂ©, Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson), in a big very pink tub in a very pink bathroom (great larger-than-life sets by Derek McLane) singing “Delishious.” A chorus of Bubble Girls pop up out of the water and dance around the tub, followed by Bubble Boys ballet dancing in their wake. Yes, indeed, it is delishious.

But then, what’s a romantic comedy without the romance? That was best served up when Billie and Jimmy dance their way around the living room and atop the furniture singing “S Wonderful.” That is was.

And it all came together in the closing number with the entire cast -- in their glittery, colorful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz (I adore those flapper dresses) onstage singing “Nice Work.” If you see this show, you won’t just like a Gershwin tune, you’ll love a Gershwin tune. And all that goes with it.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

“Adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it.” -- Horace

Thursday, April 12, 2012


PERFECT CRIME, Warren Manzi’s long-running funny, romantic thriller, will celebrate its 25th anniversary Off Broadway on Wednesday, April 18, with performance number 10,233. PERFECT CRIME is the longest-running play in the history of New York theater.

The celebration will include a 7 p.m. performance followed by a 9:15 p.m. anniversary party at the Snapple Theater Center, 210 W. 50th St. at Broadway. The entire audience for that evening’s performance is invited to the party, which features dinner and an open bar.
“We’ve had such terrific audiences over the past 25 years,” said Catherine Russell (in photo), the play’s leading lady and general manager. “They figure out the clues, laugh along at the jokes and have helped make the show a New York institution.”
Russell has starred in the play since its first performance and has never taken a sick day or vacation day, a feat which landed her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Since PERFECT CRIME opened in 1987, Russell has spent more than two years of her life (nearly 17,000 hours) onstage performing the role of psychiatrist and potential murderer Margaret Thorne Brent.
During PERFECT CRIME’s historic run, Russell has shot 89 different men and kissed 57 others. Over 83,000 bullets have been fired onstage and more than 5,000 prop coffee cakes have been eaten, and 237 have performed its 25-year existence.
The show has been modernized through the years to keep up with pop culture and technology. An on-set television was upgraded to a flat screen, and references to “The Phil Donahue Show” were changed to “Oprah” and then “the morning shows”. A character’s net worth was increased from $1 million to $50 million, and then increased again to $600 million.
PERFECT CRIME, New York’s answer to The Mousetrap, was optioned for Broadway in 1980 while author Warren Manzi was playing Mozart in the Broadway production of Amadeus.  At the time, Manzi was the youngest American to have a play optioned for Broadway.  After he refused prospective producer Morton Gottlieb's request to change the title to Guilty Hands and star Mary Tyler Moore or Elaine Stritch, Manzi went to Hollywood and wrote several screenplays, including two versions of “Clue” for John Landis.
The script sat in Manzi's drawer for seven years until he became the artistic director of a theater company that produced the play.  Initially opening as an Equity Showcase on April 18, 1987 for a four-week limited run at The Courtyard Playhouse, PERFECT CRIME has since become what New York Times critic Jason Zinoman called “an urban legend” thanks to its incredible staying power.
The cast of PERFECT CRIME also includes John Hillner, George McDaniel, Patrick Robustelli and Richard Shoberg.  Jeffrey Hyatt is the director.
For more information, visit WWW.PERFECT-CRIME.COM

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Donna Murphy To Play The Witch In INTO THE WOODS

 Tony Award-winner Donna Murphy has been cast as The Witch in the Public Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s beloved musical INTO THE WOODS, directed by Timothy Sheader with co-direction by Liam Steel. Murphy last performed at the Delacorte in the Shakepeare in the Park production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985. INTO THE WOODS will begin previews at the Delacorte on Monday, July 23 and continue for five weeks through Saturday, Aug. 25.
As previously announced, the cast will also include Amy Adams (The Baker’s Wife), Jack Broderick (Narrator), Gideon Glick (Jack), Cooper Grodin (Rapunzel’s Prince), Ivan Hernandez (Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf), Tina Johnson (Granny), Josh Lamon (Steward), Jessie Mueller (Cinderella), Laura Shoop (Cinderella’s Mother), and Tess Soltau (Rapunzel). 
AS YOU LIKE IT, directed by Daniel Sullivan, will kick off the 50th Anniversary season of free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte in June with a cast that includes MacIntyre Dixon (Adam), David Furr (Orlando), Renee Elise Goldsberry (Celia), Robert Joy (Le Beau, Lord), Omar Metwally (Oliver), Oliver Platt (Touchstone), Lily Rabe (Rosalind), and Stephen Spinella (Jaques).  AS YOU LIKE IT will begin previews on Tuesday, June 5 and continue for four weeks through Saturday, June 30.
Grammy® and Emmy winning actor/comedian/musician and bestselling author Steve Martin will compose original music for AS YOU LIKE IT which will feature a live Bluegrass band. AS YOU LIKE IT is Shakespeare's most musical play, containing more songs than any other. Sullivan will set the play's famous Forest of Arden in the rural American South, circa 1840, where folk and roots music perfectly capture the mood of the time.
Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers’ latest album “Rare Bi”rd Alert debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart and at #43 on the Billboard Top 200.  The album was nominated for a Grammy® for “Best Bluegrass Album” and features 13 new Martin-penned tracks, including a live version of “King Tut,” and special guest vocals by Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks.  His debut album “The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo” won “Best Bluegrass Album” in 2009.  Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers were also named ‘Entertainer of the Year’ at the 2011 International Bluegrass Association Awards.
AS YOU LIKE IT features scenic design by John Lee Beatty; costume design by Jane Greenwood; lighting design by Natasha Katz; and sound design by Acme Sound Partners.

INTO THE WOODS features scenic design by John Lee Beatty and Soutra Gilmour; costume design by Emily Rebholz; movement direction by Liam Steel; sound design by Acme Sound Partners, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; and musical direction by Paul Gemignani.
In AS YOU LIKE IT, Rosalind, Shakespeare’s most breathtaking heroine, and her boyfriend Orlando find themselves in the enchanted Forest of Arden, where all the world’s a stage, and where sudden infatuation is as confusing as it is beautiful.  Along with other “country copulatives,” they discover that nothing transforms, redeems, or enriches experience quite as powerfully as love.  AS YOU LIKE IT has everything we adore about Shakespearean comedy: mistaken identity, cross-dressing, madness, mayhem, rage, lust, laughter, and of course plenty of romance, both heartbreaking and joyous. 

In INTO THE WOODS, a witch’s curse condemns the Baker and his Wife to a life without children. They embark on a quest to find the four items required to break the spell: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. Will they succeed?  And what happens after “happily ever after?” A Tony Award-winning masterpiece by musical theater giants Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, INTO THE WOODS is a witty and irreverent reimagining of beloved classic fairytales: Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella.
INTO THE WOODS opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on Nov. 5, 1987 and played 764 performances. It earned three Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical and a Grammy Award.  Directed by James Lapine, the original Broadway production featured a cast that included Bernadette Peters as The Witch and Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife. James Lapine also directed the Broadway revival that opened on April 30, 2002 at the Broadhurst Theatre and starred Vanessa Williams as The Witch and Laura Benanti as Cinderella.
Tickets to Shakespeare in the Park are FREE and are distributed, two per person, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park the day of the show. The Public Theater will again offer free tickets through our Virtual Ticketing lottery at on the day of the show.
In honor of five decades at the Delacorte, The Public Theater launched the 50th Anniversary Fellows Program this year to help support free Shakespeare in the Park for years to come.  For more information on the Fellows Program, please call 212-967-7555 or visit

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

End of the Rainbow

I am left with two dominant thoughts after seeing End of the Rainbow, which opened last night at the Belasco Theatre. One is that British actress/singer Tracie Bennett will win the Tony Award for best actress for her portrayal of Judy Garland at the end of her life. On a less positive note, I couldn’t help but feel that playwright Peter Quilter is just the latest in a long line of people trying to make money off of a woman who was magnificently talented but whose drug and alcohol addictions were far beyond her ability to cope. This is quite often a painful show to watch.

The play, directed by Terry Johnson, comes to Broadway following a successful West End run. It dramatizes the weeks in December 1968 that a financially broke Garland spent at the Ritz Hotel in London while performing her last “comeback” concerts at the Talk of the Town nightclub. It’s definitely powerful theatre, but I wonder what is the purpose of watching such a sick woman spewing obscenities while in constant motion either from her high on drugs or her withdraw from them, twitching her way from one side of the room to the other or rolling on the floor, half dressed, with her makeup smeared.

The pain of witnessing someone disintegrate before your eyes is relieved by interspersed scenes of brilliance as the back wall of the suite (gorgeous sets and costumes by William Dudley) lifts and a six-man onstage orchestra recreates the elegance of Garland’s concerts, with the diva now all glittery, gowned and energized (well, high), dazzling her audience with some of the songs she helped make famous, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Just in Time,” “You Made Me Love You,” “The Trolley Song.” Bennett amazed me with her ability to capture both sides of Garland’s world, and her singing is breathtaking. We saw her at Saturday’s matinee and she was holding nothing back for the evening performance. I can’t imagine how she does that eight times a week. She even returns post-curtain call to sing “By Myself.” This is her Broadway debut; she earned an Olivier Award nomination for her performance in the London production. I hope we will see much more of her.

Her costars also are in excellent form. Michael Cumpsty (in photo) plays Anthony, Garland’s devoted accompanist, so convincingly that my friend Brenda and I were speculating at intermission over whether he was really playing the piano. I thought he was and Brenda was uncertain, but by the end we were both convinced he was. His hands and feet are in all the right places at the right times, but nope, he’s just a good actor.

In the other major role, Tom Pelphrey is Garland’s young soon-to-be fifth husband, Mickey Deans. Jay Russell plays several lesser roles.

While Anthony seems to genuinely care about Garland, Mickey is more concerned with the money she can make from the concert engagement. It is harrowing to watch him force-feed a hung over Judy Ritalin to ensure she goes on that night.

Which leaves me with the question why. The play offers no new insight into Garland’s life. No transformative ending awaits -- Garland died of a massive overdose six months later at the age of 47, so down and out that Frank Sinatra paid for her funeral. Why do we need to watch her degrading final act on display in such excruciating detail? It’s time to let her be remembered for her gifts rather than her demons. They did far too much damage to her in her lifetime.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Welcome to My World"

This blog posting by Dr. Michael Brown, senior minister at Marble Collegiate Church, appears on the church's web site.

“Welcome to my world!” It’s a phrase we often use when someone complains about something we live with on a regular basis. “I can’t believe how much it costs to rent one space in a parking garage!,” or “I am so disappointed my alma mater lost in the NCAAs!,” or “It’s incredible how much I pay in taxes!,” or “I have to be so careful about my weight that I’ve given up everything that tastes good!,” or “Sometimes my arthritis is so painful I hardly get any sleep at all!,” and we respond, “Welcome to my world.” It simply means we understand, we know what they’re going through, we’ve lived where they are living.

When the crowds cried out “Hosanna!” on the first Palm Sunday, to an extent they were saying to Jesus, “Welcome to my world!” “Welcome to Jerusalem where we are overworked and underpaid, where we are oppressed by the government and also by the religious hierarchy, where we struggle to make it from one day to the next, and where we live in constant fear that our burdens will increase and our liberties will be all the more restricted.” They did not make a “Welcome” carpet of palm branches to invite Jesus to a party. Instead, they laid down those branches hoping that He would become their Deliverer. “Welcome to my world. I hope you can redeem it.”

It was, of course, a two-edged sword. “Hosanna” has its costs. Whenever we invite Jesus to enter our world, it becomes incumbent on us to create an environment where He will feel at home. If my spiritual house is furnished with anger or bitterness, with negativism or prejudice, with narrow-mindedness or exclusivity, with a denial of hope or a paucity of love, He cannot possibility feel welcome there. If I invite Jesus into my world, it is important to tidy my world up a bit. On Palm Sunday He entered the Temple and began to throw out whatever things dishonored God and demeaned people. If my world contains things that do either, then those things need to be cleaned out to make room for Him.

By the same token, if my world contains pain, fear, loneliness, brokenness, guilt, sickness, self-doubt, despair, or a host of other issues that make life more burden than blessing, then Jesus lovingly follows the palm branches into my own personal Jerusalem. Where human hurt resides, so does He reside – with unfettered love for those in pain, with comfort for those who lean upon Him, and with the power to cleanse our temples of whatever things diminish us. He comes with love for you and me and all. And all we have to do is whisper, “Hosannah! Welcome to my world!,” and He is there.