September 16, 2017

"For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday" is a Gift for Theater Lovers Ready to Grow Up

Ever since a friend died earlier this summer at the relatively young age of 62, I've been preoccupied with death. So For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, Sarah Ruhl's warm-hearted meditation on mortality which opened at Playwrights Horizons this week, really hit my sweet spot, even if most critics are sour on the show (click here for those reviews).

Although the play runs just 90 minutes, it's a triptych that moves from a deathbed, to the quotidian rituals of mourning to the reluctant acknowledgement that some day we too must die.

Ruhl has said that she wrote the play as a present for her mother, an occasional actress whose favorite role was playing the character Peter Pan, who famously never wants to grow old.  (Click here to read more about its origins). 

Ann, the central character in the play, is one of the five siblings who sit vigil in a hospital room as their aged father dies. She's also the odd duck in her Iowa-raised clan, an early widow who has raised a child on her own and lost a little of her faith unlike her still-married and pious sister, gotten a degree later in life than her doctor brothers and still cherishes the memory of appearing as the title character in her high school production of Peter Pan.

As Ann and her brothers and sister grieve their beloved father, they hold a wake, complete with Irish whiskey, and retell old stories about the past and share their thoughts about what death and the afterlife may bring, from the nihilism of nothingness to the comforting spiritualism of ever-present ghosts, to the whimsy of a Neverland where life and youth are eternal.

Director Les Waters has assembled a top-notch cast to spin this tale. David Chandler, Lisa Emery, Daniel Jenkins and Keith Reddin are lovely as Ann's siblings whose lives have taken them to different parts of the country and down disparate philosophical paths but whose love for one another binds them together. Ron Crawford is particularly affecting as their dad.

But this production had me from the moment I learned that Ann would be played by Kathleen Chalfant, an actor who seems incapable of giving less than a brilliant performance. Here she soars again, and in more ways than one as she grounds the character in a determined optimism and literally takes to the air as Ann assumes her Peter Pan personae.

As my theatergoing buddy Bill and I left the theater, I overhead some audience members grumbling that the show, particularly the wake part, had been too slow. But it seemed just right to me, calling to mind the times that sitting with other mourners and sharing old stories had brought comfort when I lost someone.  

I hate audience participation but when, evoking a moment in J.M. Barrie's original play, we were asked to clap so that Peter could live, I slapped my hands together as hard as I could. 

This is the second Playwrights Horizons production this year, following Adam Bock's A Life, to deal head-on with the subject of death but Ruhl's wry humor keeps For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday from being depressing. Instead it's a reminder that the best way to face death may be with a defiant smile. 

September 9, 2017

A Female-Focused Fall Theater Preview

Experience has taught me that I'm a terrible prognosticator. So many of the shows I get all worked up about at the beginning of a theater season end up disappointing me. And then shows that I'm kind of ho-hum about when I first hear or read about them turn out to be some of my all-time faves. Yet, I can't resist looking ahead and thinking about what's to come this fall. And this year, the thing that pleases me the most (and that will continue to do so regardless of what I eventually think about the shows) is the presence of female directors at the helm of some of the most anticipated productions of this fall season:

M. Butterfly directed by JULIE TAYMOR. Playwright David Henry Hwang explored cultural and gender stereotypes in this mash-up of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and the real-life story of a French diplomat who fell for a Chinese opera star who seduced him into betraying his country before he discovered that his lover was actually a man masquerading as a woman. The original 1988 production won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Best Play Tony and ran for over two years. Now Taymor, herself a Tony winner for The Lion King, now in its 20th year, is directing M. Butterfly's first Broadway revival. That's exciting enough but the production will also mark Taymor's first return to Broadway since she was infamously fired from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. M. Butterfly's themes seem more up Taymor's alley and like most avid theatergoers, I'm eager to see how she will use the music, dance, puppets and Asian theater techniques she loves to make it her own. The play, which will star Clive Owen and Jin Ha as the mismatched lovers, is scheduled to open at the Cort Theatre Oct. 26.

The Parisian Woman directed by PAM MACKINNON. Set in contemporary Washington, this new comedy of manners centers around a woman who tries to get her lover to help her husband get a high-level position in the government. Beau Willimon, the creator of the Netflix series "House of Cards," specializes in political satire and he based his play on the similarly-named 19th century political drama by the French playwright Henry François Becque. MacKinnon, who won a Tony for directing the 2013 revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, knows how to wrangle strong female characters and the strong actors who play them. This time out she'll be working with Uma Thurman, who has played lots of tough women in movies but will be making her Broadway debut. The supporting cast includes Blair Brown, Phillipa Soo and Josh Lucas. The show is set to make its world premiere at the Hudson Theatre on Nov. 30.

SpongeBob SquarePants directed by TINA LANDAU. I've got to be honest and say that I have my doubts about this one but the word-of-mouth has been surprisingly good for this musical version of the animated TV show about the titular sea creature and his oddball friends who live in an underwater town called Bikini Bottom. The musical also features an oddball score of original songs by a boatload of major contemporary songwriters including Susan Bareilles, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Lady Antebellum and David Bowie. Just the fact that they all wanted to be involved in this project makes me want to see it. But the show's ultimate success will rest on the shoulders of Landau, who is not only directing SpongeBob but conceived the musical and has nurtured what's being touted as a paean to tolerance and acceptance of others through a tryout in Chicago last year and soon onto the stage at the legendary Palace Theatre, where the good-natured parazoan and his pals are scheduled to open on Dec. 4

Time and the Conways directed by REBECCA TAICHMAN. Fresh off her Tony win for the luminous Indecent, which marked her Broadway debut, Taichman is now leading a revival of J. B. Priestley's 1937 drama about the changing fortunes of an upper-class British family. The play is part family saga, part allegory about Britain between the World Wars and a meditation on the metaphysics of time. The versatile Taichman directed a well-received production of the play at the Old Globe in San Diego last year. In this Roundabout Theatre production, the family matriarch will be played by Elizabeth McGovern, returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in 25 years but already conditioned for the part by her turn as the mistress of the house for six seasons on "Downton Abbey." McGovern, along with a nine-member supporting cast that includes the always-watchable Gabriel Ebert and Stephen Boyer, will open The Conways at the American Airlines Theatre on  Oct. 10.

September 2, 2017

A Labor Day Salute to Drama Teachers

Monday is Labor Day, which for some folks means that the summer is winding down, for others that the school year is starting up and for us theater lovers that a new season is just around the corner.
And here at Broadway & Me, it also means that it’s time for my annual tribute to some of the people whose labor makes the theater work. Over the years, I’ve cheered actors and playwrights, composers and casting agents. Last year I celebrated the seamstresses, wigmakers, set builders, pit musicians and all the others who fill the ranks of what some call “Blue Collar Broadway” (click here to read that). But I want to put the spotlight on a very different unsung group this year: high school drama teachers.

The job isn’t glamorous but it’s an invaluable part of the theater ecosystem. Just about everyone you see on a stage remembers some teacher who spotted his or her talent and nurtured it. Of course, not everyone in the senior class play is destined for—or even wants—a career on the Great White Way. But the empathy theater educators teach, the collaborative spirit they encourage and the respect for the power of art they champion are valuable for everyone, particularly in these coarse times.

And recently, those first-line scouts have been getting more and more of the recognition they deserve. Three years ago, Carnegie Mellon University, The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing (on whose advisory board I’m proud to sit) joined forces to create the Excellence in Theatre Education Award which honors K-12 theater teachers.

The apple-shaped statuette also comes with a $10,000 check for the winning teacher’s program, an all-expenses paid trip to the Tony Awards ceremony and a shout-out on the show. This year’s honoree was Rachel Harry, who for 30 years has taught at Hood River Valley High School in Oregon. Her productions have ranged from such school stalwarts as The Tempest and Our Town to Does My Head Look Big in This, a contemporary piece about a Muslim girl who decides to wear a hijab while attending a U.S. high school (click here to read more about Harry).

And Harry's not the only out there doing good work. In 2015, journalist Michael Sokolove published “Drama High,” about Lou Volpe, who has devoted four decades to the drama program at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania. The town has fallen on hard times as factory jobs have disappeared and resources are low but Volpe has lead his students to repeated wins at the International Thespian Festival where the best high school productions from around the country compete each year (click here for more about the book).

Indeed, Volpe, who had no formal theater training before he began directing school shows, has been so successful at it that Music Theatre International, the agency that licenses rights to shows from The Music Man to Avenue Q, commissioned him to adapt Rent (a show that deals with AIDS, drug use and same-sex relationships) and Spring Awakening (a show that includes incest, abortion and suicide) so that they might be made more suitable for school audiences but without losing their distinctive style or diluting their powerful messages.

But the best testament to the work that Volpe and his fellow practitioners do may be the fact that NBC has given the green light to “Rise,” a new hour-long show about a high-school drama teacher that’s inspired by Volpe’s life. 

Scheduled for a midseason premiere next winter, its prospects are promising because “Rise” is co-produced by the guy who did the terrific high school football drama “Friday Night Lights” and by Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller, whose credits include Rent, Avenue Q and Hamilton.

The actor Josh Radnor will play Volpe. Sort of. The real Volpe came out years ago but, according to the press notes, although the TV version has the same name, he now also has a wife and three kids. That’s too bad. But hopefully what will remain is the underlying message that high school drama teachers can make a difference in the lives of their students, schools and communities. And that’s something to celebrate this Labor Day and throughout the year.

August 26, 2017

The "Prince of Broadway" is Too Stately

Whether you walk out of Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre feeling as though you got you money's worth after seeing Prince of Broadway is going to depend on what you go into the theater expecting. Folks who go into this musical retrospective of Hal Prince's nearly 70 years in the business looking for insights into the legendary director and producer's career (or into the man himself) are probably going to feel shortchanged. But those eager to see and hear fondly remembered moments from some of Broadway's most beloved shows are likely to feel they got full value.

I, alas, fall more into the first group. And I can't say I'm surprised by that. Prince, who will turn 90 in January, has been wanting to do this show for years. But despite his having a track record that includes 21 Tonys and, with Phantom of the Opera, the longest running show in Broadway history, no one seemed excited enough about this show to want to put money into it.

Although Prince probably could have funded the show himself with a few months of his Phantom residuals, he clearly didn't want the show to come off as just some vanity project. Which is how it has ended up at the nonprofit MTC for a limited run that is scheduled to end Oct. 22 (click here to read more about the show's long journey to the stage).

What Prince really wanted—and totally deserves—is the full throttled commemoration of his work that was given to the other men whose reputations and contributions rival his: Jerome Robbins (his Jerome Robbins' Broadway ran for 633 performances and won the Tony for Best Musical in 1989) Bob Fosse (his eponymous and posthumous tribute ran for 1,093 performances and won the Best Musical Tony in 1999; and Stephen Sondheim (he's been given two tribute shows, Side by Side by Sondheim in 1978 and Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010.)

Prince certainly belongs with them on Broadway's Mount Rushmore. And Prince of Broadway touches on the high points of his career including the original productions of Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, which he produced; and the original productions of She Loves Me, Cabaret, Company, Evita, Follies (his personal favorite), Kiss of the Spider Woman, Sweeney Todd and, of course Phantom, which he directed (click here to see photos of some of them).

But there's no thematic through-line that ties the shows together. And no attempt to establish a connection between these works and the man who made them or to provide context about the times in which he did it.

Prince is virtually the father of the concept musical and yet this show lacks a concept. It may be sacrilege to say it, but Prince of Broadway might have benefited from having someone other than Prince, who co-directed this production with Susan Stroman, at its helm since that might have provided a way for the show to probe deeper into his genius.

The veteran book writer David Thompson has attempted some connective dialog in which the actors in the cast, all wearing sunglasses on the tops of their heads in the style that has become Prince's trademark, take turns quoting remarks Prince has made about his work. But the quotes are basically just another way of saying "And then I did this..."

The numbers themselves are all more than fine. How could they not be? And they're terrifically performed by a nine-member cast lead by Chuck Cooper, Tony Yazbeck and Karen Ziemba (click here to read an interview with her).

But anyone who has been to a Broadway-related benefit dinner has seen similarly well-done reinterpretations done before. And anyone with access to cast albums or a Spotify account can hear the original performances.

Still, even I enjoyed watching Cooper shimmy soulfully as Fiddler's Tevye and Ziemba bring a sweet ditzyness to Sweeney's Mrs. Lovett. And Yazbeck brought the house down as he tapped his way through Buddy's breakdown in Follies.

I was more moved by Yazbeck's rendition of "This is Not Over Yet" from the short-lived Parade, although that may be because that 1998 show about the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory supervisor falsely accused of the rape of an Atlanta girl at the beginning of the last century, was the last Broadway show I saw with my mother.

And I suspect Prince of Broadway will provide a similar stroll down nostalgia lane for lots of the people who see it. The man sitting next to me couldn't restrain himself from humming along with some of the tunes that clearly meant the most to him.

Meanwhile, the ladies online for the restroom at intermission sang the show's praises out loud. "That Ben Brantley is really losing it," one of them said, complaining about the negative review The New York Times critic gave the show. Lots of heads nodded in agreement.

Maybe they're right and naysayers like Brantley and me are expecting too much. For if nothing else, Prince of Broadway is a reminder of all that Hal Prince has given to musical theater—and of how much all of us who love it are in his debt.

August 19, 2017

A "Hamlet" Without a Semblance of Majesty

Hamlet is hands down the world's most famous play. People who have never been inside a theater quote its lines "To be, or not to be" and "To thine own self be true." And parodies and homages have been done by everyone from Tom Stoppard to The Simpsons (click here to see the latter's).

Yet every time I see a production of Hamlet, I tell myself it's the last time I'm going to sit through four-hours of watching Shakespeare's grieving Danish prince decide if and how to avenge the death of his father. Then an intriguing actor gets cast in it or an interesting director signs on to helm it and I find myself wooed back to Elsinore Castle once more.

But Sam Gold's current production at the Public Theater, starring Oscar Isaac in the title role and running through Sept. 3, may be the straw that finally breaks the camel's back for me. I don't know if it's just my exhaustion with the play itself or my aversion to Gold's eccentric interpretation of it but I liked almost nothing about this production, even though it's become the must-see show of the summer for the hipster set.

Gold is a master at collaborating on new works such as Annie Baker's early plays, the Tony-award winning musical Fun Home or Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2, one of the few straight plays currently running on Broadway. But Gold, who spent several formative years as an assistant director and dramaturge for the proto-experimental theater company The Wooster Group, also likes to bring his modernist sensibility to classic plays.

 Alas, the stripped down approach he's taken to plays such as the Roundabout Theatre Company's 2012 revival of Look Back in Anger or last season's Broadway outing of The Glass Menagerie haven't worked for me at all. His reinterpretations come off as though he is far more interested in showing off his own cleverness instead of the play's.

As is his want, Gold has reduced the main set for his Hamlet to a folding table and a few chairs that hardly merit the services of a gifted scenic designer like David Zinn. Similarly, he's instructed costume designer Kaye Voyce to dress the actors in jeans, T shirts, hoodies, cargo shorts and other leisure wear, although I dare anyone to tell me why since his concept doesn't extend to drawing any parallels between Shakespeare's world and the contemporary one in which people wear such outfits.

More distinguishing costumes might have served another purpose too. For Gold has cut the cast down to nine actors, which means everyone, with the exception of Isaac, has to take on double and even triple roles. It not only makes it hard to keep track of who is being whom but at times that casting decision really mucks up the storytelling. 

Hamlet famously stages a play within the play so that he can gauge the reaction of his stepfather Claudius, whom he suspects of having poisoned the prince's father. But neither he nor we in the audience can see Claudius' response because the actor playing Claudius is at the moment playing someone else.

Gold tries to make up for the confusion by having an onstage musician play various instruments to signal how we should respond to major moments in the play. But sometimes the music drowns out the dialog. Other times, it's just annoying. There's even gratuitous underscoring during the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. If an actor can't convey the emotion of that speech on his own, he shouldn't be cast in the first place.

Isaac is totally capable of doing so and gives an intense and intelligent performance but its power is often undercut by all the folderol, including his having to take off his pants and play large chunks of the role in his underwear, Gold's too on-the-nose way of indicating when Hamlet is pretending to be mad (click here to read more about the actor's decision to take on the role).

The rest of the cast is uneven, ranging from a mystifying turn by Gayle Rankin who plays Ophelia as though she were the robust captain of a girl's hockey team instead of a fragile noblewoman driven mad by grief and unrequited love, to Peter Friedman's full-bodied performance as the vainglorious chief counselor Polonius, conveying the character's inherent humor but also his dignity as well, despite the fact that Gold stages a long scene with the counselor sitting on a toilet.   

Somewhere in the middle is the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, whose primary role is Hamlet's bestie Horatio. Although probably best known for playing President Obama's angry alter ego Luther on the sketch comedy show "Key & Peele," Key trained as a classical actor and handles the Bard's lines with finesse (click here to read an interview with him).

However Key also portrays one of the players in the play within a play and has clearly been directed to give a go-for-the-belly-laughs performance that fits in with Gold's determination to present Hamlet as part comedy. The schtick clearly delighted the audience the night my friend Ellie and I saw the play but I found it to be just a few degrees short of ludicrous.

But even getting tickets to see this Hamlet proved to be a pain in the ass. Seduced by what Isaac might do with the role, I hopped online the moment the tickets went on sale back in March and got seats for a couple of weeks after the show was scheduled to open on July 14.  But a few hours before my performance, I got an email telling me that night's show had been canceled because of an actor's illness.

When I called to exchange my tickets, the reservationist tried to persuade me to take a Saturday matinee performance. I insisted on a weeknight and it's a good thing I did cause a week later, the Public canceled all Saturday matinees (click here to read more about that). According to press reports, the Public said that "the intensity that Hamlet requires of our actors over the four-hour show is starting to take a toll."

I understand exactly how they feel.

August 12, 2017

"Curvy Widow" Plays to its Demographic

Women of a certain age (which usually means between 50 and 75) make up the majority of the theater's ticket buying audience. And Curvy Widow, the new musical that recently opened at the Westside Theatre, is made for them.

Now I don't want to oversell this. Curvy Widow is basically a vanity project that showcases its book writer Bobby Goldman's personal story of how she made a life for herself after the sudden death of her husband the playwright James Goldman, who wrote The Lion in Winter and the book for Follies and died in 1998 at the age of 71.

And yet, the show's strong sense of the you-go-older-girl message it wants to deliver and the forthright amiability with which it delivers it won me (a card-carrying member of the certain age set) over. 

Goldman was 55 when she lost her partner of three decades. Like many women of her age and class (money is not a problem for our heroine and the play is rife with references to big-dollar places like Hermès and Per Se) she had built her life around her husband's needs and desires. Once he was gone, she had to figure out how to satisfy her own needs and desires.

The onstage Bobby jettisons her East Side apartment for a downtown loft and trades in her Chanel suits for Eileen Fisher slouchy wear. But most of the show—and nearly all of its jokes—centers on Bobby's efforts to revive her sex life, ranging from the vagaries of online dating in her 50s (the show's title is her dating sites screen name) to finding a remedy for the vaginal dryness that often plagues women after menopause.

All of it is set to chirpy but forgettable music by Drew Brody, whose most prominent earlier credit is the interstitial score for Nick Kroll and John Mulaney's Oh, Hello. And, with the exception of the sleek and versatile set by Rob Bissinger, the rest of the production has an amateurish feel as well.

It's easy to imagine that most of the notes director Peter Flynn gave his cast must have been along the lines of "play it bigger." Having each of the six ensemble members play multiple roles doesn't help either. At one point I wondered why Bobby was dating her therapist until I realized that the actor was now playing another character.

What saved the evening for me was the game performance by stage vet Nancy Opel. She looks age-appropriately great, is in fine voice and doesn't take herself or the material too seriously (click here to see her perform a number).

And yet, there is an underlying warmth to Opel's performance that clearly respects the fact that lots of women—widows, divorcées, the never-marrieds—are going through some variation of Bobby's experience.

Women in the audience at our performance hooted out their support for her as Bobby endured one bad date after another. And, judging from the conversation in the lady's room after the show, they seemed content with how she ends up as well.

If you're looking for an intellectually stimulating evening, then Curvy Widow won't be for you. But for women born near the middle of the last century, it could be a fun evening to share with a group of longtime gal friends. 

Although you don't have to be an old broad to enjoy it; from the way they laughed and applauded, two young guys sitting a few rows away from my theatergoing buddy Bill and me seemed to be having a good time too.

August 5, 2017

"A Parallelogram" Doesn't Play It Straight

Whimsy has never really been my cup of tea. And alas, A Parallelogramthe Bruce Norris play that opened at Second Stage Theater this past week, is reeking of it.  A dark comedy, it tells the story of a woman named Bee who, as a result of some metaphysical mumbo jumbo, may have encountered a future version of herself that no one else can see. Or she may just be losing her mind.

The future Bee, a dumpy Oreo-eating sixtysomething year-old (played with determined brio by Anita Gillette) arrives with a remote control device that allows her to rewind and revise actual life events. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the question the present-day Bee asks her boyfriend Jay about what someone might do if she could go back into the past and prevent bad things from happening.

This is the kind of existential query (punctuated with pointedly allegorical character names) that's supposed to appeal to those of us who fancy ourselves to be serious theatergoers. But it's hard to take it seriously when Bee is so solipsistic that she hardly stirs from her bed when her future self tells her that a coming plague is going to wipe out most of the earth's population.

Still, Norris, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Clybourne Park, is a master of the snappy line and the largely silver-haired audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended ate up his wry observations about growing older.

Director Michael Greif is a master stager of all kinds of material, from the original production of Rent to the acclaimed 2010 revival of Angels in America, and he's adept here as well, working hard to delineate the time shifts as Bee bounces back and forth between moments in her life. Hats off, too, to scenic designer Rachel Hauck and the stage crew for the fast set changes.

The show also has a top-notch cast, with a doughty Celia Keenan-Bolger as Bee, Stephen Kunken as Jay, an older guy who's left his wife and kids to be with Bee; Gillette as the mysterious older Bee (click here to read an interview with the actresses) and Juan Castano as JJ, a hunky younger Mexican-American man who befriends Bee while cutting her lawn.

But neither the good acting nor the jocular dialogue made me care about either of the Bees or the men in their life. In the end, the only takeaway the play could offer up is that life is better when people are nice to one another. Which, and forgive me if I'm being too pragmatic here, I knew going in.