Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wit @The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Twenty-one years ago, Margret Edson wrote a play drawing on her few years of work in a cancer and AIDS research hospital.  Four years later, the piece was placed on stage and has gone on to touch the souls and hearts of millions around the world.  Exploring the themes of life, death, and a laugh, Wit finally gets the star treatment that it deserves - a Broadway theatre and a mega star actress.  Cynthia Nixon pulls out all of the stops (returning to the Manhattan Theatre Club after winning a Tony Award for Rabbit Hole) to deliver a truly beautiful performance full of heart, soul, and, of course, wit.
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a strong, educated woman, has just been given only two hours to give one last lecture before her stage four ovarian cancer takes over.  Taking the audience on a journey of her life, her childhood, college life, and career all come into focus in order to better understand how life ultimately leads to death.  From a young age, Vivian is fascinated by words - each word has a meaning and is very clear.  This love carries her forward to study the works of poet John Donne and eventually teach his Holy Sonnets as a poetry professor.  It is soon discovered that all of her knowledge on Donne and words will not help as much as she may have wanted when the studier becomes the studied.  It is now up to Vivian to piece together the meaning of life before her time runs out.
This deeply moving piece is fully realized by Cynthia Nixon (of television’s Sex in the City fame) as Vivian.  As a cancer survivor, Nixon has a special connection to this role that shines through each and every scene.  Her transformation throughout the course of the piece is a master lesson in acting - turning Vivian into a master professor in all forms of art.  Clearly defining each moment in Vivian’s life from five years old to world class professor to cancer patient, Nixon takes a challenging piece and turns it into one grand poem.  Nixon delivers the performance of a life time (not to mention how stunning she looks even in a hospital gown and baseball cap)!  Around Nixon is a wonderful ensemble helping tell the tale of Vivian to all who enter the theatre.  The hospital staff trio is made up of Michael Countryman (Mary Stuart), Greg Keller (Manhattan Theatre Club’s Cradle and All), and Carra Patterson (Shakespeare in the Park’s Measure for Measure).  All three work well together to show the different dynamics between doctors, interns, nurses, and patients.  Patterson stands out as Vivian’s main nurse, Susie Monahan.  With a warm gentle smile and a huge heart, Susie is able to see past Vivian’s rough exterior and allow her to open up.  These two actresses left not a dry eye in the theatre, when the time comes for Vivian to explore the themes of death over an ice pop.  Also delivering a lovely performance is Suzanne Bertish (The Moliére Comedies) as Vivian’s college professor, E. M. Ashford.  While this role can be played very cold, Bertish transformed the character into an extremely demanding professor whose main lesson is to not let work control your life.  While Vivian should have paid closer attention, Ashford is there as her support system till the very end.  This small ensemble works really closely to create a story that is timeless, powerful, and unforgettable.
Relying on highly talented actors, this production of Wit took a simplistic approach to the design that paid off big time.  Featuring four posts and a wall, the scenic design by Santo Loquasto (Relatively Speaking) truly allowed for the text of the piece to shine.  Not allowing for the audience to get distracted by flashy sets, Loquasto paints the perfect backdrop for the piece’s many different locations.  Lighting this set with clever, yet simple lighting is designer Peter Kaczorowski (The Road to Mecca).  With nice lighting that always appeared to have Vivian as the brightest spot on stage, Kaczorowski created the concept of a lecture within a play wonderfully.  The whole package was topped with a bow that has Lynne Meadow’s (Collected Stories) name on it.  Directing a piece like Wit can be quite a bit of a challenge; however, Meadow’s fine direction gave the piece the right tempo and grace that it needed.  All of these elements brought justice to the words of playwright Margret Edson who crafted the script in a moving and profoundly funny way.
While it may have been many years in the works, Wit finally leaps onto the Broadway stage with top notch acting and beautiful design and direction.  In a time when cancer research is at an all time high around the world, Wit proves to touch the lives of all who come in contact with this piece.  Cancer has touched the life of almost everyone nationwide - whether you know someone who has the disease or if you yourself have had/have the disease - and therefore, Wit has the power to touch the heart and soul of all who step foot into the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

Review By: Courtney Labossiere

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess @ The Richard Rogars Theatre

The opera Porgy & Bess is an African American classic love story that has been performed on stages all over the world for nearly a century. Now it’s back on Broadway, reworked and ready to go.  Porgy and Bess follows a group of poor African-American folk who live on Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy is a local cripple and Bess is the unwed lover of the dangerous Crown. After tragedy strikes the community and Crown flees from the law, Porgy invites the abandoned and homeless Bess to stay with him. She accepts the offer and the two unlikely partners quickly fall in love with each other. However, the threat of Crown remains and eventually he returns for “his” Bess.  She feels hopeless and feels like she has to return to him, but when she returns to Porgy, he convinces her to stay with him. She eventually feels like she has no other choice but to run away to New York with Sporting Life, who convinces her things will never change.
When bringing a show like this back to Broadway, there has to be a power house cast to help support such a intense show. Audra McDonald (Carousel, Ragtime) led the cast as the lost drug addict Bess. There is no fighting the fact that this woman has an amazing, beautiful soprano voice but it was a little difficult to understand her when singing. This isn’t her fault, that’s just the nature of opera. Norm Lewis (The Little Mermaid, Les Miserables) portrayed the lonely cripple Porgy. His singing, acting, and frighteningly accurate limp stole the show. David Allen Grier (The First, Dreamgirls) played the New York bound player Sporting Life. Grier gave a wonderful comedic performance but, again not his fault, his part just felt unnecessary. He spent the entire musical larking in the background and having no real significance in the show until the very end when he convinces Bess to leave. It felt like Grier’s talent was wasted on this chopped up part. Philip Boykin makes his Broadway debut as the evil Crown. Even though it was his debut, he out shined most of the experienced Broadway actors and his little curtsey at curtain call was the cherry on top of an amazing performance.  Nikki Renee Daniels (Les Miserables, Nine) and Joshua Henry (Scottsboro Boy, American Idiot) played the loving couple, Clara and Jake. The connection that these two had onstage was unbelievable. It was probably one of the best on-stage couples of the season. The absolute standout performance of the show was NaTasha Yvette Williams (The Color Purple). She played Mariah, the sassy mother figure of Catfish Row. This woman’s voice was like nothing one has ever heard before, and her acting talent was indescribable. Her protective nature and wonderful stage presence drew the audience’s attention as soon as she walked on stage.
One the other hand, the technical aspect of the show may have been the death of this show. Ronald K. Brown did the choreography and even though there was not much of it, it wasn’t very impressive. It looked sloppy, and there were too many people doing too many different things - it was hard to know where to look at times. Riccardo Hernandez (The People in the Picture, Topdog/Underdog) did the lack-luster Set Design. First of all, he shrunk the stage down so much that a lot of the ensemble scenes seemed overcrowded.  The wall surrounding the playing area looked unfinished and you could see through it to the backstage area.  During act 2, everyone goes on a picnic and all he did to change the scenery was to bring in a cyc and light it with blue. Lastly, if the director wishes to have Porgy walk into the distance at the end of the show, and wished to raise the set, at least dress the back wall. A black brick wall of the theatre does nothing but bring us out of the world and puts the audience right back into the theatre.  Thank God for Christopher Akerlind’s (Superior Donuts, 110 in the Shade) Light Design. In light design, lighting African American actors is a hard thing to do, and Akerlind did a brilliant job, he knew just what colors and lights to use to make everyone on stage pop. Over-all tech was alright.
              Porgy and Bess was a descent production where the cast really helped the sell the show.  The actors brought the show to life and the kept the audience in the world, while the set threatened to take everyone out.  The singing was gorgeous, albeit sometimes a little unintelligible.  Overall, if you like a good story, with great actors, and can ignore some of the technical issues, Porgy and Bess is a good show to go watch!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Road to Mecca @ The American Airlines Theatre

What is art? Everyone has their own definition, view, or idea of art. But who decides what kind of art is okay: the public or the artist? Does weird artwork make people weird or crazy? This is one of the main issues in The Road to Mecca on Broadway, now at the American Airlines Theatre.
             The Road to Mecca is set in Karoo, South Africa, and it tells the story of an elderly woman who has spent the years since her husband’s death transforming her home into an intricate and dazzling work of art. The reclusive Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris) has become depressed and appears increasingly unable to care for herself. Pastor Marius Byleveld, who embodies the village’s conservative values, is determined to get Miss Helen into an old-age home. Her friend Elsa (Carla Gugino), a young teacher from Cape Town who is deeply suspicious of the patriarchal traditions Byleveld represents, is just as determined that Miss Helen remain free.

             The Road to Mecca is brought to life by a truly stunning cast all around. Rosemary Harris (The Royal Family, Lost in Yonkers) portrays Miss Helen, an old lady who has lost everything but her house and her artwork. Broadway is happy to see Harris back on Broadway, and she did not disappoint. She glowed as bright as all of the candles on stage even through all of her characters depression. Carla Gugino (Desire Under the Elms, After the Fall) is Elsa Barlow, an old friend of Miss Helen’s who just wants to see her happy and left alone. Gugino may have been the youngest and least experienced in this cast but that did not stop her from rising to the level of Dale and Harris. Gugino commanded the stage and kept the audience’s attention, even through those long growling monologues. Jim Dale (Threepenny Opera, Candide) plays Marius Byleveld, the town minister who is trying to get Miss Helen to move out of her house and move to an elderly home. Dale brings a comedic element to his character which helps speed up the dialogue and moves the plot along. This cast is the must see this season; but it’s up to public whether they want to endure the dragging script.

The Road to Mecca was off- Broadway about 24 years ago and maybe it ended its run because the script was just as bad then as it was today. If it weren’t for this incredible cast, Athol Fugard’s (Blood Knot, The Island) play would have fell flat on its face. The plot wasn’t revealed until forty five minutes into the first act, so the audience was left to endure set up and filler, which had most of them falling asleep in their seats. The set design was done by Michael H. Yeargan (That Championship Season, South Pacific). Yeargan truly made this set the work of art of Miss Helen’s dreams; it truly delivered the biggest wow factor of the season. Peter Kaczorowski (Venus in Fur, Anything Goes) designed the lights. He was left with a difficult challenge because Miss Helen’s house has no practical lights, only natural light and candle light. Kaczorowski took this bull by the horns and created a beautiful atmosphere. But do to the interesting writing; Kaczorowski was forced to keep the stage somewhat dark, which help the audience slip into a deep sleep.
             Although the cast is magnificent and the tech is spectacular, this is not the show to see this season. If you want to spend your money to sit through two and half hours of dragging dialogue, then The Road to Mecca is now playing at The American Airlines Theatre through March 4, 2012.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

INTERVIEW: Patti Murin from Lysistrata Jones

1.      Before moving to Lysistrata Jones, let us take a look back at some of your past projects.  High School Musical, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid - you have such a connection with Disney! Was it always a dream to play a Disney princess?

*I have definitely always loved the Disney princesses! Snow White was my favorite when I was really young, but as soon as The Little Mermaid came out, I was obsessed. But THEN, when “Beauty and the Beast” came out, she was my girl. I had darker hair then, and I absolutely loved to read and study and learn things (still do!), so I immediately connected with her. People keep mentioning “Tangled” to me, and if they ever do a stage production of that, I would give anything to play Rapunzel! I love that the Disney girls are not typical boring ingénues. They are love adventure and want to go places and see things and have so much passion inside of them. They are all such excellent role models for girls and women of all ages, so it is always an honor to play one onstage.
2.      You spent some time in Xanadu on Broadway. Do you enjoy “Greek” musical comedies?

*I guess I do! More likely that I love working with Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the book for both “Xanadu” and “Lysistrata Jones”. He has a special knack for remastered Greek stories!
3.      Your journey with the character of Lysistrata Jones began a few years back when the show played at the Dallas Theatre Center under the title Give It Up!  How did you become involved in the project?  What drew your interest to this original piece?

*I became involved because I knew Douglas and Dan Knechtges (the director/choreographer) from “Xanadu”, and they always had me come in to participate in their table reads and choreography workshops. Then when it came time to actually do a production of it, they had me read for Lysistrata for the first time, and I ended up with the role. Like I said, I just adore working with both of them, plus Lewis Flinn, who wrote the music, so it was an easy decision. I loved the idea of a modern take on “Lysistrata”, and I also loved the idea that I could play a cheerleader on stage J I have basically been a cheerleader my whole life, so it was a natural fit for a lot of reasons.
4.      From Dallas to Off-Broadway to Broadway, this show has seen many different lives.  What are some of the changes that have happened to the show along the way?

*The ending has changed completely! It used to be that the character of Xander, my boyfriend, would play in the final basketball game to help the team win, but downtown at the very last minute they changed it to Lysistrata playing in the final game. It made so much more sense and brought her story full circle, so that was exciting. Plus then I had to learn how to play basketball! There are also some songs that were reworked, including my Act One Finale song, “Where Am I Now”, to make it a bit deeper. Some of the scenes went through tonal shifts, and of course, tons of new jokes were tried out along the way! I think what we ended up with is pretty fantastic.
5.      How has Lysistrata Jones, herself, changed along the way?

*She used to start out as a little more of typical airhead cheerleader, sort of following the crowd until she had an epiphany that she needed to force some change upon her friends. Now she starts as the new, different girl in school, who is motivated from the very beginning to make change happen. And as I have gotten to work on her over the past 2 years, she has become a lot more specific and fully developed.
6.      You are being called the next Elle Woods (from Legally Blonde).  Did you base your character of her or any other personality?

*I really honestly didn’t base her on anyone except myself, and whatever she morphed into along the way. I started in Dallas with a very unclear picture of her, and within the first week of rehearsals, I knew exactly where she was going. And then when I got to bring her back downtown at the Gym at Judson for our Off-Broadway run, she was a little different because of the changes in the show. And this time around, I could really relax into it and really just see where she was going to go. The amazing thing about playing a character and creating a character is that you are absolutely never done working. There are things I have discovered this week, with only 5 shows remaining, that I am so excited about, yet sad that I only get to live with them for a few more days.
7.      You have a cheerleading past.  Was it exciting to put on a cheerleading uniform again?  Did your background help you prepare for this role?

*I just love that cheerleading uniform. Really. I consider myself a very strong, independent woman, but there is something about a cheerleading uniform that I love! I am also quite a bit of a cheerleader in my real life. I am usually very positive and energetic and always finding silver linings in other people’s clouds, so that helped my characater development as well as actually being a cheerleader in high school and college.
8.      The choreography in Lysistrata Jones, done by Dan Knechtges, is intricate, complex, and crazy good!  How many hours went into nailing each and every dance?

*A ton! Some of the dances are essentially the same from Dallas, and some have gone through major overhauls. We definitely worked our butts off during this rehearsal process, and continue to every night onstage. On two show days, I pretty much feel like I have been hit by a truck.
9.      Your success in Lysistrata Jones is incredible! Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

*I have a few things I have been working on! One is a musical version of Jane Austen’s “Emma”, which I did out at the Old Globe Playhouse in San Diego last winter, written by the incredible Paul Gordon and directed by one of my favorites, Jeff Calhoun. I know they are really hoping to bring it to New York someday soon, which would be incredible because I just loved playing Emma Woodhouse and singing that gorgeous, gorgeous music. And another thing I am working on is a musical version of the movie “Citizen Ruth”, in which I play Ruth. For those who know that movie, they are most likely scratching their heads right now, because it is a black comedy that centers on abortion rights and comments on the extreme left and right sides of politics. The character is essentially a homeless drug addict, and the exact opposite of Lysistrata Jones! But the writers, Mark Leydorf and Michael Brennan, have made this into a BRILLIANT musical, with incredible music and a hysterical book. I know they have some future plans for it, so hopefully that will happen soon!