Friday, April 27, 2012

Leap of Faith @ St. James Theatre

Andrew Lloyd Webber is not the only one tearing up Broadway these days; Leap of Faith marks the third show (and second to open this season) currently running with a beat provided by Alan Menken.  This new musical puts a twist on how musicals are structured by putting the audience right in the center of all of the action - for the St. James Theatre is turned into the latest stop on Pastor Jonas Nightingale’s evangelical tour.  Filled with gospel and R&B tracks, soulful performances from the likes of Raúl Esparza and Krystal Joy Brown, simple yet elegant designs, and stand-up-and-clap chorography, Leap of Faith is a surprisingly enjoyable new musical; however, strong vocals does not equal strong acting, as this aspect leaves the audience begging for a miracle all their own.
Based off of the 1992, Steve Martin film of the same name, this original musical looks into the life of a true American con artist, Pastor Jonas Nightingale.  Along with a bus full of “believers,” Jonas is forced to set up camp in Sweetwater, Kansas - a town under the watchful eye of Sheriff Marla McGowan.  Seeing right through his lies, Marla begs Jonas to pack up his church in a tent and head out on his way; however, her son Jake sees things a bit differently.  Jake, while forced to spend his life in a wheelchair, believes in magic … believes in miracles - like being able to walk again or rain to end the drought.  Of course, Jonas falls for Marla and Jake and is forced to make some miracles happen … the only trouble is, not even Jonas believes in a miracle.  With time pressing down on him, it is u to Jonas to not only find his faith, but the faith of an entire town.
Leading this cast is the multi-talented Raúl Esparza (Arcadia) as Jonas Nightingale.  Jonas is an over the top performer with an infectious personality - the crowd cannot help but fall in love with him and his “miracles.”  Esparza makes a nice fit into this high energy role; his distinct sound and acting style brings a refreshing twist on the stereotypical evangelist look.  Many of Esparza’s faults throughout the piece lie in the romantic chemistry between Jessica Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and himself.  Phillips plays headstrong Marla McGowan - the sheriff of Sweetwater who has no time for fun and games, especially with a town drought and a son in a wheelchair.  While her powerful voice helps several slow moving ballets along, the relationships between her and the rest of the ensemble were never really formed - not all blame can be placed on her, however, as many of this show’s problems lie within the script itself.  Together with original screen writer Janus Cercone, Warren Leight (Side Man) tries to take a simple story and stretch it out into a full hit musical.  The result leaves for an uneventful Act I, several drawn out scenes, awkward transitions, and too many never-ending songs.  While Cercone and Leight are on the right track, the book is still in need of much improvement - for the story never really hits a stride until the final ten minutes, even with the songs from Alan Menken (the current Newsies and Sister Act) and Glenn Slater (the current Sister Act).  Menken and Slater have several hits to their name - all known for their rememberable and touching songs; however, these new gospel and R&B tunes are far from that.  Most songs similar to one another - either flashy or slow - and never really advance the plot.  The book and songs hinder the great big hit that this group of producers was hoping for.
Fighting against the weakness, is an incredibly talented ensemble, clapping their way through Sergio Trujillo’s (Jersey Boys) quick paced choreography that appeared to be ripped right out of a “How to Dance Like a Gospel Choir” handbook.  Taking family talent to a whole new level is the trio of performers playing the Sturdevant family.  Playing mamma and daughter are Kecia Lewis-Evans (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Krystal Joy Brown (Hair), respectively.  Both women are given the chance to belt their pain away, delivering soulful performances that bring down the house.  Mark these following words: “Krystal Joy Brown is going to get her name above the marquee one day!”  Adding some brotherly love to the mix is Smash star, Leslie Odom, Jr., who tares up the dance floor with the song “Dancin’ in the Devil’s Shoes.”  Also taking some time in the spotlight is Kendra Kassebaum (Wicked) as Jonas’ little sister, Sam.  Sam is smart, funny, and charming - all qualities that Kassebaum has no trouble pulling off.  Rounding out the featured ensemble is Talon Ackerman (Bonnie & Clyde) as Marla’s little son Jake.  Ackerman gives a moving performance as the boy who believes.  The whole ensemble works hard to make the audience feel like they are a part of the action … now if only the creative team was on their side.
Under the direction of Christopher Ashley (Memphis), this God-bearing musical took too many hits.  While the book was choppy and the songs too long, Ashley did the play a huge disservice by trying to force awkward transitions that never really gave the piece a steady flow.  Also, Ashley ignored some of the acting problems in hopes that the star name and flashy songs would cover them up; however, it is hard to ignore two trained actors not knowing how to drink alcohol through the entirety of a song.  The one thing Ashley did correctly was enlist the help of designers Robin Wagner (Young Frankenstein) for the set, Donald Holder (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) for the lights, and William Ivey Long (Catch Me If You Can) for the costumes.  The set was simple, yet transformed the entire space into an evangelist tent within seconds.  The bright, bold colors of the set were illuminated by the stunning mix of concert and theatrical lighting used to separate the world of the miracles from real life.  And, all was brought together with stunning costume design that transformed the bus full of tired believers into a gospel choir for each evangelical performance.
In the end, this production tells a really simple story with some nice new songs, but overall, much like the town itself, is in need of some water to bring it back to life.  Leap of Faith is sure to see every church group in the tri-state area there to worship; however, for the everyday theatre go-er, this new musical will not make you jump out of your seat to yell, “AMEN!”

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Clybourne Park @ The Walter Kerr Theatre

American culture today can be considered a giant mixing pot. People of different religions, genders and races make up one of the most diverse populations on the planet, but this was not always the case. There used to be a time when the world was separated by sex, belief, and, most prominently, color. The transition from this separated world into the one we live in today can be considered one of the most difficult struggles man has ever faced and is one that many are still fighting today. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, with the help of a phenomenal cast and gorgeously detailed set, puts into perspective some of the most basic obstacles people faced when dealing with the goals of racial equality. It shows how even the smallest of events can change the world, forcing audience members to reevaluate how they look at others and to see their own views in a whole new color.

            In 1959, Clybourne Park was a prestigious middle-class white neighborhood - one of respectable society, but one household is plagued by a heinous tragedy that had occurred only a few years earlier. The owners of this house, Bev and Russ, have just closed the real-estate deal when the neighbors pop in to say goodbye; however, upon finding out that the family moving into the house is African-American, there is an uproar. Now along with trying to cope with their own tragedy, and already under the ever scrutinizing eyes of the neighbors, the family has to deal with the societal affects their sale is likely to have on the entire neighborhood. In Act II, it can be seen exactly what the first domino piece resulted in, not only for the house but for the entire community. It’s 2009 and now a white couple, Karl and Lindsey, want to remodel the home for their future family. The only problem is that the now African-American community that dominates Clybourne Park claims that the house cannot be changed because of its history. But, are the issues really about a historical building or are they about the underlying affects, as seen in 1959, which will occur in the neighborhood if a house is sold to the white family? Clybourne Park explores all of the possibilities and consequences the actions of these people can have on the community as a whole in this historical and beautifully written piece of literature.

            The success of Clybourne Park depends almost entirely on each actor’s ability to create multiple, but completely distinct, and in many ways opposite characters. For the most part, the ensemble of seven pulled this off beautifully. The piece opens on a very aged and distressed father named Russ, played by Frank Wood (Side Man).Wood’s obvious distress over the tragedy that occurred and his inability to continue to live his life the way he has been makes the audience fall in love with this grandfather-like figure. His next character is so opposite to Russ that it is remarkable to think he is played by the same actor. Dan is a middle-aged construction worker with the uncanny ability to jump into the most intense moments at exactly the wrong time. His appearance always leaves the audience clutching their sides at his distracted banter and genuine cluelessness. Alongside Russ is his loving but somewhat ignorant wife, Bev. Played by Christina Kirk (Well), Bev is meant to be a tragic character that chooses to ignore the fact that her world has crumbled around her and that her husband is a senile old miserable man. Sadly the only tragedy was the lack of believability in Kirk’s character. From her wildly waving arms to her over exaggerated realizations, Kirk caused Bev to be completely un-relatable to the audience. Kirk had similar problems with her other character Kathy. Kathy’s role was the overly obnoxious and sarcastic L.A. style real-estate agent. Obnoxious was a good word for Kirk’s acting choices; every time she opened her mouth there would be an internal groan from the audience, begging for her silence. The white couple’s counterparts were Francine and Albert, played by Crystal A. Dickinson (Off-Broadway’s Ruined) and Damon Gupton (television’s Prime Suspect) respectively. They also played the roles of Lena and Kevin, a married couple trying to save a historical landmark in 2009. The dynamic between the two on stage was just plain amazing. They were by far the audience’s favorite couple in both acts. Between her bitter sarcastic comments and his charm, the audience was completely engrossed in their performances. They stood by each other in moments of need and in moments where they disagreed - the audience could almost feel the patronizing that can only come from a loved one. The bicker is actually what brought the entire couple act together. Helping to increase the drama going on in Clybourne Park is Brendan Griffin (Off-Broadway’s Bottom of the World). Griffin’s character, Jim, always acted like the peace-maker and always managed to gain the audience’s admiration. His other character, Tom, as usual, was the complete opposite; he was a cocky real-estate agent who couldn’t care less about what happened to his rental agreement.  He also is the only cast member to play three people instead of two, and his last character is the most important. He plays the mysterious Kenneth that the household tragedy surrounds. All three are distinctly different in mannerisms and vocal tendencies. Griffin did a stupendous job in creating three opposite characters. The last couples to claim the stage are Betsy and Karl, Annie Parisse (Prelude to a Kiss) and Jeremy Shamos (Elling) respectively. Parisse’s performance as Betsy was approached with so much integrity and grace. It is very difficult to successfully convince audience members that a character has some sort of impediment, especially when the impediment involves losing one of the core senses humans rely on. Though mostly deaf, Betsy was still just aware enough of people’s body stances and the atmosphere of the room to know that something horrible was happening. Parisse made Betsy so believable and the relationship between Kirk and her was hysterical to watch. As Lindsey, the pregnant newly-wed, Parisse was an elegant young woman whose concerns about how other people view her and her family were very relatable to the audience. Concluding this astounding cast is Jeremy Shamos. First as the bigot, Karl, married to Parisse and neighbor to Kirk and Wood. The audience can’t help but hate his arrogant and degrading ways. Then as Steve, the passionate young man who sees the truth underlying Dickinson’s intentions. Shamos then manages to completely flip Steve’s actions and turn him inside out so that the audience can see that he is no better than Dickinson’s character. The cast does a wonderful job at creating believable, lovable and sometimes the necessarily dislikeable characters that are needed to make Clybourne Park such an astounding piece of theatre.  

            If the beauty of the sheer history isn’t what holds the audience’s interest, another reason to see Clybourne Park is the Scenic Designer’s, Daniel Ostling (Metamorphoses), amazing attention to detail. The world inside of and surrounding the house in 1959 is already so beautifully created that when the transformation into 2009 happens, the audience can hardly believe that it is the same place! But the attention given to the small details such as the placement of light switches and the wall paper and fireplace are so great that it really does look as if the house has aged fifty years. Helping to create the two very different worlds are costume designer Ilona Somogyi (Off-Broadway’s Regrets), lighting designer, Allen Lee Hughes (Having Our Say) and sound designer, John Gromada (the current Seminar). All can take claim to success with Clybourne Park because the believability of the actors was greatly helped along by the fact that their worlds were so distinctly defined and beautifully detailed.
Under the direction of Pam Mackinnon (Off-Broadway’s Completeness), the cast and crew really have an amazing piece on their hands. Theatre should force the audience to question themselves and the world surrounding them - to see the bigger picture. Clybourne Park is a fantastic reflection of society and the changes that have occurred in the last sixty years alone! It’s a wonderful addition to theatre and definitely worth every second of the audience’s time.
Review By: Tom Garvin

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It @ Imperial Theatre

Musicals today often come to Broadway based on movies featuring large flash sets, millions of projections, and lighting that could light the whole state - they are simply there to dazzle you for two and a half hours, and that is all well and good; however, Broadway has needed a reminder of the golden years!  The days when music, dance, love, and laughs filled the stage to not only entertain, but tell a story of love!  Nice Work If You Can Get It is just that musical.  Using the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, a book written by Joe DiPietro, the direction of Kathleen Marshall, and two of Broadway’s biggest names, this new musical comedy is light, sweet, and entertaining.  It does, however, fall a bit short of perfect - a lagging plot, drawn out songs, and some lapse in comedy, make this piece fall short of the perfect old fashioned musical it is trying to become.  Nice Work If You Can Get It is lovely fun, but fails to shine the way one might hope when seeing all of the grade A+ professions listed in the Playbill.
Meet Jimmy Winter, a drunken playboy who is about to marry wife number four.  Enter stage left, Billie Bendix, an alcohol smuggler during the prohibition.  Two different worlds, but one heart.  The classic boy-meets-girl comedy is resurrected as Jimmy and Billie desperately try to find love in New York in the year 1927.  As the prohibition rages on, Duchess Estonia Dulworth and her brother Senator Max Evergreen, fight the war on alcohol all while trying to plan the wedding of Eileen Evergreen and Jimmy.  To add to the mix up, Billie’s partners in crime, Cookie McGee and Duke Mahoney, wind up posing as a butler and chef in order to hide the fact that their stash of alcohol in hidden in the mansion where the action of the play is taking place.  Door slamming, wise cracks, and sex farce run high as everyone tries to weave their own way out of trouble; the only problem is that every could really use a strong drink to help them figure it all out!
Broadway icons sing and dance their way through the Gershwin’s classic hits, such as “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” and “But Not for Me.”  Led by the triple threat duo of Matthew Broderick (The Producers) and Kelli O’Hara (South Pacific), this new musical is given the star power to shine.  Broderick does a nice job playing the drunken playboy; while at times his performances feels a bit tired and worn, he still has the vocal and dance chops to help him along.  Broderick still delivers with his charm and wit in order to be the perfect companion for O’Hara, who shines as always with her stunning voice, high energy, and awesome dance work.  She lights up the stage with each song and dance number, and leaves the audience begging for more at the end of each ballet.  This dream team unites and does a lovely job falling through all of the ups and downs of a love-at-first-sight relationship.  Surrounding Broderick and O’Hara is an ensemble of extremely talented performers.  Michael McGrath (Memphis) and Chris Sullivan (Lombardi) shine as the “alcohol gangsters” forced to go undercover.  Both are terrific charter actors that promise a laugh with each scene that they are in!  Jennifer Laura Thompson (Lend Me A Tenor) uses her wonderful vocal chops to belt out the classic “Delishious” while immersed in a giant tub filled with floating bubbles and endless chorus girls.  Also taking a turn in the spotlight is Judy Kaye (Mamma Mia!) as Duchess Estonia Dulworth.  Kaye takes the comedy level up a notch as the tightly wound Duchess slowly loses her uptight ways.  The rest of the ensemble does a fine job of moving to the stunning and non-stop choreography of Kathleen Marshall.  The entire ensemble gels together to deliver a fine performance in dance, voice, and comedy.
Master mind Kathleen Marshall (the current revival of Anything Goes) takes the music of the Gershwin’s and the words of Joe DiPietro (Memphis) in order to recreate the feel of the original musical comedies.  DiPietro does a nice job with the book, creating a world the in light and fun, but hounded with long songs that ultimately make the piece feel dragged out and a little too long.  The phrase ‘too much of a good thing’ can easily be applied to this new Broadway musical.  Too many song and dance numbers, while arranged well, drag out a story that is really simple and has no need to be dragged on through almost three hours.  Even the designs felt to me a bit too much.  While the scenic design from Derek McLane (the current revival of The Best Man) is lush and gorgeous, it is extremely over powering making the performers feel claustrophobic in what is supposed to be a huge mansion.  Lighting design from Peter Kaczorowski (Venus in Fur) was beautiful, but was forced to change colors at the start of each new song after only a few lines a dialogue.  Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz (The Normal Heart) is the shining star of the production team creating period pieces that are stunningly crafted and just marvelous to look at.  Over all, director Kathleen Marshall does a nice job with this piece, but did not take it the extra notch needed to make this new romp stand out as the next best original musical.
Nice Work If You Can Get It offers an enjoyable night at the theatre, full of crazy good dancing, great vocals, and light chuckles.  Broderick and O’Hara do their job to make the audience escape into the world of the prohibition through song and dance.  In the end, however, the audience walks out singing something like, “It’s a nice comedy if you can get it, and get it well … they tried.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ghost the Musical @ Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

In 1990, a new kind of romance captivated movie audiences around the world as the supernatural took over.  Ghost became an instant romance classic with heart throbs Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore and soon to be Academy Award winner Whoopi Goldberg.  Years later the romance lives on live on stage; following a successful run in London, Ghost the Musical has now hit the Great White Way.  Staying true to the movie, this new musical still has the same story full of passion and heart; however, something has been lost in translation.  Giving itself over completely to state-of-the-art technology, this production lets the story fall to the sidelines in order to showcase stunning lights, projections, and illusions.  And, most important of all in a musical, the songs lack the melodies and beats that all brilliant musicals have.  Ghost the Musical is full of flash and glamour, but lacks the niceties of a great new Broadway musical.
Sam Wheat and Molly Jensen are in love, even if Sam has trouble saying those three little words.  Life is good for this couple - Sam is a high end banker in the city, Molly is an artist whose working is getting recognition, and together they just purchased a New York flat.  Soon, however, Sam notices some assets in the company are out of place, and his right-hand-man Carl Bruner knows why and has to put an end to the investigation.  While walking the streets of NYC one night, Sam and Molly are robbed at gun point and Sam is shot; however, his soul remains trapped on Earth where one person and one person only can hear him, the fake psychic Oda Mae Brown.  Together, Sam and Ode Mae must put an end to Carl in order to save the one person that means everything to him, Molly.  All three learn that love never dies.
As a whole, the ensemble worked nicely with one another to create the hustle and bustle of the New York streets - everyday workers and spirits coming together as one.  Taking on the iconic roles of Sam and Molly are Richard Fleeshman (West End’s Legally Blonde) and Caissie Levy (Hair).  Together this pair was spot on; however, when apart the different levels of talent came out.  Levy has a wonderful voice and delivers a performance that is truthful and full of life; taking command of several ballets and plenty of alone time on stage is no easy feat, but she handles it with lots of energy and passion.  Fleeshman has a nice voice, a great six-pack, but lacked some of the needed chemistry.  While it is not easy to constantly be in every scene as an outside observer, Fleeshman felt very distant from the rest of the real world; the connections felt very distant and cold … not the qualities that make for a great romance.  Playing the not so nice third wheel is Bryce Pinkham (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) as Carl.  Pinkham finds that medium between ‘straight up jerk’ and ‘best friend’ - a device that can often be hard to obtain.  The true star of Ghost the Musical, however, is new comer Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the one and only Oda Mae Brown.  Stealing all of the jokes, well written songs, flashy costumes, and big dance number, some may think that Randolph has it made; however, stepping into a role loved by millions is far from easy to pull off.  With a role that could easily be over the top, she finds the truth in this woman making her a down to earth person … who can hear dead people, of course.  This will only be the start of this highly gifted woman’s career!
From start to finish, the musical set out to be a technical mastermind, and in this regard, it succeeds.  Director Matthew Warchus (La Bête) assembled some of the best technical staff one could find - from high end projections to stunning lighting, Ghost the Musical is a design triumph.  Rob Howell (Private Lives) and Jon Driscoll (Brief Encounter) work beautifully together as the scenic designer and projection designer respectively.  Made up of tons of moving LED screens that transform into a New York flat, high end office buildings, and a subway station, these visual elements were taken to the next level.  The work from these two designers was nothing short of brilliant; even Hugh Vanstone’s (God of Carnage) lighting design was breathtaking.  Lighting the space in an ominous way really brought the atmosphere of the piece into the whole theatre allowing the audience to get lost in the world of the supernatural.  The only problem, which was a big one, is the fact that all of these design elements were a pleasant distraction from the weak book by Bruce Joel Rubin (screenwriter of the original 1990 film) and awkward songs from music icons Glen Ballard and Dave Steward.  While the book does not altar much from the original concept, long ranting songs with not clear melody constantly interrupt the flow of the scenes needed to make the audience connect to the characters the way everyone did twenty-one years ago.  Overall, the weak book and songs are overshadowed by the high end technical elements that are truly beautifully done.
Rumors are going around that this latest movie-turned-musical is a sure fired flop; however, this is not all true.  There are several lovely performances from the likes of Caissie Levy and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, wonderful lighting and projections, and a reminder of the truly moving story line that captivated audience’s years earlier on screen.  Ghost the Musical is a plesent new musical with kick ass designs … just know that one’s love of the songs will die very quickly … that is if they will be able to remember any of them the next day.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher @ Brooks Atkinson Theatre

We all know the story of Peter Pan.  Maybe you know the novel, the Disney cartoon, the dozen real life versions, the Broadway musical, Hook, or even Finding Neverland, but one thing that all these stories miss is the beginning.  How did Peter Pan become the boy that never grew up?  Well, now that the bestselling novel from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson as become a stage production even more people can learn the answer.  Peter and the Starcatcher hits the Broadway stage, direct from a sold out run off-Broadway, with imagination, creativity, and plenty of starstuff.  With a crazy talented ensemble, stunning direction, and beyond gorgeous technical elements, Peter and the Starcatcher is the must see show for children and adults alike.  As a matter of fact, you will probably want to see it again, and again, and again … it is truly that perfect!
Three orphans sold into slavery.  A father and daughter on a secret mission for the Queen (God save her).  A pirate with a stache and a right hand man.  A tribal leader with a hungry crocodile.  This cast of characters intertwines in a whimsical story that shows us all the power of family, friendship, and love.  Playwright Rick Elice has created the next great American play centered around orphan with no name and his encounter with a smart girl named Molly.  Together these two take on pirates, tribal leaders, mermaids, and crocodiles all in order to protect the magical starstuff, bits of fallen star with special powers.  In the middle of all this adventure, the brave orphan boy transforms into the Peter Pan that the world knows and loves.  This journey is fun, exciting, touching, funny, and downright entertaining.
Imagination is the key tool behind Peter and the Starcatcher as a cast of twelve performers transform into hundreds of different characters right before the audiences eyes.  This ensemble is works in perfect unison to deliver a high energy performance that is just a wonder to watch.  The boy that becomes Peter Pan is brought to the surface by Adam Chanler-Berat (off-Broadway’s latest revival of RENT).  Chanler-Berat does a remarkable job of transforming from shy, put down orphan to brave, hopeful Peter.  His boyish charm shined trough allowing the entire audience to fall madly in love with him and his quest for self discovery.  Helping him on this mission was the fearless Molly, portrayed by Celia Keenan-Bolger (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee).  Keenan-Bolger took on this role and gave it all of the guts and glory that it needed to thrive.  With her sharp wit and determination, Molly is a fun character to stand behind; determined to help Peter find a home, a family, and a purpose, Molly will stop at nothing to care for her new friend.  Keenan-Bolger and Chanler-Berat work wonderfully together to create the cutest couple on Broadway; however, there is one that hates all of that cuteness - none other than Captain Black Stache, played by none other than the remarkable Christian Borle (Legally Blonde and the current NBC hit Smash).  Borle delivers the performance of his career in a role that is the perfect fit for this charming character actor.  While mean and cut throat on the inside, outside Black Stache is a crazy, goofy, and delightful villain who desperately wants to find his hero - after all, a villain is only as good has his rival.  Borle is simply brilliant; filled with ease and humor, he delivers a power house performance that is worth of not only a nomination, but a Tony Awards win!  Surrounding these three are equally talented and loony characters that give there all in this crazy original and masterfully crafted new piece!  Arnie Burton (The 39 Steps), Kevin Del Aguila (book writer of Altar Boyz), and Greg Hildreth (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), just to name a few work their tails off eight times a week to bring the joy, laughter, and heart to all those who enter the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for each performance.
Upon entering the theatre, it is made crystal clear that you are in for a night of sheer fun and entertainment.  From the dazzling lighting to the breath taking scenery, directors Roger Rees (off-Broadway’s Arms and the Man) and Alex Timbers (The Pee-wee Herman Show) have worked hard to bring all of the wonderfully crafted elements found in Rick Elice’s (Jersey Boys) script to life.  Elice does a fantastic job of creating a world that is full of big laughs and tons of heart; the perfect script for children and adults alike.  Rees and Timbers work together with movement coach Steven Hoggett (American Idiot) to create a piece that is high energy and flows with fluency to the score created by Wayne Barker (Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance).  While it is predominately a play, two full songs and plenty of underscore give this light hearted piece the perfect feel of whimsy.  Four top notch designers bring their A-game to this piece perfectly bringing the world of London, the sea, and a mystery island in to the hearts of the audience.  Using completely found materials like kitchen utensils, timers, corks, rope, and more, scenic designer Donyale Werle (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) creates a space that completely calls for the audience to put aside their need to see everything, and simple go back to their childhood ways of imagination.  Helping with the imagination is lighting designer Jeff Croiter (Newsies), who uses bold colors and innovative lighting to create the feel of several different locations - the shore, the ocean, a pirate ship, a jungle, and more.  Also, costume designer Paloma H. Young (Old Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and sound designer Darron L. West (Chinglish) created costumes that cleverly appeared to be torn right out of an abandoned warehouse and sound effects that were created live in the pit.  Together, this creative team was just that, “creative.”  Thinking like big children, the world of the boy who never grows up, was perfectly crafted.
Peter and the Starcatcher is quite simply the best new piece of theatre currently running on Broadway.  Filled with love and imagination for everyone, a cast of twelve transforms into some of the most beloved characters of all time for one reason and one reason only … to entertain.  Catch a ride on the one of the world’s craziest boat rides and learn the true meaning of live quality theatre!

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Best Man @ Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Everywhere you may turn, one is sure to find something on the current presidential race - from new programs to late night talk shows to Saturday Night Live.  Well, as it turns out, Broadway has a few things to say about political campaigns too.  Gore Vidal’s power house political drama, The Best Man, returns to Broadway featuring what can only be considered as ‘the greatest cast of all time’ - James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, and Kerry Butler!  The play may be set in 1960, but with a fresh cast, beautiful designs, and marvelous direction, this piece feels fresh, current, and relevant.  The Best Man is truly the not to me missed show of the season!
One spot, two candidates.  Front runner Secretary William Russell, has been around the block and is well trusted, but is facing marital issues that could stop him in his tracks.  Just behind him is Senator Joseph Cantwell, a young and dashing newcomer with a long buried secret that could stop him from seeing the nomination.  Complete with several twists and turns, this piece is an almost three hour long ‘behind closed doors’ drama.  A lot can happen over the span of a convention, but just who will come out the victor?  That is one hundred percent up to the candidates and their staff - politics is a risky business … may the best man win!
Too often on Broadway today big names get thrown into parts to sell tickets, regardless of whether or not they fit the bill; however, this crazy talented ensemble is a pleasant exception!  Each cast member shines and tackles this piece with all of the guts and glory that is needed to make the world of politics feel fresh.  Leading the ensemble are the two candidates Secretary William Russell (John Larroquette, How to Succeed …) and Senator Joseph Cantwell (Eric McCormack, television’s Will & Grace).  Larroquette proves why he is moving from hit to hit as he delivers another stellar performance.  He has the ability to captivate an audience with his smooth voice and slick acting chops.  Combined with Candice Bergen (television’s Boston Legal) as Alice Russell, his distant wife, Larroquette completes the pair perfectly.  Bergen sweeps the stage with her spot on comedic timing and honesty.  Together Larroquette and Bergen shine; they may be the old dogs in the presidential race, but they can still play with the best of them - a.k.a. McCormick as the smooth talking new comer.  McCormick takes the stage with force, full of life and energy - delivering the perfect candidate smile that says, “Tell me what you want to hear and I will say it.”  His opposite, over the top housewife Mabel Cantwell, is played by the wonderful Kerry Butler (Catch Me If You Can).  Known for her crazy and lovable musical theatre characters, Butler brings all of that same quirk to this piece.  Side by side, McCormick and Butler are not only dashing and sexy, they are the perfect in-your-face American couple - the kind that one cannot stand, but loves at the exact same time.  While the candidates might be the center of attention now, those who came before them are not to be forgotten.  Angela Lansbury (A Little Night Music) takes on the feisty Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, Chairman of the Woman’s Division.  Lansbury does not hold back one ounce, giving a truly funny and captivating performance, proving why she is one of Broadway’s bests … ever.  Right behind her is James Earl Jones (Driving Miss Daisy) as Former President Arthur Hockstader.  Jones proves why age has no factor as he gives one of the most energetic  and youthful performances of his career - full of heart, laughs, and good old fashioned political morals.  While this may only be the biggest names, the rest of the ensemble is not to be ignored, as they each bring Gore Vidal’s classic play back in a big, bold way!
While written in 1960, The Best Man is still impressively relevant today.  Gore Vidal (An Evening with Richard Nixon) wrote a script that is so truthful it is almost scary as to how politicians really function.  While this is the second revival, director Michael Wilson (Dividing the Estate) put a fresh new spin on it by assembling not only an all-star cast, but an all-star production team as well.  Transforming the entire theatre into a convention hall, scenic designer Derek McLane (Anything Goes) delivers a gorgeous three location set that moves and spins to create a glamorous Philadelphia hotel.  From the backstage area of the convention to each candidate’s room, the set is light perfectly by designer Kenneth Posner (Other Desert Cities).  The theatre glowed as John Gromada’s (Seminar) sound design filled the air with trumpets and organs bursting out in patriotic song.  Sounds of the convention floor rang out as television screens around the theatre broadcasted the latest press updates thanks to Peter Nigrini’s (Fela!) stunning projection design.  These elements all came together under Wilson’s stunning direction - moving the entire piece with consistent ease and flow.  Not for one second, did any audience member realize that the piece is in fact almost three hours long, but rather felt excited - anticipating each new twist and turn!
As the presidential race takes America by force outside of the theatre, inside the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre is truly no different.  This once in a life time cast delivers all of the stops as they bring the backhand deals of politics into the limelight.  Gore Vidal’s The Best Man is the not to be missed show of the season!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

End of the Rainbow @ Belasco Theatre

Judy Garland is seen around the world as one of the greatest performers of all time - from The Wizard of Oz to Meet Me in St. Louis, her career has been seen by millions.  Along with her films, however, Judy’s off screen life was also seen and judged by millions.  Stricken with pills, alcohol, sex, and depression, her life was a struggle; a struggle that has now been transformed into a play by Peter Quilter.  Headlining the piece is newcomer Tracie Bennett, who transforms into Judy Garland with ease and sophistication.  However, much like Judy’s real life, End of the Rainbow is scattered, oddly put together, and is tragic to watch.  A weak script, poor design, and an unclear focus leaves the audience unsettled and unsure as to how to feel about the life of Judy Garland - the exact opposite of what the piece is trying to accomplish.
Beginning only a short time before her tragic death, End of the Rainbow tells the story of Judy Garland’s final performances in London and the events that surrounded it.  It is time for husband number five, Mickey Deans, to step up to the plate and show his love for Judy.  Serving has both her fiancé and manager, Mickey has booked Judy at a hip spot in London for a few week run to prove that she is back and better than ever, which appears to be true.  Fresh off of pills and booze, Judy is ready to take on the town with her long time pianist friend, Anthony; however, as the relapses begin, her performances suffer, and money runs tight, Mickey is forced to let her slip into her old habits.  Before long the pills and booze are flying high, and there is no hope of saving America’s “it girl,” Judy Garland.
Ever since her death, impressionists and drag queens around the world have tried to become Judy Garland.  None, however, have ever mastered it quite like Tracie Bennett (making her Broadway debut) has - from speech to movements, she has transformed into the legend.  When playing someone addicted to drugs and alcohol, it is extremely easy to break away from reality and play a stereotype - the crazy loud one that cannot talk or stand correctly.  The truth is never lost in Bennett’s portrayal - Judy remains human.  Bennett transforms herself so deeply, honestly, and moving that she is just remarkable to watch.  Within five seconds, it is clear has to why she has been with this role for quite some time, and has several award nominations to go with it.  Judy is never judged or criticized, but rather loved and adored by the insanely talented Tracie Bennett.  Playing the melody to Judy’s life is her admirer, friend, and pianist Anthony - portrayed by Michael Cumpsty (Sunday in the Park with George).  Cumpsty does a lovely job starring opposite Bennett; their scenes together are moving and full of life - he is the calm to her crazy.  Cumpsty makes Anthony the everyman; he says and thinks the way most fans and admirers of Judy’s talk and act.  Anthony only wants what is best for Judy, unlike the latest fling, Mickey Deans, played by Tom Pelphrey (television’s Guiding Light).  Pelphrey’s soap opera past shows in a negative way on stage - lacking chemistry with the other performers and over acting each moment.  His performance was one level, usually fake angry, therefore, never allowing the audience to connect or feel anything towards his character; a true problem when the audience should care even a little bit about the man that Judy loves.  This lackluster performance brought down the production and further highlighted the weakness in Peter Quilter’s script.
While Jersey Boys is a huge success and Master Class shines with each revival, the key to their success lies within the simple fact that they know what they are - one a musical and the other a drama.  Peter Quilter (Duets) could not seem to fully land on one or the other, hence creating a play with music that is choppy and awkward.  Constantly breaking the flow of the dialogue with long drawn out concert medleys, it was hard to connect to the characters with all of the song and dance.  Is it a comedy, musical, drama, or all three?  This unanswered question left director Terry Johnson (La Cage aux Folles, latest revival) and his team confused as to how to stage the piece.  With a scenic design (William Dudley, Amadeus) that felt uneven and clustered, lighting design (Christopher Akerlind, Porgy and Bess) that was a never gelling mix of play and concert, and sound design (Gareth Owen, A Little Night Music) with unrealistic sounds and awful fades, the whole production felt rushed and poorly planned.  The whole piece just came across as unsure - no one fully knew what to do with the piece that sat in front of them.  Maybe some of Judy’s pills and booze would have helped them all out.
While presenting itself as deeply moving and sentimental, End of the Rainbow is more awkward and confusing.  A poor script can sometimes be saved by a stellar production team; however, this time around, the team was also confused and lost resulting in a poorly put together piece of theatre.  One can only hope that Liza was told to skip this one!  While this is disappointing, one thing about the whole show holds true, Tracie Bennett is a star!  Her portrayal of Judy Garland is truthful and full of life, a performance that could even earn her a Tony Award nomination!