Here are my latest posts for About.com. Lots of fun info here regarding what to see on Broadway this summer, which recent cast recordings to buy, whether you spell in "theater" or "theatre", and how to read the Broadway grosses. (Well, I happen to find reading the grosses to be fun...)
Is there anything you'd like to see me cover for About.com? Please let me know. I've got lots of ideas of my own, but I'm always open to suggestions. So, if you could suggest one article that you would like to read, whether it's about Broadway, Off-Broadway, plays, musicals, or any combination thereof, what would it be?
I was in the Berkshires over the July Fourth weekend, and had no intention of seeing any theater. Honestly. But I wound up taking in two shows, one of which was The Servant of Two Masters at Shakespeare & Company, a delightful production of one of my favorite pieces. Catching a show amid the hills and greenery wasn't my idea, I swear, but rather the suggestion of my best friend, whom I was visiting. (I say this just in case you might be thinking that I'm somehow single-mindedly focused on theater at the expense of all other things.)
Well, on Sunday, I was giving a ride to another friend to the train station so that he could go back home to New York City, and as we were approaching the station, I suddenly started thinking that Manhattan was a short train ride away, and that I could park my car, take the train to Grand Central, see a quick Sunday afternoon show, and make it back home to Boston before 9 PM. Now, I ask you...
Plus, a friend on Facebook highly recommended the new one-man musical The Lion, written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer, and this was literally the only time I would have to see the show before it closes this coming weekend. Turns out, I was very glad I caught the show: Scheuer is not only a terrific songwriter, but also a fantastic guitar player and a very appealing performer as well. (It doesn't hurt that he's absolutely adorable, but, sorry boys, he's straight.) Plus, Scheuer has quite a powerful story to tell in the course of his 70-minute show.
The Lion starts with Scheuer coming on stage, grinning like a Cheshire cat, seemingly amazed that anybody has bothered to show up. He then uses his rather expertly crafted songs and kick-ass guitar skills to relate the story of his complicated relationship with his father, his father's sudden death, his growing love for music, and his own harrowing health struggles. What starts as a simple daddy-gave-me-music story gets more and more layered and moving as events unfold. (Check out this video of the title song and this one of Scheuer in performance)
On paper, the story of The Lion might seem trite, but there's something about Scheuer's songwriting and performance skills that allow the potentially maudlin subject matter to ring fresh. Scheuer wisely takes a self-deprecating tone in his songs and his singing, and within a few minutes of his performance, I was drawn happily into his world. How would he resolve his troubled relationship with his family? Faced with a potentially deadly diagnosis, how would he fare? Of course, we know he survived, since -- duh -- he's telling his own story, but it's a credit to Scheuer's storytelling skills that we somehow doubt the outcome that we know full well to be true.
The Lion plays through Sunday, July 13th at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II, which is located beneath the New York City Center. That gives you less than a week to catch the show, but I have the feeling we're going to be seeing The Lion in a future incarnation. It's really too good for just a five-week run.
Here's a roundup of my latest posts on About.com (theater.about.com). I'm supposed to post at least twice a week, which is a bit more frequent than I've been used to in my blogging, but so far, coming up with ideas hasn't been a problem. (I mean, I'm getting paid for writing about theater. Where's the downside there?)
If you have any ideas about articles you'd like to see me pursue, please feel free to give me a shout. I'm going to try to confine most of my reviews to the blog, but if you have any ideas about how-to type articles, or fun lists, or insider info you'd like to know about, by all means give me a holler.
I just got back from a three-show day in NYC. I hadn't planned on blogging about any of the shows -- I wanted to just sit back and enjoy on this trip -- but as I sat watching one of them, I grew increasingly irritated, furious even, and left frustrated that I didn't have an avenue through which to vent my anger.
Well, pardon me if I vent, but Savion Glover's OM may just be most infuriating 90 minutes I've ever endured. End-to-end annoyance, from stem to stern. The show started with the house lights going to half, followed by seven-plus minutes of recorded free-form jazz, with the house lights still at half. (Wasn't the act of subjecting unwitting victims to free-form jazz outlawed at the Geneva Convention?) We all sat wondering whether there was something wrong backstage. It was sort of like waiting for the second shoe to drop, or the next drop to come from an irregularly dripping faucet. Profoundly annoying.
Finally the curtain rose, revealing a set with a series of platforms, hundreds of battery-powered candles, and pictures of famous tappers and religious figures, including Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. (Cuz Savion's deep, you see.) Now, what Jimmy Slyde and Gregory Hines have to do with Tibet or passive resistance I can only guess at. Savion entered, followed by a troupe of acolytes who sat down and proceeded to actively pray onstage throughout the entire piece. Yes, pray.
What followed was 80 minutes of mind-numbingly repetitious tapping, mostly from Savion, accompanied by eastern chant music with no discernible downbeat. Frequently throughout the piece, the tapping built to an ear-splitting crescendo of machine-gun-like intensity. It was as though Glover had just discovered Phillip Glass and Buddhism, and decided that an entire show of him doing the same thing over and over might make him look avant-garde and super spiritual.
There were four other dancers on stage, but only one of them got any chance to dance in between Savion's self-aggrandizing ministrations. They were all on platforms that seemed to be designed to make their taps as loud as possible. Savion fell in love with a particular spot on his platform, which produced taps as loud as a rifle shot, and spent what seemed like ten minutes working it, like a child who has just discovered that the spoon makes a loud sound against the bowl. This auditory assault might have been bearable had there been any discernible larger meaning to the show. I counted 11 people who left before the end. If I handn't been in the middle of a long row, I would have left, too.
Yes, Savion is an amazing tapper. But his virtuosity only carries a piece so far. How about some actual movement? Some genuine meaning? Some discernible point of view? A chance to see somebody else get a tap in edgewise? I suppose it's possible that he was trying to achieve some kind of Zen-inspired irony, or trying to strip away everything but the beat as part of some effort to live in the moment, or whatever. It would appear that Mr. Glover could use someone like George C. Wolfe, who conceived and directed both Jelly's and Noize, to help in shape his ideas and place his admitted talents into a meaningful context. Very little of the dance seemed planned in advance, but was rather improvisational. Which means I spent good money (no press tix this time) to watch Savion Glover play around.
After 80 minutes of non-stop irritation, the show finally ended, but the curtain call seemed awkwardly timed. The curtain didn't come back up for bows until most people in the audience had already stopped clapping. Then, darkness and silence. The house lights never came up. I talked to the house manager, who said that this was a directorial choice on Glover's part. I mean, is that even legal? To force an audience to fumble awkwardly for the exit in the dark? Was Glover deliberately trying to alienate as much of his fan base as possible? Or was he merely being pretentious?
So, self-indulgent pseudo-spirituality, mind-numbing repetition, painfully loud sound, and a chance to break my neck on the way out. Thanks, Savion.
I'm sure that some of you, like me, greeted the news of a prospective Tupac Shakur musical with at the very least a raised eyebrow. I think this is a vestige of our propensity of limiting our conception of musical-theater music to the familiar, the comfortable, the what-we-know.
However, some of my most enjoyable nights in the theater came from shows that stretched the genre, bringing in musical influences previously confined to the 20th Century concert hall (Adding Machine) or the downtown club (Passing Strange). Even if recent attempts to bring punk rock (American Idiot), afrobeat (Fela), and emo (Spring Awakening) to the Broadway stage weren't entirely successful overall, in toto they represent a vital and long-overdue effort to bring Broadway music out of the Stone Age.
I had had no previous experience with Shakur's work, but a number of people had told me I might be pleasantly surprised, that his work was a lot more than just angry and profane, which in truth had always been my (admittedly ignorant) perception of rap music. Still, I went into Holler If Ya Hear Me with what I think was an open mind.
My impressions of the production essentially came down to this: Tupac Shakur left us a profoundly moving body of work that deserves to be heard, but Holler If Ya Hear Me doesn't begin to do the man and his work full justice. Out of some misguided rush to bring the show to Broadway, presumably because of the availability of the Palace, a prime Broadway house, the creators and producers of Holler If Ya Hear Me missed out on an opportunity to better shape what could have been an immensely powerful show. Upon my first exposure to Shakur, it seems that he was an artist whose work elevated and trenscended the rap genre. Shakur's lyrics have power, pathos, outrage, but also a strong sense of community, and most of all hope.
Unfortunately, there's very little hope at the box office for Holler If Ya Hear Me. The show has been playing to fairly decent size houses -- about 2/3 capacity -- but the average ticket price has been a painful $27, and the weekly grosses topped out at about $170,000. (In other words, the producers have been papering the house big time.) There's no way they're making money with that meager a take. To make matters worse, someone had the bright idea of replacing the orchestra section of the theater with stadium seating, which reaches from the lip of the stage to the mezzanine overhang, effectively cutting off more that half of the most expensive seats. (My theater companion remarked, "Did nobody here know how to use and Excel spreadsheet?") Word has is that the construction for this questionable arrangement alone topped $200,000.
What's more, the show only had two weeks of previews, about half of normal preview period. Which leads to a whole laundry list of "whys" about this production: Why only two weeks? Why the rush to bring the show to Broadway in the first place? Why did the show open after the Tony cutoff? Why would anyone bring a big show like this to Broadway and make a series of decisions that would seem to preclude its success?
The biggest "why" of all, however, is "Why did anyone think this show, in its current form, was ready for Broadway?" Because here's the real heart-breaker: Holler If Ya Hear Me could have been good. I mean, really really good. There's plenty of worthy material in Tupac's songs, and the scenario that book writer Todd Kreidler is, at least in outline form, fairly compelling. However, the show begins with almost insurmountable dramaturgy issues. For the first ten to fifteen minutes of the show, it wasn't clear where the show was taking place, who any of these characters were, what their relationship to each other would be, as well as which of the characters would emerge as protagonists. A scene early in the show features a song with a lyric asking "What's going on?" repeatedly. I turned to my theatergoing companion and said, "Yeah, I'd love to know what's going on."
Eventually, we learn that the story takes place in a present-day African-American ghetto in some midwestern city, and that the plot will involve the young men from the neighborhood banding together to seek revenge for the shooting death of one of their own. Here's where the problems begin: the pathos of the death is unearned because we don't recall ever meeting this character before, nor do we really know what relationship he has with the others until much later. In retrospect, he must have been somewhere in the undifferentiated morass of the first fiteen minutes of the show. But since we don't really have a chance to get to know the character and his affiliations, the power of the loss is lost. Along the way we encounter some unclear and seemingly shifting romantic alliances among the people who wind up being the major characters.
Kreidler's dialogue has an authentic sound to it, and although his storytelling skills need quite a bit of work, he definitely shows promise. The show can get a bit preachy and forced at times, but for the most part, Kreidler allows the proceedings to embody the message rather than relying on speechifying dilagoue. It all makes me wonder what Holler If Ya Hear Me could have been with a few more readings, workshops, and tryout productions.
One of the major tricks with songbook musicals is making the musical numbers mesh with the book. For Holler If Ya Hear Me, most of the numbers actually feel organic, although there were numerous times in the first act when I couldn't understand the lyrics and had to orient myself by the feel of the music. Best of all was the show's title number, which creates a quite thrilling, and dramatically motivated, punch to the end of act one.
The only number that feels forced in is "California Love," which by the audience reaction I'm assuming was one of Tupac's biggest hits. However, the high-spirited and infectious number feels out of place right before the tragic denouement, and robs the second act of forward motion. (cough cough..."The Miller's Son"...cough, cough) The number should perhaps have come at the beginning of the show, or earlier in act two.
In a switch from the norm with struggling musicals, act two of Holler If Ya Hear Me is actually stronger than act one. Act two does have a problem with pacing, as the urgency tends to come and go, rather than build. Although the story and characters are clearer, there's a significant loss of momentum. Still, clearly we know as we watch the show that someone major's going to go down at the end, and I found the denouement very dramatically satisfying. Kreidler wisely places the "Sharks," as it were, off-stage. This not only creates tension, it also allows him the opportunity to make the resolution completely consistent with a leitmotif in Shakur's songs, the notion that one great tragedy of poor African Americans is that they tend to make each other the enemy, rather than addressing and fighting what's really keeping them oppressed.
Holler If Ya Hear Me features sympathetic direction by Tony winner Kenny Leon, although Leon really should have worked with Kreidler more closely in focusing and clarifying the start of the show. The show is choreographed with idiomatic realism by Wayne Cilento.
As is often the case with recent unsucessful musicals, it's really hard to blame the cast of Holler If Ya Hear Me, which features a passionate ensemble of talented performers, who remain committed to material despite what must have been a difficult tryout period. Chief among these are Saul Williams and Christopher Jackson as childhood friends who've grown apart as each has fallen into various nefarious activities in order to survive. Tony winner Tonya Pinkins is sort of wasted here as Jackson's mother, but Saycon Sengbloh has a few powerhouse moments as the woman that Williams and Jackson are both, off-and-on, involved with romantically. The most moving character in the show is a ragged street preacher played by Tony nominee John Earl Elks, who is postitively heart-wrenching in his interactions with the Saul Williams character, whom we eventually learn is the preacher's son.
I sort of wish I was reviewing Holler If Ya Hear Me at a new-works festival or during a regional tryout. Then, perhaps, the show might have gotten the work that it needed to do full justice to Tupac Shakur and this remarkable cast. Tupac deserved better.
I can't recall the last time I was so genuinely enchanted by the first act of a show, only to be so disenchanted by the final curtain. The new musical Fly By Night at Playwrights Horizons feels a little like a bait and switch. What begins as a sweet, refreshing little show with imaginative staging and deft handling of a non-linear plot eventually careens into annoyingly vague metaphysical speculation.
Fly By Night starts off charming, whimsical, with a number of quirky but endearing characters. The story features a 1965 love triangle involving a young man (Adam Chanler-Berat) who works in a sandwich shop and two sisters (Patti Murin and Allison Case) who move to New York City from South Dakota.
The music, lyrics and book are by Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly, and Michael Mitnick, three names I don't recall encountering before Fly By Night. There's a tremendous amount of promise on display here. The score is pleasant, the lyrics clever, and the story handles the use of shifting times frames far more adeptly than does that of If/Then, another musicals that tries, but fails, to create a non-linear story. Despite the occasional anachronism (I'm not sure "in the zone" was a current phrase in 1965) and a few instances of bad scansion, the score shows great craft, and leaves me eager to see what the creators might produce in the future.
Director Carolyn Cantor shapes a sharp and fluid production, with an appealingly brisk pace, at least for the first half of the show. The second half becomes attenuated, partly due to a grating shift in tone, but also due to the fact that the show is about an hour longer than the premise would seem to justify. It's hard to sustain whimsy for 155 minutes. The moment the show started to lose me was when the young man and his boss sing a rather unpleasant duet while making a bunch of sandwiches. Prior to that, the Fly By Night had me grinning ear to ear.
Later in the show, things get dark, both literally and figuratively, as the story is set before and during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. A number of uncharacteristically grim things occur in the plot, and the book never really comes to any resolution, apart from some mystical speculation about how we're all made literally from stardust. (Scientifically true, but metaphysically pretentious.)
Fly By Night also has a major plot device that never really meshes with the rest of the story, regarding the young man's father and how the young man ignores the father's numerous attempts to reach out to him after the death of the young man's mother. We never really learn why the son has been so callous, we only hear him apologize.
But, again, the first act of Fly By Night is a real charmer, and the cast includes some of the most reliable and appealing performers working in New York today, including the above-listed trio, as well as Bryce Ryness, Peter Friedman, and Henry Stram. I'd love to see Fly By Night get some significant revisions, because there's so much here already that's just delightful. And, again, I look forward to seeing what else Rosenstock, Connoly and Mitnick come up with the the future.
The other takes a peek at some of the movie musicals that are scheduled to be released over the next year or so (including Jersey Boys, Into the Woods, and Annie). The second post includes my own take on the recent Into the Woods plot-changes kerfuffle:
So, the Tonys are over, and another season has come and gone. I've caught up (mostly) on my reviews, but I wanted to alert y'all out there in EIKILFM land that I've picked up a companion writing gig, and that I'll be migrating some of my posts over to this new platform. Don't worry: I'll still be reviewing all the new musicals on Broadway and many of those from Off-Broadway, as well as shows at my regular regional haunts. I'm hoping that, rather than replace any of my efforts here on the blog, the new gig will act as a complement.
The new gig is at About.com. I'll be their new "musicals and theater" experts. (Yeah, I know. Musicals are theater too. But the folks at about think that emphasizing "musicals" will lead to greater traffic.) If you'd like to bookmark my homepage, it's at http://theater.about.com. I've posted three articles so far, all about the Tony Awards. Here they are:
As you can probably tell by the titles, my About.com posts will proabably be more "evergreen" items, as opposed to posts about particular shows and people. But there seems to be plenty of room for attitude, which for me has never been in short supply.
I'll be posting links to my About.com posts here on EIKILFM, so if you're interested you can just click through. Or not. (But I hope you do.)