The fall theater season in New York is is full swing. I'll be publishing a series of reviews over the next few weeks, some of them here on the blog, and some of them over on About.com. Here's my most recent review, which is abotu the new Sting musical The Last Ship, which opened this week on Broadway. Does the show hold water? Has that ship sailed? Will the boating puns ever cease? Click through and find out:
As I mentioned a while back, I picked up a new gig writing for About.com as the Musical and Theater Expert. I was hoping that the gig wouldn't interfere with my blogging, and so far that has actually been the case. As to whether this will continue as the school year starts up, well, stay tuned.
I'll still be publishing most of my reviews here on my blog, while at About.com I'll be posting more evergreen stuff about theatergoing in general. One review that I decided to post on About.com was for my recent revisit to The Phantom of the Opera with its new stars, Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess. Here's a link to that review, as well as to the rest of my About.com postings for August.
1. What musical is the following lyric from? 2. Which character is singing? 3. What is this character singing about?
All that matters now Is where we go from here. There's an easier way If we live for today. The singing in my heart Is all that matters.
Well, you can probably tell from the title of this review, as well as the accompanying artwork, that we're talking about the new Broadway-bound musical Finding Neverland. The character singing is named Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, played memorably by Kate Winslet in the 2004 movie of the same name. And the character is singing about...well...I really have no idea. Therein lies one of the major liabilities of Finding Neverland in its current form: You could hear the entire score and still not really understand what was going on in the show.
When the first announcements appeared about Finding Neverland becoming a musical, the composer and lyricist were to be Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, respectively. After multiple readings and productions, Frankel and Korie were suddenly no longer attached. We may never know how the show would have fared with Frankel and Korie, but based on my experience with their previous work (Grey Gardens, Happiness, Far From Heaven), I have to conclude that the show would have been significantly more intelligent, tuneful, integrated, and original than the uninspired concoction that is currently playing at the American Repertory Theatre.
As anyone who's seen the original movie knows, Finding Neverland concerns playwright J.M. Barrie and his relationship with a young widow and her four boys, who inspire him to write his best-known work, Peter Pan. It's a wonderful idea for a musical, and there are brief moments in the current show that hint at the magic that could have been. Most of these come in the form of stagecraft, as at the end of the show when Sylvia makes her most significant transition. Powerful fans emerge in a circle in the center of the stage, which create a whirlwind of golden glitter, a gorgeous moment that brings the stories of the musical and Peter Pan together in a stunning coup de théâtre.
In between these rare moments of wonder, we must contend with an inferior score and a merely serviceable book. Producer Harvey Weinstein replaced Frankel and Korie with musical-theater neophytes Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics together). Their lack of musical-theater experience shows, partly in the overabundance of slant rhyme, poor scansion, and forced extra syllables, but also in their tin-eared, derivative contemporary musical style. The only decent song in the entire score is "Neverland," although you'd never know it from Jennifer's Hudson's riffando version on the Tony Awards. Add in James Graham's bald-faced dialogue and ham-fisted plot exposition, and we have a musical that would seem more fitting for The Disney Channel than the legitimate Broadway stage.
Barlow and Kennedy also show their inexperience in their choice of moments to musicalize. The third number in the show, when I saw it in previews, was a rather odd number for J.M. Barrie's wife, called "Rearrange the Furniture," which is pretty much as it says on the box. The number is superficial character work at best, and the character doesn't really warrant a number in the first place. On the other hand, we have a major moment in the second act, when J.M. Barrie brings the entire cast of Peter Pan to recreate the show in the bedroom of an ailing Sylvia, a moment that would seem to cry out for a musical number, but all we get is a stylized retread of Barrie's play.
Another problem with Finding Neverland is a rather bizarre mismatch of styles. The generic pop score is at odds with the Victorian time frame, which would be fine if not for the rather literal period costumes and sets. We also get a series of jarringly angular and jerky dance sequences from choreographer Mia Michaels, a self-aggrandizing style that disappears about a quarter of the way through the show, never to return. (Michaels' most significant credit would seem to be So You Think You Can Dance. Yeah, that's who I'd hire for a 19th Century period piece.)
Director Diane Paulus seems to be struggling with how to bring the material to life, and a number of sequences reflect this uncertainty. There's a dinner-party number that's meant to show how the kids, Sylvia, and Barrie occupy one world, while Barrie's wife and Sylvia's mother are in another world entirely. It's a good idea, but as currently staged the number has no focus. There's so much going on, it's hard to know what to pay attention to, an issue exacerbated by a spate of mugging chorus members continually trying to pull focus.
Another number, called "Believe," is meant to be inspirational, with Barrie encouraging the Llewelyn boys to let their creativity take flight, but Paulus fleshes out the number with a rather bizarre admixture of buskers and bees. As I sat watching the show, I kept thinking of Big Fish, another show that wanted to celebrate story-telling and imagination, but wound up demonstrating very little of either.
One thing that Finding Neverland has in its favor is a stellar cast of first-rate Broadway performers, including Jeremy Jordan as Barrie, Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and Carolee Carmello as Madame du Maurier, Sylvia's mother. They all get their chance to belt their brains out, if that's your idea of great theater, but I had to feel sorry for Carolee for having to deliver the reprise of "All That Matters," generic lyric and all. Also in the cast is Tony winner Michael McGrath as theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, and I swear I could sense McGrath gritting his teeth while trudging through a show that is decidedly beneath his talent.
On a final note, why is such a manifestly commercial show even playing at the ART to begin with? Other than money, that is? I suppose it's possible to argue that All The Way, The Glass Menagerie, Porgy and Bess, and even Pippin might in some way intersect with the artistic mission of a major nonprofit theater at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. But Finding Neverland? Such a patently mercenary venture feels like filthy lucre, and nothing more.
John Waters writes in one of his books (I think it was Crackpot) that he wishes that someone would discover an unpublished Jean Genet novel. He's read everything extant by Genet, he says, and longs for that special feeling of experiencing something truly great for the first time.
That's how I felt watching The Visit, the hauntingly satisfying "new" musical with music by John Kander and lyrics by the late Fred Ebb: thrilled to experience something genuinely ambitious and frequently wondrous, and yet sad that most of the genius involved in crafting this stunning show is either gone or in its dotage.
And then there's The Visit, which had a well-received run in 2008 at The Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, although talk of bringing that production to New York never bore fruit, purportedly because of the 2008 recession. Thankfully, The Visit is now enjoying a stunning production, significantly revised and shortened from previous versions, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, playing now through August 17th.
The musical is based on the eponymous 1956 play The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and the musical sticks fairly close to its source. The story concerns one Claire Zachanassian, who returns to her hometown after becoming the richest woman in the world. She offers to save the town from its ruinous state, but with one chilling proviso: the town must kill her former lover, Anton Schell, now an indigent shopkeeper with a wife and two children.
If that conceit seems static -- I mean, once the horrifying condition is revealed, where do you go from there? -- both the play and the musical follow up with an intriguing series of developments and revelations that add layers to the seemingly inert premise. The musical is by turns arresting, poignant, and darkly humorous. It also manages to paint a balanced portrait of horror and justice: Claire is clearly a deeply wronged woman, and yet Anton makes for a penitent and sympathetic foil. When we discover exactly what Anton did to Claire, we almost accept the righteousness of her demands, the justice inherent in her savage proposal.
I've seen many musicals attempt to balance dark subject matter with a satisfying sense of entertainment and humor, and it's a really difficult task to pull off. (Just ask the authors of Lestat, Bare, Heathers, The People in the Picture, Scandalous, Soul Doctor, etc.) Librettist Terrence McNally finds just the right balance of the edgy and the enjoyable in The Visit, something he was unable to do for Catch Me If You Can.
Composer John Kander matches McNally's balance with a lush and soaring score with numerous complex contrapuntal passages. Kander and Ebb together crafted songs that can easily stand among their classics, including "Love and Love Alone," a triumphant 11 o'clock number for Claire, and "You, You, You," a soaring love duet for Young Claire and Young Anton, who act as mostly silent witnesses throughout the entire show. (Young Anton is played here by golden-voiced Boston Conservatory grad, John Bambery. Full Disclosure: John is a former student of mine, but trust me, the guy's got the pipes. Yowza.)
The Visit benefits greatly from the sensitive direction of, and stark presentation by, director John Doyle. (And, in case you're wondering: No, the performers are not required to play instruments here.) In concert with scenic designer Scott Pask (who creates a gasp-inducing unit set) and costume designer Ann Hould Ward, Doyle has fashioned a hauntingly expressionistic, black, white, and gray production, punctuated with increasing accents of vibrant yellow, a symbol of the avarice that overcomes the townspeople as they gradually turn against Anton.
For many people, the big draw of this production will be the first-rate cast, lead by the irreplaceable Chita Rivera, so fluid and sharp, even at age 81. Roger Rees fares considerably less well as Anton: he's more than up to the acting challenge, but his singing voice is sadly lacking in strength and sustain. Also notable are Judy Kuhn, laser-sharp as always as Anton's beleaguered wife, and Jason Danieley, positively heartbreaking as the schoolmaster, and Anton's last remaining ally.
If The Visit never finds the thematic cohesion of, say, Cabaret or even The Scottsboro Boys, it still has much to reveal about the dark side of human nature and the artistic ambitions of musical theater. I'm not sure The Visit has much of a commercial future, but it would be great to see one of the Broadway nonprofits like the Roundabout or Lincoln Center scoop it up for a limited run.
Most jukebox shows rely on the name-recognition factor to lure in the crowds. Well, here's a musical that has sort of the opposite goal: to bring our attention to a name that many of us have never heard of.
A worthy goal. But here's the thing: after seeing Piece of My Heart, I don't really know any more about Berns than I did before.
As is often the case with songbook musicals, Piece of My Heart is at its best when it's singing. The production features a top-notch cast of New York professionals, including Leslie Kritzer, Linda Hart, Derrick Baskin, and Zak Resnick in the title role, all of whom bring intensity and kick-ass vocals to their performances. Also, director/choreographer Denis Jones provides slick and efficient staging, filling the stage with plenty to keep the eye occupied and interested.
The main problem with Piece of My Heart is Daniel Goldfarb's leaden and thin book. The interesting thing here is that the songs, unlike those of many other jukebox shows, actually feel like they fit the story, albeit with a few rather glaring exceptions. But the book is hampered by some rather hoary dialogue, underdeveloped plot threads, and a sort of rush to the finish line.
Perhaps the biggest liability here is Goldfarb's dialogue, which alternates between didacticism and cliché. Characters spout such ham-fisted chronological cues as "These past two years have been wonderful..." Another interchange has Berns pleading with a Cuban revolutionary, "Teach me the music of your people," to which the Cuban responds, "You have a sadness at one with my country's sadness." Yeesh. At other times, Goldfarb includes lines of implied portent without payoff. One of the characters says, of Berns, "To get to his music, he had to go to some dark places," which is fine, except that what follows isn't particularly dark.
The most risible dialogue of all comes during Berns's death scene. Berns died at 38 from a heart attack that stemmed from a bout of rheumatic fever when he was young. In Piece of My Heart, as Berns clutches his heart, he manages to write down on a piece of paper, "My children will know me through my music." I suppose it's possible that Berns actually did this as he died, but that doesn't make it any less treacly.
Goldfarb's book is full of events, but devoid of explanatory depth. Berns has an interracial romance that doesn't work out; a stint in Cuba complete with revolutionaries and whores; a fight over control of his record-label. Only the last of these really seems relevant to the task at hand. The show also features a framing device involving a posthumous battle between Berns's widow and a fictional daughter (although Berns did in fact have children of his own), who vie for control over Berns's work. Piece of My Heart seems to be in such a rush to cram all of the events of Berns's short life into the show that it doesn't take enough time to develop the events themselves.
The bar has never been very high for jukebox musicals, at least in terms of whether the public will attend. In that respect, Piece of My Heart is certainly more worthy than such theatrical dreck as Mamma Mia, Baby It's You or A Night With Janis Joplin. If it doesn't quite rank with the gold standards of the genre (Jersey Boy, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical), there's at least enough here in terms of the music, the staging, and the cast to warrant a trip to 42nd Street.
Here's my final roundup of reviews from the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). I saw 19 shows over the course of three weekends. It was a bit grueling at times, but overall I found it exhilarating. There's so much passion out there for musicals, both in writing them and in attending them. Even if most of these shows never make to Broadway, or even Off-Broadway, the sheer number of shows in development is an encouraging sign.
Watch for future posts from me on the winners of the NYMF Awards for Excellence (for which I served as a juror), as well as for my take on lessons learned. Essentially, I'll be compiling a list of questions that would-be writers and composers for musical theater can ask themselves as they work on their shows, questions that, I hope, will help them avoid some of the pitfalls that I've seen over and over in developing musicals. (Just call me a dramaturg in absentia.)
Mr. Confidential - Anyone looking for an object lesson in the term "dramaturgy problems" need look no further than Mr. Confidential. I can't recall another show during which I had to continually ask "Um...what?" as frequently. It's not the plot that's befuddling: it's basically about a guy and his family starting a gossip magazine and pissing the wrong people off. What's confusing is understanding what people are singing about, why this particular person needs to be singing, and why the events are unfolding the way they are. Mr. Confidential has book and lyrics by Samuel Bernstein, music by David Snyder, and while Snyder's music is often quite good, often exciting, Bernstein's book and lyrics are a mess. I continually found myself asking: What's this song about? Why is this person making this choice? What the hell is going on? And so on. Bernstein needs to decide what he really wants each song to be about and then craft lyrics that more explicitly meet those intentions. Bernstein's book raises even more questions than the lyrics. For example, the magazine publisher, Bob Harrison, attempts to hire a recently unseated anti-communist politician to help find stories for the magazine, and because for some reason this guy would give Harrison access to famed columnist Walter Winchell. But why would Winchell help a rival publication with story ideas? He's got his own media empire to feed. The biggest WTF moment comes at the end. Apparently there's a car crash, which takes the lives of two of the characters, but the headline accompanying the scene says it was the publisher who killed himself and his wife. But Harrison is shown announcing the accident to the press, despite the fact that he's the publisher. It was a fittingly opaque end to a bewildering show.
The Travels - The Travels was perhaps the most thematically ambitious show I saw at NYMF this year. The book and lyrics are by Aaron Ricciardi, the music by Kelly Hoppenjans. The story involves a comic dystopian tale of a future America, including a daily TV show to encourage conformity, discourage travel, and foster devotion to a Big-Brother-like authority figure. Not so much a musical as a play with music, The Travels features diegetic, commentative numbers, not unlike half of the score to Cabaret, or most of the score to Chicago. For the most part, this approach works: the song interludes take us out of the story and remind us of the show's Brechtian ambitions. Ricciardi also makes the interesting choice to start each scene with a show card announcing the impending fate of the characters, a clear nod to Brecht's alienation techniques. Ricciardi displays a keen intelligence and sharp comic instincts with his imaginative language and precepts for his fictional world, even if the whole affair seems just a tad too dependent on 1984 and Brave New World in its fundaments. There are some clear flaws in the show's logic: when two foreigners enter the country and are forced to become "domestic domicile disinfectors," they seem to have no prior knowledge of the country's shift toward totalitarianism. But the show tells us that the current regime has been in place for 25 years. It's hard to imagine that word wouldn't have somehow gotten out over a quarter of a century. Still, The Travels works rather well, at least until it starts taking itself too seriously. If Ricciardi could find ways to sustain the satire and edge throughout the show, he and Hoppenjans might have a winner on their hands. (A final note: As I said last year, apropos of her star turn in Julian Po, the fabulous Luba Mason, featured prominently in The Travels, should always be in a Broadway show. Will someone please rectify this, stat?)
Madame Infamy - As I've mentioned, I hadn't been all that impressed by the quality of the music is this year's NYMF shows. That is, until my final NYMF weekend, when I started to hear some really strong music. Madame Infamy has a book by JP Vigliotti, and music and lyrics by Cardozie Jones and Sean Willis. The book and lyrics need quite a bit of work, but Jones' and Willis' score is pretty darned fabulous, despite a preponderance of what I call "beltando" and "riffando" on the part of some of the singers. Jones and Willis have quite a touch with memorable and stirring music, including some ambitious contrapuntal pieces. Madame Infamy tells the parallel stories of Marie Antoinette and Sally Hemmings, the latter a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson who also allegedly became the mother of a number of children by Jefferson. I kept expecting the two stories to come together, but they never really did. Apart from seeing each other from afar at a ball at Versailles (Jefferson is in France to garner support for the American Revolution), the women never come in direct contact. The authors would be wise to create more of a link between the two characters, historically justified or no. As a whole, the show feels like a combination of Les Miserables, Wicked, and The Princess Diaries, as produced by The Disney Channel -- sort of a schoolgirl's take on history. The lyrics need quite a bit of work: I frequently had no idea what characters were singing about, and somtimes didn't even know who the characters were. Much of the dialogue feels artificial, even creaky. Plot turns and character motivations are frequently difficult to discern. People in support positions act in ways inconsistent with their station. Members of court act condescendingly and imperiously toward Louis XVI and Marie. One of Jefferson's slaves tracks him down to punch him in the face. Um, who's in charge here? This isn't a high school dance in 2014. It's the court at frickin' Versailles. (Final note: the authors should re-familiarize themselves with the rules of pronoun-case usage. The show is littered with such erroneous phrases as "...between you and I...," "It's rare for we women to be taken seriously," and "You shall accompany Martha and I..." I'm sorry, but we're talking Thomas Jefferson here, one of the greatest writers this country has ever seen. This is one guy who would know the difference between the nominative and the objective case.)
Propaganda! - Here's another trend I noticed at NYMF this year: opening numbers that don't fully set the scene. I'm sure it's easy, when you're writing a show, to lose track of what the audience knows and when, and what they need to know from the beginning so that the rest of the show makes sense. All the more reason to make the Who, What, Where, and When as clear as possible, and as soon as possible. Propaganda! - The Musical is a case in point. The opening lyric keeps repeating "This just in, on the radio," as if that's supposed to be enough to tell us where we are and what's going on. But it isn't. I kept trying to guess: Is this a TV station? A newspaper? A PR firm? The republican national headquarters? In turns out that we're witnessing the goings-on at a secret government agency that specializes in covering up scandals. Three numbers into the show, this still wasn't clear. Once clarity sets in, Propaganda! is actually quite enjoyable, often hilarious. The book, music, and lyrics are by Taylor Ferrera and Matt Webster, and the pair show great promise as comedy writers. Propaganda! gets a bit messy at times, but overall it's a hoot. There's a tongue-in-cheek meta quality to much of the dialogue, which works in fits and starts. There's some inconsistent logic regarding character traits and plot ramifications. But there are also some terrific insider musical-theater jokes that had me roaring. The songs are hit or miss, but there are some really strong showstopper-type numbers, particularly the show's chief evildoer, Agent X, played with great relish here by the wondrous Kenita Miller. Conversely, there's an 11 o'clock number that stops the show in a bad way, called "Sing Me to Sleep," which unfortunately lives up to its name. Much of the fun in the show comes from the shameless showboating from the ensemble, which was jarring at first, but eventually built to a comic crescendo that contributed greatly to the show's overall fun index. Also notable was the outstanding choreography from Jason Sparks, which gave the mincing queens (and I mean that with love) in the ensemble a chance to shine. (Also, I would strongly suggest a change of the show's title. Propaganda! doesn't really capture the spirit of the show. Might I suggest changing it to Cover Up!, while retaining the classic musical-theater exclamation point.)
Fable - My final NYMF musical of the year was Fable, a show with a bit of an identity crises. The book is by Harrison Kaufman, the music and lyrics by Christopher Anselmo. I feel I must preface my remarks by pointing out that both Anselmo and Kaufman are still in college: Anselmo at Northwestern, Kaufman at NYU. Judged from that vantage point, the work here is outstanding, if uneven. But from an audience perspective, it doesn't really matter how old the creators are. What matters is what's on stage. Well, Anselmo shows tremendous promise as a composer and lyricist. Anselmo's music is by turns soaring, jaunty, and hard-rocking, even if it does reflect just a touch too much RLNS (Really-Long-Note Syndrome). His lyrics are among the cleanest I've ever heard at NYMF: I don't recall hearing any significant slant rhyme, faulty scansion, or reversed syntax. The main liability of the show in its current form is that the high stakes evident in the score don't match the rather mundane events depicted in the book. We're basically at a graduation party in which six high-school friends reveal -- and wring their hands over -- a series of rather quotidian revelations: someone's parents are getting divorced, someone makes out with another girl's boyfriend, some says "I Love You" too soon, someone reveals that she lied about getting into Princeton, and a brother tells his sister that he didn't go to college so the family could afford to send her. Which is all fine and good, except the momentous, weighty ballads that emerge toward the end of the show don't feel justified based on such prosaic concerns. For instance, one character sings a "Get Out, and Stay Out" type number to his friends. but it's not entirely clear why he's so upset. The cast features a decidedly strong sextet of young performers, including star-to-be Dan Rosales, making his NYMF debut. (Full disclosure: Dan is one of my recent BoCo students. But trust me, you're going to hear from this amazingly talented young man very soon, of this I have no doubt.)
Here's my third round of reviews, out of four, of shows from the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Seeing so many shows in such a short time has been a really rewarding process, one that I recommend to anyone who aspires to write for or about musical theater. Nothing puts the finished product into perspective like a glimpse at the development process. It's also very heartening to see so many people who are passionate about musical theater, on both sides of the footlights.
One somewhat disheartening trend this year has been the rather colorless music evident in many NYMF shows. It's not always clear whether this is a product of the actual composition, the sound design, the orchestrations, or some combination thereof, but I haven't heard much music that I found interesting, intriguing, or pleasant. In fact, on my NYMF juror ballot, I only cited two shows for Best Music, although the ballot allows jurors to list as many as three shows. Otherwise, the music at NYMF this year has lacked flare, tonality, a predictable downbeat, consonant intervals, plus whatever indefinable something goes into making a score memorable and effective.
No, not every score needs to sound like Richard Rodgers composed it, and there is certainly plenty of room for growth in the type of music that musical theater has historically embraced. But style and quality are not synonymous: scores that reflect rock, rap, R&B, emo, country, afro-beat, or any other style of music don't get a pass because they're atypical Broadway. They also need to be good. (Whatever that means, right?)
Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade - As I mentioned in my most recent round of reviews, I had been noticing fewer NYMF shows with significant dramaturgical issues than in previous years. Then, for some reason, I suddenly started seeing a spate of shows that were raising who, what, where, when and why questions. One show that could benefit from more dramaturgical effort is Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade. (Full disclosure: Mother Jones is being produced by one of my recent students, but my students know that, once they graduate, I will approach their efforts with the same tough-but-fair approach I would apply to any other show.) The book, music, and lyrics for Mother Jones are by Cheryl E. Kemeny, and Kemeny might be wise to bring on a collaborator or two: while her music is strong, tuneful, and often rousing, the lyrics here are uninspired and peppered with cliché. The main area needing attention is the book, which is full of holes. The story concerns Mary Harris Jones, known as "Mother Jones," a firebrand labor activist and community organizer, and her efforts to call attention to the horrors of child labor in the very early 1900s. The show isn't always clear about where a scene or song is taking place. Are we in a West Virginia coal mine? Or a Pennsylvania textile mill? Or a convent? I was, at various times, confused. This is indicative of a larger problem with Mother Jones: the rationale behind the scenes and songs isn't always clear. Characters make choices that aren't fully justified in the narrative. One character spends most of act one as a cartoonish musical-comedy stereotype, only to undergo an abrupt change of heart in act two. Mother Jones sings a song that's meant to explain her involvement in the Children's Crusade, but the song is about losing her husband and children to yellow fever. It's a powerful song, rendered triumphantly here by the always marvelous Lynne Wintersteller, but it's not really clear what this admittedly horrific experience has to do with organizing unions and abolishing child labor. Mother Jones itself is going to need a bit more organizing if it's going to have any chance of bringing its message to the masses.
Clinton - the Musical - You might think a musical about Bill Clinton would be one long dick joke. And you'd be right. (Get it? Long? Dick? Tee-hee...) That's pretty much what Clinton - the Musical amounts to right now: a two-hour parade of sniggering schoolboy innuendo and vulgarity. There's even a song called "I'm Fucking the Fucking President." And it gets a reprise. The show has a book by Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge, with music and lyrics by Paul Hodge, and just about the only inspired choice the Hodges make is to have Clinton played by two different actors, one representing his presidential side, and the other his horn-dog side, although this isn't fully exploited at this point in the show's development. The rest of the show pretty much amounts to a rather flabby attempt at topical humor. The well-known cast of characters here become broad characterizations of the most obvious sort. Al Gore is played by a cardboard cutout. Monica Lewinsky becomes a shallow ditz who sports a stylized cum stain on her dress for more than half the show. Newt Gingrich is a cackling demon: the fight over the big government shutdown of 1995 is represented by a boxing match. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is introduced with a number called - I kid you not - "A Starr Is Born." When the show isn't trafficking in the obvious, it utlizes such past-its-sell-date humor as having the cast sing and dance about the legal definition of "sexual relations" to the tune of the "Macarena." Toward the end of the show, there were a few effective sequences, including one in which the two Bills and Hillary practice together for the State of the Union address in order to remove any possible double entendres. Yeah, we're still talking dick jokes, but there was at least some craft behind it. The Hillary character also gets a fairly effective, even moving, 11 o'clock number in which she finally confronts Bill about all the lying and infidelity. But, on the whole, Clinton is rather flaccid. (Which, BTW Messrs. Hodge, is traditionally pronounced "flack-sid," not "flassid.")
The Snow Queen - Most of the shows at NYMF are on a pretty tight budget, so the physical production values tend to be modest. The show with the best design this year was The Snow Queen, which is based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson. The costumes, projections, even the show's logo represent a top-notch sense of overall design. Now, all that sharp stagecraft needs is a better show to support. The book here is by Kirsten Brandt and Rick Lombardo, the music by Haddon Kime and Rick Lombardo, the lyrics by Brandt, Kime, and Lombardo. The show seems to have Peter and the Starcatcher ambitions, with a sort of objet trouvé feel, a stage full of actor/musicians, and various attempts at suggested versus literal stagecraft. Right now, though, The Snow Queen lacks the spark and sense of riotous fun that Peter and the Starcatcher so vividly reflected. The story concerns two chIldhood friends, Kai and Gerde. Kai falls under the spell of the Snow Queen and follows her to her icy lair, and Gerde sets off the find him. Along the way, she meets a succession of would-be vivid comic characters, but only a few of these characterizations were fully successful. The ensemble cast is mostly quite strong, although there was some scenery chewing going on. The show has significant dramaturgy problems at present: when the show starts, it's unclear whether the Snow Queen or another character, the Troll, would eventually become the antagonist. Are these two characters in cahoots, or are they separate malevolent forces? Later, when Kai first encounters the Snow Queen, he suddenly becomes obsessed with counting. Eventually we learn that this has a purpose, but it was quizzical at the time. But the main liability here is the score, which is thoroughly unappealing, a wall of undifferentiated sound that makes it difficult to understand most of the lyrics. This may be partly due to poor sound design and muddy orchestrations, but whatever the cause, the music comes off as an amorphous emo drone. I'm sure the composer is going for something modern and outré, but this is a kids show, and children haven't yet developed the parts of their brains that can appreciate dissonance. That's why most children's music features perfect intervals. I think there's a solid show in the making here, but the music is going to need a significant overhaul.
Zombie Strippers - With a show named Zombie Strippers, it can go one of two ways: brilliant camp or forced, self-conscious muddle. Zombie Strippers is much closer to the latter, and even at only 65 minutes, significantly overstays its welcome. As the title implies, Zombie Strippers is about a trio of strippers who...well...become zombies. A mourning coworker visits the graveyard with her douchebag boyfriend, which sets the plot in motion. The book, music, and lyrics by Mark LaPierre, and really the only thing here that's promising are LaPierre's lyrics, which show some talent for word play and occasional flashes of genuine wit. But there are some lyrics that just don't make any sense, for instance, "Life is like a play. It's depressing and unfair." Um, is that really what plays are? More likely this is simply due to faulty modification, but clarity is part of the craft, folks. At times, it's not entirely clear that the characters are aware of what they're saying. In one song, the two key females are supposed to be revealing something significant about themselves, but one character actually says nothing new, meanwhile seemingly ignoring a major reveal on the part of the other character. The music here, canned and live electronic synth, is far too languid for a purportedly comic show. LaPierre frequently undercuts the comedy of his lyrics by crafting extended vocal lines that kill that joke. Like many of this year's NYMF composers, La Pierre seems to be deliberately avoiding tonality, which makes for an unpleasant aural experience. Just because the show is about zombies doesn't mean the audience should be in pain. As for the book, it's not clear that the show even understands, let alone reflects, its internal rules about what creates these zombies or how to kill them. Even a show with a ridiculous premise needs to have an internal logic; any sci-fi fan will tell you that. I get the feeling that ZombieStrippers, unlike its titillating titular characters, isn't looking at much of an afterlife.
You gotta admire the cojones on anyone who writes a musical called Atomic. I mean, theater critics and their editors can be mean enough with headlines even without such low-hanging fruit.
OK, I'll bite: Atomic is a bomb. Well, that may be a tad too strong, but Atomic is certainly a dud.
Atomic is a new musical currently playing Off-Broadway at New York's Theatre Row, and features a book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore, and music and lyrics by Philip Foxman. Apparently, the show started off in Australia, where it received rather mixed reviews. Why the authors thought the next step was to bring the show to New York City for commercial run is beyond me.
I mean, who's paying for this? The cast features top-notch New York performers, including Jeremy Kushnier, Euan Morton, Sara Gettelfinger, Jonathan Hammond, Randy Harrison, and David Abeles. The producers have enlisted a high-profile marketing and press team. And the set, by Neil Patel, is a gleaming network of metallic cubes and sliding screens that would not be out of place on Broadway. All this while far more worthy musicals languish in obscurity due to lack of production funds.
Atomic attempts to wring dramatic weight from the Manhattan Project, the American race against the Germans to build the atomic bomb. The authors have chosen to focus on these momentous events from the point-of-view of Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian physicist who first formulated the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, which in turn became the basis for the atomic bomb. It's an intriguing premise, but it receives a decidedly clumsy treatment here. Atomic wants to be both searing drama and goofy satire, and is ultimately unsuccessful at both.
The book to Atomic does reflect a certain intelligence, but the dialogue is overly expository, reflecting that "But, of course!" factor prevalent in cheesy '50s horror films. The characters have dramatic realizations without our fully comprehending the significance, complete with sudden jolts of mumbo-jumbo physics talk to establish some science cred. Despite the extremely high stakes of the historical events, Atomic winds up being about the banal concerns of the brilliant. Most of act one seems concerned with the negative effects all this work is having on Szilárd's relationship with his wife, complete with manufactured tension over observing the Jewish sabbath.
I was on the fence about Atomic for the first ten minutes, until we got to "America Amore," a crass would-be comic number that's meant to introduce us to Enrico Fermi, in which poor Jonathan Hammond is forced to slither and slather over a couple of buxom science babes. You know, because that's what Fermi was famous for. But more to the point, it really has nothing to do with Fermi's function in the rest of the narrative; it's just a cheap attempt at injecting some unnecessary comic relief into the show.
There's another howler of a number at the top of act two in which we meet three Rosie the Riveter types (complete with laughably literal "We Can Do It!" costumes) who are assembling the pieces of the atomic bomb, although they don't know that's what they're doing. So, they shrug and relate quite gleefully, in tight Andrews-Sisters-style harmony, that all they're told is that they "make the holes in the donuts."
It's not really clear why this material needed to be a musical in the first place. At numerous times throughout Atomic, I found myself asking, "Why are these people singing?" Or, more accurately, "Why are these people screaming?" For some reason, the authors thought the story was best served by having some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century wail in the style of arena-rock hair bands of the 1980s.
The lyrics here range from laughably general (as with the repeated refrain, "We gotta hit the bottom 'fore we reach the top") to the ridiculously specific ("Let them have my patents..."). The ballads are of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" variety, including such blather-filled references as to "the blinding brilliant headlights of this love."
Atomic does have some effective moments, particularly in a sober epilogue in which all the major players who built the A-bomb meet up years later and talk about answering the "Why Did You Do It?" query they repeatedly find themselves receiving. It's a question the authors of Atomic might well ask themselves. (Hey, open with a cheap shot, close with a cheap shot.)
Here's my second installment of reviews from this year's New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF). I continue to be impressed at the overall higher caliber of shows at this year's festival. In particular, there seem to be far fewer shows with major dramaturgical problems.
Yeah, I know. Let's break it down. Dramaturgy basically refers to act of shaping a show into a performable piece, as distinct from actually writing the play. A dramaturg is sort of like an editor for playwrights. Examples of dramaturgical problems would include songs that don't have sufficient justification in the story, characters who make choices that we don't fully understand, events that occur without clear causes or antecedents, etc. If a show has you asking, "Wait, what? Who? Where? Why?," then that show has problems with its dramaturgy.
As we'll see in my next installment of reviews, there have been a few NYMF musicals that had me scratching my head at various times throughout the show, but again that number is significantly smaller than in previous years.
Coming of Age - Songs cycles are tricky to pull off. There needs to be a certain cohesion to the material, a clear sensibility to the writing. Oh, and they need to be short. At two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission, Coming of Age is anything but short. Not only does the entire show go on too long -- about an hour too long -- but each of the numbers tends to overstay its welcome as well. The music and lyrics for Coming of Age are by Jon Provan, and his music is not without merit; some of it is quite pleasant, actually. Provan's lyrics are passable when the tone of the song is upbeat, as is the case with a charming song early in the show in which a Jewish girl complains that "nobody gives a shit about a bat mitzvah." However, the lyrics here are replete with enough slant rhyme, faulty scansion, and forced extra syllables to outfit a season of developing shows. When the songs get serious, out come the New Age platitudes and ponderously anthemic vocal lines. The entire show gives off an air of self-consciousness, a security in its own importance. As the title implies, Coming of Age is about rights of passage. However, Provan seems to have mistaken breadth for depth, and includes numbers from a risibly broad range of epochs, including numbers about Norse warriors heading out to sea, a child king about to be crowned, a young Spartan who's reluctant to be trained, and an adolescent Cro-Magnon hunting the wooly mammoth. I kid you not.
Bayonets of Angst - I almost wasn't going to see this one, but I'm so glad I did. Bayonets of Angst, despite the awkward title,is a hoot and a holler. The hilarious book is by Rick Kunzi and Justin Zeppa, and basically amounts to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson without all that annoying emo music. The story is essentially The Civil War filtered through the authors' wonderfully twisted sensibility. If only the rest of American history had been this howlingly funny, I might have paid closer attention in high school. The show begins with the last surviving veterans of the War Between the States, who have gathered for their 149th reunion -- although, clearly, none of them are moving very fast -- and they resolve to tell the "truth" about the war while they still have time. We then flash back to the time of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman, but these are very likely not to be the people you're familiar with from history books. Much of the fun here comes from the sure-handed comic direction of Michael Lluberes, who keeps the proceedings going at a fevered pitch for most of the show's 90 minutes. The score is slightly less effective than the book and direction, but that was pretty much the case with Bloody Bloody as well. Another major source of joy here is the supremely gifted cast, flawless to a man (which might seem like a sexist phrase, except that the entire cast is male). The protean ensemble includes J. Robert Spencer (Lincoln), Paul Whitty (Grant), Michael Abbot Jr. (Sherman), Ryan Andes (Robert E. Lee), and Brian Charles Rooney as Gen. George B. McLellan. Rooney is a man with an almost frightening vocal range and character intensity. Someone find this show, preferably with this cast, an Off-Broadway berth. It's just about ready for prime time.
Rescue Rue - Here's another one I wasn't planning to see, but I'm a NYMF juror, and they needed someone else to cover this show. I haven't had very good experiences with musicals aimed at children; people seem to think that a kids' show doesn't need to be well-written. Yeah, well, talk to the guys at Pixar about that. The book for Rescue Rue is by Stacey Weingarten, the music and lyrics by Kate Steinberg, Joshua Zecher-Ross, and Weingarten. A show that could have been twee and cutesy winds up being warm and sweet, even moving. Think Avenue Q without the sex and profanity. Oh, and the irony. Actually, just about the only things Rescue Rue shares with Avenue Q are the puppets and the ingratiating way of telling the story. The story starts with an unnamed dog (who eventually acquires the name "Rue") being kicked out into the world by an uncaring family. She meets up with her Fairy Dog Mother, who grants Rue a wish. When Rue asks for a "Happily Ever After," the Fairy Dog Mother reluctantly agrees (knowing that Happily-Ever-Afters only arrive after many trials and setbacks) and what follows is Rue's bumpy journey to her own happy end. Unlike, say, Freckleface Strawberry, Rescue Rue treats its audience with respect, offering the linear narrative and character consistencies that Freckleface sorely lacked. The resolution for Rescue Rue is so darned cute, not to mention dramatically apt, that by the end I was sniffling happily along with the rest of the audience. There's just the right touch of agitprop here in showcasing the plight of rescue dogs. Well, message received: when I get a new dog this fall, I'm defintely planning on going the rescue route.
WikiMusical - There's always at least one musical at NYMF that thinks it's a whole lot more clever and funny than it actually is. This year, that show is WikiMusical, a deceptive title, in that the users don't actually get to log in and edit the show. (If only...) The book and lyrics are by Frank Ceruzzi and Blake J. Harris, the music by Trent Jeffords. The writing here is sort of on the level of a high-school skit: sophomoric humor, awkward dialogue, and pedestrian lyrics, complete with poor scansion and slant rhyme aplenty. The story concerns two brothers who somehow get sucked inside the Internet, and need to find a way back home. What follows is an aimlessly episodic series of would-be comic set pieces that, despite fleeting moments of wit, tend to fall flat. It's the sort of show that thinks topical references (a scheming Nigerian prince, a cemetery of unsent emails, a climactic game of Mario Brothers) will automatically make it funny. Eventually we get the obligatory expository dialogue from the evildoers, attempting to bring all this muddle to a conclusion, but the denouement is thoroughly inexplicable, rivalling that of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (the first version, before Taymor was fired). The songs feature lots of screaming and reeeeeeealllllly loooooooong noooooootes at the end. As I sat enduring the show, I couldn't help thinking of the actors in these NYMF shows, and the challenge they face of fully committing to material that is not always worthy of their talents. (I happen to know one of the performers in WikiMusical. Pumpkin, I feel your pain.)
The Gig - I was surprised to see The Gig listed among the NYMF offerings this year, mostly because I've seen the show before, some 12 years ago at the Lyric Stage in Boston. The performance rights for the show are available from Samuel French and a cast recording came out in 2008. So, what's it doing at NYMF? I can only assume that composer/lyricist/librettist Douglas J. Cohen (No Way to Treat a Lady, Children's Letters to God) thinks the show deserves another chance at the limelight, whatever that might entail. The fact that The Gig has been in development for years is quite evident: the show has a polish that few NYMF shows can boast. It's the story of an amateur jazz sextet, a bunch of middle-aged guys who get together once a week to jam. Along comes a chance at an actual paid gig, and the men take time from their careers (dentist, used-car salesman, real-estate agent, etc.) to spend two weeks in the Catskills. The show starts with an infectious opening sequence that efficiently establishes the main characters and sets the plot in motion. Cohen's score is complex and satisfying, continually taking the music in interesting directions, and reflecting a deft hand with complex group numbers. What's more, Cohen makes these people real and distinct, with easy character-based humor and an infectious sense of camaraderie. Along the way, Cohen crafts charming moments of joy and loss, while successfully avoiding schmaltz. He effectively develops the characters of all six men, while making the supporting characters real as well. That's quite a feat. I don't know what sort of future might lie ahead for The Gig, but I can say it's a terrific show, and that I hope Cohen keeps on writing.
Ah, summer. Looks like it's time for a little NYMF-ing. Well, maybe more than a little. I mean, faced with the prospect of 24 new musicals, 9 concerts, 10 development readings, and numerous workshops, I'm basically a kid in a candy store here. This will be my third year at The New York Musical Theatre Festival, my second as a juror. I just spent my first of three weekends bingeing on musicals in development, and I must say that overall I've noticed a higher quality caliber of shows than in previous years.
The good folks at NYMF seem to be doing a better job of selecting more artistically promising shows. Sure, there are still quite a few shows that will need considerable work to get anything close to produceable form, but on the whole, there's better storytelling, stronger lyrics and more mature music than I've noticed in previous years. Now, I have yet to see anything to rival the overall excellence of last year's Crossing Swords or Julian Po, but I do still have two weekends and 12 shows to go. As I have in the past, I'll be publishing three to four collections of capsule reviews. Here's my first batch, in the order in which I saw the shows:
Academia Nuts - My first NYMF show this year was Academia Nuts, a sort of would-be Spelling Bee with book and lyrics by Becca Anderson and Dan Marshall, and music by Julian Blackmore. Academia Nuts centers around a national quiz-show competition, with two teams vying for the championship, one comprising a family of home-schooled Christians, the other a more conventional-yet-still-geeky crew from a public high school. The show is certainly as funny as Spelling Bee, but as yet it's not quite as tuneful or moving. Anderson and Marshall show great promise as librettists: the scenario here is compelling and the book is at times uproarious. (One Evita-inspired pun had me rolling.) However, their lyric writing needs some work. According to their bios, the authors met at NYU in its graduate musical-theater writing workshop. Apparently NYU never covered prosody, as the lyrics to Academia Nuts are a bit too replete with faulty emphasis for my taste ("Play-TOH" for "Plato" and "high SCHOOL" being two notable examples). Blackmore's score is rather tuneless at times, although my reaction may also be the result of the colorless orchestrations and ear-splitting sound in evidence at the performance I attended. Still, in the asset column we have the extremely humorous book, plus some strong characterizations: Jennifer Simard gives the single funniest performance I've ever seen at a NYMF show, bringing a hilarious deadpan to the role of the home-schooling mother and coach of the rival team.
ValueVille - One of the biggest challenges in writing a musical is developing a consistent tone. I've seen many a developing show struggle with finding a unified voice: comedy? tragedy? black comedy? satire? ValueVille is a musical that has yet to fully establish its ideal tone. The book, lyrics, and music for ValueVille are by Rowan Casey, and in future efforts Casey might be wise to take on some collaborators. Almost all of the show's songs are generic, with blandly unspecific lyrics. If you were to just listen to the score, you would have no idea what was going on in the show. But the main problem here is the book, which tries unsuccessfully to shift back and forth between knockabout comedy and grave contemplation. At first, ValueVille appears to be a light-hearted satire of big-box discount stores, but eventually it turns into a sort of tragicomic take on Sartre's No Exit. Casey never really makes it clear as to exactly what's going on. I mean, there's mystery and there's muddle. You're allowed to challenge the audience, but not to baffle them. ValueVille left me baffled. The internal logic of the show is inconsistent; characters react with shock to events that they should already be used to. Casey's book does reflect some intelligence and humor, but by the end the show becomes irritatingly ponderous, with ham-fisted attempts at deeper meaning and bland proclamations about the true meaning of life and love.
Searching for Romeo - Unlike ValueVille, Searching for Romeo has a triple-threat author who seems more than up to all three tasks. This charming show is by Brian Sutton, and it's one of the most promising shows I've seen at NYMF this year. Searching for Romeo is a modern, comic riff on Romeo and Juliet, except from the perspective of two relatively minor characters: Rosaline and Paris. It's sort of like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, but far more light-hearted in tone, and without the philosophical wordplay. Sutton's music is extremely pleasant, retro pop, tuneful and infectious. Sutton seems to have strong instincts about which moments to musicalize, and is especially adept at creating opportunities for multiple characters to sing about the same subject, thus creating engaging duets, trios, even sextets. The lyrics reflect a fair amount of slant rhyme, but in this case it seems defensible in light of Shakespeare's frequent use of eye rhyme. The story is told in a sort of daydream, as a young women drifts off in English class while the class is reading Romeo and Juliet aloud. This presents Sutton with the opportunity of mixing modern lingo with Shakesperean meter and phrasing to deft comic effect. The dialogue features Shakespeare puns and allusions aplenty, which might have been more groan-worthy in less capable hands. The show has some transition issues to work out, but on the whole seems in terrific shape already. The NYMF production featured a particularly strong ensemble of players, including a valiant director's assistant by the name of Dan Drew, who at the eleventh hour stepped into the male lead role, script in hand, when the original actor fell ill. Bravo, dude.
Cloned - Each year, NYMF seems to feature at least one campy mad-scientist musical, usually with mixed results. This year, there's Cloned, and the results are on the whole better than with previous entries in this NYMF subgenre. The book is by Jacey Powers and Dan Wolpow, lyrics by Dan Wolpow, and music by Adam Spiegel. Cloned features a very promising scenario, clever comic dialogue, and strong storytelling. A young scientist is trying to invent a teleportation machine, but accidentally winds up closing himself and others. The show takes a while to warm up, but eventually features some wonderfully humorous sequences. One problem might be the borderline racist landlord character, a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but that could easily be toned down. Overall the story works; would that I could say the same about the score. When the music in Cloned isn't bland, it's rather unappealing, sometimes painful. Spiegel demonstrates little gift for tonality here, although the uptempo songs fair slightly better than the ballads. The NYMF production features a very solid cast overall, with three particularly strong performances from John Alban Coughlan as Dr. Marshall, the mad professor; Matthew Knowland as Fizz, the stoner roommate; and Crystal Kellogg as Sharon Stone. Yes, that Sharon Stone. With some work, Cloned could be a winner. Well, if about half of the songs were replaced, or at least got some more euphonious music.
Somewhere With You - Sometimes, when I'm watching a show, I have to remind myself that there's no such thing as a bad idea, only poor execution. Somewhere With You was a major challenge in this respect. The show has a book by Peter Zinn, music and lyrics by JT Harding. On paper here, there's absolutely nothing that I would normally respond to. The score is wall-to-wall country music, a genre to which I have no connection. The characters are essentially white-trash crystal-meth addicts and their ilk, one of whom volunteers for the National Guard and is deployed to Iraq. Not my music, not my people, not my world. So you need to make me care. And I didn't. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the show, other than these were unsympathetic people involved in an increasingly unpleasant series of events. Yes, musicals can feature bad people and tragic circumstances, but you need to have the artistic chops to make it work. The score for Somewhere With You apparently includes songs that have already been hits on the country charts, which is probably why a number of them felt generic. Other songs felt in questionable taste, including one for the resident psychopathic drug dealer about the phone sex he has every Friday night while in prison, complete with scantily clad maidens writhing in the foreground. The book has some significant dramaturgical issues regarding who knows what and when, and features a number of scenes that are of questionable relevance, including a bizarre one-off song about a character who has shot a bunch of Iraqi children. We've never seen the character before and never see him again. I think part of my negative reaction to the show came in response to the exaggerated friends-and-family applause from the audience at the performance I caught. Never a good idea, folks.
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.
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.
OK, I admit it. I was skeptical when the Roundabout Theatre Companyannounced its plans to bring its acclaimed 1998 revival of Cabaret back to Studio 54. It seemed like a cynical attempt to resurrect a cash cow for an organization that has been struggling under the weight of its own ever-widening girth.
Well, all of that may still be true, but there's no question that this revival of a revival still packs an artistic and emotional wallop. This Cabaret should always be welcome on Broadway.
As I sat watching the current production, I was continually reminded of the importance of Cabaret, both in terms of its artistry and its signifcance in the development of musical theater. When I cover Cabaret in my musical-theater history course, I emphasize the rise of modernism in musical theater, the solidification of the concept show, and the break from traditional storytelling structure. Cabaret also has a message that remains all too timely. At every turn, the show seems to be saying: this could happen here.
When co-directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall brought Cabaret back to Broadway in 1998, the show had been revised considerably from its original form in 1966, and even its first Broadway revival in 1987, and the changes took what was a sensational piece to begin with and made it even better. Cabaret is, of course, based on the play I Am a Cameraby John Van Druten, which was in turn adapted from Christopher Isherwood's book, The Berlin Stories. I often say that the 1998 revival fulfilled the show's promise as a dramatic work, but it also made the show more historically accurate. The revisions not only bring greater efficiency and power to the show, they also bring it more in line with the atmosphere of Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s that Isherwood describes so vividly in his work.
One of the most significant changes was restoring the full impact of the song, "If You Could See Her." Anyone who's seen the 1972 movie or the 1998 version of the show knows that the song ends with a real punch in the gut. The Emcee sings comedically about his love for a gorilla, which ends with the line, "If you could see her through my eyes...she wouldn't look Jewish at all." Unfortunately, this line was mistaken by audience members of the '60s production as a direct insult to Jews. Original director Hal Prince decided to change the line (to "she isn't a meeskite at all," a Yiddish word for someone with an ugly face), figuring that the show was taking enough chances to begin with, and couldn't risk alienating a core demographic. The movie version restored the original lyric, and it has remained with the stage version ever since.
Cabaret has also evolved over time in its portraying of homosexuality. Cliff, the show's male lead, is a proxy for author Christopher Isherwood, and Isherwood was decidedly gay. The original Cabaret bowdlerized Cliff's sexuality, and even included two offensively stereotypical queens in the opening number, as if to more fully distance itself from the truth. The 1972 film portrays Cliff as bisexual, and it wasn't until the 1998 Cabaret that Cliff became fully gay. Cliff does, however, have sex with Sally, enough for them to wonder whether Cliff is the father of Sally's baby. The current portrayal of Cliff is not only truer to the source, it's also truer to the spirit of the times, with its free and fluid sense of pansexuality, one of the very things, in fact, that Hitler was able to successfully demonize and persecute in his rise to power.
The current production, as far as I can recall, is pretty much an exact copy of the 1998 show, which is just fine with me.
Back are the cabaret tables with drink and food service. But more important is the overall production concept, the at-times brutal staging, and the brilliant directorial touches,
with the deft use a cigar here or a lipstick there. Alan Cumming is mesmerizing as ever as the Emcee, and Hollywood import Michelle Williams makes a strong impression in her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles. Ther's been a lot of grumbling about Williams in reviews and online, but I found her adorable and captivating.
For me, the true stars of this revival are Danny Bursteinand Linda Emond as Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider, respectively. Burstein is captivating as always, bringing a searing sense of pathos to his portrayal. (Will someone give this guy a Tony, already?) I've only seen Emond before in non-musicals, and she's a bit of a revelation here, moving and restrained, with strong, haunting singing voice. Burstein and Emond's duet, "It Couldn't Please Me More," was a charming highlight in what is already a production with an embarrassment of riches.
Of course, another key factor in bringing such potentially challenging fare to Broadway is the numerous nonprofit theaters that operate regularly within its confines, including the Roundabout Theatre Company, which is responsible for bringing both Violet and Cabaret to the Main Stem this season.
One might argue that Cabaret would sell regardless of any nonprofit sponsorship or star presence. But I can't imagine we'd have seen either Violet or Hedwig this season were it not for the nonprofit/star combo for the former, or the megastar factor for the latter. From where I sit, this is all for the good, because all three of these productions are outstanding in their own ways. (See my Hedwig review here. I'll be reviewing Cabaret in my next post.)
I saw Violet last July at City Center as part of the Encores! Off-Center Series, and was instantly reminded both of my admiration for the piece itself and of my ardent appreciation of the numerous and varied charms of Sutton Foster. Violet is based on the short story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, and relates the story of a young woman who was horribly disfigured as a child (her father accidentally struck her in the face with an axe) and her journey to meet up with a faith-healing preacher in the hope of healing the wound.
Violet frequently makes an appearance when my students write their "Most Underrated Musical" papers, and I have always been apt to agree with that designation. The score, with music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Brian Crawley, is an outstanding mix of idiomatic bluegrass, revelatory character numbers, and complex musical sequences that provide a wealth of dramatic information in an entertaining and efficient fashion.
My personal favorite among these sequences is "The Luck of the Draw," a remarkable song that joins past (as Violet's father teaches her to play poker) and present (as Violet demonstrates her skill to her male traveling companions) in a way that amply illuminates both. Tesori and Crawley also make stunningly effective use of leitmotif, particularly in "Look at Me," which includes a climactic callback to Violet's quite literal wanting song, "All to Pieces." It's a stirring juxtaposition of the moment we understand the depth of her desire and the moment she discovers that she's not going to get it.
This has really been a great year for Jeanine Tesori, what with a Broadway resurrection of Violet and an acclaimed and extended run of her absolutely shattering Fun Home at the Public. Tesori's career thus far has been a fairly startling mix of the ambitious (Violet, Caroline or Change, Fun Home) and the populist (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek). I've defended Tesori's blatant attempts at making some money on numerous occasions, and my defense essentially comes down to this: people need to make a living. And if doing shows like Shrek and Millie gives Tesori the financial wherewithal to produce more challenging works, then I say let the woman make some money already.
Brian Crawley's book for Violet was revised for the Encores! concert, and shortened considerably from two acts to one. The script for the Broadway production restores some of the cut material, but the Broadway version feels less urgent, and the production goes on for about 15 minutes longer than is probably wise. Particularly quizzical is a restored dream sequence for Violet that includes some rather inscrutable business with three singing cowboys and some uncharacteristically awkward staging. Still, the show remains strong, particularly in crafting complex portraits of three edgy, layered, and believable characters: Violet and her two traveling companions, Flick and Monty.
Sutton Foster remains one of my favorite Broadway actors currently working. Foster is remarkably appealing in whatever she does, and that appeal comes in handy for her performance as Violet, given the character's frayed edges and defensiveness. I know there are some Sutton haters out there, but I've enjoyed every performance I've seen her in, even if the show itself wasn't worthy of her talents (Young Frankenstein? Blech.)
Alongside Foster are and intense and bright-eyed Joshua Henry as Flick and Colin Donnell as Monty. I've seen productions of Violet in which Monty sort of fades into the woodwork, but Donnell puts his own charming and distinctive spin on a character that could potentially come off as callous. No doubt much of these nuances are the work of director Leigh Silverman, who crafts a heartfelt and dynamic production, with able assistance from rising directorial star and Boston Conservatory graduate Ilana Ransom Toeplitz. (Full disclosure: Ilana is one of my former students, so you'll forgive me if I gush.)
Violet is currently scheduled to play through August 10th. The Roundabout has two shows scheduled to follow Violet in the American Airlines Theatre (The Real Thing and On the 20th Century), so there doesn't seem to be much likelihood of an extension. So, check it out. I think you'll be glad you made the journey.
I went into the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fully expecting to enjoy myself. What I didn't expect was that I would be so blown away, both by the power of the piece, and by Neil Patrick Harris's electrifying performance.
Harris has emerged in recent years as one of the most charming, appealing, and downright likable performers we have in the theater. Of course, he hasn't been on Broadway in 10 years, but he's ingratiated himself to no end during his numerous stints hosting the Tony Awards broadcasts.
Also, I love me some Hedwig. I include the show in my musical-theater history course as part of my discussion of the evolution of the portrayal of LGBTQ characters, and for the past few years have had my students watch the film version. The context: when you can start portraying the decidedly fringe elements of a societal subgroup, you know that, to a certain extent, that subgroup has arrived.
Beyond its historic significance, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a riotous, affecting portrait of one of the most indelible characters in musical theater. Hedwig the character, as crafted by John Cameron Mitchell, both author and original performer, is by turns sardonic, poignant, and, yes, angry as all hell. The score by Stephen Trask is both hard-driving and melodic, although Trask's lyrics too frequently exhibit poor scansion. For instance, the song "Wicked Little Town" features the lyric "You know you can follow my voice," which places the emphasis on the second syllable of "follow." Despite these occasional missteps, the score is strong and memorable, particularly "Wig in a Box," one of my favorite showtunes of the past 20 years.
As you may have heard, Mitchell has updated the text to Hedwig to include references to the show's move to a Broadway venue, specifically the Belasco Theatre. Most of the updates are in the first 20 minutes or so of the show, and they include a running bit about the ghost of David Belasco, who legend has it haunts the theater that bears his name.
Also, if you've seen the show, you know that Hedwig is essentially following his former lover, the glam-rock star Tommy Gnosis, around the country playing gigs adjacent to Tommy's arena shows. In the Broadway version, Tommy is playing a public concert in Times Square, which gives Hedwig the opportunity to open the back door and vent his frustration in Tommy's direction.
Mitchell justifies the show's move to Broadway by including new back story about how the theater suddenly became available upon the closure of a fictitious musical version of The Hurt Locker. Hedwig proceeds to perform his "one-night only" concert on the Hurt Locker set. Attendees at early performances of Hedwig even received mock Hurt Locker Playbills, which you can read here (click forward to page 11), and I was fortunate enough to snag one that someone had left behind. Let's just say that whoever created the text for this faux Playbill must have had a really good time putting it together. It's a frickin' hoot.
Even without all the changes, Hedwig more than warrants her Broadway transfer with a briskly paced, sharply staged production from director Michael Mayer, and a remarkable cast, including of course the aforementioned Mr. Harris, who displays not only a very facile stage presence, but also tremendous depth in characterization and a fairly kick-ass high baritone. Alongside Harris is Tony nominee Lena Hall as a smartly underplayed Yitzak, who nevertheless can bust out a penetrating rock wail when the occasion calls.
Hedwigand the Angry Inch is currently scheduled to run through August 17th, and ticket sales have indeed been brisk. But if there's any production on Broadway this season that fully justifies its steep ticket prize, it's Hedwig.
If I had to sum up musical-theater history in just one word, that word would be "integration," which I define for my Boston Conservatory students as the extent to which a song or dance contributes to the dramatic purpose of the show. An integrated song or dance can serve one or more of the following purposes:
1. Progressing the plot 2. Revealing character 3. Establishing time and place
Over the past 150 years or so, musical theater has moved, sometimes painfully slowly, toward greater integration. Songs and dances used to be pasted onto a show, often with little or no relevance to what was going on in the show. Sometimes the songs were interpolated from outside sources, but even the songs that were actually written for the shows in question often had scant relationship to the proceedings at hand.
Then came such pioneers as Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Kurt Weill, George S. Kaufman, and Moss Hart, who worked strenuously toward a more organic form of musical theater, one in which the songs and dances emerged naturally from dramatic necessity.
So, what does this have to do with Bullets Over Broadway? Lots. I knew there was going to be trouble when I heard that Bullets would not be receiving an original score, but would instead be populated by standards from the American Songbook from the 1920s and 1930s. Did we learn nothing from Big Deal? If Bob Fosse, with decades of musical-theater expertise behind him, wasn't able to make it work with that show, what made Woody Allen think he could do it with almost no musical-theater experience? I mean, yeah, he did Everyone Says I Love You, but part of the charm of that film was how utterly ridiculous it was that these people were singing. (If you can call that singing.)
If we've learned one thing from the dreaded jukebox musical, it's this: It's extremely difficult (but not impossible) to successfully interpolate an entire score-ful of previously existing songs effectively. Bullets musical supervisor Glen Kelly has adapted the songs and written additional lyrics for such classics as "'T'ain't Nobody's Bus'ness," "Running Wild," and "Let's Misbehave," but almost all of the songs and dances feel wedged in. It feels as though the decisions about where to put musicals numbers were made because of timing, as in "We haven't had a number for a while. Who can we have sing this time?" Everything about Bullets Over Broadway feels labored, as though the creators are forcing the piece to become a musical against its will, and the piece isn't very happy about it.
For instance, one of the show's intended showstoppers is the aforesaid "'T'ain't Nobody's Bus'ness," which turns into a rousing tap number for Tony nominee Nick Cordero and the male ensemble. It's a great number, at least as staged by Susan Stroman, but there isn't really a reason for the Cheech character to dance, nor for his fellow gangsters to join him. Later, at the end of the show, we have the entire cast singing "Yes, We Have No Bananas," which sort of feels like the entire show in microcosm. The song has no relevance whatsoever to what's happening at the end of the show, as though Allen and Stroman are throwing up their hands and saying, "Yeah, we got nothing."
In truth, some of the musical numbers aren't bad as numbers per se. It's just that when the book kicks back in, the show tends to grind to a halt. Allen's dialogue is clunky and overly expository, and his characters, so rich in the movie, here feel paper thin. You'd think at least that a Woody Allen musical would be funny. Not so much. The night I saw the show, much of the intended humor was landing with a thud. This is the guy who wrote Sleeper, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and other comedy classics. But here we get such tired interchanges as the following:
Character 1: "He's got his finger in a number of pies." Character 2: "What is he, a baker?"
Really, Woody? Really?
Many of the members of the cast are fairly game. Zach Braff is suitably affable in the John Cusack role. Nick Cordero certainly makes a strong impression as Cheech, played by Chazz Palminteri in the film, although I'm not sure Cordero's performance is Tony-worthy. The marvelous Marin Mazzie certainly gives it the old college try as Helen Sinclair, but honestly, how could anyone ever live up to Dianne Wiest?
Despite some moderately effective musical numbers, some solid performances, and the occasionally transportive comic set piece, the parts of Bullets Over Broadway never coalesce into a real show. It's a shame. Bullets could have made a great musical, but with someone with more extensive musical-theater experience writing the libretto and with an original score. (You know. Little things like that.)
So I can totally understand why the producers of Heathers: The Musical would think they had a slam dunk on their hands. Unfortunately, Heathers, currentlyplaying an open-ended run at Off-Broadway's New World Stages, while sporadically amusing, is wildly uneven as both a piece and a production, despite a decidedly talented cast, led by Barrett Wilbert Weed as Veronica and Ryan McCartan as J.D.
Heathers begins with an extended opening number that's meant to set the sardonic tone of the show, and the number is certainly rhythmic, but it is also tuneless. As the show progresses, the music gets downright ugly at times, which I suppose could be a choice on the creators' part, but it didn't make for a pleasant listening experience. The score for Heathers does feature one fairly decent song, called "Seventeen," which is a plea from the female lead to go back to being just another teenager.
Heathers could have worked as a musical based on a strong, funny libretto and sharp, comedic direction. But the night I saw the show, only about half of the intended humor was landing, despite an audience comprising a large number of diehard fans of the movie and a passel of incipient groupies for the stage version. I haven't seen the movie since it came out in 1989, and it appeared that some of the humor depended on one's memory of the movie. (For instance, the would-be humorous references to Corn Nuts.)
The first act of the show, despite the failed comedic bits, was certainly never dull. However, the second act became rather attenuated. (Should any entry into the genre of the campy Off-Broadway bloodbath ever be more than one act? Or longer than ninety minutes?) Act two also features a rather jarring shift in tone. Characters start singing extremely serious songs, devoid of irony, and the songs don't mesh with the rest of the score. The show then bumbles and sputters until the memorably dark finish, which partially redeems the show with its swift pacing and comparatively effective balance of drollery and pathos.
Perhaps a firmer hand at the helm might have made the difference. The director here is Andy Fickman, who also directed Reefer Madness, a production that had similar problems with consitency and pacing. Fickman's work on Heathers features some rather static staging and awkward comic business, amid fleeting moments of effectiveness. I have to wonder how well the show would have worked with, say, Scott Schwartz as director. Schwartz did such a masterful job with Bat Boy, and is currently represented at the New World Stages by Murder for Two, the charm and humor of which owes a great deal to Mr. Schwartz.
So, what's your damage, Heathers? A tuneless score, a middling book, and slack direction. (Well, f*** me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Teresa?)
I saw quite a few shows this spring, both on Broadway and off, but so far have only had a chance to blog about a handful of them. Now that school is officially out, I have some time to make my way through the backlog.
Let's start with the regrettable If/Then, which should really be called Wait/What?. As you may have heard, the show involves two separate story lines, both based on a seemingly innocuous decision that the lead character makes one day in the park. As the show progresses, the two stories intertwine, but rarely did I have any idea which story was developing when. By the end, I had given up trying to keep track. Worse yet, I didn't care, and really didn't see the point. Was one choice supposed to be better than the other? What are we to take away from this tale of The Road She Didn't Take But Maybe She Did?
I guess this is what happens when a writing team (Lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt) wins Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for their freshman musical effort. Apparently they get carte blanche and the people surrounding them don't feel they have the authority to point out what isn't working. Either that, or there was a rush to get the show to Broadway to accommodate Idina Menzel's schedule.
Whatever the reason, If/Then simply wasn't ready for Broadway. After Next to Normal premiered in NYC at the Second Stage, the show went out of town for much-needed and ultimately successful revisions. Although If/Then had a tryout of sorts in DC, the show clearly could have benefited from another non-profit run or two to work out the kinks, of which there are many. Without the imprimatur of the staff, I can't imagine If/Then would have made it past a workshop, at least not in its current form. The show feels like a semi-promising but nonetheless inchoate NYMF production.
I will give Yorkey and Kitt points for trying something original, something ambitious. But If/Then comes off as a show not so much about people as ideas: chance versus fate, integrity versus selling out, gentrification versus displacement. It's more an intellectual exercise than an engaging musical, despite occasional flashes of humor and humanity. Part of the problem is that there are way too many characters, and each character has two separate story lines to embody, which attenuates the development even further.
Things get a bit better in the second act: the characterizations become more credible, and the story becomes more emotionally engaging. I still couldn't tell who was who and when, but I at least believed they were real people. By the middle of the second act, things once again become rushed and thin, with plot elements appearing seemingly out of nowhere, including a rather quizzical and fraught flight to London for the Idina Menzel character. Next to Normal had very similar problems during its original Off-Broadway run, but subsequent regional productions helped the creators streamline the show and make it more consistent. (I still have my philosophical problems with Next to Normal, but I will accede the essential quality of the show itself.)
But here's the thing: even if I had been able to keep track of which character was in which story and at what time, and even if the characters had been more fully and richly developed, I still can't figure out what it was all supposed to mean. What are we to learn from witnessing the different outcomes from that fateful day in the park? Are we simply meant to ponder how choices lead us in different, but not necessarily more efficacious, directions? Again, I don't get it.
As for the score, it didn't really stick with me, other than a reasonably effective duet in the second act for a gay couple. For the most part, the songs felt generic, with lots of anthemic singing and park-and-bark belting, as one might expect from a vehicle for Idina Menzel. The would-be hip choreography by Larry Keigwin was risible and pointless, as though it was part of a failed effort to make the show feel more contemporary and happening. Director Michael Greif keeps the action moving fairly swiftly, although the elaborate glass and steel set felt like more of a distraction from Greiff's efforts than an enhancement.
If/Then appears to be selling very well, thanks mostly to the star power of Ms. Menzel. Surrounding Idina is a cast of appealing stage professionals, including LaChanze, James Snyder, Anthony Rapp, Jenn Colella, Jerry Dixon, and Jason Tam, although, as I mention, the show might have been far better off with fewer characters but more meaningful development of each. If you'd like to see a show that has terrific performers, rich characterizations, and a soaring, memorable score, go see The Bridges of Madison County before it closes this weekend. If only Idina had chosen that show as her Broadway comeback vehicle. She may not be right for the part, but at least it would have run.
I've seen a lot of boxing puns in the reviews of the new Broadway musical Rocky, based on the 1976 film of the same name. Rocky is a "contender," some contend. Others say Rocky "goes the distance" or that the show is an "uncontested winner."
Oh, I beg to contest. If I may also borrow from pugilistic parlance, Rocky has a glass jaw. Rocky should throw in the towel. Rocky loses by technical knockout.
The last of these is perhaps particularly appropriate, because among the many, many, many things wrong with Rocky is the grim, pointlessly complicated scenic design by Christopher Barreca. Each scene change seems to feature an oppressive series of death-gray walls and monolithic platforms that threaten to obliterate all who cross their path. The suffocating production design sets a tone for the rest of the show: slow, lumbering, and colorless.
Before I saw Rocky, I kept hearing from people that the last twenty minutes were the best part. Yeah, sorry. Even the last twenty minutes, which of course feature the climactic fight scene, didn't pack a punch. As you may have heard, the boxing ring rolls out over the first twelve rows of the orchestra, and the folks in those seats are relocated to bleachers on the stage, creating a sort of in-the-round experience. Whatever. Along the way, we're subjected to lame dialogue to cover the seemingly endless set change, complete with bored stagehands and surly ushers, just in case you weren't already removed from the drama. I'd call it a cheap gimmick, but I would imagine that such an effect was anything but cheap. It also wasn't quality musical theater.
But that, of course, can be said of the rest of Rocky as well. Physical production aside, Rocky the musical is a by-the-numbers pander-fest, and unimaginative retread of the the movie, and yet utterly lacking in the original's emotional engagement. It seems as though director Alex Timbers and the creative staff were handed a checklist by producer/librettist Sylvester Stallone, and there wasn't much they could all do except comply. The original Rocky theme featured prominently throughout the show in the orchestrations? Check. Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and raising his fists in the air? Check. Training montage to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger"? Check. The turtles, the raw eggs, the plaintive cry of "Adrian"? Check, check, check. Pander, pander, pander.
For me, the really heartbreaking thing is that Rocky has (only temporarily, I hope) besmirched the names of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyrcist Lynn Ahrens. I'm going to have to assume that these marvelous, talented people were hamstrung by the dictates of producer Sly Stallone. How else to explain the utter lack of inspiration? Not a single one of these songs makes any kind of impression, and they certainly don't add much to the drama. The song motivations here are lame at best, risible at worst. Rocky gets a painful "I Want" song called "My Nose Ain't Broken," which is bad enough, only to be followed by a rather ridiculous reprise, which was apparently intended for Rocky to communicate something meaningful to Adrian, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what.
In defense of Flaherty and Ahrens, I have to say that they were probably a bad fit for the material from the beginning. I often tout Flaherty and Ahrens to my students as the masters of the opening number, creating extended musical sequences that welcome the viewer into the world of the show. Think of the opening numbers to Ragtime, My Favorite Year, Once on This Island, Seussical, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, etc. All masterful. What we get at the beginning of Rocky is a tuneless series of interjections from random characters, no atmosphere, no nuance, and no apparent melody. The score never recovers.
Even worse is the plodding, pedestrian book by Stallone and Thomas Meehan, which features a plot with no sense of build. That's a major liability in a show that's all about the final scene. The story simply meanders from one event to the next, without much development or resolution. For instance, Adrian's brother Paulie gets drunk on Christmas, busts in on Rocky and Adrian, and destroys their Christmas tree with a baseball bat. This prompts Adrian to sing a song about wanting to be free of her brother's oppression, none of which we have borne witness to. All we've really seen of Paulie is how he wanted to set up Rocky and Adrian in the first place, and the fact that he wants to profit from Rocky's fame. We never see any abusive behavior, nor do we discover why Paulie would be resentful of Rocky and Adrian. And the next time we see Paulie, all is forgiven and forgotten.
Stallone's characters, so distinct and iconic in the 1976 movie, are rendered here with almost no depth. Why does Rocky feel like such a loser? Why is Adrian so resistant to Rocky's advances? Why does Apollo Creed even consent to fight Rocky in the first place? We never find out. Along the way, we're subjected to the hoariest of attempts at humor, most of which landed with a thud the night I saw the show. One female character says, of Adrian, "Say, what got into her?" Another replies, "Rocky Balboa." One of the same female characters later tells another, while they're in Adrian's pet shop, "You need a parakeet like these fish need a bicycle." This quip is a paraphrase of a quote often attributed to Gloria Steinem (although she denies authorship), but the point is, it isn't original, and in the context of the show, it just isn't funny.
On the plus side, it was great to see the inside of the Winter Garden Theater again. I will say this about Rocky: he did us all a favor by forcing Mamma Mia to relocate to the Broadhurst. A few years back, I reluctantly revisited Mamma Mia for the sole purpose of crossing the Winter Garden off my list of Broadway theaters in which I had seen shows. It was the only theater I had never been in at that time. I'm sort of pissed that I had to sit through Mamma Mia again for nothing. But based on Rocky's ticket sales, I get the sense that we're all going to have a chance to see the inside of the Winter Garden again rather soon.