Anything Goes: A Review Wednesday, Nov 19 2014 

Last week, PJ and I saw the traveling show of Anything Goes, which won three Tony Awards in 2011 for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Actress in a Musical, and Best Choreography. Originally written in 1934 and featuring songs by Cole Porter, the musical’s book was completely rewritten just weeks before its premiere on Broadway (the original plot revolved around a bomb on a cruise ship; when an actual bomb kills more than 100 people, the book was rewritten). The show was revived in 1962, 1987, and 2011, on which the traveling show is based.

Producing a traveling show must be difficult: you’re adapting a big Broadway production by downsizing it and making it possible for smaller regional theaters. But this troupe does an excellent job — this is one of the best touring companies I’ve seen. Emma Stratton does an excellent job as Reno Sweeney, who has a thing for the play’s leading man, Billy Crocker, who is in love with another woman. Reno and Billy decide that they’re better off friends, and she helps him win the hand of his lady love (and gets her own romantic reward in turn). Brian Krinsky plays Billy; he’s great too. Indeed, the entire cast is really good, and the show is a lot of fun.

During the 2011 Tonys, the Broadway cast performed “Anything Goes,” a vibrant tape dancing extravaganza that is wonderfully reproduced by the touring company:

This routine was so iconic that Jonathan Groff reproduced it at Miscast:

But back to the musical, my favorite song from the show is “Easy to Love,” a beautiful love song:

It’s a great show that will be on tour at least through May 2015. I definitely recommend it.

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Twelfth Night: A Review Tuesday, Jan 21 2014 

The second show PJ and I saw in New York a couple of weeks ago was William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, starring Mark Rylance, Samuel Barnett, Paul Chahidi, and Stephen Fry. This production used an all-male cast, and the sets, costumes, and staging approximated what it might have been like to see this play during Shakespeare’s own time.

Twelfth Night is about a young woman, Viola, who is shipwrecked and believes that her twin brother has drowned in the accident. Until she can figure out what to do, she poses as a young male servant and go into service for Count Orsino, who is love-sick for Olivia. Olivia, however, won’t give him the time of day, in part because she is still mourning her brother’s death. Orsino employs Viola (posing as a boy) to woo Olivia for him, but Olivia falls in love with cross-dressed emissary. A subplot involves Olivia’s drunken uncle, suitor, and servants conspiring to play a cruel joke on Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, since he often interferes with their revels. After Viola’s twin brother arrives, mayhem ensues until everyone’s identities and romantic matches are clarified.

This was the one play that I had to see during our visit. We saw a Globe production of Measure for Measure with Rylance years ago, which was great, so I didn’t want to miss this show. It is very well done. Most of the actors get dressed and put on their makeup on stage before the show officially begins. There are Renaissance-style musicians, and the set mimics the Globe Theater. There are even wax candles that drip onto the stage from above throughout the performance.

But this attention to historical authenticity and similitude comes at the price of contemporary relevance. I couldn’t help but feel distanced from the action, and I wonder if the play has anything profound to say about the human condition today. I’m not sure it holds up in an era of gay rights and gender bending.

Even so, Rylance is marvelous as Olivia. And Chahidi almost steals the show as Maria, her conniving servant. Stephen Fry is also excellent as Malvolio. Barnett has the most difficult role: an actor playing a woman playing a man. He does it well, but his part ultimately lacks the zest of Olivia, Maria, and Malvolio.

I definitely recommend this production and am glad we saw it. It didn’t move me in the way that The Glass Menagerie did. But, of course, it wasn’t really trying to, so I don’t hold that against it!

The Glass Menagerie: A Review Monday, Jan 20 2014 

Earlier this month, PJ and I spent a few days in New York City before the spring semester began. We saw four shows in three days, the of which was Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith and directed by John Tiffany.

As PJ and I discussed after seeing it, The Glass Menagerie is a play we each had to read in high school, and neither of us came into this production thinking that this is one of Williams’s best works. This production made us both rethink that position. It is an excellent production, one of the best plays I’ve ever seen on Broadway!

The play is about a woman, who was abandoned by her husband, and her two adult children. Cherry Jones plays the woman, Amanda, whose only goal in life is to see her daughter, Laura, played by Keenan-Bolger, married. Amanda knows that Laura’s only hope for future security is marriage, because she is extremely shy and partially crippled. Amanda enlists her son, Tom, played by Quinto, to arrange for a Gentleman Caller to court Laura. The last act of the play depicts what happens when the Gentleman Caller, played by Smith, arrives. Everything about this production is captivating. The stage design, the use of only minimal props, the staging, the acting, everything grips the audience in these characters’ story.

Cherry Jones is a Broadway legend, and I can now see why. Amanda could easily become a caricature, but Jones  humanizes Amanda and, even though we can see how she’s doing almost everything wrong, we also see that she’s ultimately right. I wasn’t expecting much from Zachary Quinto to be honest. I dismissed him as a TV and movie actor. But he was excellent as the son who longs to escape from his suffocating mother, a stand-in for Williams himself. And Keenan-Bolger is heart-breaking as Laura. I wouldn’t be surprised of all three received Tony nominations this year and would definitely support all three winning.

There’s only a little time left to see this production. I highly recommend it. It’s right up there with The Little Dog Laughed and August: Osage County as one of my favorite Broadway shows I’ve seen. This is everything a night at the theater should be.

2013 in Review: Theater Thursday, Jan 2 2014 

PJ and I only went to New York City once in 2013, and we didn’t manage to see any plays when we traveled to other places. Consequently, I saw fewer professional plays in 2013 than was usually  the case over the previous few years. We did see a local summer stock production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was fun. We also saw some of the shows that the School of Theater produced this year. So we didn’t entirely miss out!

Since I didn’t get a chance to post about most of these productions throughout the year, I will write a quick round-up of my five favorite productions that I saw 2013.

Cloud 9 

My favorite production from 2013 was a production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 locally. Our School of Theater has an MFA in Directing. The students, of course, have to direct productions of various kinds to earn their degree. One of these is a “style project,” and one of the MFA directing students, Ryan Holihan, chose Cloud 9 for this assignment.

I don’t know the director, but I love Churchill’s work, so PJ and I made sure we got tickets to see it. Holihan did an amazing job — and not just amazing for being a graduate production in a small Appalachian town. Everything about the production was top-notch.

What impressed me most was Holihan clearly understands the play and was able to get his actors to understand it as well. The production was hilarious, suspenseful, and moving, not an easy combination. Add to that the fact that some of the actors play characters of different genders and ages, and you have a work that could be an utter disaster in the wrong director’s hands. I was clearly impressed by the skills Holihan, his cast, and his crew demonstrated in this production. It’s a reminder that, perhaps, the most important theatrical engagements don’t happen on Broadway by on stages throughout the country, in small towns with amateur or student actors and crews. The work these performers do is arguably the true essence of what theater is all about.

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My Dorothy Loudon Obsession Thursday, Nov 21 2013 

A couple of years ago I stumbled across a video of Dorothy Loudon singing this medley of two songs by Stephen Sondheim while PJ and I were going through a big Sondheim phase:

This performance still gives me goosebumps when I watch it. It suggests how brilliant Loudon was, but I didn’t really follow up by listening to anything else by her. But this past Sunday, we were listening to the Broadway channel on Sirius when we heard a song that neither of us had ever heard before. It turned out to be Loudon singing “Fifty Percent” from a Broadway show entitled Ballroom. Here’s a video of her singing it much later:

Again, she gives a mesmerizing performance, and I now LOVE this song. And I’m obsessed with Loudon. She has a couple of albums, which I’ve purchased and have been listening to. She’s amazing!

Nice Work If You Can Get It: A Review Sunday, Mar 24 2013 

Since PJ was in New York City over spring break to work at the Public Library, I went along for fun. While he worked, I went to the matinée of Nice Work If You Can Get It, a musical starring Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara featuring the songs of George and Ira Gershwin.

I had heard a positive review of the show from a colleague, and I love Gershwin tunes, so I decided to see it. Besides, my seat was perfect, and I could only get a front row seat at either of the other two musicals I wanted to see.

Broderick plays Jimmy, a dim-witted wealthy playboy during the Prohibition era. O’Hara plays Billie, a bootlegger who stashes gin in the basement of Jimmy’s summer home thinking that he won’t be in residence. When Jimmy shows up with his new bride (wife #3), Billie has to think fast about what to do. She has to think even faster as she and Jimmy begin to fall in love.

Judy Kaye won a Tony for her featured role as a zealous temperance leader determined to stomp out all alcohol. Suspicious that something isn’t right in Jimmy’s household, she embarks on a quest to ferret out the local gang og bootleggers and have them arrested. She definitely deserved her Tony — she’s hilarious in this role!

Broderick and O’Hara are also great. Nothing terribly surprising happens in the show — everything one might predict would happen does happen, but it’s fun entertainment nevertheless. It also has one of my new favorite songs: “Treat Me Rough.” I immediately purchased the soundtrack just so I could have this song along with O’Hara’s beautiful rendition of “But Not for Me.”

Once: A Review Saturday, Mar 23 2013 

PJ and I were in New York City for a few days over spring break. I saw five plays over the four days we were there. The first show we saw was Once, the musical adaptation of the great 2006 independent film. I loved the movie, so I was both eager to see the musical and a little anxious about it. I had tried to see it before but could only get seats with a partially obstructed view. This time we could get tickets without obstruction, but our seats were on opposite sides of the orchestra, which seemed fine to us.

The challenge this musical faced was that the movie’s plot is rather thin: guy meets girl; she inspires him to make music; they fall in love, raising the question of whether they’ll get together or not. Other than sing together, there’s not really much more to the plot than that.

To fill it out into a two-act structure, the musical adds a few supporting roles and a couple of musical interludes. Steve Kazee won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as guy, but we got his understudy, Ben Hope instead. We had really wanted to see Kazee, but Hope was excellent in the role.(He also has great deltoids!

Indeed, the whole cast is great. I was especially glad to see David Patrick Kelly, who starred in the Broadway production of Twelfth Night that I love to show students when I teach the play. He plays Guy’s father. Cristin Milioti plays Girl; she’s wonderful too.

Overall, it’s a great show, and I see why it won Best Musical: it’s not your usual Broadway show. The spareness of the plot forces the production to think outside the box and be a little more creative. I definitely recommend it!

Harvey: A Review Sunday, Jul 8 2012 

While in NYC last month, PJ and I saw Harvey, starring Jim Parsons and Jessica Hecht. In fact, one of the reasons we went to New York was to see this play. I remember seeing it as a kid — my parents love old black and white movies, and I was interested in seeing it on the stage. Plus, I love The Big Bang Theory, and, now that Jim Parsons is officially out, I really wanted to see him live too.

Harvey is about an eccentric man, Elwood P. Dowd, played by Parsons, who is friends with a six-foot tall invisible rabbit named Harvey. Elwood explains to various people he meets that Harvey is a pooka, a mischievous sprite who plays tricks on people.

Elwood’s sister and niece, who live with him in the family’s ancestral home, have had enough of Elwood’s behavior. Embarrassed one too many times by his introduction of his invisible friend to their acquaintances, Veta, played by Hecht, and Myrtle Mae, played by Tracee Chimo, decide to commit Elwood to the local insane asylum. When Veta takes Elwood to the asylum, however, a comedy of errors ensues as the junior, too self-assured young doctor mistakes Veta for the patient. The rest of the play involves sorting out who does and who does not belong in the hospital, with the play’s climax revolving around a new drug that can make sure Elwood never sees Harvey again.

Parsons is good in this role, but it’s not really much of a stretch for him. Elwood is a slightly differently eccentric take on Sheldon, his character on The Big Bang Theory. The part doesn’t call for anything else, so it’s clear why Parsons would be cast in the role, but it will be interesting to see if he’s able to break out of the Sheldon mold for his future forays onto Broadway and film. His supporting role in the movie version of The Normal Heart might be a good indication of his career after TBBT.

The play also features Carol Kane in a small, but hilarious role as the senior physician’s dotty wife. But the real star of this production is the set design, which is superb. Both the Dowd house and the hospital are realistically portrayed and realized. It’s clear to see why the Emmy winning designer, David Rockwell, has garnered Tony and Drama Desk nominations in recent years.

All in all, this is a good, solid production of a classic mid-twentieth century play. It’s good, family entertainment, and audience members of all ages seemed to enjoy it. I’ve decided to teach Mary Chase’s play in my class in the fall. It will be interesting to see what my students make of it!

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man: A Review Sunday, Jul 8 2012 

Last month, PJ and I spent three-and-a-half days in New York City for his birthday. While there we saw three shows, the first of which was Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. I almost went to see this play when I was in the city in April, but decided to see End of the Rainbow instead. I’m glad I waited, since I think PJ enjoyed this one more than he would have enjoyed Rainbow.

The appeal of the play, at least in part, was its all-star cast, which included James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, John Larroquette, and Angela Lansbury. We couldn’t pass up a chance to see all of these actors together.

The Best Man is a political drama. Set at a major party’s presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia in 1960, the play follows the two major candidates for the nomination: William Russell, played by Larroquette, and Joseph Cantwell, played by McCormack, and their wives and political consultants. Russell is the former Secretary of State and the more progressive of the two candidates. Cantwell is a conservative senator who is an up-and-comer in the party. When Cantwell threatens to reveal damaging information about Russell to the convention goers, Russell must decide how to respond: release even more damaging information about Cantwell or try to take the high road, even if it means losing the nomination.

What stands out about this play is how timely it remains. Many of the issues it raises about politics are still true today. It asks whether winning is more important than remaining ethical and what are the consequences of playing dirty. It’s an interesting and insightful look into the political sphere.

Larroquette and McCormack are both excellent in their respective roles. Somewhat surprisingly, it was Jones who received a Tony nomination for Best Actor for his role as the former president. His isn’t really a leading role, and Jones doesn’t do anything spectacular with it — he’s just solidly good. Candice Bergen is excellent as Russell’s wife, from whom he is estranged but who is playing the part of a good wife for appearances sake. Slowly, she becomes the moral center of the play, and PJ and I both thought Bergin stood out in a quiet, but emotionally moving sort of way. And finally, Lansbury plays a small, but key role as one of the leaders of the women’s caucus of the party convention. Fancying herself as a king-maker, she plays both sides of the contest, ready to assume an influential role with whoever wins the nomination.

Overall, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man is an interesting look at politics that remains pertinent to today’s political gamesmanship. The final resolution is a bit predictable, and I thought the consequences for the Russells’ marriage was not really credible, but I liked it nevertheless. It’s been extended a couple of times, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a smart play about politics and its moral/ethical decline.

My New Barbara Cook Obsession Sunday, Mar 11 2012 

When Barbara Cook was honored during the Kennedy Center Honors earlier this year, I didn’t know who she is — I was just watching to see the Meryl Streep tribute! I was a little bummed last night, and I thought to myself that I should reconnect with something that made me happy when I was younger. The first thing that came to mind was my youthful devotion to Broadway soundtrack albums (of course!). I started browsing on iTunes, and when I came across some Barbara Cook albums, it initiated my newest obsession.

Miss Cook is, without a doubt, a musical genius. I can’t believe I’ve gone nearly 42 years without knowing about and worshiping her! One of my favorite Broadway love songs as a kid was from The Music Man: “Til There Was You.” Imagine my joy when I learned that Cook originated the role of Marion the Librarian! Here’s her version of the song:

She won a Tony award for her performance in this show.

My newest favorite Broadway song is “Losing My Mind” from Follies. Cook has a great version of this too!

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