Friday, August 15, 2008

He Sho'w Is Crazy - Musical and Theatre Reviews

Xanadu - Helen Hayes Theater - Broadway, New York, NY
Gypsy - St. James Theater - Broadway, New York, NY
South Pacific - Vivian Beaumont Theater - Broadway, New York, NY
Damn Yankees - New York City Center - Off-Broadway, New York, NY
The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks - Lucille Lortel Theater - Off-Broadway, New York, NY
Bash'd - Zipper Factory Theater - Off-Broadway, New York, NY
Some Americans Abroad - Second Stage Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY
The 39 Steps - Cort Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY
A Catered Affair - Walter Kerr Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY
Avenue Q - National Tour - Elgin Theatre - Toronto, ON

Okay, so I'm playing massive catch up with my musical reviews, mostly from my trip to New York from almost 3 weeks ago now (and Avenue Q in Toronto right after my return) but everything I saw was good or great and though many have actually closed (including Some Americans Abroad, A Catered Affair, Damn Yankees) and some were repeat viewings (Xanadu, Gypsy, Avenue Q), I thought I'd still take a moment to post my few thoughts, if only for posterity's sake and to keep track of things for myself. (If I didn't blog it, I didn't see it... or at least that's what it's starting to feel like).

Oh yeah, and yah, there's a LOT of shows I've listed and you must also include [title of show] (review) and Hair (review) (which I saw twice) into the trip for a total of 12 shows in 7 days!!! Beat THAT! (and no I'm not rich, in fact the total came to something like $274 (give or take $2).. not bad eh?! Granted 3 shows were free!!).

So let's get started cause this may be long, and I'm going to just order it in the timeline I saw the shows so don't read too much into the order I listed them in:

Xanadu - Helen Hayes Theater - Broadway, New York, NY
Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Music and Lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, Directed by Christopher Ashley
**** (4 stars out of 5)

I enjoyed it the first time, I think I loved it even more the second, despite the absence of the hunkalicious Cheyenne Jackson (who was taking 4 weeks off to be in another show I would later see, Damn Yankees), but I partially wanted to see it because chorus hunk Curtis Holbrook got to take over the lead role of Sonny and his rapport with Kerry Butler is still irresistible! Curtis' voice is not as strong as Cheyenne's but I like how he plays the role, with a more skater boy charm.

Other than that, the show still works and is a total blast with Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa (though currently away with Whoopi Goldberg replacing for August) still total hoots. I actually forgot how many songs they packed into the tight 90 minute show and how great the small theatre works. Seriously, I can't believe this show has never really found an audience and struggled throughout the year because it totally deserves a bigger audience.

Gypsy - St. James Theater - Broadway, New York, NY
Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book and Direction by Arthur Laurents
****1/2 (4.5 stars out of 5)

I prayed no one was out sick because I basically saw it again to see Tony winners Patti LuPone, Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti again and I was NOT disappointed! Benanti was just as mesmerizing in her Tony award winning performance and while the rumours of her work ethics and outside life are abound, it could matter less when she finally makes it to the stage because the girl was AWESOME. Boyd and LuPone are expectedly terrific of course, but this second time around, I guess since I finally knew the story, I could buy the whole thing a bit more and understand more of the nuances. The entire cast (including Tony Yasbeck and Leigh Ann Larkin (who really should have been up for a Tony as well), all the hot chorus boys and the older strippers) are still simply fantastic and I still love the scene where the kids grow up into adults right before our eyes.

But try to watch it now while the original cast is still around. Seriously outstanding!

South Pacific - Vivian Beaumont Theater - Broadway, New York, NY
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, Directed by Bartlett Sher
**** (4 stars out of 5)

Maybe I need to see this again too to appreciate the full subtleties but while I admit it was a full on luscious production of a grand old musical, it was still an old musical to me. More like a historic relic to be awed and appreciated rather than loved, because it just didn't grab me emotionally. It was all there, the love stories, death by war, great big set pieces including an airplane and a wonderous cast and orchestra, but I felt like the full force of the chorus was barely used (except on "There Is Nothing Like A Dame") but it felt more like a really beautiful and elaborate history lesson.

It might not have helped that I got Kelli O'Hara's understudy (seriously, it was an previously known vacation, then why was no one warned about it when buying tickets and why did the news only come out a few weeks beforehand?) and while Laura Marie Duncan's Nellie Forbush had a lovely voice and a plainness that fit the character, I felt like I was missing a bit of Kelli's sparkle and stage presence that balanced off Paulo Szot's commanding Emile de Becque.

Loretta Ables Sayre's Bloody Mary was terrific and it was the first time I've actually heard the very pretty Matthew Morrison (above with Li) sing and I was totally in love, but Danny Burstein, who was so praised for his role as Luther Billis here, simply irritated me (yet I loved his Adolfo in The Drowsy Chaperone).

The orchestra sounded great but I'm surprised New Yorkers have been creaming in their pants for this show. It's a terrific production of an old creaker of a musical and even though I hear this is the best production I'll ever see of South Pacific that will convince people once and for all while it was a classic, well, it didn't. I also thought the as great as the orchestra sounded, I've heard even better at the National Ballet of Canada when they did the West Side Story Suites with an even LARGER orchestra (probably 45 to 60 members) in Toronto's new opera house. THAT sounded AMAZING.

Thank goodness for John Hellpern from the New York Observer who wrote this: "The Public Theater’s smashing new revival of Hair (1967) in Central Park is a joy from beginning to end. It’s just the best, though fans of South Pacific (1947) might not agree with me.

I felt about Lincoln Center’s loving revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific that while the audience seemed to be in heaven, I was in a retirement home. But Hair is different. Hair is my South Pacific."

While I did enjoy South Pacific and it is worth watching for the breathtaking largeness of it all, I didn't get as excited as I did for Hair in Central Park. And considering South Pacific was the most expensive show I paid for ($75) vs FREE for Hair, it makes me wonder why tickets for SP have been clobbered up like crazy, because I'm not sure it's THAT exciting enough to warrant buying tickets 6 months in advance at full price. Oh well, to each their own.

Damn Yankees - New York City Center - Off-Broadway, New York, NY
Music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, Book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, Directed by Joe Rando
**** (4 stars out of 5)

While South Pacific is the more "glorious" and "important" musical and Damn Yankees is really a fluffy lightweight by comparison, I think I had way more fun watching Damn Yankees at the Encores Summer Stars series that the New York City Centre started putting on last year (with the above Gypsy that transfered to Broadway). Sure, it's has dancing baseball players, a devil and a Lola, but it's got lots of heart (even a whole song about it), some cool dancing (choreographed by Bob Fosse and recreated here in full) and a feel good story that pits baseball fan Joe against the devil (Sean Hayes) and his partner Lola (Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock) and throws him back into the arms of his old loving wife (Randy Graff).

So Sean Hayes was fine and I thought was actually quite funny. Yes, he relied on his sitcom schtick sometimes but it works and its funny and he is surprisingly limber at improv (or what looked like improv), providing the funniest moment of the night, when the audience started cheering and wooing the undressing Cheyenne Jackson (see above Xanadu's hunk comment and link) as young Joe Hardy and Hayes' devil started shimming into the centre stage, thinking the attention was for himself. It stopped the show for a moment when the audience was seriously on the floor laughing at the ad lib.

Speaking of which, Cheyenne Jackson got to show off his chest AND is voice on a more traditional musical score and it was WONDERFUL!

His scenes with the older Randy Graff (who before this I had never heard of before, but now I'm a fan) are intimate and preciously poignant and sweet.

Veanne Cox always steals her scenes, this time as a nosy neighbour and fan of Joe Hardy's and the dancing chorus baseball boys were some of the hottest on any stage.

Finally, while I can see how Jane Krakowski didn't perfectly fill in Gwen Verdon's shoes as Lola, I still thought she did a fine job with her dancing and a spectacular job with her singing and comic timing.

The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks - Lucille Lortel Theater - Off-Broadway, New York, NY
A Musical by Joe Iconis, Based on the Book by Nancy McArthur, Directed by John Simpkins
*** (3 stars out of 5)

TheatreWorksUSA presents a free show every summer for the kids and kids-at-heart (I really enjoyed last years presentation of a revised Seussical). While the story of Michael and his younger clean-freak brother Norman who get magic seeds that grow into plants that eat dirty socks is probably geared towards those in the single digits age (you think? Think of it as Little Shop of Horrors lite), I still had a wonderful time watching this simple but professional production entrance the children that filled the theatre seats and watching a new generation get so excited and involved in a musical was both hilarious and heartwarming.

Jason Williams and Lance Rubin are terrific as brothers Michael and Norman, and Jeffrey Omura is a standout as Jason, the football player who contemplates becoming friends with Michael, only if they ditch Norman (he also wonderfully plays several other characters).

The songs are catchy enough for the kids, the story is laced with many lessons to be learned, and a plant gets to throw up socks. What could be better?

Bash'd - Zipper Factory Theater - Off-Broadway, New York, NY
Written by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow, Music by Aaron Macri, Directed by Ron Jenkins
***1/2 (3.5 stars out of 5)

Talk about a 180 from the previous show (and seen on the same day)! bash'd is billed as a Gay Hip Hopera that follows the love story of two gay boys who ultimately fall apart after being gay bashed, all in rhyme and beats!

It's also another Canadian theatre Fringe show (Edmonton, Toronto) that has blossomed beyond the fringe circuit (NY) and onto Off-Broadway where it deserves a healthy life as a serious issued show that is still very funny and very neat (with the rapping, though neat is probably the last word that they want to describe their musical device).

I'm not sure what else to say about this because I had already heard so much about this show that nothing really surprised me or shocked me but I still thought it was great, entertaining, and emotionally gripping but the lack of shock somehow dampened the experience (though considering it's called "bash'd", I'm not sure how you don't figure the first half's lighthearted hilariousness could continue all the way through). I'm still on the verge of maybe giving this 4 stars instead of 3.5 but either way, it's definitely worth watching once at least.

Some Americans Abroad - Second Stage Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY
Written by Richard Nelson, Directed by Gordon Edelstein
**1/2 (2.5 stars out of 5)

Let's face it, I'm not that smart. Yeah, I finished my Masters degree at a prestigious Canadian school (supposedly) but sometimes I wonder about all that. I'll travel and talk to other smart people and think I'm a total fraud. But then, sometimes I will realize, those people are just BSing their way around are total frauds and not that smart either and I'll realize that I'm smarter than most of them, even though I'm not that smart.

Well, I've never seen a Nelson play and I never even heard about this play before, but maybe I think I was smart enough to think it was an interesting if not overly ambitious or original play, but not smart enough to detect if it was a great production or if it should have been more biting and witty considering the story is about a bunch of American academic professors and their travel companions, mulling around England as they jostle each other for positions on the intelligence scale within their community and laughing at the other less intelligent "American tourists" (which remember, they are themselves). Oh yeah, and all while trying to fit in as much theatre on the trip as possible. Hmm... why does that sound familiar?

And really, I only went to see this because Tom Cavanagh (Ed, Scrubs, Breakfast with Scot), Emily Bergl (Men In Trees, Gilmore Girls), and Anthony Rapp (Rent) were in it. I thought they were all fine though I've read grumblings that Rapp missed the mark, while Cavanagh was actually quite good in his role. Okay, sure, I'll buy that. Still, overall, it felt rather lightweight or missing the mark somehow because it felt more pleasant and amusing than acerbic and ruthless.

The 39 Steps - Cort Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY
Adapted by Patrick Barlow based on Alfred Hitchcock film, Directed by Maria Aitken
***1/2 (3.5 stars out of 5)

It's based on the film by Alfred Hitchcock but you don't really need to see the movie to get the show because Aitken makes clear that this is a wonderfully fast paced comedic spoof that has 4 glorious actors (I saw Sam Robards, Jennifer Ferrin, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders) performing 150 roles (or something like that). Now THAT'S an acting challenge!

The staging is intricate and fast and sometimes downright genius and watching Burton and Saunders switch characters, sometimes mid-scene, sometimes multiple times mid-scene, is both astounding and exhausting (for them, but we can feel their exhaustion).

Jennifer Ferrin, best known for her soap opera days gets to build HUGE credibility with her multiple character roles and does a smashing job.

The show is a witty send up of all those film-noir's and it made for an extremely fun and fanciful night. It may not be intellectually challenging or emotionally gripping but it was a blast to watch.

A Catered Affair - Walter Kerr Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY
Music and Lyrics by John Bucchino, Book by Harvey Fierstein, Directed by John Doyle
**** (4 stars out of 5)

I really only saw this because a) it had a Thursday matinee and b) because a lot of other bloggers and critics loved it even though a lot more message board folks AND critics hated it, and considering the show seemed to get lumped with Grey Gardens (loved second act, bored out of my mind by the first) and Caroline, Or Change (totally bored me), I didn't have great expectations and figured it was just a show only serious show queens and old people would love (see South Pacific).

Well, maybe I've become a serious show queen because both my sister and I, who had feared we would fall asleep during the show and cursed that we forgot to fill up at Starbucks, really enjoyed the 90 minute musical. In fact, I quite loved it and understood FINALLY why some bloggers were angry that it got totally dissed at the Tony Awards. I'm joining that camp now.

Granted, I was prepared for the show, since I knew it was really more like a play with musical rather than a musical itself, and that the story is more of a small intimate portrait of one family as it tries to plan out their daughters wedding. The music, while I'm not sure I still want to hear it outside the theatre, is quite beautiful and haunting and the story of basically the mess of all wedding planning, was a small gem.

The cast was outstanding with Faith Prince taking the lead as the mother Aggie while a great understudy Mark Zimmerman filled in as father Tom. I had heard that Harvey Fierstein's Uncle Winston felt out of place but I didn't feel that at all and loved how his character was the square peg in the family that begins to cause the wedding planning problems for Aggie and her daughter Janey. Janey meanwhile is WONDERFULLY underplayed by Leslie Kritzer, who apparently I saw in Legally Blonde, the exact polar opposite musical for this show and I even went back to re-watch her scenes from LB and I STILL can't believe it's the same girl. From pom pom's to subdued chamber piece. Wow!

Rounding out the cast is the underused Matt Cavenaugh as the groom to be Ralph. I heard a joke once that the show would have been a hit had they made Matt be in the show for more than his 15 current minutes. It would have been a smash if he kept his shirt off from the first scene. Probably true and probably the only thing that could have actually improved on the show. You don't cast someone that pretty with that pretty of a voice and keep him offstage for most of the show! Luckily, apparently he's been offered the role of Tony in the new West Side Story revival (along with Xanadu's Curtis Holbrook as Action and A Chorus Line's Paul McGill as Baby John... talk about one hot cast ALREADY!) so we will see more of him, but sadly, we won't get to see A Catered Affair since it undeservedly closed just after I saw it.

Avenue Q - National Tour - Elgin Theatre - Toronto, ON
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Book is by Jeff Whitty, Directed by Jason Moore
**** (4 stars out of 5)

Finally, I saw Avenue Q again when I returned to Toronto and still loved it.

Anika Larsen (who I saw last year in Xanadu) was wonderful as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut. Robert McClure was equally amazing as Princeton and Rod. We had understudy Cullen R. Titmas as Nikky/Trekkie/Bear but I thought he was perfectly cast with even the messy slacker look mirroring Nikky's fallen grace.

By the way, if you're in Toronto and don't know already, they have BOTH a Rush policy AND a Lottery. Rush is $30 and starts 2 hours before the show (so like 6pm), but then 16 Lottery seats are sold at 7pm (you can start signing up at 6pm (or really, 2 hours before the show for a draw 1 hour before the show) for $25 (Cash only)/ticket, 2 per winner. So you have to choose whether you think you're lucky or not (or just go for the lottery and if you don't win, then buy rush right away if there are still tickets left).


Esther said...

Wow, what a terrific trip and terrific reviews!

I'm so glad you and your sister liked "A Catered Affair." I definitely agree with what you said, it's a small gem and the music is beautiful. I even liked Harvey singing "Coney Island" at the end.

I'm more enthusiastic about "South Pacific" than you were, but I'm a big history buff. (I even liked the maps!) It was my first time seeing a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical on stage, and I thought the orchestra sounded so gorgeous, the sets and the choreography were great. I loved Kelli, Paulo and Matthew. And that line "Hair is my South Pacific" is priceless! ;-)

Laura said...

Laura Marie Duncan was in for Sherie Rene Scott when I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in August of '05, and while she wasn't bad, she was terribly underwhelming in comparison to the image of Scott I had in my head. It would be my luck that I would get her as an understudy in South Pacific, too, which is one of the reasons I'm scared to see it, lol.

Anyway, I love your reviews and insight :)

Vance said...


I really wanted to love South Pacific (especially since I paid the most for it) but my heart just wasnt in it even though it was a great production.

Having the understudy might have done it too. LMD was good but yeah, didn't pop out from the huge production.