Friday, June 22, 2012

Mile High Expectations - Pam Ann & Noises Off - Comedy Reviews

Pam Ann: Around the World - Panasonic Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Runs in Toronto until June 23rd 2012. Tour continues to Provincetown, MA and Australia

Noises Off - The Old Vic at Novello Theatre - London, UK - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Michael Frayn, Directed by Lindsay Posner
Runs until June 30th 2012

Is comedy all about expectations? Being surprised or shocked by the punchline, by a pratfall, by an unexpected look that we have to laugh? Sometimes we'll even laugh at something totally expected, something that has been building up that we all know is coming, with the set up as part of the delight in the joke.

What if those expectations have been elevated by all the buzz before the show? Where reviews have showered a show with praise for its comedic prowess, or when friends tell you that you MUST see this because it's HILARIOUS? Only to watch it yourself and wonder, where's the funny?

I've heard about the play Noises Off for a long time, but I've never actually seen or read it, until I finally got a chance to finally see a much lauded production by The Old Vic when I was on a layover in London this week. During the flight, all the staff were talking about seeing Pam Ann (And if you don't know me, you may not have realized that I am part of that airline staff, and how I get around the world so much!). I've heard about Pam Ann for years from friends and colleagues but managed to never even see a youtube video, but alas, she's in Toronto for 3 nights with her latest tour, just in time to kick off Pride Week here and I got a chance to hop on board.


So expectations were high for Pam Ann, the alter ego of Australian comedian Caroline Reid, a (horny, although that's a bit redundant) flight attendant in a class of her own. If you thought the flight attendants were bitchy on your flight, wait until you meet Pam Ann! She's vulgar, foulmouthed, and offensive. Basically, she's everything we wish we could be when we're in the air!

Throwing in some local news events from the day, Pam Ann manages to mix in improvised (or quickly written jokes) into her larger comedy act that is basically a drag queen show without the actual drag, doing a comedy set, all while pushing a bar cart in a tight uniform. And boy does she serve it up. No one goes un-skewered, as she spits out hysterical, if extremely politically incorrect zingers about every ethnicity, every class, and every airline. And girl has done her research, as she equally knocks down each and every Canadian airline she can think of, getting hoots and hollers as an airline industry heavy audience recognizes the stereotypes Pam Ann bitingly chews through. Air Canada, West Jet, Porter, Air Transat, Jazz, Sunwing. Every airline gets bitchslapped while Pam Ann adds in stories of British Airways, Austrian, Lufthansa, Delta and more. She's nailed the eccentricities of the passengers, and the particularities of each airline.


Maybe it's because I work in the industry, but I was in tears laughing, as everything Pam Ann said seemed to nail it right on the head. But I imagine anybody who has worked in a service industry, anybody who has flown on a plane, anybody who has stepped foot in an airport, will get what Pam Ann is making fun of. Because who hasn't been stuck in economy and tried to sneak a peak up to first class?


The Old Vic's production of Frayn's classic stage comedy Noises Off received glowing reviews in its original run, and thus transfered to the West End. I managed to catch Noises Off for my first experience with the play, which was met with tiny grins and smiles but little laughter. Even the Guardian wrote about elevated expectations from critics, though when I went to see the show, even most fellow audience members around me seemed to remain relatively quiet. Maybe it's because I was up top in the balcony looking down at the top of the actors heads, not being able to see the subtleties in their facial features, but from what I could gather, this is not a play of subtleties.


The cast seemed good, with no one seemingly awful, though no one seemingly stood out either (which may be a good thing in an ensemble comedy anyways). The direction seemed fine, and I couldn't really object to the timing. Frayn's play about the final rehearsal and then the backstage antics of a play, one with lots of slamming doors and mistaken identities, had all the classic comedy set ups in place, but with the entire first act being a rehearsal of the silly play within the play, it made for a very long set up to the actual "noises off" portion in the second act. The build up and the payoff never seemed to reach the level of zany hysterics I had heard about, and while it made me smile, I never laughed out loud once, and found it overall underwhelming. I laughed far more in The Sunshine Boys (a play essentially about retirement) around the block at the Savoy, or even at the recent revival of Don't Dress for Dinner on Broadway (which incidentally, reminded me of the play within Noises Off). By the time the action on stage had reached a full zany zenith (based on the amount of running around by the cast), it had been so long awaited, the punchline had already flatlined by then.

Photo of Noises Off by Tristram Kenton
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Friday, June 15, 2012

Gotta Dance - Chroma and Singin' in the Rain - Dance Reviews

ChromaSong of a Wayfarer Elite Syncopations - National Ballet of Canada at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (avg. out of 5 stars)
Chroma - Choreographed by Wayne McGregor, Music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III - ****1/2
Song of a Wayfarer - Choreographed by Maurice Béjart, Music by Gustav Mahler - ****1/2
Elite Syncopations - Choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Music by Scott Joplin and Others - ***1/2
Runs until June 17th 2012 

Singin' in the Rain - Palace Theatre - London, UK - **** (out of 5 stars)
Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, Based on the MGM film with screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Directed by Jonathan Church, Choreographed by Andrew Wright 

Chroma returns only two years after its National Ballet of Canada debut, but since I missed it the first time, this quick turnaround programming seems like it's made for me (thank you Karen Kain!)! Put together with two other short classics (that I also had not seen yet, thank you AGAIN Karen Kain!), and the night was a further stellar example of the quality within the NBofC's company of dancers, showing off both the Principal stars they have, as well as some of they future stars they have within their Corps. 

Elite Syncopations opens the night on a bare stage with backstage in full view, a band already there on stage ready to rag, and some chairs on the side. I guess Chicago's revival got their stage inspiration from this? Dancers perform as if it were an audition, as couples and groups come out to showcase their stuff. I guess A Chorus Line got their inspiration from this 1974 piece? The music by Scott Joplin or other ragtime music sets a different beat for the dancers that choreographer MacMillan used to form quirky and whimsical movements. The dancing is fun and with the audition framing device, we get to see different dancers showcase their humourous side within their dance skills. 

But it's the costumes that set this piece apart from anything I've seen in ballet so far. With skintight painted spandex by Ian Spurling, it looks straight out of a 70's costume party on acid, and it adds a LSD-induced haze over the proceedings, giving Elite Syncopations a fascinating nostalgic, historical context that makes the whimsical dancing and tone a lot more fun to watch.

The company looks like they're having a lot of fun with this comical ballet, with McGee Maddox offering another buff and slightly pompous suitor to Xiao Nan Yu's elegant, but sly vixen. Both are at the top of their games, with exceptional precision in such a fluid and fancy-free choreography. Jordana Daumec divas it up with a sensational rag dance, while Brett van Sickle is a gem that I haven't seen in a while, and glad that I've gotten to see him again. Christopher Stalzer proves why he just got promoted out of the Corps, and is absolutely smashing with Adji Cissoko in their pairing.

Song of a Wayfarer on the other hand, is a showcase for just two dancers. On opening night, Principals Zdenek Konvalina and Guillaume Côté shows us why they're Principals. I don't think I've ever seen Konvalina be better, in a role that he seems built for. A mix of intensity and internal struggle with a physically exhausting choregraphy by Maurice Béjart. As Konvalina's shaddow of sorts, Côté's leading man persona makes a surprisingly haunting body double, haunting Konvalina as Côté himself moves about in equal precision and demanding movements. It's quite a sight to behold, as the two leading men go in philosophical search, all to Mahler's beautiful music, sung by Peter Barrett.

Chroma opens with a stark white set, with rounded corners, a slit for light, and an open frame in the back, and even in its modern simplicity, exudes gasps from the audiences. With music by The White Stripes, Wayne McGregor has created another one of those crazy weird modern pieces that I have no idea what it's trying to say, but damn if it doesn't look exciting, amazing and emotionally gripping. With simple short "dresses" worn by its cast of 10 (6 Men, 4 Women) by Moritz Junge, Chroma is often strange, always thrilling, and while it isn't as emotionally gripping as some other modern pieces I have loved (like Crystal Pite's Emergence, returning next season!), the dancing and movement is superb and again, another perfect showcase to the talented dancers of the company. 

With a mix from the whole company, Principals Aleksandar Antonijevic, Greta Hodgkinson, Sonia Rodriguez and Zdenek Konvalina are magnificent. Antonijevic, Rodriguez and Hodgkinson seem to relish this opportunity with McGregor's movements and intermix as part of the ensemble. Elena Lobsonova continues her track to stardom, while Tina Pereira and Jonathan Renna are superb as always. 

Then there is a moment when Corps members Dylan Tedaldi, Brendan Saye, and Second Soloist Robert Stephen are dancing together and the excitement on stage is exactly what the future of National Ballet of Canada is about. Thrilling to see the amazing future ahead for the young members of the company and what the sensational work they are already displaying right now.

Over in London, England, a Chichester Festival transfer of Singin' in the Rain has just opened at the Palace Theatre and is taking the West End by storm. Or more like light rain. And sometimes light is a good thing. This revival of the stage adaptation of the famed film is delightfully light and frothy and just the sort of nostalgic entertainment sometimes one needs on a ... rainy day. 

While the production is somewhat uneven, its delights easily wash away the flaws, especially with some spectacular dancing sequences including "Make 'em Laugh" and title song "Singin' in the Rain", done in full rain effect with lead Adam Cooper's Don Lockwood splish splashing in the pool of water gathered on stage and kicking it out into the audience. 

Adam Cooper, who I know as the older Billy Elliot (in the final sequence of the film) and lead in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, is a terrific lead with vocal chops that match his amazing dance skills. Paired up with Daniel Crossley's Cosmo Brown, the duo form a wonderful bromance on stage and forms the heart of the show. Crossley tends to overplay and oversell the lines here and yet it seems to work perfectly for his Cosmo of that era, and makes his performance highly entertaining and lovable. His maneuvering through "Make 'em Laugh" is incredible to see, live, on stage, and Crossley crackles every time he's on stage. 

Katherine Kingsley crackles and cackles on stage too, but as the annoying Lina Lemont. But with Kingsley in the role, Lina is deliciously awful and sinfully wonderful. A nemesis we adore and adore to hate, with Kingsley squeeing and squawking each line to full comedic effect. 

Scarlett Strallen has a wonderous voice that soars in the shows classic Hollywood musical songs of yesteryears. She's a bit too winsome at times, but ultimately Strallen is a doll.

The show could cut and smooth over bits and pieces here and there, with some moments stretching on just a tad too long, but as soon as any dance number starts, the terrific dance ensemble brightens up the stage (cleverly designed by Simon Higlett). Definitely a show that can easily brighten up your rainy day.

Photos of Chroma (with Antonijevic and Rodriguez) and Elite Syncopations by Bruce Zinger. Photos of Chroma (with Stephen and Pereira) and Songs of a Wayfarer by Cylla von Tiedmann

Photos of Singin' in the Rain by Manuel Harlan 
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Friday, June 08, 2012

Tonys Catch-Up - Nice Work, Porgy & Bess, End of the Rainbow, The Best Man, Starcatcher, Wit, Master Class, The Columnist - Theatre Reviews

Nice Work If You Can Get It - Imperial Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Book and Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, Book by Joe DiPietro inspired by material by Guy Bolton and P.J. Wodehouse
Directed and Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess - Richard Rogers Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward, Libretto by Dubose and Dorthy Heyward, Musical Book Adapted by Suzan Lori-Parks, Musical Score Adapted by Diedre L. Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus, Choreographed by Ronald K. Brown

End of the Rainbow - Belasco Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - *1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Peter Quilter, Directed by Terry Johnson

Gore Vidal's The Best Man - Schoenfeld Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Gore Vidal, Directed by Michael Wilson

Peter and the Starcatcher - Brooks Atkinson Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Rick Elice, based on the book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers

Master Class - Manhattan Theater Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars) Written by Terrence McNally, Directed by Stephen Wadsworth Ended run in Summer 2011, 

Wit - Manhattan Theater Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)

Written by Margaret Edson, Directed by Lynne Meadows
Ended run March 17th 2012

The Columnist - Manhattan Theater Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by David Auburn, Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Runs until July 8th 2012

So I've been a bit tardy on my blogging and reviews, but with this weekend's Tony Awards coming up, I thought I'd catch up with some thoughts of shows up for awards this season that I didn't already mention in my Best of Stage 2011 write up (incl Once, Venus in Fur, Jesus Christ Superstar while at Stratford), or in previous reviews (click for Other Desert Cities, Leap of Faith, One Man Two Guvnors). I also saw Newsies at Paper Mill (very fun 3.5 stars, but waiting to see it on Broadway before I review), Clybourne Park (4 stars, 3rd time seeing play, 1st with this cast and production, Great play, least effective cast I've seen. Some standouts performances but also one of the worst performances that takes the whole play down a level), Lysistrata Jones (2 stars, an unfunny disappointment), Bonnie & Clyde (2 stars, a boring mess with a great cast), Follies (4 stars, a grand production where I thought Jan Maxwell stole the show), The Lyons Off-Broadway at Vineyard (4 stars, Linda Lavin flips pages amazingly in a play that is entertaining until an out-of-nowhere 2nd act scene that takes Michael Esper and the play to another level), Don't Dress for Dinner (3 stars, which isn't as funny as One Man Two Guvnors but didn't deserve its critical whiplashing, especially since Spencer Kayden and Ben Daniels are very cute and funny in it), Stick Fly (3.5 stars, an entertaining play about a rich BLACK family and the fact that they too, like rich White families, have problems too), and Death of a Salesman  (4.5 stars, a possibly biased review (since my involvement) but a must-see production with an astounding cast (every single one of them down to the smallest roles) in a heartbreaking production of the classic play). I'm saving my review of Ghost for another time. It needs further explanation.

Nice Work If You Can Get It is the "new" Gershwin musical Tony nominee Joe DiPietro (Memphis) has cobbled together with some of the greatest musical theatre songs (by the Gershwins) and strung together by a threadbare story of a bootlegger forced to hide her loot in a playboy's summer house during the Prohibition era. Throw in the clout of Broadway star Kelli O'Hara as the bootlegger and the marquee name of Matthew Broderick as the playboy under Tony nominee Kathleen Marshall's (Anything Goes) direction and dance steps, and you've got yourself a new hit. Deservedly or not.

The story is ridiculous in that old-timey musical way, so it can be partly forgiven, assuming you can stay awake in the horrendous first act (1 star for Act 1), yet strangely, by the second act, once you've relegated that there is little originality in this "new" musical, the laboured set up DiPietro clunkily set up, finally pays off when a true spirit of musical zaniness hits its stride (3.5 star for Act 2). All despite Kathleen Marshall's lazy choreography (one of her worst, that seems catered to their worst dancer, Broderick), poor-man's casting (Tony nominee Michael McGrath as Nathan Lane, Robin Hurder as Megan Hilty), and Matthew Broderick acting in a completely different show planet (which, to be honest, was entertaining in its own way, just didn't legitimize the show itself).

On the other hand, Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara (South Pacific) glows as always, even as a tomboyish bootlegger, and is sexy as hell singing beautiful Gershwin songs in completely wrong contexts. Estelle Parsons (August: Osage County) is a total hoot in her 10 seconds on stage, Tony nominee Judy Kaye (Mamma Mia) swings on a chandelier, while Jennifer Laura Thompson (Little Miss Sunshine, Urinetown) works (the laughs off) a wedding dress.

Just beside the Imperial where Nice Work is running, sits The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess at the Richard Rogers Theatre, in a new re-working of the opera by THE Gershwins and Debuse and Dorothy Heyward. While I've never seen the opera, I was excited to see Tony nominee (and 4 time winner) Audra McDonald sing the sh!t out of these songs. And she does. And other than fellow Tony nominee Philip Boykin, that's about all I remember (I saw it back in January but even after the show, that's pretty much all I remember).

While I'm not against making changes to classics, and would been on Team Diane and Suzi after Stephen Sondheim jumped on them, I can't say I loved this truncated version of Porgy & Bess, as totally missed the point of the story. Although to note, Norm Lewis was out my night, and while understudy Nathaniel Stampley seemed to do a fine job, he just seemed to overpowered by Audra's powerhouse performance, making her affair with Boynkin's Crown the heart of the story. David Alan Grier was a welcome surprise (who knew he could sing that well), but the ensemble and Porgy seemed to fade into the background against MacDonald and Boynkin. Maybe I would have liked the show more if it more accurately called The Gershwins' Crown & Audra MacDonald's Bess.

End of the Rainbow is Tracie Bennett's production (well not really but it's basically hers) to showcase her amazing impersonation of Judy Garland. She sings, she acts drunk, she cries at her drunken state, she gets depressed and breaks down. Let's give her an award! Just like they do at the Oscars and Emmys! Bennett's Tony nominated performance really is an impressive powerhouse performance (you know, cause she sings AND breaks down), but while it seems to accurately portray Garland, I still felt no empathy or emotional resonance behind the act.

Part of that problem is Peter Quilter's play, which really is an empty vessel that takes a small glimpse into Garland's later life as she's falling apart and rolling around on the ground peeing like a dog (an actual scene in the play). We're supposed to be seeing Garland's dramatic downfall and some of the most salacious events in her life, and yet the play was SO BORING. Michael Cumpsty was good as Garland's piano accompanist. There was music. She sings "Over the Rainbow". She might win the Tony for this. I would vote for Nina Arianda in Venus in Fur instead.

Gore Vidal's The Best Man stars everyone. I give it 3 stars. Good political play. Some nice lines. Nothing spectacular. Nothing revolutionary. Straightforward direction. Fun plot about the race for the democratic spot for presidency. Sure, not The Best play but entertaining.

What we're really here to see is the CAST. James Earl Jones, Michael McKean, Eric McCormack, Kerry Butler, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, Jefferson Mays, John Larroquette, The Kitchen Sink (apologies to SarahB). What a cast! Does everyone get their own dressing room? Is there even enough room backstage?

James Earl Jones is terrific as the current President. He's so good that we don't even question a Black President in America in the 20th century. It's James Earl F#$KING Jones! And he lights up the stage, bounces about and delicately presses in some zingers like a pro. Angela Lansbury doesn't quite bounce across the stage anymore, sitting most of the time, but like the pro that she is, she too knows how to milk a line, a laugh, or a pointed zinger, and manages to turn a staring role from her few minutes on stage (in what essentially is a cameo, though still longer than Estelle Parsons in Nice Work).

Eric McCormack and John Laroquette as opponents in this political race are fine, and Michael McKean is good in his minor role, though partially upstaged by Corey Brill who seems to have a larger part. Jefferson Mays does sweaty well, but seems to be over-characterizing a pivotal role.

And did Candice Bergen and Kerry Butler take the play called The Best Man too much to heart? The usually terrific Butler seemed to be playing Clio/Kira from Xanadu again. While Candice Bergen (who sadly had a stroke a few years ago and says her memory is not quite the same) seems to float through the play.

Peter and the Starcatcher, the prequel to Peter Pan, is an overly clever and innovative production, with movement by Steven Hoggett (nominated for Once), and music by Tony nominee Wayne Barker, that utilizes a mostly bare (yet strikingly beautiful) set by Tony nominee Donyale Werle, telling the tale originally written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson for Disney Books.

Having never read the book the play is based on, I was surprised at how dark and complicated the story (which seems to be marketed to the young) was, with some overstuffed and overdirected beginning that is hard to latch onto. The play drags as it tries to both tell the tale, be modern and clever, all while using the most simple theatrical tricks, while utilizing its medium sized frenetically energetic cast in multiple roles.

Once things start to calm down, the play becomes far more enjoyable as we're allowed to sink into the wildly imaginative tale and hold onto the terrific performances, and the clever use of a rope as the set. Tony nominee (and Smash star) Christian Borle, in a 180 performance from last year's Angels in Amerca, fully envelops his role again, this time as Black Stasche, a pre-hooked Captain Hook, in all his over-the-top glory.

Celia Keenan-Bolger is truly winning and lovely as Molly, and her chemistry with the boys, and lead Boy Adam Chanler-Berat, gives the play its ultimate charm.

Unfortunately I found the ultimate story a little waning as things started to slide far too conveniently into Peter Pan place. The story didn't seem as clever as the production lends itself to be, but a terrific ensemble (including a hilarious Arnie Burton), a stellar leading cast, and a cool production (when it calms itself down a bit) still keeps things entertaining enough.

Manhattan Theater Club has had a pretty great run at the Friedman Theatre. The American Plan, The Royal Family, Time Stands Still, Venus in Fur. I've never really had a bad time there. This past season saw Venus in Fur make a commercial transfer, while revivals of Master Class and Wit garnered acclaim for their lead actresses. 

Tyne Daly was terrific as Maria Calas in the revival of Master Class but the play (which I had never seen) had some beautiful moments and hilarious lines, but felt more like something one must learn and respect in school than something I can love on my own. Alexandra Silber and Garrett Sorenson stood out over Sierra Boggess (The Little Mermaid) as students.

In another play about a teacher who lords over her students, Tony nominee Cynthia Nixon brought an emotionally walloping performance in Wit in a terrific revival (in which I had only ever seen the HBO film) that excised any thought of Nixon's famed character Miranda. A great ensemble created a solid production, but this was all Nixon as her Vivian starts off strong and crackling and slowly cracks until her final demise. Stunning and my alternative pick to Arianda for Best Actress this year.

The Columnist  gives Tony nominee John Lithgow a platform for a terrific performance as journalist Joseph Alsop. I only wish the play were as strong as the performance, with a muddled first act giving no direction into where it eventually truly shines in a stronger second act, when only SOME random scenes from Act 1 finally comes together. Brian J. Smith (Gossip Girl) gives a surprisingly good performance, while Boyd Gaines is strong in a weak role. Margaret Colin was out my day, and the understudy was fine against Lithgow but unmemorable.

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Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Comfort with Strangers - Xanadu, The Music Man, Leap of Faith - Musical Reviews

Xanadu - The Max at Signature Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington D.C.) - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Jeff Lynne & John Farrar, Book by Douglas Carter Beane, based on the film.
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
Runs until July 1st 2012

The Music Man - Finchlander Theatre at Arena Stage - Washington, D.C. - **** (out of 5 stars)
Book, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Wilson, Story by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Molly Smith, Choreographed by Parker Esse
Runs until July 22nd 2012

Leap of Faith - St. James Theatre - Broadway, New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight based on the film.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Now closed.

A stranger comes into town, tries to sell them on a dream, stirs things up, and inadvertently makes things better. (If only 110 in the Shade were still running somewhere). A con-man stops off in River City, a con-man gets stuck in the Kansas city town of Sweetwater, Greek muse comes down to Venice Beach, all to sell them on a dream. A dream of kids playing in a marching band, dreams of miracles and rain during a drought, dreams of creating art in 1980's LA.

Xanadu is possibly one of the most ridiculous musicals ever to make it to Broadway. Its light, featherweight story is based on, apparently, one of the worst films in film history. Yet, with a soundtrack that became a hit for Olivia Newton John and Electric Light Music Orchestra, the musical adaptation by Douglas Carter Beane uses its catchy and famed songs and flips the weak story and turns it into the musicals biggest strengths.

With a giant wink and purposeful camp amped up for the stage, Beane and a proper director, here, Matthew Gardiner taking charge, must let the story soar in its silliness, letting us in on the purposeful badness. A story of a Greek muse coming to 1980's LA to help a young troubled dude help achieve his dream of complete artistic achievement; opening a roller disco. Adding to that, Beane throws an extra wink, making the Greek muse Clio take on an Australian persona on earth (ahem, Olivia anyone?) with the name Kira, as she must inspire Sonny Malone, all while two evil sisters try to derail her efforts, all while Sonny and Kira fall into a forbidden love. Oh yah, and on top of that, Kira is on roller skates.

The Signature Theatre cast takes the goofy musical and has a (disco) ball with it. Actually, many disco balls with it, and Erin Weaver (an actress apparently known for serious roles in dramas) is pitch perfectly ludicrous as Clio/Kira. Weaver hits the right comedic notes in a cute and lovely way, and all while her strong voice sings classics "Magic", "Suddenly", "I'm Alive", and "Xanadu".

Charlie Brady is awesome as the dopey but lovable Sonny Malone, a short-shorts wearing Californian dude who just wants to create art while rocking out. Brady is easily lovable and fills in those short-shorts nicely, with a voice that is as muscular as his arms.

Ayanna Hardy (replacing Nova Y. Payton in my performance) and Sherri L. Edelen (Hairspray, Walter Cronkite is Dead) seem to have a ball as the evil sisters, while Harry A. Winter (also Hairspray and numerous other Signature roles) gives a full and lovely performance as Danny Maguire, an older gentleman who fondly remembers a muse-like Goddess whom he fell in love with in his youth. Mark Chandler, Jamie Eacker, and Nickolas Vaughan are delightfully silly as fellow muses, while Kellee Knighten Hought sounds godly in a solo moment during all the absurdity.

The Music Man is the classic that I've never actually seen, but one so famous that it's hard not to know the story of a Prof. Harold Hill who blows into town, selling the people on dreams of a marching band for the kids, while whipping up the creative juices in the older folks, all in an attempt to take their money as they purchase "useless" things from the traveling salesman. Meanwhile, a stubborn librarian Marion, refuses to buy into the con until of course, she does, convinced by the new confidence in her much younger brother with a lisp. Love ensues, hijinks happen, kids dance, the truth comes out, before a nice tidy ending

To be honest, as my first time seeing the full show and watching the scenes that fills the gaps in between the famous moments, I found some slow moments (particularly in the first act) and an ending that works wonderfully as a story but disappointing as a musical, when the show pretty much ends abruptly after the final punchline. We are left with a final feeling of love, acceptance and hope, a perfect moment for a final rousing musical number, and then the bows begin and The Music Man as a musical just misses the mark of perfection.

Luckily, Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith has assembled and directed a creatively satisfying and delightful production of The Music Man. With Choreographer Parker Esse by her side, whipping up an amazing set of steps, the top notch ensemble performs the most thrilling group dance numbers with a glorious sounding chorale that just seems to explode out from the tiny Finchlander stage and reverberated back in an acoustic dream. Just like Arena Stage's revelatory Oklahoma!, Price and Esse have used the small in-the-round stage to bring a wonderful full-bodied experience with some of the best dancing and singing one could hope for in musical theatre.

The backbone of the show lies in Marion the Librarian, and with Kate Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow, She Loves Me, White Christmas) cast, she automatically brings an astounding and clear voice, a classy and loveliness perfect for the role that makes Marion avoid seemingly bitter or harsh while still sitting outside of the lines, staying cynical on the new con-man in town. Baldwin also brings an audience, helping Arena Stage sell out most of the performances already, and for someone who isn't a movie or even TV star, that's quite a testament to Baldwin's presence and musical talents.

Playing opposite to Marion, suave con-man Prof. Harold Hill is filled by Burke Moses (The Sound of Music, Beauty and the Beast) who I saw (way-back when) originating Gaston, and he still carries that aura of ego, sneakiness and charm that pretty much helps fill Hill's shoes. While his scenes with Baldwin feel a bit cold (which, I know is part of the story and maybe the inherent problems with our expectations in a musical), and feel a bit flat compared to his scenes with the larger cast, Moses' voice is still full and strong and his rapport with the townsfolks and teenage kids is wonderful and convincing.

The strong ensemble has too many great performances to all name, but Will Burton (above centre) and Juliane Godfrey make tremendous Arena Stage debuts as the young couple Tommy and Zaneeta. Donna Migliaccio (Ragtime) is lovely as Mrs. Paroo, Marion's mother, and Ian Berlin is absolutely adorable as the stuttering Winthrop Paroo, Marion's much younger brother. Barbara Tirrell (below, centre) is particularly hilarious as the Mayor's wife Eulalie Mackenzie Shinn.

As Arena Stage did with Oklahoma!, they've fully enveloped the Finchlander with lighter yellowed tones with muted colours that automatically generate a nostalgic feel, with beautiful set designs by Eugene Lee and coordinated with Judith Bowden's costumes, and lighted by Dawn Chiang. And as with Oklahoma!, the small theatre seemed to only amplify the glorious sounds from the cast and orchestra, with a sound design by Timothy M. Thompson that deserves a special mention.

While it's not as revelatory as their Oklahoma!, Arena's The Music Man is still a splendid solid production with such a joyous cast that I was ready to join the band and step right into those red marching uniforms!

Leap of Faith has already closed on Broadway after a brief run at the St. James Theatre. I first saw the new musical in Los Angeles, where, while flawed, showed lots of promise, especially with a wonderful and strong second act that brings down the house with emotionally moving tunes by Alan Menken and a showcase for an amazing cast of Raúl Esparza, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Krystal Joy Brown, Leslie Odom Jr., Kendra Kassenbaum, and Nicolas Barasch got to show off their vocal and emotional power in some powerhouse songs. Originally directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, the show had a beautiful lyrical feel with golden tones and lyrical ballet choreographed sequences that smoothed out the sequences to tell the story of a con-man, along with a crew, try to con a struggling town from all their money with promises of rain during a drought, and heavenly miracles straight from God. The L.A. production also had headliner Brooke Shields who brought an automatic warmth to the role of the cynical townsperson who doubts the con-man (Sound familiar? It really IS The Music Man without the marching band uniforms and adding in 110 in the Shade's hope for rain).

The L.A. production had major problems (particularly an unfocused first act) and many didn't like Rob Ashford's lyrical over-choreographed tendencies, but it had hope and I had faith that it could become a very strong and well-loved musical. The major glaring problem though was Brooke Shield's singing voice. As lovely as she was in her acting, her voice seemed particularly weak and strained when up next to Raúl Esparza's while singing Menken's vocally challenging songs.

So on the way to Broadway, they ditched star Brooke, filled her role with a barely known Broadway actor (yay! quality over fame, right?), fiddled with the book, the songs, the characters, and replaced the director/choreographer in a bid to fix the show for the better. With Christopher Ashley (Xanadu Broadway) now helming the project and Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Next to Normal), new sets, and the amazing cast back in their roles (minus Nicholas Barasch because he grew up out of the young tween role during the transfer), the new Leap of Faith musical (based on the Steve Martin movie no one I know ever saw) was on its way to Broadway success.

Then the new version opened and whatever elements they had fixed, only made things that originally worked, worse. Characters were streamlined, combining the female love-interest and the Sheriff role into one, but it gave the lead female role an even harder edge to overcome, and not softened by Jessica Phillips (Priscilla) in the role. Songs seemed butchered, with one of my favorite songs "When Your Faith Is Strong Enough" cut in half right when it should have been building momentum into the song and into the climax of the story. New songs were added that could have been cut right away, and characters felt even less developed than before as the creative team added a useless church revival framing device (to frame a story about a church-revival huckster) and soliloquies to the audience that gained no sympathy for the already sleazy characters. Trujillo's choreography repeated his Jersey Boys work that felt detached from Menken's music, while Ashley's direction, the ugly new sets and overall feel to the revised show made it feel cold and soulless. Even Esparza felt dispirited, giving his usual vocal power but phoning in his passion. A total amiss especially during "Jonas' Soliloquy", a beautiful breakdown 11-o'clock number that could have (finally) locked his Tony Award.

The worst part is that I KNOW there is a great show within and in the fiddling, the new creative team only made things worse, not letting Menken's beautiful score breathing room in this revised version of The Music Man, that I thought still worked in its L.A. run (even with the clunky first act). Alas, the show now enters the Tony race as one of the shortest runs for a Best Musical nominated show which it basically got because the nominators disliked the other new musicals even MORE. Still, despite its numerous problems, seeing Lewis-Evans, Brown, Kassenbaum, and Odom Jr. tear apart "Are You On the Bus", or hearing the cast sing the title song "Leap of Faith", still brings me a joy that cannot be explained, and I jump right back on the bus.

Xanadu photos by Scott Suchman 

The Music Man and Leap of Faith photos by Joan Marcus 
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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

2011-2012 The Patricks! ITBA Winners!

As a member of The Independent Theater Bloggers Association (the “ITBA”), we are proud to announce the 2012 recipients of the Fourth Annual Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Awards, (the “the Patricks”). Patrick Lee was one of the ITBA's founding members. Patrick passed away suddenly in June 2010, and was an erudite, passionate, and tireless advocate for theater in all its forms. Patrick was also the ITBA's first awards director, and was a regular contributor to Theatermania and TDF Stages.

The 2011-2012 Patrick Lee Theater Blogger Award Winners:

Peter and the Starcatcher

2) CITATIONS FOR EXCELLENCE BY INDIVIDUAL PERFORMERS (Across Off- Off Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Broadway)
Nina Arianda in "Venus in Fur"
Christian Borle in "Peter and the Starcatcher"
Philip Boynkin in "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess"
Danny Burstein, "Follies"
James Corden in "One Man Two Guvnors"
Santino Fontana, "Sons of a Prophet"
Judy Kaye, "Nice Work If You Can Get It"
Judith Light in "Other Desert Cities"
Jan Maxwell, "Follies"
Lindsay Mendez "Godspell"
Terri White in "Follies"

3) Outstanding New Broadway Musical

4) Outstanding New Broadway Play
Peter and the Starcatcher

5) Outstanding Broadway Musical Revival

6) Outstanding Broadway Play Revival
Death of a Salesman

7) Outstanding New Off Broadway Play
Sons of the Prophet

"Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War", by The Mad Ones, at The New Ohio Theatre
"She Kills Monsters" at the Flea Theatre

"The Tenant" by Woodshed Collective

The Flea Theatre

11) OUTSTANDING SOLO SHOW/PERFORMANCES (Across Broadway, off- Broadway and Off-Off Broadway)
Hugh Jackman "Back on Broadway"
Denis O'Hare "An Iliad" New York Theatre Workshop
Zoe Caldwell, "Elective Affinities", Soho Rep
Juan Francisco Villa- "Empanada for a Dream", Ballybeg at Barrow Group
Stephen Spinella "An Iliad"
Daniel Kitson, "It's Always Right Now Until It's Later"
Lorinda Lositza in "Triumphant Baby"

12) Outstanding New Off Broadway Musical
Now. Here. This.

The ITBA, is comprised of bloggers who regularly see live performances in all its forms in New York City and beyond. Members are in New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and London. For further information and a list of our members, our website is If you are interested in learning more about the ITBA, email info To invite the members of the ITBA to your show or event, please send an email to invite

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Shakespeare Without Words - Hamlet, Sleep No More and Amaluna- Shakespeare Reviews

Hamlet - National Ballet of Canada at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Choreographed by Kevin O'Day, based on William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Music by John King
Runs until June 10th 2012

Sleep No More - PunchDrunk at The McKittrick Hotel - New York City, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Based loosely on William Shakespeare's Macbeth

Amaluna - Cirque du Soleil's Le Grand Chapiteau at The Quays of the Old Port - Montreal, QC - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Directed by Diane Paulus, Music by Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, Based loosely on William Shakespeare's The Tempest
Runs in Montreal until July 15th 2012, Opens in Quebec City on July 26th, Toronto on Sept. 6th, Vancouver on Nov. 23rd 2012, continues on to Seattle.

Is William Shakespeare without his text even Shakespeare? Is it a bastardization, or a form of flattery, that his plays have been taken beyond his writings and transformed into other mediums?  It’s not a new thing, nor does it only happen to Shakespeare, but from West Side Story to countless opera’s and ballets, to loosely adapted teen comedies, we seem to love using Shakespeare as a template, excising or altering his words and prose to be easily digestible in other formats. Is it simply simplification to dumb things down? If The National Ballet of Canada (via Kevin O’Day), Cirque du Soleil (via Diane Paulus) and PunchDrunk have anything to say, they’ve heighten the drama and emotions behind three of Shakespeare’s plays in three very different, but equally mesmerizing productions.

The National Ballet of Canada brings us the Canadian premiere of Kevin O’Day’s exciting ballet adaptation of Hamlet (first seen in Stuttgart), a production without any of Shakespeare's famous words. The ballet turns the interior emotions and conflict within Hamlet (and the other characters) into outwardly physical movements of beauty and rage, easily conveying Shakespeare’s story of a torn Prince.

With an effective clingy-clangy music from John King, (that at times sounded like sounds from a Foley studio) and set against a beautiful stark set of perforated bone-like walls (and projections) on a platform held by stilts (by Tatyana van Walsum), O’Day’s production takes on an operatic quality. From the first moment of silence as the lights go out, as the audience sits uncomfortably in the dark for the show to begin (with rustles and coughs unacquainted with the purposefully pointed pause at the beginning of the ballet), O’Day uses the medium of dance and awkward body movements to highlight the interior monologues in the externalized art form of ballet. Hamlet’s tortured situation gets the full dramatic treatment that choreography and movement easily accentuates.

I will confess, most of the time I am watching a Shakespeare play, my brain is in overdrive trying to understand the text, trying to interperate the words beyond mere plot points. I usually judge a production on how easily Shakespeare’s words are understandable, but even with the best productions, it usually takes me all of Act 1 before I get in the groove of his prose. So watching Shakespeare without having to internally translate the Elizabethan language is somewhat of a relief, and makes the Coles notes situation all the more bearable.

And while a ballet of Hamlet will be missing the beautiful poeticism of the original play,  I found it far more revealing of every character’s interior motivation, and emotional state, making the plot far easier to understand, than the play has ever done for me. Sacrilegious! I know! But when you’re watching the amazing company of National Ballet dancers moving to O’Day’s choreography, it seemed far easier to get emotionally invested in Hamlet’s plight.

The opening night cast had Guillaume Côté (above) as a thrilling Hamlet that was equally thrilling in his emotional portrayal as his physical dancing. Finally reunited on stag with Heather Ogden (above,  Côté's real life wife) as Ophelia, 
Côté and Ogden danced together with a spark that no manufactured chemistry could recreate. During her character’s breakdown, Ogden also showed a crackling and exciting solo as Ophelia dissolves at Hamlet’s rejection.

Jonathan Renna and McGee Maddox, as Polonius and Laertes, Ophelia's protective father and brother, respectively, are in spectacular form, especially in their dance with Ogden as the men try to hold Ophelia from flirting back at Hamlet. O'Day's choreography turns this dance of three into a fun, funny, but telling moment that involves Ophelia into Hamlet's plight. 

Jiří Jelinek is in superb form as the evil Claudius (which he originated in Stuttgart),  while Robert Stephen (who rotates in the role of Hamlet) and Christopher Stalzer are delightful as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Elena Lobsanova (who rotates in the role of Ophelia) is the vision of loveliness as one half of the actors Hamlet uses to reenact Claudius' betrayal, with up-and-comer Corps de Ballet member Dylan Tedaldi filling in the other half.

With the cast of Hamlet already being filled with the National Ballet's biggest Principal stars and First Soloists (including Stephanie Hutchison as Gertrude), it was exciting to see a lot of the exciting up-and-comers from the Corps filling roles right along side, and not missing a single dance beat. Along with Stalzer and Tedaldi, Brendan Saye (above with  Côté) is wonderfully stoic and gentle as Hamlet's more rational friend Horatio, while Giorgio Galli has a wonderful presence as part of the ensemble, and takes on the role of Laertes on rotation. The male heavy play gives the men in the company lots of opportunity to shine and continues to prove why I had taken notice of all of them in previous shows.

You have probably heard of Sleep No More by now. If you don't know the name exactly, you know you've heard about that walk-through play that is more of an experience than anything else you can describe. Audiences are told to wear a mask, stay silent, and then explore the confines of The McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, discovering the AMAZING set decorations of the 100 room building that makes this just as much of an art installation as it is theatre. But then a choose-your-own-adventure moment happens as you spot an unmasked couple dancing, or a bald-headed witch whizzes by, or you see King Duncan stroll by, or trees start moving. Do you watch? Do you follow them? Who do you follow? 

What you get out of Sleep No More really depends on you and your choices, what rooms you enter and what items you might riffle through. As you slowly discover The McKittrick Hotel, the events in Shakespeare's Macbeth begin unravelling around you a la Hitchcock, without words, solely through dance, movement, and music (timed to the action AND the room you're in!), but what parts of the play you see all depends on what you decide to do. It can be extremely frustrating (as I've heard some people complain), especially as my personal natural tendency is to move away from the crowds, but you'll quickly learn that a crowd probably means something is happening. Whether it is Lady Macbeth watching the blood off her body in a tub, or a strange disco orgy with a goat head and a baby, the events that lead to Macbeth's ultimate demise is enacted for you to discover and while following the crowd often gets you to major scenes, but sometimes going it alone can yield some surprising and cool results!

I happened to catch Lady Macbeth seducing King Duncan to drink the poisoned wine, then followed Duncan as he slowly died a painful death. Watched as his cohorts wrapped his dead body and buried him, then ran along (and I mean RUN) as they seeked revenge up and down 6 levels of The McKittrick Hotel. By the final scene (and yes, there IS a final scene and do NOT leave before then), I was exhausted, enthralled and amazed by the adrenaline pumping experience and absolutely loved the experience. But I ran. And kept watch of the major characters, always following one of them by the half-way point in the show (using the first half to work my way at discovering the lay of the lands). 

I've since traded stories and experience with others who have gone to experience the show, and have heard countless things I've managed to miss, and vice versa. You may not get to see all, or any, of Macbeth, but the mystique, the fully enveloping set, and the voyeuristic experience (that many have noted resembles the famous scene in Eyes Wide Shut) is reason enough to visit The McKittrick Hotel.

Amaluna the newest Cirque Du Soleil show in the touring Grand Chapiteau has made its debut in Montreal, the first stop for every Big Blue and Yellow Tent show before it tours the world. While the last one I saw there, Totem, was still a bit of a mess (since Montreal in a sorts, acts as a preview stage for the rest of the tour), Amaluna starts off its run strong and cohesive and ready to go! The clowns could still use some work, being the least funny clowns in my Cirque memory (and I’ve seen Banana Shpeel, a whole Cirque show about clowns), and a part where a woman in a big white dress dancing begins to drag the first act, but all in all, this was one of the best Cirque shows I’ve seen, despite it having some of the least death-defying types of circus tricks.

What makes Amaluna work is a unified and well-flowing narrative, much like Ovo, my favorite Cirque I’ve seen to date. Is it maybe a coincidence that Amaluna is only the second Cirque show to be directed by a woman, with Ovo being the first? Plus as Amaluna's director, Diane Paulus, this may be the first Cirque show directed by a Broadway musical director (if I'm correct). Diane Paulus leads a female heavy cast, an all-female band, in a celebration of women in a bit of a twist on one of Shakespeare's plays.

Diane Paulus (Hair, The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess) fashions Amaluna as an interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (although I’m gathering it is a very loose adaptation), except Propero being a woman this time around. It gives Cirque’s usual line up of circus acts a wonderful story as a backbone (instead of its usual unintelligible "story") and lets the characters continually interact with each other throughout the show, giving us a deeper connection to the performers (who in many previous Cirque shows, would disappear once their act was over). Amaluna also gives us a love story to hang onto and hope for, especially when said star-crossed lovers (Miranda and Romeo, switching it up from Ferdinand) are super fit athletic circus performers with bodies of steel (who have their own impressive circus acts of their own)! 

A winning and lovely Ikhertsetseg Bayarsaikhan as Miranda, and the handsome and gentle Édouard Doye as a muscular (hands-only) pole climbing Romeo, centre the efforts of Prospera (Julie McInnes) as she keeps watch over her island kingdom. Cali the lizard (juggler Victor Lee) protectively keeps watch of Miranda as she innocently flirts with this endearing lost Romeo, all while other fellow male sailors (who will later bounce and flip over high bars) flee their nets and into a gang of female warriors keeping watch of the island (swinging from high and low bars). The circus acts, while seemingly simpler than some more gimmicky and dazzling acts from previous shows, are still each uniquely stunning and awe inspiring. A duo of unicyclists, tumblers who juggled, aerialists, tightrope walkers and more, round out the cast, but it's Lara Jacob Rigolo quiet act of intense concentration and balance that surprisingly garners one of the biggest applause of the night. Rigolo balances bone/palm stems one by one like a mobile, turning it into a showcase of core strength and quiet balance. 

As always with Cirque, the music, the set (by Scott Pask), the lighting (by Matthieu Larrivée), the costumes (by Mérédith Caron) are wonderful, and save for some moments in Act 1 and the clown antics, Paulus has created a beautiful ode to women through the art of the circus, and perfectly pairing Shakespeare's strange tale of The Tempest, with the strangeness of Cirque du Soleil's own unique style.

Shakespeare might be rolling in his grave, but I thank Kevin O'Day and The National Ballet, PunchDrunk and Cirque du Soleil for giving us beautiful and exciting works that should only mean to flatter Shakespeare.

Hamlet photos by Vincent von Tiedemann

Amaluna photos by Vincenzo D'Alto
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