Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sometimes, The Show Just Doesn't Come Together

What's the point of reviewing a show that's already opened and closed?
Well, at the very least, it's instructive.
Such is the case with Amélie, the musical version of the whimsical French film that captivated hearts throughout the world in 2001.
Amélie tells the story of an innocent and naive girl in Paris with her own sense of justice. As she grows up she decides to help those around her and, along the way, discovers love.
The movie was lighthearted and romantic without being saccharine in a way that only the French seem able to concoct. The road that Amélie takes to find her true love takes many detours, some predictable, some totally surprising and some just this side of absurd. But it all worked.
Here's one of the big differences that occurred in Amélie's transformation to the stage: In the movie, Amélie was somewhat of a meddler. And that was funny and decidedly human as her idea of helping people was not necessarily what the recipients had in mind or maybe not even what they may have actually needed. But in the musical, much of this was lost and Amélie simply came across as a do-gooder. The result is another small, somewhat preachy musical about being gentle, kind and helpful.
So, the musical just sort of muddled along in its own rather false "pure-hearted" way and the characters become more like caricatures. The whole outing developed into a sort of French version of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. And anyone who can imagine this could see that Babar and Charlie Brown simply don't pair well. 
Still, Amelie was widely anticipated on Broadway because it starred Phillipa Soo, who had been nominated for a Tony Award last year for originating the role of Eliza in Hamilton. And the show did well during a run up to Broadway at the Ahmanson Theater in LA.
Amélie featured music by Daniel Messé, lyrics by Mr. Messé and Nathan Tysen, and a book by Craig Lucas; it was directed by Pam MacKinnon. The music was serviceable but it never really soared. And Soo seemed stuck in a tiny musical with a constricted story that never seemed to give her character a chance to become more three-dimensional.
Unlike Groundhog Day (which reinterpreted the movie on which it is based in a new way geared toward 2017 audiences and fashioned specifically for a big Broadway stage) Amélie just didn't seem to be able to make the switch. In its transition to the stage the story actually seemed to get smaller and less consequential and the characters were robbed of any depth they might have otherwise developed. Sadly, one got the impression that the whole thing was done on a shoestring.
Still, the show managed to garner some favorable snippets from the critics and it might have survived longer had it garnered some Tony nominations. But it wound up with a big, fat zero.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Time To Banish 'Small' From The Great White Way?

As a general rule, we don't like small musicals.
Because "small" and "Broadway" just don't seem to go well together.
To begin with a Broadway theater must have 500 seats or more. Otherwise, it simply doesn't qualify as Broadway. Most Broadway theaters accommodate 800 to 1500 or more theatergoers.
To succeed in a larger house, you usually need a bigger show. Even when a show that originates off-Broadway moves to Broadway, its staging usually has to grow larger to adapt to the change. Often, that also means more musicians and other changes in scenery, lighting and maybe even cast size to make it a real "Broadway" production. Sadly, it doesn't always happen this way.
For us, a Broadway musical is naturally big with a large musical accompaniment, significant production numbers, perhaps some name stars and, finally, scenery, costumes and staging to match. Also, the show usually has a distinct Broadway sound. The unique Broadway sound is often referred to as “Tin Pan Alley,” a musical structure that was pioneered by songwriters such as  Irving Berlin, George Gershwin,  Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and many others. Tin Pan Alley got its name from a Manhattan street full of music publishers who hired composers and lyricists to write songs that eventually came to define American popular music. These songs constituted pop music up till the time of rock 'n roll and they are now enshrined in what is known as The Great American Songbook. Much of the songbook's sound originated on Broadway.
But every now and then (and seemingly now more so than ever) Broadway strays from its rich legacy and attempts to hand us a smaller, more intimate musical -- something the creators deem more accessible. Usually, these musicals have a cast of characters numbering in single digits and musical accompaniment on the same small scale. Sets are minimal (perhaps with little or no variation) and costumes are also kept simple. And frequently, there is no "Broadway sound" to speak (or sing) of. Instead, the show may borrow from folk music, ethnic music, rock, rap, hip-hop, soul or other traditions. Once recent small musical was performed entirely acapella.
Somewhere between the little musical and the Really Big Broadway Shows (such as Chicago, Phantom of the Opera, Hello Dolly and Wicked) we have the little-bit-bigger-than-small musical -- shows that seem to fall in between. These are wanna-be-big musicals that don't quite make it. And now, these not-quite-big-musicals are starting to steal the show. You know what we're talking about. We're referring to musicals like Next To Normal, Fun Home, Falsettos, Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen.
Sure, these kinds of shows have been around awhile. Even the quintessential Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (trained by Oscar Hammerstein himself) has dipped into the smaller format once or twice with shows like Assassins and, to some extent, Passion. But now, some of these small and midsize shows seem to be gaining attention and honors that may be all out of proportion to their actual worth. Just look at Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away if you're not convinced of that. True, these shows purport to take on important and au courant themes and issues. But that alone does not qualify them for significant status.
For our tastes, we go to Broadway for the razzle-dazzle -- the rich orchestrations, the booming voices, the inspiring sets, the  costumes, the stars, even the special effects. After all, Irving Berlin's anthem to big entertainment begins with "the costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props" in reminding us why "there's no business like show business."
If you want to see a "little" show, then maybe you should spend your time supporting little theater. Because maybe size and spectacle and sound just don't matter to you.
But of you're going to spend the sort of bucks it takes to patronage a theater run by Shubert, Nederlander or Jujamcyn, then you have a right to expect a whole lot more.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Dolly, Kline, Midler, Karl Win Outer Critics Honors!

Outer Critics Circle 2016-2017 Awards -- just announced:


Come From Away

If I Forget

The Band’s Visit

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Irene Sankoff & David Hein Come From Away

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
David Yazbek The Band’s Visit

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Hello, Dolly!

Rebecca Taichman Indecent

Christopher Ashley Come From Away

Warren Carlyle Hello, Dolly!

(Play or Musical)
Mimi Lien Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

(Play or Musical)
Catherine Zuber War Paint

(Play or Musical)
Bradley King Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

(Play or Musical)
Aaron Rhyne Anastasia

(Play or Musical)
Gareth Owen Come From Away

Larry Hochman Hello, Dolly!

Kevin Kline Present Laughter

Laura Linney The Little Foxes

Andy Karl Groundhog Day

Bette Midler Hello, Dolly!

Danny DeVito The Price

Cynthia Nixon The Little Foxes

Gavin Creel Hello, Dolly!

Jenn Colella Come From Away

Simon McBurney The Encounter

(Presented for an American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Bess Wohl Small Mouth Sounds

Doing Great Business Right Now On Broadway!

'Charlie' is off to a fantastic start -- virtually selling out (95%) with tickets going for as high as $223. Business is expected to get even better after school lets out with heavy demand over the summer.

Natasha, Pierre Scoops Up Theatre World Awards

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

At Opposite Ends Of B'Way, Two Great, Shining Star Turns!

On opposite ends of Broadway two leading men are giving standout performances that have the Great White Way reaching for superlatives.
One is a relative Broadway newcomer while the other is a veteran of the stage and screen; one stars in a musical while the other dominates the stage in a play and one creates a characterization in a new production while the other recreates a striking personality in a sparkling new revival of a beloved comedy.
Let's start with the younger performer and the new musical first.

Would you believe we knew nothing about Groundhog Day before we went to see the new musical concocted by most of the team surrounding Matilda and starring Andy Karl? That's right, we never saw the movie with Bill Murray (now a cult classic) and knew nothing about the story except that it involved Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
It wasn't very long into the show before we could see that the musical's biggest challenge was how to repeat the same scenes and lines over and over and over again as Karl's character (TV weatherguy Phil Connors) relives the same day, moment-for-moment endlessly.
In a movie, this is a simple matter of good, quick editing. But the stage is a far different beast. Doesn't it get monotonous, you might ask? Isn't it boring and/or tedious? And the answer, thanks to Karl and the entire Groundhog Day team is no, no, no, and no. That's because Karl makes Connors' growing frustration not only palpable but remarkably believable. What he gives us is a three-dimensional portrait of Connors that is more vulnerable, less acerbic, more reachable and more worthy of our concern. Karl doesn't play the role merely for laughs or use the characterization just to be snarky. He's no paper thin wise guy. Instead, he gives us a full-blown, more complex character -- a guy we might want to know better or even become friends with. And, because we can understand Connors' frustration with daily life, we connect with the story in new and more meaningful ways.
We'll be honest with you. When we heard that this production was cooked up at Britain's Old Vic by the director, orchestrator and lighting designer for Matilda, we feared the show might be dark, brooding, menacing and shrill. Matilda was certainly not a favorite of ours.
But while Groundhog Day has some edgy, slightly scary and even philosophical moments it avoids the almost gothic impulses and morbid curiosities of Matilda. And that's all to the better because this show manages to ask meaningful questions about what really does make one day significantly different from another and how we can truly live in and take joy in the moment and some of the "ordinary" people we share it with. It all comes together when Karl sings the beautiful Seeing You with costar (and love interest) Barrett Doss and the memorable If I Had My Time Again, which is a question we've all faced somewhere along life's journey.
Still, don't expect lush orchestrations here or a classic Broadway sound as the music borrows from several genres (including country) and can seem over amplified and even tinny at times. But the show overcomes all that.
In addition to the young, energetic and spot-on cast, much of Groundhog Day's appeal stems from its staging which is clever without being distracting and tongue-in-cheek without being overly cutesy. Kudos to director director Matthew Warchus, choreographer Peter Darling, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and scenic designer Rob Howell.
But it is Andy Karl who makes Groundhog Day an irresistible hit again and again and again. Karl is simply a charming performer and to see him live and witness the joy he takes in his craft is one of the great pleasure of this or any other season.

At the other end of Broadway, the venerable Kevin Kline (an Oscar and Tony Award winner) has taken on the role of Garry Essendine in Noel Coward's classic Present Laughter. This is one of the most demanding and coveted roles in the Coward galaxy and the portrayal was originated by Coward himself in 1942. In subsequent productions, it was played by Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen, Tom Conti, Frank Langella, George C. Scott and Victor Garber, among others.
So, anybody who takes on the challenge of playing the overly-dramatic, over-the-top Essendine had better be damned good, which Kline certainly is.
The play's title comes from a song in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which urges carpe diem ("present mirth hath present laughter"), and so the word present in the title should be pronounced as the adjective and not the verb.
The plot follows a few days in the life of the successful and self-obsessed light comedy actor Essendine as he prepares to travel for a touring commitment in Africa. Amid a series of events bordering on farce, Garry has to deal with women who want to seduce him, placate both his long-suffering secretary and his estranged wife, cope with a crazed young playwright, and overcome his impending mid-life crisis (since he has recently turned forty). The story was described by Coward as "a series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics".
Well, obviously Kline (who will be 70 later this year) can hardly pass for 40 so, in this production we're led to believe that he's just turned 50 or 60 or whatever. It hardly matters since all these years later (and in the age of Viagra) 70 is the new 40, right?
Anyway, Kline is on stage practically the whole time in an old-fashioned three-act play that's condensed to two acts with two one-minute pauses within each act. Fortunately he's superbly supported by Kate Burton as his all-knowing former wife and Kristine Nielsen as his ever-loyal secretary. You'll find many other Broadway favorites dotted among this fine cast and they'll all marvelous, in part because they're perfectly directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel.
The timing in this fast-paced production will take your breath away and the comic turns and clever lines zing (and sting!) as if they were written yesterday. 
Just as an example, here are some lines from the show:

Garry: You ought never to have joined the Athenaeum Club, Henry: it was disastrous.
Henry: I really don’t see why.
Garry: It’s made you pompous.
Henry: It can’t have. I’ve always been too frightened to go into it.

Garry: Beryl Willard is extremely competent. Beryl Willard has been extremely competent, man and boy, for forty years. In addition to her extreme competence, she has contrived, with uncanny skill, to sustain a spotless reputation for being the most paralysing, epoch-making, monumental, world-shattering, God-awful bore that ever drew breath...I will explain one thing further - it is this. No prayer, no bribe, no threat, no power, human or divine, would induce me to go to Africa with Beryl Willard. I wouldn't go as far as Wimbledon with Beryl Willard.
Liz: What he's trying to say is that he doesn't care for Beryl Willard.

Morris: I'll never speak to you again until the day I die!
Garry: Well, we can have a nice little chat then, can't we?

As you can see, Garry (Kline) has almost all of the great zingers and he delivers them deftly (and with a perfectly effete British accent) in a manner that will keep your ear cocked for the next round and laughing all the way. 
But don't let this lead you to believe that the show is just a bunch of punch-lines delivered like some round of standup. Far from it. This is the story of a man who sees his life passing by and is wildly conniving to squeeze every drop out of it. He delights in the moment and in drink and women and every bit of carnal pleasure he can still find. He doesn't want to care what others think of him but he's an actor, so he's vain and self-absorbed and overly conscious of his every word, thought and action. And therein lie not just the nature of the human condition in all too many situations but the seed of great comedy as well.
Present laughter, indeed!