30 October 2009

FELA!, Memphis. Memphis, FELA!

FELA! and MEMPHIS are both New Musicals opening on Broadway this fall, I saw both of them for free, they both feature a lot of dancing, and they both deal with issues that fit under the broad "race" umbrella.  Though they have more in common than, say, MISS SAIGON and WAITING FOR GODOT, I admit that I will ultimately be comparing an apple to an orange and remarking at the differences in color, texture and flavor. 

MEMPHIS is a work of fiction that, nonetheless, tells a story everyone knows involving segregation, the South, music, and the 1960s.  FELA!, thought not really a linear narrative of any kind, nonetheless tells a story that, thought based on fact, is most likely new to the majority of audience members about oppression in Nigeria in the late 1970s.

MEMPHIS, though about musicians, has an unremarkable and derivative score that frequently fails to evoke the very specific genres the libretto references.  FELA! is basically a jukebox musical, but it uses a jokebox many are unfamiliar with, by a man known to be an innovative musician, and explains--if in borderline tedious details--what is different about this music.  However, though the music in MEMPHIS is often bland, it is just as consistently energetic and engaging, whereas FELA!'s jam session of a score allows the audience to disengage. 

In MEMPHIS dance is used throughout, mostly to lift the numbers from the story, rather than to enhance the dramatic content of the songs.  In FELA! the dance IS the story.  If MEMPHIS's dramaturgy is chrystilline clear and FELA!'s often confusing, the power and insight FELA!'s dancing adds to the proceedings is unparalleded.  MEMPHIS's choreographer--the ubiquitous Sergrio Trullio--is Broadway dancer-turned choreographer, and his work is consistently adequate and professional, if pedestrian in its use of verical lines and grids of toothy grinned chorines.  FELA!'s Bill T Jones comes from the dance world and is adapting his career-long habit of movement as meaning, body as form and structure to a more accessible Broadway framework. 

The result of the differences between the craft in MEMPHIS and FELA! is perhaps most clear in each musical's respective moment of Extreme Abuse against the protagonists. In MEMPHIS the moment feels essentially inevitable, leaving the audience with a Morales-esque feeling of nothingness. In FELA!--perhaps because it is legitimately shocking and new, it stuns.  I don't know which of these productions will be more commercially successful, though FELA! will probably walk away with stronger reviews (especially if those impressed by its off-Broadway incarnation are similarly entertained).  But, if MEMPHIS may perhaps embody the type of likable dance-and-belt-a-thon that many want right now, FELA!'s innovative dance (and stunningly imaginative lighting) are what Broadway needs.

29 October 2009

One Week From Today...

...we open

1158: Moses Maimonides flees Spain, dies in Cairo 1204.
1492: Ferdinand and Isabella expel all Jews from Spain.
1992: Maimonides returns.

Polybe + Seats

written by Avi Glickstein
directed by Jessica Brater
produced by Catherine Wallach and Polybe + Seats

Elaine O’Brien
Sarah Sakaan
Indika Senanayake*
Lindsay Torrey*
Jill Usdan
Ari Vigoda

Set, Costume, and Puppet Design: Peiyi Wong assisted by Bevan Dunbar
Lighting Design: Natalie Robin assisted by Marika Kent
Sound Design: John D. Ivy
Dramaturgy: Miriam Felton-Dansky
Stage Manager/Associate Producer: Donald Butchko assisted by Dinah Finkelstein
Selected music performed by Anna Levenstein

*indicates member of Actors' Equity. Granada is an Equity-approved showcase.

Runs November 5-22, 2009

Thursdays-Saturdays @ 8pm
Saturdays @ 3pm
Sundays @ 7pm

Granada begins in 1992 as the King of Spain prepares to symbolically welcome Jews back to Spain after 500 years of banishment. A young Egyptian Jewish woman has been invited to stand in for all of those exiled-but following the ceremony, she reveals to Spain's prince that she believes herself to be the resurrection of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), philosopher, royal physician, and Jewish cultural icon. Quite suddenly, the prince's world is not what it was before her revelation: he is pursued by a bear, seduced by a princess hatched from a grapefruit, and nearly betrayed by his trusty aide-de-camp. Is this the beginning of the Messianic age?

Bringing together characters and stories from Sephardic Jewish folklore and culture, Granada draws on a centuries-old tradition to create a tender, bizarre, and funny look at a people separated by continents but united by a state of exile.

Tickets available at

The Access Theater Gallery has limited accessibility. For accessibility information, please contact info@polybeandseats.org.

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23 October 2009

Just watch it

David Carroll in the original Broadway production of GRAND HOTEL. He passed away earlyish into the run (and, in fact, was not even preserved on the Cast Recording), being replaced by go-to-Billy Finn Brett Barrett. But they don't make'm like this anymore.

21 October 2009

What Do You Do With a B.S. in Theater?

I was a Jr. in college when AVENUE Q first hit Broadway.  I had an instantaneous affinity for the witty and tuneful OCR, which, among other things, bailed me out of at least 2 potentially awkard car trips.  It's odd to think that I related to the material since, at the time, I had only been to NYC once, and often did, in fact, sit on a quad.

This Sunday I finally saw the little-show-that could in its new home Off-Broadway and was pleasantly and consistently surprised throughout.  I was surprised at how many jokes, characters, and story lines I was not aware of, despite knowing the score backwards and forward.  I was surprised by the extent to which the imaginative staging and choreography lifted the numbers I knew so well.  I was surprised by the extent to which the show hit home with me, now that I actually am broke, living in Brooklyn, and unsure of my "purpose", and surprised at its abilities to, if only mometarily, qualm my varied anxieties. 

Q's new home at New World Stages seems to me to serve as a combatant for the inherent, if subtle, earnestness and sincerity of the show.  From the industrial common areas of the complex--with decor that seems more suited for TopShop--to the house staff aggressively pushing drink specials delivered to your seats during intermission, I felt more like I was in a stadium than a theater.  Perhaps this is the way things will be everywhere from now on.  I didn't like it, but I didn't hate it, and I suppose I could get used to it.  It is to Q's credit that its cuddly puppets and likable performers (Anika Larsen makes an especially a wonderful Kate Monster, with Seth Rettberg making a fine Princeton/Rod) made themselves, and their story, heard and felt (pun intended) over the din.

12 October 2009

OLEANNA on Broadway

In the 10 minutes or so in which I waited outside the Golden Theater for my friend, no fewer than 5 separate groups of middle aged women noted the marquee and exclaimed “Oh look, Julia Stiiiiles is in something.”  No mention was made of Bill Pullman, who costar with a longer career, or David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize winning—and perhaps most marketable—playwright who’s OLEANNA opened last night.  No mention was made of either of these men (let alone director Dough Hughes) because, for this particular subset of the population—middle aged women walking on 45th St at 6:45pm on a Thursday night—Julia Stiles on Broadway is the event of note.  Those women would not be disappointed.  Julia Stiles was indeed in something.  On Broadway.  Hell, (spoiler alert) she even cried.  Those of us asking for more, however, might not walk away as satiated. 

OLEANNA concerns Carol, a college student (Stiles), who meets with John, her about-to-be-tenured professor (Pullman), to discuss that fact that she is failing/”doesn’t get” his class.  This seemingly innocuous encounter—full of theory about the nature/value of higher education and identity—is cast in a darker light in later scenes as She lodges a formal complaint against Him.  She claims his behavior both in that meeting and in the classroom, is condescending and sexist.  Thus begins a discourse on gender roles, power dynamics and political correctness.  Sort of.  Because the two sides of the argument are never really presented.  She attacks Him relentlessly and tirelessly, making arguments both solid and tenuous.  He, in reaction, is increasingly befuddled and disheveled, but never particularly articulate—there is not one moment after the first scene in which He makes a point that She acknowledges.  Not that she should, as his argument consists of refrains of “Why are you doing this to me?” as opposed to specifically refuting her arguments and evidence.  Of course, her arguments and evidence are so vaguely presented that I have a hard time believing a tenure board would give them lip service.   He is equally ineffective in his communications with his wife, who calls incessantly throughout to play despite Pullman’s habitual greeting of “I can’t talk right now.”  I am almost offended that a play supposedly dedicated to the exploration of interaction between genders shows women in a singular light as ceaseless harpies who, with their combination of needs and expectations, push Him over the proverbial edge.  And it is only when He is pushed that any of Her arguments begin to seem plausible.     

The trademark “Mamet” rhythm comes off as contrived and unconvincing here (especially in the first scene), and there is little variance in tempo or energy.  The design elements are appropriate, if not particularly helpful in setting a time for this production—the world is a different place in 2009 than it was in 1992 (when the play was first produced).  The fact that this production neither confirms nor denies this fact, setting the play vaguely around now-ish, underscores the feeling that the whole evening was very “general”—generally engaging, generally entertaining, generally well acted.  Though adequately and professionally executed, I can’t help but think I would see an equally, if not more, provocative production at a college or regional theater.  But it wouldn’t have Julia Stiles.  And for some people, that may be enough.

To save over 40% on tickets, just visit BroadwayOffers.com and enter code OLMKT93. Tickets are only $59 on Tuesday-Friday or $65 on Saturday and Sunday! (Valid through 11/15)

09 October 2009

Our New Phantom - Shirtless

This guy is going to be the Phantom in the London production of PHANTOM: LOVE NEVER DIES, set to open this March.  (Broadway will get it in Feb 2011, or something like that.)   I'm shallow enough to say I'm now excited about the production.

Of course, remember when Gerard Butler was in the movie version?  Thank God he had that mask, because no one really rememebers, and now he has a career.  Here's a gratutitous Gerard Butler Shirtless pic.

08 October 2009


When I was a weee little lad, my exposure/interest in live-action musicals was pretty much dictated by films what my mother loved growing up.  This wasn't a problem because (a) she had pretty decent taste, so I watched a lot of SOUND OF MUSIC, MY FAIR LADY, PETER PAN, and CINDERELLA w/Leslie Ann Warren and (b) I was, you know, six.  I don't think I would have "gotten" PRETTYBELLE anyway.  But in 1989 (when I was in Kindergarden or 1st Grade), a new TV musical came out.  Perhaps this was the first musical that my mother and I each experienced for the first time at the same time, at least the first that left a lasting impression.  POLLY is POLLYANNA (which I have never seen in its entirety) reset in the 1950s segregated South.  I think the idea is fairly inspired, using Polly's ANNIE-like optimism to affect the attitudes of a small southern town.  Mrs. White (the cranky lady akin to the Agnes Moorehead "You've got a stubby little nose" character, played here by Celeste Holm) is actually white.  She lives on the white part of town, which one must literally cross a bridge to get to.  Need I say that the movie ends with both races on that bridge, walking towards each other?  A bit on the nose perhaps, but it ultimately tells a much more nuanced--and believable--musical story of this struggle than MEMPHIS will at the Shubert tonight. 

This musical number in particular has stuck with me for the past 20 years.  Not only does it feature great choreo from Debbie Allen (who also Directed), and a spirited performance by the hyper-talented (and, for a time, ubiquitous) Brandon Adams, its infectious ear-worm of a tune is performed a capella (until the unfortunate button which is remniscent of Andrew Lippa's massacre of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN).  How I dream of this song making it onto an episode of GLEE...

Did I mention Jasmine Guy and Phylicia Rashad are also in it?  This lovely trio has also followed me for 2 decades.

And this is when I learned of Music Theater's particular ability to handle the emotions of a strong woman scorned--and my ability to relate (and sing along)

06 October 2009

5 Theatrical Pet Peeves

As a Geminii, I am simultaneous easy-going and incredibly neurotic.  So, while I try to have a laissez-faire attitude most of the time, certain attitudes, opinons, and actions never fail to make me want to punch a brick wall.

1) People who wish a show would "just close already"--I've already discussed this at length, so I won't rehash now.  But it's annoying.

2) Somehow insinuating that RENT would have been so much better had it not be frozen upon Jonathan Larson's untimely death.--This issue actually points to one of the biggest issues in the development of Musical Theater.  Everybody thinks they know how to fix the show.  Sometimes, like with NEXT TO NORMAL, a show can be in development for years and remain so close until that 1 special workshop or production where everything falls into place.  But I'm willing to bet just as many shows are so close...until 4 years of workhops and readings and differeing opinions from directors and artistic directors and dramaturgs extinguish what original spark was still there.  The whole situation reminds me of that speech from SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION:
I remembered why I loved paintings in the first place, what got me into this. I thought... dreamt... remembered... how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months, and then, one day, he loses it. Loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting. I remembered asking my kids' second-grade teacher: 'Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade - blotches of green and black. The third grade - camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?' 'I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.'
Yes, it is certainly possible that RENT could have been a better show had there been an opportunity for revision.  It also could have been the same show but shorter, or with a different song instead of "Contact".  Or it could have been worse.  There are more important things than a "tight" first act, and the essence of the show--the memorable characters, the great score and the infectious, tangible, spirit--was pitch perfect.

3) Bloggers who apologize for not posting--I mean, we love you.  But, as Eliza Doolittle would sing, "There'll be fruit on the tree,/ And a shore by the sea./ There'll be crumpets and tea without you."  And we're more than likely behind on our blog reading, not annoyed that you've been "MIA."  So please, go to you cousin's wedding, and don't stress out about it.  Really, we're not waiting.

4) "The Miller's Son" serves no purpose in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC--"You see", them what make this point argue, "at that point in the story, everyone is partnering up and plotlines are being resolved, so we can't interrupt that wiht a song that has nothing to do with the plot."  This literally blows my mind.  Hal Prince.  And Stephen Sondheim.  Men who literally turned the musical inside out aren't allowed to stop the proceedings at an unexpected point in the evening to deliver a thematically relevant--if not THE thematically relevant--number?  Suddenly they need to do things the expected way?  Because it kind of reminds you have a well structured farce?  That's what we WANT them to do, right?  And let's not forget, they realized, out of town, that they needed this song and had to FIRE someone who wasn't able to sing it.  You don't just FIRE people because you really want to "show off" and "ruin the pace" of your 2nd Act.  And Leigh Ann Larkin is going to tear the shit out of that at the Walter Kerr.

5) "The original CHICAGO was sooooo much better than the revival"--Even if this is true (and isn't that almost always the case anyway?) what exactly is the point in saying this?  It seems to me to say "you know that show you liked?  well, you shouldn't have enjoyed it, because there was a better version of it that you will NEVER SEE.  And since you'll never see it, you pretty much have to assume I'm right.  Hope I ruined your fond memories of a night in the theater!"  Sub-peeve: Why does playbill run an article every time Brett Barrett goes back into CHICAGO?  I think we all pretty much know that's where we can find him.

01 October 2009

On Second Thought...

In a little over a month, 2 currently running Broadway shows have announced changes to their production.  Not cast changes, script changes.  On August 25th WEST SIDE STORY announced that their "expieriement" of having the Sharks occiasionally speak Spanish wasn't really working, and they were going back to English.  (Well, kinda.  My roommate, a Spanish teacher who was upset when I told her this in August because she was looking forward to hearing some of it in Spanish, saw it this past weekend and said "I Feel Pretty" is still mostly "Siento Hermosa", which , incidently, sounds like a brunch cocktail.)

Recently, the folks at SHREK have announced that they will add Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer" to the (lovely) Jeanine Tesori/David Linsday-Abaire score.  The article leads me to believe it will be performed as exit music/during the curtain call.  But really, who knows.  Poor SHREK has so much potential, but it's held hostage by the maniacal and artless DREAMWORKS who seem dead-set on recreating their popular movie verbatim. 

This type of mid-run adjustment isn't without precedent, but it's rare.  Especially lately.  So for it to happen twice in the ammount of time it God to flood the earth...that's odd.  Some previous examples (off the top of my head):

WISH YOU WERE HERE, a show this is largely, and justly, forgotten was notable for 2 things.  1) Having a swimming pool onstage (it was 1952), and (2) closing down after opening and reopening after much revision and improvement.  It also had a score by Harold Rome, the composer time forgot.  Which is and is not deserved.  This song is fun.  It was also directed by Josh "South Pacific" Logan, which means there were probably lots of shirtless men around that pool.  THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL did the same thing twice over.  SEUSSICAL flopped on Broadway, but went on tour with a revised book and became the most licensed show by amature theater groups and schools in America. 

When Liza did a brief stint in CHICAGO the Act I closing duet, "I Am My Own Best Friend" became a solo number.  (click here for an audio-only YouTube video!)  (Chita, cut from the number while Liza was in town, got the last laugh when the did THE RINK together.  Liza left the production early (probably not entirely her choice), being replaced by a better received Stockard Channing and Chita won her first Tony.)

Speaking of Gwen Verdon, somewhere in the run of SWEET CHARITY, the powers that be cut her first number, the fascinating "You Should See Yourself." Legend has it that an audience member wrote Verdon an angry letter after seeing the show, because the number, which exists on the Cast Recording, was not in the show.  She felt slighted.  Gwen verdon responded with a check for $0.12, the cost of 1 track on the Cast Recording.  One can only imagine what that patron would have done upon seeing CAMELOT.  There are so many discrepancies between the script and OCR--and I've heard so many varying accounts--that it's hard to believe what show audience members saw.

A few songs originally cut from HELLO, DOLLY! were put back in when The Merm took over the title role. 

Ultimately, I think that, as a living, breathing art form, theater should be subject to such change.  Provided it's an improvement.