Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday Dance Party: HAMLET !!

I've had only two rehearsals for Ros and Guil so far, but it is enough to reinforce a belief I have long held about Tom Stoppard. He uses too many words. Yes, I know, a stage actor who dislikes Stoppard? That would be almost as bad as disliking Shakespeare; my peers would never respect me again. So, I will fall a little short of claiming to dislike the playwright whose work I am now rehearsing. Perhaps I will fall in love with his esoteric wordplay as the process continues (but I have doubts. I have already played a much larger Stoppard role, Bernard Nightingale in Arcadia, and the experience failed to win me over). And I admit to being perplexed that I have these negative opinions, as Stoppard's Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love remains a particular favorite of mine. Ah, well. My opinion of Stoppard's wordplay does not matter too much in the case of my current project, as I am not speaking any of his words. As Polonius, I am speaking only Shakespeare's lines (and not many of those). So, I've been thinking more about Hamlet than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and as such, present this week's Dance Party. There are lots and lots of Hamlets out there, but this one is probably the one most true to the original spirit of the tragedy. Feel free to sing along. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Split Focus

These pages have been dormant for several days, as I have been adjusting to the new gig and the new digs. I have relocated, for a while at least, to North Carolina, a direct result of a visit to Dear ol' Dad last April. While in the area back then, quite by chance, I attended an audition for the only Equity theatre in these parts, and landed a role in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for which rehearsals began this week. (I have included the above picture merely for visual variety; I am playing neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern in the show.)

In addition, I have been busy scheduling several hundred actors for our upcoming annual DC Liaison Committee auditions, a task which has been an eye-opener for me. Though an actor myself, I never recognized the similarity of many of my peers to Scarlett O'Hara: they will lie, cheat, steal, or kill to secure an audition appointment.

I have many stories to tell and many observations to make. If I know me (and I think I do), I will have many conclusions to reach. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

s'Newz occasional series mentioning current events which held my interest this week...

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery hung its newest presidential portrait recently, and quickly found its caption in dispute. Every portrait allows 140 words, summing up the subject's presidency. The original caption included the phrase: "the attacks on September 11, 2001, that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq . . ." A senator from Vermont was not pleased with the inference that there was a causal relationship between 9/11 and the Iraqi quagmire into which President Bush engulfed the nation. "When President Bush and Vice President Cheney misled our nation into the war in Iraq, they certainly cited the attacks on September 11, along with the equally specious claim that Iraq possessed vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. The notion, however, that 9/11 and Iraq were linked, or that one 'led to' the other, has been widely and authoritatively debunked." The Smithsonian agreed, and changed the wording on the caption to read, ". . . Bush found his two terms in office instead marked by a series of cataclysmic events: the attacks on September 11, 2001; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina; and a financial crisis during his last months in office." This adjustment sounds reasonable to me. Bush's tenure was indeed cataclysmic, and we will not be recovering from his presidency anytime soon.

The Obama Inauguration has stirred up a couple of brouhahas, one a lot nastier than the other. In his speech, the new president included "non-believers" in his description of the patchwork of America, and many right-wing black clergymen have protested. Though over 16 % of Americans describe themselves as "non-believers," those conservative men of God do not want these heretics included in any mention of American heritage. Of course, these are the same sort of bigots who raised a whole lot of hell, and a whole lot of money, to pass California's Prop 8, removing the marital rights of same-sex couples. Yet another example of how so many leaders of Organized Religion feel justified in trouncing the civil liberties of those who do not share their beliefs.

I wonder when it was, exactly, that Christianity became EXclusive, rather than INclusive...

I got a giggle over the revelation that classical performers Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman had pulled a Milli-Vanilli at the Obama Inauguration; they had pre-recorded their piece and were just "string sync-ing" for the cameras. (It reminded me of the production of Opus I did several years ago; we did the same thing, but never hid the fact.) The frigid weather was blamed in this case, and everyone agreed that keeping the piano in tune would have been impossible under the circumstances. But then, why the charade? Why not just pipe the pre-recorded selection through the speakers without the pretence? Or use those jumbo screens to show a video of the performers recording the piece?

Aretha Franklin certainly was not lip sync-ing, but even she admits perhaps she ought to have been. She was quoted immediately following her performance that she was very disappointed in her own work. The cold took a toll on the Queen of Soul, and she took an unfortunate breath at the very top of her rendition of "America," right between syllables: "My count-(breath)-try 'tis of thee..." Sing it aloud yourself, and you'll discover the misfortune.

On the bright side, her performance seemed to be upstaged by her hat.

(update, 2/6/09: Aretha has made a quick trip to the studio to record a "preferred version" of her inaugural song, which will soon be available as an alternative to her live take)

I wrote a while ago about Jeremy Piven bolting from his Broadway commitment to Speed-the-Plow. More of the story has now come out. The show opened in early October to good reviews, but according to the producers, Piven immediately started making noise about leaving the show before its scheduled closing in late February. The production schedule was adjusted to accommodate Piven's attendance at the Golden Globes in Los Angeles. As soon as those plans were finalized, Piven informed the producers that he would not be returning to the show after the awards. Arrangements were made for William H. Macy to replace Piven during the show's final few months. Many weeks prior to his departure to attend the Golden Globes, with no notice whatsoever, Piven bolted from Speed-the-Plow, citing a dangerous level of mercury in his system. Too much sushi between shows or something. Macy was not available to take over the part that early, so the understudy played Piven's role while the producers scrambled for a higher profile replacement. Norbert Leo Butz, a Tony-winning Broadway favorite, assumed the role, giving several performances carrying the script. But the box office dropped dramatically in the absence of the Emmy-winning Piven.

This week, the show's producers filed a grievance against Piven with Actors Equity.

I don't get HBO, so I do not watch Piven's show Entourage, but I enjoyed him as a regular on Ellen Degeneres's sitcom a decade or so ago. But he's giving the "TV Star Turned Broadway Actor" group a bad name, if it ever had a good one (remember Kelsey Grammer's disastrous Macbeth?). Recently, Katie Holmes, Christina Applegate, and Jennifer Garner have all graced the New York boards, and have acquitted themselves well. I'm not the first person to guess Piven was unpleasantly surprised by the challenge of 8 shows a week, requiring vastly more energy and focus than a TV series. Kristen Chenoweth, one of the rare stars who moves easily from TV to stage, warned other film stars who consider hitting Broadway during their downtime that the stage will "kick your ass."

The story of Piven deserting his stage commitment is probably not getting much traction in middle America (you know, those people who think Muslims, Hindus, and non-believers should not be included in a presidential speech), but it's getting lots of attention among theatre folk. Here's an hilarious parody aimed directly at Piven, to the Pal Joey tune, "Zip."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Danger, Will Robinson

What a week it's been, for the whole country, even the world, but especially for those of us who live in DC. An amazing, historic week, which deserves to be honored any way we can. It's time for a respectful, hopeful, and most of all, dignified tribute to a new era of competence and inspiration.

Well, you'll have to go someplace else for that. Instead, let's honor somebody else. Here's a guy of whom you may never have heard, until his death this week brought him back into the national spotlight. Everyone "of a certain age" has seen Bob May, though they may not have known it. Here he is:

Still don't recognize him? Here's a better shot:

He's the guy on the left.

The story goes that May was wandering around the studio one day when someone said, "Go over and see Irwin Allen. He needs somebody to wear a robot suit." That day, a star was born. Though May did not furnish the voice of Lost in Space's robot, he turned those accordion arms and claw hands, not to mention the bubble head, into an endearing character. After a year or so on the air, it was apparent that what was envisioned as an ensemble show had three break-out stars. Jonathan Harris's portrayal of Dr. Smith, originally a villainous saboteur whose actions caused the space travelers to veer hopelessly off-course, evolved into a masterfully comic performance. Billy Mumy, as Will Robinson, the youngest astronaut in history, provided Harris with a grounded counterweight. And Bob May's Robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld, who deserves equal credit) became the comic foil. The chemistry between the three performers was undeniable, and in its later years, the majority of episodes of Lost in Space centered around this trio.

So, with due respect for the momentous events of the week, and recognizing that monumental change is on the way for all of us, please enjoy this homage to Lost in Space:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Story Retold...

The Star Wars Trilogy was probably the biggest cinematic event of my childhood, but I was never a big fan. I did see them as they came out, one by one, because, well, one did. But I have not seen them since. Still, this little clip cracked me up;

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

John Mortimer


Mortimer conducted two high-profile careers simultaneously, that of the writer and the lawyer. A British barrister for decades, he was an expert in "Freedom of Speech" cases, winning victories for Linda (Deep Throat) Lovelace, Lady Chatterly's Lover, and the Sex Pistols. Meanwhile, he was an accomplished and prolific writer of films, television, plays, novels, and his own memoir (in three volumes). He is surely best known for creating and writing Rumpole of the Bailey, a television series concerning a disheveled legal defender of low-lifes and ne'er-do-wells. The show was a success throughout the world, and turned Shakespearean character actor Leo McKern into an international star. (McKern was not the first choice to play the role; Alistair Sim had been approached and turned down the gig.)

Mortimer wrote many plays during his career, including A Voyage Around My Father, the autobiographical story of a young lawyer and his blind parent. It was filmed with Alan Bates as the young Mortimer and Laurence Olivier as his father. He also adapted Franco Zeffirelli's autobiography into a film script, which Zeffirelli himself directed. Tea With Mussolini had a starry cast of award-winning actresses including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Lily Tomlin, and Cher.

Mortimer received credit for the TV adaptation of the sprawling miniseries Brideshead Revisited (about which I have already written), but in fact, none of his finished teleplays were used. His greatest success remains the creation of Horace Rumpole. The charismatic character was at home in front of the most intimidating of judges (whom Rumpole called "old darlings"), and was likely to be found most any afternoon at Pommeroy's Wine Bar, sipping claret and quoting something literary, after which he would return home to his overbearing wife, "She Who Must Be Obeyed."

Mortimer was knighted in 1998, and since 2004, was a legal consultant on Boston Legal. His surviving children include actress Emily Mortimer (Point Blank).
Though in ill health for several years, Mortimer continued to create. After a morning glass of champagne, he would settle at his desk and write at least 1000 words, in illegible longhand. At the time of his death this week, he had four chapters completed of the latest Rumpole novel.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Escape From DC

Paging John Carpenter.

Remember his 1981 sci-fi flick Escape from New York? I confess I never saw the thing, but it made a significant splash, and turned the formerly clean-cut, white-bread, Disney-cultivated Kurt Russell into, well, an actor. I know it concerns a future (1997!) where the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. It's completely walled-in and cut off from the rest of the world.

Beginning this weekend, and lasting through Inauguration Day, DC will resemble that movie, though we hope without the marauding gangs (I wouldn't mind if Kurt shows up, though). Signs have already been posted announcing severe parking restrictions throughout the city. I mean SEVERE. As in NO PARKING ANYWHERE. 50 city blocks are being shut down to all vehicular traffic, except charter buses and limousines, natch. All the bridges leading into the city from Virginia will be off-limits to personal cars, to make enough room for buses arriving from all over the country. For up to 24 hours and more, downtown will effectively be cut off from the rest of the world. Security concerns are playing a part, but officials are claiming that it is the sheer numbers expected for the Big Day (anywhere from 1-3 million people!) that are causing such draconian measures.

Apparently, this inauguration breaks with tradition in that, for the most part, official events require reservations or tickets in advance. The only major event which is completely open to the public takes place Sunday afternoon, when a huge line-up of stars will be performing at the Lincoln Memorial. Well, the concert is open to anyone who can squeeze themselves onto the Mall. It is not being broadcast for all the world to see. HBO paid a pretty penny to lock up television rights to the event (the Obama people are getting some flack about that, as others believe it is an event of national significance and thus should be on a feed available to all networks. There is some logic to that; though HBO is sending it out for free, if you don't have cable, which about 30% of the country does not, you'll be missing it).

Whatever. That concert will require lots of street closures on Sunday as well. As for Tuesday's actual inauguration, look out. Metro has already warned that its trains and buses will be overtaxed and advised people to walk or ride a bicycle. Street parking will be non-existent, even if you could drive your car around the area, which you can't. The city is being locked up so tightly that hotels and restaurants, which expect a booming business, are wondering how to get supplies delivered or even how their own employees are going to come to work.

I live within walking distance of the mall and could attend the inauguration easier than most. That is, if I want to head out before dawn in order to pass through the security checkpoints, then stand for many frigid hours waiting to watch the proceedings on the large screens set up for the groundlings on the Mall. As for lining up along the parade route, forget about it.

I'll be home, watching the pomp on television, secure in the knowledge that it is a momentous occasion, and knowing I can always claim to have been in DC during the most historic inauguration since such things were invented.

I'll tell those mythical grandchildren all about it. I just don't have to mention I witnessed the whole thing in my pajamas.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday Dance Party: LA BAMBA !!

I imagine it's ethnically insensitive of me, but here goes: I expect all our Latin stars to be able to sing and dance. And it seems to be true, dating back to our earliest glimpses of stars such as Ricardo Montalban, whom we lost this week. Before he was Mr. Roarke, before he was Khan, before he luxuriated in fine Corinthian Leather, he was a song and dance man. Maybe I should say, a tango-and-salsa man. Oops, there I go again. Whatever. I wish I could find an online clip of Montalban as "El Gallo" in The Fantasticks, a role he played in the early 60s for television. (That was back when theatrical musicals had a regular place on TV.) I have a copy of that version, only 60 minutes long and in grainy black and white. Bert Lahr is playing one of the fathers, and a very young John Davidson plays the boy. But it is Montalban who steals the show as narrator-bandit El Gallo, crooning "Try to Remember" and breaking the girl's heart. In lieu of that, please enjoy one of the many musical numbers which Montalban performed in his days as a film contract player.

Viva Ricardo!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Patrick McGoohan


Though born in New York, McGoohan was raised in the UK and retained a British flair throughout his career. In his younger years, he had some success on stage, winning the London Drama Critics Award for Ibsen's Brand. In 1964, he was tagged to play the title role of secret agent Danger Man, which was renamed Secret Agent in the United States and spawned a hit theme song. His next television project is the one for which he will be most remembered. For only 17 episodes, he played the enigmatic "Number Six" in The Prisoner, a series which he helped create and write. The show resonated with the cold war generation's paranoia, and is now a cult classic. The opening credits explain it all for you:

I remember being alternately confused, intrigued, and frustrated with this series, but I never missed an episode. (Available on DVD, it's now fun to catch all the different British actors playing "Number Two," a role which changed frequently as each inhabitant of that bulbous chair failed in his mission to break the will of our hero.)

The Prisoner was not my first encounter with McGoohan. I experienced nightmares after watching his performance in a Disney TV movie, of all things. The piece was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, in which he played a priest who disguised himself as a scarecrow and avenged things. I was only 7 when I saw it, but it ruined scarecrows for me (sorry, Ray Bolger). I'm still unnerved by them.

In his later years, McGoohan maintained a presence on the big and small screen. He played King Edward I in Braveheart, and the Earl of Moray, the bastard brother of Mary, Queen of Scots. He won two Emmy awards, 16 years apart, for guest shots on Columbo. But there is no doubt he will be most famously remembered as the spy who tried to quit, tried to run, but was sequestered in the eerily charming Village of The Prisoner, where everyone had a number rather than a name.

"Be seeing you."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban


Born in Mexico City to Spanish parents, Montalban defied great odds and greater prejudice to become one of the most recognizable actors in the country. As a teen-ager, he immigrated to Los Angeles to attend high school, where he decided to become an actor. He moved to New York and appeared in a few musical film shorts, but became frustrated with the business when he lost the part of a Mexican to white guy John Garfield. He returned to his home country, and within four years, became a star. He was discovered by Hollywood when the Esther Williams film Fiesta came to Mexico for location shooting. Improbably, he was cast as Williams's twin brother. The movie brought him back to Los Angeles, where he became a contract player for MGM. In 1949, he was again paired with Williams and introduced "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which went on to win the Oscar as best song. It is now a perennial holiday favorite. When Montalban's contract was not picked up, he turned to television, which provided him with his most lasting fame. Everyone remembers his starring role as the mysterious, charismatic Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, and he also appeared on the Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys. He played a simian-friendly circus owner in two movies in the Planet of the Apes franchise, but is better recalled as one of the more flamboyant villains in the Star Trek universe. The role was Khan, a genetically enhanced alien with a superiority complex and great pectorals. In 1967's episode Space Seed, he was abandoned on a deserted planet by Kirk and the gang. After the first Star Trek film failed to generate much critical enthusiasm, Montalban was tagged to play the role again, this time on the big screen. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a financial and critical success; it rescued the film franchise, and assured Montalban a place in sci-fi lore as the only Star Trek villain to appear in the original series and in a Trek feature film.

For many years, Montalban was a commercial spokesman for the Chrysler Cordoba. His suave description of the car's interior upholstery became a national catchphrase; there seems little doubt that his coffin will be lined with Rich Corinthian Leather.

Montalban won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in 1978, for his performance as a Sioux Indian in the mini-series How The West Was Won, and was awarded the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. He died today at the age of 88.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

" it's time to say good-bye..."

People always say deaths come in threes, and here they are.

I never watched the Mickey Mouse Club, which had faded away by the time I was old enough to watch TV. So, I never heard of this lady, but as she was part of the ensemble which included Annette Funicello and Cubby (I don't know who that is, either, I just like the name: Cubby), she deserves a mention. After her childhood success, Cheryl Holdridge continued to perform on television in her young adult years, on programs such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave It To Beaver, My Three Sons, and Bewitched. She died this week at the age of 64.

I do remember this guy. Jon Hager was the surviving member of the Hager Twins, a country duo who did not earn lasting fame. But I remember them clearly from the 70s. As young musicians, they snagged jobs at Disneyland, and were spotted by Buck Owens, who invited them to tour in his act. In 1969, Owens was pegged to host Hee Haw, which was sort of a country-western answer to Laugh-In. The Hagers accompanied Owens to television, and spent 19 years on the show. After its early seasons, CBS, in an attempt to become more cosmopolitan, cancelled all of its shows with a rural aura, including hits Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hee Haw. The show continued in syndication with great success.

Though initially hired as a musical act, Hee Haw producers soon discovered the Hagers had a gift for light comedy. They were a huge hit with the female viewers, and served as a counterpoint to the Hee Haw Honeys, a group of nubile ladies in scanty country attire. As I'm writing this, I can't believe I remember so much about this show, which was truly horrendous. In retrospect, I think the Hager Brothers may have been my first celebrity crush (sorry, John-Boy), though I was too young to realize it. And really, with thinning hair and a questionable fashion sense, I have no idea today why I was attracted to these guys.

...well, okay, maybe I do know why...

Jim Hager died in May of '08, and his brother Jon never really recovered. They had spent their entire lives together, and as it's said that when one long-term spouse dies, the other follows soon, so it is with this set of twins. Jon Hager died this week at the age of 67.

Here's an actor who spent his career "in support," and admirably so. Steven Gilborn was one of those character actors who worked so often, for so long, that everyone on the street recognized him. They just never knew his name. (To my shame, neither did I, until he died.) His list of film and TV credits is too long to mention, even as he became an actor relatively late in life, after earning a doctorate in dramatic literature and teaching at various high-end universities. He had substantial success in television in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. He may be remembered as the befuddled father of Ellen, the sitcom which introduced middle America to lesbianism, Jeremy Piven, and puppies. But I remember him quite fondly from his guest stint on The Wonder Years. He played the algebra teacher who tortured young Kevin for three episodes, using rigid discipline to get the best out of the kid. At the end of the story-arc, Mr. Collins disappeared from the classroom; the students later learned he had been struggling with cancer and died. Gilborn himself succumbed to cancer at the age of 72.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ducking Disney

Every theatre geek's gotta love this clip from SNL, but as I was giggling through it, I wondered what the heck oldsters like The Music Man and Annie were doing in the sketch. Where was Simba the Lion King? Where was Ursula the Seawitch? Where was Mary Poppins, or Beauty, or the Beast? These are all easily identifiable musical characters which would have helped Middle America enjoy this very Manhattan-centric skit. Oh, but all those characters are owned by Disney.

Remember that most infamous of Oscar broadcasts? The one where Rob Lowe serenaded Snow White? Disney claimed ownership of Snow's image, and went to court over copyright infringement. Somebody at NBC is clearly on the lookout to avoid such costly litigation. Looks like the Peacock bowed to the Mouse...

ah well, who cares. The sketch is still a hoot:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Theatre Droppings: (F)Abnormal Edition

There are a couple of ladies currently living on DC musical stages who are, how should this be put? They're a couple of tacos short of a combo plate...

I've been curious about the musical Grey Gardens since the great Christine Ebersole made such a splash with the original on Broadway. I've listened to the score several times, but I can now attest that the music plays better in the theatre than on record. Studio Theatre is presenting the area premiere, in a version which, out of spacial necessity, is scaled down. But the performances are terrific, particularly DC's own Jenna Sokolowski. Her Act One role of Little Edie makes almost no impression on the original cast recording, but in the theatre, the character, as played by Sokolowski, is a major presence. Score one for the home team.

As I said, everybody's good, but the second act is pretty much swiped by Barbara Broughton as Big Edie. She's clearly having a ball. The cast is headed by the great Barbara Walsh in the Ebersole role(s). Walsh is another of those well-respected Broadway performers who would probably have graduated to national stardom in a different generation. Because that kind of thing does not happen nowadays, her fame is restricted to the theatre community. I had heard her name for years, and finally saw her in the video of the Company revival (you know, the one where everybody carried around a trombone). In that one, I was suitably impressed by her work as Joanne, a role which, for a lot of people, cannot be played effectively by anyone except its originator, Elaine Stritch. But Walsh made the role her own, and, at least for me, was able to put her own stamp on the show's most famous song, Ladies Who Lunch. Here in Grey Gardens, she is doing a bang-up job, but I got the feeling that, the afternoon I was there, she was disturbed by something, or in a bad mood, or...something. Just a feeling that she had not jumped headfirst into her dual roles that day, that she was not having any fun. Ah well, whatever the problem was, the show was a good one, and director Serge Seiden did a terrific job fitting a large scale musical on his small stage.

Across the river on Arena Stage's temporary stage, there's another gal in need of some therapy. Next to Normal had a production in New York a while back, and the authors have been tinkering. This version is riveting; I don't know when I've admired a new musical so thoroughly. It's a simple story of a family dealing with grief, sort of Rabbit Hole, 15 Years Later, With Music. These writers really sucked me in, and the rest of the crowd too, so when the "reveal" happened, there were audible gasps in the audience. The performers sang the heck out of the score, which was pretty relentless, reflecting the tortured feelings of these characters. I am no judge of music, but I can report that the lyrics are clear and clean and rip at your heart. I attended a noon matinee, so the house was not at all full, and as I have noticed often with noon matinees, the star was absent. Alice Ripley, who was a standout in the Company which the Kennedy Center produced several years ago, has been playing the central role of the mother, but, as I said, she was out the day I caught the show. The understudy was absolutely fine, but I have a hunch there might have been an extra sparkle had Ripley been there. No matter, the show is extremely well cast, mostly with hold-overs from the Off-Broadway production. Aaron Tveit stands out as the teen-age son, darting up and down the three story set while belting out the rock-tinged numbers. He effectively oversees a lot of the action, and is a terrific "observer." (He looks pretty good in those boxers, too.) But the heroic performance is being given by J. Robert Spencer as the Dad. He is playing the least flamboyant character in the piece, so had the harder time of it. But his "recognition" scene with his son is so powerfully played, so powerfully sung, that I lost it. I admit I had been crying well before that moment, but at that instant, well, just shoot me now. Fathers and Sons and all that. The show, as I said, is pretty relentless, but is handled with a lot of dark humor which makes the piece very enjoyable. This endeavor deserves to have a future life. Any show that can make a musical number out of electro-shock therapy is a keeper in my book.

(update: 2/24/09: Next to Normal has announced a Broadway production, including the entire Arena Stage cast, to open April 15 at the Booth)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Friday Dance Party: Shake It.

This week was Elvis’s birthday, the perfect time to celebrate The King with a clip from one of his swivel-hipped performances. But not here. I wrote last week of my desire “to dance” this year, and Presley never inspired me to do so. But a goofy little musical called “Hairspray” did, and still does. The show closed on Broadway this week after a hefty run (see entry below), and I cannot listen to this big finale without wanting to get up and twist. The above montage celebrates the film version, which seems to be a pretty fair translation of the show (I’ve never seen it live, but Edna Turnblat is now on My day...)

You can’t stop the beat.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Broadway Bloodbath

I haven't seen a Broadway show in several years, and though I'm in New York several times a year, I often lose touch with what's going on there, but this month's exeunts deserve mention; much of the Great White Way is going dark . Thirteen shows are shuttering in January, and though some were always scheduled to be limited engagements, and two others were seasonal attractions, there are more than a handful which seem to be victims of the current economic freefall.

Nobody really wants to see White Christmas anytime other than during the holidays, do they? I wouldn't think so (though the show has been making the rounds in the regions for several years, and not always at Christmas). I've written a bit about my love of the film, but I wouldn't mind seeing the stage version; I may yet get my chance, as the show's box office overcame lukewarm reviews to become a bona fide hit. I imagine it will be making return visits to New York in upcoming years. Another seasonal show closed this month, an entertainment centered around some Russian clowns. The show, Slava's Snowshow, had a successful run off-Broadway last year, and made the leap uptown this year. I read almost nothing about this piece, so who knows if it will be back.

Two more limited run shows are closing this month. Liza Minnelli returned to Broadway and wowed the critics with her stamina, her drive, and her attendance (like most of her career, she missed a few performances on doctor's orders, but graciously added shows to make up for it). I saw Liza at Radio City many years ago; she was on her decline at that point, and shouted the songs. This year, though, she seems to have made it work for her.

The All My Sons revival was also a financial success, and the stage debut of Mrs. Tom Cruise may have had a little something to do with that. Katie Holmes got mixed reviews, from what I read, but she was surrounded by real pros, and I've heard from folks who saw the play that it was terrific. I have a lot of respect for TV actors who return to the stage (John Lithgow, also in the show, is one of them), but I have absolutely no respect for producers who hire TV names for marquee value, without regard for their ability to actually deliver a performance. Ms. Holmes had never been on a stage before. I wonder what's next: Tori Spelling as Hedda Gabler?

All the other shows closing this month are commercial ventures which, I'm sure, would prefer to be hanging around a bit longer. Dividing the Estate is the latest Horton Foote family drama, with a large cast headed by Elizabeth Ashley. I wonder if some of their thunder was stolen by last year's Tony winner for Best Play, August: Osage County, which is still playing. Word is that most of the cast of Foote's play will be reprising their roles in an upcoming production at Hartford Stage. But for now, they're history.

The other straight play which is closing this month is Boeing-Boeing, a revival of a 60s flop which has been running for about a year. I would have loved to see this one, as the original cast included Christine Baranski, Bradley Whitford, and a Brit who is apparently a comic genius, Mark Rylance. A national tour is in the works, according to their website. I read an interview with one of the producers of the show, and was reminded that, in the old days, plays were really only meant to last a season, then tour a season, then disappear. Broadway economics eventually put a stop to that, and now a show has to run and run and run to turn a profit. Anyway, doesn't this show look fun?
Lots of musicals are calling it quits this month, including a show called 13, which stars actual teen-agers. Here is another show about which I had heard very little, though the picture reminds me of a show I saw decades ago, Runaways (this show's cast looks much more clean-cut).
Spring Awakening, 2007's Tony winner for Best Musical, definitely seems to be a victim of the economy. It received very good press, and though I've never heard the score, I certainly heard ABOUT the score, from the guys in the dressing room at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. When I was there during the summer of '07, all of them were enamored of this show about youth and sexual tension. I doubt I'll ever see this piece, as I have it on good authority that people in my generation just don't get it.

Another musical about youth and sexual tension bit the dust this week. This umpteenth revival of Grease was a little unusual, as the leading players were chosen on a Reality TV Competition. Apparently they were pretty good, but did we really need yet another revival of that warhorse? When we have yet to see a revival of A Little Night Music? I was in a summer stock production of Grease back in the 80s (in fact, I earned my Equity card playing Teen Angel), so I can state without hesitation that the show is more fun to be in than to watch. (Off the top of my head, I think Godspell and The Lion in Winter also fall into that category. Lots of fun to perform, not so much fun to attend.)

And while we're talking about winners of Reality Show Competition, it's worth noting that American Idol's most famous loser, Clay Aiken, returned to Spamalot for its final performances. I have enjoyed listening to the score of this long-running hit, but was never a Monty Python fanatic, so never took the time or money to see the national tours as they rumbled through DC. This show may just have run out of steam, rather than being an economic victim, as it's been running since 2004.

The longest running show to be closing this month is Hairspray, which won lots of Tonys back in 2003, and topped 2600 performances before closing last week. Original stars Harvey Fierstein and Marisa Jaret Winokur returned to close the show, and composer Marc Shaiman clearly blamed the economic downturn for the show's demise. "It's not like the show was ailing," he complained, "it's like putting a dog to sleep, not because he's sick, but because you can't afford the dog food." Still, the show had a phenomenal run, and clocks in as the 19th longest running show in Broadway history. It's actually a tribute to the piece that it continued to run several years after the film version was released.

The biggest budgeted Broadway Musical to be closing is Young Frankenstein (excuse me, I mean The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, the actual title. He has no ego, has he?) The New York Times ran a piece as soon as this show posted its closing notice, regarding the fact that the Broadway community will not be sorry to see this monster go. The hubris of charging 400 bucks a ticket may have caught up with the producers, and the Times review was very very poor. Still, the show hung on for a year, and I'm sorry that its star, Roger Bart, did not receive better notices. He may be one of those actors who are just better "in support."

In my opinion, which holds no weight because I have not seen ANY of the above shows, the greatest loss this month is the premature closing of Gypsy. This revival won raves, and all three leads won Tonys.
The producers had already decided to close the show in March of this year, when the contracts were up for their Tony winners, but the gloomy financial situation forced them to shut down this week instead. Patti Lupone's performance, I've heard, should be preserved on film, for posterity to see how Mama Rose should be played. I've seen Angela Landbury, Bette Midler, and Tyne Daly play the role, and would pay top dollar to see Lupone chew it up.

So, 13 shows will be gone this time next month. Actually, 15, as the limited run of Equus, starring Harry Potter and his uncle, will be ending in early February, and Mamet's Speed-the-Plow departs next month as well. So, almost half of the current Broadway offerings will have closed. It remains to be seen how long their theatres will be vacant. Dolly Parton's first stage musical, 9-5, seemed to do well in Los Angeles and is surely on its way in. I've already mentioned excitement over the Waiting for Godot revival (though that's being presented as a limited run). The Public's revival of Hair, which was a big hit in the park last summer, has faced trouble with the cast and the backing, but they seem to be forging ahead as well. Broadway is experiencing the same financial dilemmas as the rest of the world, so who knows what will happen next...