Friday, August 22, 2014

Sunday In The Park With George at Signature Theatre in Virginia

"White. A blank page of canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities..."

Director Matthew Gardiner brings to Signature Theatre's Max stage an outstanding production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Sunday in the Park with George. A truly original work, inspired by the neo impressionist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte, it is a lyrical love letter to the creation of art and the dangers of losing connection with humanity. The first act imagines the process of the creation of the painting, dot of paint by dot of paint. The subjects in the urban park setting are vividly imagined by Lapine and Sondheim and the tensions between the aloof artist, Georges Seurat and his fictional mistress, Dot ferry the audience through struggles and poignant realizations until at last the finished work is recreated in front of the audience.

Act two, which takes place one hundred years, later has always been problematic. The real George Seurat died at the age of 31 and his two known offspring died shortly thereafter. The musical gives us Dot's descendant, another artist named George who is struggling to find his artistic vision despite a good deal of success with his computerized chromolume series. It takes the gentle persuasions of his grandmother, Marie, Seurat and Dot's daughter to convince her grandson that recognizing what matters most, "Children and Art" will lead him to find his artistic vision as his great grandfather did, by starting over with a blank canvas.

In previous productions, act two has been the less satisfying section of this musical. It takes a revelatory performance by Brynn O'Malley who doubles as Dot and Marie to show the possibilities of this act's redemptive qualities.  Ms. O'Malley is feisty as Dot the artist's muse, who yearns for real love and connection with the cool, almost unemotional Seurat. Yet, it is as the 98 year-old Marie that Ms. O'Malley truly shines. Her Marie is unequivocal in her belief in her family history and ties to the Sunday Afternoon painting. Ms. O'Malley's rendition of "Children and Art" is very soft spoken, yet she draws the audience in letting us learn the life lessons Marie wishes her grandson to learn. One should expect Ms. O'Malley to be remembered come Helen Hayes Award time.

Clybourne Elder acts the dual George(s) roles well. His voice is occasionally ragged as if straining. Yet he is clearly capable of the vocal range necessary for the part. The problem seems to be that by acting the music so well Mr. Elder is not getting adequate support making one worry about his stamina over the run of the production. That said, he marvelously embodies the emotionally distant Georges Seurat and the less aloof, yearning for new artistic expression George the grandson.

The rest of the ensemble is well cast. Standouts include Paul Scanlan as the gruff boatman and the technical wizard Dennis and the always delightful Donna Migliacchio as the Old Lady and Elaine.
Daniel Conway's scenic design is fluid marrying well with Robbie Hayes projection design and Frank Labovitz's costumes. Jon Kalbfleisch's musical direction brings harmony between his acting ensemble and the eleven piece orchestra under his steady baton.

This is an emotionally satisfying production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George. Do not miss this chance to be re-acquainted with this masterpiece.

Sunday in the Park with George is being performed in the Max Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA through September 21, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit signature-theatre.org.

Monday, August 11, 2014

My Memories of Robin Williams Be At Peace

So, I am sitting down playing a game when a notification from the Washington Post informs me that Robin Williams killed himself today.   Twice in my life I had the privilege of being in the same room with Mr. Williams.

Like most of my generation I first became aware of Robin Williams when he appeared as Mork from Ork as a guest star on Happy Days, and parleyed it into the series Mork and Mindy.  He was a creative, off-color comedian whose most delightful routines were definitely influenced by his mentor the great improviser Jonathan Winters. Mr. Williams transitioned to more serious roles, earning accolades for Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam, and a well deserved Academy Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role as the psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting.

Perhaps the most amazing and yet, quite disturbing performance by Robin Williams on film was as the voice of the Genie in the 1992 Disney animated classic film Aladdin. I remember watching his performance and thinking to myself, oh dear Lord, the Disney animators succeeded in animating Robin Williams' brain.

The first time I saw Robin Williams live was at the inaugural D23 Expo in Anaheim, California in September 2009 when he was honored for his film animation work as a Disney Legend. The audience held its breath when he stepped to the podium for his acceptance speech. It was funny, eloquent, almost family-friendly and deeply heartfelt.  Oh, yes, and he was upstaged by his fellow honoree, Betty White.


The second time was on Broadway. It was the culmination of a weekend in New York City to celebrate my 50th birthday in April 2011. The Broadway shows were collecting for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Mr. Williams was portraying the title role in the drama Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. A surreal role and a brilliant production showing the consequences of the recent war in Iraq. Following the performance Mr. Williams auctioned off an opportunity to go on stage and meet him and the entire cast. I got in a bidding war with another woman and Mr. Williams in his own unique style allowed us to agree to both win.  I let my competitor go first. When it was my husband and my turn I bowed to Mr. Williams.  He curtseyed. We chatted about theater and Disney. I received an autographed combo CD/DVD of one of his comedy concerts. Then my husband and I took our photo with the entire cast (Polaroid! Instant gratification) and the stage manager gave it to us in a small frame autographed by everyone that to this day sits in a place of honor on my desk in my home office.


I do not know why Robin Williams decided that today the demons won the battle. I grieve for his family and loved ones.  I grieve for the art he had yet to produce. Most of all I grieve for another life lost to suicide. Mr. Williams, I hope you are at peace.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Side Show at The Kennedy Center

Once upon a time, there was a well-reviewed musical about the life of the conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton.  Unfortunately it opened in a Broadway season that included the original production of Ragtime, the acclaimed Roundabout Theatre revival of Cabaret and some little Disney musical, oh, yes, The Lion King. Side Show played a total of 31 previews and 91 performances. It received a total of four Tony nominations, including the first and only time that two actresses were nominated jointly for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.

Side Show has a small, yet very devoted following and it has had several regional theater productions. The Kennedy Center brings to Washington DC a revised production that originated at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California last winter. Featuring a revised book that places more emphasis on the Hilton sisters background and several new songs, this version of Side Show pulls on your heartstrings in ways that do not feel like a manipulation. The hopes and desires of two sisters, forever joined together, dreaming of different lives yet always returning to their strong sisterly bond is universal despite the sisters unique situation.  Ironically, Side Show' s 1998 Tony rival (and winner of Best Musical) The Lion King is playing next door in the Kennedy Center's Opera House. Allow yourself to step inside the Eisenhower Theatre for an beautiful, melancholic evening.

The revised book (and lyrics) by Bill Russell, with additional book material contributed by the show's director Bill Condon shapes a story closer to the Hilton sisters real life. A new series of songs, music by Henry Krieger, illuminates the girls birth in England, adoption by the abusive "Auntie" and relates how they came to be in the legal guardianship of the owner of the Side Show, "Sir." The three men who help the girls leave 'Sir" for a career in vaudeville are slightly more fleshed out, motivations and secrets seem more clear. Some Broadway message boards lament the removal of the song "Tunnel of Love", but here, it's replacement "Coming Apart At The Seams" fills the same function as in the original.

One of the most stunning achievements is are costume (Paul Tazewell), wig and hair design (Charles G. LaPointe) and make-up design (Cookie Jordan) for the other members of the side show attraction. These elaborate designs must be quickly donned and removed several times and it is a remarkable achievement. In particular a revelation about one costume at the curtain call is a true "wow" moment.

Ryan Silverman is a showman with a torn conscience as Terry Connor. Matthew Hydzik well-meaning despite a character development that is apparently more clear than in the original production. Their affections for the girls, is well matched by David St. Louis as Jake, the "Cannibal King" who truly loves the girls, particularly Violet just the way they are.  Mr. St. Louis has a strong voice that is occasionally betrayed by less than crisp vocals.  Robert Joy is appropriately slimy as Sir.

Erin Davie and Emily Padgett are well-matched as the Hilton sisters. There are moments when the action seems to revolve around them rather than include them, but the skillful choreography (Anthony Va Laast) and Mr. Condon's direction use the actresses ability to be both individual personalities and yet forced to move as a single unit.  Ms. Davie (Violet) is occasional overpowered by Ms. Padgett (Daisy) when the duets call for belting. Perhaps a bit more focus on blending their rather beautiful voices would fix this minor problem with their performances.

The Kennedy Center is to be commended for helping bring Side Show back in a major retooling. Perhaps with good word of mouth they will get the sold out houses that this production richly deserves.

Side Show is being performed in The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre through July 13, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit kennedy-center.org.

Monday, June 23, 2014

It Takes A Community (Theater) To Raise The Barricades


You can spend hundreds of dollars to see spectacular musical theater on Broadway, or travel to the nearest major city to see touring productions. But, in the heartland of America quality theater thrives. They are not Equity actors and the sets do not include multimillion-dollar turntables hoisting a two-ton barricade.  Community theater occasionally gets a bad reputation, it’s amateur, critics decry. Yet, I argue, community theater can be captivating and engaging ways that professional theater can fail to do.

In my hometown of Jonesville, Michigan, The Sauk Theatre (formerly the Hillsdale Community Theater) is performing one of the very first licensed amateur productions of Les Miserables. The President of The Sauk Theatre, Trinity Bird delivering his curtain speech commented that when the current revival announced its plan to open on Broadway this spring, Music Theatre International nearly pulled their license to perform the play. It was the simple fact that the theater had fewer than 250 seats that saved the day.

I began my theatrical career in that very theater back in 1972 when I was eleven years old. My first shows included productions of 110 In The Shade, Carousel, The Music Man and Oliver! The casts were large, the 1974 production of Oliver! had a cast of 62, and families and friends built the sets, played in the orchestra, helped sew costumes and sold tickets. Many of the younger members of those casts in my era caught the performing bug. Some went on to study the arts, having careers as varied as actors, singers, playwrights, a local television anchor/editor and even a world-class magician. Even those among my generation who grew up in the arts and chose different career paths  found that this experience with the performing arts still affected their lives in a positive way.

That’s what community theater is really all about.

As I revisited my earliest theatrical home I smiled as the cast of 49 beautifully sang and acted Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s incredible score. The ensemble includes students, teachers, a pastor, a nurse, yet they all convincingly portray the downtrodden masses of Paris, and the idealistic firebrands that are the doomed university students at the barricade. Unlike on Broadway these students at the barricade are actually students, making their doomed uprising that much more poignant. The orchestra occasionally rehearsed in the First Presbyterian Church's coffehouse, Grounded In Grace.

Packed houses.  $10 a ticket, $ 8 for seniors, $5 for students. A cast of 49. An orchestra of 15.  A crew that built a modest set and barricade and sewed costumes. All volunteering their time.

That’s what community theater is really all about.


So raise a glass, not to the “Master of the House”, but to :

A father of five with a degree in music who hopes to become a teacher with the voice and soul to match the many Valjeans who have graced the professional stage and screen

A young lady planning to study opera in college

A ten-year-old charmer stealing his scenes as Gavroche

A young woman excited to be playing her dream role of Fantine

An elementary resource teacher who would only give up her profession to become a back-up singer for a rock star

A veteran of community theater making his return to the stage after a 13-year absence who is a band and choir director and has served his country for 30 years in the US Army and Army Reserve

An eight year old making her stage debut.


That’s what community theater is really all about.



Les Miserables is being performed at The Sauk Theatre in Jonesville Michigan through June 29, 2014. Good luck getting tickets, but if you happen to be traveling through the town on US 12 in rural southeastern Michigan, give the box office a call at 517-849-9100 or online www.thesauk.org.

If you aren’t in the neighborhood, seek out the community theater in your neck of the woods.  You’ll discover the arts are thriving there as well.


That’s what community theater is really all about.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Cort Theatre


It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. One might add it takes a major film star to bring plays to Broadway. Every season several well known film actors take a stab at performing on the Great White Way. Most only do so once or twice. The dedicated ones return again and again lending their names to productions that would not happen without their name featured prominently on the marquee. 

The relatively new Michael Grandage Company was started by Mr. Grandage and James Bierman following their successful work together at the Donmar Warehouse in London. They have been responsible for several award winning productions, including the Tony Award winner, Red. They have a knack for selecting A-list actors with genuine theater skills. With this Broadway premiere production of Martin McDonagh's 1996 The Cripple of Inishmaan, Michael Grandage places trust in Daniel Radcliffe.  

Mr. Radcliffe has broadened his acting resume with three appearances on stage. Equus on the West End and Broadway, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying on Broadway and now The Cripple of Inishmaan, again following a successful run in London. The marquee features a trio of portraits of Mr. Radcliffe, clearly recognizing that he is the reason many people will purchase tickets to the show. It does not matter why the seats are filled, the truth is that this tale of a poor eccentric Irish community gets an audience.

Written in 1996, The Cripple of Inishmaan tells the story of a small Irish village that scrapes a living through fishing and living for mundane gossip. When word comes that Hollywood is making a film on the nearby island of Inishmore, it provides the hope of something life-changing particularly for the titular character. However, being that this is Mr. McDonagh, there are twists and turns and moments of violence that keep The Cripple of Inishmaan a true dark comedy.

Mr. Grandage directs in such a manner that the players truly become members of the island community of Inishmaan. Aided by Christopher Oran's earth tone design palette for the sets and costumes this is a barren island existence.

What makes this production work as well as it does is that it is truly an ensemble piece. Daniel Radcliffe's name is above the title and he takes a star solo bow, but he is one cog in the community. His Cripple Billy is the dreamer with a horribly twisted body that spends his time reading and staring at cows always wondering the truth of his parents' drowning death when he was an infant. This is Mr. Radclffe's most mature stage performance. His physical choices are grueling, yet fully committed and his performance is filled with heartache that reaches the farthest seat in the balcony.

Raised by the sisters Eileen and Kate Osbourne who are played with understated common sense by Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie. They seem relatively normal despite odd behavior such as Kate's talking to stones when she is stressed. In tandem, Ms. Hanna and Ms. Craigie are a delight whether they are bantering over Kate's repetitive worrying or Eileen's secret hoarding of prized sweets.

Padraic Delaney shows compassion as Babbybobby, the fisherman who grants Billy's wish to travel to Inishmore against his Aunts' wishes. His quiet nature hides an unexpected violent twist when he learns that Billy used Babbybobby's past to get him to cooperate. The two younger members of the community are sweet craving and telescope dreaming Bartley McCormick, portrayed by Conor MacNeill, and his hot-tempered sister, Helen. Sarah Greene's Helen is a scary force of nature. There is no question that she commands everyone the moment she enters the scene. Ms. Greene's Helen is scary and violent, but also pretty beneath her unkempt red hair. It is easy for the audience to see that no one, least of all Billy should desire Helen, especially when she gives him as much contempt and bullying behavior as she does everyone else. Yet, one can understand Billy's attraction for the one person who shows her emotions openly and isn't afraid to speak the truth, unlike everyone else whom he interacts with on a daily basis.

Mr. McDonagh creates odd characters and it is a credit to the actors that their weird behavior does not stream into caricature. No more could that be than by town gossip Johnnypateenmike who seems plucked from a Dickens novel in his interpretation by Pat Shortt. Equally extreme could be Johnnypat's Mammy, the 90 year old he is trying to kill with whiskey. Portrayed by June Watson, she is a meld of Irish bluff and the fountain of knowledge of the island's past history. The one sane member of the community is Gary Liburn's Doctor a steady force whose ministrations knit the weaving story together.

If you are coming to see The Cripple of Inishmaan solely because Daniel Radcliffe is headlining, good for you. If you are a fan of the work of Martin McDonagh excited to see this play finally come to Broadway, excellent. If you are someone who craves great performances and a funny but heartbreaking evening of theatre, please choose to see The Cripple of Inishmaan. You will not regret it.

The Michael Grandage Company's production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan is being performed at the Cort Theatre in New York City in a limited engagement through July 20, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit crippleofinishmaan.com or telecharge.com




Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco Theatre





Neil Patrick Harris returns to Broadway headlining the first Broadway production of the popular rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.   Hedwig is the very definition of what makes a show a cult phenomenon.  The original production starring the writer of the show John Cameron Mitchell opened at the Jane Street Theatre in 1998. A film version followed in 2001 for which Mr. Mitchell received a Golden Globe nomination. Does mounting the show in a large Broadway venue hurt the rock concert vibe for the show's legion of Hedheads?

The answer is a resounding no. Hedwig and the Angry Inch turns the Belasco from a Broadway showcase into a creditable rock concert experience.  Director Michael Mayer aided by the musical staging by Spencer Liff have found a way to turn this lovely theatre into the right venue to showcase Hedwig and her life experience.  John Cameron Mitchell's script has been tweaked to bring it to the present day. While this may make some audience members go crazy trying to do the math on Hedwig's age, you really should just forget reality and let Hedwig dazzle you with her funny, poignant life story, punctuated with incredible rock music that will make you laugh, cry and get your mind expanded.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of Hedwig, born Hansel in East Berlin to a German mother and American GI father. Meeting another American GI Hansel gets an offer of marriage and a chance to immigrate to the US. However, in order to marry he must become a woman. The subsequent sex change operation leads to the Angry Inch of the title. Landing in the US, Hansel, now using mom's name Hedwig meets a general's son, Tommy. A brilliant songwriter, Hedwig helps Tommy start his rock career before being abandoned by Tommy who steals and takes credit for the songs Hedwig wrote. Hedwig follows Tommy's tour playing in the shadows, a bitter musical stalker. Now in NYC Hedwig plays Broadway, ("well, east of Broadway") while Tommy plays in Times Square. The stage is set for the failed musical that closed the night before. (Suffice it to say that the title of that failed musical is brilliant satire of the movie to musical trope).  Telling her life story through a concert experience Hedwig takes her audience along on an emotional ride.

When Neil Patrick Harris was offered the role of Hedwig he had gigantic gold boots to fill. While he has an extensive theatrical resume, the average member of the audience will know him for his nine seasons as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother or as a popular host for the annual Tony Awards. Would Mr. Harris be able to make the audience accept him as Hedwig or would they simply say, "oh, that's the charming host banter he does so well." Fear not, Hedheads. It may take a few moments for you to let Neil Patrick Harris disappear and Hedwig Robinson to emerge. Once he gets the show rolling, Mr. Harris is a ball of nuclear energy that blazes through the cosmos that is Broadway. Yet, in the melancholy moments Mr. Harris has the heart of his audience. The quiet moments are pin drop quiet, the rock moments bring the roof down. It is a mesmerizing performance that will be recognized by the Tony committee.

Mr. Harris is ably backed up by the Angry Inch band. Justin Craig (Skszp, music director), Matt Duncan (Jacek), Tim Mislock (Krzyzhtoff) and Peter Yanowitz (Schlatko). Yet the gem of this seeming solo endeavor is Lena Hall as Yitzhak, Hedwig's put upon husband. Ms. Hall has an amazing voice filled with anger and anguish. One hopes the Tony committee does not overlock her contributions to the experience that is Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Hegwig and the Angry Inch is being performed at the Belasco Theatre in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please visit hedwigbroadway.com or telecharge.com.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder at the Walter Kerr Theatre


Injustice! Revenge! Murder! Great fun!

If you are looking for a true musical comedy on Broadway look no further than the Walter Kerr Theatre. The wonder and whimsy of English Music Hall tradition, gleeful farce and a soaring operetta score that for once is actually written for classically trained voices will satisfy audiences that enjoy a silly evening of theatre. Oh, what a lovely lark is the delicious twisted new musical A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder.

Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of A Criminal by Roy Horniman the story may seem somewhat familiar. The same material inspired the 1949 British film Kind Hearts and Coronets starring Sir Alec Guinness famously playing eight different members of an aristocratic family. While the names have been changed, perhaps to shame the guilty, A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder simply delights itself in embracing its rather macabre story.

Monty Navarro discovers after his mother's death that she was a disgraced member of the D'Ysquith family who disapproved of her marriage. By a stroke of luck Monty learns he is ninth in the line of succession to the Earldom. Seeking out his estranged family he is initially rebuffed leading dear Monty to begin to plot the demise of his snobbish new family and claim the Earldom avenging his mother's honor. Along the way Monty experiences love, lust, revenge and regret, all the while improbably getting closer to his goal.

Director Darko Tresnjak keeps the pace of this blackest farce brisk never letting the audience forget the fun in Monty's rise through ever more creative forms of murder. Alexander Dodge has created a set evokes the English music hall tradition. The marvelous score by Steven Lutvak compliments the outrageous story presented through Robert L. Freedman's book and lyrics.

The small ensemble of actors mostly portray multiple roles, no one more than Jefferson Mays, who like Sir Alec Guinness in the film plays most of the members of the D'Ysquith family. Mr. Mays gives an amazing performance which is sure to be recognized during awards season. Despite the outrageous characters he must portray, several with very little time for quick costume changes, he manages to make each one have a distinct personality. While most of the characters are played strictly for laughs, a few such as Lord Asquith D'Ysquith Sr. evoke real emotional feeling.

Bryce Pinkham has rakish charm as the murdering social climber Monty Navarro. Mr. Pinkham has a delightfully expressive face that allows him to charm the audience keeping them rooting for his success. Monty's two love interests, the shallow Sibella (Lisa O'Hare) and the sweet Phoebe D'Ysquith (Lauren Worsham) have stunning voices which complement the operetta-style score.

If you are looking for a fun evening of theater that defines musical comedy for the 2013-2014 theater season you could do no better than to lose yourself for a couple of hours with the zany A Gentleman's Guide To Love and Murder.

A Gentleman's Guide To Love & Murder is being performed at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please visit  agentlemansguidebroadway.com or telecharge.com