Monday, May 30, 2011

Cyrano at the Folger Theatre

The poignant romantic play, Cyrano de Bergerac was written by Edmond Rostand in 1897.  It is a work on a grand scale, a five act drama peopled with colorful characters.  Originally composed in French using Alexandrine couplets, a poetic form of rhyming couplets using lines of six feet or twelve syllables, the play has been translated numerous times in both verse and prose forms.   In his new translation, simply called Cyrano, Michael Hollinger has chosen to use non-rhyming tetrameter, or four feet per line, avoiding end rhymes except in the few instances of actual poetry recited or sung within the work.   The adaptation by Mr. Hollinger and the director, Aaron Posner, eliminates the crush of supporting characters and crowds presenting the play with a spare ensemble of nine actors, eight men and one woman in a belief that doing so "invites compression and theatricality" and "allows for the imaginative and self-conscious use of the theater and the audience." The resultant production in the Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library is uneven, and for theater-goers familiar with other productions of the play an unsatisfactory evening of theater.

The loss of minor secondary characters is not the problem here.  It is fine to hear about the romantic baker Ragueneau's unsympathetic wife, Lise, rather than see her torment her put-upon husband.  Likewise it is equally fine to have the captain of the Gascon cadets, Le Bret, narrate the setting of the scenes, which is particularly effective in the beginning of the play to immerse the audience in the chaotic atmosphere of the 17th century theater that comprises Rostand's act one and Hollinger and Posner's scene one.  What is not acceptable is to fundamentally make changes to Rostand's narrative, making major changes to the story and the impact of the tragic romance that unfolds.

For those unfamiliar with Rostand's story, it is the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, an expert swordsman of the Gascon cadets and a brilliant poet, who is deeply sensitive about the physical deformity of his large nose.  Secretly in love with his cousin,Roxane, he never dares to declare his feelings as he is certain his ugliness prevents Roxane from returning his love.  Roxane, in turn falls in love at first sight with the newest member of the cadets, Christian de Neuvilette, who has the opposite problem.  Christian is stunningly beautiful, but has not the wit to woo Roxane intellectually.  To make Roxane happy, Cyrano becomes the poetic voice of Christian helping his rival win Roxane's love.

Into this triangle comes the Comte de Guiche, a married nobleman who seeks Roxane as his mistress.   When he discovers the lovers he dispatches the cadets on a dangerous mission at the siege of Arras.   There the tragedy reaches its peak, leading to a quiet ending fifteen years later, full of reconciliation, confession and regret as the loss of love is revisited for a second time. 

The reduction of the play to a spare ensemble does focus the play upon the main five characters of Rostand's original piece, Cyrano, Christian, Roxane, de Guiche and Le Bret.  What is lost is the dramatic impact in certain key moments.   In the original play, Roxane gives encouragement to de Guiche in order to convince him to keep Cyrano and Christian's cadets away from the battlefield.  De Guiche sends an illiterate Capuchin monk with a letter in order to arrange a sham marriage for Roxane and take her as his mistress.  Roxane convinces the monk that he is to wed her to Christian and he does so.  When de Guiche arrives he is so infuriated that he orders the cadets to war immediately thus preventing Roxane and Christian from consummating their marriage.   Here they simply announce they are affianced and are caught in the midst of "making out."  This seems to go against Roxane's character and lessens the impact of the tragedy of Roxane and Christian-married yet never fully together.

The other major change to the story takes place at the siege of Arras.  This scene is the most trimmed of any in this adaptation.  There is a great deal of buildup in previous scenes and then so much is cut from Rostand's work that the resultant battle scene becomes anticlimactic.   Two plot points are changed or dropped.  In Rostand's original work, de Guiche, performs a potentially traitorous act.  He has used a spy to send word to the enemy that on de Guiche's signal they are to attack the position of the Gascon cadets assuring their annihilation and his revenge.  Here the betrayal is simply gone, giving nothing for de Guiche to have to make amends.

The other major change is the arrival of Roxane to the battlefield.  In Rostand's original she sweet talks her way through enemy lines arriving in a fine gown, in a carriage and with a great deal of food which she gives to the starving cadets.   Here she arrives dressed as a man and calling for a sword so that she can fight along side her man.  Why can't we accept a 17th century woman being allowed to keep her feminity?  That was part of the charm of Rostand.  Roxane becomes an angel of hope on the battlefield  giving courage to the doomed troops.

The impact of the death of Christian is also lessened in this staging as he dies offstage instead of in Roxane's arms.  By not having a visual death for Christian it makes Cyrano's decision to not reveal that he is the author of all of Christian's love letters harm the heart of the tragic tale.

Despite these grievous flaws there are some good performances upon the Folger Theatre stage.   Bobby Moreno gives nice depth to the handsome Christian and is well matched by Brenda Withers Roxane.  Steve Hendrickson provides excellent support as Cyrano's confident and commander Le Bret.  

Craig Wallace's de Guiche is a force of nature.  With his clear command of the language he takes control whenever he appears on the stage.  It is a shame that part of the villainy of the character has been cut from the script, but he still carries well the arc from spurned suitor to penitent.

As Cyrano, Eric Hissom gives an erratic performance.  His slight build and disheveled appearance are appropriate to a man who pointedly admits to not caring about his appearance.  Yet in a world of larger than life performances for this role, Mr. Hissom fails to command the stage.   While his performance improves over the course of the evening he simply lacks the charisma necessary to the role.  Without a memorable Cyrano there is a gaping hole at the center of the play. 

Cyrano translated by Michael Hollinger and adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner will be performed on the Elizabethan stage at the Folger Shakespeare Library through June 12, 2011.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Time To Kill at Arena Stage

Justice.   Vengeance.  The rule of law.  A 10-year-old girl is brutally raped, beaten, strangled and left for dead.   The laws of the state of Mississippi in the mid-1980's allow for a sentence that does not include life in prison or the death penalty unless the child succumbs to her horrific injuries.   Following the assailants' arraignment a public defender mentions to the father of the victim where the defendants will exit from the courtroom.   Acting on this knowledge, the father kills the men who have brutalized his daughter and shoots a court deputy leading to the deputy having his leg amputated.   The father is put on trial for his life and a community with simmering racial conflicts left over from the civil rights era of the not too distant past face a dilemma.  Do you convict and execute a vengeful father or do you find him not guilty by reason of insanity.

This is the, at the time of its writing, provocative plot of John Grisham's first novel, A Time To Kill, newly adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes.  The resulting drama is being presented by special arrangement with Daryl Roth in Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater.   A definite work in progress there are riveting moments of compelling drama.   Yet the work has its flaws and needs some serious tweaking to fully reach its theatrical potential.

A Time To Kill feels dated, and this is a shame.  There are many examples of compelling courtroom plays set in the past that have themes that are still of relevance today.  Examples which come to mind include Inherit the Wind set in the 1920's and Gross Indecency:The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde set in the 1890's.   What makes this adaptation feel dated is some of its archetypical characters.  We have the white trash rapists complete with waist-long mullets, the smug District Attorney with political aspirations, the brash rich northern female law student who naturally has to try to seduce the very married defense attorney.   Some of this is fine and comes from the characters originally written on the page, but perhaps being so wedded to the characterizations of the source novel hurts the adaptation.

There are some terrific performances in this work.  The most compelling material comes in the courtroom.   The conversations between defense attorney, Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) and the defendant, Carl Lee Hailey (Dion Graham) are riveting and truly provide moral conflict for the audience.  Do we, the audience sympathize with a father, grieving with rage because he could not protect his daughter?  Of course, we do.  The real challenge is making us want to justify his decision to take matters into his own hands.   Because the murders occur so early in the judicial process there is no sense that justice for Carl Lee's daughter was not going to happen through the court of law.  Yet, we can also see the conflict in how Carl Lee is bring prosecuted.   Would a white father  be facing the death penalty in identical circumstances?  The play suggests he would not, but the drama on the stage isn't providing enough context for the audience to agree.

Characters we encounter outside the courtroom are less well developed.  Jake's wife, Carla Jane (Erin Davies) is pretty much a one-dimensional suffering wife.  We need to care more about her and their unseen 4-year-old daughter.   Jake's family is key to his defense of Carl Lee.  Flesh out the wife's role and consider adding the daughter to the play to provide a visual impact both for Jake's moral character and to provide empathy in the audience when their very lives are threatened during the course of the trial.

The alcoholic, disbarred mentor figure of Lucien Wilbanks (John C. Vennema)  is a bit of an enigma.  He's supposed to provide a sounding board for Jake and the voice for admitting that the trial is really a lost cause.  Yet, he also does shady and illegal things which undermine Jake's hard work.   Lucien is a completely unsympathetic character and needs some work to become an enhancement to the play rather than a hindrance.

As the northern gal attending law school at Ole Miss, the character of Ellen Roark (Rosie Benton) is stereotypically earnest.  Again, the character could use a bit more development.  Her attempted seduction of Jake feels tacked on and when the character is brutally attacked near the end of the trial it lacks the punch in the gut and shock value that it should.   Part of that is the limitations of the stage.  And part of that is the one character missing from this production.

That missing character is the townspeople.  They are represented through the use of video.  The stage is enveloped by multiple television screens on which news reports, marches by both the NAACP and the KKK and scenes from the 1980's at intermission to provide a sense of time are utilized.  First of all, The Thespian didn't need aerobics videos and old MTV promotions to tell me this is in the past.  The lack of cellular telephones, the mullets, and the fact that Carl Lee is facing the gas chamber rather than
lethal injection provide all the sense of time and place the audience requires.  Secondly, the television screens are so small that they seem cold and remote.  If one is sitting in either the balcony or the rear of the orchestra section they are difficult to view and don't make any emotional impact.  Only when used to represent a candlelight vigil with a single large flame in each screen does the concept work.  Far better in subsequent productions would be to find a way to make the presence of the masses the compelling character that they need to be, whether they are Klan members, the NAACP or even the all white jury which is now only a detached disembodied off stage voice.   

There are some terrific performances within the ensemble.  Evan Thompson is gruff and  humorous as Judge Omar Noose.  Chike Johnson is strength and dignity as the practical Sheriff Ozzie Walls.  Dion Graham provides a wonderful complexity in his portrayal of Carl Lee, grieving and raging, yet confident that he did the right thing and will be allowed to go free.  As the preening District Attorney, Brennan Brown is cocky and self-assured.  The most compelling scene in the play occurs when he takes the stand and goes one on one with Sebastian Arcelus' Jake.  Mr. Arcelus gives a bright and earnest performance as a man who empathizes with his client.

The use of a turn table in the set design by James Noone helps the play move smoothly.  The warm brown tones used in the set compliment the action.  Playwright Rupert Holmes has made a valiant first effort at Mr. Grisham's novel and Ethan McSweeny has capably directed this complicated work.   The Thespian looks forward to seeing how the play will evolve and hopes that her criticism is taken in the constructive manner in which it is intended.

A Time To Kill adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes and based on the book by John Grisham is being given its world premiere production in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage by special permission of Daryl Roth through June 19, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

The Thespian attended a preview performance of A Time To Kill.   She recognizes that changes may have occurred in the script and performances between the previews and opening night.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ruined at Arena Stage

War is a devasting experience.  It is hard on the combatants and brutal on the civilians caught up in the maelstrom.  From 1998-2003, the Second Congo War was fought in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Playwright Lynn Nottage traveled there to interview female Congolese refugees.  The women in this conflict suffered brutal indignities being captured by both sides and used as sex slaves for the soldiers.  More than 50,000 women from babies to the elderly were brutally raped often with objects that caused permanent physical injuries.  These women, defined as "ruined" suffered more when they were cast out by their families and villages.

It is in the center of this horrible war that the 2009 Pulitzer prize-winning play, Ruined takes place.  We are at the brothel and watering hole of Mama Nadi, a woman who provides alcohol, music and women to soldiers on both sides of the civil war in order to survive.   A touching give and take relationship with the trader and supplier, Christian leads her to take in two new women, Salima, rejected by her husband and family after being kidnapped and held for months as a sex slave and Sophie, Christian's niece who has been brutally raped and is now considered "ruined."    It is a delicate dance to stay open and neutral as the war intrudes on Mama Nadi's place, but it is a journey to hell and back that keeps the audience in an emotional grip throughout the performance.

Featuring a strong ensemble of actors and musicians,Ruined is a compelling evening of theater for an audience seeking cathartic drama.   As the ladies surviving as Mama Nadi's prostitutes, Jamairais Malone, Rachael Holmes and Donnetta Lavinia Grays give devastating layers to what appear at first glance to be archetype characters.   Ms. Malone, as the haughty Josephine tries to maintain her status in the degradation of prostitution.  There is a regality in her performance that layers her initial bitchy persona.

Ms. Holmes' Sophie, is a sweet innocent who because of her injuries can only earn a living singing.  She delicately navigates Sophie's naïveté and grows confidently into a more mature woman by evening's end.  As Salima, the rejected wife, Ms. Grays is heartbreaking.   Hiding a horrendous secret, she survives as she can only to be confronted by her past when her husband unexpectedly arrives searching inexplicably for the wife he cruelly abandoned months earlier.

As the trader, Christian, Jeremiah W. Burkett is a complicated man.  Sweetly bantering with Mama Nadi and trying to do right by his damaged niece, he carefully navigates a difficult role.  Christian must face his demons as he fights to survive and try to come out with some dignity and humanity intact.  Mr. Burkett succeeds.

As the center of the play, Mama Nadi is a fascinating character and Jenny Jules is a force on the Fichandler stage.   Mama Nadi is a tough survivalist with an inexplicable soft touch for the ruined Sophie who can barely earn her keep.  At turns a fierce defender of her territory who can brutally control her girls, yet protective of the women in her employ, Ms. Jules gives a performance that will surely be remembered at next year's Helen Hayes awards.

The play is expertly directed in the round by Charles Randolph-Wright.  The sets by Alexander V. Nichols, costumes by ESosa and lighting by Michael Gilliam cohesively bring this war ravaged oasis to life.  Ruined is a compelling theatrical event of the devastation of war and a triumph of survival.

Ruined by Lynn Nottage is being presented on the Fichandler stage at Arena Stage in the Mead Center for American Theater through June 5, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information including extensive dramaturg notes, please visit www.arena

Postscript: Late in the evening of May 10th, The Thespian learned in a news report from  of a study that shows that even today an average of 1,100 women are still being raped on a daily basis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The figure is now believed to total more than 400,000 just in the years 2006 and 2007.  This is a rate 26 times higher than previously believed. The study only counted women between the ages of 16 and 49 and did not include younger or older women or even the men who have also been brutalized.   

Book Review: Richard The Young King To Be by Josephine Wilkinson

The further back in the historical record one travels the more difficult it becomes to find complete records from birth to death on one's subject.  And so it proves challenging to write biographical materials even on persons who become king.   It is the mark of a good writer to acknowledge these difficulties and provide thoughtful analysis on the scant material available.   It is perfectly permissible to provide family background on the subject as it can provide valuable insight into the biographical subject.   What is not permissible is to pad one's book with overly detailed descriptions of palaces and ceremonies.  To do so only heightens the lack of material and the potential folly of deciding to divide a biography into two books.

It is the latter road which Josephine Wilkinson takes in her 2008 biography Richard The Young King To Be.  The volume covers the life of King Richard III from his birth at Fotheringay Castle in 1452 to his marriage to Anne Nevill, younger daughter of Richard, Earl of Warrick and Richard III's beginnings as a landed magnate in the north of England.  

As The Thespian noted, it is fine to espouse on the family of the biographical subject. Such analysis can provide a great deal of insight into the formation of a person's character.  And the family of Richard III, the youngest child of Richard, Duke of York, possible heir to the throne of King Henry VI is a fascinating one.  In brief, Richard, Duke of York was doubly descended fro King Edward III.  By his father, Edmund, 1st Duke of York, the 4th son of Edward III  and from his mother, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the 2nd son of Edward III.  King Henry VI was descended from John of Gaunt, the 3rd son of Edward III.  Confused yet?  Welcome to the mess that became the Wars of the Roses.

King Henry VI had become king as an infant.  After his regency, he proved a weak ruler and his reign was dominated by a series of advisors.  These included his cousins, Edmund Beaufort, 1st Duke of Somerset and Richard, Duke of York.  When the king became incapacitated by a catatonic mental breakdown, control of the realm became more urgent and included a new player, King Henry's queen, Margaret of Anjou who, during his illness, gave birth to the couple's only child and heir, Edward of Lancaster.  Eventually events led to civil war and the disinheritance of the king's son in favor of Richard, Duke of York.  Queen Margaret's army killed the Duke of York at the battle of Wakefield.  This put the Yorkist claim to the throne in the hands of our young Richard's eldest brother, who following the slaughter of the battle of Towton was crowned King Edward IV.   Our young subject matter is not quite eight years old.

The problem with creating a biography on the young life of King Richard III is that he does not become a factor in his own story until he becomes a teenager.  He participates in his brother's coronation being invested as a Knight of the Bath and intriguingly becomes a page in the household of Richard, Earl of Warrick, the "kingmaker".   Dr. Wilkinson pads her book with pages of minutiae such as every detail of the ceremony to become a Knight of the Bath or the duties of a page in a noble household.  We do not need a pages long description of Middleham, the estate of the Earl of Warrick to get an understanding of the young Richard.

The narrative becomes more interesting as Richard ages into the teenager who fights for his brother following his brief overthrow in 1470-1471.  The more fascinating character during this time period is the middle brother, George, Duke of Clarence who switches sides in a bid for more power and influence and later tries to prevent Richard's marriage to Anne Nevill, the younger sister of Clarence's wife, Isabel in order to keep control over the Nevill inheritance.

Dr. Wilkinson also tries to make a case that the marriage of Richard and Anne was one which could not be made legal with a Papal dispensation. She bases this on the grounds that as Richard was the brother-in-law of Anne's sister they were related in the first degree of affinity which could not be overcome.  Dr. Wilkinson is overlooking the examples in the Spanish and Portuguese royal families where the sisters of Katherine of Aragon married in turn to maintain the diplomatic alliance.

What is good about Dr. Wilkinson's book is the use of excerpts of original source material to break through the later Tudor propaganda of the horribly deformed monster so exquisitely brought to life by Shakespeare.  Yet, she undermines this by adding speculation on the odds of Richard being born with teeth and examining the other parts of the nonsense that Richard III was deformed by giving potential plausible explanations and then later dismissing her reasons for doing so.   Dr. Wilkinson instead should have mentioned the propaganda and forcefully dismissed it using a few well placed sources of Richard's appearance during his lifetime.

It is also a mark against the publishers at Amberley Press to make the use of original source material and not adopt modern spelling,  The Thespian has noted before that this publishing house will use modern spelling when the excerpt has been previously "translated" while leaving other excerpts untouched.  It is The Thespian's opinion that this is lazy editing and only succeeds in making the books less accessible to the general  reader.  

It is due to these problems that The Thespian cannot recommend this book to a general audience.  There must be better biographies of Richard III available and she recommends seeking them out.

Richard The Young King To Be by Josephine Wilkinson was published in 2008 by Amberley Press.  The second volume of the biography Richard III, From Lord of the North to King of England was published in 2010.  For additional information, please visit

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at the Richard Rodgers Theatre

Buried in the "A" section of the Wednesday edition of The Washington Post was a small news item which announced that the Iraqi government had voted to close the Iraqi High Criminal Tribunal that condemned, among other high ranking officials, Saddam Hussein.   This news coupled with the announcement on May 1st that the United States had killed Osama Bin Laden has provided The Thespian with a great deal of reflection.   It has taken The Thespian a couple of weeks to digest the themes of the Pulitzer prize finalist play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and it is these recent events which have colored in her thoughts on this production.

Rajiv Joseph's play is not easy to follow.  While events depicted in the play following along roughly from point A to point B it is the digressions into philosophy and examinations of character that make Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo a very complex work.   It is noteworthy that it is not very clear at intermission exactly what the play is trying to convey, or even which character is the true protagonist.   Many audience members at the performance The Thespian attended were impressed with the performers, yet deeply confused by the plot of the play.   Yet, The Thespian begs patience.  Stick with the show and you will find a thought-provoking piece of theater that will leave you pondering life, violence, compassion, war and debating the consequences of the base nature of existence.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is set in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Hussein regime.  Baghdad is a crumbling war zone and the United States and its allies have taken to guarding cultural treasures, including the city's zoo.  Here we meet two soldiers, Tom (Glenn Davis) and the younger, brash Kev (Brad Fleischer) who have been tasked with guarding the zoo's tiger (Robin Williams).  Tom, the more confident of the two, brags of the "souvenirs" he has acquired including a golden gun looted from Usay Hussein's mansion.  Kev, more nervous and trying to prove himself to be accepted when he is a scared young man thrust unprepared for the horrors of war, is permitted to hold the gun.  The tiger is bitter about his years in the zoo, the foolhardy escape of the zoo's lions, which he derisively calls the Leos, and his base predatory nature commanded by his hunger.   When Tom taunts the tiger with some jerky, the tiger bites off his hand and, to stop the attack, Kev kills the tiger. 

Each man and beast is haunted by their actions, none so much as the fourth character who is arguably the moral center of the play, Musa (Tony nominee Arian Moayed).  Musa straddles the world of Baghdad with lives in both the Hussein regime, as a gardener for Usay Hussein, and, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion as a translator for the invading forces.   Yet, while Kev is haunted by his murder of the tiger and Tom by the loss of his hand and the mental breakdown of his fellow soldier, it is Musa who must struggle to find his humanity.  He is haunted by the sneering ghost of Uday Hussein and by an episode in the past which cost him dearly.

The play is staged in the decaying world of war-torn Baghdad.  Whether it is the cracked ornate stonework or the neglected topiaries of Musa's garden, Derek McLane's scenic design creates a perfect framework for Mr. Joseph's words.  The design is complimented by David Landers's lighting design and David Zinn's costumes.  The sound design by Acme Sound Partners and Cricket S. Myers immerses the audience from the moment they enter the theater and enhances the experience of the performance.

It is a tightly woven acting ensemble that Moises Kaufman has thoughtfully directed.  Necar Zadegan, Hrach Titizian and Sheila Vand each portray multiple roles, yet, while many are small, they each make an indelible impact on the proceedings.   As the trigger-happy, Kev, Brad Freischer creates an arc from scared young soldier to a haunted suicidal mental patient to confident intellectual trying to guide his fellow soldier on the right path.   As the handless Tom, Glenn Davis puts on a shield of bravado, yet lets the audience gradually see the chinks in his defensive armor as he becomes a broken man who delusionally believes that the salvation of his manhood lies in retrieving his golden spoils of war.

Arian Moayed's Musa is the soul of the play.  Haunted by his small role in the Hussein regime, Musa desperately tries to maintain his dignity while working as an Arabic translator for the U.S. forces.  Mr. Moayed takes the audience on a gripping emotional arc as he struggles not to give in to base human instinct.  It is The Thespian's opinion that Mr. Moayed's Tony nomination for this role is well deserved.

It is fortunate that the outer trappings of the tiger are symbolic.  Robin Williams appears to be a war-ravaged sage who has earned every well worn line on his grizzled face.  The tiger is provocative, espousing great philosophical statements on the nature of life, death, war and violence.   There is a great deal of black humor in the tiger's discourse, a necessary tool for the audience to embrace the darker elements of the playwright's philosophy.  It is to Mr. Williams' credit that he carefully threads the difficulties of his role.

To paraphrase, as the tiger ruefully asks, if God is good why did he make predators?  It is facing the inherent violent nature which potentially exists within us all that is the moral message that The Thespian took away from this play.  Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is not an easy play to sit through, nor is it without flaws.  However, for thoughtful theater-goers it is a satisfying theatrical experience.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is playing a strictly limited engagement at the Richard Rodgers Theatre through July 3rd, 2011.  It contains mature subject matter, language and depicts scenes of graphic violence.  The Thespian recommends it for adults and mature teenagers.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert at the Palace Theatre

Three drag queens go on a road trip in the Australian stop me if you've already heard this one...

A brassy, bright confection of stage excess, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert invites its audience to wrap themselves in hot pink feather boas, sip cocktails from the logo-ed adult sippy cups that have become standard on Broadway and try to catch strategically launched ping bong balls.  All that and more as we are encouraged to groove under raining confetti  to an eclectic cannon of disco, power ballads and electric boo-ga-loo in a fun evening of mindless entertainment that has at its core a carefully wrapped heart of glittered gold.

Based on the popular 1994 Australian film of similar name, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert seems a natural subject for transformation to the stage.   There is an eager ensemble that is not simply pretty boys and girls that contains opportunities for everyone to have moments to shine.   There are the outrageous costumes and wigs created by the Academy Award-winning team of Tim Chappell and Lizzy Gardiner (of the famous gold American Express card dress) that become more elaborate and outrageous to the point where the audience begins to wonder what will they put on Will Swenson's head next?  The scenic design by Brian Thomson includes the challenge of the title character, Priscilla, a 6-ton bus that comes with all the bells, whistles and make-up tables that our three gals need to spend two weeks crossing the Australian Outback.  

A jukebox musical that follows in the footsteps of Rock of Ages by not focusing on the material of a single artist or musical group, the score includes such 1970's and 1980's artists as Madonna,  Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, and, thankfully, only one song from the Village People (and a clever one at that). Musical supervision by Stephen "Spud" Murphy with the tight orchestra ensemble under the baton of Jeffrey Klitz keep the pulse of the evening on a steady beat throughout the evening.

The Staging by director, Simon Phillips and choreographer, the late Ross Coleman is brisk and bright and well paced, yet briefly slows only at the moments in the show when the heart and soul of the show need to take focus from the glamour of the rest of the staging.   For despite the over-the-top drag queen numbers and highly entertaining group ensemble set pieces, at its center, beneath the bawdy humor and liberal use of adult language and situations is a very sweet story of love, tolerance and the bond of true friendship.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is the story of Tick (Mitzi) a drag performer in Sydney who receives a request to travel to Alice Springs to meet his 6-year-old son, Benji.  Benji's mom, Marion, throws in a gig in the casino she runs as an enticement.    Tick ropes into joining him his dear friend, Bernadette, a transgendered woman who has recently lost her love and who is a throwback to the glamourous early days of drag performing.  The third member of our trio is Adam (Felicia) a brash young hot head who seems to only care about his own personal gratification and a rundown but fabulous bus to take them there and the journey through the land down under is ready to begin.

For the most part, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is simply a shut off your brain and just enjoy it kind of show.   However, like its film predecessor there are moments when the tone turns serious as our heroines  encounter life outside the tolerant city limits.   There are moments of prejudice which could feel out of place, but don't as the book by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott contains enough hints that when things turn darker it really doesn't come out of left field.

This is a show that gives each member of its ensemble a moment to shine.   Performances of note include Nathan Lee Graham as Miss Understanding, the Tina Turner emulating emcee of the Sydney nightclub, Keala Settle as Shirley, a love starved soul in a small western town and J. Elaine Marcos as Cynthia, a crass mail-order bride with a talent with ping pong balls.     C. David Johnson, as Bob, the mechanic who becomes the savior of the road trip and a gentle romance for the mourning Bernadette gives a warm, heart-felt performance.

In the film, our trio of performers were talented lip-syncers.   To capture that flavor we have the three Divas, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Anastacia McCleskey and Ashley Spencer who provide soulful accompaniment to the evening and provide the voices when lip-syncing is called for in the show.   They are very brave women for wearing neck-killing sky-high hair and for being willing to be flown at great heights around the stage.

As Tick, the conflicted father and leader of our trio, Will Swenson gives a well-rounded performance going equally tender and outrageous as needed.   As the bratty Adam, Nick Adams is a triple threat.  He's gorgeous, he's a talented singer and incredible dancer.   Just want to go on record here that he's so good, The Thespian officially hates him out of sheer jealousy (dang him and being able to bounce his splits).    The true soul of the musical is Tony Sheldon's Bernadette, for which he has deservedly received a Tony nomination.   Mr. Sheldon has played the role since its beginnings in Australia and he simply embodies Bernadette.   Tough as nails when the character needs to be, Bernadette is a mother-hen, a mournful lover, a best friend and more importantly a real lady.   It's a mesmerizing performance.

The show is not high art and should be taken as what it is, a fun musical with a message of tolerance and acceptance.   That said, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert contains very adult humor and language including the painting of profanity and homophobic slurs on stage at a critical moment in the show.   This is not a show for children.  Mature teenagers should be able to appreciate the show and enjoy it.

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert is playing at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Catch Me If You Can at the Neil Simon Theatre

Catch Me If You Can, book by Terrance McNally, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, is based on the 2002 film of the same name directed by Steven Spielberg.   The story is based on the true adventures of one of the world's greatest con artists, Frank Abagnale, Jr. who stole millions of dollars through fraud and impersonated a Pan Am pilot, an ER doctor, and a lawyer as well as five other identities, before being caught after five the age of 21.   The real Mr. Abagnale served time in French, Swedish and United States prisons and has since become a consultant in security as the CEO of Abagnale & Associates.    The Spielberg film was highly entertaining yet with a tinge of pathos as the illusions of Frank's high flying lifestyle masked a young man reeling from the break-up of his family and disillusionment over the father whom he worshipped and as in implied in both the film and the Broadway musical taught Frank everything he knew as the father used con techiniques to hide from his family and business associates the true problems in his life.

It is an intriguing premise for a Broadway show which frames the story as Frank Jr.'s recalling of his life's adventures as a slick variety show.   The ensemble becomes the chorus girls and boys that would back up, say, Dean Martin, the orchestra an onstage big band ensemble.   The encounters with people brief and comedic in a wink, wink aren't I a bad boy with charm manner.   Yet, Catch Me If You Can suffers from an identity crisis.   While it contains compelling performances and exhilarating dance numbers, it also has tonal problems mostly caused by a downshift to a romantic detour in Act Two which brings the momentum of the show practically grinding to a halt.   The Thespian understood that this subplot was crucial in demonstrating that this romance was ultimately the roadblock on Frank's high flying successes, yet it felt like the entire sequence came from another show.  

As the disfunctional parents of Frank, Tom Wopat does what he can to bring nuance to the role of Frank, Sr.   The father is as much of a con artist as his son, but in a pitiful way as it is his lying and manipulating of the facts that lead to the crumbling of he Abagnale marriage.  Mr. Wopat is at his most poignant when singing the Act Two ballad, "Little Boy, Be A Man" with Norbert Leo Butz as he passes the fatherly torch to Mr. Butz's Agent Hanratty.   As the beautiful French mother, Paula, Rachel de Benedet is reminscient of an earlier elegant time with a fluid regality in her dancing.   Yet, the mother's role is not as well written so it is difficult to grasp why we should care for her as much as her son does.

As the parents of the love interest, Linda Hart and Nick Wyman are given completely thankless roles.   Their scenes in Act Two desperately cry out to be severely trimmed and its not the actors' faults.   It's just that the amount of time given to what is a fleeting subplot just doesn't fit the puzzle of this show.   While other musicals would have opportunities for persons in small roles such as these to participate in the ensemble numbers, the nature of the "Frank Abagnale, Jr. Dancers" really doesn't lend itself in that manner.

The Thespian's first response to the first appearances of the love interest, Brenda Strong, was "What is an actress of Kerry Butler caliber doing playing a role like that?"  And then the authors gave her a gorgeous ballad, "Fly, Fly Away" and The Thespian's response was "That's why."  The problem is that the role of Brenda just doesn't seem to fit the rest of the show.   She's a sweet, naturalistic girl next door and while that may be the point in her snaring of Frank, Jr.'s affections, the tone of the character and her scenes just don't easily fit the rest of the show.   Ms. Butler is an amazing actress and elevates this character, but ultimately the role just doesn't work in the context of the entire show.

The true story in the show is where the real focus should have remained, on the cat and mouse relationship between our anti-hero, Frank, Jr. played with boyish exuberance and underlining vulnerability by Aaron Tveit and Agent Carl Hanratty, the no-nonsense FBI agent with a love of film noire, who dogs his every move.   Agent Hanratty is played by the amazing Norbert Leo Butz who is truly a master of musical character acting and has been deservedly rewarded with a Tony nomination for his performance.

It is not Mr. Tveit's fault that his character is difficult to like, it's just that the authors have written Agent Hanratty better and given his character the best musical numbers.  Other reviewers have mentioned not liking the idea that Frank, Jr. narrates the show.  The Thespian was not bothered by that as it is clear that Frank, Jr. always wants to control every aspect of his life.  Mr. Tveit takes Frank, Jr. and creates a charming con man and for a time has the audience rooting for his outrageous stunts.  A beautiful moment occurs near the end of Act One in the number, "My Favorite Time of Year" in which Mr. Tveit allows Frank, Jr. to become the sad teenage boy he really is and the audience gains sympathy for him.  Utimately it is the by the numbers storytelling of --now he's a pilot, now he's a doctor, look's he a lawyer-- that eventually become tedious.   Perhaps by not being so wedded to the episodic nature of the real story would have helped the Act Two audience fatigue that sets in with the character.    Ultimately the audience ends up rooting for Frank, Jr. to realize that his life of crime must end, and that Agent Hanratty must become the moral father figure for Frank, Jr. to emulate.   If that had been explored a bit more the show would be complete.

As for the incredible Mr. Butz, he embodies this G-man as he travels from a no-nonsense get the job done manner to permitting himself to indulge in Frank Jr.'s fantasy world, but on his terms.   The dime novel noire of Agent Hanratty's side of the story becomes the best part of the show.   Mr. Butz even manages to keep the government schlub in his dancing.  There are no clean lines and slick moves here, just a round shouldered rumpled suit who brings down the house when he cuts loose.

Catch Me If You Can is by no means a perfect show.  Yet it is worth seeing for the performances of Aaron Tveit, Kerry Butler and Norbert Leo Butz.

Catch Me If You Can is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway through September 4, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information, please visit

Monday, May 2, 2011

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre

Let's get the big question out of the way.    Yes, the young movie star can sing and dance.    Now that's out of the way, on to the review.

The 50th anniversary revival of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is a confection of Mad Men inspired early '60's nostalgia that still provides a satisfying evening of theater.    Filled with the rousing and infectious music and lyrics of Frank Loesser and the wit and good humored bite of Abe Burrows, Jake Weinstock and Willie Gilbert's book, audiences at the Al Hirschfeld Theater are quite rightly cheering along the spectacular rise of the crafty and charming J. Pierrepont Finch.  Is the show dated?   Yes and no.   The satirical look at the corporate ladder and the ways in which our ambitious young hero climbs it are as relevant today as they were when the show opened in October 1961.    Where the story creaks with age is in its depiction of the female characters.   The women are aspiring to climb out of the corporate secretarial pool by marrying well.    Yet,  despite the cringes that may bring forth in a 21st century audience, the exuberance and commitment of the performers to their characters' goals in the musical allow said 21st century audience to accept the early '60's mindset and simply enjoy a delightful evening of musical theater.

Ably directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, How To Succeed...  embraces its time period without a wink or nod to its proceedings.   Mr Ashford takes the show as is, allowing the original book and story to survive intact.   The Thespian believes that this is an intelligent approach.   There has been an occasional trend to update books of musicals that are considered dated, yet Mr. Ashford proves that allowing the show to be viewed on its own merits does not mean that we are viewing a museum piece.   Mr. Ashford guides his cast well and with his very athletic choreography proves that he knows how to stage musical numbers in such a fashion that his audiences will truly understand how a show-stopper really is supposed to be staged.

Catherine Zuber's costumes combined with Derek McLane's scenic design and Howell Binkley's lighting design brighten the world of the World Wide Wicket Company placing a bold stamp that this a show that is celebratory of its hero and his rise through the corporate ranks.   Musical direction is rousing under the direction of David Chase and his 14 member orchestra.

The ensemble is universally wonderful and given that this is one of those musicals in which just about every member of the chorus gets a small role there is not a weak link in the bunch.    Outstanding support is given by Rob Bartlett in the dual roles of Mr. Twimble, the 25 year proud head of the mail room and Wally Womper the Chairman of the Board of World Wide Wicket Company.   Mary Faber provides great support as the best friend in the secretarial pool, Smitty.   Ellen Harvey brings down the house with her vocal talent and iron hand as the executive secretary Miss Jones.  

Tammy Blanchard takes the dim bombshell role of Hedy La Rue and gives her a brassy depth.   Ms. Blanchard's Hedy is not an airhead bimbo, but a woman well aware that her ticket out of the cigarette girl business is the back rung of the corporate ladder.    As the nemesis of our hero, the nepotism-with-pride Bud Frump, Christopher J. Hanke is appropriately a hissable villain.   As the love interest, Rosemary Pilkington, Rose Hemingway, is confident with great stage presence.   The only fault The Thespian had in her performance was wishing to see her ambitions for a corporate husband soften a little bit faster to match how Finch realizes that his ambitions have hit a roadblock in his realization that he has fallen love, which is not on the program for his corporate goals.

Making his Broadway debut, John Larroquette is clearly enjoying portraying J. B. Biggley, the CEO of the World Wide Wicket Company.   At turns corporate and clown, Mr. Larroquette embraces his character's eccentricities  providing an absolutely delightful performance.    Mr. Larroquette literally towers over his co-star and in some very clever choregraphy which acknowledges the height difference shows himself a game hoofer upon the boards.

And as for that co-star, what a musical debut.   Daniel Radcliffe amazed audiences on Broadway and the West End a few years ago in his dramatic stage debut as the troubled Alan in Equus.  Here, Mr. Radcliffe proves his versatility by taking on the role of J. Pierrepont Finch, which requires him to dominate the stage for the majority of the evening.   His singing and dancing lessons have paid off.  Is he the most accomplished trained voice?  No, but his singing voice is pleasant and capable of handing the vocal demands put upon him.    As for his dancing, what Mr. Ashford has wrought from his star is nothing short of amazing as he tackles the complex and athletic choreography ably supported by the entire company.

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is rousing good evening of theater.   You may attend to see the "stars" yet, The Thespian guarantees you will leave with a smile, a light step and the infectious 11:00 number "Brotherhood of Man" humming in your head.

How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying is playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway.    For Tickets and additional performance information please visit