Friday, June 24, 2011

I Was There When It Passed the New York State Legislature

I am not from New York.  (Warning: this post will be emotional, therefore The Thespian has reverted to first person narrative).

Yet, I rejoice tonight.    I cannot think of a better place to hear the wonderful news that the New York State Legislature passed the gay marriage bill than during the curtain call of The Normal Heart.  

I believe we are all human beings.   I believe that we are all equal.  I believe that we are what our DNA constructs us to be.   Just because your DNA makes you love a person of the same sex does not make you a second class citizen anymore than the color of your skin makes it reprehensible that you might fall in love with a person of a different skin color, or religion, or national origin.  

I do not believe that HIV/AIDS is a plaque sent to purge us of our sins.   It is a hideous disease that has struck too many for too long.  Yes, I am old enough to remember when it began and I admit that I  sobbed uncontrollably as I relived the events preserved by the courageous Larry Kramer in his groundbreaking take no prisoners play, The Normal Heart.  And, yes, I have lost too many colleagues, mentors and friends, including one of my best friends.

Yet, I celebrate the New York triumph tonight.   I celebrate when I hear a female friend and colleague share the joy of falling in love at first sight with her wife.   I celebrate when Neil Patrick Harris tweets to his followers how much he'd love to marry the other father of his children.  I dream of a day when the state that I live in, the Commonwealth of Virginia, will someday come out of the 19th century and embrace common human decency instead of now when the Attorney General tells the commonwealth's state colleges and universities that they can't provide the same constitutional protections to someone simply because they are homosexual.

I dream of a day when we don't read of bullying someone because they are different, or see on the internet stories of teenagers and young adults driven to suicide because they feel they that it won't get better.   I dream when it stops being okay to mock someone by telling them "that's so gay".   I dream of a day when we stop making excuses for our families and friends who tell us, "I don't have anything against gay people" and then proceed to explain in the next breath exactly why they do.   It's wrong and I swear that I will never hold my tongue and let it slide anymore.

Being a theatrical professional I have had the privilege of working with persons of all stripes.   It has opened my eyes to all the world has had to offer whether good experiences or bad, friendships with persons of all races, nationalities, religions, and sexual orientation.   One thing we all have in common.   We are all human with our strengths and weaknesses, yet we all deserve the same rights and privileges.

Therefore, I embrace the step that the New York State Legislature has taken tonight.   It was an honor to celebrate with the audience, cast and crew of The Normal Heart on Broadway.

The Thespian now returns you to your regular blog which will include a review of The Normal Heart coming tomorrow.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wicked National Tour at the Kennedy Center

It is a joyous crowd which embraces the National Tour of Wicked, making its second visit to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House in Washington, DC. A talented and exuberant cast enthusiastically brings this extremely popular musical to life. It is easy to see why Wicked continues to play to sold out crowds on Broadway and in productions around the world.

Based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the musical adaptation, book by Winnie Holzman, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, tells the story of how Elphaba and Galinda grew up to become the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good. Elphaba is born with green skin after her mother is seduced by a mysterious stranger who plies her with a green elixir. Shunned by her father she is sent to Shiz University along with her younger sister, the wheelchair-bound Nessarose. Forced to room with the irritating and perky Galinda, the two young women despise each other. When Galinda inadvertently shows a kindness to Nessarose the beginnings of friendship develop. The friendship blossoms when a bullying prank Galinda leads against Elphaba backfires.

Meanwhile all is not as it seems in the land of Oz. Talking animals are being persecuted and losing the ability to speak. Madame Morrible seeks to develop Elphaba'sstalents for magic and reluctantly accepts Galinda as a pupil on Elphaba's insistence. When Dr. Dillamond, the only talking animal professor is fired, Galinda decides to change her name to reflect how he mispronounced it, Glinda. Summoned to meet the all powerful Wizard of Oz, Elphaba and Glinda hope that their dreams of a better world will come true. It is that crucial moment in the Emerald City that sets both women on the paths to destiny.

Mr. Maguire's novel was extremely complicated and dense. The musical makes several changes to the narrative,yet creates a satisfying story for the stage. There are enough nods to the original Wizard of Oz story to bring knowing smiles to the audience without being glaringly obvious about it. The set designed by Eugene Lee, lighting designed by Kenneth Posner, and costumes designed by Susan Hilferty with wigs and hair designed by Tom Watson, evoke the original illustrations from the L. Frank Baum stories. The direction by Joe Montello, with musical staging by Wayne Cilento keeps a steady tempo while permitting the emotional core of the tale to unfold without being overwhelmed by the stagecraft.

The cast is clearly enjoying performing this wonderful musical and the ensemble is lively. The supporting roles are well cast. Paul Slade Smith is poignant as the persecuted Dr. Dillamond. Stefanie Brown layers her character's sad arc from cherished, yet pitied young woman to the bitter creature who evolves into the Wicked Witch of the East. Justin Brill has a boyish enthusiasm as the Munchkin, Boq, and handles his transition to the cold, literally heartless Tin Man well. Colin Hanlon's Fiyero is handsome, shallow and heroic all at the same time a suitable leading man for both our leading ladies. Randy Danson is hissable as the corrupt with power Madame Morrible. Mark Jacoby is deliciously enigmatic as the Wizard, at once warm, befuddled and paternalistic with a hint of menace beneath his charming facade.
Amanda Jane Cooper's Glinda just makes you want to slap her upside the head, she is so bubbly and perky and everything you ever hated in that popular girl in school. Yet, she deftly handles the strong interior beneath and navigates what, at first glance is a very unlikeable character, grasping for the limelight Glinda feels she deserves. Yet, Ms. Cooper finds Glinda's hidden good qualities that help the audience realize that she is one of the strongest characters in the play. In the end her Glinda is Glinda the Good.

The strongest character is our girl, Elphaba. A deceptively quiet performance, at first, Dee Roscioli builds her Elphaba into a moral tour de force. By the time, Ms. Roscioli soars, literally, in the climatic act one finale "Defying Gravity," she has grasped ahold of the audience and she takes them swirling through the storm clouds of the rest of Elphaba's journey. It is a masterful performance.

Wicked will be performed in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House through August 21, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Monday, June 6, 2011

Follies at The Kennedy Center

How does one review a play that has so much mythos attached to its original production?   Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's 1971 Follies has so much expectation thrust upon any attempt to mount it that The Thespian feels that no matter what she writes, those who have seen numerous versions or the "Holy Grail", the 1971 original Broadway production, will be sure to inform her that she missed a nuance, or doesn't get it.     Perhaps it is useful that this is the very first production of Follies that The Thespian has seen, although she is extremely familiar with the musical score and the basics of the story.    The solution?  Just dive into it and take the consequences.

Follies is a musical about longing, regret, betrayal, fear, and, most importantly a wistful nostalgia for the past.    Set in  the decaying Weismann Theater,  the showgirls of Weismann's Follies reunite for one last time the night before the theater is scheduled to be demolished to become a parking lot.    Haunted throughout the evening by the ghosts of the past, whether the shadowy figures of the showgirls they used to be, or by the naivete of their younger selves, they relive their glory days.   Into this come two couples, Sally and Buddy and Ben and Phyllis, once best of friends, now deep into troubled marriages.   At the end of the evening will their marriages be demolished as well?

Follies does not have a strong narrative structure, the true story, that of the two central couples, is constantly interrupted by performances by the other women (and a few of the men).   Throughout this the younger ghostly versions of the girls mostly slink in the background, occasionally joining in some of the numbers.   This is not an easy musical to appreciate.   The music is stunning, some of director Eric Schaeffer's staging is superb and other directoral choices maddening.   Gregg Barne's costumes are beautiful, especially the elaborate chorus girl costumes.   The set design by Derek McLane evokes the neglected theaters of the late 1960's and 70's.    The casting contains some true gems and others that are just not quite right for the roles.    This production of Follies is inconsistent, yet contains utter flashes of brilliance showing that it is on the right track to do this difficult show justice.

There are several standout performances amongst the Weismann "girls" (and guys).   What is delightful about Follies is that this musical rightly gives the seasoned  performers the chance to prove that they still have that It factor.     Michael Hayes has a clear tenor and is reminiscent of Dick Powell in his rendition of "Beautiful Girls."  Rosalind Elias captures the featured operetta star perfectly and sings with a clear and crisp tone "One More Kiss" in a poignant duet with her younger counterpart, Leah Horowitz.    As the hoofers, The Whitmans, Susan Watson and Terrance Currier, tear up the floorboards, clearly loving and delighting in performing together.     The amazing Terri White stops the show with "Who's That Woman?" a pull out the stops number that tasks all of the younger and older Weismann girls to dance their hearts out.

Solange as Regine does not quite feel at ease in the role, yet she has a presence that makes you accept that what you are seeing is what you are going to get.   Linda Lavin as Hattie is brassy singing "Broadway Baby" but the number seems to be lacking the vaudeville punch.   Elaine Page as Carlotta is clearly enjoying herself.   "I'm Still Here" is an anthem that can be performed with cynicism, but Ms. Page takes it as a badge of honor enjoying the devoted attention of her chorus boys.

As our leading couples and their younger counterparts we are given both brilliant performances and others that seem to ring false.    The younger ones, Lora Lee Gayer, Kirsten Scott, Christian Delcroix and Nick Verina have quality and heart and do make the audience believe in the hopes and dreams and the origins of the fatal problems in both marriages.     As for our star leads...

Ron Raines as Ben makes it difficult to see what either Sally or Phyllis desire in him.    His Ben is brusk and missing the charm that would make the audience believe that Sally's willingness to leave her husband for him is not simply delusional.    Jan Maxwell's Phyllis is a cool drink of water.   Her regrets of the choices she made are clear as a bell.   Ms. Maxwell's scathing "Could I Leave You?" is emotional singing at its best.   Mr. Sondheim is frequently noted as an actor's composer and Ms. Maxwell is the embodiment of that.

Bernadette Peters as Sally has been referred to by other reviews as too glamorous for the role.   Yet, when Sally mentions that she's fat or old, any woman can see that as a universal answer for all women who are uncomfortable with physical praise.    It would be interesting to see another actress not as spectacularly gorgeous as Ms. Peters tackle this role, but that is not to diminish Ms. Peters talents.    Her delivery of "Losing My Mind" is heartbreaking and her denial of the the reality of the fantasy she has created for herself and Ben is equally poignant.    The only criticism The Thespian heard was that audience members in the balcony had difficulty hearing Ms. Peters, which is the fault of the sound technician.  

Danny Burnstein as the steadfast, yet unfaithful, Buddy gives a complex and devastating performance.   "The Right Girl" is emotionally satisfying and "Buddy's Blues" the perfect embodiment of pain and panache in the midst of the psychological Loveland sequence.

It is the Loveland sequence that is the most revelatory and satisfactory part of Mr. Schaffer's direction.   The most maddening is the inconsistency of the use of the ghostly chorus girls.    At times they are perfect shadows, at others distractions at moments when they should not take focus.    Conceptually this Follies has its moments, but the distractions at others take away from this becoming a grand evening of theater.

Follies music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman will be performed in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through June 19, 2011.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Art at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia

Art is in the eye of the beholder.  To the proud mother, the sketches on the refrigerator gallery are as priceless as the Van Gogh sold for millions.  It is not so much what makes an object art as the absurdity of its value that is the central conflict of Yasmina Reza's award-winning play, Art.   A biting comedy in a brisk 80 minutes, Art is a tale of three friends and their battle for the validation of their viewpoint and to make their friendship survive Art.

The artwork at the center of the conflict is a large painting.  This painting is  five feet by four, painted white with thin white diagonal lines incorporated into it.  A man, Serge (John Lescault), has purchased this painting, by a famous artist for the sum of 200,000 francs.   Serge carries the viewpoint of the modern art lover.  Only Serge can inherently see the greatest of this painting.   His friend, Marc (Mitchell Hebert) represents those to whom it would be perfectly clear that simply slapping white paint on a white canvas does not automatically qualify it to be worth more than the sum of its parts and the labor necessary to execute the work.  Thrust into the middle of this intellectual exercise is the meek Yvan (Michael Russotto) who represents that friend we all know who takes the viewpoint of whomever is nearby hoping to bridge the chasm of his friends and be the peacemaker. 

The witty translation by Christopher Hampton is deftly handled by all three actors, veterans of many DC area stages.   Each actor well-embodies his role gaining and losing the audience's sympathy along the way.   The sleekly modern set design by James Kronzer is well complimented by the lighting design of Mark Lanks.  The costumes by Kathleen Geldard are functional, yet compliment the personalities of the characters.   Director Matthew Gardiner steers the play along its absurdist course with a sure hand.

Art by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton was performed in Signature Theatre's Arc performance space from March 29 through May 22, 2011.  For information on upcoming performances at Signature Theater please visit