Monday, December 8, 2014

The Accidental Thespian Takes A Bow ....For Now

With the publishing of my latest review, I have decided to take a break from writing The Accidental Thespian.   I began this blog in the fall of 2010 as part of my recovery process from a bad episode of depression.  Writing about the theater that I love to perform, create and attend kept my foot in the career that I love and adore.  

Now it is time for me to move on to the next phase of my writing life. I have another large project and another blog  Gertrude Blount Courtenay, Marchioness of Exeter was the first historical person I portrayed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. She is one of the most fascinating members of the courts of King Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Mary I that you have probably never heard of. I decided that I would like to research her life and that of her husband, Henry Courtenay, first cousin to King Henry VIII, with the aim of writing a biography of her. That project needs to become my number one priority in 2015.

Well that and a little project I am doing for the 2015 Popular Cultural Association/American Cultural Association's national conference in New Orleans, LA in April. I am delivering my third paper in the Festival and Faires division this one about another of the historical women I have portrayed.  Entitled "That Bawd Lady Rochford, or How Popular Culture Turned Me into a Bitch." I will be examining how the wife of George Boleyn became one of the most hated women of the 16th century and the role popular culture depictions of her shaped that opinion.

I hope that I will one day return to The Accidental Thespian. I've enjoyed writing my reviews for my tiny audience of friends and acquaintances. I've learned a lot during the process.  Mostly I think my father, Russell Holcomb, who once upon a time actually encouraged me to consider writing theater criticism, would have enjoyed this little exercise of mine.

Until then, I will continue to see a lot of theater. (Five Guys Named Moe at Arena - fun, Fiddler On The Roof at Arena - compelling, A Delicate Balance on Broadway - Albee.  Need I say more?)  I hope to get back on stage myself one day or at least turn into a producer of things I believe in.

Please continue to support Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS for the marvelous work that they do to support those who live with HIV/AIDS and other medical needs.  Please support live theater whether its buying a ticket or donating to the theater company of your choice.

This is Diane Holcomb Wilshere, The Accidental Thespian signing off.

The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre

The life of Joseph Merrick attracted a lot of attention in the late 1970's, first with the publication of Ashley Montagu's book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity and the renewed interest in Dr. Frederick Treves' memoir The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences.  This led to the 1979 Tony winning play The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance receiving a top notch revival production at the Booth Theatre. While this is an excellent production featuring compelling performances by the small cast and steady, thoughtful direction by Scott Ellis, audiences who pay attention to the text may leave the theatre questioning the circumstances of Joseph Merrick's life, particularly after his decision to live and be studied medically by Dr. Treves at the London Hospital for the last four years of his life.

Joseph Merrick? Does the reviewer not mean John Merrick as he is referred to in Pomerance's play? No. The actual man was named Joseph Merrick and following the popularity of both the play and the David Lynch film another biography by Michael Howell and Peter Ford The True History of the Elephant Man was published which proved among other things that the young man's name was Joseph and that a lot of what Dr. Treves published about Mr. Merrick's early years was false. Yet, despite these errors being given voice in the play, Mr. Pomerance's play is filled with a respect for humanity especially beneath the surface of one hideously deformed by a medical condition unable to be treated by 19th century medicine. Come for the freak show, or more likely to see Academy Award nominated actor Bradley Cooper in the title role. Leave the theater questioning whether Mr. Merrick simply traded up to a more comfortable exhibit hall.

The play begins with Dr. Treves meeting his new employer Carr Gromm at the London Hospital. Learning of a freak show curiousity near the hospital he pays his admission and sees John Merrick for the first time. Insisting on examining Mr. Merrick Dr. Treves takes him back to the hospital where he gives a lecture on his deformities. During the lecture photographs of the actual Merrick are shown while the very beautiful Mr. Cooper contorts his body to approximate Merrick's disability.

According to the play, Joseph Merrick was born and developed hideous skin growths that severely deformed most of his body. Abandoned by his mother to a workhouse he grew up there until he reached maturity. The only source of income possible was to join a side show as a curiosity. Mr. Merrick is shown being beaten by his so-called owner and manager Ross and eventually abandoned while in Belgium.  Returning to London Mr. Merrick is admitted to London Hospital where Dr. Treves gets several life lessons about the nature of humanity and man's relationship to God by caring for Mr. Merrick. It is Merrick's introduction to the famous actress Mrs. Kendall that broadens his social interactions while turning the London Hospital into a popular site for the aristocratic patrons the hospital desperately needs for funds. Over the course of his stay at the hospital one can only wonder did Dr. Treves benefit more from his paternalistic care of the man or did Merrick deepen Dr. Treves humanity.

The primary players in this revival give emotional performances. Alessandro Nivola is a reticent Dr. Treves whose relationship with Merrick slowly unleashes buried emotions. Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Kendall has a regal bearing. She is "acting" when she is first asked to visit Merrick using her performer's mask to hide her natural revulsion. The two characters are deeply affected by how Merrick affects them deeply and it shows in their heartfelt performances.

Bradley Cooper shows by his role choices how good an actor he is, not for nothing has he rightly earned two Academy Award nominations. Mr. Cooper has stated in numerous interviews that it was the 1980 David Lynch film of The Elephant Man (not related to the play) that made him want to become an actor. Merrick is a challenging and showy role requiring great physical and vocal stamina. Look beyond the theatrics and Mr. Cooper is giving one of the most compelling performances of the fall Broadway season.  One hopes that he is not lost at Tony nomination time by the distant memories of the Tony committee after the closing of the limited run of this production.

The play is colored by a Victorian empire notion that those with money and means know best how to care for the poor and afflicted. Merrick's life story as portrayed feels at times like he has traded a street exhibition for a more gilded one. The audience should be uncomfortable by the all-knowing Victorian sensibilities of Dr. Treves towards his patient (and the hospital's cash cow). This same audience should also walk away from Mr. Cooper's performance in the title role delighted to have made Mr. Merrick's acquaintance.

The Elephant Man is being produced at The Booth Theatre on Broadway in a limited run through February 15, 2015. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Monday, November 24, 2014

The River at Circle In The Square

Hugh Jackman is back on Broadway. Let the box office numbers rejoice. (Not to mention the uptick in donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS for the Gypsy of the Year campaign). This time Mr. Jackman headlines The River, the 2012 play by Jez Butterworth.  Mr. Butterworth's last work on Broadway was the 2011 Tony-nominated Jerusalem for which its star Mark Rylance won the Tony for Lead Actor in a Play. Whether Mr. Butterworth or Mr. Jackman can repeat that critical success is unknown. The River is a box office success and a limited extension of its planned performance run has already been announced.

Circle In The Square is in a three-quarter thrust stage for this production. Designer Ultz has created a weather-worn cabin which creates a perfect atmosphere for this very mysterious play in harmony with the lighting design of Charles Balfour and particularly the amazing sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. The River would be a front runner for the sound design Tony award if it had not been discontinued as a category by the Tony nominating committee. So what mysterious story has Mr. Butterworth created for this marvelously designed scene?

Well, truth be told The River is a bit of a murky, muddy mess. We are at the cabin of The Man (Hugh Jackman) who has brought his new girlfriend The Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his family cabin to share his love of fishing for sea trout. The Woman, winsomely portrayed by Ms. Jumbo is a very literary person who is more interested in the beautiful sunset and the setting than she is in fishing. The next scene The Man is frantic as he tries to reach help on his cell phone as a woman has gone missing while they were out fishing. Turns out said woman is The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), another girlfriend who he also has brought to experience the sea trout fishing experience. Ms. Donnelly's Other Woman is more earthy and adventuresome, eager to embrace the strange experiences she had while lost on the darkened riverbank or eat the spoils of her catch. Without giving up too much of the twists and turns in this plot, suffice it to say that Mr. Butterworth has the audience experience The Man's evening with both women in mostly alternating scenes.

In the end the audience may get the deeper meaning of what Mr. Butterworth is trying to achieve. Or the audience could end up wondering why there is so much emphasis on the poetry of Ted Hughes and W.B. Yeats. The River is a very philosophical work.  Mr. Butterworth has added a lot of pondering and pontificating monologues, particularly on the joys of fishing for sea trout on a moonless night when the fish run.  Or, as this reviewer witnessed, some audience members may simply wander down 8th Avenue questioning whether The Man is a serial killer.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the performances or the direction by Ian Rickson. Perhaps the play suffers in being in a larger theater than the sub-100 seat theater it played in London thereby losing true intimacy with the audience.

Mr Jackman embraces the complexity of The Man. He is at heart a man searching for true love, only to find disappointment again and again through the choices he makes. On the other hand Mr. Jackman has become clearly expert at gutting and prepping a sea trout dinner on stage. Prepapre with Fennel, leeks (washed under the faucet not soaked), lemon, salt, maybe pepper in case you were wondering.

And there in lies the problem with The River. There is nothing wrong with a play being deeply philosophical, lyrical and non-linear. However there is a problem when a play is so densely written that it is a true challenge to figure out what are the intentions of the playwright. Suffice it to say, no The Man is not a serial killer. To draw your own conclusions about what The River means you will have to try to get one of the hottest tickets on Broadway this fall and come to your own conclusions over The River's scant 85 minute running time.

The River is being performed at Circle In The Square on Broadway through February 8, 2015. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theatre

Someone needs to propose writing a dissertation on the recent trend of depicting the end of industrial Britain in musical theater. There certainly are more and more candidates for analysis. The latest is Sting's love letter to his home town, Wallsend, a former shipyard town most famous for building the Carpathia, the ship that responded to the sinking of the Titanic. What is good about The Last Ship is the haunting score by Sting, some terrific performances by the acting ensemble, and the atmospheric direction by Joe Mantello. What hurts The Last Ship and ultimately makes it not quite a satisfying evening of theater is that its subject invites comparison to the death of industrial Britain musicals that have come before it. Many of the themes in The Last Ship will lead a veteran theatergoer inevitably to start making comparisons, not in favor of the well meaning The Last Ship.

Gideon Fletcher is a young teenager with a girl he loves and a father with whom he has a difficult relationship. When Dad is permanently injured he pressures young Gideon into entering the family business. Instead Gideon runs away taking to a life at sea. Fifteen years later he returns after learning of his father's death. The town's shipyard has closed and the ghosts of the past haunt Gideon in the present day. When the Catholic priest Father O'Brien proposes that the workers occupy the shipyard and build one last ship to show the world what skills are being lost forever in the name of progress and cheap overseas labor, Gideon ends up becoming a reluctant leader.

A large problem with The Last Ship lies in its book which is co-written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Mr. Yorkey left this project to bring If/Then to Broadway. The plot has holes in it and suffers from having too melancholic a tone throughout the piece. As an example, Father O'Brien puts up the church building fund to build the ship. For an economically depressed area that must have been quite the fund. There is no clue what will happen to the ship once it is completed beyond its maiden voyage. The script would have been served by simply adding perhaps publicity for the project (bring in journalists or television coverage) and an actual goal for the ship rather than what seems like a metaphorical ending.

The tale is also not served by having characters and plot points that are almost cliches. The hero has conflicts with his father (see Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots). The good hearted Catholic priest, played with the tough love and blue humor that is needed by the always capable Fred Applegate is saddled with an unnecessary plot devise that will bring to mind the fate of a similar character in the film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain. Naturally the girl left behind had Gideon's son. (this is really not a spoiler as said teenage son appears very quickly in the first act). Collin Kelly Sordelet makes an impressive Broadway debut as both Young Gideon and Gideon's son Tom. Both characters are distinctive and the script fortunately does not contain any true melodrama about the son not knowing who is his real father.

Rachel Tucker is tough as nails as Meg, the girl left behind. A love triangle is created by adding the character of Arthur, a shipyard worker turned executive who has been steadily in both Meg and Tom's life. Aaron Lazar helps make Arthur a genuine good sensible man and father figure so that there is fortunately no detour into, once again, melodrama land when it comes to reuniting Meg and Gideon after all those years.

Michael Esper has the perfect voice for the wayward Gideon Fletcher. In many ways he sounds like composer Sting, although that may be the nature of how Sting wrote the music. Mr. Esper has a challenge in that his character is part prodigal part absolute jerk, yet by the end of the evening the character reaches a satisfactory redemption.

Sting has written a beautiful score. It ranges from the haunting themes "Island of Souls" and "Ghost Story" to the rousing "If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor" and "Mrs. Dees' Rant."  The score is served well by the earthy character driven choreography of Steven Hoggett who did a similar style for the musical Once. The scenic elements of David Zimm and the lighting of Christopher Akerlind are atmospheric and suit well the piece.

One wishes that only one writer had shaped the book of The Last Ship as tightening the plot holes would have made it a more seaworthy evening of theater.

The Last Ship is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Monday, October 27, 2014

On The Town at the Lyric Theatre

'New York, New York, it's a helluva town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.
The people ride in a hole in the groun'.
New York, New York, it's a helluva town!."

If you like your Broadway musical revivals big, bright and brassy run to the Lyric Theatre.  If you were thrilled when the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific performed the score of that show with a huge orchestra, well, folks, the 70th anniversary Broadway revival of On The Town is the perfect show for you.

Opened originally in 1944, On The Town was inspired by Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, one-act ballet about three sailors on leave with music by Leonard Bernstein.  Transformed into a Broadway musical the later that same year, the book and lyrics were handled by then Broadway first timers Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  The result is a charming dance-filled musical that to paraphrase the cliche, just ain't made this way anymore.

On the Town is the story of three sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York City. Chip is looking forward to seeing the sights his father saw on a visit more than a decade ago.  Ozzie just wants to get a "date." Gabey, the dreamer, wants to meet a girl just like his childhood sweetheart.  When Gabey sees on the subway a poster of the monthly winner of Miss Turnstiles, Ozzie and Chip, who owe Gabey their lives make a pact to help him find the girl of his dreams.  In the course of the day the sailors each find a girl, wreck havoc, start a city-wide chase and have a memorable day before they report back on board ship.

The Lyric Theatre is a very large venue and there was a concern that after its last oversized tenant, Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, any other show would be swallowed up by the very large space. On The Town's director John Rando keeps the action bustling and bursting out of the stage almost as if On The Town just can't contain itself to the stage.  Beowulf Boritts' scenic and production design evoke a marvelous version of 1944 New York City that easily handles the vast size of the Lyric's stage. Joshua Bergasse' choreography takes full advantage of the space to create beautiful dances and ballets, particularly the "Miss Turnstiles Ballet" and the "Times Square Ballet" that fills the audience with a sense of spectacle that comes from the wonder of good theatrical ballet and pays homage to the original stylings of Jerome Robbins.

The 28-piece orchestra under the baton of musical director James Moore will have you on your feet before the curtain rises. The marvelous acting ensemble will keep you smiling the rest of the evening. There are many, many standout performances.  As was the case in the original production the role of Ivy Smith, Miss Turnstiles is performed by a ballet dancer. Megan Fairchild 's dancing is fluid and beautiful and if her acting and singing are not on the same level of her dancing, this is a gentle reminder that a lot of musicals used to not have roles written for today's triple threat performers. As her ardent admirer and chaser Gabey, Tony Yazbeck is a leading man in the mold of Gene Kelly. Clyde Alves is earthy as Ozzie, the potential caveman to comedic soprano and anthropologist Elizabeth Stanley's Claire. Jay Armstrong Johnson's adorably goofy Chip is well matched to Alysha Umphress' brassy taxi driver and "cook, too" Hildy.

While the leads are terrific they are nearly upstaged by a trio of supporting performers. Michael Ripkin as the "I Understand" fiancee of Claire, Allison Guinn as Hildy's wallflower roommate Lucy make the most of their limited stage time. Please make a game out of "is that Jackie Hoffman again?" in her myriad hilarious appearances, the most prominent one as Ivy's broke lush of a music teacher Maude P. Dilly.

On The Town is a great evening of theater that shows a 21st-century audience that the old supposed warhorses still have life in them with the right production team and ensemble of actors and dancers. If you are traveling to New York City and want to have a great time you can do no better than to visit the Lyric Theatre and follow a trio of sailors on shore leave On The Town.

On The Town is being performed at the Lyric Theatre in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

There are many complex novels that get labeled as incapable of being adapted for the stage and screen. You would think by now that cliche statement would be tossed in a rubbish heap. The National Theatre imports the highly anticipated adaptation of Mark Hadden's popular novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It is well worth the wait.

15-year-old Christopher Boone has a brilliant mathematical mind couched within the challenges of autism. Christopher has poor social skills and is prone to sensory overload and cannot stand being touched. One night he goes to visit Wellington, his neighbor's standard poodle, only to discover to his horror that Wellington is dead, stabbed with a garden fork. (that's a pitchfork for us Americans) Briefly detained as the prime suspect he becomes obsessed with solving the crime. What Christopher does not realize is that in his zeal to solve the mystery he will unravel dark family secrets that will forever change his life. It is a journey in reality, fantasy and for this fascinating young man that leads to a sentimental yet surprisingly mature conclusion. 

This is an example of a perfect marriage between playwright and director.  Simon Stephens adaptation and Marianne Elliott's wonderful out of the proverbial box direction is the key to bringing Christopher Boone's story to the stage. Simon Stephens script, framed in a way to evoke the first person narration of Mark Haddon's novel mostly works. Narrated, well actually read, primarily by Christopher's sympathetic teacher and counselor, Siobhan, from the start the audience is aware that the tale will be revealed as Christopher perceives it. What makes it astounding is how organic the technical aspects compliment and vividly enhance the play. The audience enters into the Barrymore Theatre to face a barren stage marked in a grid like graphing paper.  Bunny Christie's scenic design brands the design as the canvas for Christopher Boone's complex need for order and his astounding ability with mathematics.  Combined with Paule Constable's lighting, Finn Ross's video design, Ian Dickerson for Autograph's sound design and Adrian Sutton's music the stage is transformed into the inner workings of Christopher's mind.

Some of the design may remind audiences of the visual concept for the trouble lead character of Ron Howard's film A Beautiful Mind where the way that film's troubled genius' mind saw the world was literally drawn on the screen. What really hammers home in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time  is the sensory overload that envelops both Christopher Boone and the viewing audience whenever he is faced with a crisis. To understand how this young man perceives the world and to share in being overwhelmed by the ordinary sights and sounds we easily take for granted as background noise is one of the supreme accomplishments of this remarkable play.

Keeping it all together is director Marianne Elliott, probably best known in the states for her Tony award-winning work on another difficult piece War Horse. Working with a duo of choreographers, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly, Ms. Elliott brings this complicated world to vibrant life.  The ensemble of actors work as a unit to assist and obstruct Christopher on his journey of discovery whether helping him imagine the universe or survive the terrors of the London Underground.
If there is a weakness in Mr. Stephens' script it is the few times in act two, when the tale changes from a story being read to a play being staged that the conceit of "we are watching Christopher's play" is hammered home a bit too literally, such as when Christopher interrupts a scene to make corrections. It is just not needed and would work better if the audience was simply trusted to accept the play as it unfolds. The one exception to that concept that truly works well leads to a marvelous encore for the show and its engaging lead actor. Suffice to say you do not want to miss the curtain call.

Without the perfect leading man, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would fall flat. Making an impressive Broadway debut is recent Julliard graduate, Alex Sharp. Mr. Sharp embodies all of Christopher Boone's eccentricities and challenges without forgetting that Christopher, while deeply challenging to watch at times must also remain for the audience immensely likable, especially when expressing his wonderment with the universe. Mr. Sharp is the center of Curious Incident's universe, without him it would deflate. 

The small ensemble ably supports Mr. Sharp's remarkable performance. Highlights go to Francesca Faridany, as the teacher who encourages Christopher in his determination, Enid Graham as Judy, Christopher's absent mother and Ian Barford as Christopher's weary father, who makes decisions for his family made in the heat of anger and a desire to protect his vulnerable son lead tragically to a deep chasm between father and son. 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a challenging play. It is emotionally satisfying, occasionally melodramatic, but leaves its audience with the delight in knowing that Christopher Boone, this marvelous young man with so many obstacles to overcome eventually achieves triumphs that are not at all possible when the play begins. May its audience leave the Barrymore Theatre as equally hopeful and emotionally satisfied.

Please note: due to the physical and emotional exertions required to portray Christopher Boone the role is played by Taylor Trensch at certain performances.

The National Theatre's Production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is being performed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

You Can't Take It With You at the Longacre Theatre

Pulitzer Prize winner.
War horse.
Best Picture Academy Award winning film adaptation.
Staple of high school and community theater.

If this was a question on Jeopardy! the answer is - You Can't Take It With You.

Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's madcap family comedy makes a very welcome return to Broadway this season. Yes, the play is as old as the hills. Yes, some of the jokes are married to the original 1930's time period. Yes, any number of theatergoers are probably thinking, I did this show in high school, why, oh, why is it on Broadway in 2014?

The answer to that question lies in the hands of director Scott Ellis who has assembled a cast that does not contain a weak link. Is the scenario of the normal member of a wacky family dreading bringing her fiancee's straight laced folks to dinner done to death?  Of course it is. What many don't realize is that You Can't Take It With You was one of the first, if not the first play to use that scenario. Mr. Ellis has given his ensemble such great direction that the zany aspects only compliment the true message of Hart and Kaufman's play. This is a family that at the end of the day loves each other, respects each other and above all encourages everyone, no matter their talents, or lack thereof, to pursue happiness. To paraphrase Linus van Pelt, that's what You Can't Take It With You is all about, Charlie Brown.

For the few who don't know the story, Martin Vanderhof, grandfather and patriarch of his family, one day decided to quit his job and pursue whatever struck his fancy. The rest of his family has followed his lead. Daughter Penelope Sycamore, writes plays because one day a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house. Her husband, Paul makes fireworks in the basement. Daughter Essie has taken ballet lessons for eight years from Boris Kolenkhov, a Russian emigre. Essie's husband Ed plays the xylophone and prints phrases from whatever book or manifesto inspires him. The household help just kind of showed up one day and stayed. The only normal member of the family Alice works on Wall Street and has recently fallen for her boss, Tony Kirby.  It is their engagement that leads to the main conflict as the Kirby family is invited to dinner with Alice's strict instructions that, for once, everyone behave like how she thinks normal people should behave. Needless to say hijinks ensue.

Enveloped in the marvelous home designed by David Rockwell and with beautiful period costumes by Jane Greenwood, every member of the cast shines. Leading off is James Earl Jones as Grandpa Vanderhof, simply bemused by life and his family, yet grounded in love and his faith.  Kristine Nielsen brings her usual comic flair as momma Penelope, whether auditioning Julie Halston's insane lush actress, painting Patrick Kerr's Mr. DePinna or herding cats. (adoption of said kittens is possible inquire at the theater)  Mark Linn-Baker balances the pyro his Paul Sycamore is so fond of with genuine love and compassion for his harried daughter, Alice. Rose Byrne makes an impressive Broadway debut as the normal Alice, showing in her delight at being in love that she's inherited just as much emotional vibrancy from her Vanderhof/Sycamore genes as the rest of the family.

What a pair is Patrick Kerr's naive Ed and Annaleigh Ashford's ever dancing Essie. If you want to take notes on comic genius, just watch the perfect landing when Ms. Ashford delicately poses next to Johanna Day's regal Mrs. Kirby. It would also be remiss to forget to mention Elizabeth Ashley's spot on Grand Duchess Olga. Her time on stage is oh so brief, yet this refugee from the Russian revolution who is now the best hash slinger in New York City is a gem.

It feels inadequate to leave out the rest of the large cast. Let's just say that even the G-men are perfectly cast.  It would be easy to embrace the crazy, so hats off to director Scott Ellis for remembering the love and humanity at the heart of this play.

You Can't Take It With You is being performed at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Shoplifters at Arena Stage

There seems to be a plethora of new works hitting Washington DC area stages this season.  This includes four new works planned at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Five counting the special event The War coming to the Center's Kogod Cradle.) For that we should applaud artistic director Molly Smith's commitment to continuing to showcase both classic American theater works and nurturing playwrights to create new experiences for theatergoers.

The first out of the gate is Canadian playwright Morris Panych' The Shoplifters. This rather slight comedy shows glimmers of potential as most works garnering a first or second production should. What keeps The Shoplifters from being just a pure sitcom on the stage is the central performance by Jayne Houdyshell, making her Arena Stage debut.

Taking place in a store room of a grocery store, designed with towers of name brand boxes by set designer Ken MacDonald, two female shoplifters, Alma and Phyllis, are apprehended by Dom, a rookie security guard. They are interrogated both together and separately by Dom and his more experienced colleague, Otto who is more inclined to let the ladies off with perhaps a warning. Over the course of several hours, there are tantalizing glimpses into all four characters, before the situation reaches resolution.

Directed by the playwright, Morris Panych, The Shoplifters is funny and in a few brief moments, rather poignant. The problem is that the scenario is slight. The play runs 90 minutes, 100 with a completely unnecessary intermission. We never learn any real reasons why Alma and Phyllis are shoplifting, nor do we ever understand their friendship. Dom is a militant deeply religious Dudley Do Right. He even states that he is former member of the Salvation Army. This makes the character entertaining, but again rather shallow. Otto, the world weary 30 year veteran guard is the only character that feels fleshed out.

The performances are uniformly good. The evening that this reviewer attended, the role of Otto was played by understudy Michael Russotto. Mr. Russotto had that blend of experience and laissez faire that comes from the character understanding the ways of the world. Adi Stein's Dom is intense with the zealotry that comes from a young man who easily sees the world in black and white, saved and damned. He presents a figure desperate to fill out the three sizes too big uniform he has been issued.

Jenna Sokolowski is physically awkward and neurotically in a tizzy as the hapless Phyllis, conned or perhaps bullied or shamed by Alma into being her partner in crime. The marvelous Jayne Houdyshell is brassy, defiant and unashamed as Alma the queen of petty thievery. Ms. Houdyshell takes her very entertaining character and runs with it, making some of the more absurd twists of the story believable.

If you decide to see The Shoplifters you will be thoroughly entertained. The play is very funny, but the comedy is very much sitcom crossed with an adult version of "a very special episode" of social conscientiousness.  Fleshing out the relationships, eliminating the intermission and, perhaps, splitting the set into the two rooms that are implied by the script, thereby making scene transitions more believable would go along way to improving the play.  Here's to its' next incarnation.

The Shoplifters by Morris Panych is being performed at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre at the Mead Center for American Theater through October 19, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Is Our Youth at the Cort Theatre

The petty problems of disaffected youth are not a new subject matter for theater. One of the better depictions is Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 play This Is Our Youth now receiving its Broadway debut by way of  Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.  The problems of rich post adolescents aimlessly trying to handle a potentially dangerous crisis is rather funny, but ultimately sad. For these characters are drifting primarily because they come from wealth and privilege.

Set in 1982 in the upper west side apartment of Dennis (Kieran Culkin), Dennis is roused from a late night tv binge by the arrival of his neurotic friend, Warren (Michael Cera) who has stolen $15,000 from his businessman father and run away with the cash and a suitcase of collectibles. Dennis, who makes his living as a drug dealer, only half heartedly advises Warren to either leave the country or return the money before it's discovered missing. Into this mix is added Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) Warren's current girl of his dreams.

Mr. Lonergan's script is witty and filled with dialogue that actually sounds like it should be spoken by young adults in their late teens and early twenties as opposed to many scripts where the dialogue sounds like an older generation thinks the younger should sound. The play is ultimately a character study, there is little resolution to the central crisis. This leads to a non-ending that perfectly fits these poor little rich slackers. The value in the script is in the revelations about the character's backgrounds, whether it is Warren's family tragedy involving his older sister or Dennis dealing with an unexpected death. Jessica is the least interesting character, although Ms. Gevinson manages to capture the part wary, part up for adventure persona of Jessica who shows her immaturity(as do all three characters) in act two's harsher light of day.

Director Anna D. Shapiro keeps the pacing interesting, and the tone as funny and slight as the characters. Todd Rosenthal's set is clearly early 1980's from the polaroids and posters pasted on the walls to the messenger bike hanging above the kitchen.

Michael Cera is perfectly at home in his portrayal of the neurotic Warren. Mr. Cera has made his career out of playing socially awkward characters. For his Broadway debut he is in his comfort zone. One hopes that he considers taking a role outside this zone for his next effort.

The real standout performance is given by Kieran Culkin. He has portrayed Warren in a previous production in the West End. His bemused Dennis who only half-heartedly really tries to deal with the potentially dangerous intrusion by Warren into his cosy existence is perfect. Mr. Culkin is that cool, bullying friend that tolerates the awkward one, yet doesn't want to actually get too involved. Mr. Culkin, of the three performers, truly is that privileged slacker incarnate.

This Is Our Youth is being performed at the Cort Theatre on Broadway through January 4, 2015. For tickets and other performance information please visit

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

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

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

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 or

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 or

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 or

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Politics Is Drama: All The Way at the Neil Simon Theatre and Camp David at Arena Stage

The popularity of Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon has led other dramatists to examine pivotal moments in American History without resorting to the tedium of the cradle to grave biography of an historical figure. For the 2013-2014 theatrical season two Presidents have been given this treatment. Lyndon Baines Johnson is brought to life in All The Way, which purports to examine the political maneuvers behind the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but in reality it is more focused on Johnson's bid to win the election in 1964 banishing from him the label of accidental president. Jimmy Carter's highest achievement, brokering peace between Egypt and Israel in September 1978 is given similar treatment. Both plays have thoughtful dramatic moments that help them rise above the political history lessons at the heart of their texts. Both plays also suffer from structural flaws that keep them from being completely satisfying dramas.

All The Way was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. It was given a pre-Broadway run at the American Repertory Theater before opening on Broadway in March 2014. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Robert Schenkkan, it takes its title from LBJ's 1964 campaign slogan "All The Way With LBJ." Covering the period from the assassination of John F. Kennedy to election night 1964 All The Way is structured in such a way to give insight into how this Texan democrat, master of the political give and take from his years of service in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, manages to pull together the votes to pass the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and use his political muscle to win election as President by a landslide vote.

Staged by director Bill Rauch on Christopher Acebo's set which evokes both a legislature and the courtroom of history All The Way manages to make those in the audience who are familiar with history actually question how it will come to pass. Where All The Way falters is in its sprawling cast of secondary characters which are difficult to keep straight even with the help of projections telling the audience who is who during heated debates.

The most compelling secondary story involves Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his efforts to maintain control over the fracturing civil rights groups, particularly the younger less patient student groups. The attempted undermining of King's credibility by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed bringing to mind modern day parallels to the NSA's monitoring of ordinary Americans. Brandon J. Dirden is spot on with the lilting cadence of Dr. King's voice, yet is simply not an imitation of the saintly martyr of history. Mr. Dirden makes Dr. King all too human, a statesman who has his faults.

All The Way pays mere lip service to the women portrayed. Lady Bird Johnson (Betsy Aidem) is simply the supporting spouse stereotype in the mold of the early seasons of Mad Men. Coretta Scott King (Roslyn Ruff), Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey (Susannah Schulman as both ladies) serve as one dimensional characters not given any real material to flesh their stories out. Each of the actresses portrays more than one character, but only Ms. Ruff is given any compelling material in her brief scenes as Fannie Lou Hamer, SNCC Organizer whose dramatic testimony at the Democratic Convention nearly derails LBJ's careful political plans.

Bryan Cranston as LBJ gives a performance that is as large, coarse and brassy as the real LBJ. At first it feels like a caricature, the physicality Mr. Cranston chooses as well as the vocal choices seem exaggerated until you realize that it is a spot on portrayal of the real man, right down to his habit of smacking his lips as he speaks. Mr. Cranston dominates the three hours on stage as LBJ was a dominating personality during his five years as President of the United States.

President Jimmy Carter is a quieter, gentler presence in the world premiere production of Lawrence Wright's Camp David at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.  That is how it should be as the political maneuvers by President Carter to get two men, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat to agree to the impossible, peace between their countries and a solution to the problems in the entire middle east.

Camp David is a more intimate affair all around than the larger in scope and running time All The Way. A mere 90 minutes in length and using only four major characters, Camp David narrowly focuses on the primary players in those crucial thirteen days of tense negotiations that astonishingly resulted in the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that is still in effect today.

Walt Spangler creates a set that brings to mind the peaceful seclusion that is the presidential retreat in western Maryland. Molly Smith's direction keeps the story moving at a pace that gives the drama its due. The focus remains on the four characters as it should.

The three men that history has rightly honored for their peace efforts are brought to life on stage in ways that subtly help the audience understand both the historical strife between these nations and the complex nature and, in the cases of Begin and Sadat, the more unsavory aspects of their backgrounds. Richard Thomas is congenial with an iron will as President Carter. Ron Rifkin plays Begin with caution and reserve, ever careful with words and emotions, cautious in his dealings with his country's enemy. Khaled Nabawy has Sadat's charm and magnetism and his urgent passion for wanting to leave the legacy of peace and the potential political costs of his goals. All of the mens' deep faith is incorporated into the story, which gives a deeper understanding to all of their characters.

The fourth member of this intimate drama is Rosalynn Carter. The definition of steel magnolia has never been as apropos as here in the capable hands of Hallie Foote. Unlike in All The Way this first lady is crucial to the success of the story. Yes, Rosalynn is the supporting spouse and the sounding board for her husband's frustrations. Yet, at critical moments it is Rosalynn who diffuses tensions, offering moments of clarity to each of the other participants.

Where Camp David falters is in making the drama so intimate that some of the challenges behind the historic peace agreement get lost by only being referred to in a few sentences here, a scurried moment there. Perhaps in a subsequent production this could be addressed by adding a composite aide for both Begin and Sadat to give the viewpoint of those who either favored or more importantly did not favor the peace accords.

All The Way is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway through June 29, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit or Camp David is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage in Washington DC through May 4, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Disney's Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre

Disney Theatrical Productions have once again dipped into the well of its well-known animated musicals to bring their take on Aladdin to Broadway. A journey of several years with productions along the way in Seattle and Toronto, Aladdin is sure to please audiences with its' high production values, familiar songs and beloved characters.  Many may dismiss the production's shortcomings due to the show's target family audience. Yet, with the quality of such earlier productions as The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Newsies, family audiences would not be amiss in demanding a better evening of theater than Aladdin provides.

Along the road to Broadway the stage concept for Aladdin has evolved. Gone are any talking animals, although one of the film's animals makes a brief, amusing cameo appearance. Going back to earlier concepts for the film, Aladdin now has three thieving friends as his sidekicks. Princess Jasmine still finds herself yearning for true love instead of an arranged marriage, a goal that seems antiquated in the wake of recent Disney/Pixar princesses such as Brave's Merida who decides to fight for her own hand.

The best thing about the decision to bring Aladdin to the stage is the restoration of some of the late Howard Ashman's songs that were discarded for the film. In particular the haunting ballad "Proud of Your Boy" sung by a wistful Aladdin to his recently deceased mother brings some emotional depth to the handsome scoundrel whose story we see unfold.

It is the story that is the biggest problem with Aladdin. Somewhere along the way from film to the stage the heart of the story has become lost. The familiar tale of the "diamond in the rough" street rat who goes on a journey of discovery to happily ever after with the Sultan's daughter is here. Chad Beguelin's book goes for broad comedy and easy laughs over real emotion and character development. The only genuine moments are few and fleeting.  The emotional stakes are low. Remembering the film there was actual conflict for Aladdin in allowing Jasmine to love him for himself without the trappings of feigned royalty. The final confrontation with the evil Jafar was dangerous. Here the ending is anti-climatic, no one is in danger of getting hurt and the threat is over swiftly so we can get to one more big production number and the audience can pour out onto 42nd Street humming the score.

Despite its shortcomings there are good things about this production starting with the high quality that one expects from Disney Theatrical Productions. Bob Crowley's scenic design is appropriately opulent as is Gregg Barnes blinding bright costumes.  Alan Menken's score is pleasantly conducted by Michael Kosarin leading the 18 member orchestra. Unfortunately a few of the numbers, particularly the Academy Award-winning song "A Whole New World" actually sound slight making you wish for a more rich orchestration at times. Casey Nicholaw's direction and choreography is laid on with a broad brush that seems to fit the go for the glitz style of the show.

The cast does as it can with the mostly one-dimensional characters. As the newer characters, Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz and Brandon O'Neill are broadly comic as the friends and sidekicks Babkak (the hungry one), Omar (the cowardly one) and Kassim (the hot-headed one). Don Darryl Rivera makes Iago an eager little evil apprentice. Jonathan Freeman, reprising the role he voiced in the film, channels a bit of elegant villainy in his Jafar. Clifton Davis is a concerned princess-pecked father as the Sultan.

Courtney Reed has the feistiness of Princess Jasmine and although her singing voice is not consistent when she reaches the famous duet of "A Whole New World" she is fine. Adam Jacobs' Aladdin is handsome and charming with a blazing smile. He gives Aladdin what depth he can, mostly through Howard Ashman's lyrics in "Proud of Your Boy" and the few moments of real feeling he gets when discussing freedom with the Genie of the Lamp.

As for the Genie himself, anyone taking on that role has to live with the fact that the Walt Disney animation team managed to animate Robin Williams' brain. The performance by Mr. Williams in the film is the definition of iconic and it takes an actor of great charisma to put their own stamp on the role. James Monroe Iglehart has done the impossible and makes the audience almost forget the original film performance. He is commanding from the moment he enters to narrate "Arabian Nights." Disappearing for almost the entire first act, when he re-appears he raises the energy whenever he alights. "Friend Like Me" is a true-showstopping number that travels many, many, many tangents to its rousing conclusion. Mr. Iglehart is gregarious and sharp witted, yet his Genie has a heart-ache that yearns for freedom from always being forced to grant wishes. When Aladdin breaks the Genie's heart, you get a pang of real feeling for the Genie that you wish was present in more moments in the show.

Aladdin will enjoy a long run on Broadway. If only the quality of the entire production matched its box-office thus making Aladdin truly a worthy addition to the better-quality Disney Theatrical Productions that it joins.

Disney's Aladdin is playing the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

If/Then at the Richard Rodgers Theatre

What a difference a pair of eyeglasses make!

It's a bit more complicated than that, but suffice it to say, the creators of the new Broadway musical If/Then used their tryout in Washington DC and the subsequent months prior to their opening to fix the major problems with the structure of their work. When the show premiered out of town it needed a lot of work. If/Then Pre-Broadway Engagement at the National Theatre.  The creative team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, who had spectacular success with their Pulitzer-prizewinning musical Next To Normal have taken a lot of pains to make the duality of the story of If/Then more accessible to the average theatregoer.

If/Then tells the story of Elizabeth Vaughan, a 38-year-old divorcee moving back to New York City and trying to decide what to do with her life. Meeting Lucas, her best friend from college and Kate, her new neighbor across the hall, both friends offer Elizabeth a choice. From there two tales emerge: one of Liz who follows Kate in search of true love and the other of Beth who follows Lucas towards a dream job in city planning. Each story leads to different outcomes and affects not just Elizabeth's life but the lives of her friends.

There is less confused chatter at intermission about the two stories and how to tell what is going on and in what scene is in which version of the lead character's life. In the DC tryout it was primarily indicated with lighting. Here the lighting changes are still used, but there is less reliance on it. Instead, the opening song now clearly tells the audience how the play will unfold. Liz wears glasses and Beth does not. There are costumes changes, mostly jackets, to emphasize whether we are in the world of Beth's government job or Liz's romance. There is still occasional confusion. Amember of the audience audibly whispered "wait, she has two kids" in a scene in the life of the childless one.

Tom Kitt has reshaped the book to better focus on Elizabeth's life. Certain events that affected the supporting characters have been completely removed or rewritten and in the case of a life threatening event placed in a different part of the show with clarification as to the nature of the tragedy.

Brian Yorkey's music serves to move the plot forward or color Elizabeth's development over the course of the two stories arcs. You will not find a list of songs in the program. It will not surprise you that the best numbers are performed by the leading lady, Idina Menzel. The role of Elizabeth is formidable. Not only is Ms. Menzel portraying two different versions of her character, she gives both Liz and Beth a rich emotional stage life particularly in such songs as "Learn To Live Without" which feature both characters.

Ms. Menzel is given ample support by Anthony Rapp as her fluidly sexual best friend Lucas. His "Ain't No Man Manehatten" is an upbeat love letter to the City and its Boroughs in the middle of Act One and his "You Don't Need To Love Me" is heartbreaking. LaChanze is vibrant as Kate, the no-nonsense believer in destiny, belting her belief in the power of fate ("It's A Sign). In smaller roles, Jenn Colella as Anne, Kate's love interest and Jason Sam as David, Lucas' love interest in Liz's world are solid.

James Snyder as Stephen, the love of Liz's life and the one that was never met in Beth's is simply charming. He will melt your heart as he sings "Hey, Kid" to his newborn son of the hopes and fears of parenthood. Like Liz you will "I Love You, I HateYou" when a fateful moment breaks Liz's heart.

If/Then is a welcome original addition to Broadway in the midst of so many movie adaptations. It is not the perfect show, but it wins the most improved from its out-of-town tryout. Idina Menzel gives a masterful performance in a leading role that requires her to rarely leave the stage for its entire 2 hour and 35 minute running time. If/Then is a great showcase for the return of a Broadway favorite.

If/Then is being performed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies at The Royal Shakespeare Company Stratford-Upon-Avon

An ambitious world premiere is being presented at The Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, two parts of her planned three book series on the life of Henry VIII's controversial minister Thomas Cromwell would be a challenge for any adaptation to drama. The BBC plans a miniseries starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell to be broadcast in 2015.  To take these two 500 plus page densely detailed novels and distill them down to two 2 hour and 45 minute dramas takes a steady hand.  Mike Poulton, who previously dramatized the entirety of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales for the RSC proves the right dramatist for the job. Under the well-crafted direction of Jeremy Herrin in the intimate Swan Theater, the company of 21 actors brings this juicy tale of the rise to power of the commoner from Putney to first minister of the realm to vibrant life.

Wolf Hall the novel covers roughly 35 years from Thomas Cromwell's boyhood as the son of the violent Walter Cromwell, blacksmith and brewer in Putney, through the sketchy years he spent abroad possibly as a soldier and working for merchants and bankers in Italy and the Low Countries. It then tells of his return to London, his marriage and children, his work in the mercantile and legal fields, election to Parliament and his coming to the attention of King Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell's eventual joining of Wolsey's staff.   Wolf Hall, the play cuts to the meat of the drama, starting with Cromwell firmly established as a trusted servant of Wolsey at the beginning of Henry VIII's "Great Matter," what would lead to his protracted attempt to annul his marriage to Queen Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn and the subsequent creation of the Church of England in the process.

Fear not, fans of Mantel's novels, while much of the meticulous detail has to be jettisoned for the drama to shape its focus, a lot of the background details survive, whether in Cromwell guilelessly admitting his humble and rough origins to the members of the nobility who mock him for them, to the edge of violence he must at times keep in check.  Cromwell's wife and son remain as characters, the daughters spoken of fondly with imagery that will be very familiar to readers of Mantel's book.

So, yes, the focus of Wolf Hall the play is that famous focal point of most of the drama and historic fiction on the lives of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.  All the great characters are present, but what makes this play and the novel it is based upon unique is in its perspective. We meet Henry VIII and Queen Katherine and Anne Boleyn, but the focus is not on them and the famous trial at Blackfriars remains offstage. We see the events as they impact Thomas Cromwell and his master, Cardinal Wolsey. It is Wolsey's fall from grace and witnessing the disgrace of his beloved master and friend that forever colors Cromwell as he latches himself to the royal household and makes himself indispensable as he succeeds in giving the King what he desires most and where Wolsey had failed.  Yet, as history knows, the tale did not end happily with Anne Boleyn giving the King the male heir he craves. Wolf Hall ends with the King unhappy again readying for the summer progress of 1535 his eye beginning to wander towards Jane Seymour.

Bring Up The Bodies picks up the story during that progress as the King visits the actual Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymour family. It then spirals into an intense chilling evening of theater as everything that Anne Boleyn and her faction gained by her being crowned Queen is lost in a matter of 9 months time. It is a story of killed or be killed as the Queen and Cromwell, whom she sees as her servant that she can destroy become locked into a battle in which only one can survive. It leads to revenge on those whom Cromwell holds responsible for the humiliation of his former master Wolsey and the cementing of Thomas Cromwell, blacksmith's son, as the first minister of the realm and a peer as Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon.  It is horrifying in the way that words spoken in jest and with the intent of the game of courtly love our twisted into evidence of carnal wrongdoing with the Queen. Love turns to ashen hate. Blood freely flows and the scavengers descend to pick the juiciest spoils just as the executioners strip the headless bodies of their clothes in payment for their services.

The Swan Theatre proves an excellent venue for these plays. It is intimate with the audience on three sides,  close enough to eavesdrop on the machinations of the Tudor court. Designed by Christopher Oram,  the plays are starkly staged, only a few pieces of furniture and props are needed to suggest locations whether the humble home of Cromwell or a barge on the river Thames.  Many in the cast of 21 portray multiple roles. While the stunning Tudor costumes and wigs assist, the actors do much with physicality and voice to bring each character to life.

The entire company is outstanding. Joshua James as Rafe Sadler, Cromwell's chief clerk and Pierro Niel Mee as Christophe, Cromwell's hired thug make excellent henchmen. Lucy Briers is a regally haughty Queen Katherine and a sniveling, bitter eavesdropper as Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. Leah Brotherhood is guileless as the honest, bewildered Jane Seymour who uneasily finds herself England's Queen. Lydia Leonard is strong, passionate and vengeful as Queen Anne Boleyn.

Nathaniel Parker is a multi-faceted King Henry VIII showing the growth of the lion learning his power unleashing it on those most close to him to clear the path to gaining what he desires. Yet, there are moments of tender vulnerability in Parker's King that compels the audience to occasionally grant him compassion and pity for his circumstances. Lest you completely sympathize with King Henry Mr. Parker is the centerpiece of the most chilling scene in Bring Up The Bodies. Nearly wordless the King sits at a table and signs individually each death warrant quickly placed by Cromwell and the King's signature swiftly sanded and set by Rafe Sadler. The scene is methodical yet shows the ruthless nature of the lion in power.

Ben Miles has his work cut out for him as he is rarely not on stage during the entire 5 hour and 30 minute running time of the combined plays. His Thomas Cromwell is charming and charismatic and can turn on a pinhead into a cold, calculating unmoved monster if it gets his King what his King desires. Only during Bring Up The Bodies do you see Thomas Cromwell really demand the reward of a peerage for the years of being the King's legal bully. Yet, what makes Mr. Mile's Cromwell so complex is that we see the turmoil of his entire life, from the loss of Wolsey to the loss of his wife and daughters that has colored and shaped the man he has become. He stands triumphant at the end of Bring Up The Bodies, Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon, at the height of his power, bathed in a cold unflattering light, leaving the audience to ponder when will it become his turn to fall.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies adapted by Mike Poulton from the novels by Hilary Mantel are being presented at The Swan Theatre by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon through the 28th and 29th of March, 2014. The productions are sold out, but returns may be available. For information on any return tickets please visit the Royal Shakespeare Company box office. For information on the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions, exhibitions and other activities please visit their website