The Complexities of Love: Thoughts on Burning – February 27, 2016

A modern adaptation of classic plays is a mainstay across all entertainment mediums, and sometimes the subtle changes in the adaptations can bring forth a new interpretation of the original source material as the core themes remain intact. The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is a familiar one, probably best known in popular culture as the Steve Martin film Roxanne, but while that modern adaptation is a mostly humorous (as was the original play), Burning, the modern adaptation written by Ginger Lazarus and presented by the Resonance Ensemble, is somber and thought provoking. I became aware of this adaptation through a friend of mine, who knew one of the actors in the play (which had its world premiere at the Theatre at Saint Clement’s), and asked if I would be interested in going. While I did not have a chance to see the Resonance Ensemble’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac, performed in rep with Burning, I had seen the most recent Broadway production of Cyrano, and so I was already familiar with the nuances of the story.

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Burning is set in an unnamed American town located near an Army base, circa 2008, and the “twist” in this adaptation is the titular character is female, and the external deformity from which the classic Cyrano’s insecurities derived transforms into an internal struggle this modern Cyrano, renamed Cy Burns, carries within her due to her experiences as a gay soldier. Another addition to the adaptation is the discussion and disclosure of the mistreatment of female soldiers in the US Army before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which accentuates the solemnity of an otherwise romantic comedy. Like the original titular character, Cy is adept at using her words (in this case via blog entries) to provoke her enemies and to help the tongue tied soldier Cole woo Rose, a local painter with whom she is also enamored. The antagonist of this adaptation presents itself in the form of Dulac, a high ranking Army officer with a belligerent history with Cy. The overall narrative follows the same story structure of the source material, with unexpected twists at its conclusion.

The set design is minimalist, contained mainly in the general store Cy owns and runs, with the requisite props that entails. The cast of five was amazing, most notably Catherine Curtin as Cy, who balanced her rage at Dulac for disregarding the mistreatment of female soldiers within the Army system with her awkwardness with Rose whenever Rose talks of Cole, as well as her maternal care for Sammy, a young man wishing to escape the small town world in search for a purpose. Also notable was Chris Ceraso as Dulac (parallel to the Comte de Guiche in the original play), whose adherence to duty provides added fuel to Cy’s cause; his interest in Rose comes across subtly and is all the more menacing in context to the action that occurs towards the end of the play.

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There wasn’t so much of a stage door experience, this time ‘round, as there was a talkback moderated by Rachel Reiner, managing director of the Resonance Ensemble with Eric Parness, the play’s director, and the cast after the performance (unbeknownst to me) discussing the origins of the play, its journey from workshop to stage, and the issues imparted within the play. The director and the managing director were alumni of Brandeis University, and there were many other Brandeis alumni in attendance; after the talkback many of the alumni gathered onstage, and I didn’t feel like intruding on that (or waiting afterwards, not knowing how long that would last).

The transformation of a French romantic comedy into an American drama deserves another life after this run, which ends today (February 28, 2016), having performed in rep with Cyrano all this month (yesterday was my only opportunity to see the show). It’s a different yet familiar take on the story of an outspoken yet insecure soldier yearning to find love and acceptance despite the self-perceived obstacles that stand in the way.

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Clowning Around: Musings on Old Hats – February 6, 2016

Comedy is subjective.

What is funny to some might be offensive to others; one needs to take into account cultural, ethnic and religious context in which the humor may be taken. On the other hand, there are some things that are universally and eternally amusing for all, regardless of age, race, and political sensibilities. Old Hats, currently playing on the Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center falls in the latter category. I obtained tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction (the final pair from last year’s batch), anticipating a enjoyable afternoon of hilarity.

I was not disappointed.

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Old Hats harkens back to the days of vaudeville, with master clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner performing a series of skits, many of which were performed in mime, with a the off stage band providing the necessary (percussive) sound effects to accentuate the action. Between skits were songs written and sung by Shaina Taub – oftentimes she interacted with the pair, as both a comic foil and as a catalyst. The stage was designed to resemble a traditional vaudeville stage, with a gold fringed red curtain and show card displaying the skit title, situated on the right. In conjunction with the traditional props is the inclusion of technology – the use of visual projections with which Irwin and Shiner use to brilliant effect. Audience interaction and participation is another component of the show, with the actors interacting with (those fortunate enough to be) sitting in the front row, and bringing audience members onstage for a bit of improvisation.

The stage door experience was relaxed – as the show was playing at one of the many stages within the Signature Center, there was one area from where all the actors exit, which spills into the café / lobby area on the second floor of the building. A small throng gathered haphazardly around this area, with playbills and other items to be signed; the cast were affable, chatting with those waiting, signing playbills and posing for photos.

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Needless to say I highly recommend seeing the show – it appeals to all ages and is a welcome tonic to the political correctness of most comedy shows and refrains (for the most part) from including any overt innuendo that might come across as offensive. Old Hats is playing from now until April 3, 2016. For more information, visit: http://www.signaturetheatre.org/tickets/production.aspx?pid=4307

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On a Magic Carpet Ride: Musings on Aladdin – October 31, 2015

Disney animated films have always masqueraded as movie musicals, especially those that were released in the 1990s. The majority of them have transferred from the screen to the [Broadway] stage, albeit with varying degrees of success (and if this pattern continues, I sincerely hope there will be a stage adaptation of Mulan or Hercules on Broadway sometime in the near future). The most recent screen to stage adaptation is Aladdin, currently playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Per usual, I obtained tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction, and quasi-continues a tradition of my seeing a Broadway show on Halloween night, though this year I managed to schedule a double header (i.e. two shows in one day, though technically speaking it wasn’t the “traditional” matinee and evening performance, as the first show was the already blogged about Drunk Shakespeare, whose performance started at 4pm). I’ve always been a fan of Disney animated films (who hasn’t?) and had enjoyed the screen to stage adaptations (or at least the ones I had an opportunity to see), and while I know the stage adaptation can’t be “just like” the film (for the obvious reasons), it’s always interesting to see what changes (additions, omissions and adjustments) are made, and what remains the same, and how it effects the story.

Aladdin poster

While it’s been several years since I last watched the animated film, the overall look and spirit of the story remains intact: the tale of a princess and the “street rat” yearning to be more than what society expects them to be, the villain wanting ultimate power and the genie who just wants to be free. The stage adaptation has a handful of new songs, with the music by Alan Menken (who wrote the songs for the film) and lyrics by David Zippel, Stephen Schwartz and Glenn Slater, as well as new characters (Babkak, Omar and Kassim, three of Aladdin’s friends, presumably to compensate for the loss of Abu, Aladdin’s monkey sidekick in the film). There’s an additional (emotional) subplot revolving the memory of Aladdin’s mother, highlighted in “Proud of Your Boy” (one of the new songs). And of course, there’s a lot more singing and dancing in the stage adaptation, which is visually stunning, and expertly performed. I’m not quite as enamored on the new subplot/sidekicks, while it brings about a good deal of character development and (some) exposition, it seems out of place with the overall story, with some of it is reminiscent of other Disney animated films. The same can be said of most of the new songs – they don’t seem to live in the same “sound world” as the songs from the film, and faintly reminded me of other (recognizable, Alan Menken-penned songs).

Aladdin Halloween night cast list

That being said, the standout moments came in the form of the Genie, expertly played by James Monroe Iglehart, with just about the same amount of pizzazz and sassiness as the late, great Robin Williams (who played the role of the Genie in the film). The energy he exuded was palpable and his numbers nearly (literally) stopped the show – ‘twas a Tony-worthy performance. While I was miffed that Jonathan Freedman (who originated the role of Jafar in the film) was out, his understudy, James Moye, was fantastic, with just the right amount of villainy without making it too campy, well supported by Don Darryl Rivera as Iago, (a nice change that he was played as a human rather than as a parrot, as that character was in the film). The rest of the cast, including leads Adam Jacobs (in the titular role) and Courtney Reed as Jasmine, were great. The choreography was stunning as was the overall set design, with its warm, lush colors. “A Whole New World”, complete with the flying carpet did not disappoint and was as magical as it was in the film.

The stage door scene was not as busy per usual – I’m not sure if that was because it was Halloween night and the departing audience wanted to partake in the various Halloween festivities, yet the cast came out, chatting amicably with those who were waiting at the stage door, taking photos and signing playbills.

Clockwise from top left: Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed, James Monroe Iglehart and James Moye

Clockwise from top left: Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed, James Monroe Iglehart and James Moye

Despite my somewhat mixed impression of the show, I had a great time, and would recommend it to those who enjoyed the film and also enjoy the previous Broadway adaptation of Disney animated films. It’s always a magical experience seeing a Disney show on Broadway.

Aladdin signed playbill

The Bard and the Booze: Thoughts on Drunk Shakespeare – October 31, 2015

Shakespeare’s plays have existed for hundreds of years and have been adapted in a myriad of ways and performed in (almost) all media genres. The interpretations have ranged from the literal to the metaphoric, the serious to the surreal – his works have been translated into every (living) language in the world, and performed by men and women of all ages. Some interpretations are of the complete text (as they were written/transcribed), and some are reductions or adaptations of the aforementioned complete text. But for all the brilliant performances given by countless actors over the centuries in all the various incarnations of the text all over the world, there was something missing from those productions.

Alcohol.

Well, at least the overt inclusion of alcohol during the performance – I’m almost certain that covert intoxication has been a component of an actor’s performance of Shakespeare (and perhaps other plays) since they were first conceived. Drunk Shakespeare, as performed by members of the Drunk Shakespeare Society, sets to fill this void, and with great spirit(s) [pun well intended], currently playing at the Lounge at the Roy Arias Stages on West 44th Street (near 8th Avenue). I obtained these tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS [BC/EFA] Flea Market & Grand Auction, and was intrigued by the premise of one actor downing (at least) 5 shots of whisky before attempting to perform a Shakespearean play.

Drunk Shakespeare

[Disclaimer: As their site www.drunkshakespeare.com/ states, “We do not condone excessive drinking. Our actors have a regular rotation system and are carefully monitored at all times. Drinking in moderation can be fun. Drinking to excess can ruin your life.  We promote healthy drinking.”

So these are professional drinkers of (American) legal drinking age – DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.]

As alcohol is a vital component of the performance, theatergoers have to be 21+ (and they do check IDs) – indeed upon entering the performance space, which is surrounded by bookshelves with chairs all around, patrons are handed a complimentary shot (on the night I went, it was a Tequila Sunrise). As it was Halloween, the Shakespeare play performed was (appropriately) Macbeth, and performed within 90 minutes, with five actors – four men and one woman, one of whom has the aforementioned multiple shots of whisky. At the performance I attended (with my friend Kelley, who was dressed up as Neil Diamond, circa 1970s), the five actors were Whit Leyenberger, Julia Giolzetti, Tim Haber (who also acted as the Host of the proceedings, explaining the overall premise), Brandon Carter and Josh Sauerman (the designated drunk actor). In the spirit of Halloween, several audience members (and the cast) were dressed in costume, and they held an informal costume contest, for which the first prize was a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne – my friend Kelley won the contest, so thus we were bestowed said bottle of champagne.

 The overall concept of Drunk Shakespeare is a kind of mash-up of the ethos of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, with a healthy dose of improv, reminiscent of Second City and Whose Line is it Anyway? The spirit of reduction abounds (skipping the “boring” parts and getting right to the sex and the killing), with periodic flourishes of pop culture references and audience participation/interaction, as well as challenges for the actors to incorporate throughout the performance, assigned by their fellow actors. There was definitely a sense of camaraderie (chemistry?) among the quintet – they reacted to one another not so much as a troupe of actors but more as a group of longtime friends putting on a (Shakespearean) play.

There wasn’t that much of a stage door experience, as the performance space was sparse (yet effective), and the cast (and audience) dispersed quickly after the performance, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to ask for a group photo with the cast (which may or may not have been impaired by the free champagne and Tequila Sunrise), I did manage to snap a photo of some of the cast with the costumed audience members (among whom was my friend Kelley).

Drunk Shakespeare Halloween

It’s a brilliantly entertaining evening (or in my case, late afternoon) to watch a (literal) handful of actors perform the essence of a Shakespeare play, and to watch how (well) the intoxicated actor fares throughout the performance. Each performance is of a different play, with a different actor designated to partake in the “nectar of the gods”, so theoretically, there is a near infinite combination of possibilities and a high probability of a uniquely different performance every time. I highly recommend seeing this show, and to experience Shakespeare as it (probably) was performed back in Elizabethan times: with a healthy (moderate) dose of alcohol.

For more information, including performance schedules, visit: http://www.drunkshakespeare.com/

Drunk Shakespeare flyers

Hilarity and Suspense: Musings on The 39 Steps – October 3, 2015

Mention the name Alfred Hitchcock and the first thought that comes to mind (usually) is his signature silhouette profile; the second thought is of horror in relation to how his films often feature scary and suspenseful moments/themes (Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, etc.).  Based on the film of the same name, The 39 Steps strives to “break” this stereotype by infusing moments of hilarity amid the action and suspense. I obtained tickets via the usual way I obtain my autumn tickets – through the TDF ticket raffle table at this year’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Grand Auction – and was looking forward to seeing this revival production. Currently playing off-Broadway at the Union Square Theater, I saw this play years ago when it played on Broadway and thoroughly enjoyed the overall concept and execution of this adaptation to the stage.

The 39 Steps Marquee

Set in 1935, the plot revolves around Richard Hannay, a seemingly bored and directionless English gentleman bemoaning the lack of excitement in his life; a trip to the theatre sets into motion a sequence of events that draws him into a world of intrigue. The production scale is quite minimalist, to the point that there are only four members in the cast (three men and one woman), two of whom play a host of minor characters of both genders and of varying ages throughout. The set design is sparse yet effective – the actors’ actions (and reactions) enhance the scenes, along with the use of proper sound effects and other clever visual effects. There is also a quasi-meta quality to the production, with a multitude of references to other Hitchcock films and moments of almost-breaking-the fourth-wall.

The 39 Steps cast list

The four member cast was astounding, especially Billy Carter and Cameron Pow, the aforementioned two actors (listed respectively as “Clown #1 and Clown #2 in the playbill) who play over a multitude of minor characters, all with their own unique personality quirks with expert timing. Brittany Vicars was en pointe as all the female characters, giving each their own unique (often comic) spin. Robert Petkoff, whom I’ve seen several times on Broadway in Spamalot and Ragtime, was fantastic as Richard Hannay, exuding the perfect balance of obliviousness and astuteness as the events around Hannay complicate themselves.

The stage door experience was fine, as they always have been, though I was really the only one waiting outside the lobby (there isn’t a formal stage door area at the Union Square Theater – I was told by the lady working the merchandise area that the actors enter and exit the same way the audience does). Nevertheless, I did meet Cameron Pow and with Robert Petkoff, and briefly chatted with them, as I attended the matinee and they were running out to grab a bite to eat before their second show.

Me and Robert Petkoff

Me and Robert Petkoff

Me and Cameron Pow

Me and Cameron Pow

In conclusion, I highly recommend seeing The 39 Steps, which is an open run down at the Union Square Theater, It’s hilarious, it’s dramatic and it’s suspenseful, and it might (slightly) alter your view of Hitchcock films – there’s even a complimentary “nosie” to emphasize the comedic aspect of the play.

The 39 Steps playbill

Quasi-obligatory "nosie" in the theater lobby

Quasi-obligatory “nosie” in the theater lobby

The Winner Takes It All: Thoughts on Mamma Mia! – September 12, 2015

While the trend to create a musical based around the song catalog of a singer or band is not a new one, there have been a lot of such musicals in recent years – some have had short runs (Good Vibrations) while others continue to thrill audiences (Jersey Boys). Among the first of the long runners was Mamma Mia!, which ended its Broadway run last night after almost 14 years and 5,773 performances, making it the 8th longest running Broadway show. The show weaves its tale of a young girl’s yearning to find her father and the drama (and hilarity) that ensues when the three possible candidates arrive on her wedding day around the songs of ABBA, with great success. While there have been critics (professional and otherwise) who have bemoaned the saccharine aspects of the show and that it’s not a “real” musical, the fact that it’s a happy, poppy show is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s room for purely entertaining musicals and the more serious “real” musicals, and Mamma Mia! opened on Broadway at a time when New Yorkers needed something uplifting and purely entertaining to help them though those dark days.

Mamma Mia winter garden

While I’ve never really been much of an ABBA fan, I knew most of the songs, and first encountered the show (I think) via the performances the show gave at the Broadway on Broadway concert and the Broadway in Bryant Park concert series. I’ve seen the show several times before the final matinee performance and have always enjoyed it, especially the “Megamix” encore at the end (after the curtain call) where the leads appear in colorful ‘70s outfits singing “Mamma Mia”, “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” – there’s always a party atmosphere, with the audience singing, clapping and dancing along with the cast. I always leave the theatre (whether it was at the Winter Garden, where the production began its run, or at the Broadhurst where the production ended its run) with a smile, and the ABBA score playing in my head. I obtained my ticket the day before more as a precaution as I wanted to be guaranteed a seat for that performance, as I tend to not buy tickets in advance in case I can obtain a ticket at the TKTS booth, which sells same day tickets at a discounted price. I got to the theatre well before the 1PM curtain (the final performance was at 6:30PM) and hung around the stage door area, taking photos and chatting with fellow theatergoers (also helped convince a father, with his two daughters, decide whether or not to get standing room seats – they ended up getting them).

Mamma Mia Broadhurst

Mamma Mia final cast list

As it was the final matinee, it was a full house and a lively audience, cheering throughout, sometimes clapping along with the songs. The cast was outstanding, singing and dancing with great enthusiasm, with brief moments of wistfulness. I will admit I started to tear up a bit during the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” and I noticed other audience members wiping their eyes as well. The stage door experience was fantastic as always, crowded as expected for the final matinee – the principal cast came out to sign playbills, to chat with fans and take photos with those at the stage door, though the surge of fans at the stage door prevented me from getting photos with the cast, as the metal barricades were situated a bit too close to the stage door, creating a bit of a bottleneck, coupled with fans further back from the front of the metal barricades pushing forward with their playbills. Nevertheless, the cast signed all the playbills presented to them, chatting with those at the stage door before returning inside the theatre (after all, they had their final show to prepare for). Kudos to Judy McLane, who ended her tenure at Mamma Mia! as Donna (she started with the show playing Tanya), who remained outside the stage door signing playbills, souvenir  programs and posing for photos for those lingering outside.

Top row: Allison Ewing, Judy McLane & Mary Callanan Middle row: Jon Jorgenson, Elena Ricardo & Neil Starkenberg Bottom row: Paul DeBoy, Victor Wallace & John Hemphill

Top row: Allison Ewing, Judy McLane & Mary Callanan
Middle row: Jon Jorgenson, Elena Ricardo & Neil Starkenberg
Bottom row: Paul DeBoy, Victor Wallace & John Hemphill

Needless to say, I’ve always had a great time at Mamma Mia! and wish I went to see the show more times before it closed (I only saw the show 6 times during its almost 14 year run). I will miss the exuberance and the positive vibes the show exuded, but at least I have the original London cast recording (I wish they had recorded one with the Broadway cast). And then there’s the movie adaptation, which captured most of the energy the stage production had. I’m sure it’s evident through these blog posts that I’m quasi-critical about Hollywood adaptations of stage musicals, especially with regards to how they’re cast, though whatever reservations I have about the movie adaptation, the end credits, which included the Megamix encore makes up for its shortcomings.

So, to the entire cast, crew and creative team of Mamma Mia! throughout its run, I say, “Thank You For the Music, for giving it to me” (and countless theatergoers).

Mamma Mia signed playbill

Where Everything is New: Something Rotten! CD signing at Barnes & Noble – July 16, 2015

Another cast recording release, another CD signing – Barnes & Noble recently held a CD signing for the (physical copy of the) cast recording of Something Rotten!, including a three-song performance from the cast. These performances/signings occurred at the Barnes & Noble store on the Upper East Side (on 86th Street), which logistically makes (somewhat) sense for currently running shows, since the cast would arrive at the CD signing (which started at 4PM), perform and sign CDs then head to the theatre for the evening’s performance.

Something Rotten! CD signing Sign

As I often do, I arrived at the Barnes & Noble that morning to get the CD and the [peach] wristband that ensured me a seat inside the event. Of course, if you’ve followed the (few) blog posts I’ve written about CD signings, you’ll know that even though the [peach] wristband guarantees priority seating, I still camp out outside the event space to ensure a front row seat (I know I don’t really have to, I do it anyway), listening to the cast recording on repeat on my iPod. Other people started to arrive around a bit before noon, and I saw a few of the familiar faces I usually see at these events, which makes the time pass at a faster pace.

The cast trickled in shortly before the event start to conduct sound check (it’s always a fun to watch (and take copious amounts of photos of) the “pre-show” and see the cast go through the motions before the performance). Once again, Barnes & Noble Event manager Steven Sorrentino greeted the (very enthusiastic) crowd and introduced each song, accompanied by a pre-recorded backing track (as opposed to a piano accompanist). First to the stage were cast members Brian d’Arcy James and John Cariani singing “God, I Hate Shakespeare”, followed by Kate Reinders and John Cariani singing “I Love the Way” and ended with Christian Borle singing “Hard to be the Bard”.

Brian d'Arcy James & John Cariani - "God, I Hate Shakespeare"

Brian d’Arcy James & John Cariani – “God, I Hate Shakespeare”

Top: Kate Reinders & John Cariani - "I Love The Way" Bottom: Christian Borle - "Hard to Be the Bard"

Top: Kate Reinders & John Cariani – “I Love The Way” Bottom: Christian Borle – “Hard to Be the Bard”

Additional cast members Heidi Blickenstaff, Brad Oscar, and Michael James Scott joined the aforementioned for the customary (mini) press photo session before assuming their seats for the CD signing. The line moved at an even pace, even with the press photographers (and those waiting in line – including me) snapping photos as the CD booklets was passed down the table. There wasn’t as much chatting amongst the cast and those waiting, as there was a huge line of people waiting, and (as mentioned earlier) the cast had a 8PM show to perform.

From left to right: Michael James Scott, Heidi Blickenstaff, John Cariani, Brad Oscar, Kate Reinders, Brian d'Arcy James and Christian Borle

From left to right: Michael James Scott, Heidi Blickenstaff, John Cariani, Brad Oscar, Kate Reinders, Brian d’Arcy James and Christian Borle

The cast recording of Something Rotten! is hilarious and the show (as I understand it, as I have yet to see it, due to financial constraints) is a reminiscent of Spamalot and The Producers, with a dash of The Drowsy Chaperone  and a plethora of Shakespeare (obviously). There are hundreds (thousands?) of references to other musicals, both in the lyrics and the music, and the overall sound of the score reminds me of other great musical scores, both from the “Golden Age” as well as contemporary scores. It’s a delightful cast recording for any musical theatre fan – they’ll be laughing and singing along with the cast (as well as making a checklist of all the musical theatre references).

I also hope someone, somewhere will actually write Omlette The Musical.

Something Rotten! signed CD booklet