So Many Dreams to Tease the Heart: Musings on the First Preview Performance of Sunset Boulevard – February 2, 2017

Sunset Boulevard has come home at last.

As mentioned early on in this blog, Sunset Boulevard is one of my all-time favorite musicals, based on the 1950 film of the same name about the Hollywood studio system’s treatment of a faded movie star and a jaded writer. I’ve been a fan of the musical since its inception back in the early 1990’s, and followed all the off stage drama that occurred back then (reference in an early blog post here). The initial Broadway production ran a little of three years, closing in 1997, and there had been two touring productions not too long after its closure (I had seen the second touring production in 2000 in Boston). While there had been regional productions across the US and overseas in the ensuing years, the first major revival was in 2016 with a semi-staged production in London at the ENO (English National Opera) starring Glenn Close, who originated the role on Broadway. After its successful run in London, it seemed only a matter of time when that production would find its way to New York, and is now currently playing at the Palace Theatre (a few blocks away from its original home, the Minskoff) for a sixteen week run, with the four leads from London reprising their roles on Broadway.

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As mentioned earlier, I had been fortunate enough to see the original production, (though not with Glenn Close) with Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige on Broadway, and the second US National Tour with Petula Clark. Knowing beforehand that the revival would be semi-staged with a 40-piece orchestra on stage, I was curious to see how it would be done (I had not been able to fly to London last year to see that production), as the original production had opulent sets at its core, and the second US National Tour had a scaled down set design which didn’t quite match the grandeur of the original production. The overall set design for the current production had an industrial feel, with a maze of staircases and balcony landings and furniture brought on and off the set by the cast. Per the press releases and various online interviews with director Lonny Price, this semi-staged production was meant to look more like the backlot of a Hollywood set, wherein Joe Gillis would narrative the events as if it were scenes from a movie. This is emphasized with the use of black and white film clips (I’m not sure if they were from specific films or just old news reel footage) projected onto a scrim. Also, the clever use of lighting to shift from Norma’s house to Paramount Studios, gave the illusion of a multitude of different sets.

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This is the third first preview performance I’ve seen thus far in my theater-going experience, and the third time seeing the revival of a show of which I saw the original production as well (I hope that made sense). The cast was amazing and hearing this Andrew Lloyd Webber score (with new orchestrations) performed by a 40-piece orchestra was thrilling – I sincerely hope a new cast recording is made. Glenn Close received a thunderous entrance ovation and a standing ovation after “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (with another rousing ovation after singing the line “I’ve come home at last”). As this production aimed to be a stripped down version of itself, it worth noting that Ms. Close’s portrayal of Norma Desmond has also been toned down – this Norma Desmond is not as overly melodramatic (through there are moments of melodrama) as before, making her less of a monstrous figure and more of a real person clinging on to her illusions of grandeur. Michael Xavier was brilliant as Joe Gillis narrating his story with equal amounts of charm and cynicism – in this production he also serves as the director of the story, cueing scene transitions and observing almost abstractly at the events of which he experienced as they were unfolding. The story of Sunset Boulevard is more about Joe, and it’s taken me this long to realize that Joe is on stage throughout the entire show up until (spoiler alert) he’s shot dead and falls into the swimming pool (also inventively staged).

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The stage door was packed, and I didn’t stay too long – the crowds were overwhelming and it was a chilly night – but I did manage to see some of the ensemble cast, who were elated by the audience response. Needless to say I’ll be seeing Sunset many, many times in the next sixteen weeks, so there’ll be plenty of opportunities to meet the cast. I really hope a new cast recording is made, and perhaps a film adaptation (preferably with this cast). While the ticket prices are steep (but then again, it’s s limited run, so I guess its justified) there are $42 rush tickets available (though not specified in the ads, the rush seats are for the rear mezzanine and balcony), and they won’t be at the TKTS booth (per the box office person with whom I spoke).

Opening night is February 9th.

For more information, visit: http://sunsetboulevardthemusical.com/

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Principles of Uncertainty: Thoughts on Heisenberg – October 8, 2016

Like death and taxes, there is a level of certainty in the existence of uncertainty in all aspects of life. No one really knows how situations will turn out until they unfold, and random encounters can lead to unexpected relationships. The theme of uncertainty is explored in Heisenberg, written by Simon Stephens, currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from now until December 11, 2016.  I obtained tickets via my usual source (the TDF Pik-a-Tkt table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Grand Auction), and were actually the only “real” tickets I won that day (the rest were vouchers); it was also my first time seeing a show at the Friedman, a theater associated with the Manhattan Theatre Club.

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Heisenberg explores the interactions between two people – Georgie and Alex – and how an impetuous, random act binds them together, with unexpected results and unintended revelations. The premise is based upon (and indirectly refers to) the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa” (description pulled from Wikipedia, which had the most straightforward, not-too-technical definition I could find). The notion that there is an inverse relationship of knowing about different aspects of someone (as it is in this play) is interesting in that the honing in on one facet of a person obscures the ability to see the “big picture”. Truth becomes subjective upon the perspective and perception of what is revealed, bringing forth doubts on the validity of the revelations and the motivations behind them. The prospect of the unknown looms throughout, as the interactions between Georgie and Alex play out as expected, until it doesn’t. There are levels of ambiguity about what actually happens throughout the play and how it ends, but in light of the Uncertainty Principle, that’s probably the intention of the play – to spotlight the nature of uncertainty that is life.

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The overall scenic design of the play is inventive and fitting, given the subject of the play – while the theater has a traditional proscenium configuration, there is onstage seating – about ten rows seating 200 people on stage. The actual space from which the actors perform becomes a narrow strip, with minimal set pieces and occasional props; there are no real costume changes per se, aside from the addition of jackets worn at several points during the play. With the onstage seating and small theatre space available for the actors to tell their story, it makes the play all the more intimate, with the ability for the audience to view the story from different perspectives. Mary Louise Parker and Denis Arndt were phenomenal as Georgie and Alex, respectively; their interactions, mostly through quasi-rambling monologues were revelatory as their relationship grew from mild annoyance to a kind of co-dependency. Aside from a brief snippet of music about which the pair conversed, there was silence – awkward pauses in between the verbal exchange which enhanced the scenes between the unlikely pair.

The show is currently in previews (it open on October 13th) and after the matinee performance there was a talk back with the associate director about the themes proposed in the one act, hour and twenty-minute play. During the talk back, the audience members who remained had contrasting opinions about the characters and their motivations, based on their individual perspectives and (probably preconceived notions), which further enhances the impact of the play. With the talk back (which I didn’t know they had until it was announced before the show’s start), I didn’t have an opportunity to stage door (though the security person at the stage door did inform those who did try that the two actors would not be coming out to sign playbills and such – also, it was a rainy afternoon, so I can’ really blame them for not wanting to “brave the elements”, as they had another performance that evening).

In conclusion, Heisenberg is an interesting play that makes you wonder about the essence of uncertainty and examine the consequences to even the most random of actions. Uncertainty will always exist, and the more attention you focus on one aspect of a situation, you might get blind-sighted by something else, which could (and just might) change your perceptions about the situation as a whole. Or at least that’s my own perception of it all. It’s a worthwhile play to see, and the very notion of uncertainty is highly relevant in these uncertain times.

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Once-a-Year Day – Adventures at the Broadway Cares /Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Grand Auction

Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) is a stellar organization that supports a variety of social causes, and has a multitude of fundraising events throughout the year. One of their most popular events is the annual Flea Market & Grand Auction, held on the last Sunday in September, often referred to as “Broadway Christmas”, as fans can obtain almost everything theatre related, from vintage and contemporary playbills and /or posters (signed and unsigned) to prop pieces and costumes worn on stage, as well as the typical flea market items (books, CDs, and baked goods). There’s also an autograph table with a rotating list of theater actors, a silent auction for unique (usually signed) items, and the Grand Auction, where extraordinary experiences such as walk-on roles for specific shows, backstage tours and opening night tickets for next season’s shows are up for the bidding. The Flea Market & Grand Auction starts at 10 AM and ends at 7PM (the Grand Auction starts around 5PM – I think. I never stick around to watch the Grand Auction, as it’s somewhat distressing to not be able to afford the starting bid for such unique experiences; besides, by that time I’m usually exhausted and out of funds.)

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There are a multitude of tables, most of which are show specific, selling memorabilia from their shows, but by far my favorite table is the TDF Pik-a-Tkt table, where you can win a pair of tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway (and sometimes off-off Broadway) shows. It’s one of the most popular tables, and (in my opinion) one of the most addictive, and probably one that raises a lot of money. The premise is simple: there are three medium sized containers full of (stapled) raffle tickets; if one of the raffles has a winning stamp, you are awarded a white envelope with a pair of tickets, or a voucher good for two tickets. The envelopes are sealed, and are randomly selected by the volunteers working the table, so there’s a level of suspense and (sweet) anticipation of finding out the winning show. Then there’s the “trading pen” – well it’s it’s not really a pen per se, but it is a quasi-contained and designated area where raffle winners confer with one another to maximize their winnings by either straight trading for different shows or change show dates. It’s a kind of networking and semi-collaborative effort to get the shows (and the date) you want, and a pretty good way to get to know fellow fans.

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I’ve mentioned the BC/EFA and its Flea Market & Auction in most of my entries, as it’s usually the source of where I’ve obtained tickets to the many shows I’ve seen (and blogged about) thus far. I’ve attended the Flea Market & Auction for the past fifteen years, and in recent years I’ve spent the bulk of my day actively participating in the TDF table, usually winning a multitude of tickets every year, sometimes making good trades, and sometimes not (depending on which shows I’ve won and my willingness to trade). I also spend the day perusing the other tables picking up interesting trinkets or CDs, almost always taking copious amount photos of items for sale (for posterity), wishing I had the funds to purchase them. Even though there are designated tables where credit cards are accepted, I always bring a set amount of cash with me, thus limiting my spending ability (and to ensure that I don’t bankrupt myself inadvertently). It’s also a day on which I can easily see friends I’ve met through the various shows I’ve seen (usually bonding at the stage door), friends I’ve known since high school and “friends” I’ve encountered and interacted with at the TDF table (usually in the trading area.

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As it’s an outdoor event literally in and around Shubert Alley, weather is a key element. The weather is almost always fair in temperature, sometimes with overcast skies; sometimes it’s warmer than usual and sunny. There was one year when it was indoors (at the now closed) Roseland Ballroom due to the torrential rain. In years past, West 44th Street was closed off so that the entire street (and sidewalks on either side were full of people looking for great deals on theatre-related items, which resulted in congestion and crowds around the more popular tables. There had been a few years when the pedestrian areas in the middle of Times Square were used to station tables, which spread out the Flea Market experience. The 2016 Flea Market was different than it had been in previous years in that only half of West 44th Street was cordoned off for tables, allowing for ongoing (one way) traffic the other half of the street. The flea market then wrapped around to West 45th Street with the same configuration, and was limited to that city block; Shubert Alley remained in use as it always had been, and the use of the pedestrian areas in Times Square proper were not utilized. I suppose this was done to ease traffic (for cars and people alike) in the area, as Times Square is already a popular and (usually) overpopulated area on any good day.

It’s always a fun day and a great start to the new Broadway season. As the title of this entry says, it’s my Once-a-Year Day, where I have loads of fun, meet up with friends and find the most unique theater-related items (and win lots and lots of show tickets). All the proceeds go to a worthy cause and helps scores of people throughout the City and across the country. For more information about Broadway Cares and the other Events it holds, visit their website: https://broadwaycares.org/

The Old Razzle Dazzle: Thoughts on Takarazuka Chicago – July 23, 2016

Music is often called the universal language, with its unique ability to invoke emotions and / or memories (good, bad or neutral) shared by a wide cross section of people, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. Musicals have that similar pull, even if the score is sung in a different language that one’s own native tongue; while some of the lyrics might not be exactly the same, the overall theme remains intact. I don’t often get an opportunity to see familiar musical performed in different languages (though I have listened to non-English cast recordings), I was intrigued by the production of Chicago performed by Takarazuka Revue, a Japanese, all female theatrical company, finishing its limited run today at the David H. Koch Theater, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.  More information about Takarauka can be found on their website: https://kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english/

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The overall design was the same as the current Broadway revival, which is now the longest running American revival in Broadway history, celebrating its 20th year on Broadway. Its minimalist set design, limited use of props and practical costumes allows the actors’ performances to shine and the songs to be the centerpiece. The story of Chicago is about the trials and tribulations of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, two “merry murderesses” and the hoopla around creating celebrities from known criminals. The show’s themes have a such a timeless quality and omnipresent relevance that it’s revelatory that the original production was four decades ago – John Kander and Fred Ebb were certainly visionaries in that respect (of course, all their collaborations are brilliant).

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The all-female cast of the Takarazuka Revue was astounding, and the choreography meticulously synchronized; stand outs among the leading cast were Natsuki Mizu as Velma Kelly, Yuga Yamato as Roxie Hart and Saki Asaji as Billy Flynn. As the entire show was in Japanese, there were super titles above the stage so the non-Japanese speaking audience could follow along, though I was quite familiar with the songs (and much of the spoken dialogue) that I focused more on the performance and less on reading the super titles. Per their tradition, after the curtain call, there was the “Takarazuka Encore” – a spectacle wherein the cast performs a medley of songs (in English and in Japanese) with lavish costumes and brilliant choreography.

 

Overall, it was a different yet familiar experience of a story that serves as a reflection of society today and reminder of the fleeting nature of celebrity and the power of the press. I would love to see other productions from this amazing troupe of performers, and hope they will return to New York in the near future.

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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.

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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 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.

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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).

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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

Something About Sharing, Something About Always: My Best of Times at La Cage aux Folles, Part 4

In this the final installment of my (ten month) fixation with this production, another change in season brought new cast members to the production – Harvey Fierstein, Jeffrey Tambor, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, and Mike McShane, to replace (respectively) Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Robin de Jesus and Fred Applegate. Cast changes are inevitable, and new actors often bring their own take on the roles while maintaining the status quo of the overall tone of the show. There was a minor kerfuffle with the new cast members, as Jeffrey Tambor, departed after a handful of performances due to his poor performance, with Christopher Sieber coming to the rescue to assume the role of Georges. As I was quite distressed at the departure of the aforementioned cast members (mostly detailed in the previous installment), I took a (very) brief hiatus in my “La-Caging” to recover, so I can’t comment on the quality of Tambor’s performance (as I didn’t see it myself), but friends of mine who did see it confirmed that he was ill-suited for the role. At the time, I thought it was an odd choice to cast Tambor, who (to my knowledge) had no previous musical theatre credits – a fair amount of marketing was sunk into his casting (billboard ads, commercials, etc.) and to have him (essentially) be a dud in the role was a shame. I’m sure someone thought it was a good idea.

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Also unique among the replacement cast was the fact that Harvey Fierstein (who wrote the book for La Cage) was stepping onstage to inhabit the role of Albin/ZaZa. While it was not the first time a writer assumed a role in the show in which he/she had a part in creating, it was certainly an interesting prospect, as Harvey Feinstein has a very distinctive, raspy voice – to be totally candid, I was wary at hearing his voice sing this iconic Jerry Herman score. I need not have worried – I returned to seeing the show after Tambor left but before Sieber assumed the role [in the interim, understudy Chris Hoch went on] – Harvey’s take on the role, while different from Doug’s, was fantastic, and his singing voice got better as the weeks went by. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, perhaps best known for his award-winning performance as Angel in Rent had a different interpretation of Jacob, infusing a more urban vibe to the role than the strictly comic spin previously used. The show as a whole remained the same heartfelt and hilarious show it’s always been, with subtle changes to accommodate the rhythms and sensibilities of the incoming cast.

Replacement cast

Yet all good things do come to an end, as May 1st was announced as the closing date. Once again, I planned to attend all three of the final weekend performances, coordinating with a group of friends I had met while waiting at the stage door – the “Cagettes”. I’m grateful to have made such great friends through this show.  At this point, most of Longacre staff recognized me, from the stage door security guard to the house manager (though not so much the box office staff, as I still obtained my tickets mainly though TKTS). This worked in my favor near the end of the run – I had purchased a mid-orchestra seat via TKTS and as I entered the theater, the house manager looked at my ticket then asked if I was here on my own, to which I responded affirmatively; and thus my seat was upgraded to one of the cabaret seats (which I presumed was unsold, and they wanted to ensure that all the cabaret seats were occupied).

cast list_final

Onward to the second weekend extravaganza of “La Caging” – sat in the left side box seats for the first time, a unique vantage point (as you can see into the wings from that angle) for the matinee performance, then the first row orchestra center for the evening performance. I do believe I’ve sat and seen the show from just about every section of the Longacre, including being seated at each cabaret table – there are four separate tables – at least once. As mentioned in previous entries, I got to know the ensemble quite well, having recognized me at the stage door, so there were occasional winks and acknowledgements from them, especially the Cagelles during the “La Cage aux Folles” number, where they interact with those seated in the cabaret tables and (sometimes those seated in the front row orchestra). It’s always fun waiting at the stage door to greet the cast and chat with them (as well as collecting signed playbills and photos with the cast) – there’s a camaraderie and genuine appreciation from the cast when they saw me (usually standing in my “usual” spot) outside the stage door. In between the final two show day, Lili quite randomly spotted a white stretch limo with a wedding party inside and immediately started to interact with them – even stepping into the limo to sip some wine. It’s always entertaining to watch Lili (Todd Lattimore) improvise with the people gathered outside the Longacre, whether they are theatergoers or just passersby.

Lili Spring 2011

The final performance was another emotional roller coaster, with smatterings of applause and laughter, and an unexpected turn of events, with swing Christophe Caballero going on as Jacob, as Wilson Jermaine Heredia was stuck in traffic somewhere en route and was unable to reach the theater in time. During my (roughly) ten month stint watching La Cage, it’s safe to say that I’ve seen Christophe perform in the most different roles during the run, and had seen understudies go on for all the roles, except for one – for all the performances I attended, Terry Lavell was always at each of those performances (I believe he only missed one performance during the little-over-a-year run). I sat at the cabaret table for the final performance, and during Lili’s usual pre-show banter, she thanked the house management, ushers and gave special shout outs to the Cagettes in the audience.  After the curtain call, there were the usual speeches and outpouring of flowers for the cast and a rousing, heartfelt final reprise of “The Best of Times”. The stage door was crowded with audience members wanting to thank and greet the cast as they exited for the last time from the stage door. There was joy and gratitude from all those gathered outside the Longacre, and delight and hugs from the cast when they spotted me. It was an overwhelming experience; one I wished would never end.

final stage door

Needless to say, this production of La Cage aux Folles made a profound impact in my theatre-going life – the first time I acutely fixated on a musical over such a short period of time. In the succeeding years, I’ve had time to contemplate why I kept on going to see this particular musical (as opposed to the various other musicals and plays I saw before and since this production): the Jerry Herman score is uplifting and heartfelt, and leaves you in a good mood (as most all Jerry Herman scores do), the story is about love, family and being (and staying true) to yourself; and of course this cast was extraordinary, exuberant and exuded joy with every note sung and every step taken. I’ve also met and made the most amazing friends through this fantastic show.

I certainly had the Best of Times at La Cage aux Folles.

all signed playbills

A Combination That Works Like a Charm: My Best of Times at La Cage aux Folles, Part 3

So, I started this blog (mini) series about my experiences with the 2010-2011 revival of La Cage aux Folles nearly two years ago, (so sorry for the delay in posting!) chronicling my impressions and experiences with this fabulous production of this joyous musical, and through this show I’ve met many great friends at the stage door, and have become acquainted with a talented bunch of actors/dancers [I would not presume to state that I am really friends (in the truest sense of the word) with some of the actors I’ve met at the stage door, as I would not include myself in their private, off-stage life – there’s a fine line between being a fan and being friends with them – at best, I would think I am a good acquaintance, at least I hope so.] That being said, eventually after all the times I waited at the stage door, being noticed and acknowledged by name (earning the endearing moniker “Miss Jen”), I eventually mentioned the possibility of a backstage tour – the topic first brought up sometime in September – someone (I don’t recall who) when learning of my consistent visits to the stage door after every show (always managing to secure the same spot) mentioned that such devotion should earn me a backstage tour. Luckily, Matt Anctil heard this remark and gladly offered to show me (and whoever else wanted to come along) around backstage, which was an extremely sweet gesture.

La Cage marquee_night

As fall turned into winter, and as the weather turned colder (with intermittent bursts of snow, though nothing like the consistent snowfall endured this winter 2015), my quasi-regular visits to the Longacre continued, mainly obtaining my tickets via the TKTS booth, though I did splurge (a few times) on the premium cabaret seating. It was also during this time I took up Matt’s kind gesture and arranged for a backstage tour of the set, which I had done twice, the only times I did not stage door after the show – yes, even in the cold, snowy weather, I patiently waited at the stage door. It was fascinating to see all the props, costumes and sets up close, as well as stand on the stage to see the vantage point the cast see during every performance, though it is quite awe-inspiring to be standing on a Broadway stage at all. While the cabaret seating (briefly mentioned in previous posts) was at the top premium price ($250), it was well worth it. As the setting for La Cage is at a night club in San Tropez, naturally cabaret tables were situated near the stage, with ample opportunity for the cast to interact with those few audience members at various points in the show, resulting in a very unique experience, especially during the titular song.

A view of the cabaret seats from the stage

A view of the cabaret seats from the stage

Along with the change in season, there was a significant change in cast, as it was announced that Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Robin De Jesus and Fred Applegate would play their final performance on February 13th (which fell on a Sunday). Naturally, I planned on attending not only their final performance, but (in a quasi mad, impulsive move) also both the Saturday matinee and evening performances – a triple play, so to speak. Anyway, it was one of the rare(ish) times I bought tickets in advance (as I usually buy tickets at TKTS) – luckily I was able to purchase a cabaret seat for their final performance roughly a month prior. More specifically, bought [without any hesitation] during intermission when I attended the show on my birthday. At this point of my “La Caging” (as my co-workers took to calling my frequent visits to the Longacre), I’d taken to seeing the show (almost) every weekend, often inviting friends to join me (if only to “explain” my acute fixation with the show and its fabulously talented cast). More times than not, we would arrive at the theatre early to meet Lili Whiteass (Todd Lattimore) and marvel at her pre-show couture, which was different (and usually weather-appropriate). It was always a joy to see Lili out there, spreading her own unique brand of hilarity to unsuspecting theatergoers.

Lili Winter 2010-2011

[Brief interlude: The Monday before his final performance weekend, Doug played a gig at the famed Birdland jazz club, performing most of his own songs, and covering others. Alongside being a fantastic actor, he also writes his own songs (two of this albums are available on iTunes), plays the guitar and piano. A few of the La Cage cast members also attended the performance and when they spotted me, inquired whether or not I’d still see the show once Doug and Kelsey left, to which I reassured that I would most certainly continue my frequent visits to the Longacre. Even on their designated night off, it was lovely to see them supporting their fellow cast member in his own independent endeavor.]

Back to (the first of) my weekend extravaganza of “La Caging” – I arrive at the Longacre early (by now I’m pretty adept at figuring out almost exactly when and from which direction most of the cast arrive) and happily greet the handful of cast members I see, letting them know I’d be attending the entire weekend of performances. Roughly about an hour and a half before show time, Doug arrives in an SUV and upon seeing me loitering waiting outside the stage door, greets me with a sweet “Hello, dahling”, (at which I internally giggled), then starts to unload boxes from the trunk – gifts for the cast. Naturally I offer to help carry some of the boxes to the stage door, to which he declined though he thanked me for offering. Later on, as theatergoers started to gather outside, another car pulls up to the stage door and Kelsey Grammer steps out of the car. Of course, there’s a buzz of excitement from those waiting in line near the stage door area – after all, Kelsey is best known for his role as the titular character in Frasier. Many of them attempt to attract his attention in the short distance from the car to the stage door entrance, of which he disregards (as he’s arrived at the theatre 30 minutes before show time, which is the latest an actor can arrive); however when he spies me loitering waiting by the stage door, he pauses to greet me (and pats my arm) then proceeds through the stage door. I barely noticed the looks of wonderment from those aforementioned people.

cast list_winter

The show was amazing, as always and I stood in my customary spot at the stage door, amid the usual throng of fans, and spotted some famous faces entering and exiting the stage door (among them, Alan Cumming, Jerry Stiller and Lin-Manuel Miranda). In the intervening hours in between the matinee and evening performance, I wandered about quasi-aimlessly then made my way to a nearby Thai restaurant, where I met three of my out-of-town friends for dinner before heading back to the Longacre to “introduce” Lili to my friends. Another fantastic performance, with thunderous applause and laughter throughout, and once more I sped to “my spot” at the stage door, with my friends in tow. As my “spot” at the stage door is on the left side closest to the door, I’m among the first bunch of people the cast see upon exiting, and it’s great to see them all, chat with them a bit and generally have loads of fun whilst signing playbills and such.

Clockwise from top left: Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Lavell & Nick Cunningham

Clockwise from top left: Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Lavell & Nick Cunningham

Onward to Sunday: as it was Doug and Kelsey’s final performance, I (quasi-impulsively) decided to buy them both a bouquet of roses (red tipped yellow for Doug, blue for Kelsey) – it was also a pricy purchase, as their final performance was the day before Valentine’s Day, but nevertheless it was a splurge worth taking. A good number of “Cagettes” (the affectionate name suggested by Matt for those few who consistently see the show and wait at the stage door) attended, some travelling from all parts of the world, to be at this performance. As customary for any actor’s final performance, their entrance garnered massive applause, cheering and standing ovations. After the overture, Kelsey is the first to come out, and not surprisingly, the house rose to their feet with applause and cheers, which moved him to tears, stopping the show for a few minutes in order for him to collect himself to continue. When it came time for Doug to enter the stage, another eruption of applause and cheers arose, though the ovations started before he actually stepped onto the stage (as his first lines are delivered off stage before entering to the usual applause). Once he did walk on to the stage, the applause was deafening, and moved him (and the audience) to tears, effectively stopping the show again. The show proceeded as it usually did, with the usual level of applause and laughter, until “With Anne on My Arm” when a teary-eyed A. J. Shively (Jean-Michel) was overcome with emotion as the song winded down, at which point the show paused for a few minutes again. There was a wealth of added emotion throughout the show, which happens during cast members’ final performance, and I find it astounding how they can (usually) keep their personal emotions in check while remaining in character.

Every song, every comedic zinger met with great applause and laughter, and the standing ovation for Doug’s final “I Am What I Am” surely shook the building. The next poignant moment during their final performance came (appropriately) during “The Best of Times”, a song that stated that “the best of times is now” – many of the cast onstage were moved to tears at the sentiment the song held. During the section when Doug serenades a part of the song to the (lucky) audience member sitting at the right side cabaret table (which always happens), one of the Twins (I don’t recall their names, but they’re frequent attendees) handed him a white rose and both embraced him (which [obviously] doesn’t always happen), which brought about a fresh batch of tears. How Doug was able to get through the rest of the song (and show, for that matter) is beyond me.

The final curtain call was another emotional experience, with the aforementioned twins tossing the remaining white roses onto the stage after the encore of “The Best of Times”, followed by Lili handing Doug and Kelsey bouquets of flowers. I was unable to obtain permission to approach the stage to hand them my roses, though I was able to relay them to Matt Anctil, who promised to hand them over to them. Though as a fairly good trade-off, I managed to take this rather candid (and utterly adorable) photo:

Doug final curtain call

A line of press photographers gathered near the front of the stage to capture Doug and Kelsey’s final speeches, wherein both expressed their gratitude and joy of having been in such a remarkable show about love, and the friendships they’ve made with the cast. The stage door experience was hectic and equally emotional, as everyone wanted to show their appreciation for the departing cast members – many of those who waited at the stage door came with gifts for them. I was teary-eyed throughout the show and afterwards; this emotional state was immediately heightened when Doug approached where I was waiting (this time I wasn’t at my usual “spot”), thanked me for the roses and gave me a bear hug when I managed to tell him that I’d miss him in the show. Much of the rest of the night was a blur, as I eventually left the Longacre both elated and saddened. Nevertheless, that performance was among the most emotional and heartfelt experiences I’ve had the privilege to attend.

The next (and final) installment will cover the arrival of replacement cast (and the brouhaha it caused), along with the second weekend extravaganza – the final three performances.

Finale roses on stage

Of Love and Fishing: Musings on The River – February 1, 2015

As it is evident throughout this blog, I tend to gravitate towards musicals, but every now and then I do see straight plays – sometimes new works, other times classic works. Of course, these tendencies are thrown out the (figurative) window if there’s an actor (or actors) I admire in a particular production. Such was the case when one of my good friends took me to see The River, a new play by Jez Butterworth, starring Hugh Jackman, currently playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre. While he’s gained worldwide fame (and a legion of fans) from his diverse movie roles, I was first became aware of Hugh Jackman through his theatre work (most of which was in his native Australia) – he played Joe Gillis in the Australian production of Sunset Blvd., a production that sadly does not have an official cast recording (though I’m sure bootlegs exist out there in the dark…). He is a triple threat (actor, singer, and dancer) with enough star power to bring in box office records whenever he returns to the stage.

The River marquee

Admittedly, this was one of those rare times I purposely went into a show “blind” – I knew next to nothing about the plot of the play (except the fact that Hugh Jackman was in it), so I was anxious and curious to see how the play would unfold. Also, this was my first venture into the Circle in the Square Theatre, located next to/within (I’m not quite sure how the exact building layout is) the Gershwin Theatre, as well as my first time seeing a show where the audience occupies three sides of the stage. The play is set inside a cabin near a river and centers on an unnamed Man and his attempts to convince with two different (also unnamed) women to go fishing with him on a moonless night. The actual location is not specified (to my recollection, though given the accents used by the actors, I can hazard a guess that the location is somewhere in Ireland) and time seems to be somewhat out of joint (or at least is wibbly-wobbly), as the two women (differentiated in the playbill as The Woman and The Other Woman) enter and exit the stage, interacting with The Man without acknowledging one another. Much of the dialogue between the Man and both Women is conversational and (at times) confrontational, and leads to startling revelations and hidden truths. The poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by W.B Yeats is prominent throughout the play, and (after doing some research about the poem, as I’m not an ardent fan of poetry) it’s poignantly symbolic within the context of the play.

The River cast list

The staging of the play was unique, as the layout of the theater is such that the audience surrounds the stage, which looked smaller and narrower than most other stage areas. Also, the sound and lighting design made it feel as if the audience was peering into that cabin near the river, with ambient sounds throughout, and absolute silence at the high dramatic points in the play. The latter sensation was a startlingly refreshing experience, helped by the fact that during the customary pre-show announcement, the audience was instructed to turn off their mobile devices (and not just to put them on silent) for the duration of the 85 minute play – and the audience complied. Aside from a smattering of applause for Hugh Jackman’s entrance, and some laughter at the more humorous bits of dialogue, there was absolute silence. In this non-musical role, Hugh Jackman was brilliant, playing the humor and drama of the interactions with the two women with honesty and emotion. Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly as The Woman and The Other Woman, respectively, played off Jackman’s performance with great intensity, bringing out a perfect storm of raw emotion as the play unfolded.

The stage door experience was great, with a throng of people patiently waiting for the cast to emerge to sign playbills. While the crowd outside waiting was large, there weren’t as many people waiting as I thought there would be, but then again, I hazard a guess that the snow and the cold deterred some from braving the elements. I didn’t linger at the stage door for too long (or as long as I usually do), as the weather forecast told of another round of snowfall in the hours to come – I had a long commute home and didn’t want to be stranded in the City.

Hugh Jackman

The River is in its final weeks – there are only a few more performances left until it closes on February 8th, and I kinda regret not going to see this play sooner, but I’m very glad I got the chance to see it. It’s a thought-provoking tale of a man contemplating his connection with the art (craft?) of fishing and how it applies to the relationships he has/had/having with the two women he’s brought to that cabin for a night of fishing. There is a lot of ambiguity in this play, which makes an audience question what exactly is going on, and gives them a puzzle to solve – or at least that’s the impression I got. As an avid mystery reader (and aspiring mystery novelist) I was waiting for a more sinister plot twist which never emerged, though my personal headcanon will adhere to the darker path I deduced (one about which I might just write) – whether or not it’s correct is beside the point. Not knowing the actual linear progression of the play (or even if the events actually occurred) makes for a very interesting time at the theater, leaving an audience to wonder and make their own conclusions.

The River playbill