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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Greeted with Thunderous Acclaim: Further Musings on Annie – July 6, 2013

Cast changes are an inevitable occurrence in long running productions – while there are actors who will remain with one show for long stretches of time (this is often the case with ensemble cast members), most actors will depart from a production (for variety of reasons, though there have been instances when said actor returns to that production, either reprising the role he/she once played or perform in a different role), and the replacement actors will often bring their own sensibilities and interpretations to their roles, with the opportunity to bring a fresh new perspective to the production while at the same time stay true to the intent of the production. Of course, then there’s the “business” side to show business, wherein cast changes are a component of marketing a production to attract potential theatergoers; for that, I do feel that there are two types of such casting: stunt casting, (usually when a big name celebrity best known for their work on television, film and/or radio is cast in a leading role for a short period of time) and star casting (wherein an established theatre actor is cast in a leading role for a short period of time). Both methods of casting are effective on the financial side of things, though sometimes not as successful in their intent; this quite long-winded explanation is a roundabout rationale for my second visit to Annie, still playing at the Palace Theater [my initial thoughts can be found here], which was to see Jane Lynch (best known as “Sue Sylvester” on the television show Glee), who was cast as Miss Hannigan for roughly three months (she is set to leave the production July 14th).

Annie Marquee Jane Lynch

When I arrived in Times Square, there was a long line at TKTS, and there were a good amount of shows listed on the TKTS board, Annie included at 40% off; however, I bypassed TKTS this time (I wasn’t in the mood to wait on the long line in the blistering sunlight – it was a quite a hot and humid day), and made my way to the Palace Theater where, to my delight, there were general rush tickets available for a reasonable price. I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on the production aspects of the show in my previous blog about the show, so I won’t reiterate them here, and the cast was essentially the same as when I last saw the show, save for the fact that understudy Sadie Sink was on as the titular character.

Annie cast list summer 2013

Needless to say Jane Lynch was astounding as Miss Hannigan, who played the role quite differently than Katie Finneran – Ms. Lynch’s approach to the role was not unlike her television alter ego Sue Sylvester, a mean bully of an authority figure with a penchant for blowing a coach’s whistle, and there were some clever references to her television role included throughout the show as well. Her tall stature also provided many humorous moments when interacting with the orphans, especially with Emily Rosenfeld, the smallest (and youngest) orphan Molly. Attention must be paid to the young actress playing the orphans, who all are, in my opinion, Broadway stars in the making should they choose to pursue this in their future. Sadie Sink, who went on as Annie was outstanding, and I’m glad that she will be one of the two girls succeeding Lilla Crawford as the optimistic titular character [the other being Taylor Richardson]. Though I had mentioned it in my earlier blog post, I do feel the need to reiterate the awesomeness that is Anthony Warlow as Oliver Warbucks, who exudes charm and heart in every scene he is in, and genuinely looks like he’s having an utterly marvelous time onstage.

The stage door experience was great as always, and as the performance I attended was a matinee, and there would be another performance later that night, the adult cast did not come out the stage door, though (once again) all the girls did. The stage door area was once again packed with people, mostly young children and their parents, who were all thrilled to see and to praise the girls for their wonderful performances.

As stated previously, I thoroughly enjoyed Annie and its message of optimism during hard times, and would highly recommend seeing the show while Jane Lynch is in the show (though Ms. Lynch will be succeeded by noted Broadway actor Faith Prince, so the odds of my seeing Annie again are high).

Annie playbill signed

More information for the show can be found on their official site: http://www.anniethemusical.com/

Clears Away the Cobwebs and the Sorrow: Musings on Annie – January 13, 2013

Economic uncertainty and high unemployment rates, resulting in an overwhelming resentment towards the previous presidential administration that failed to live up to its promises of prosperity, with the new President struggling to find a viable solution to stimulate the economy – this scenario could apply to the sentiments felt by many Americans in recent years. However, this is the state of the nation in the world as depicted in Annie, currently playing at the Palace Theatre, which is set in New York City in the midst of the Great Depression.

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[Disclaimer: Once again, in the spirit of full disclosure, my sole interest in seeing Annie was primarily based on the fact that Anthony Warlow, an acclaimed singer and actor best known for his remarkable performance in Phantom of the Opera in his native Australia, was finally making his Broadway debut in Annie as Oliver Warbucks. Having only heard him on various cast recordings and solo albums, not to mention rave reviews from my Australian friends, I was looking forward to seeing him perform live on stage. So, some advanced warning that there will most likely be some mild fan-girly moments within this blog post.]

Nowadays there seems to be a lot of cynicism and resignation everywhere you look, so the optimism and hope the title character exudes even when her life at the orphanage seems bleak, and turns out to be quite infectious. This is the first time I have seen this musical on stage, only having only seen the 1982 movie and the 1999 TV movie version, albeit many years ago. Interestingly, Annie was not among the discounted shows on the TKTS board, though it did appear on the TKTS boards roughly a half hour before show time, which was after obtaining balcony box seats via the box office; the balcony box seats (on the left side) had a full view of the stage, albeit at an angle. The show was fantastic, and started off humorously with the usual pre-show announcement literally barked out (by a dog) and translated by that usual omnipresent voice. The set design was inspired, with the set pieces depicting the various rooms in Oliver Warbucks’ mansion magically unfolding like a large storybook, in contrast to the single, stark set for the orphanage from where Annie manages to escape. Another interesting change (at least from the aforementioned movie versions I’ve seen), the orphans all sang and spoke with distinct New York accents, which added a bit of the realism of the piece.

The cast was amazing – Lilla Crawford as the titular Annie was fantastic – her  spunk and tenacity shone through her poignant renditions of “Tomorrow” and “Maybe”. Anthony Warlow brought humor and heart to what is usually a more austere role, and his lovely baritone voice was just as wonderful to hear live my friends have extolled – his charm is ever-present from the moment he walks on stage, and his comedic timing is impeccable. Katie Finneran gave a spectacularly outrageous performance as the Miss Hannigan, playing the role in a uniquely madcap (and drunken) manner, she, along with Clarke Thorell as Rooster Hannigan and J. Elaine Marcos as Lily St. Regis provide the comic relief, as well as a dose of pragmatism as the recount their plot to get to “Easy Street”. Of course, Sunny, as Sandy the dog more or less upstaged his human counterparts, getting cheers and applause from the audience, which predominantly consisted of young children (mostly girls) and their parents.

The stage door experience was fine as always, composed mostly of the aforementioned children and their parents – as the newer schedule has two performances on Sunday (most shows usually have one performance on Sundays, if any), many of the adult cast did not come out the stage door, though all the girls did, which was fine, as the crowd of girls that surrounded me wanted to meet them (and Sandy as well, though we were informed that the dog would not come out). The nice thing that happens at the Palace Theatre stage door is that there is someone (usually one of the security personnel) hands out (silver, this time) sharpies to the actors upon their exiting the stage door, which is always helpful to those waiting at the stage door to help identify cast members from the crew or visitors who also exit out the stage door.

All in all, I enjoyed Annie, and would recommend it (if only to witness the sheer awesomeness of Anthony Warlow and the absolute fabulousness of Katie Finneran), and it’s one of the few (inoffensive) family friendly musicals left on Broadway that’s guaranteed to leave the audience singing the songs upon leaving the theatre.

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