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

Brady vs. Partridge: The Bardy Bunch at 54 Below – June 21, 2015

The Bradys and Partridges are movin’ on up…

Oh wait – wrong (classic) TV show.

As mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been a fan of The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady, written by Stephen Garvey, since I saw the production four years ago in the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa (located downtown in the East Village), during the New York International Fringe Festival. Since then, the show has undergone some (minor) script changes as it continues its trek uptown, having most recently played at the Theatre at St. Clement’s (located on 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue) last spring. The latest stop on its (hopefully inevitable) journey to the Great White Way reached 54 Below (located at 54th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue), where musical theatre performers perform intimate cabaret shows.

Bardy Bunch at 54 Below

The performance I attended was an encore presentation (the first show happened a month prior), and was more of a mini-concert than excerpts from the stage production. Yet the overall premise was similar: the Bradys and Partridges crossed paths due to an inadvertent double booking and took turns to win over the audience. Several of the iconic songs from The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family were sung, along with other notable ‘70s songs – fitting given the reputation of the venue. Some of the Shakespearean elements from the stage production were sprinkled throughout. Many of the cast remained the same from previous incarnations, and expertly used the intimacy of the venue to their advantage, weaving between the tables and interacting with the audience to their great amusement.

Bardy Bunch 54 Below

For more information about The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady, please visit their website: thebardybunch.com.

Bardy Bunch cast list

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.

replacement cast ad

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

Misinformation and Mistaken Identity: Musings on Under the Knife – March 29, 2015

Clear communication is the key to any relationship, personal or professional, and when that basic tenet breaks down, things can snowball into a great maelstrom before the situation is resolved, hopefully for the better. This breakdown in communication is at the core of any great farce, coupled with mistaken identities, a multitude of slamming doors and the inevitable chase sequence. Such is the case in Under the Knife, the latest play by Peter Zachari, playing at the Theater for the New City located in the East Village, for a limited run from now through April 5th.

Under the Knife poster

[Brief Disclaimer: Once again, I must disclose that Peter is a very good friend of mine, whose shows I have seen (and blogged about), and of which I am a (minor) investor. I am also good friends with cast member Joey Mirabile both of whom I had met roughly four years ago when Peter’s first show Parker & Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey To the End of the Rainbow had its world premiere at the New York International Fringe Festival. So it’s quite obvious that I’ve become quite a fan (groupie?) of Peter and his works – as stated before, the opinions and musings stated in this blog are my own, with no influence from the playwright. This is not a formal review or critique – I’m not a critic, I’m just an average theatergoer.]

Under the Knife cast

The play is set in the waiting room of the Mount Canyon Gynecological Medical Building, where finance-strapped Doctor Roe Wade rents out two office spaces – one to a pair of plastic surgeons and the other to a dentist. Unbeknownst to him, he has personal connection with both tenants – one of the plastic surgeons is his ex-wife Marsha, and the dentist is his mistress Deirdre (who curiously bears a striking resemblance to Marsha), and Roe desperately does his best (with the help of his receptionist Cora) to keep the two women from discovering one another. Meanwhile, Roe and Marsha’s son Budd is engaged to marry Bernadette, and arrives to ask his father to help pay for the wedding; however, Bernadette is a staunch pro-life activist (unaware of Roe’s occupation), and Budd does his best to keep this fact from his fiancée. Hilarity ensues when Deidre is mistaken for Marsha (and vice versa) and Bernadette believes Roy (the other plastic surgeon, who is also a recovering sex addict engaged to Marsha) is Roe; amid this inevitable tempest in a teapot is the arrival of Eyphah, an absentminded Holocaust survivor whose sheer presence adds the chaos that ensues.

As in any great farce, there are double entendres, sexual innuendo, cross-dressing, quick exits and entrances through several doors – there are five in total – yet amid the absurdity and seemingly implausible scenarios, there is some basis of reality upon which the events unfold. Roe’s financial instability (accentuated by a brief appearance by an IRS auditor, somewhat appropriate as Tax Day in America looms over the horizon), and the partly mentioned issue of abortion (there’s a running gag wherein the “A” word never fully spoken aloud) are the catalyst that fuels the action. Another key element in farce is timing, which needs to be precise and run like clockwork – Under the Knife has this in spades, with the audience following (with relative ease) the intricate web of misdirection and complications that arise. There is an abundance of pop culture references, (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Star Wars reference) along with the aforementioned double entendres, sexual innuendo (Oprah and O Magazine are utilized brilliantly), and a bit of a cappella singing. There’s also a (probably inadvertent) reference to La Cage aux Folles, in the Budd/Bernadette romance subplot, with Budd (like Jean-Michel) apprehensive of his morally conservative fiancée learning the truth about his father. Perhaps I’m reading more into this than the average theatergoer, or perhaps it’s because of how I initially met Peter and Joey that I picked up this vibe.

The cast is amazing, playing their roles with just the right amount of madcap fervor without it going over the top (well at least not too much) – several cast members appeared in Peter’s previous works and their camaraderie is evident. The most notable performance came from Lori Funk, as both Marsha and Deidre – as the play unfolded, switched between the two roles (each with their unique vocal and physical tics) seamlessly. The clever use of a blackout allowed both characters to inhabit the stage at the same time, and with only the ability of listening to the two characters share the scene, you would have thought there were two different actors on stage, instead of one.

I highly recommend seeing this play – there are only a few performances left – it’s a frantic yet well paced farce with the right balance of melodrama and sincerity amid the usual organized chaos. Adding to the atmosphere is the piped in music from the 1930’s (a common time setting for a farce) – jazz standards and popular hits from that era, giving the play (which is clearly set in contemporary times) a kind of screwball comedy vibe.   For more information, visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net/undertheknife.html

Under the Knife playbill

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

Getting Through the Journey – Thoughts on the Into the Woods film – December 31, 2014

“Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom, there lay a small village at the edge of the woods…”

Into The Woods film

So begins the film adaptation of Into The Woods, written by Stephen Sondheim [music and lyrics] and James Lapine [book], directed by Rob Marshall with a star-studded cast. Into the Woods is among my favorite Sondheim musicals, having seen the 2002 revival production and the 2012 production in Central Park.

[Minor disclaimer: Per usual, a good percentage of this blog will be quasi-rambling musings of my personal opinion of the film adaptation and inevitable comparisons of the stage production.]

When it was first announced that there would be a film adaptation of the show, I was anxious about the transition from stage to screen, as 98% of the more recent film adaptations of musicals were tolerable at best or horribly cast at worst. It’s no big surprise that I prefer to spend my time (and money) watching live theater over movies. There’s (almost) always something wanting when there’s a film adaptation of a musical: either it’s horribly miscast (in my opinion) with (usually young, eye candy) big name movie stars with limited singing abilities or certain aspects of the story and/or songs are shortened, rearranged or omitted to “improve” the overall narrative. That Disney was the studio to produce and distribute the film was worrying: how would Disney, the epitome of happiness and optimism, handle the darker, cynical aspects of this particular Sondheim musical? The point of the latter portion of Into the Woods is to show that “happily ever after” doesn’t necessarily happen: things might not turn out as well as expected.

Nevertheless, when the casting was announced, I was slightly mollified as there were theatre-experienced actors along with big name movie stars, though even with the likes of Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp among the cast, I was still (slightly) worried about their singing competency, especially tackling a Sondheim score. Thankfully, for the most part, I was not disappointed, or at least I wasn’t cringing in my (plush, reclining, leather) seat (a lovely perk found at my local movie theater). My only (minor) quibble about the film cast’s singing was that much of the score was sung within one (middle C) octave, the tempo at times seemed slower and the key was lowered, most likely to accommodate the film actors’ singing abilities. Other (quasi-minor) quibbles are the slight story changes, song omissions, and cut verses: while I understand that a film adaptation is (by definition) an adaptation and therefore can’t and shouldn’t be exactly the same as the original source material, some of the poignancy of the aforementioned darker, cynical aspects of the story is lost or watered down (whether or not that’s the doing of the Disney execs to lighten a quasi-dark story).

A quasi-short rundown of general observations are as follows:

[SPOILER ALERT if you have not seen the film adaptation or do not know the musical’s plot.]      

Having the Baker (James Corden) serve as the Narrator kinda makes sense, as he ends up telling the tale to his son, but then again, as he’s one of the characters within the overall story, he would not be able to narrate aspects of the story of which he is not present or have any knowledge. Moreover, the near removal of the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s Father), and having the song “No More” (one of my favorite songs) appear as incidental score (though the instrumental interlude is gorgeous albeit shortened) is a shame, as the character and song adds to the poignancy of the Baker’s story and serves as a better motivation to break the cycle his father started. That being said, James Corden is amazing in portraying the different facets of the Baker’s personality and his rapport with his wife (Emily Blunt) is fantastic.

Meryl Streep is a fantastic Witch, but she’s no Bernadette Peters. Then again, no one is.

While the Witch’s (over)protectiveness of Rapunzel is highlighted in the film with the beautifully sung “Stay With Me”, the (subtle, probably Disney-decreed) change to let Rapunzel ride off into the sunset and into safety with her Prince, and not have her fall victim to the Giantess’ rampage diminishes the Witch’s motivations to find Jack in order to hand him over to the Giantess, and her vehemence when she turns on Cinderella, The Baker, Little Red and Jack in “Last Midnight”. To allow only Rapunzel to (presumably) live “happily ever after” while all the other characters suffer and struggle makes no sense whatsoever.

As the two Princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s performance of “Agony” is ridiculously over the top and perfectly encapsulates their superficial personalities in their lament in pursuing the unobtainable (respectively Cinderella and Rapunzel). However, the absence of the second “Agony” duet undermines their shallowness and (seemingly) ingrained pursuit of the unobtainable. Though Cinderella’s Prince still strays (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”), Rapunzel’s Prince remains the perfect Prince Charming, which seems contrary to the point of the latter part of the film.

While there have been reviews stating that Little Red (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) were cast too young, for once (!) I disagree – they look the right age, and act their age accordingly, especially in the scene where Little Red dares Jack to go back up the beanstalk to steal the harp. Their youth is a kind of counterbalance to Cinderella and The Baker, the two adults remaining to battle the Giantess, and act as a kind of mirror to reflect the situation in which they find themselves.

Hearing this Sondheim score with a full orchestra is amazing, and I enjoyed the brief insertions of two melodies from “A Little Night Music” (it took me a few seconds to recognize them). The end credits instrumentals of “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight” were glorious.

Overall, I rather enjoyed this film adaptation, despite the aforementioned (quasi-Disneyified) changes. The film has gotten critical acclaim and has done rather well at the box office. I recommend seeing it, and afterwards going to find the DVD of the stage production of the original Broadway cast that was (legally) filmed and (legally) distributed to compare and contrast the differences.

Leading This Merry Dance: Thoughts on Oliver! – June 7, 2014

In what has inadvertently (and inevitably) become a tradition, I spent the day before the Tony Awards at the theater. This year I opted to see the off-Broadway production of Oliver!, presented by the National Asian Artists Project (NAAP), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering and promoting Asian-American performers of all ages. To learn more about this organization, visit their site at http://www.naaproject.org/. I had first learned of this organization through a good friend of mine, and how they present a fully costumed musical each year. When I learned that this year’s show was Oliver!, I was overjoyed at the news – Oliver! was one of the first musicals that had an impact on my childhood  and influenced my love of musical theater. In fact, I was in an elementary school production of Oliver! wherein I was in the ensemble as well as a (small) featured soloist in one of the songs [I was the milkmaid in the “Who Will Buy?” number]. This production was the first time the show was presented in New York since its initial run in the 1960s – while there had been a major revival on the West End and countless regional productions, there has yet to be a major Broadway revival of this show (there had been a Broadway revival in 1984 which, according to ibdb.com, only ran less than a month). With all the kid-friendly shows on Broadway now (new and revivals), there should be a revival of Oliver! on Broadway (hopefully soon).

Oliver marquee

 

But I digress.

Oliver! is the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist about the (mis)adventures of the titular character – from his life as an orphan in a workhouse, his brief (aborted) tenure as an undertaker’s apprentice to his chance meeting with the Artful Dodger, Fagin and his merry band of pickpockets, and boasts a rousing score by Lionel Bart with such memorable tunes as “Food, Glorious Food” “Consider Yourself”, “As Long As He Needs Me” and many others. The NAAP production played at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in the Signature Theatre Center, the recipient of the Regional Theater Tony Award this year, only for four performances (essentially this past weekend). As mentioned earlier, this musical was one of the first two musicals in which I was involved in elementary school (the other being The Pajama Game) and while I was able to watch the (fairly recent) Broadway revival of Pajama Game a few years ago, I had yet to see a professional production of Oliver!; the NAAP production was the closest (at least for now) opportunity to do so.

Oliver poster

The set design was sparse yet effective, with set pieces moving on and off stage with fluid grace; the costumes were apt for 19th Century England, in mainly subdued tones typical of the time period, with a piano and string bass (with the occasional accordion and violin) proving musical accompaniment. The cast, consisting mainly of Asian-American Equity actors and children from local elementary schools, were astounding, bringing life to this fantastic score. Notable standouts were Bonale Zohn Fambrini as the titular Oliver, displaying a fine range of pathos and courage as well as an angelic voice; Anthea Neri as the proud and loyal Nancy and Raul Aranas as Fagin, opportunistic yet mindful with the young children he’s employed and protected.

The production as a whole was amazing, bringing back so many memories of my own experience performing this show many, many years ago. It’s a shame that this production did not have a longer run or garner more attention on this Tony Awards weekend – it was well worth seeing in lieu of a major Broadway revival, which I hope will happen someday soon.

Oliver playbill