Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"If/Then" at Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway

Original RENT cast members Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp reunite in a new original musical on Broadway? I'm in! Written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the creators of the brilliant musical Next to Normal, If/Then stars Idina as a woman who moves back to NYC after a divorce to start a new life with old friends and new. The Sliding Doors-esque plot follows her on two different paths, each resulting from a different choice made on her first day in the city. Two different realities unfold, both filled with love and heartbreak. It's a more traditional musical than Next to Normal and doesn't come close to the same brilliance (but what could, I don't envy them having to follow the success of their Pulitzer Prize winner), but it's entertaining with a well-constructed story, thought-provoking themes of chance and fate, and a score I want to listen to again. It's so refreshing to see a new original musical when so much of Broadway is revivals, jukebox musicals, and movie adaptations (I saw six musicals during my week in NYC and this was the only new original musical), and an absolute joy to see a woman at the top of her craft.

Elizabeth is a city planner who has spent the last twelve years in Phoenix in an unhappy marriage. The two divergent paths find her teaching, marrying a soldier, and starting a family in one (where she's called Liz) and forging a successful career redesigning NYC, flirting with her married boss, and getting involved with her bisexual ex-boyfriend in the other (known as Beth). While the story elements are less than original (surprise pregnancy, husband going off to war), at least they're arranged in a clever and unique way. And it's an interesting thought - how different your life would be if you had made one small choice differently (as Moritz Stiefel says - all I had to do was say yes). In the end I'm not sure which reality wins out, but Elizabeth is a woman who is going to come out on top with a little help from her beautifully diverse group of friends.

The story seamlessly flows back and forth between the two realities, sometimes within the same scene, with little confusion. A quick wardrobe change and her friends calling her by two different nicknames helps. The set is incredibly technical, with stairs and balconies moving in and around, creating many different spaces in NYC, which functions as another character in the story. I really enjoyed the modern pop/rock/musical theater score, mixing poignant ballads with funny up tempo numbers, and am looking forward to the cast recording being released this summer.

Idina Menzel and Anthony Rapp reunite in If/Then
It's no accident Idina was part of two of the biggest musical theater phenomenon of the past twenty years - RENT and Wicked. She is a true one-of-a-kind talent and deserves to be famous for more than having her name grotesquely mispronounced. My theater buddy and I were sitting in the very last row of the theater (having snagged the last two tickets on our last available night) and I'm certain Idina's voice would have easily reached us without the aid of amplification. Her voice is a force of nature, and lucky for us, she chooses to use it "For Good." It's particularly lovely to see her reunited with her RENT co-star Anthony Rapp almost twenty years later, who is charming and funny as her best friend/ex-boyfriend, and gets a few great songs of his own.

While I unfortunately can't say that If/Then is a fantastic new musical (it's a little too precious and movie-of-the-week), it is a good one, with compelling characters, a catchy score, and a fantastic cast led by Idina the Great. It's definitely worth checking out on your next trip to NYC.

Idina Menzel quickly and efficiently signed every
Playbill she could get her hands on

"The Threepenny Opera" at Atlantic Theater Company Off-Broadway

Prior to my annual theater week in NYC this year, I had never seen the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill ground-breaking opera The Threepenny Opera, and was unfamiliar with the music, except of course for the standard "Mack the Knife." But in a strange coincidence, I will see it twice in a little over a week - at the Atlantic Theater Company Off-Broadway in NYC as well as a production by Frank Theatre in Minneapolis. I'm happy to have the opportunity to see it twice; it's not an easily accessible piece of music-theater but it's worth the effort.

First produced in 1928 in Berlin, The Threepenny Opera tells the story of a criminal/mobster/thief named Macheath (aka Mack the Knife) in Victorian London. When Mack marries the daughter of his rival Mr. Peachum, head of the beggers, Mr. Peachum retaliates by trying to get Macheath arrested and hung. Despite Mack's many crimes, it's not an easy task since the police chief is Mack's buddy. But eventually, Mack is jailed and about to be hung when he's suddenly miraculously freed. The story is told through a series of vignettes and songs, with each character getting their moment to be heard.

Laura Osnes and Michael Park
The Threepenny Opera is gorgeously staged at the intimate Atlantic Theater Company stage in the Chelsea neighborhood of NYC. The wonderful orchestra is placed in a little room at the back of the stage, alternately hidden and revealed by a drawn curtain. At the front of the stage is another curtain, but not a typical luxurious theater curtain, just canvas hanging on a wire that is opened and closed manually by the cast as the scene requires. Clutter resides on the edges of the mostly bare stage with furniture moved in when necessary - tables, chairs, a jail cell. The costumes are gorgeous, from the pristine finery on Mack and his bride Polly to the mismatched rags worn by the prostitutes Mack visits. (Set by Robert Israel and costumes by Donna Zakowska.)

This is a wonderful cast, including TV/film/stage vet F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Peachum and Mary Beth Peil as Mrs. Peachum (see also Follies). I was thrilled to see Michael Park as Macheath, since I've long been a fan of him on stage (his voice is on the original cast recordings of Smokey Joe’s CafĂ© and Violet, and I saw him in How to Succeed a few years ago) and screen (his Emmy-winning performance as Jack on the dear departed soap As the World Turns). This is a great role to showcase his many talents; his Macheath is a charming rogue with a sinister presence on stage that can silence or beguile with just one look, and his voice is divine! Minnesota's own Broadway star Laura Osnes sings like an angel as Polly Peachum. She's come a long way since I last saw her seven and a half years ago on the Chanhassen stage as Sandy in Grease, becoming a regular on the Broadway boards and racking up two Tony nominations. I'm so proud of her success and happy I finally got to see her perform in NYC, and meet her and chat about Minnesota theater. The entire ensemble is just wonderful, especially Sally Murphy as Jenny, Mack's one-time love who turns him in.

Atlantic Theater Company's production of The Threepenny Opera is seedy, sexy, raw, earthy, and gorgeously staged and sung by the talented cast. I'm so grateful I had the chance to see it during it's two-month run, and I'm looking forward to seeing The Threepenny Opera again soon back home in Minnesota.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

autographed by Neil Patrick Harris
(lower left) and Lena Hall
I've always known I would see Neil Patrick Harris on Broadway one day. I've loved him for over twenty years, from Doogie Howser, MD to How I Met Your Mother and various points and hosting gigs in between. But I didn't know it would be in such a special creation as Hedwig and the Angry Inch. John Cameron Mitchell created the character and along with Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) developed the piece in clubs throughout the '90s, eventually landing Off-Broadway in 1998. Mitchell also adapted, directed, and starred in the 2001 film which catapulted Hedwig into a cultural phenomenon, but she's only now receiving her Broadway debut. I've only seen the movie once, and the stage version once as well (at the Jungle Theater in 2008, for which Jairus Abts won an Ivey Award), but it's left a lasting impression on me. It's one of those rare pieces of art that once you experience it, it stays with you forever. And with Neil Patrick Harris stepping into Hedwig's high heeled gold boots, not an easy task but one he accomplishes with grace and ease, seeing Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway was and will always remain a theatrical highlight of my life.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch plays out as a 100-minute concert and is almost a one-person show (although with great support from the four-piece band and Lena Hall as Hedwig's husband Yitzhak). This allows Hedwig to speak directly to the audience, playing, flirting, and arguing with them. There is room for nightly changes and ad-libbing (something Neil is a master at from his many hosting gigs), and current pop cultural references have been added. Hedwig sings her songs for us and tells us the story of her life. And what a story! Born a boy in East Berlin to a cold German mother and an American GI who abandoned them, Hedwig later falls in love with another American GI and has a botched sex change operation (hence the "angry inch") so that she can marry him and move to America. Shortly thereafter she finds herself divorced and broke. She falls in love with a young man, nurtures him and writes songs with him, whereupon he leaves her and becomes a famous rock star using her songs. This leaves Hedwig a bit angry with her lot in life, but through the course of this one evening she's able to work through it and come to a place where she's not angry anymore, she's able to be herself and let those around her be who they are (including Yitzhak). It's a transformative experience for Hedwig and for those of us lucky enough to go on this journey with her.

Hedwig's concert takes place on the abandoned set of the fictional Hurt Locker: The Musical (which sadly isn't too far outside the realm of possibility with the direction Broadway has been going lately). Through the course of the evening the set gets pushed aside as Hedwig makes way for her own show. In one particularly lovely moment, a scrim is lowered at the front of the stage and cartoons illustrate the beautiful mythology of "The Origin of Love." It's gorgeously staged so that it looks like Hedwig is part of the illustrated world. Much of the original creative team contributed to this production, including Arianne Phillips' gorgeous costumes and Mike Potter's fabulous wigs and make-up design. Because Hedwig wouldn't be Hedwig without her iconic look.

And now let me rave about Neil Patrick Harris. There are not enough superlatives to describe his performance. As an audience member, I was emotionally and physically exhausted at the end of the show, I cannot imagine how he feels. He pours everything he has into this performance. He is so strong and powerful, yet raw and vulnerable, funny and heart-breaking, emotionally and physically naked. It's an incredibly challenging role, vocally (he sings nearly every song of this punk-rock score), emotionally (conveying all of Hedwig's highs and lows), and physically (literally climbing all over the set), and he's fully committed to every moment. And this was only a preview (official opening on April 22), he's only going to get better as the run continues - more comfortable and playful and deeper into the character. I would love to be able to see the show again near the end of its run, but I feel so lucky to have seen it once that twice is just too greedy. Neil is once again hosting the Tony Awards this year, and is all but guaranteed to be nominated as well.

Over the past nearly twenty years, Hedwig has become a heroine and an inspiration, not just for gay and transgender people but for everyone who feels like a misfit or a freak at one time or another, and who doesn't? In her journey to find her place in the world and her complete self, Hedwig teaches us that there is a place for all of us in this world, that it's OK to be just who we are, with no shame or apologies. "And if you've got no other choice, you know you can follow my voice, through the dark twists and noise of this wicked little town." I will and I do, Hedwig.

Know in your soul
Like your blood knows the way
From your heart to your brain
Know that you're whole.
And you're shining
Like the brightest star
A transmission
On the midnight radio.
And you're spinning
Like a 45
Dancing to your rock and roll.

"Cabaret" by Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 on Broadway

Even though I recently saw a nearly perfect production of the brilliant classic musical Cabaret by Theater Latte Da (twice), I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see Alan Cumming reprise his role as the Emcee at Studio 54. And even though this is the fifth production I've seen in less than four years, there really is no limit to the number of times I will see Cabaret on stage (eight and counting - the most I've seen any musical on stage other than my favorite RENT). And it was, of course, one of those unforgettable theater experiences.

This is my fifth time writing about Cabaret on Cherry and Spoon, a record for this blog, so there's not much that I can say about it that I haven't already said. You can read my full thoughts on this genius musical here, but suffice it to say that Kander and Ebb's Cabaret is one of the best musicals ever written. Not only is it wildly entertaining with a fantastic score, but it actually means something. It's a timeless piece about the horrors of the Holocaust specifically, and genocide, intolerance, oppression, and hate in general, issues that are sadly as relevant today as they were in 1930s Berlin and 1960s America. That being said, I'll focus the rest of this blog post on the specifics of this legendary production (which officially opens on April 24 and is scheduled to run through August).

Alan Cumming's iconic Emcee
When you think about actors who've played the Emcee in Cabaret, two immediately come to mind - Joel Grey, who originated the role in the 1966 Broadway production and the 1972 movie, and Alan Cumming, who redefined it for a new generation in the 1993 London and 1998 Broadway Sam Mendes-directed productions. The Broadway revival ran for six years and became fodder for stunt casting, with some notable actors playing the role, but there's no one like the original. Alan has been playing this role for over twenty years, and it shows. He's so comfortable in his role, it oozes out of every pore. He just is, effortlessly, the Emcee, whether performing at center stage, walking through the audience and flirting with the crowd, or silently sitting on stage and observing. It's a beautiful thing to see a performer in a role with which he is so identified and in which he is so at home.

Other than Alan's incomparable performance, highlights of this production include:
  • The look of Studio 54 is perfect, the entire first floor seating consists of cabaret tables with a red lamp on each that lights, dims, and darkens on cue. Ushers and waiters are dressed as if they're part of the show. The small bare stage has three doors at the back and spiral staircases leading up to the second level, where the band sits behind a large frame.
  • The Kit Kat boys and girls double as orchestra members, and are as talented as they are gorgeous.
  • Film actor Michelle Williams is a fine Sally Bowles, but she's a little too polished and precise next to Alan's organic ease of being. This being previews, she has time to loosen up into the role.
  • One of our Broadway faves Danny Burstein (from South Pacific and Follies) is the best Herr Schultz I've seen, despite being too young and singing too pretty for the role. Linda Emond, who appeared at the Guthrie a few years ago in Tony Kushner's Intelligent Homosexual's Guide..., is also wonderful as Fraulein Schneider (although she's no Sally Wingert).
Since I missed him the first time around, I'm so grateful I was able to see Alan Cumming in this iconic role. Just one of the highlights of this incredible week of NYC theater.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"Pippin" at The Music Box on Broadway

The revival of the 1972 Stephen Schwartz/Bob Fosse musical Pippin debuted on Broadway last year and won four Tonys and had audiences and critics raving. It was on my list of shows to see this week, but not very high up because of all the new shows coming out this season. It was actually our second or third choice when we got to the TKTS window Saturday night, but after some indecisiveness, it's what we ended up with. Turns out it may have been the best decision we made all week! Pippin is truly spectacular in the best possible way. Many different artforms are combined - circus, Fosse-style dance, a great score, even a sing-along! And the result is a fantastically creative and entertainingly unique evening of entertainment.

Pippin is very very loosely based on the historical figures Charlemagne, a King in the Middle Ages, and his first-born son Pippin, a "hunchback" who was passed over for his father's thrown. But in this version, Pippin is a lost young man who's dissatisfied with life and searching for something to make his life meaningful. He tries war, the pleasures of the flesh, and an ordinary life, flitting from one thing to the other, but still feeling empty and unfulfilled. In the original production, the story was told through a performance troupe, but in this version it's a circus, complete with contortionists, trapeze, balancing acts, and acrobatics. It's hugely fun and light-hearted, like a musical/comedy/circus version of Game of Thrones with a touch of Monty Python's Spamalot, where dead men talk and come back to life, and battles are a beautiful dance. In the end, Pippin rejects the circus for his real life, but the circus lives on in our imaginations, always there when we need it.

Ciara Renee and Kyle Dean Massay
have taken over the roles of Leading Player and Pippin
The huge ensemble combines artists of many talents - circus performers, Broadway dancers, and singers. Most of the original cast remains one year later, with three important exceptions. Patina Miller and Andrea Martin, who both won Tonys for their portrayals of the Leading Player and Pippin's grandmother, and Pippin himself. Annie Potts (if you're a fan of 80s sitcoms like I am, you'll remember her from Designing Women) took over the role of the grandmother in January, and she's fantastic, literally singing while hanging upside down from a trapeze (I told her I want to be her when I grow up). Ciara Renee as the Leading Player and Kyle Dean Massey as Pippin are only in their second week of performances, but you'd never know it. Ciara owns the role and is a commanding, confident, and entertaining ring leader of this crazy circus. Kyle's beautiful voice (I saw him Next to Normal a few years ago) is perfection on these songs, and he has the awkward grace of this boy who becomes a man. Also fantastic are original cast-members Terrence Mann as Pippin's father the King, Charlotte d'Amboise as his stepmother (with some head-spinning quick changes), and Rachel Bay Jones as the charmingly loopy woman who wins Pippin's heart. And then there are a couple dozen gorgeous and talented women and men moving around the stage in all kinds of wonderful ways, and one precocious little boy (Ashton Woerz) who sings a capella alone in the center of a Broadway stage.

I really love this score, even though I'd never heard any of the songs before, and will definitely be downloading it. There's Pippin's lovely ballad "Corner of the Sky," the singalong "No Time at All," and the 70s-feeling "Love Song." There are some pretty incredible Fosse-inspired dance numbers, and one jaw-dropping moment after another. It's just good old-fashioned entertainment. Even though I'm a fan of the smaller, more intimate music-theater pieces (like Violet which I saw earlier in the same day), a big beautiful spectacle of a show like Pippin can be so much fun when performed to creative perfection as this one is. It's a revival (directed by Diane Paulus, with her third brilliant revival in a row - see also Hair and Porgy and Bess) that manages to pay tribute to the original and still bring something fresh and new and original to the piece. If you find yourself in NYC, this show is one that cannot be missed. But don't worry, Pippin is coming to us in Minneapolis - the tour will stop at the Orpheum for a week in February next year. Trust me, you'll want to get your tickets to this one as soon as you can!

"Violet" by the Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre on Broadway

I fell in love with the musical Violet four years ago after seeing Theater Latte Da's beautiful production in the Guthrie Studio. Produced on a sparse stage with a small cast and three-piece band, I found it to be so beautiful, raw, poignant, and relatable, that I went back and saw it again. It's one of my most listened to soundtracks, and is definitely in my list of top ten, maybe even top five, musicals (a list which I have yet to officially compile). So I was beyond thrilled to year that Violet would be having its Broadway premiere (after premiering Off-Broadway in 1997) during my annual trip to NYC, with an official opening on April 20. Since apparently the world, or at least the tourists cramming into Times Square,  has yet to discover the wonder that is Violet, it was easy to get good seats at TKTS for the Saturday matinee. Despite the differences from the last production I saw - more elaborate set, larger band and cast, and a new song, it's still that same beautiful piece of original music-theater that so moves me.

Based on a short story, Violet is about a young woman on a journey across the South in 1964, from her home in the mountains of North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she hopes that a TV preacher can heal the scar she received in a childhood accident. Growing up with this disfiguring facial scar has made Violet tough and independent, and she's not afraid to look people in the eye and tell them what she thinks, even if they're unable to return her gaze. She befriends several people on the long bus trip, including a couple of soldiers named Monty and Flick. While journeying to what she hopes is a new beginning, she remembers her past journeys, and we see flashbacks of the young Violet. The two realities merge when Violet meets the preacher, doesn't find what she hoped she would, and is forced to face her past on her own. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she has to go an epic journey to learn that she had the power all along to heal herself.

The strong cast is led by Sutton Foster as Violet, with a voice perfectly suited to this bluegrass/country/folk score and the combination of vulnerability and strength that Violet needs. Also strong are Colin Donnell and one of my Broadway faves Joshua Henry (he appeared in Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie) as her suitors Monty and Flick. Emerson Steele is wonderful as the young Violet, mirroring Sutton's portrayal of the adult Violet but with her own spirit. Standouts in the ensemble include Ben Davis as the preacher and several other characters, and Broadway vet Annie Golden, stealing scenes as an old lady on the bus and a hotel hooker.

The score, written by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics by Brian Crawley, is a combination of Appalachian mountain music, country, folk, Memphis, and gospel, played by the onstage band that includes fiddle, banjo, and steel guitar. Which happens to be my favorite kind of music - another reason I love this piece. The songlist is exactly the same as the Off-Broadway version, with one exception: Monty's song "You're Different," in which Monty explains what he likes about Violet - that she's different from other girls, has been replaced with a new song called "Last Time I Came to Memphis," which is basically an ode to one-night stands. I neither understand nor approve of this choice, but fortunately all of my other favorites are still there - the country ballad "Who'll Be the One," the fun poker song "Luck of the Draw," the lovely "Lay Down Your Head," Flick's anthem "Let It Sing," and the most poignant moment in the show, adult Violet's confrontation with her father, "That's What I Could Do."

What I love most about Violet is that it's such a universal story. Everyone has a scar or a wound from their past that they need to heal. A repeated theme in the music is "look at me," which is what Violet most wants (and what everyone wants) - someone to look at her, see the real her, and love her for it. This is such a rich piece, dealing with issues of race, gender, celebrity worship, focus on appearance, forgiveness, family. It's so wonderful to see an original musical on Broadway (this is a great season for original musicals after a bit of a dearth), I hope it's successful and I know it will receive many Tony nominations this spring.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"The Velocity of Autumn" at the Booth Theater on Broadway

I’m in NYC for a week to visit friends and see as much theater as I can. On my first night here I ended up at the Booth Theatre to see the new play Velocity of Autumn because my friend is friends with one of the producers. I knew nothing about it, but when I saw that it stars the legendary Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, I was in! And it turned out to be a great way to kick off a week of NYC theater. As my fried said after the show, “this is why this exists, this is why there is theater.” Velocity of Autumn is one of those two-people-sitting-in-a-room-talking plays, and it’s beautiful. Very real and honest, rich and full. It’s really a character study of two people at a pivotal moment in their lives, and explores their connection as well as their individual life goals and choices.

The play opens on 79-year-old Alexandra (played by 86-yeal-old Estelle Parsons), who has barricaded herself in her Brooklyn home, armed with home-made explosives. Her children are trying to remove her from her home and put her in a nursing home, so she’s refusing to let anyone inside. Her long absent youngest son Chris (Stephen Spinella) climbs a tree and into her window in the hopes of talking her down. What follows is an intense and revelatory conversation between these two people, both at a crossroads in their lives and unsure of what’s going to happen next. What Alexandra is really trying to barricade out of her life is age – the loss of herself. Chris is the one of her three children that is most like her, an artist and a free spirit, which is how she raised him. He gives her what she needs – someone to listen to her and acknowledge her fears. Chris has recently experienced a life-changing event of his own, which is why he’s decided to come home, for a chance to “do the right thing.” As they talk about their shared past, and the uncertainty of the future, they come to a bit of an understanding, although nothing is resolved for certain. It’s a clear and precise depiction of one moment in these two people’s lives, lives that existed before this moment and will continue to exist after.

I attended a post-show discussion and an after party at Sardi’s, and it was so illuminating to hear that so many people have a similar story to Alexandra’s in their life. The director Molly Smith made a really great point, that the action of this play is not just on stage but in the stories of the audience and how they relate to what’s going on on stage. Which allows for Estelle and Stephen to be “listening, responding, and living together on stage.” That’s the absolute best kind of theater. These two actors are so comfortable with each other and their characters (the production recently moved from the Arena Stage in DC), Estelle especially is just a genius at inhabiting the skin of this complex and fascinating woman.

A few words about the set by Eugene Lee, because it’s important to visually create this world. The lived in and once comfortable apartment is surrounded by bottles of flammable liquid, with most of the furniture against the door. Looming over it all is a huge tree with autumn leaves, a tree that Alexandra loves and has fought for and lived with for years. It’s a tree that is strong and rooted in that place, but that is quickly moving through autumn towards winter, just like Alexandra. 

I would love to see this play produced in Minnesota soon. I spoke to the playwright Eric Coble, who was inspired to write the play after an encounter with a neighbor but also drew from personal experiences, and he said he hasn’t had much of his work produced in Minnesota, despite being based in Cleveland. They were lucky enough to get their first choice for the role of Alexandra, but he said that every community has their Alexandra. I think our Alexandra is Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award winner and McKnight Foundation Distinguished Artist Wendy Lehr, and I would love to see her tackle this role at the Jungle Theater. In the meantime, if you find yourself in NYC, forgo the usual big splashy musical (which, don’t worry, I will see on this trip) to see this beautifully written, fantastically acted, poignant, relevant, smart, funny play.