Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Tony Kushner Season at the Signature Theatre Company

While waiting for a recent performance of MoLoRa to begin at the Ailey Center, two women chatted about Tony Kushner's Angels in America. One felt that the play had somehow been unjustly deified and both could not understand the acclaim that the work had received. I felt like barging into their conversation and asking how they could not possibly like this great work by Mr. Kushner but decided against doing so. Today, however, I get to write about this fine piece and the Signature Theatre Company's Tony Kushner season, which had its ups and its downs.  

Angels in America
I loved Angels in America and gladly sat on the steps of the Signature Theatre in order to see this great two-part seven hour work. I unfortunately did not see it when it was on Broadway, but I have the book and saw the HBO presentation of the work, set in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic. The fine actors in this production capture the essence of the period and skillfully carried out the intertwining multiple roles required in this complex engrossing piece which deals with the real and the abstract. This is one of the best productions I have ever seen and the Signature Theatre Company is one of the best in NYC.

After experiencing Angels in America, I could not wait to see this play with the lengthy complicated title. But what a disappointment. I did not like this crammed play one bit and wondered as I watched it how is it possible that I am not able to connect with any of these characters and why don't I care one bit what happens to any of them. Furthermore, it simply was not credible to me why Gus Marcantonio, the patriarch of the family and long time communist, would want to take his life. 

When I read TONY's positive review of this production, I wondered if we had both seen the same play; for a moment I thought if just maybe I saw the play too early in the preview process but then caught myself. You couldn't pay me to sit through this play again.

The Illusion
Luckily, redemption for the play with the lengthy title came in the form of an early Kushner work, The Illusion. While not on the same epic level as Angels in America, the Tony Kushner season ended on a pleasant in this adaptation of Pierre Corneille's L'Illusion Comique about a lawyer who seeks a magician's help in locating his son, who he banished years ago. Beautiful set, beautiful costumes. Beautiful acting. And similar to The School for Lies, it was just so nice to listen to.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Sister Act" Made My Mother Smile

As soon as Sister Act opened on Broadway, my mother, a Whoppi fan, notified me that she wanted to see the production. So, when my aunt, a fan of the 1992 film, recently visited town, she thought that it was the perfect occasion and treated us both to a Sunday matinee of Sister Act.

No doubt, it is hard to fill the shoes of Whoppi Goldberg (also lead producer of this show); however, the svelte and statuesque Patina Miller, who plays Deloris Van Cartier, does a fine job in this glittery production. While not as comedic as Whoppi, she and the supporting cast shine and sure can belt out a disco inspired tune in this show about a nightclub singer who goes into hiding in a convent, which is on the brink of closing down, after witnessing her goon boyfriend commit murder in a grungy Philadelphia in the 1970s.

While not as clever and edgy as the other splashy musical comedy on Broadway, overall, Sister Act made my mother smile. It made my aunt smile. And heck, since I love stained glass, big musicals and haven't had a nun fix since The House of Blue Leaves, it made me smile too. What a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon - at the theater with my family.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Death is a Cute Blond Guy

In an era of corporate cutbacks and downsizing, HR generalists are sometimes referred to as "grim reapers." Departments scatter when these bearers of bad news come around because they simply do not know what to expect.

As I chitchatted about this concept with a colleague, I could not help but bring up the Roundabout Theatre Company's
Death Takes a Holiday which I saw while in previews at the Laura Pels Theatre. For some reason, I can relate almost any situation - business or pleasure - to something that I have seen on the NYC stage. Death decides to take a holiday from taking lives in order to experience the joys of being human. He takes the form of the handsome Prince Sirki, played by Julian Ovenden.

As I talked through the plot of the musical, my colleague asked if I had ever seen The Twilight Zone episode with Robert Redford. I tried to think of all the marathons I sat through but could not recall the episode. However, thanks to, I was able to pull it up rather quickly and watch it. An incredibly youthful and handsome Robert Redford plays Death. 

When Death is a handsome, nice young man (and not the frightening
grim reaper), I guess it is easier for a young woman to leave her family and go with him when he completes his brief holiday and for an elderly woman to open the door and finally let him in.  


Friday, July 22, 2011

Backyard Tour: Summer Beach and Rachel Crothers Theater Getaway

Rachel Crothers
During last quarter’s roundup, I gave a special mention to Rachel Crothers’ A Little Journey at the Mint Theater. Like many, I had not heard about Rachel Crothers (1878-1958) even though she wrote 37 plays (a bunch of which were produced on Broadway); she also acted, produced and directed. 

I was completely drawn into A Little Journey about a group of strangers embarking on a train ride across country and was surprised that the dialogue was not completely dated even though it was written in the early 1900s.

Recently, while browsing the Wall Street Journal, I came across Terry Teachout’s review of He and She, another play by Rachel Crothers. According to Mr. Teachout:  
…Ms. Crothers was an author of considerable accomplishment. If you seek further proof of her gifts, head down to Cape May, the island resort town at the southern tip of New Jersey, where the East Lynne Theater Company is putting on a solidly satisfying revival of "He and She," written in 1911 and last seen on Broadway in 1920.
Armed with Mr. Teachout’s recommendation, my desire for a quick beach getaway from NYC and discount tickets from the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, I booked a room at The John F Craig House, a local B&B, and headed south for a one day trip to Cape May NJ.  

Oh, what a beautiful day I had in Cape May. The weather was perfect, and I had a wonderful time taking in all the Victorian homes on a trolley tour through the historic district and walking along the beach. After dinner at Martini Beach, I strolled over to the First Presbyterian Church of Cape May, the East Lynne Theater Company's main performance location.

On the cool weekday night, there were roughly 30 audience members in the church. The set was very simple; however, as Mr. Teachout noted in his WSJ review, the acting was solid.

In He and She, the relationships between two couples - one married and one engaged - are tested. A husband and wife both enter a prestigious art competition. Do their relationship survive when the wife unexpectedly wins the competition? In another situation, a man and woman get engaged; however, as the woman's career begins to blossom, can she marry a man, who prefers that she stays at home and be a housewife.

I watched this Rachel Crothers' play amazed by how modern her words appeared for the 1920s. Here I am in 2011 watching this play and it is still so meaningful in many ways. It was a treat to see this production, and I felt a tinge of guilt that I purchased discount tickets as the theater company held a raffle during intermission to help with their costs. I purchased a few of the raffle tickets but did not win.

Since I have access to such wonderful and diverse theater in NYC, I rarely pay attention to what is playing outside the city. Well, Cape May and the East Lynne Theater Company have changed this and experiencing another Rachel Crothers play was well worth crossing the river for.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Applauder - Which One Are You?

Last quarter, a stunning Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman on TV in the 1970s, performed her heart out on stage at JALC's Allen Room. While I admired her effort and was distracted trying to guess how old she could possibly be, I did not enjoy her voice one bit. On top of that, I did not appreciate the gentleman’s deafening applause behind me. His applause was not the excited display of appreciation. It was just piercing and mechanical. 

With the memory of Lynda Carter's performance behind me (thank goodness), this is a great opportunity to explore and have fun with the different applauder profiles.   

The Overzealous Applauder
We all know this person. The actor/singer/orchestra pauses and there he goes – inappropriately interrupting the performance with his premature applause. He just can’t wait; he just can’t help himself. You just want to say - simmer down, you will have your moment to express praise.

The Indifferent Applauder
This person does not care how magnificent the performance is. He will only give a gentle tap, if any at all. You are not sure he even wants to be at the performance.

The Loud Applauder
Aah yes, the inspiration for this blog entry. Watch out if you are sitting near this person; according to the How Stuff Works website, any sound above 85 dB can cause result in hearing loss.

The Normal Applauder
Yes, this is the one I like. No one gets hurt. No one is offended. Aah, a nice normal expression of praise at the right time. If the performance is especially good, the applause can become excited and, in numbers, the right amount of thunder.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mary of Bethany - The Magdalene

I did not get an opportunity to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper when I first visited Milan on a business trip in 2007. However, I vowed that if I was ever in Milan again, I would make it a point to see this great piece of art.

Well, earlier this year, I had the great fortune to return to Milan, and the day I landed, I went to see The Last Supper at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. To remember my visit, I purchased a magnet, which now sits as a proud reminder on my refrigerator (an image of the magnet is the header of this blog entry).
Growing up in Brooklyn, a bronze plated version of this artwork hung in my family’s home. Seeing the original in person was simply amazing. At some point during the short window I had to relish this piece of history, I could not help but look to Jesus’ right. Like many, I’ve read the famous Dan Brown fictional novel, The Da Vinci Code, and for a moment, I wondered whether the apostle was not St John but in deed Mary Magdalene, who the novel claims was married to Jesus and bore Jesus’ children.
As I sat in the audience of La Magdalene: A Musical Play, which was recommended by a friend, my visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie and The Da Vinci Code all came back to memory. La Magdalene is a love story about how Jesus (Yeshua) and the fiery Mary of Bethany meet, how Mary (a woman) becomes a disciple, how they fall in love, how he names her The Magdalene, how they marry and how she becomes pregnant with Jesus’ child.
Devout Christians will probably have a hard time connecting with this play. One entry on a message board found it offensive. However, if you are a fan of The Da Vinci Code and musicals, La Magdalene: A Musical Play, which is inspired by the Gnostic texts and playing at The Theatre at St. Clemens, may just be for you.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bessie Smith: The Empress of the Blues

Earlier this year, there was an auction of Lena Horne's estate. As I checked out the late Ms. Horne's belongings at Doyle New York, I could not help but notice this print of Bessie Smith getting down in front of a grand piano. I submitted an absentee bid for the piece but unfortunately did not win. No Bessie Smith. No Lena Horne.

So, of course when I saw that The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith was playing Off Broadway, I knew I had to see it. I had to have my Bessie Smith fix.

Born dirt poor in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the 1890s, Bessie Smith became the Empress of Blues. She was one of the most famous singers of the 1920s and recorded some 160 tunes while signed to Columbia Records "race" unit. An alcoholic despite Prohibition and at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Bessie Smith played hard, drank hard, lived hard and unfortunately died hard at the age of 43 in a car accident.

Despite being overcharged at the TKTS Booth (I was charged full price for a rear orchestra seat), not being able to fully see the stage and the performance, and then sitting next to a woman who obviously thought she was at a clap along not an Off Broadway show, I could see (better yet clearly hear) that Miche Braden was doing a wonderful job playing the drunken talented almost larger than life Bessie Smith at the St. Luke Theatre.

However, at 80 short minutes in an uncomfortable theater, while funny and entertaining, The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is merely a teaser and does not do justice to the short but prolific life of this amazing "too black" blues singer.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"MoLoRa" - Vengeance or Forgiveness

As I was about to take my seat in the Joan Weill Center on a hot day, I was a bit startled when I looked around and saw an older black woman, face painted slightly white huddled in the audience wrapped in what looked like a blanket. I would later learn that she was one of the seven members of the Ngqoko Cultural Group, the Greek Chorus in Yael Farber's MoLoRa based on the Oresteia Trilogy and currently playing at the Alvin Ailey Center.

Not the easiet play to sit through, (post)apartheid South Africa is represented by a broken family in MoLoRa (which means ash). A white mother (Klytemnestra played by Dorothy Ann Gould), herself abused but somehow does not invoke much sympathy relegates her black daughter (Elektra played by Jabulile Tshabalala) to an abused servant, whipping her, burning her, drowning her, and suffocating her. An unbroken Elektra waits impatiently for 17 years for the day when the baby brother she gave to the town's people for protection returns so that they can reclaim their home and take vengeance.

MoLoRa is an angry, bloody and dark play. But like post-Apartheid South Africa, we are reminded that an "eye for an eye" is not always the answer, and those who have been wronged do not always seek revenge. Sometimes, they seek reconciliation.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Playlist Addition: The Oldest Profession from "The Life"

I recently saw The Best is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman at 59E59 Theaters. After Lillias White's showstopping rendition of The Oldest Profession from The Life, I was reminded of how much I enjoy her performance of this song. 

Unfortunately, I did not see The Life when it was on Broadway; however, I never missed Ms. White's cabaret at the Arci's Place, which used to be on Park Avenue South. I even picked up her From Brooklyn To CD at one of her shows and have enjoyed her voice for years (including in Fela! last year). 

So, while Chris Isherwood of The New York Times finds the lyrics to The Oldest Profession "unhappily repellant", I've seen audience members eat up Ms. White's fun performance of this song time and time again as they did at a recent performance of The Best is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman

This song now gets a permanent spot on my Broadway Playlist.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I Had an Opera “Master Class” with Maria Callas

To take a Master Class with Maria Callas (played by a youthful looking - at least from the front mezzanine of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre - Tyne Daly):

You may plead
You may run from the stage
You may cry
You may even vomit

However, if you have mut, you will learn:

To respect the composer’s notes
To sing honestly
To feel deeply

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hey, I Had a Session with Freud Too

Freud's Last Session at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater is a well acted intellectual debate between Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis) and C.S. Lewis (the Narnia writer) about God. The debate (amazingly staged in a replica of Freud's study - Google "Freud's study" to see images) takes places on the eve of England's entrance into World War II and at a time when when Freud is battling mouth cancer. Therefore, death is easily within the reach of both characters played by Martin Rayner (as Freud) and Mark H. Dold (as Lewis).

Will you leave this production with a new outlook on the existence of God? No, you will not. It simply presents both views. However,will you have spent 80 minutes intellectually revisiting an old topic, yes, you will have.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I am Not Crazy About Mentally Ill Women on the Stage

These days, the NYC stage seems to be fascinated with mentally ill women - especially schizophrenic, bipolar housewives. Just to name a few that I have personally seen in the past few weeks:      
I usually have a hard time watching mentally ill characters on the stage. For some reason, they rarely resonate with me. They are never quite credible. 

Regardless of my thoughts, playwrights seem to be crazy about mentally ill women, and I suspect that we will continue to see them on the stage.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Quarter Two Theater Roundup!!

On this beautiful fourth of July, I am stuck indoors ill. The good thing though is that I have time to reflect on the great theater I saw this quarter - my most prolific theater going quarter - and get through Patti LuPone's memoir. So, here is the best of what I saw:   

1. Without a doubt, my top pick is Sleep No More. Recently, a good friend of mine and his wife went to experience Sleep No More. As I spoke to him, I got all excited again and am seriously debating going to this theatrical art installation for the second time. 

2. Next is The Book of Mormon. On the same day, I blogged about the irony of a black girl humming I Believe, I won the Mormon lottery and experience the magic of this big flashy Broadway musical along with Mayor Bloomberg, Katie Couric and yes, seniors (even though I said that this was not your mother's musical).

Before, I move on, I must give a special shout out to for their limited time only $1.99 download of the cast recording.

3. Selecting the third production is difficult because I saw so many wonderful production this quarter. But I have to go with The Normal Heart. Ellen Barkin's AIDS plea and all those names projected across the Golden Theatre will remain in my memory for a very long time.  

My special mentions:

I found the story behind the Classic Stage Company's Unnatural Acts so fascinating that I ran home and read the original article in The Harvard Crimson. What is amazing about watching this production and a production such as The Scottsboro Boys (from last year) is that in one person's lifetime the world can change. Some 90 years ago, Harvard destroyed several people's lives for being gay; yet last week, NY passed a gay marriage bill. Some 80 years ago, nine black boys' lives were destroyed when they were falsely accused of raping two white girls; yet, in 2008, the US elected its first black president.

Finally, I have to mention two Off Broadway gems - the Classic Stage Company's The School for Lies and the Mint Theater Company's A Little Journey. I did not get a chance to blog about Rachel Crother's A Little Journey, but what a joy to watch this production, the costumes and clever carousel. I am still amazed how the Mint Theater is able to fit so much on its small stage.

This quarter reminded me of all that I love about the theater. It can make you feel, think; it can give you hope!!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Hallelujah, I Saw The Book of Mormon!!!

Mayor Bloomberg and his companion were in the house. Katie Couric was in the house. Seniors were in the house. And dang gosh, thanks to the Mormon Lottery, I too was in the house in the front row of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre to experience the hottest musical comedy on Broadway – The Book of Mormon by the creators of South Park and Avenue Q.

Two Mormon missionaries (Elder Price played by Andrew Rannells and Elder Cunningham played by Josh Gad) are sent to Uganda (which by the way is nothing like The Lion King) to enlist Africans, plagued by AIDS, poverty, female mutilation and other atrocities.  

With edgy numbers such as Hasa Diga Eebowa, Spooky Mormon Hell Dream and Joseph Smith America Moses and a theme that religion – made up or not – unites and gives people hope, The Book of Mormon is fresh, profane, funny and a good time. Overall, I believe that The Book of Mormon is the best musical that I’ve seen on Broadway since Next to Normal.

After the performance, a small crowd waited outside the stage door. When the cast finally began to emerge (they were busy taking photos backstage with Major Bloomberg), they signed playbills and posters. I could not help but tell Nikki James (who plays Nabulungi) how much I loved her Tony acceptance speech. Graciously, she said that Tony night was the best night of her life.