Monday, December 26, 2011

The Best of the Best Theater and My Personal Favorites- 2011

Year end “top 10” lists are great. Whether the list relates to theater, films, apps, books, music, news stories, vacations spots, I pour through them, make notes, reserve items at the local library, and queue films on Netflix. Only the best for this blogger!!

To date, I’ve identified
10 best of lists related to plays and musicals from publications such as The New York Times, New York Magazine, Time Out New York, etc. After examining the lists, here are the plays/musicals that appear most often and I guess we could say are the best theater of 2011 according to critics.

The Book of Mormon
Other Desert Cities

War Horse
Good People
The Normal Heart

Personally, if I had to put together my own top 10 lists based on not just what opened in 2011 but plays/musicals I’ve see (check out my Theater Roll for list), it would be the following: 1) Sleep No More; 2) The Book of Mormon; 3) War Horse; 4) Gatz; 5) The Normal Heart; 6) Silence The Musical; 7) Unnatural Acts; 8) Jerusalem; 9) No Child...; and 10) The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve seen many shows that I’ve enjoyed this year. However, these shows continue to resonate with me, whether they were original, unique, clever, extremely entertaining, or taught me something new about the human condition.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Going Native in "Dancing at Lughnasa" and "Blood and Gifts"

To get my final theater fix of the year before leaving town for a much needed year end holiday, I bypassed the recent disappointments on Broadway and headed Off Broadway to experience two wonderful plays - the 20th anniversary revival of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa at The Irish Repertory Theatre and J.T. Rogers' Blood and Gifts at Lincoln Center Theater.

Dancing at Lughnasa is a touching memory play about five impoverished sisters - the rigid Kate, humorous Maggie, nurturing Agnes, simple Rose, and youthful Chris - during a period when their lives are about to change forever. To escape for a few minutes, the women lose themselves in the music flowing from their barely functional radio. Blood and Gifts is a fast paced piece about a US CIA agent (Jim Warnock) who works with the ISI - Pakistan intelligence - to funnel weapons and funds to Afghanistan to aid in their war against Soviet invasion and occupation.

Now, both plays could not be more different. Dancing at Lughnasa takes place in 1936 Ireland and touches on themes such as poverty, women's rights, industrialization, and religion (including excommunication). Blood and Gifts, which takes place in 1981 - 1991, is political, topical and very personal for those who will never forget the attacks on the World Trade Centers. However, as I listened to a WNYC interview about Blood and Gifts, I realize that both plays touch on the idea of "going native".

In Dancing at Lughnasa, the Mundy sisters also deal with the return of their older brother - a Catholic priest who has been performing missionary work at a leper colony in Uganda Africa. Because Father Jack has begun to subscribe to some of the pagan ways of the lepers, he has been sent back to Ireland by the Catholic Church - essentially excommunicated. His sister, a teacher at the Catholic School, guilty by association, is also rejected. In Blood and Gifts, Afghan (not Afghani) Saeed, son of mujahideen warlord Abdullah Khan, has an obsession with American culture, especially the music and if he had his way - the women. There is a general fear that he may "go native". While the theme is subtle in Blood and Gifts, it is very clear in Dancing at Lughnasa and the Mundys' lives are never the same again.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Princeton Day Trip to Run a "Gatz" Marathon - Part II

ERS - Gatz
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, is ranked the second best novel by the Modern Library (after James Joyce's Ulysses). Pair an American classic with a theatrical reading by a top notch ensemble - Elevator Repair Service -  and you have a day of theater bliss.

While a worker (played by Scott Shepherd) in a rundown office waits for his slow computer to boot up, he finds a copy of The Great Gatsby on his desk and begins to read it out loud word for word. He becomes completely engrossed and the novel begins to come alive around him in the dingy office. He takes on the persona of narrator Nick Carraway and his coworkers begin to take on the persona of Jay Gatsby, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker, Myrtle Wilson and the remaining characters in The Great Gatsby.

I loved this production. Gatz was well worth the day trip to Princeton to see. It reminded me of the excitement of losing myself in a much so that I had to stay up through the night to complete it. Aaah those days.

Furthermore, this is a classic that deals with prosperity, excess, greed and "...careless people...[who] smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..." While The Great Gatsby takes place during the Jazz Age, these themes are timeless. Eventually, the narrator Nick Carraway "unadaptable to Eastern life" leaves New York behind and returns to the Midwest.

With several breaks including a 75 minute dinner break, the running time for Gatz is roughly 8 hours. By the end of the first act which runs approximately two hours, I was engrossed in the production and happy. This production though is not for everyone. By the end of the first act, someone in the right section of the theater was snoring. After the third act, three seniors in front of me bailed. I wanted to yell don't go...only 90 minutes remaining. However if you are a theater aficionado, avid reader of American classics or a lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald'sThe Great Gatsby, then this production is for you. Elevator Repair Service's Gatz returns to The Public Theater beginning March 14th.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Princeton Day Trip to Run a "Gatz" Marathon - Part I

PJ's Pancake House, buckwheat pancakes, Princeton Record Exchange, McCarter Theatre
As I pulled into Princeton Junction on NJ Transit, I gazed at the autumn trees unadorned and unashamed...waiting like me for spring to return. I located the "Dinky" shuttle and made my way to Princeton to experience the Elevator Repair Service's Gatz at the McCarter Theatre.

For sustenance, I had a large breakfast comprised of buckwheat pancakes and eggs at PJ Pancake House. As I then walked to the Princeton Record Exchange, I spotted on an outdoor sale table at Labyrinth Books Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and wondered if I should purchase it...give it another chance and read the play this time since I found the Broadway production earlier this year absolutely boring. In the end I passed.

At Princeton Record Exchange, I picked up several cheap used CDs including the soundtrack from the motion picture film Once (in preparation for the hit I am sure the adapted Once A New Musical will be when it hits Broadway in February 2012), a Cy Coleman compilation The Best is Yet to Come featuring pop singers such as Fiona Apple, et al, an import of the actual The Million Dollar Quartet, and the 1980 Broadway cast recording of 42nd Street. More CDs I am sure will not have a chance to enjoy. I then strolled on to the theater.

Before the house opened at the McCarter Theatre, a gentleman asked his theater companion why they chose to come to a production that was so long. The companion thought that it would be different. I secretly hoped the evening worked out for them, since the gentleman did not look happy. As I took my seat, a young woman to my left - perhaps a student - pulled out a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I could see notes scribbled throughout the novel. How cute! I remember those days.

As I browsed through the program, I took note that F. Scott Fitzgerald attended Princeton university but never graduated. He left to serve in the army in 1917. So I thought, here I am at Princeton, where the author attended some eight years before publishing the novel I was about to see read and dramatized on the stage.

Please, please - let the show begin...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"

Loved this quote from The Great Gatsby. Recently heard it at a performance of Gatz at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton NJ.
The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Look at the Plays That Opened on Broadway in 2011

Overall, Broadway plays were better than musicals this calendar year. Performing a quick IBDB search, the following 23 plays opened on Broadway between January 1st and today.

I was bored watching this Tom Stoppard play and am bored now having to write a few words about this play. With that said, check out critic reviews of Arcadia here.

Rightfully, Rajiv Joseph’s relevant and well-done Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was cited as most underrated on New York Magazine’s 2011 Best of Theater list. Check out my stage door post here and critic reviews of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo here.

Broadway audiences were thankful when Nina Arianda claimed the Billie Dawn baton from Judy Holliday in this year’s revival of Garson Kanin’s play. Check out my post about Nina Arianda’s impeccable performance here and critic reviews of Born Yesterday here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Four Rules of Playwriting by Bryony Lavery

I really got a kick out of these playwriting rules by Bryony Lavery, most known for her 1998 play Frozen. Earlier this year, I experienced Ms. Lavery's visually interesting Beautiful Burnout at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn.
  1. Delay the playwriting.
  2. Put off all household chores in the name of Art.
  3. Leave yourself far too little time to write but blame others for this.
  4. Make your theme, plot, location and characters do all the work.

Source: Six Important New Plays by Women - Edited by Emilie S. Kilgore.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Let "The Best of Theater" 2011 Lists Begin

A user on the message board asked, "Do the critics like any shows?" Like many other theatergoers who read theater reviews by the critics, I imagine that this user has noticed quite a few negative reviews lately. Just looking at the ben-o-meter at, there have been a few thumbs down lately for recent Broadway openings: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Bonnie & Clyde, Stick Fly, The Mountaintop, etc. I mean, thank goodness for Hugh Jackman!!

Since this is year end, my advice to the user peijenna is check out the "Best Of" lists, which are now being published. Here is what we have so far:

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Loook at 2011 Broadway Musicals as We Say Rest in Peace to "Bonnie & Clyde"

2011 Broadway Musicals
Ticket sales for Bonnie & Clyde end December 30th suggesting that the show will close after a bad/lukewarm opening only a few short days ago. Bonnie & Clyde is not the worst musical I had ever seen; however, the music is not memorable (never a good sign for a musical) and the book does not tell us anything new about these two notorious outlaws. As I left the theater unfulfilled, I made a mental note to watch the 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway again.

With the exception of The Book of Mormon, it has not been a really good year for me for Broadway musicals. Let's do a quick
IBDB search and see what other musicals have opened on Broadway since January 1, 2011:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

***Gift Ideas for the Theatergoer***

With the holiday season upon us, here are a few ideas for gifts to your theaterloving friends and family.

TheaterMania Gold Club Membership
I love seat filler programs and think that they are a great bargain for frequent theatergoers. As an example, a standard TheaterMania Gold Club membership costs $99. This is a steal and can be easily given as a gift by checking out this

Theater Subscription of Gift Certificate
If you know the recipient's favorite theater company, then purchase a subscription or gift certificates from that company. Using the wonderful Signature Theatre Company as an example, you can purchase gift certificates
here or a give a subscription here. If you don't know which theater company to select, then simply get TKTS gift certificates. Check out details here

Donation to a Theater Company
Many theater companies rely on individual contributions. You can help support the arts by making a contribution on the recipient's behalf to his or her favorite theater company. Again, using Signature Theatre Company as an example, you can do so at this

Opera Glasses
Because my theater budget is not unlimited, I find myself sitting in the rear mezzanine at times. This is when I pull out my opera glasses. Hayneedle's has a nice selection of reasonably prices glasses.

Hat Box
I don't know anyone who is not a Stephen Sondheim fan. His Hat Box, which includes his collected lyrics and anecdotes about his work, is out just in time for the holiday season. It includes Look, I Made a Hat and Finishing the Hat. Check it out

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mary J. Blige and "Stick Fly" Taylor Search for a "Father in You"

Two recent performances on the New York City stage left me wondering about the bond between fathers and daughters and the havoc it can create in the lives of some daughters when this bond is not nurtured. The first is The New York Times’ Times Talks with Mary J. Blige and the other is a preview performance of Lydia R. Diamond’s black family drama Stick Fly on Broadway.  

At the TimesTalks, Mary J. Blige spoke candidly about the personal pain that has been the inspiration for her music in recent years. During the Q&A, an audience member expressed how the song Father in You really touched her. Mary explained that the song came about at the beginning of her marriage. She spoke about how she never had a father figure in her life to make her feel special, to make her feel loved, to tell her that she is beautiful. Her husband finally filled that role. She then lamented how her life could have been different if she had a nurturing father throughout her life. After the Times Talk, I have deeper respect for Mary J. Blige’s music.  

Separately in Stick Fly, the character Taylor (played by Tracie Thoms) never fully recovers after her famous, intellectual father rejects her and her mother and remarries. In one of his award winning books, he does not include her in the dedication to his family and at his funeral, Taylor is never acknowledged. This rejection plays out during a weekend visit to Martha’s Vineyard to meet her fiancĂ©e’s family for the first time.  

A while back, I heard Dr. Margaret J. Meeker speak on the radio about her book - Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know.  Looking at the contents of her book, the secrets are summarized as follows:

You Are the Most Important Man in Her Life
She Needs a Hero
You Are Her First Love
Teach Her Humility
Protect Her, Defend Her (and use a shotgun if necessary)
Pragmatism and Grit: Two of Your Greatest Assets
Be the Man You Want Her to Marry
Teach Her Who God Is
Teach Her to Fight
Keep Her Connected

If some fathers heed Dr. Meeker’s advice, just imagine how the pain while fictional in the case of Diamond's Taylor but oh so very real in the case of Mary J. Blige can be avoided.

Friday, December 2, 2011

How the Theater Inspired Me to Check Out Some Asmat Art

Early last Sunday morning, I waited outside the Neue Galerie inhaling the fresh autumn air waiting for Cafe Sabarsky to open. My plan was to have a early German breakfast and then head to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take in the Stieglitz and Bearden exhibits. Oh yeah and also check out the Michael C. Rockefeller wing since I made a mental note to do so after seeing Jeff Cohen's The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller last year Off Broadway.

Many of the works in the area of the wing photographed above were collected by Michael Rockefeller (the youngest son of Nelson Rockefeller) during his expeditions to the Asmat region of New Guinea in the early 1960s. According to a write up at the museum "Michael Rockefeller's purpose was to record, and preserve the art of this remarkable culture, to document the context of its creation, and to understand it creators." In November 1961, while on expedition, Michael Rockefeller's boat overturned and his body was never found. According to Wikipedia, he was declared legally dead in 1964.

Since the Asmat people supposedly practiced cannibalism, there was much speculation about Michael Rockefeller's death. Jeff Cohen's play based on a short story by Christopher Stokes gives voice to the Asmat people and imagines how Michael Rockefeller was received by this tribe. The fictional play was done with humor and was well acted and quite entertaining. It also made me want to return to the Met and view Asmat art.

I suppose we will never know what really happened to Michael Rockefeller. However, what he has collected and left behind at the tender age of 23, is a pretty amazing and worth a trip to the Upper East side to explore.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Quote from Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog"

Spoken by Lincoln in Suzan-Lori Parks' 2002 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama - Topdog/Underdog:
People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.