Tuesday, July 25, 2017

We’ll Take Manhattan

We recently returned from a week in NYC, a whirlwind revisit of our old stomping grounds, cramming in too much for a single blog entry.  Thus, this one focuses on the five Broadway shows we saw while there.  I could write detailed reviews of each, but Broadway is well reviewed and doesn’t need my help.  So this is a brief coverage of the shows we booked many months before the Tony Awards and even before three of them actually opened.   In other words, we took a chance on those – although we knew something about them in advance.  Call this write up an impressionistic review.

Before getting into the shows themselves, I must confess we were not fully prepared for the theatre district in the summer, although we’re both ex-New Yorkers and should know better.  The week before we left, every long term weather forecast had promised a week of ideal conditions, temperatures in the mid 80’s, moderate humidity.  Ah, we said in confidence as we packed to catch a Jet Blue flight to LaGuardia, lucky us.  But that following week morphed from idyllic into a scorching heat wave, one day reaching the mid 90s with high humidity.  And we left “cool” Florida for this? 

As anyone who has lived in the city knows, if the air temperature is in the mid 90’s, the buildings and the macadam, the traffic, and the hordes of people, just magnifies the heat.  We were staying at 54th between Broadway and 8th Avenue and thought we’d be able to walk or Uber wherever we needed between the hotel, the shows, and restaurants.  More unrealistic thinking.  Traffic was at a standstill most of the time.  The only way to get to your destination was to walk.  Subways were impossible too.  And we walked mostly on 8th Avenue, frequently in the street as the sidewalks were so congested.  Because of the heat, the sidewalk vendors, the mobs of tourists and trash all over the place, the stench sometimes was insufferable.  But as ex New Yorkers we beat on to our destinations.

I’ll start with the least appealing show, although it was very entertaining, War Paint.  We bought tickets way before it opened and had front row seats and were showered by the spit of Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, whose presence alone was worth the price of admission.  When their contracts are up, War Paint will recede into Broadway history.  The music was agreeable but not memorable.  However, the costumes were fantastic as well as the scenic design by David Korins who designed Hamilton and two other shows running on Broadway now, Dear Evan Hansen, and Bandstand.  We were disappointed that there was little dance, unusual for a big Broadway show.  Personally, I also found the subject frivolous.  Do I care about cosmetics, although I get the point that these were two women battling in a man’s world.  Nonetheless it was a privilege to see two divas at work.

Dear Evan Hansen lived up to its hype, Ben Platt a unique performer who can sing beautifully while crying at the same time.  In fact, the audience was crammed with Ben Platt groupies.  A young lady sitting in front of us (her friend sitting two rows behind us so we were privileged to be in on some of their conversation before the show and during the intermission), was seeing the show for the 6th time, seats to this particular performance being a present from her mother on this, her 21st birthday.  She was at the end of her seat whenever Platt was on stage and singing, which is most of the time. The music moved the plot along and some beautiful songs, “Waving Through a Window,” sung by Evan and Company, “So Big/So Small” sung by Evan’s mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones) to name just two.  Both Jones and Platt won Tonys for their performances.  Steven Levenson wrote the book and the Music and Lyrics were by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who is from our old home town, Westport, CT). 

As moving as the show was, it’s the first time Ann and I felt that this was a show for another generation (didn’t feel that way when we saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton show, In the Heights in London which is hip hop multiculturalism). It’s not that we didn’t feel moved but the reality of how millennial families connect or are torn apart by social media is a major theme.  We understand but it’s not our world.

The Great Comet of 1812 was spectacular.  The Imperial Theatre was gutted for the staging, some of the audience sitting at tables, the action taking place all around.  Josh Grobin had just left the show.  Okierite Onaodowan who we saw in Hamilton is his replacement.  He did a credible job but I think Grobin’s voice might have worked better in the role.  But that is not to detract from the overall impression of the show, great music, phenomenal choreography – constant movement, and the kind of show only Broadway could put on in that form.  It leaves an indelible impression, in the same way Hamilton and Les Mis does.    

So much has been written about Josh Grobin that one would think his role playing Pierre was the primary one in the show.  It is not – it is more of a fulcrum.  The two dominant characters revolving around him are Natasha played by DenĂ©e Benton in her Broadway debut, who was nominated for a Tony, and Lucas Steele who plays the dashing womanizer, Anatole.  It is a large cast, with many outstanding performances. 

The music is infectious, rock at times, lyrical at other times (usually with a Cossack aspect), with an interesting back story as to how Dave Malloy who wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics came to envision the show: “I first read War and Peace while working on a cruise ship, playing piano in the show band, as a way for my landlocked girlfriend and I to stay connected. I remember being so enthralled by the scope of Tolstoy’s vision; the book was a trashy romance novel, a family drama, a hilarious farce, a military thriller, a philosophical scripture, a treatise on history, all wrapped into one giant, messy, nearly unmanageable tome. And then there was that section. Volume 2, Book 5. I think I read the whole 70-page slice in one sitting, staying up til 5 a.m. with the delirious obsession I usually reserved for Stephen King or Harry Potter. Up to this point, Natasha had been so mirthful and pure that her downfall seemed to come screaming out of nowhere . . . and then Pierre, his sudden righteous action, his heart finally alive, his simple kindness, the comet . . . it all happened so quickly. At the end of it, as I read the last words “into a new life” with tears streaming down my face, I had the weirdest and clearest epiphany: that this was the perfect story for a musical.”  His epiphany is our delight.

Groundhog Day was enjoyable, surprisingly faithful to the movie.  Very clever set designs and the infectiously likeable and talented Andy Karl who performed in spite of a torn ACL made the show. Great dancing too and the music was more than incidental.  I just didn’t see how that film could be turned into a musical, but it worked wonderfully.  Groundhog Day will become a traveling show one day.  Don’t miss it if you can’t get to NYC!

One disappointment was not being able see an equal number of dramas as well, but we took a chance on one of The Roundabout’s new plays which they developed with the Long Wharf in CT: Napoli, Brooklyn.  Long after we got tix it opened and the NYT had a so-so review.  It deserved a much better one.  Rarely have we seen characters so sharply drawn, memorable, except in some of the classic American plays.

 It is set in Brooklyn in 1960.  I was living there then and there is a horrific incident that takes place at the time (no further detail to avoid a spoiler).  It becomes a catalyst.  The play is about Italian immigrants, a man who arrives as a stowaway with his wife, and how they try to make a life in Brooklyn.  He’s a manual laborer and his wife bears him three daughters.  That’s strike one in the family, the father frustrated he has no sons.  His disappointment with life in the New World and his family is clear: “If we stayed in Italy we would have had a son.” 

He’s not an O’Neill alcoholic father, but he is a workaholic and expects the same from his family.  He demands absolute obedience and is baffled by the way things devolved in his life. This leads to the conflict and the resolution.  The mother is trying to please everyone, her husband in particular, with her food and peacemaking efforts, the older daughter has sacrificed her youth for the benefit of the family, the middle daughter has to retreat to a Catholic convent after being attacked by the father, while the youngest, 16 years old, is trying to stowaway to Paris with another girl, daughter of an Irish immigrant, with whom she’s in love.  There is much more to the play than that -- it was riveting, a feminist spin on American family drama , written by Meghan Kennedy.  Remember that name.  Fantastic acting.

In addition to the 5 plays we caught our favorite jazz pianist at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, Monty Alexander (and his “Junkanoo Swing”), who takes swinging jazz and combines it with the rhythms of Jamaica.  His original composition, Hope reminded me of Oscar Peterson’s Canadian Suite, jazz compositions which have classical underpinnings, not improvisational jazz.  It was an ideal setting on the 5th Floor of the Time Warner building at 60th St, overlooking Columbus Circle, nearby our first apartment.  The view is as breathtaking as the music.

All in all, it was a magical week of theatre in Manhattan.  Hopefully, next year we can do it again!


Friday, July 14, 2017

A Stirring Production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd at Dramaworks

When one of the finest regional theatres presents the preeminent work of the greatest living Broadway lyricist and composer (arguably the best ever), we can expect to experience a performance work of art that will be long remembered.  Such is Dramaworks’ production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. It packs such an emotional wallop that the stunned audience left exiting, “wow,” after a standing ovation.

Even though Sweeney Todd flopped on Broadway and the West End when it first opened in 1979 -- critics and the public were not prepared for the bizarre subject matter and Sondheim’s treatment of it in a musical -- the show has become one of his most frequently performed on all levels ranging from expurgated school productions to full-scale professional theatres.  As Sondheim himself commented, if you give an audience a good story, especially an extravagant one, they’ll accept it with pleasure, no matter how bizarre, and idiosyncratic it might be.

Although the plot is fairly well known, a brief summary might be helpful.  The story itself, which can be traced in various English publications going back to the mid 19th century, is based on “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”  Sondheim saw a retelling of the tale in a 1973 play by Christopher Bond in London and it immediately struck him as material for a musical horror story.

In Sondheim’s version, Sweeney Todd, AKA as the barber Benjamin Barker, has been ruined by Judge Turpin who coveted his wife, Lucy and stole her away by banishing Barker to Botany Bay for life.  But Barker, now under the cloak of a new name, Sweeney Todd, eventually returns to London with the help of Anthony Hope, a young, good natured sailor he befriends.  Todd has one overwhelming yearning aside from escape: retribution.

He sets up a barbershop over Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop -- known for making the worst pies in London.  She is aware of Todd’s past and tells him that his wife, Lucy, had taken poison and their daughter, Johanna, was adopted by the Judge, becoming his ward.  His quest for retribution is intensified.  Little does he know that Mrs. Lovett has her own designs on him, hoping they will ultimately become lovers and has twisted the truth to her own advantage.

Todd challenges Adolfo Pirelli who claims to be "the king of the barbers, the barber of kings" to a contest to inveigle the Judge into his shop. Ultimately, Pirelli becomes the first of Todd’s victims and ingredient in one of Mrs. Lovett’s new, much celebrated ”meat pies.”

Judge Turpin’s attention to Johanna turns from regarding her as his ward to wanting her for his wife.  Anthony, the young sailor, has developed an intense love interest in Johanna as well.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett and Todd are grinding people from all walks of life as their pie enterprise flourishes.

These story lines converge with the death of many of the major characters, sparing the young lovers, Anthony and Johanna, and Tobias Ragg, Pirelli’s assistant who is devoted to Mrs. Lovett.

That’s as brief as I can make it, but this musical is, oh, so much more.  It is genius every step of the way demonstrating Sondheim’s cardinal rules: Content Dictates Form; Less Is More; God is in the Details – all in the service of – Clarity.  

Shane R. Tanner and Company in Sweeney Todd Photo by Cliff Burgess

The very opening line of the show’s first number “The Ballard of Sweeney Todd” is “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”  Simple enough?  Here’s Sondheim’s take:  If ever there was an example of "God is in the details," it's the line that opens this show: "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd." Detail 1: the use of "attend" to mean "listen to" is just archaic enough to tell the audience that this will be a period piece. Detail 2: the idea of a "tale" suggests that the audience not take the story realistically but as a fable, and opens them up to accept the bizarrerie of the events which follow; it also promises a story that will unfold like a folk ballad, foreshadowing the numerous choruses of the song that will pop up during the course of the evening. Detail 3: the alliteration on the first, second and fourth accented beats of "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd" is not only a microcosm of the AABA form of the song itself, but in its very formality gives the line a sinister feeling, especially with the sepulchral accompaniment that rumbles underneath it.

Sondheim is the consummate artist, approaching every lyric, every note in this gorgeous “black operetta” with the same level of thought and detail.  Interestingly, Sondheim’s antipathy for opera led him to construct it mainly as song forms, something between a musical and a ballad opera.  His love of background music in film, and he has scored several, became infused in the music.  Lyrics were a challenge and he decided to invent some colloquialisms to go along with British ones he knew. 

There are a number of chorus numbers, their role ranging from serving as a Greek Chorus and as provocateurs moving the action along.  Sondheim rejects the notion that all people in a chorus will be singing the same thought in harmony.  Thus, chorus and duet numbers in the work can have different overlapping lyrics but all in perfect sync with the music (although, alas, and this does not distract from the overall achievement, not every single word can be heard or assimilated).  

Dramaworks’ interpretation relies on the deft hand of the Director, Clive Cholerton, and the equally important musical director Manny Schvartzman, making his PBD debut.  Cholerton directed the enormously successful 1776, last year’s musical offering from Dramaworks but by his own admission, Sweeney Todd is his favorite show.  Thus, he found it a bit daunting to finally have the opportunity to direct it.  Some previous versions had Sweeney as a crazed mass murderer at the onset, but his vision was to have Sweeney arrive bitter and angry from prison, but not a murderer out of the gate. 

His take came more clearly into view working with the costume designer, Brian O’Keefe, whose idea was to make a strong costume statement -- a “steam punk” look, almost science fiction, a post apocalyptic world (although still strongly grounded in 19th century England).  O’Keefe is also reaching to younger audiences with this gothic but futuristic feel to it -- or perhaps even a contemporary spin given the current political zeitgeist.  The costumes are simply astonishing, from Mrs. Lovett’s seductive lacy top with the tightly strung corset to Johanna’s virginal gowns and nightdresses to Beadle Bamford’s sinister black boots, menacing cudgel and flowing overcoats.

Schvartzman successfully works with the inherent complexity of Sondheim’s music, blending the cast seamlessly with the score and wringing out every drop of color and emotion Sondheim has poured into the work.  He is also the talented pianist and conductor of the show, along with an orchestra of five, including himself.  He clearly achieves his objective of providing the same support as a larger orchestra, hitting every note Sondheim intended.

Shane Tanner returns to the Dramaworks’ musical stage, having last appeared in 1776, this time in the title role of Sweeney.  Tanner is well known for a wide range of musicals, including Sondheim’s Into the Woods, A Little Night Music, and Assassins.   He makes a critical transition when he crosses the line from merely plotting one person’s murder to becoming a mass murderer with ghoulish composure.  Beware of the razor in his hand.  It is the ultimate equalizer of classes.  Tanner’s performance starts with despair and lack of hope, gradually escalating to rage and the audience feels that steady spiral to its core.  He is a Sweeney to be remembered.

Ruthie Stephens in Sweeney Todd Photo by Cliff Burgess

Ruthie Stephens as Mrs. Lovett twists everything in her lust for Todd.  We root in many ways for Lovett and Sweeney as they grind up aristocrats along with everyone else, “Those crunching noises pervading the air?.....It’s man devouring man, my dear.”  Stephens focus is on Mrs. Lovett’s role as an opportunist and as Stephens is from the UK, she expertly capitalizes on the very Brit humor of the part.  Her clarion voice and performance were stunning and when she is on the stage, your eyes never leave her.

The lovely Johanna is central to all the major characters in the work, the Judge lustily desiring her, Lovett wanting her out of the way, Todd trying to protect her, Anthony loving her.  This key soprano role is played by Jennifer Molly Bell.  She is as radiant as her namesake song in the show, “Johanna.”   Bell effectively communicates what it feels like to be a bird trapped in a cage, longing for escape.

Michael McKenzie and Shane R. Tanner in Sweeney Todd Photo by Cliff Burgess

Michael McKenzie, as Judge Turpin, makes a strong case for the Judge being “misunderstood” yet unable to tame his emotions – although by banishing Todd to seduce his wife and claim his child makes him decidedly villainous.  His scene of self-flagellation singing a new verse of Johanna as he voyeuristically peers at his ward is unforgettable.  By the time he finally succumbs under Todd’s razor (the first such attempt going amiss), the audience is as ripe for revenge as Todd.

The good-natured, madly-in-love with Johanna, Anthony Hope, is performed by Paul Louis Lessard (PBD debut) whose tenor voice soars in his numbers.  When Lessard first sings “Johanna” he demonstrates that Sondheim can write a genuinely beautiful love song.  The song is sung in several iterations in the show.  It was one of Sondheim’s favorite’s --   writing songs like these not only appeals to my instinct for intricate plotting, it makes me feel like a playwright, even if the plays are only six or seven minutes long.  Lessard captures Anthony’s sensitivity and determination to have his lovebird.

My own favorite songs from the show, aside from “Joanna,” are “Pretty Women” sung by Todd and the Judge when the Judge is first in the barber’s chair, and the ghoulishly hilarious “A Little Priest,” sung by Mrs. Lovett and Todd which brings the curtain down on the first act.  I might also add “Not While I’m Around,” a beautiful ballad sung by Evan Jones who plays Tobias Ragg (PBD debut) and then is joined by Mrs. Lovett.  It’s an unusual number as it mixes both warmth (Tobias’ take) and evil (Mrs. Lovett’s plotting as she sings).

PBD veteran of many shows, Jim Ballard plays Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s thug and partner in crime.  Ballard’s portrayal is the personification of evil and brutality and that characterization combined with his strong voice left an indelible impression.

Rounding out the cast are Alex Mansoori as Pirelli (PBD debut), Shelley Keelor as the Beggar Woman / Lucy, and the rest of the ensemble, Terry Hardcastle, Christopher Holloway (PBD debut), Hannah Richter (PBD debut), and Victoria Lauzun (PBD debut).  All have fine, powerful, operetta quality voices which enhance this production.

Michael Amico’s scenic design captures the drab factory-like industrial conceit with the worn paneling and the large overhead windows, for letting in light or the color red, symbolizing blood at the appropriate times.  It functions perfectly for the action and atmosphere.

Lighting design is by Donald Edmund Thomas. There are some 380 lighting changes (with as many as 8-10 in a minute), dividing the stage into 22 lighting sections so lights can follow the action.  The lighting has an appropriately grungy feel to it with shadows streaming across the stage.

Sound design is by Brad Pawlak who puts the focus on the music itself as well as a well -timed screeching whistle at emotional peaks.

This PBD production of Sondheim’s masterpiece haunts, staged by a team of professionals worthy of Broadway.  It is a powerful, stunning performance, not to be missed.

Sondheim’s comments are from Stephen Sondheim: Finishing the Hat; Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010)