Showing posts with label Broadway. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Broadway. Show all posts

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Moulin Rouge! and Oklahoma! Seismically Shake Broadway


Our summertime boat is frequently home base for some NYC theatre, this time only two shows but what a change of pace from many of those we’ve seen in summers past.  One would think Moulin Rouge! and Oklahoma! would be “traditional” musicals but they felt as “revolutionary” as Hamilton was when we saw that when it originally opened.  Hearing so much about these two shows, some negativity from a critic we highly respect, we were determined to experience these with a tabula rasa mentality. 

We’re glad we did.  Had we approached these with our built in biases, ones that are due to our age and previous theatre experiences, there would be a lot that we could seize upon for criticism.  First and foremost as traditionalists, if we had to see Oklahoma! over and over again, we would choose the movie version with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones which comes much closer to the previous stage versions we’ve seen.  And as far as Moulin Rouge! is concerned, the pastiche of seventy or so songs is not of our generation for the most part, except for “Diamonds are Girl’s Best Friend” and “Nature Boy.”  The songs of younger generations predominate, but the swatches of them are seamlessly woven into the production, picking out the right lyrics and musical riff for the moment, so that they move the production right along. 
  

We found ourselves enjoying them in spite of our ingrained aversion to ultra contemporary music.  Our son and daughter-in-law sat in the row in front of us, their heads bobbing along to the music with which they’re totally familiar, which enhanced our enjoyment as well.

Moulin Rouge! is intended as an over the top extravaganza, another criticism which could be leveled at it from the vantage of the highbrow.  It is that, especially sitting in the third row as we were fortunate enough to be.  It is a love story as anyone familiar with the movie or La Boheme knows, but the dazzling staging and sensuality trump the love story.  Or, one could consider it the strength of this production, one that shares some aspects of Cirque du Soleil, replete with the female lead, Satine, gloriously played by Karen Olivo, descending from the ceiling of the Al Hirschfield Theatre.  It is the type of gimmickry we would normally decry but in the context of this musical, it works, as do the songs and the erotic nature of the presentation, the costumes and the movement on the stage.  Only a great Broadway company could pull this off.

Satine’s love interest, Christian, played by Aaron Tveit, is yet another star in the diamond of a cast as is Tam Mutu playing Christian’s adversary, The Duke of Monroth.  Danny Burstein plays the MC Harold Zidler, reminiscent of the demonic MC of Cabaret.  The ensemble is sexy and vibrant.  The chorography of moving all these players around ramps, and platforms stage left and right is breathtaking.  When we saw Hamilton, now years ago, we knew we were seeing something for the ages.  In its own way Moulin Rouge! will be that memorable.  

This brings me to the show we saw the following day, Oklahoma!  Last April we saw Ted Chapin, chief creative officer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, interviewed at Dramaworks’ “Dramalogue – Talking Theatre!”  Much of the discussion was about the decision making process that went into his giving the green light to this ‘dark-side-of-the-moon’ version of this fabled musical.  Clearly, had there been no Hamilton, perhaps this adaptation would never have been approved.  It is indeed reimagined, taking such an innocent story ( albeit with a sinister side) and turns it topsy-turvey; utterly stripped down to its essentials.

You know the second you enter the Circle in the Square Theatre, Winchester Rifles decorating the walls, a brightly lit stage made up of picnic benches and plywood floors, a small area for an equally small on stage orchestra, multicolored metallic fringe hanging from the ceiling, crock pots lining bench tables on stage left and right at which some audience members are sitting that the goal is to involve the audience members in a very contemporary rendering.  This isn’t why the farmer and the cowmen can’t be friends.  The essence of this production is Laurey having to choose between Curley and Jud Fry.  Yes, having to choose!  In all versions we have ever seen, this choice was made for us right at the burst of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”  It’s Curley, hands down.

While Jud is clearly a loner in those early days when Oklahoma was emerging from a small territory to statehood, today our Jud would be one of the 21st century misfits who ‘merely’ needs understanding to bring him into “society.”  So, in this adaptation Laurey, heavenly played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, is attracted to the brooding quiet Jud.  She actually waivers in her choice!

When we sat down and opened our Playbill, we were disappointed to learn that Curley, the male lead, usually played by Damon Daunno, was to be played by his understudy Denver Milord.  He more than rose to the occasion as not only did he exude that sexy American as apple pie good looks but he could belt out his songs with his guitar, finally winning over Laurey.  But Laurey’s infatuation with Jud is a hurdle for him, constantly perplexing and the end of the play is something unexpected.  It is a road we have seen walked so many times in contemporary society, quick to judgment to exonerate the “good guy,” which, as the last moving refrains of “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A” ring out, leaves one bewildered.

Everything in the production is atypical, including the audience being served some delicious chili and cornbread during the intermission.  The cast is small but the essential story lines are there, Will Parker played with wide-eyed innocence and gullibility by James Davis, declaring his love for Ado Annie, played by the exceptionally talented Ali Stroker with such hilarity and an ethereal voice that one hardly notices she is wheel chair bound, another hat tip to contemporary society.  ‘Ole Aunt Eller played by Mary Testa is the peacekeeper and Will Brill plays the flirtatious Ali Hakim, the peddler who will take what he can from Ado Annie as long as it doesn’t involve marriage.  Jud Fry is quietly, but achingly played by Patrick Vail.  He originated the role of Jud while a student at Bard College.

Most emblematic of the departure of this Oklahoma! from the original is the dream ballet.  The original, choreographed by Agnes DeMille is ethereal.  Now it is one of boldness, parts of it performed in darkness, music dissonant and other parts filmed in real time as cinema verite and projected on the rear wall.  Its vivid content was brilliantly translated by anther understudy in this particular production, Coral Dolphin, whose physicality, including cartwheels, took precedence over ballet.  It is a modern dance of the 21st century.
 

In fact, that is what we came away with after these two groundbreaking musicals.  These are our times, brutish and violent, frequently unfair, sometimes steeped in narcissism and eroticism, a kind of dystopian landscape captured by the remake of one of our most innocent musicals, and a movie brought to stage.  But bravo to both as art marks the way and records our moment in time.


Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Musical Week


It’s our universal language and while the political discourse is discordant, music seems to bring out our commonalities.  Our favorite musical genres are songs from Broadway, the Great American Songbook, and Jazz and so it was with much anticipation that we looked forward to last week which began with a show at the Delray Beach Playhouse, I Believe in You! – The Songs of Frank Loesser.

Ann arranged a preshow dinner at Racks Fish House off Delray’s famous (and congested) Atlantic Avenue, a happening place.  It was a balmy early April evening, with a nice breeze so we dined al fresco.  Imagine our surprise reading the appetizer menu which included Copps Island, CT oysters!  Copps Island which is connected at low tide to Crow Island is where we have taken our boat for the last 35 years during the summers, anchoring there on weekends.  So here we were, some 1,250 miles away dining on wild oysters from those very waters.  These are bottom planted as opposed to cage or floating trays and the oysters are known for “sweet briny flavor and plump meats. “  It was a nice and nostalgic start to the evening.

Delray Beach Playhouse which opened in 1947 is a community theatre featuring everything from one person acts to full scale plays.  They have a dedicated audience, we now among them.  But who knew, the playhouse is on Lake Ida, a fresh water lake right off of I95, comprising 121 acres, but seeming much larger than that as it is long and narrow.  Looking at it is reminiscent of our days on Lake George in NY and Candlewood Lake in CT as one can see similar boat houses and lake front homes.

I Believe in You! – The Songs of Frank Loesser was narrated by Randolph DelLago who has been the Resident Artistic Director of the Playhouse since 1982.  He also sings in this production.  When one thinks of Frank Loesser, one recalls the iconic Guys and Dolls, one of the great classic musicals of Broadway’s Golden Era.  It perhaps has more recognizable songs than any other musical, including those of Rogers and Hammerstein.  He only wrote four other musicals, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, being the most notable.  Songs were performed from all of these with original still scenes projected on a backdrop.  The Most Happy Fella has one of the most moving rhapsodic opera style songs ever written for the Great White Way, “My Heart is So Full of You,” one of my favorites for the piano, with an exotic bridge section of eight bars.

But Loesser, who was cast out by his family as they thought “songwriting” was beneath their dignity (his father was a piano teacher and his brother was a classical piano prodigy), found his roots in popular song in Hollywood before migrating to Broadway.  There are many memorable songs he wrote for The Great American Songbook and this show had many, such as “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “Heart and Soul,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Two Sleepy People,”“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”“No Two People,” and “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” (the latter being another personal piano favorite of mine).  Along with DelLago, performances were given by Alicia Branch-Stafford, a soprano, baritone William Stafford, and Hanz Eneart who added a little cabaret dancing to the show as well as joining the ensemble in song with a comedic rendition of” Once in Love with Amy.”

Breaking up the week was a trip to Peanut Island with my friend John, a destination on the boat which will become more frequent as the water warms to bathtub temperatures.  Amazing that at one time in my life, jumping into the waters off of Copps Island into 70 degree water was refreshing but now wadding into Peanut’s current 79 degree water seems difficult!  Maybe that’s because the air temperature on Thursday was in the high 80s.  Got home late in the afternoon, just in time to clean the boat with John, shower, and get ready to go to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

There we saw West Side Story towards the end of its run, so I am not publishing a full review.  This is what the Maltz Theatre does best but, still, we were a little concerned about seeing this yet again.  Could it still possibly be fresh (although the music by Bernstein and lyrics by Sondheim are immortal)?

The short answer is a resounding yes!  I think some of the classic musicals are being looked at in a new light, due to the times and the influence of Hamilton.  Most recently this is apparent with the Circle in the Square’s current production of Oklahoma which some have criticized as a travesty, irreverent to Rogers and Hammerstein’s intent.  I’m not too sure, although that was my knee jerk reaction.  Now, thinking about it, and reading more about it, I’m willing to be persuaded and therefore we’re going to see it sometime in August.  I’ll be lining up for the chili and corn bread!

There is a dark side to Oklahoma, as in all of the R&H plays.  Just think of Billy Bigalow’s corruptibility in Carousel, or the racial tensions of South Pacific and The King and I, the lurking Nazi shadows in The Sound of Music.  These musicals were played out for the audiences of their times with relatively happy resolutions (just what was expected then).  One could cast them now in an entirely different light and why not?

In a sense, the Maltz’s interpretation of West Side Story has been so influenced.  A framing device of Hurricane Maria has been introduced.  How ironic is that, the Maria of the story picking up after Hurricane Maria, alone with her memories of Tony?  This scene reprises at the end of the show.  It was a lovely, moving touch, particularly in the light of how this terrible storm has been politicized.

And with Puerto Rican born Marcos Santana’s direction and musical staging, we have more of a take on the Sharks rather than the Jets.  The hell-bent fury of xenophobic victimization is explosively probed by Angel Lozada who plays Bernardo.  Michelle Alves performance as Anita is more than up to the easily remembered performance of Chita Rivera in that part.  Alves is every bit as dynamic as a dancer and is a very talented vocalist as well.

Not enough praise can be directed toward Jim Schubin who plays Tony and Evy Ortiz as Maria.  Schubin brings a strong sense of constant optimism and wonder to the role as well as a clear tenor voice.  Ortiz is the ideal Maria, a soprano and coloratura who is radiant in the role of Maria (she was recently on the West Side Story national tour).  They had the perfect chemistry as Tony and Maria and their duets soared.

The choreography by Al Blackstone (with additional choreography by the director), gives a hat tip to Jerome Robbins’ choreography but is original and pulsating on the Maltz stage.  It’s a smaller cast than the original musical, but one would not know it.

With the refugee crisis of our times, it was time to look at West Side Story through a different lens, and the Maltz comes through. 

And last night we attended the 1st Palm Beach International Jazz Festival, the first, we hope, of many in the future.  It is the idea of one of South Florida’s premier jazz singers, Yvette Norwood-Tiger, who has traveled the world with her interpretations of jazz classics, particularly songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.  She performs in six languages including English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Xhosa.

She created an afternoon and evening performance with different groups and singers.  We attended the evening performance and thus my comments are confined to that.

First up was Marlow Rosado, a Latin Jazz pianist from Puerto Rico, and his group.  Rasado is a salsero, and is imposing at the piano with his driving salsa rhythms, somewhat reminiscent of Monte Alexander.  I said to Ann that I’ve never seen a pianist who could pass as a football tight end and the physicality of his performance spoke wonders.  He posted last night’s performance on Facebook, so you can catch him there.
 
Next up was Eric & The Jazzers, a South Florida group of professional musicians that play swing/bebop from the great era of Duke Ellington.  Eric Trouillot also served as MC for the night’s performances, a guy from the Bronx who brought out the best of the very well represented NYC crowd (including us).

His group’s trumpet player, Yamin Mustafa, is one of the best we’ve heard and pianist, Chad Michaels, obviously has studied Oscar Peterson’s technique closely. As Mustafa said, the group’s musical selections are eclectic.

But the star of the night was clearly the evening’s organizer, Yvette Norwood-Tiger.  Yvette is a survivor of a benign yet life-threatening brain tumor because of its size and position, but had a successful operation some seven years ago.  Every time we’ve seen her she encourages the audience to “find that door opening” and for her it is singing Horace Silver’s jazz classic "Song for My Father."  Naturally, Yvette means it quite literally, thanking God for the opportunity to continue on with her unique gifts, a powerful yet sometimes subtle interpreter of the Great American Songbook. 

Backing her up musically were all the “old gang” we see almost every Sunday night at Double Roads in Jupiter, her musical director for the evening and oh-so talented pianist, also the co founder of the Jupiter Jazz Society, Rick Moore.  Along with Rick were Marty Gilman, on sax and flute, Joshua Ewers on bass and Michael Mackey on trumpet.  Marty is a multitalented musician who can play a large number of instruments at the professional level and we watched Joshua and Michael while they were still in high school, and have now grown into professional musicians in their own right.

And to bring this entry back to where it began (remember, Copps Island, in the Norwalk CT chain of islands), I learned that Horace Silver (Yvette’s tribute composer), was born in Norwalk, CT so it seems that all roads lead back to our years there.







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!
 
More about our NYC trip in the final portion of this entry here.