Saturday, March 29, 2014

My review of Lady Day or "I didn't think I could possibly love Audra more"

Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill
Circle in the Square
Thursday, March 27, 8PM

Warning: This is a completely biased review from an unapologetic Audra-obsessed fanboy.  Do not expect impartial criticism.

Audra and Billie
I don’t care if the nominating committee can’t decide whether Lady Day is a “musical” or a “play with music.” Just hand Audra her sixth Tony. If I had my way, I would institute a “Best Performance by Audra McDonald” category and she could win a Tony every year. We can then debate the flawlessness of each performance in whatever show she’s currently appearing.

As a confirmed Audraphile, I admit even I had my doubts. Audra’s voice is perfection, but I just couldn’t imagine Audra’s soaring legit soprano attempt to take on Billie Holiday’s iconic songs and performance style. But what Ms. McD accomplishes transcends mere mimicry. She's dampened some of the glorious bloom and lushness of her soprano voice in order to inhabit - not just imitate - Holiday’s iconic sound, style and manner.

It’s unfortunate the book scenes don’t match the quality of Audra’s performance. They are uneven and sometimes unnecessarily meandering. But Audra manages to enthrall with even mediocre writing. There is an immediacy and desperation in her performance that only heightens the tragedy of Holiday’s short, demon-filled life.

The intimate Circle in the Square is the perfect venue to see Audra up close and personal. And even as a boozed-up, heroin addict, Audra’s still radiant. Though I suspect if she ever played a homeless, scarred leper I’d still find her radiant. Did I mention I’m obsessed with Audra?

Props to the excellent onstage jazz trio whose talents are equally responsible for the style and sound of the show.

Friday, March 21, 2014

“It has some nice tunes, but the story…”

The Threepenny Opera
Thursday, March 20, 8PM

Now read the title of this review again, but with a thick Jewish accent.

…thus proclaimeth the elderly gentlemen sitting in front of me to his wife and their companions as the intermission house lights came up.

He probably expected a jolly romp a la Guys and Dolls after his wife sold him on the show by telling him, “It has that Frank Sinatra song ‘Mack the Knife’ in it.” I’m not sure “Brecht” and “jolly” should ever be associated together in the same sentence.

I’m actually a Threepenny virgin, so I was very much looking forward to the Atlantic’s revival (not to mention the $20 ticket price!). The production, still in previews, is a bit uneven and the talented cast is still struggling to find a cohesive style. Nevertheless, there are several great performances and a few striking stage moments.

I’ll admit, after the opening 10 minutes I was thinking, “This is going to be a very long night.” The famous opening song is a meandering mess with the ensemble wandering and writhing around the stage aimlessly.

The show finally gains some traction with Polly’s entrance. Once again, Laura Osnes proves she’s not just another pretty reality show victim but a bona fide actress. She captures the presentational style of the piece while still managing to connect emotionally with the audience. Her “Pirate Jenny” and “Jealousy Duet” with Lucy (Lilli Cooper) are show highlights.

There’s a lot of crotch grabbing, simulated sex, and even some full frontal nudity, which, I guess is part of the Epic theatre’s “shock” value. It didn’t really bother me except during Jenny’s song where poor Sally Murphy was upstaged by background actors simulating fellatio and demonstrating the reverse cowgirl position. Though Murphy emoted center stage with nipples poking through a sheer bra and in a bright spotlight, I never gave her a second glance.

Michael Park is a credible Macheath, though I wanted him to be a bit edgier, darker – more dangerous. He’s almost a bit too “clean.”

Mary Beth Peil is a droll Mrs. Peachum. She would have made a fantastic Lovett in her day.

F. Murry Abraham has great stage presence, but seems like director/choreographer Martha Clarke hung him out to dry. He spends most of his songs wondering the front lip of the stage, directionless. He was not helped by some really obvious lighting queue gaffes that left him treading water in near darkness.

The three act musical takes a brief intermission in the middle of Act II. The second half of the play seems much more stylistically coherent than the clunky first half, though it could be a fault in the writing/translation.

As always, lobby eavesdropping prior to the show proved almost as entertaining as the stage performances. You would think a mother taking her adolescent children to a show would do a little research. "There's nudity?" she surprisingly asked the usher after reading a warning at the box office window. I'm sure she had no idea the show is about murderers and whores.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bullets Over Broadway on Broadway

Bullets Over Broadway
St. James Theatre
Saturday, March 15, 2pm

When this shady old bitch was in college some 20 (gasp) odd years ago, Bullets Over Broadway was required Friday night drunken dorm viewing for any aspiring theatre dork/queen. So you can imagine the show boner I popped when Woody (pun intended – hehe) Allen announced he was prepping Bullets for a musical stage adaptation.

My amorous mood was shattered once producers announced they would use pre-existing period songs instead of creating an original score. My beloved Bullets was to be adapted into another awful jukebox musical tourist trap a la Mamma Mia. Don't speak. Please, don't speak.

The interpolated songs are fairly logically integrated into the plot and are newly arranged with some updated lyrics that lend (some) specificity to their placement in the show. There are, nonetheless, several instances where the shoe-horn effect grinds this otherwise solid stage adaptation to a screeching halt.

I don't know what kind of incriminating photos the producers are holding against Karen Ziemba, but I'm thankful it's forced her to accept what amounts to a glorified featured ensemble role. Regardless, she manages to transform the pleasant yet pointless "There's a New Day Comin'" into a reasonably inoffensive second act opener. Though I suspect the number was added to accommodate her luxury casting. And the thoroughly anticlimactic finale (“Yes, We Have No Bananas”) seems like a non sequitur, a place holder until the creative team can come up with an appropriately glitzy replacement.

The rest of the score is good to serviceable, mostly a means for the cast to show-off vocally or give Stro a reason to inject some leggy showgirls into the mix. It's all entertainingly performed and staged, but any one of the songs could be randomly cut and you'd really not miss it much. 

The flashy but tasteful art deco-inspired set is a marvel of designer ingenuity, with a remarkable amount of different locations suggested by a minimum of set pieces.  The second act rotating stage-within-a-stage embellished with chorus girls in tableau is the kind of staging inventiveness we expect from the prop-happy choreographer that brought us Crazy For You.

The show looks great, all the performances are solid and the choreography is vintage Susan Stroman - though nothing quite reaches the eye-popping excitement of her best work (i.e. "I Got Rhythm" or "Little Old Lay Land"). Still, the show never felt more than "pleasant" to me.

Keeping with my boner metaphor, I think the show shoots it's proverbial wad too soon. Near the beginning of the show, the wannabe actress, Olive, has an outrageous number called "I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll" (insert bat over head). Anyway, it has the audience roaring. Unfortunately, nothing that follows tops it. The audience keeps waiting for the 11 o' clock number that never comes.

Nick Cordero's Cheech is the highlight of the show and a shoe-in for a best supporting actor Tony nom. Mazzie looks and sounds gorgeous, but would have benefited from an original song that might better exploit her huge range and personality. Zach Braff is adorable with a pleasant enough singing voice, but the character doesn't really register much amidst all the other big personalities surrounding him. Helene York is an audience favorite, but seemed to go for the obvious choice - ditzy slut with nails-on-a-chalkboard voice. I think a much more interesting choice would have been to temper her a bit, make her more subtlely manipulative with maybe a hint of Bettie Boop. Then again, what do I know? Woody's a gajillionaire and I answer phones.

Friday, December 6, 2013

I'm still here! Catching up on 2013...

Nobody Loves You
Second Stage Theatre
Saturday, Aug 10 @ 2PM

A fun sit-com of a musical where a snotty grad student goes on a reality dating show to prove that reality shows are a scam.  And of course, ends up falling in love.  It's totally predictable, but the characters and actors are so likable that you excuse the trite set-up and inevitable conclusion.

The score is tuneful, generic pop musical theatre, but the talented cast elevates it beyond what it probably deserves.  It's crammed full of media and technology references that scream "aren't we clever" and for the most part, they are.  Although many of the gray-haired matinee ladies were looking around in confusion as the younger set laughed over hashtags and texting acronyms.

I wish Leslie Kritzer had more to do, but she does the most she can with a big ole stereotype of a character (incidentally, all the characters as written are big ole stereotypes).  Heath Calvert is perfect as a hunky, dim narcissist of a television host.  And Rory O'Malley displays his comic versatility in a range of characters from douche bag frat boy to flamboyant gossip queen.

It's harmless fun with a top notch cast.

The Nance
Lyceum Theatre
Saturday, Aug 10 @ 8PM

It's been months now, but what I remember most was my surprise at Nathan Lane's heartbreaking performance in a dramatic role.  Ever since The Producers, it seemed Lane was stuck in a never-ending loop of wacky, flamboyant comic character roles.  He'd become a caricature of himself.

In The Nance Lane plays Chauncey, a 1930s burlesque comedian trying to come to terms with his sexuality at a time when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness.  Things get complicated when a handsome young stranger forces Chauncey to question his hedonistic lifestyle (to whore, or not to whore?).

The play's structure consists of period musical and comedy skits intercut between traditional dialogue scenes, with the skits commenting on the action of the play.  Cady Huffman, Andrea Burns and Jenni Barber are the lovable activist strippers trying to stand-up to the evil censoring Republicans looking to shut down the burlesque houses.  The only thing missing is a trumpet, some butterfly wings and a light-up bra.

Refreshingly, this isn't the campy romp we usually come to expect from Douglas Carter Beane, who appropriately leaves most of the bitchy one-liners within the skits.

Jonny Orsini is affecting as the young object of Chauncey's lust.  The straightforwardness and simplicity of his acting - as well as some full frontal action - quickly earn the audience's sympathies.

The Glass Menagerie
Booth Theatre
Sunday, Sep 8, 2PM

I'm now officially an aging theatre queen.  It's depressing enough that producers are reviving shows I've seen in their original productions.  But now I'm on to multiple revivals of the same show!  Sigh.  Pretty soon I'll be lamenting the bygone era of LPs and mix tapes and reminiscing about the good ole' days when MTV used to play - gasp - music videos.

Anyway, the most striking aspect of the most recent revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie is the stunning set and lighting design.  The designers have interpreted the "memory play" aspect of the script into a literal visual image.  The set and players seem to float within the dark expanse of the theatre's proscenium.

As always, Cherry Jones gives a thoughtful, intelligent performance as Amanda, the fading southern matriarch.  She infuses her Amanda with a grounded, earth-mother vibe that I'm not totally convinced is the most appropriate route for the character.  It's a growling, fierce performance that seems at odds with Amanda's genteel debutante past.  It's definitely original and unexpected, but I prefer my Amanda's a bit more, well, southern.  Maybe it's because my first Amanda was the delicate, oh-so-southern, Jessica Lange.

Zachary "Spock" Quinto is lending a not-so-subtle gay subtext to Tom, and there is some pretty overt homo-eroticism going on between Tom and the gentleman caller in the second act.  No such undertones in the Lange production, where Christian Slater (yes, that Christian Slater) played Tom as just a schlubby loser.

The director, John Tiffany, adds some interesting impressionistic flourishes to the staging.  Some work wonderfully - characters literally teetering on the "edge" of the set (i.e. their memories) - while others seem gimmicky - repeated movements reminiscent of acting class exercises.

And in case your wondering, I'm in the camp that likes the woman-eating couch.  Don't ask.

It may not be the perfect production for Menagerie purists, but this is a genuinely original take on the well-known melodrama.

Romeo and Juliet
Richard Rodgers
Sunday, Sep 29 @ 3pm

Beside the several phone interruptions and clandestine photo-taking by the teenager and her mom sitting next to me, I found myself not hating this recent Broadway revival of the Bard's classic love story.  It's not ground-breaking or revelatory, but the well-known story still packs an emotional punch and Bloom and Rashad are charming and likable.

Sure, the loud, clanging incidental music and sleek modern design obviously caters to the attention-span challenged tweeners and star-fuckers feigning class by attending "Shakespea-uh on the Broadway," but it's entertaining nonetheless.

Thanks to a second row orchestra seat (go TDF!), I got an eyeful of the strapping Orlando Bloom and lovely Condola Rashad.  But the unfortunate placement of the balcony at the lip of the stage left me with a stiff neck and aching lower back by the end of the evening.

Even up close, the 30-something Bloom still passes for a twink - must be some kind of Middle Earth elf magic - and he gives a charmingly earnest, unaffected performances.  I'm a Rashad fan, but surprisingly I found her the weaker of the pair, trying just a tad too hard to feign the glow of youthful naivete.  But Bloom and Rashad have a palpable chemistry and from the balcony scene onward, they literally can't keep their hands off each other.

Director David Leveaux has a weird obsession with two-wheeled vehicles.  Romeo enters on a motorcycle (for no apparent reason other than for the "cool" factor) and the nurse spends most of her time walking a bicycle around the stage.  Oddly, she never rides it.

There are some inconsistencies in the acting styles within the company and the production doesn't really seem to take place in any specific time or period, but it didn't bother me much since the language is so darn beautiful.

Not a total waste of an afternoon, but sitting in the Rodgers I was reminded of a former tenant, a show that I enjoyed much more, In The Heights.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Three Witches' - er - I mean, Ethan Hawke's Macbeth

Lincoln Center
Wednesday, Nov 6, 8PM

With Trish hanging in RVA for the next couple of months, I had to find myself a new show buddy. Since most of my friends are certified musical theatre queens (me included), I resorted to a straight date with newly employed hetero friend, Chris Grimm. Sadly, our first "date" didn't amount to much, mainly due to a languid and uneven production. The evening seemed endless and after three hours, I was hoping to be the next victim of Ethan's dagger.

The sleek and stylish physical production, in cool shades of black and gray with the occasional splash of symbolic red, seemed a bit too chic for its own good, though it made for some visually stunning stage pictures. The couture costumes, especially for Lady Macbeth, seemed lifted straight out of a Vogue spread - gorgeous, but perhaps not entirely appropriate. Lighting and projections were suitably eerie and often spectacularly cinematic.

Unfortunately, the all-too-often bare (though gorgeously lit) stage led to some fairly stilted blocking with actors peppered around the huge Beaumont stage talking at each other with not much else to do. The lack of action created lots of tennis-match style ensemble work.

The only performers able to successfully navigate the director's sabotage were the three witches. Played by men in rotting-robed drag, John Glover, Byron Jennings, and Malcolm Gets make the strongest stage impression. Slipping in and out of character to play minor roles throughout the evening, the audience is led to believe that the events on stage are just part of some mystical destiny (occult symbolism is literally imbedded into the stage floor).

As for Ethan, when I could hear or understand him, was - well - adequate. His hoarse, unsupported voice and mushy diction thwarted his attempt at lending any strength or gravitas to his characterization. And with a strong and gorgeous Lady (Ann-Marie Duff) at his side, Hawke's Macbeth just comes off as a wimpy, spoiled man-child. Hawke did improve in bearing and strength (still raspy and hoarse, though) by the last hour of the play, but it was too little too late.

The rest of the supporting cast is strong, but all seemed to be in different productions of the same play. Acting styles were wildly inconsistent across the board.

This production would make a gorgeous glossy coffee table book.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013 - Thankful for 24-hour Au Bon Pain

It’s not a Pineda holiday without some kind of drama. This year, my dad decided to scare the bejesus out of us by heading to the ICU over the Thanksgiving holiday. He’s been dealing with a long term illness for the past few months, but seemed to be making good progress...

...until the day before Thanksgiving.

We are a family known for its procrastinating tendencies, but within a few hours of Trish’s panicked phone call, Juan, Val and I were packed into the van and speeding through freezing rain and sleet on our way to Richmond. It was a wild few days, but dad is now out of the hospital and recuperating.

The last minute venue change didn't stop us from keeping the holiday spirit alive. We still managed to have our Thanksgiving turkey dinner with all the trimmings. But instead of a cozy sit-down at the family dinner table, we took turns noshing in the hospital cafeteria. Institutionally prepared, mass-produced turkey and stuffing never tasted so good. And we didn't have to wash any dishes. Thank you, lunch ladies!

Only two guests allowed in a patient's room at a time in the ICU. So we got cozy in the waiting room with our computers and plentiful snacks. Nothing like festive over-nighter in a sterile hospital lounge to bolster your holiday spirit.

Thankfully, dad was well enough to be moved to a regular floor after a couple of days. We spent the rest of the week in a spacious private hospital suite large enough to accommodate the whole Pineda clan, including a surprise visit from a very pregnant cousin Marion. And did I mention the 24-hour Au Bon Pain in the lobby? That's right, we had all night access to chocolate croissants and English toffee cookies.

Per usual, our unique brand of Pineda charm (persistent neediness to some) and good looks quickly won over the staff. It also didn't hurt that we plied the nurses with all sorts of goodies gathered from home from our Thanksgiving celebration that never was. Amazing how free cake can cement a relationship - and get you extra ice cream.

Dad's final day at the hospital coincided with mom and dad's wedding anniversary (as well as Trish's birthday!). As a wonderful final gesture, the whole nursing staff stopped by for a cheerful bon voyage complete with anniversary cupcakes for the happy couple.

Our intrepid nursing staff, technicians and food service professionals all stopped by on dad's final day to say "good-bye" and ... present the anniversary couple with celebratory cupcakes!

I wish all the doctors, nurses and staff at MCV a hearty "thank you" for contributing to a memorable Thanksgiving 2013. And here's hoping for some boring, non-eventful holidays to come.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Two Boys, One Disturbing Opera

Two Boys
Metropolitan Opera
Saturday, Nov 9, 8PM

So I finally made it over to Lincoln Center for my first opera of the 2013-14 season, the American premier of Nico Muhly’s, Two Boys, loosely based on events surrounding a 2001 murder in Manchester, England.

First off, I gotta’ give the Met credit for trying to lure the young’ens into the opera house.  It was positively Twilight Zone-ish seeing those hallowed, red-carpeted staircases (usually overrun by gray-haired socialites and frumpy opera queens - moi included!) swarming with nattily dressed 20 and 30-somethings. 

Obviously, the subject matter (a murder perpetrated through internet fraud with homo-erotic and pedophilic overtones) is the stuff our TMZ-obsessed youth go wild over.  But as the opera unfolded, it occurred to me that this type of techno-identity crime is just a natural progression from the masked sexual hijinks of a Figaro or Così.

More amusing to me was hearing opera singers belt out strings of profanity and modern sexual slang (examples: “he just blew me” “I told you, seven and a half inches”) with such glorious tone from the immense Met stage – not to mention simulated masturbation.  I’ll admit to suppressing an occasional giggle due to the SNL skit-like anachronism of it all.

Though I enjoyed the performance as a whole and, for the most part, riveted by the bizarre intricacies of the story, I found much of the solo writing melodically unsatisfying.  The orchestrations are appropriately atmospheric and moody but too often sound like the soundtrack to an Alfred Hitchcock movie a la Philip Glass. This lack of variety in orchestral texture and musical tempi created a sometimes gorgeous hypnotic quality; but just as often lulled me into drowsiness.  But then again I’m a sucker for a big ole Puccini aria.

The full ensemble numbers, however, are just f*&cking gorgeous.  It’s in these interludes that Muhly’s gift for musical texture and harmony truly shines.  Instead of the obvious use of electronic sounds (cue "Axel F" from Beverly Hills Cop.  Anyone, anyone?  Bueller, Bueller?) to signify online chatter, Muhly uses overlapping choruses and purely acoustic instrumentation to create an almost undulating wall of sound that perfectly symbolizes the amorphous fluidity of cyberland.

Alice Coote has a warm blanket of a mezzo voice that you just want to wrap yourself up in.  She’s a great, natural actress onstage as well.

Paul Appleby had the daunting task of portraying a 15-year-old teen murderer and pretty impressively pulls off the physicality and mannerisms.  And though he’s only 30, his voice fills the Met’s barn of a theatre.  It will be interesting to see how the voice develops over the next decade or so.

A boy soprano performed the role of the 12-year-old victim which definitely upped the ick factor in some of the bedroom scenes.  But not to worry, nothing was actually simulated onstage, just a lot of innuendo and awkward intimacy.

It was nice to see the Met step into this century with the tasteful use of projections to enhance the bare, minimalist set and staging.  

The choreography was interesting, if a bit bizarre.  I mean, I get it.  Ballet wouldn't exactly be appropriate, but the jerky movement felt a tad Spring Awakening-y to me.

Addendum 11/25:  I totally failed to mention that the young boy soprano, Andrew Pulver, is a Pineda Lyric Opera Young Artist and was a featured soloist in our recent production of The Magic Flute.  Congratulations, Andrew!  And pat on the back to Pineda Conservatory.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fun Home

Fun Home
Public Theatre
Sunday, Nov 3, 3PM

I can't believe it's been nearly a month since I last enjoyed a live theatre performance.  Sure, I get plenty of show biz pizzaz during my workouts at Mark Fisher Fitness, but even buff trainers in red bikini briefs and top hats can't replace this theatre queen's need to hear a Broadway diva belt out a show tune live.

What, pray tell, could possibly counteract the elevated testosterone levels coursing through my body from three weeks of deadlifting and split squatting?  Why, an old fashioned, downtown lesbian musical, of course!

As my close friends know, I love any entertainment mode that can move me to tears - preferably a really good ugly cry.  I consider these moments therapy, since my limited budget doesn't allow me the conventional office and couch setting needed to heal my undoubtedly damaged psyche.  But that's a topic for another post.

Earlier in the week I had bumped into friend and Playbill reporter, Michael Gioia, and actor, George Salazar, on the N train (on my way to a work out, no less, and on their way to a matinee of Spider-Man - don't judge, they were seeing a friend who was going into the show that day).  They assured me that Fun Home would fulfill all my ugly crying needs.

Perhaps my expectations were set too high (aside from my friend's recommendation, the show has garnered across-the-board rave reveiws).  Or perhaps I was just too physically tired and emotionally drained from weeks of heavy exercise and food depravation.  Whatever the reason, I found myself disappointingly dry-eyed by the end of the performance.

Not that I wasn't moved.  The show is beautifully written and acted with a sincerity and uncloying earnestness rarely seen on uptown stages.  And the score is probably Tesori's best since Violet (which, incidentally is being revived on Broadway next year with Sutton Foster. Yay!).  It feels and sounds contemporary, but without the familiar pseudo-pop/rock/folk sound that Jason Robert Brown does so well and that seemingly every theatre composer under the age of 40 tries to duplicate (most, unsuccessfully).

I did come close to having a Kleenex moment during my favorite songs of the show.  After having her first sexual experience with a women, the main character, Alison (played by three different actresses at different ages), sings unabashedly about how she could happily spend the rest of her life in bed with this woman who took her heart (and virginity).  I was smiling so hard my cheeks ached and I had to hold back tears of joy over this awkward teenager's moment of self discovery.  Or maybe I was too closely identifying with the denial and confusion I experienced in my own awkward youth.  Again, a topic for another day, or more appropriately, a therapist's couch.

The three characters playing Alison are all sensational.  Though I definitely now have a show boner for Alexandra Socha's geeky, sexually-confused college-aged Alison.  I just wanted to run up on stage and give her a big hug and tell her everything was going to be OK.

And Hallelujah!  Judy Kuhn finally gets to show off her soprano voice again.  The theatre dork in me still thinks lovingly of my first Broadway show, Les Miserables, and jizzing over Ms. Kuhn's floated high C.  You never forget your first time.  As put-upon wife, Kuhn's character could have easily come off as an annoying bitch.  But Kuhn lends a humanity and vulnerability to the character's seemingly cold facade.

Michael Cerveris is, as usual, giving a flawless performance of yet another oddball outsider.  He seems to be Broadway's go-to guy to play creepers who look like they might molest your child.

And I have to give a great big "thank you" to an old college friend, Margie Kotler Hinsdale (whose super talented and adorable son happens to be in the cast).  She was able to hook me up with a discount code for a great seat at the last minute.
"I'd rather be nine people's favorite thing thana hundred people's ninth favorite thing."

Jeff Bowen, Lyrics "[Title of Show]"