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I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road – Review

act

Somebody wants some supper fixed
And somebody wants some love
And there’s just no time to write a song to say what I’m thinking of
But tomorrow I hit the road
Gonna let loose of this heavy load and FLY!

Few shows capture a time period as perfectly as Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road. It was a feminist anthem, performed at Joe Papp’s Public Theater in the late 1970s and is being (briefly) revived as part of the Encores! Off-Center series at NY City Center.

The tale (based upon Ms. Cryer’s experiences) is of singer Heather Jones and her attempt at finding her own voice. Today is Heather’s birthday, she’s 39, which her manager Joe urges her to keep to herself. He would prefer she not mention being a single mother or express anger or upset the men in the audience. He wants her to be successful and then she can sneak in the real. Set in a theatre, during the rehearsal for this evening’s opening night, adds to the overwhelming believability of this show. Unlike many “showbiz” shows, we are watching real people have a real experience. The songs are seamlessly woven into the narrative creating almost an operatic quality.

It can be challenging to sing and say words so steeped in a movement or time period. Singing rock together with ballads is not for everyone, particularly with the original recording artist sitting in the front row. But Renee Elise Goldsberry (Good People, Rent, Lion King) transcends even the highest expectations. Her voice has a quality not often found today; it is devoid of belting and breathiness and filled with richness and feeling. Her sound is reminiscent of female folk singers of the 1970s, a delightful auditory nod to the time period. There is nothing anachronistic about her performance however. She is fresh, real and present. She sings of growing up in the 1950s and being told to smile. “If you smile in just the right way you’ll make a pretty wife and someone will take care of you for all your pretty life.” When Ms. Goldsberry sings these words we don’t think of sepia toned photos of a little girl in front of the family car. Her interpretation makes us think of Facebook photos showing girls in identical suggestive poses.

Fredrick Weller (Glengarry Glen Ross, Take Me Out) is perfectly cast as the layered manager Joe. His delivery (of some of the funner lines) is timed to the millisecond. He is infuriating and endearing and a wonderful counterbalance to the “artist” energy on the stage. Theirs is a friendship that you suspect and hope will go the distance, despite (or maybe because of) their differing viewpoints. The friendship itself is serenaded in the showstopper Dear Friend. Joe wants Heather’s act to play the Troubadour, and he feels that her reading her divorce decree out loud is not the ticket to success. But Heather’s been down this road before. She has recorded a hit song that now makes her physically ill in its sweetness. She works on a soap opera where she’s undoubtedly polished and pushed into a mold. She has some experience with being put in a package and sold. The (fabulous) band and her female back-up singers are only too glad to help her deliver the real. Christina Sajous (Spiderman, Baby It’s You) and Jennifer Sanchez (West Side Story, Ghost) create a perfect sound and harmony with Ms. Goldsberry. Jason Rabinowitz (acoustic guitar) breaks the audience and Ms. Goldsberry’s heart with a solo performance of In A Simple Way I Love You.

It is always a bit risky to revive a period piece that was not a runaway hit. But under the deft direction of Kathleen Marshall and with a cast to beat the band, this production may actually surpass the original (which this reviewer saw and committed to memory as a very impressionable woman in training.)

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2013 in Theatre

 

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Review

NY City Center Encores! production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes belongs to the Ensemble, and it’s in very good hands!  Rob Berman’s orchestra is superb and is neatly paired with Randy Skinner’s lush choreography.  This show is filled with dance and cast with actual dancers.  The chorus is actual singers as well.

There is a number towards the end of Act I, “In the Champ de Mars” when the chorus does not use body microphones.  They stand on the edge of the stage and sing out.  It is practically disorienting to hear sound and be able to locate its source.  These singers do not need amplification or tricks of any kind, they are the real thing.  If hearing truly talented singers unplugged isn’t enough to knock your socks off there are Attmore & Grimes.  Yowza.  This tap-dancing duo (in real life as well) perform “Mamie is Mimi” with Megan Skiro (a spit-fire dancer brimming with all kinds of personality.)  It has been a very (very) long time since I have seen this kind of dancing anywhere but in an old MGM movie.  Simply stunning.

While Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Music: Jule Styne, Lyrics: Leo Rubin, Book: Anita Loos & Joseph Fields) is not the most riveting of musicals, director John Rando made much of it.  There is enough fun and powerful talent in this production that I found myself fantasizing of a dream team of Kristin Chenoweth and Laura Benanti as Lorelei and Dorothy.  Those roles are currently filled with Megan Hilty and Rachel York.  The audience loved them, and Mr. Rando predicted it.  Every number of Ms. Hilty’s was split into three parts, allowing the audience to applaud in triplicate.  Ms. York came in at the end of dance numbers to throw her arms up and receive applause.  I’m not sure Dorothy needs to be a dancer, so it’s best to keep her off the stage and allow the dancer’s their moment.  The audience was so enamored with Ms. Hilty that at one point they wildly applauded her dress.  Yet I found this duo unsettling.  Ms. York almost disappeared as Dorothy (when she wasn’t taking a bow.)  Ms. Hilty’s interpretation seemed more Betty Boop (with blond wig) than Lorelei.  When the second act opens, Dorothy and friend enter in red dresses.  The blond with her seemed so much more toned down than in Act I.  I let out a small sigh of relief.  Then I realized the blond was in fact Mrs. Spofford (Ella Rush) and not Lorelei.

See this show for the dancing and the incredible orchestra.  See this show to remember what songs sound like with out technical tricks.  See this show to experience an Overture and Entr’acte.  None of these elements should be taken for granted.  If you’ve ever experience a Broadway musical at which the conductor is waving his arms to an empty pit (the music being piped in from the basement and locales unknown) you know exactly what I mean.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Pipe Dream – Review

N.Y. City Center Encores! is back to its old self with its production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream (1955.)  Fully choreographed (Kelli Barclay,) with a perfect set (John Lee Beatty) and costumes (Toni-Leslie James) that by all rights should be in my closet, Encores! once again, does not disappoint.

Pipe Dream is based on two John Steinback novels (Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday) and has a certain grittiness that one may not always associate with Rodgers & Hammerstein.  To be perfectly candid, I often suffer from insulin depletion at declarations of climbing every mountain, or of the corn being as high as an elephant’s eye.  I’ve always been more of a; boy like that, sit down you’re rocking the boat, you’ll never get away from me, kinda gal.  And while Pipe Dreams is by no means a perfect show, it has lured me onto Team R&H.

The theme of the show is that of the world of work, and not the button downed briefcase carrying kind.  Much of the show takes place in both a house of…well, a house of female comfort and a flop house.  There are some simply beautiful songs; Everybody’s Got A Home But Me and Suzy Is A Good Thing (which opening notes are reminiscent of the opening to Bali Hai.)  There are also one or two songs that simply fall flat.  However, with a strong producer (back in 1955) it’s clear that this show could have been work-shopped into something wonderful.

With any show that does not come complete with recognizable tunes or story, or has not come directly from a film or comic book; casting is key.  Marc Bruni (director) hit a trifecta with Leslie Uggams, Tom Wopat and Stephen Wallem.  Mr. Wopat and Ms. Uggams are in great voice and simply devour their characters.  Mr. Wallem is an extremely enjoyable character actor (with a very good singing voice) and captures the character of Hazel perfectly.  The male and female romantic leads; Will Chase and Laura Osnes are not as suited to their roles.  Romantic leads are never that interesting to play, and without a certain spark, or electric magnetism, they are not very interesting to watch.

The real star of any Encores! production is the thirty(!) piece orchestra, directed by Rob Berman.  At a time when paired down orchestras are being divided and sequestered into basement rooms with tiny monitors of the stage (across the street) it is phenomenal to see a full orchestra on the stage.  When the curtain rose to reveal the elevated orchestra I heard a young girl gasp.  If there is anything that is less than positive about Encores! is that the run is always far too brief.  Pipe Dreams plays until April 1st.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Merrily We Roll Along – Review

There is the “greatest generation” and then there’s the generation that came right after.  Coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s provided a unique blend of adult optimism to a generation.  Post World War II access to higher education meant more people than ever now saw college as a viable option.  A young, attractive first family was changing the White House and creating cultural pride.  It was the start of the space age and all things seemed possible.  (Which is why people built bomb shelters; all things were possible.)

NY City Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along captures that time beautifully.  In flashback, the story of Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger,) Frank (Colin Donnell) and Charlie (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is told; three friends making their way artistically through life.  We are introduced to their middle-aged selves in 1976.  The fashions, and the circumstances are a bit grim.  Frank is a Hollywood sensation (and all that goes with that) and his friends feel forsaken.  Mary’s relationship with alcohol is now a full-blown love affair, and while her antics are funny, she’s terribly sad.  Luckily we don’t linger too long in the mid-70s.  Two decades worth of seamless flashbacks ensue, and we are left at the end in 1957, when all things seemed possible.

There is much that is wonderful about this show, but the creakiness of the first act is also worth mention.  The first scenes (in the 1970s) feel as bland and self-conscious as the actual 1970s.  Perhaps it was intentional.  There are some great songs in the first act, and I’ll admit to tearing up at the first three notes of Not A Day Goes By.  The second act is nothing but perfect, as it should be; it’s when we see how they got to be who they are.  In this sense, the play itself echoes the creative process.  (It’s always far more interesting to create than it is to analyze the finished product.)  The second act flies by with fast-paced story telling.  It is rare, and exceedingly delightful when it feels as if the curtain comes much too soon.

NY City Center Encores! (musical director: Rob Berman) is a gem, bringing lesser produced musicals to the stage in concert version.  Merrily, directed by James Lapine, is the first Encores! to be presented in the newly refurbished City Center.  Whether because of that status, or not, this is a very different staging of an Encores! production.  The productions have not been pure “concert” versions for years.  Performers are completely off book (even if they do carry the script for comfort or affect) and the numbers are fully staged.  There are lavish costumes and set pieces as well.  Merrily We Roll Along does not have any “numbers” but has one number-lette in the second act, which is mostly tongue in cheek.  What Merrily has is a realism similar to Sondheim/Furth’s Company.  This starkness might feel disorienting to some, and this staging seems to only highlight the condition.  The (ravishing) 23 member orchestra is on a platform one story above the stage.  The performance space is black and there are about a dozen set pieces that get wheeled on and off.  The only set direction is a very large video screen built into the orchestra platform.  The first scene is a slide show of passing decades.  Real New York City photos are shown as are photo-shopped iconic shots.  There is a Forest Gump element to it all that can be very distracting.  Later the screen is used very successfully to portray a theatre and a yacht.  One of the best visual moments is when through clever positioning and video, the actors look to be actually sailing away.

As always with Encores!, the ensemble is first rate.  There are some performances that will really linger.  A small child, Zachary Unger, proves that excellent child performers do exist.  Celie Keenan-Bolger is a remarkable chameleon.  While Mary, is the most interesting of characters in the show, Kennan-Bolger adds dimensions that would be lost in lesser hands.  Lin-Manuel Miranda also has a great character with Charley, and does it wonderful justice.  His number; Franklin Shepard, Inc. is just delicious.  Speaking of numbers; in Act II the three principal characters perform on two typewriters (look it up, they’re like computers without a screen) and a piano.  I find myself wondering what in the world the score looked like for that.

NY City Center Encores! is a beacon of hope for musical theatre lovers.  Their focus on quality of content and excellence of performance makes us believe that all things are possible.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Theatre

 

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