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If You Can Make It There

gottadance

Dozens of wonderful movies have been made about making it in New York City. Heroes and heroines flock to the big city seeking understanding and/or excitement. Often they hail from small towns with nothing more than a suitcase and a dream. They emerge from buses and trains into a bustling mysterious brightly lit metropolis. They pound the pavement for a room and a job, knocking on countless slamming doors (a la Gene Kelly; Gotta Dance! Gotta Dance!) They find a room, perhaps even an efficiency or worldly roommate. They get a job and make it all work. They won’t quit ’til they’re a star!

Movies about the big adventure that is NYC aren’t really made anymore. NYC appears quite frequently in film but less as a place to conquer, and more as a posh playground. They still come from small towns and less glittery cities. But the heroes and heroines of today are more likely to find shelter in a 2,000 square foot loft than a room in a boarding house. Young women don’t share an “interview dress” but news of sample sales. And it’s been a few decades since a call girl found it entertaining to window shop at Tiffany. The scrappiness is gone. The roughing it and hard knock pursuit of a brand new start of it is a thing of the past; and for good reason.

You’d be hard pressed to find a legitimate boarding house in NYC. There are efficiency apartments still holding on, but they’re most decidedly not for out-of-towners. If there are buildings which house nothing but theatrical agents, even Gene Kelly wouldn’t be allowed past security. It’s a different city than it was 80, 70, or even 20 years ago. It is a town less about cab drivers answering back in language far from pure, than it is about gentility. Searching for grittiness can become a scavenger hunt. There is a gloss to the city that doesn’t sleep. Our heroines of yesteryear would not know what to make of bicycle paths, pedestrian malls, man-made beaches and midtown pop-up swimming pools (that are nothing more than oversized dumpsters). For the out-of-towner arriving to make their fame and fortune, these sights might be comforting and not the least surprising. Their perceptions of NYC, gleaned from television & film will be confirmed; it is a luxury cruise ship! The food is copious, the entertainment splashy and every need is easily fulfilled.

Of course there is still a grittiness to be found in the city, and there are still wonderfully diverse foods and entertainment. But it gets harder and harder to live an urban life beyond the homogenization. With each passing year the city becomes more a place for tourists and less for residents. People come from all over the world to see the prescribed sights. The intensity of the city and its lights might be exotic but the ads, retail and amenities are very familiar. A person could come to NYC; complete their tourist attraction checklist while eating, drinking and sleeping in very familiar places. But what of that young man or woman arriving with three bucks, two bags, one me? How do they find their way in a town priced at tourist levels, no longer as welcoming to the young yearning to be free? What does it mean to a city, and a world capital to no longer be the incubator of extraordinary young talent? The world will always welcome bankers and engineers, but what of artists?

NYC will never (willingly) go back to its hardscrabble ways. The tourism dollars are simply too good to turn down. But it is possible to recapture the opportunities and promise of the big city. Dotted throughout the island are examples of how. There is (at least) one subsidized residence for actors. There are small-business incubators supported by the city. There is even health insurance for freelancers. Gathering these meager resources and augmenting them to support artists and innovators would be a great legacy for a mayor. City sponsored art projects, theatres, and music would open the door for those Ruby Keelers and Gene Kellys and who knows whom else. The only way to ensure true diversity is to actively support success. It’s really up to you New York, New York.

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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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 Uncategorized

 

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The (T.V.) Guide Of Casting

Betty

It’s late July and the first whispers of Broadway’s 2013-2014 season can be heard. Unlike a sighting of back-to-school displays, this prematurity is welcome. Even if one loves the summer and is ensconced in a villa or beach hideaway, paradise can get a bit tedious. And if you’re of the school that there is never enough sand, seafood and sangria it’s nice to think of how you will assuage yourself once the leaves turn. And let’s face it, anticipation is more than half the fun.

If you’re a lover of (what I call) main stage Broadway and swoon at all things Llyod Weber, there’s almost always something to look forward. It’s also almost a sure bet that revival lovers will be happy. But what’s more of a gamble, and therefore a bit exciting, is news of new works, fabulous directors or stellar stage performers. Both camps of theatregoers; main stage and not-so-main stage often experience FOMO (fear of missing out) in extreme form. The line for the cronut is nothing compared to the virtual line for an “insert celebrity name here” show, jukebox musical, or made from TV, or film show. Nothing creates buzz like buzz, and most main stage shows have a marketing machine to beat the band. A quieter, no more attractive frenzy occurs over the not-so-main stage offerings as well. The bragging rights are comparable as well. In brownstones, penthouses and rent control classic sixes, you can hear any of the following; “Cumming’s Macbeth? We saw it before it went to Broadway. Of course Patti was great in Gypsy, but the Encores! production was quite different. You wanna see flying? You MUST see Peter and the Starcatcher.” (Somewhere in apartments we couldn’t afford or dare to enter there are similar conversations of theatre so obscure & avant-garde that knowing their titles is as good as seeing them.)

John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Defiance), James Lapine (Sunday In The Park With George, Into The Woods), Doug Hughes (Inherit The Wind, Mauritius, A Man For All Seasons) will be collaborating in various configurations at The Manhattan Theatre Club. These names are guaranteed to perk the imagination of any theatre lover. The Manhattan Theatre Club often achieves a delicate balance of risk and sure thing. They produce new work and attract stellar performers. The new work is often very good and the performers are often well cast. (Hardly minor points!) It’s not surprising then that the casting for Mr. Shanley’s new play evoked in me a Scooby-Doo type response. The new work will star Brian O’Byrne (Doubt, Defiance, The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and Debra Messing (television star). Now there are plenty of accomplished stage actors who found fame in sitcoms, but (according to her resume) Ms. Messing doesn’t seem to be one of them. Acting on camera is an entirely different endeavor than acting on stage. (You can test this at home by pulling up the one live show of Will & Grace. While it is still edited it is raw enough to discern where each actor’s comfort zone lies.) This is not to suggest that people can’t surprise us in the most delightful way. I love nothing more than hearing the voice in my head shout; “Crikey, would you look at that! He/she is GOOD!” And (for the right price) I’m willing to give any performer (within reason) the benefit of the doubt. But this casting does have me wondering.

I would love to be a fly (or a less disgusting insect) on the wall during the creative meetings. I’d also love to eavesdrop on the editorial meetings in which celebrity opinion pieces are chosen over journalism. What can I say; I love to witness verbal jousting! I’m absolutely certain (she says while adjusting her rose colored glasses) that at least one person pipes up in these meetings; “Do we really need to go the celebrity route?” before being pelted with cronuts.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2013 in Media/Marketing

 

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We Dress Alike*

triplets

There’s a stark yet strangely beautiful photo essay by Nolan Conway. Identically styled people sit in various MacDonald’s restaurants. At first (second and third) glance it would appear that this is a collection of twin portraits. But the captions prove otherwise. Capturing clusters of indistinguishable people is no doubt the point of a MacDonald’s story. It makes that obvious and the also not so obvious point of; when did everyone start looking alike?

Recently a story about the ‘edgy’ art scene in the newest hippest neighborhood was accompanied by a photo. A cluster of identically clad and groomed under 40s was captioned. But you’d have to be the profiled artist’s mother to pick his knit capped head out of the half-dozen style clones. The men had moppish 80’s hair, the women had asymmetrical 80’s hair. The men were wearing what they considered ironic T-shirts (when did ubiquitous and mundane become synonymous with irony?) The women are in clothes made to appear as if they were accidentally washed on the incorrect cycle. They are faded just so and just a bit worn. And they all are wearing vaguely ethnic scarves and polyester knit hats perched on the top of their heads. Even the manner in which they wear these unattractive utilitarian hats (indoors!) is identical.

The Bobbsey Twin-ness is not reserved for the under 40 crowd of course. If you’ve attended a high school graduation in recent years, and perhaps sat in a back row, you would see a sea of identical heads. Over 40 female hair is almost always long, straight and highlighted (it’s the equivalent of our foremother’s blue rinse.) The clothing style depends on the B.M.I. but almost always includes denim w/ a minimum of 3% lycra. This Doubleminting has always been pervasive among teens of course. It is the holy grail of adolescence to look exactly like everyone else. But what about college? Have you been to college lately? Move-in day is a riot. All the dads are in cargo shorts, untucked shirts & baseball caps; and all the mothers are in capris and generous cleavage (you think it’s easy to see your daughter turn into a grown woman?!) and the freshman are in uniform. The young women are dressed in body-con pieces from head to shin. From shin to toe they are most likely either in an Ugg or wellie (making them look as if they’re standing in a bucket, which is flattering on exactly no one) or if the weather allows, a rubber ‘shoe’ suitable for the beach, pool or hospital. The young men are either in baggy cargo shorts (like father like…) or slim fitting madras shorts. T-shirt (with message/image suited to the corresponding college/university) and unlaced sneakers or shower shoes complete the look. Since when did college students want to look alike? When did they want to follow the lead of their parents in any pursuit, least of all an approach to style? Wait but what of the art students you ask? Well if completing the checklist of body modifying (piercing, tattoos, earlobe stretchers) is a sign of creativity, then we’re good. (Note to medical students on the fence about their specialty; restorative cosmetic surgery – ka-ching!)

So how did it happen? Is it all the result of very cheap clothing in chain stores? Is it that the same ‘look’ is available across the country in a mall or big-box store near you? Is it our celebrity culture that drives style? Could it be that people (consumers, media, merchandisers) turn to celebrities (who turn to a handful of stylists) to create their look? Or is the styling of one’s person just the tip of the iceberg? Is it more that a culture that celebrates sameness is ultimately going to look the same. A culture that applauds and supports genre over niche does not cultivate creativity. Television talent contests award very specific sounds and looks (there is no Gong Show diversity on display anywhere.) Since the Rocky and Godfather days, film sequels are king. Broadway’s percentage of revivals grows every year. Where are the new ideas? How much wonderful writing never sees the light of day? What happened to the novel? Memoirs (which is a lovely sounding word for ‘it happened to me so it must be interesting’) is the genre of choice. Sensation and sequels sell, but what about good writing and great stories? Is there an audience (aka money) for talented novelists, poets, screenwriters and playwrights? We could also shine the light on indistinguishable home design and decor, museums exhibits and performance arts centers. You’d have to have a GPS to know where you are sometimes.

There have always been style trends. People don’t much go for operetta the way they once did. Sonnets went the way of hoop skirts, and you don’t see a lot of domes and columns being erected. But not since perhaps the 1950s have people strived to look and sound so much alike. Perhaps it is merely cyclical and not a harbinger of the demise of creativity. My goal is to outlive the cycle, seek creativity and to do so while wearing what flatters/interests me.

*The Triplet Song (The Bandwagon 1953) by Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Style

 

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The Assembled Parties – Review

Unknown

Anyone who has even suffered the slightest twinge of real estate envy should stay away from the Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Assembled Parties. The play, set in a lavish 14-room apartment on Central Park West (designed by Santo Loquasto) would make even the 1% pea green with envy. This imperfect play by Richard Greenberg takes place in two discreet times periods; 1980 and 2000, on the same day. At times the two acts even feel like two discreet plays. This is not a unique theatrical phenomenon and can work, but it’s a terrific hurdle to clear. Recently, the device was used in Clybourne Park and there wouldn’t have been a play without it. The key to its effectiveness is to create two acts, or time periods of equal force.

The first act is a rapid and rotating collage of a family assembled on Christmas. Christmas could easily be replaced by Thanksgiving or Passover for this Jewish family, as it’s just an excuse to gather and overeat. The curtain rises on Julie (Jessica Hecht) in the kitchen (the size of most living rooms) with her eldest son’s friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos). Jeff is young and socially out of his league in the presence of the glamorous (former movie actress) Julie. She speaks in a cadence not usually found in nature and is dressed in a jumpsuit created by her mother (a renowned designer.) Julie teases Jeff with obvious affection and Jeff seems on the edge of pinching himself throughout. He is a first-semester Harvard Law student, the son of first generation Jews and he’s spending Christmas at the captain’s table. Julie’s husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) appears and we learn of another (much younger) son who is upstairs with a cold. The set then starts its rotation and the apartment and the family dynamics unfold. We meet Julie and Jeff’s two sons; Scott (Jake Silberman) and Timmy (Alex Dreier). Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light) arrives with her husband Mort (Mark Blum) and her lumpish daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld). Director Lynne Meadow has the women characters use pronounced accents & Ms. Blumenfeld’s is beyond enjoyable. Shelley grew up (and stayed) in Roslyn, an unambitious and perhaps intellectually challenged 30-year-old single woman. Her blank face and very low center of gravity is a wonderful counter to the rapid fire speech and movement of her extended family. And the first act does move. Just when we’ve learned something new, the set rotates once again and more story unfolds. Faye is not happy, in that; “I miss Miltown” way. Ms. Light (as we saw in Other Desert Cities) is superb at portraying complicated women entirely at ease with their shortcomings. She is splendid and is given an embarrassment of riches of one-liners with which to work. You could create a fabulous twitter feed out of her zingers (both English and Yiddish) and pronouncements. This is not to suggest that her performance relies upon these quips. Not at all. But one does wonder if Mr. Greenberg wrote these gems with Ms. Light in mind.

That niggling little thought got in my way during the sedate second act. The curtain opens to a non-rotating large living room set that bares no resemblance to the fist set. We spend several moments wondering if the family (what little there is left of it) has moved. The husbands have died and Scotty (who looked a bit flush in the first act) died in 1981. Ms. Light delivers the line that informs us that Scotty died from AIDS; from a blood transfusion in a New York City hospital in 1981. Now it’s possible that if we combed medical records from 1981, this might have actually happened; but it probably would never have ever been identified as such. Scotty had just spent time overseas and could have easily been killed off by a myriad of diseases. That this implausible death was created and spoke of by Ms. Light (a longtime AIDS activist with a famed association with Ryan White) was distracting. There are other distracting theatrical devices that unfold in the second act which weaken the impact of what should be a moving play. One definite asset to the second act is Mr. Silberman; ill at ease as Scotty in the first act he flourishes as grown-up Timmy.

It’s clear in the first act that the character of Timmy is a device. His little boy self, ensconced in Star Wars sheets is ignored by his parents (on Christmas) and his existence is never explained (it’s not customary to have two children 20 years apart.) Yet the other characters or so wonderfully and fully formed. Mr. Greenberg captures the subtleties of middle-class New York Jews so perfectly and to utter delight. There are cultural conflicts and tensions beautifully and delicately rendered. None of these illuminations are delivered in a “The More You Know” public service announcement, but as real and integral dialogue.

There is much to love about The Assembled Parties. The performances alone are worth the very fast 2 1/2 hours.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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