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Heroes – Review

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Inmates make for the most interesting bedfellows and nowhere more so than in Tom Stoppard’s Heroes. This (2005) translation of Gérald Sibleyras’ play is a story of French veterans who create intriguing (and in one case; unnatural) alliances. At first glance these men have only two things in common; they are veterans and they live in a veterans’ home. But as the (quite funny) play unfolds we discover their shared threads and the ties that bind.

The men; Gustave (Jonathan Epstein,) Phillipe (Malcom Ingram,) and Henri (Robert Lohbauer) are fully formed and complex characters whose rapid exchange of one-liners and bon mots are entirely believable. A three person play devoid of bells and whistles hinges upon the believability and artistry of the players. Deftly directed by Kevin G. Coleman these actors inhabit their roles so completely an distinctly as to set a production standard.

Gustave, Henri and Phillipe are battle scarred, yet they are not bound by their wounds. Henri, who has inexplicably chosen to live in the rest home for twenty five years, is actually the most physically adventurous of the three. Phillipe, who spends as much time unconscious (due to skull shrapnel) as he does conscious, wants desperately to stay alive. And Gustave, dear aristocratic, rigid, scathing Gustave is besotted by a bronze dog.

These men would never have socialized on the outside. (Their carefully executed variations of a British accentt indicate their class distinctions.) Yet like the soldiers they once were, they are together in the trenches with a common enemy; Sister Madelene. It is this alliance and their allegiance to each other (and the dog) that make theirs a story worth telling. It is the honesty of their connection that is compelling. Which is why, without the spot on performances of these three actors the play could slide into Grumpy Old Men (+1) sentimentality.

The final moment of this production is proof of that temptation. The actors are directed to climb atop chairs and emulate flight. It was an inconsistent choice for such an honest production.

Heroes is playing at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, MA) until September 1st.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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

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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

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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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All The World’s A Stage

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20th Century Fox has created a Broadway division to produce film-to-stage productions. This is newsworthy as they are the last movie studio to do so. It isn’t that Fox has shied from the stage; the ill-fated 9-5 musical was a Fox picture. But they have not had an in-house formal process for repackaging movies into stage productions. Now this type of news is likely to send a certain demographic into a bit of a crise (say; the kind of person who uses the word “crise” or “picture” instead of “movie”.) But if we slowly dismantle and examine the conceit, we may not have to draw the curtains and take to our beds.

First off, having a film-to-stage production division is not synonymous with big-box theme park type productions. It is also does not mean that dramas or even comedies will necessarily be turned into chirpy musicals. (I know, I know, you’re making your “Let’s start with The Color Purple” list right now, but hear me out.) 20th Century Fox plans to have 9-12 projects slated to jumpstart this initiative. They’ve indicated that these productions are not necessarily Broadway bound. This disclosure increases the odds that regional theatre will occur and to do so there will have to be smaller productions. Regional theatre is always welcome.

There was a time when almost every Broadway production took to the roads. (And this was back when there were dozens and dozens of productions on the Great White Way at any given time.) Often the original cast would make the tour. Not only did this give life and exposure to a play and its creative team, it made live theatre accessible. A diverse audience was cultivated and that in turn supported live theatre. More audience equaled more revenue equaled more opportunities for creativity (on the part of producers) and more jobs. Times have changed and the result of those changes is an elitism of Broadway. To get on a Broadway stage a production better be damn sure it will make money. A New York City audience is not enough to ensure a full house. Visitors must buy tickets and buy them at a very high price. If visitors come from lands no longer exposed to Broadway theatre on a seasonal regional basis; a little flash is necessary. A boldface name (e.g., a television star, a reality show contestant, or a recording artist) combined with a known property (e.g., a revival or film-to-stage production) greatly increases the seats sold. Ticket prices have skyrocketed, presumably to sustain the boldface salaries and bells & whistles of a big-box show. This in turn creates a phenomenon known as “consumer grade inflation” (just because I made it up doesn’t mean that it’s not a phenomenon.) Someone who procures tickets for a price of over $100 a piece (and I’m being conservative) is not likely to be all that critical. People aren’t stupid, (stay with me on this) they know when they’re paying more than something is worth. Ask any real estate agent how their clients behave once they’ve outbid other buyers. Take a look at people willing to dine at 5:30 PM or be treated like vermin by a maitre d’. Most likely they’re doing so for the bragging rights, and brags don’t begin with “Wow, was he/she miscast!” or “Lots of noise, little fury.” At $100+ a ticket you are going to enjoy it dammit. And that ladies and gentlemen is how the standing ovation reflex was born.

By bringing professionally produced theatre into the regions we stand to turn the tide just a bit. Arts education has suffered in public schools. It’s been decades since networks televised stage plays. Singing and dancing contests now dot the airwaves, and this should be taken as a sign of interest in the performing arts. It stands to reason that tickets sold by 20th Century Fox will sell. Yes, there’s a chance that X-Men The Musical will be green-lighted. But there’s also a chance that more, shall we say; human stories will be told. The simple act of developing a theatre habit has a ripple effect. People who attend the theatre on a regular basis are more likely to be a discerning audience. Buying tickets for a Broadway show will no longer be synonymous with buying tickets for a tourist attraction. A curious audience with an appetite for adventure will support more creative offerings. Less reliance on celebrity or flying machines means lower ticket prices. A lower ticket prices creates more of an audience. And so on and so on…

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2013 in Media/Marketing

 

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At Last

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Picture it, New York City 1961. Grown people in girdles and fedoras could stumble into any one of dozen of night clubs and hear standards or jazz performed at the highest level. They would sit at their tiny tables; a shaded candle casting them in a flattering glow, sip their Manhattans while wrapped in a haze of cigarette smoke and either bop or swoon to sophisticated stylings. Sitting last night in the Cafe Carlyle, wrapped in Marcel Vertes murals, those halcyon days were brought back to life by William Blake. Resplendent in his black velvet jacket and beatific smile, Mr. Blake brings the best of the past back to life with his flawless show, Echoes of Etta: A Tribute To Etta James.

The audience danced in their seats to the rocking numbers ably backed by the swaying singing synchronicity of The Peaches (Ashley Betton, Shira Elias and Stephany Mora). The Peaches and the audience’s upper bodies were given a break periodically when Mr. Blake turned to the standards made famous by Ms. James. Pianist and co-creator Michael Thomas Murray joined Blake in duets to wonderful effect. Their strong smooth voices complemented each other and created something rich and large. The band (
Oscar Bautista, guitar; 
Mike Shapiro, drums; Frank Canino, bass)
 filled the stage and filled the room. Together they created a magnificent sound one rarely stumbles upon today. This fact was confirmed towards the end of the show when the curtained doorway parted. Jammed into the entry of the club were half a dozen people drawn to the sound. Their faces were a mix of joy and absolutely awe.

While the Etta James songbook is an ideal canvas for Mr. Blake’s range, he is not an impersonator but in fact the real thing. With the power of a rocker and the soul of a jazz singer he brings a tender strength to ballads and a growling ferocity to blues. There’s little doubt his talent could take him wherever his heart desires, but for the sake of those yearning to come taste the wine, and to come hear the band, let us hope Mr. Blake never leaves the cabaret.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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