Friday, July 24, 2009

Bay Area Musicals – World Premieres

In the past three days, we have attended two world-premiere musicals; and the two could not be more different in some ways and yet also share so much in common.

World premieres are for us some of the most exciting times in the theater. To see the birth a work, to be among the first to determine what is funny and what is not or what moves to tears and what maybe to yawns, and literally thus to be a part of the creative team as an audience member -- that is theater-going at its best.

In the past, we have seen the phenomenal "Wicked" in its first week, the successful "Legally Blonde" the first night it was seen by an audience any where, the not-so-successful "Lennon" in its birth, and the altogether failed "The Mambo Kings" whose much-anticipated life has proved to be short. All of these premieres (and more) have been produced by our often brilliant Carole Shorenstein (and of course other co-producers) who in the past 20 years has made San Francisco a major launching pad for Broadway.

More locally for us, we have seen many world premiere musicals and plays at Theatreworks, the leading professional theater in Silicon Valley and one of the largest suburban theaters in the US. TheatreWorks began 40 years ago this month with the first of its now 50 world premiere musicals and play (a rock, anti-war musical called "Popcorn"). Today, playwrights and composers literally flock to Palo Alto area to write, workshop and premiere their works (e.g., Andrew Lippa, Steven Schwartz, Tom Jones, Henry Krieger, etc.). Currently, the New Works Festival '09 features six new musicals and plays being given staged readings (i.e., professional productions with scripts still in hand and with minimal staging, no costumes or scenery). At this stage, audience members are encouraged to give written feedback to the writers about what parts works well and what are problematic.

And that brings us back to this week's two premieres we saw. One, "Tinyard Hill" by the exciting and up and coming team of Mark Allen and Tommy Newman, is a "country musical" that takes place in 1964 in rural Georgia. The production is first-class in every respect (well-respected New York actors, outstanding sets and costumes, top-notch direction, lighting, sound, etc.). The story is very compelling as the nascent Vietnam conflict is fast becoming a war and is a growing topic of interest and concern of the small community of Tinyard Hill.

The beauty of this production is in the relationships of its four characters, including one of the best portrayals of a father-son relationship I have ever seen. The music is apropos for the era and the setting, with a rock country beat with often haunting and foreboding quality to it. But, as a premiere, all is not perfect or settled yet. The first act at times seems a bit choppy (lots of scenes, some songs so abruptly ending that the audience was not sure whether to clap or not, e.g.). On the other hand, the second half seems close to 'being done," The story quickens, the songs really move the story along, and the outcome moves to one that really grabs every one's heart and brings today's Iraqi and Afghan wars right onto the 1964 stage.

Whether "Tinyard Hill" has a life beyond this production is still unknown, but I would not be surprised for it at least to show up on many a local repertory stages in the next few years. (By the way, one of TheatreWorks' recent world premieres -- "Vanities, the Musical" -- is now at Second Stage, an off-Broadway and highly respected venue. Another, "Memphis," opens in October at a Shubert theater on Broadway.)

Last night, we were privileged to be in the second audience ever to see “Rent Boy Ave.: A 'Fairy's' Tale”. The music is by Michael Mohammed and the book and lyrics by Nick A. Olivero, artistic director of the small, urban Boxcar Theatre where we saw the musical. With similarities to "Rent," "Passing Strange," and various Mamet plays, the raw realities of the street life right outside the theater's San Francisco doors explode all around the audience. Sitting all around the graffiti-covered walls and columns sometimes in clumps of 2-5 people, sometimes on scaffolding or in a corner almost alone, the audience interacts from the moment they arrive with roaming street people. A wandering, muttering woman (Trashcan Sally) turns and confronts entering audience demanding money or cursing them just for being there -- not unlike what folks may have encountered only minutes before on the sidewalks coming to the small theater.

The 50 audience members are soon brought into the daily drama and boredom of the street's life, meeting various characters with and without names. Pimp, social worker nun, married hetero looking for young boy for hire, male and female prostitutes, drug addicts, mental cases -- they are all here' and all have formed an uneasy alliance and community that we learn is almost impossible for them to leave, even when given the chance.

The music is loud rock; and sometimes in this early stage of the musical's development, a bit unintelligible. But, the overall effect of a cast of non-professional, young actors who are probably getting at best gas/bus money for the several-week run -- the effect is exhilarating. Like "Tinyard Hill," the new work still needs work. Come back several years; and if it lives to see further productions (many new works never go beyond their world premiere), we will probably not recognize it as it is further refined and shaped.

Even more than "Tinyard Hill," frankly, I would love to see "Rent Boy Ave." get a full New York production in a year or two. I really think there is seed of brilliance here that audiences need to see to better understand the life we all try to ignore as we walk the streets of New York, San Francisco, Palo Alto, etc.

My advice: Go to the theater to see world premieres whenever you can. Do not expect perfection or a finished product. But do expect to feel electricity, excitement, and deep emotion as you witness the creative process before you.

TIP: Half-price tickets for many select performances, sporting events and family activities are often available on Goldstar Events. Areas include San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose, San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Washington DC, Boston, and Chicago.
Goldstar Events is our favorite source of cheap tickets in the SF Bay Area. But it is not the only option. You can also find half-price tickets at: Artsopolis – good for San Jose & the South Bay. And Theatre Bay Area - discount tickets from member theatres available online and/or at TIX Union Square, SF.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Campus Wildlife

The DishOne of the biggest joys of working on campus is running “The Dish” at lunch. The Dish is a recreation and conservation area in the foothills above the university. It is also the home of an old radiotelescope (hence the “dish” name). On a clear day there are breathtaking views from San Francisco to the north, across the bay to Berkeley and Oakland and south to San Jose. E and I run the trails three to four times a week. It is a good workout of 4-5 miles on rolling hills.

Over the years I have seen quite a bit of wildlife. Here is a list of what I remember seeing while running the trails around The Dish and the campus:

Birds include: Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Canada Goose, Mallard,
owls, hawks, falcons, Golden Eagle, Turkey Vulture,
Ring-necked Pheasant, California Quail, California Gull, Mourning Doves,
swifts, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, flycatchers, jays, crows, starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, ravens, swallows, wrens, chickadees, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, American Goldfinch, California Towhee, warblers, sparrows and finches.
(Can you tell I use to be a bird watcher as a kid?)

- Black-tailed Deer
- Black-tailed Jackrabbits and Cottontail Rabbits
- Coyote
- Red Fox
- Raccoons
- Striped Skunk
- California Ground Squirrels (On a one mile section of the trail, I counted 163 squirrels.)
- Voles and gophers
- Mice
- Gopher snake, garter snake, and California king snake (I have not seen a rattlesnake in the area.)
- Western Fence Lizards
- Frogs
- Tarantula spider (I have seen a 4-inch tarantula crawling along the path several years in a row.)
- Painted Lady Butterfly migration in late March/early April
- Annual infestation of caterpillars (soon to be Tussock Moths)

There are two protected species in the Dish area. I have not seen either of them: the California Tiger Salamander and a mountain lion.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

2009 NYC Theatre marathon

E, my husband, has written up our eight day trip of theatre in New York City…

To summarize, we saw 14 shows (13 B'Way and 1 Off B'Way) while in NYC for 8 days and 9 nights. We only paid full price for 3 shows; the others we got at 50-60% off the cost through Theatermania.com, Playbill.com, Broadwaybox.com, or NYTix.com.

We feel 2009 is a really strong year for New York theater; there were actually other shows we wanted to see but did not have enough slots to schedule (e.g., "The Norman Conquests"). The July 4th week audiences were mostly sold out in every venue we attended. The buzz was great, and standing ovations were common.

The Musicals
So, the Tony's got it right, in our opinion, in terms of Best New Musical. "Billy Elliot" is an amazing show, with the strong melodies, story, setting, and emotions of a "Ragtime" or a "Les Miz." I didn't cry once but several times during the show (and I knew the story well already). The many kids in the show were fantastic, and my only regret is that we could not see it more times in order to see all of the current 4 boys playing "Billy Elliot." I would say it is worth a special effort to be in New York (or London) while this show is playing and to do everything you can to get a hard-to-come-by ticket (which you will need to get way in advance and will have to pay full price).

But, any of the nominated musicals would have been great choices this year to win "Best New Musical." If voting, Ed and I would have given at least a 'tie' vote to "Shrek" for "best musical." (Yes, I said SHREK!!) The production is nothing short of amazing. The music is fun and up-lifting. The sets are incredible and clever without being over-the-top. The use of puppetry throughout is clearly in the old English tradition of Punch and Judy. But more than anything, the leads are fantastic. Brian D'Arcy James as Shrek and Daniel Breaker as Donkey are a wonderful pair together and give award-winning performances, even with all the make-up they must wear. This is a show adults should not hesitate to go to, even though the matinee performance we attended was half kids. Like the movie, the humor reaches all levels and is actually pretty risqué at times. It is a great story with an important message (much like "Wicked"). We totally recommend seeing "Shrek."

Like many of our friends have told us, "Next to Normal" also clearly could have been named Best New Musical. What a powerful show. And without a doubt, Alice Ripley gives the Best Actress in a Musical performance that she deservedly won. Every person in the 5 person cast is a winner, actually. The story is sometimes hard to watch and is very heart-gripping. The mother in this seemingly 'normal' family has suffered for over a decade with bipolar disease, and the entire family rides the roller coaster with her in the course of the musical. The story is also about loss, regrets, and yet hope with the resolution to "move on." As the daughter says, "If we can't have normal, then just give me next-to-normal. That would be nice, too." I am sure this will be done here in the Bay Area in the next year or two. (TheatreWorks could do a great job, I know.) Don't miss it.

A real surprise (along with "Shrek") for us was "Rock of Ages." Probably no show we saw had the audience rocking in the aisles and on their feet at their seats any more than this one. Piecing together the music of many bands of the 80s (Journey, Night Ranger, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia, Whitesnake and more ... music I frankly have never been fond of since I think the 80s was the lost decade when it comes to rock), the musical creates a fun, often tongue-in-cheek story much like our very favorite "Xanadu" did two years prior. (in fact, it uses the same story line and some of the same elements as "Xanadu" and "Mama Mia!") The music really works in this context and is delivered by a stellar and talented cast. We loved every minute of this show and are so glad that we went, even with initial reservations about yet another musical of past rock stars' music.

The show that was over-looked, in our opinion, in the Tony "Best" category but was one of the most fun and delightful shows we saw (and probably the one we laughed most and the hardest at) is "9 to 5." While the story 20-years-post-movie is perhaps a bit dated, the overall effect of the three wonderful actresses playing the Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton roles is worth the price of the ticket alone. Each is terrific. Who knew that "West Wing's" Allison Janney (the press secretary in that TV hit) could belt out musical numbers and dance (and get nominated for a Best Actress award in the meantime)? And I would go again just to see Megan Hilty play the Dolly part; she is perfect in the role and looks just like her predecessor.

Ed and I disagree on one musical we saw, although we both still enjoyed it. For me, "Hair" is too dated and continues to be a bit weak overall with such a slim story line. Seeing it in the early 70s was pretty neat for me (especially seeing my first nude scene on stage ... or was that when I saw "Oh, Calcutta"?), and the songs are definitely, in many cases, classics. And even though the cast is outstanding in this Tony-winning production and the overall look is great, it all felt 20-years out-of-context and thus a bit silly to me. Ed, on the other hand, ranked this as one of the best musicals he saw and was less concerned that it was dated. We argued awhile over beers before just agreeing to disagree.

And then there was our one disappointment for the week, and it was a HUGE disappointment. "West Side Story" did not deliver for us on hardly any level other than outstanding choreography (for which is was not even nominated for a Tony). I was shocked how the leads overall did not bring the needed voices for these parts we all love so much. The leads for Tony and Maria are beautiful in looks but had almost no spark between them. I hardly cared of their demise by the play's end, frankly. And neither they nor many of the other folks could bring what is required for this challenging, beautiful music. Probably the telling moment that this production will not stand the test of time (in my opinion) was the very un-funny "Officer Krupke" number. I have never seen a production of WSS where the audience did not demand a reprise of this slap-stick number. Our sold-out audience's applause maybe lasted 15-20 seconds after a number that will usually bring an audience to its feet mid-play. The strongest role in the production is Karen Olivo as Anita (who won the Tony), but her pivotal (to the story) number "A Boy Like That" is done entirely in Spanish. For anyone who does not know the story well and who cannot speak fluent Spanish, much was missed by Laurents' choice to use so much Spanish, especially for this song. (By the way, our low opinion of this production seemed to be borne out everywhere we went last week. The most common comment we heard in passing others on the street or waiting in the inevitable bathroom lines during intermissions was how people were disappointed -- and even angry -- that such a great classic in American musical theatre was handled so poorly ... for $130 per ticket.)

The Plays
This is an exceptionally strong year for plays on Broadway, it seems to me, and the audiences seem to realize and appreciate that. Houses were packed at the ones we saw (which is often not the case for plays); and curtain responses were loud, standing, and prolonged.

This is a year of stellar individual performances, too, in plays. The play and set of performances that will forever stay with me is "Waiting for Godot," a play not given much attention by the awards this year, but one that is a stunner in every respect for Ed and me. Oh my -- the four leads alone are worth a trip across country: the incomparable, Emmett-Kelly-like Bill Irwin (maybe currently my favorite actor), the always funny and gripping Nathan Lane (whom we have now seen several times), the powerful and commanding John Goodman (probably the commanding performance from this play I will never forget), and the disciplined and haunting John Glover (who somehow drools a virtual river for minutes at a time). As an ensemble, I cannot imagine how they could be better. And as a twosome, Bill and Nathan so reminded us of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, and other great clownish twosomes of the past. Unfortunately, this play is about to close. We feel so blessed to have seen it before that happens. We only saw one other of the Best Revival nominees ("Mary Stuart"), but our belated vote for "BEST" definitely goes to this over-looked production.

And while all the other Best New Play nominees have come and gone from B'Way, we were so fortunate to see the powerfully funny and emotionally gripping "God of Carnage," which did win Best New Play and all four of whose actors deservedly were nominated for best acting awards. This play has the feel many times of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?" and the crazy humor and surprises of "Lieutenant of Inishmore." The actors are leaping, chasing, screaming, crying, and keeping you in stitches the entire play. This is another one that I hope ACT or Berkeley Rep will do in the next year or so.

I try to see Angela Lansbury whenever I can. She is stunningly funny in "Blithe Spirit," one of my favorite Noel Coward plays. Each of the actors in this production is again outstanding (a common theme this year, I know). The maid, as always, often steals the show. Another of our favorites, Christine Ebersole, is fantastic as the dead, returning wife -- and Little Edie from "Grey Gardens" sometimes reappears in her voice, which is fun, too. Unfortunately, this show closes in another week.

Another favorite actor of my and Ed's whom we will jump all hurdles to see is David Hyde Pierce. In "Accent on Youth," he once again did not fail to do anything but delight. This is a very well-written, funny play and kicked off our week of plays/musicals with a bang. (It too just closed its limited run.)

I can think of no other play that I enjoy reading and seeing more than "Our Town." I have seen it probably more than any other non-Shakespeare play. So, it is with both anticipated excitement as well as some skepticism that I approach each new viewing. Barrow Street's new production (now on an extended Off-Broadway run) exceeded all my and Ed's expectations. In a very intimate setting where audience sits on three sides of a small stage, where the audience can reach out and touch actors a foot in front of them, where the number of equity actors (23) is 15-20% of the people present in the arena, and where the audience is in the same dress as the actors in the fully lighted venue -- in such a setting the audience becomes literally part of "Our Town," with actors and action circling them throughout the play. David Cromer as Stage Manager is probably the best in that role that I or Ed has ever seen. Anyone in New York in the next few months should check out this Greenwich Village offering.

Two other plays we saw did not totally meet our expectations but neither did they really disappoint. "Mary Stewart" has been acclaimed by critics and by friends of ours. The two leading actresses playing Elizabeth and Mary received Best Actress nominations and are outstanding. The play, however, is like two different plays in its two acts. We, and by response our fellow play-goers, found the first act to be slow and bit laborious. Much of that act is a set of monologues as various people make the case for and against beheading Mary. At intermission, we expressed surprise, boredom, and a wondering of what all the acclaim was about. However, as soon as the curtain rises for the second act, we were on the edge of our seats for the rest of the play. The performances, the writing, and the direction at that point were gripping in every respect. If we had been late and unseated until the second act, we would have probably left saying it was one of the top three shows we saw this year.

We pick plays sometimes just to see a particular actor, even if we are skeptical about the play. So it was with "The Philanthropist," starring among others, Matthew Broderick (someone I have followed and loved his whole career). Both play and Matthew did not quite live up to our hopes. Neither was terrible by any means, and I think we are glad we went; but I could not recommend someone else go, based on our experience -- which is OK because we saw the final performance. (Our hope earlier was that Matthew's wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, would be in attendance the last performance of the run; but they just received through a surrogate mom twin girls three days prior.)

I realize that we are building a list of favorite actors whom we have now seen multiple times and whom we will make every effort to see in New York and beyond (e.g., go to LA to see if they are appearing):

Men: David Hyde Pierce, Bill Irwin, Cheyene Jackson, Nathan Lane,
Women: Audra McDonald, Patti Lupone, Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole, Cherry Jones
(We also have a Bay Area list that include such folks as Mark Phillips and Craig Marker, among others.)

We didn't just see shows in New York. We also ...

--> Had meals with past TravelPride cruise buds (Marty and Rich, Dan and Peter).
--> Attended the New York Pride Parade and the official, all-night party the prior evening (the "Love Ball").
--> Spent two (very) late evenings our wonderful cousins Scott, Stephano, and Idonna.
--> Went on two Big Onion Walking Tours: The History of the Financial District and The History of Harlem.
--> Spent three days with our life-long, Washington D.C. friend, Phyllis, who once again this year joined us for theater and dinners at Aureole (which we HIGHLY recommend in its brand-new, 42nd Street setting), Blue Water Grill, and Sardi's (where Phyllis is greeted as we enter by the manager and waiters much like Dolly was -- just without the singing and dancing).
--> Closed our favorite gay bars/clubs (esp. Splash and Monster) each night between 4 and 5, since we stayed on West Coast time and did not get up each morning until 11:30 or so.
--> Shopped on Loehmann's Bargain Basement and all of our favorite Chelsea stores.
--> Explored two different days large parts of Central Park.
--> Spent an evening into the wee morning at "Don't Tell Mama," a highly popular and crowded piano bar on W 46th that has a great pianist/singer each night but also invites a constant flow of entertainers up from the audience, all of whom must be unemployed but very excellent B'Way potentials.
--> Walked about 150 blocks every day.
--> Had martinis in only the way you can get them in New York.
--> Got soaked in a couple of rain storms (I forget how BIG raindrops can be back East in the summer) but also thanked our stars that we once again this year missed the hot, humid weather that everyone says New York often suffers during the summer.

So, there you have it. More than you ever wanted to know. And dare I add, "I LOVE NEW YORK!!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

New York City Preview

We were able to attend some of New York City pride parade. We met friends for breakfast and then walked over to 5th Ave to watch an hour and a half before we left for a matinee show. A couple parade photos:

Eddie is writing up detailed summary of our trip that I will post soon. Until then, I will tell you that one of the biggest disappointments we had for the revival version of West Side Story. We felt it was badly cast and directed.
This video is much better version.

link: http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1913584
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