Wednesday, July 21, 2010

2010 Broadway show reviews

Our annual week in New York City is now complete. The fourteen shows we saw this year between July 2 and 12 actually had several themes shared among many of them: biographically based books, explicitly gay-themed and/or very gay-friendly (and staring out, gay actors); and African American stories. Musicals dominated our bill (9 of 13 shows) since most plays had already closed on Broadway. Several of the shows we saw were closing as we saw them or will close soon. Unfortunately, several plays we really wanted to see (e.g., "Red," "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson," "The Temperamentals") had closed before we got there.

The Best of the Musicals ("The MUST SEEs)
Memphis the Musical1. "Memphis"
For many reasons, this is our choice as Best Show Seen in 2010. The 2010 Tony winning Best New Musical is excellent in story, song, production, and acting/voice. In 2002, we were in the very first audience ever to see a staged reading of this musical when it was workshopped at TheatreWorks, and we were there again for opening night of its world premiere a year or so later. Several of the actors from those early productions are still starring in the show (which is pretty much unheard of on Broadway -- especially since it took several years after TheatreWorks to get its next productions at La Jolla Playhouse and 5th Ave. Theatre of Seattle before coming last fall to New York).

"Memphis" tells a story full of courage and of folks who put their lives on the line so that black music can be heard on all-white radio in the mid 1950s (and then seen on local, Memphis TV). The original music is totally of the time and contagious; and the forbidden romance that emerges is as natural and beautiful as any could be. Unlike "Hairspray" which tells a somewhat similar story from a white girl's and her family's perspective, "Memphis" is largely told from the eyes and mouths of African Americans along with the white DJ who literally joins their community and risks his safety and life to do so. This is a Facing History and Ourselves story and is full of folks who prove to be up-standers. [Facing History is a non-profit organization we support that brings ethical and moral philosophy to history and social studies classes, particularly regarding issues of racism, civic responsibility and tolerance.] Even though "Memphis" won 4 Tonys, it is a real mystery to me how it was not even nominated for choreography. The dance numbers by choreographer Sergio Trujillo are really remarkable, and the dancers themselves work harder than in any show we watched (OK ... maybe a tie with "Fela!"). Remarkably, the evening we saw "Memphis," six cast members were understudies (due to a pulled back, illness, vacations, etc.) -- and we as an audience could not imagine it could have been any better than it was. (The substitutes included Bryan Fenkart, who had to step in for the Tony-nominated Chad Kimball as Huey, the white DJ who is central to the story. We missed Chad, who originated the role at TW, but I cannot imagine any better performance than we saw that night by Bryan.)

Two things made the evening especially wonderful for us. First, the audience response to this show went beyond that of any other show we saw this year. The audience almost made its way onto the stage to join in. Like several other shows we saw, there was a sizable African American segment, and their enthusiasm was quickly caught by all of us as we joined in tapping, clapping, swaying, amen-ing, and almost shouting all the way through, from the first number to the last. Second, our long-time friend and Lead Producer of "Memphis," Randy Adams, met us at the theater and took us backstage after the show to meet the cast (which included a reunion for me with original cast member James Inglehart, a oft-TheatreWorks actor). We then went with Randy for two hours for drinks and heard all about his Tony experience this year and how it feels to have a Tony now on his mantel.

I promise other descriptions will not be this long, but this is the first time I have seen a B'Way play that I had witnessed being birthed!

2. "La Cage aux Folles"
The winner of "Best Revival Musical" is indeed an amazing show and is not the same "La Cage" many of saw in the 80s or in several revivals since then. Following the path set in the past few years by revivals of "Cabaret," "Company," and "Sweeny Todd," this "La Cage" is smaller, grittier, and more accessible to the audience than the glitzier, larger-cast original. I think it became a stronger play in the update. Also, the gays rule in this play and in no way apologize or back off of who they are (as they did at times in the 1980s version). They are strong characters that quickly make the hetero, homophobic family look silly and out-of-touch. The Tony winner for Best Featured Actor, Douglas Hodge, is worth the price of the ticket to see and hear, but we were also equally taken and impressed by Kelsey Grammer. His Georges is strong, sensitive, romantic, and totally attractive as a person. What a great, great show. See it!

3. "Promises, Promises"
But, if I had been a Tony voter (which I would die to be), I probably would have voted for this nominated revival as the Best -- except somehow it was not even nominated! (Maybe that is due to its opening pretty close to the deadline for nominations??) This is a fantastic show, and it could easily have been terrible. The music is Burt Bacharach (a collective yawn starts to emerge), and the story is pretty dated in many ways (pretty secretary pool for enjoyment of male bosses). However, this production does not stay in the past but presents a style and sensibility of the '60s in much the same way "Mad Men" does. The music sparkles like I have never heard Burt's music do. The actors are so funny and have such great voices. Both Sean Hayes (of "Will and Grace" fame and whom we saw 2 years ago in "Damn Yankees") and Kristin Chenoweth (the original Glenda in "Wicked" here in SF and on B'Way) are again worth the price of the ticket just to see them perform together. 2010 Tony winner Katie Finneran is a riot in her brief, but memorable appearance as a drunken, sexy pick-up in the bar. (The French kissing between her and Sean is hilarious.) Again, see this show if in NYC.

4. "Dietrich & Chevalier"
Playing off-Broadway at St. Luke's Theatre on 46th, this 3-person musical is another not-to-be-missed. After researching their stories for three years, Jerry Mayer tells in the first act the pre-war, romantic affair of Marlene Dietrich and Maurice Chevalier and in the second act, the wartime, different paths each took. Along the way, we hear the great, now-famous signature songs of each, sung in such authentic style and voices that I closed my eyes and swore that it was Paris in the 1930s. The actors playing the leads have long B'Way resumes (Robert Cuccioli was the Inspector Javert in "Les Miz" and Jodi Stevens was in "Jekyll & Hyde", e.g.). The third actor, Donald Corren plays 8 intriguing characters in the play and was recently in B'Way's "Souvenir." I am not sure how long this play will run, but I urge you to step across 8th Ave. onto Restaurant Row and see this delightful, mesmerizing show.

The Best of the Plays
1. "Fences" (just closed)
Deservedly the winner of the 2010 Best Revival Play, "Fences" was a stunning production -- in a large but not total part due to the Tony winning performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the two leading parts. My, oh my -- You cannot believe how wonderful they were as Troy and Rose. Now I love all of August Wilson's ten, 20th century spanning plays. I have seen each at least once. But "Fences" is probably my favorite, and I was in no way disappointed with this production. I am just sorry that it was a time-limited offering on B'Way. Otherwise, it could have played for years. (This was the hardest ticket to get in NYC when we were there; and scalpers were getting top, top dollar.)

2. "Next Fall" (closed also)
This is the play Ed and I have discussed the most since seeing it. Two gay men, one very conservatively religious and one totally agnostic, are partners and lovers. Their relationship is so fun and funny to watch develop (Ed got embarrassed because I laughed so loudly in the beginning), and then tragedy enters the scene. What plays out in the waiting room of a hospital between one of the men, friends of the couple, and the parents of the hurt partner is totally heart wrenching and drama at its best. In the end, each of the six people in the waiting room reveals a tragic flaw that seems to doom him/her to remain trapped in patterns that limit them in sad ways in their lives and relationships. Like "Memphis," the producers of this play decided to bring the original cast to B'Way and reject pressures to cast "names and stars." For both this play and for "Memphis," this meant tickets were harder to sell at premium prices. But the payoff in both productions is a cast that lives and breaths the parts in exacting and captivating manners. We are hoping that a local theatre such as Berkeley Rep will bring this show to the Bay Area since it really seems right in line with shows they have produced in recent years. Watch for it. You will not stop thinking and talking about it for days.

3. "Lend Me a Tenor" (closes Aug. 15)
I split a gut during this show, I laughed so much. Sitting in center seats on the first row, Ed & I dodged all sorts of projectiles coming from the stage (like wax fruit spit out of supposedly shocked mouths) and had almost to dodge legs and arms that fell, slid, jumped, were dragged, etc. all over and almost off the stage. Set in a hotel suite with 6 doors that open and close a hundred times or more, this slap-stick, "Noises Off"-like show is a must see if you can make it before it closes its limited run. With a story line about a visiting tenor impresario to a small city opera company who is having jealous wife problems as he flirts with anyone in a skirt, the show never slows down a second. Most impressive is that two of the lead comic actors and a bellhop must also sing opera, and they all do so very well. The absolute funniest part happens during the curtain call when the entire cast of 8 fast-forwards through the highlights of the two acts in about two minutes.

Also Good -- Just Not the Best of the Best
1. "Million Dollar Quartet"
Nominated for Best New Musical, this show explores a true event (and certainly makes it bigger than it was) when Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis meet and jam in Sam Phillips' Sun Records studio in Memphis on Dec. 4, 1956. The actors incredibly play their own instruments as they sing together and singly. The music is non-stop hits that we all know and probably love. What keeps it from being in our top category of must-see musicals is that there is not much story other than the jukebox musical concert. The character development is pretty shallow. And the person playing Elvis is unfortunately the weak link in the cast. (Everyone else is fantastic. I could have sworn Lance Guest was a young Johnny Cash, and the Tony winning Levi Kreis truly deserves his 2010 award for this funny, piano-playing Jerry Lee Lewis.) Sure, if you like "Fever," Blue Suede Shoes," "Sixteen Tons," Who Do You Love," or any of the other 20+ hits performed almost non-stop in this 90-minute show, then go see it when you are in New York. It will probably run a long time, and you probably will not be in any way disappointed.

2. "Fela!"
This is a musical I wanted to like more than I did. The rousing music of Nigerian Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and the incredible dancing of the very large cast who perform all around the audience are contagious and toe tapping. The energy in the arena along with the beautiful and ever changing costumes were also fun to experience. But, this is a biography of a person that I find hard to admire beyond his music. Married to more than 25 wives and sleeping with probably many more women than that at any one time and living in a culture of drugs and dealing, Fela is not someone I walked out wanting to know more about. I had seen quite enough. Now, I realize many people worldwide worship him because of his music and I know many Nigerians at the time (and probably still today) really did love and admire him; but I was not sure in the end why his was a life for a Broadway show. (This may be a singular opinion, and I own it completely.)

3. "American Idiot"
Like "Passing Strange" last year, we did not see this Berkeley Rep world premiere in Berkeley but waited to pay much more to see it on B'Way. (Go figure.) Like "Passing Strange," we passed it up when it was local because the reviews did not make us want to drive the hour-plus to get there (nor in this case, are we fanatic Green Day fans). Unlike "Passing Strange," which we walked away loving and wanting to see again, we found "American Idiot" amazing to watch from a production standpoint and admirable to watch for the outstanding performances by its cast, but just OK in terms of its rather weak book and just OK in terms of much of its music. (Again, I know Green Day fans want to stone me for the latter statement.) This one, I would have been fine not seeing, but I also don't regret going to see it. It definitely brought in a younger audience, and I am sure that was the intent. And that is only goodness for Broadway.

A Disappointment but Not a Flop:
"The Addams Family"
What is most disappointing about this much-anticipated, now-much-maligned show is how much money and star-power went into a production with a book that is identical to the "La Cage" story almost line for line (minus the gay part) and with a set of songs that have not one really memorable one among them. (The latter point is really difficult for me to say because the music and lyrics are by Andrew Lippa, a gay hero of ours whom we have met and who has worked several times at TheatreWorks on his new works.) Even though we had to pay top dollar (no discounts whatsoever) and even though all reviews were pretty mediocre-to-bad, we went to see this because we both love, love, love Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth (Gomez and Morticia Addams, respectively). Nathan was really pretty great most of the show. Bebe's part was not a strong part in the way it is written, and she does not really shine much in this show, unfortunately. The production is fun to watch at times; and if I had younger kids, I would take them to see it. But otherwise, save your money; and go see even some of the multiple-year shows still on B'Way that are well worth a second visit rather than join the sold-out throngs (yes, it is selling out nightly) seeing this over-the-top but very predictable "Addams Family."

And now, the Show that Was a Flop (in our humble opinion):
I really do not need to see a David Mamet play again for a long time. Three of the last five we have seen of his shows have been major disappointments, but I think "Race" is the worst we have seen. The story is dated (OJ's trial was years ago); the actors were very, very poor overall; and the production is slow and long for only a 90-minute show. We saw the second cast of the show. (Three of the original four had smartly departed the show soon after the Tonys.) Richard Thomas acted as if he had already gone to sleep on the "Waltons" ("Good night, John Boy") and really seemed almost on drugs. Dennis Haysbert (of "24" fame) stumbled through his lines so badly that it was actually embarrassing. Eddie Izzard was the one bright light among the cast, but he could not save this weak show. The only thing that could be worse is if ACT and its artistic director, Carley Perloff , brings this show to SF. This is just the sort of show she likes to torture her audiences with.

Finally, Two Outstanding One-Person Shows We Saw On Broadway
I am not a fan of one-person shows. Often, they bore me. I want more interaction and action than normally one person can do. Also, if I pay that much, shouldn't I get to see more than one person? But this year, these two shows (both seen by us in their closing performances) were just the perfect complements to the rest of our week.

Leslie Jordan with Eddie Reynolds1. "My Trip Down the Pink Carpet"
Veteran actor Leslie Jordan (2006 Emmy winner for "Will and Grace" and recurring star on many other TV series) tells his life story of growing up as a gay boy in Chattanooga, TN. His story is in many ways my story, and I laughed in places few others did since I often got the Southern, the Baptist, and the Tennessee references and phrases that others missed. (He told me afterwards, "Honey, I just KNEW you were from Tennessee because you laughed at everything others totally missed.") He talked to us as if we were his family and friends; and he told his story in a most endearing, powerful, funny, and intimate manner. This was a highlight evening for us.

2. "Everyday Rapture"
Technically, this is not a one-woman show since there are two back-up singers and a cameo performance by a gay boy who does a YouTube, lip-singing act for us. But like Leslie Jordon's production, this is the growing-up, life story of Sherie Renee Scott, who has starred on Broadway and has at least a couple Tony nominations for best actress (including for this show). Sherie tells her story of growing up as a Mennonite and fighting her whole life to determine if she is only a 'speck of dust on this earth' or 'is the reason why the earth was created.' As she tells her story, she sings the songs of her heroes, including some incredible renditions of Judy Garland, whom she can emulate masterfully in voice and manner. Most impressive are her several, very personal and beautiful versions of songs she heard and learned by "Mr. Rogers," another big influence in her early life. Her voice is one of the best we heard. Her delivery was totally perfect in every way, and I really loved a show that I reluctantly bought tickets to after reading and re-reading all the reviews (which were very positive) and after listening to friends who both liked and hated the show. Well, Ed & I both not only liked, but loved this show. I hope she takes it on the road, now that it has closed its limited run at the Roundabout.
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