Sunday, July 31, 2011

Powerhouse Theatre, redux

In my recent post not quite reviewing four presentations I had seen at Vassar/New York Stage and Film's Powerhouse Theatre over the past few years, I lightly mentioned that before several of them we were asked (admonished, really) not to leak information about the shows on the Internet. In the interest of brevity, and perhaps to avoid feeling like a brat, I understated my feelings about that request while also refusing to completely comply with them.

I do support the idea of creating safe spaces for developing works, so while I found the announcements to be rude and ill-advised, I kept my tongue more than I normally would. So I was quite happy--and felt a bit vindicated in my feelings--to see that the New York Times featured a comment from another avid theater-goer on such preshow announcements. It mentions Powerhouse in particular, and I agree with much of what is said there. The discussion in the readers' comments has been quite lively.

Since then, I have taken another visit to Vassar and seen two more shows, one staged play and one play reading. The first had no preshow announcement and the second talked about how pleased they were to present the author's work and then made a sort of throwaway remark about not giving any other comments. Perhaps I'm projecting, but I assumed that was a backhanded response to the NYT discussion.

Now, in the marked absence of such a prohibition, I feel almost obligated to review the two works I saw. So those posts may be forthcoming shortly. In the meantime, I recommend jumping into the conversation at the Times. Industry folks are reading, and audiences should take every opportunity to give them feedback.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying

As with The Motherf**ker with the Hat, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying wasn't high on my priority list. Big-name stars means expensive crappy seats and often lead actors who would never get cast if they weren't already famous. But as I mentioned in my weekend wrap-up, I was pretty much out of shows to see.

Despite my reluctance, the show had much to recommend it:
  • A friend of mine who ushers the show is completely in love with it
  • Ex-Idiot Mary Faber was excellent in the previous two musicals and one play I've seen her in (Saved! and Idiot, The Corn Is Green)
  • Christopher Hanke was a charming high point in the seriously lackluster Cry-Baby musical (By the way, where is James Snyder now, and why is he not somewhere on stage singing to me???)
  • John Larroquette did get a Tony for this role
  • Daniel Radcliffe was quite good in Equus, even though I didn't love that show overall (but, seriously, how cool was that Playbill cover?)
So H2S had a decent chance of not sucking, and I went into the show in fairly good spirits, even as I hauled ass up to the very last row of the balcony. Which, stunningly, had a great view. And (yay!) the show totally did not suck. It was even good, but I still wished for more.

I love fluffy musicals like The Music Man and Bye Bye Birdie (recent disastrous Broadway production aside) and even Grease (at least the recent horrendous Broadway production gave us Laura Osnes). So H2S should have been right up my street. Instead I found it a bit dull (the show, not the production). Perhaps with better leads I might have enjoyed the story more.

I know that Radcliffe and Larroquette were the big draws for the sell-out crowd, but the show really belongs to Mary Faber's hilarious turn as Smitty and Rose Hemingway's jaw-droppingly-gorgeous voice. Seriously, this is Hemingway's Broadway debut? Just ... wow. I would like her to sing to me every day, please (though perhaps not enough to pick up the cast recording--I don't remember any of the songs!). And as much as he tries to steal the show, Christopher Hanke's schtick gets old really quickly (he's seriously adorable, though, and I really do love him).

So, back to Radcliffe and Larroquette. Kudos to these guys, who are clearly having the time of their lives. And I'm pretty sure they're BFFs now, which is completely charming. These are two hard-working dudes. If they threw themselves into this show any harder, they'd break something. It's hard not to cheer for them because they are clearly so dedicated and obviously in love with their jobs (and, as it was the opening weekend for the last Harry Potter movie ever, the audience went INSANE at a trillion points during the show). Still, regardless of how much I love both actors, this show is stretching their musical-theater talent to its limit. Their singing and dancing is adequate. And their personal charm carries them along quite well (although Radcliffe lacks a bit of smarm and is just a bit too likeable for the role). All that doesn't change the fact that I'd rather have seen real MT stars in these roles.

A second round of kudos for Radcliffe, who is refreshingly brave in his career and public-persona choices. In addition to his role in Equus requiring full nudity (and, trust me, I did not need to see the full Harry--ever), the demanding role could have gone horribly wrong, and the material was a risky choice for someone still in the middle of filming such a family-friendly franchise. The same for his hilarious turn as a want-to-be womanizer and chain smoker in an episode of Ricky Gervais's funniest series, Extras. He is also a loud supporter of LGBT rights, speaks out frequently for The Trevor Project's crusade to prevent teen suicide, and never felt the need to clarify for the press his relationship with trans singer-songwriter Our Lady J (read the excellent Out article where she interviews him). It would be difficult for me to love Daniel Radcliffe any more than I already do. To fall in love with him for yourself, look no further than the video of his Trevor Project speech in my earlier post.

[ETA: So much love for this dude for never missing a performance during his run as Finch. Well played, boy wizard.]

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Motherfucker with the Hat

With the death of Amy Winehouse, once again we have lost a talented young artist, probably to addiction. Of all the commentary on the event, Russell Brand(!) has offered the one most worth reading. In addition to recounting his personal history with Winehouse, he reminds us:
Not all addicts have Amy's incredible talent. Or Kurt [Cobain]'s or Jimi [Hendrix]'s or Janis [Joplin]'s. Some people just get the affliction. All we can do is adapt the way we view this condition, not as a crime or a romantic affectation but as a disease that will kill. We need to review the way society treats addicts, not as criminals but as sick people in need of care. We need to look at the way our government funds rehabilitation. It is cheaper to rehabilitate an addict than to send them to prison, so criminalization doesn't even make economic sense. Not all of us know someone with the incredible talent that Amy had but we all know drunks and junkies and they all need help and the help is out there. All they have to do is pick up the phone and make the call. Or not. Either way, there will be a phone call.
The Motherfucker with the Hat, an ear-splitting look at life in recovery (and not), depicts some of those less-talented drunks and junkies in their one-day-at-a-time struggle to get by. I love the idea of the play, which is both important and ripe for humor and insight. And the creative team is promising: Although I'd never seen any of Stephen Adly Guirgis's previous plays, they all sound interesting (Jesus Hopped The A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, The Little Flower of East Orange). Plus, Anna Shapiro won the Tony for directing a similarly intense dark dramedy, August: Osage County.

As it was the show's closing weekend and I was out of things to see, I figured I'd finally give Hat a shot (sorry, that's a fairly bad pun if you've seen the show). I had been avoiding this play because tickets weren't cheap and I'm not a huge fan of the two leads, Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale. Both seem fairly one-note to me across their respective bodies of work. In the supporting cast, Annabella Sciorra has been hit or miss for me, and I had no idea who Elizabeth Rodriguez or Yul Vásquez were. Sadly, Rock and Cannavale were true to form in Hat, and Rodrigues and Sciorra cranked up their volume to meet the guys, shrieking expletive after expletive (or maybe everyone else rose to Rodriguez's inexplicable constant fever pitch). Their performances certainly did nothing to make up for weaknesses in the script.

I can't believe the show was only 90ish minutes long, because it seemed interminable. (At least Todd Rosenthal, also a Tony winner for August's set design, gave me something cool to look at.) The only real surprises came from the most minor character--also the only actor who didn't scream every line. I perked up every time Vásquez appeared because I had no idea what kind of crazy, or touching, or profound shit his endearingly odd character would say. And Vásquez managed to make some pretty wacky lines seem sincere, so I'll definitely be on the lookout for what he does next.

Perhaps I'm just not the target audience for this show, because other people were busting up all around me (in the cheap seats). But I should be the perfect audience for this type of play. I'm a huge fan of the antihero, and the unhappy ending. In fact, I do love much of what the play has to say, mainly that giving up drugs and alcohol is only the first step in turning a life around. It won't turn a self-centered tool into a saint, a layabout into a hard worker, or a cheat into a monogamist. And though your sponsor may be able to help keep you on the wagon, it doesn't mean he's a role model in any other aspect of life. On the flip side, just because someone is a total asshat doesn't mean he doesn't also have something important to offer along your path.

The show is short enough that I might--a couple years from now--go see a good local company production of Hat, just to see whether different direction and acting choices change my opinion of the script.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Bucket list

Over the past (almost) four years, I've seen an absurd awesome amount of theater (365 performances and counting). So perhaps it's unsurprising that I'm making headway on my theater bucket-list. I just will not die happy unless I see certain people on stage in person. (Let me know if you think someone is missing from my list.)

People I've seen in plays but really need to see in a musical:
Victoria Clark
Raúl Esparza
Frederick Weller

I've never seen but really need to:
(So many from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Doctor Who!)
Joan Allen, Josh Charles, Glenn Close
Alan Cumming, Sinéad Cusack, Blythe Danner
Viola Davis, Judi Dench, Christine Ebersole
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Fovah Feldshuh, Colin Firth
Martin Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rupert Graves
Anthony Stewart Head, Philip Seymour Hoffman [SOON!], Cherry Jones
James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren
Brian Stokes Mitchell, Debra Monk, Donna Murphy
Denis O'Hare [SOON!], Faith Prince, Sara Ramirez
Phylicia Rashad, Roger Rees, Alan Rickman
Chita Rivera, Amanda Root, Tim Roth
Andrew Scott, Fiona Shaw, Michael Sheen
John Simm, Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep
David Tennant, Russell Tovey, Dick Van Dyke
Julie Walters, Sam Waterston, Ben Whishaw, Julie White

NOT on my list: Mandy Patinkin

People I've already seen and now want to see in everything they ever do:
Kate Baldwin, Laura Benanti, Declan Bennett
Eve Best, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch
Colman Domingo, Linda Emond, Michael Esper (you're shocked, I know!)
Raúl Esparza, Mary Faber, Katie Finneran, Boyd Gaines
(John Gallagher Jr., as not that one angsty character he. always. plays.)
Neil Patrick Harris, Joshua Henry, Rose Hemingway (singing, always singing)
Ciarán Hinds (I literally swooned when I passed him on the street)
Allison Janney (not in a musical), Frances McDormand
Janet McTeer, Jonny Lee Miller, Karl Miller, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Carey Mulligan, Lee Pace, Rebecca Naomi Jones
Eddie Redmayne, Linus Roache, Mark Rylance
Bryce Ryness, Stark Sands, Stephen Spinella
Bobby Steggert (sad I missed Ragtime and A Minister's Wife)
Alan Tudyk, (Aaron Tveit, as long as he sings)
Frederick Weller, Bradley Whitford, Patrick Wilson

Now, imagine how long the list would be if I hadn't already seen all the people below! (Multiple shows but not multiple performances of the same show are noted.) These are in no sane, reasonable order.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Weekend in review/Yay Daniel Radcliffe (July 16-17, 2011)

Last weekend, I somehow managed to run out of things I was particularly interested in seeing in New York. (I'm waiting to see The Book of Mormon, Anything Goes, Follies, and Master Class with a friend in August.) So, I decided to just take a leap and see a few Broadway shows that other people have been praising (either on Theater Talk or with Tony nominations).

I got cheap tickets through Audience Rewards points to Born Yesterday and How to Succeed in Business without Even Trying and a cheap(ish) nosebleed seat for The Motherf**cker with the Hat. I wasn't terribly excited about any of them, but I allowed for the possibility that I'd be pleasantly surprised.

Born Yesterday closed early, so I replaced it with Classic Stage Company's Unnatural Acts, an off-Broadway play (with a bit of singing and some choreographed movement) about Harvard's Secret Court of 1920, which aimed to clear out homosexual activity from campus. And I added a late-night performance of Silence! The Musical at Theatre 80. Yes, a musical parody of the Silence of the Lambs movie.

I'll post separate reviews later, but here's a preview: I enjoyed Acts but hated Hat. I mean HATED. Perhaps that's partly why I enjoyed the awesomely low-brow Silence! so much--almost anything would have been enjoyable in comparison to Hat. And How to Succeed was very charming, with Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette really, really, really giving it their all. Neither is particularly a natural for musical theater--especially in a show that's so dance heavy--but those guys WORK. The audience absolutely loved everything they did. I mean EVERYTHING they did. But I get it: I adore Dan Rad, too. (I haven't managed to see very last ever Harry Potter movie yet, but I think seeing him on stage is a fine substitute for now.)

Yes, "Dan Rad" is a sickeningly twee nickname, but I have adopted it anyway because he is actually quite rad. In addition to being quite serious about acting, he's well spoken--and outspoken. He's using his power for good by speaking freely and often in favor of equal rights, admitting to his decision to give up alcohol in an effort to help others who might be in the same situation, and lending continued support to The Trevor Project, which helps people (especially LGBTQ teens) who are considering suicide. Really, how can you help but love the guy?

The Trevor Project's suicide-prevention hotline number is 866-488-7386. Please share it with anyone who might need it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Powerhouse Theatre at Vassar: Whisper House / The Nightingale / Nero / F2M

Over the past few summers, I've seen four Powerhouse Theatre shows at Vassar College as part of their annual collaboration with New York Stage and Film. Nero, Whisper House, and The Nightingale were concert readings of musicals by Duncan Sheik (famous for that incessantly played kind-of-twee song Barely Breathing and, of course, for Spring Awakening). F2M was a fully staged play by Patricia Wettig (famous as an actress in Thirtysomething and in Brothers & Sisters).

I think Wettig's play F2M has legs, but I wish the explanatory bits had been less cliched, handled better than as in an after-school special (both in the actual explanations and how they were clunkily folded into the surrounding dialogue). I know many theater audiences know nothing about transgender issues, but the play spends so much time saying what being transgender is and isn't that it shortchanges the really interesting questions the play raises about its impacts on a college-age transgender person and those who love the person. I've read and watched a lot about this (which is how I know how cliched the dialogue is), and the play still managed to raise at least one issue that I had never considered. Serious kudos for that, but it happened late in the play and was barely explored. Keira Keeley's portrayal was excellent, restrained, and very real, though.

For the concert readings, the audience is reminded that in the Internet Era, there are few safe spaces for artists to hone their craft without widely circulated criticism and to please honor that by not filming the show or talking about it with your invisible friends. [See my newer post for an update on this policy.]* So I won't do real reviews for these shows, but I do want to tell you a bit about my experience so far and encourage you to take the beautiful drive or MetroNorth train ride up to Poughkeepsie to check it out for yourself sometime. (Please click MORE at the bottom to read about Nero and The Nightingale.)

Whisper House
Score by Duncan Sheik, book and co-lyrics by Kyle Jarrow. Copied from the Old Globe Theatre's website (the show got a fully staged run there after the Powerhouse workshop):
It’s 1942--at the height of World War II--and Christopher, an imaginative young boy, is sent to live with an aunt he’s never met: Lilly, a reclusive woman who serves as the keeper of a remote lighthouse. Not yet comfortable in his surroundings, Christopher begins to hear strange music no one else can hear seeping through the walls. It doesn’t take long for him to suspect the lighthouse may be haunted, and these ghosts tell him that Yasujiro, a Japanese worker that Lilly has employed, should not be trusted. Is Christopher’s imagination getting the best of him? Or are these ghosts warning Christopher about the very real dangers that lie ahead?
I love this show and hope it comes to New York. It's a simple but touching story, and I think it's brilliant that--like in Spring Awakening--the songs take place outside the narrative, this time with the ghosts commenting on the action but not really taking part in it. Please go listen to the concept album Sheik recorded with the golden-voiced Holly Brook. I'm particularly fond of Better to Be Dead, And Now We Sing, and especially The Tale of Solomon Snell. I listened to the recording on repeat for weeks when I got it and am still completely in love with it.

Here's a video for the Whisper House song Earthbound Starlight:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Illusion and Signature's Kushner season

The Illusion is a Tony Kushner adaptation of a play by Pierre Corneille, a seventeenth-century French playwright I know nothing about and now feel no need to investigate. The actors were excellent but I just didn't care about the play. It was certainly the most lighthearted of the shows I saw that weekend, but it's not my kind of farce, and the conclusion was fairly disheartening.

On the other hand, the look that lighting designer Kevin Adams and set designer Christine Jones, frequent collaborators, created is interesting and quite beautiful. I wanted to walk around and touch the various votives and other light-giving objects near the stage, and I wanted to take the overhead light sculpture home with me. Jones's off-stage set design here is reminiscent of Spring Awakening's chock-a-block, stuff-stuck-on-a-brick-wall design (which I loved), but Adams's is unlike any of his other work I've seen. Their efforts were by far my favorite aspect of this production.

I loooooooooove Kevin Adams's lighting design for the show. Unlike with Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Next to Normal, it is understated and beautiful (more Mirror Blue Night, less Feeling Electric). No neon lights in sight! I think the lighting designs of those three earlier shows were certainly appropriate to their material, but I was just bored by the concept by the time Passing Strange rolled around, and I don't have any idea how Adams could possibly one-up that wall of light. (To be fair, I also saw several off-Broadway shows at the Vineyard and at Second Stage that Adams lit, plus The 39 Steps on Broadway, and don't remember being overwhelmed by them at all. Hair was in the middle, for me--fine, but I definitely suspected it was him.)

I really don't have much to say about this show other than that. I love Lois Smith (from the movie Twister and the TV show True Blood among more serious fare), and she was charming here. Merritt Wever, whom I generally know only from Aaron Sorkin's short-lived TV show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was funny with the conniving and strangely anachronistic role she was given. Henry Stram, however, was so good in what was pretty much the only role in the show that I really liked. He's good at being weird and creepy. (I liked about half the characters he did as the Adult Men in the first national tour of Spring Awakening, and he was pretty good as a drunken lech in the Huntington Theatre's entirely unnecessary production of William Inge's Bus Stop last season.)

At least I finished out The Signature Theatre's Kushner-centric season. I loved iHomo (which I told Kushner when I ran into him at Starbucks one day), really liked Angels in America Part I, liked Angels Part II even though I didn't understand when it turned so weird, and have almost entirely forgotten The Illusion even though it's the one I saw most recently. Alas, I just wish iHomo were still running.