Category: Theatre

Cabaret Review: Barbara Cook

by Jonathan Warman

Barbara Cook’s latest cabaret act is, as one might expect, an evening of classic songs from the worlds of Broadway, swing, pop and jazz (and even a little blues!), sung by a woman who is herself a Broadway classic. Cook originated many golden age musical comedy roles – Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, Cunegonde in Candide and many more. She has a smooth, warm voice with a creamy even vibrato, and veers towards the lightly romantic in her interpretation of lyrics.

I knew that this show would be some kind of fabulous going in, but I wasn’t prepared for how wonderfully off-the-cuff it would be: it is simply a group of songs she has wanted to sing for awhile, shared in a friendly and intimate way. This evening is more eclectic than her usual concert playlists, which testifies to her ability to dig into a great variety of songs and tell their stories with both detail and feeling. Of course she does a song by her fave Stephen Sondheim, “Live Alone and Like It”, giving a strong sense a woman who’s gone through the experience of being “happily divorced”.

She does a slow version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You under My Skin” – with a glittering arrangement from musical director Lee Musiker – that’s a stunner: she finds some rich, dark colors in the song that most other singers miss. Musiker’s arrangement of “I Got Rhythm” is also pretty remarkable, seamlessly incorporating other Gershwin compositions to provide a great showcase for the band. Cook also fully plays both the ruefulness and the celebration in “Here’s to Life”, where most singers would pick only one angle and stick with it. All in all, an evening of great music, beautifully sung!

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

 

Theatre: Tony Picks 2011

by Jonathan Warman

Every year, my boyfriend and I look over the Tony nominees and pick our favorites. Not who we think will win, mind you, but whom we would choose if we were Tony voters. Here is a list of whom we would like to win, with a handful of folks we feel were, in Julie Andrews’s timeless phrase, “egregiously overlooked”. Enjoy.

 

Best Play

Good People

Jerusalem

The Motherfucker with the Hat

War Horse

Our Pick: Good People. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire delivers his best work to date, taking us to Southie, the hardscrabble Boston neighborhood where he grew up. He is very much writing what he knows, more directly than he ever has before, with powerful results.

 

Best Musical

The Book of Mormon

Catch Me If You Can

The Scottsboro Boys

Sister Act

Our Pick: The Book of Mormon. One of the funniest, most tuneful shows to open on Broadway in quite some time. That’s largely because The Book of Mormon, no matter how you look at it, is classic musical comedy fun. Scottsboro was an admirable, ambitious work, but didn’t have Mormon‘s tunes or wit.

 

Best Book of a Musical

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Alex Timbers

The Book of Mormon, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone

The Scottsboro Boys, David Thompson

Sister Act, Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane

Our Pick: The Book of Mormon, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. There are a few times that a joke in Mormon can feel forced, but fortunately they’re really set ups for better comic payoffs later on. Raucous comedy has rarely been so lovingly crafted.

 

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

The Book of Mormon, Music & Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone

The Scottsboro Boys, Music & Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb

Sister Act, Music: Alan Menken, Lyrics: Glenn Slater

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Music & Lyrics: David Yazbek

Our Pick: The Book of Mormon, Music & Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. It was clearly constructed with Rodgers and Hammerstein in mind as its musical and dramatic model, while satirizing classic and current musical comedy, even while it profits from their best lessons.

 

Best Revival of a Play

Arcadia

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Merchant of Venice

The Normal Heart

Our Pick: The Importance of Being Earnest. Director Brian Bedford, who also plays colorful gentry gorgon Lady Bracknell in this bright, vigorous production, has successfully captured the unbridled joy with which Oscar Wilde suffused every line. Bedford has plainly encouraged his castmates to make a full meal of this classic comic feast.

 

Best Revival of a Musical

Anything Goes

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Our Pick: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Director/choreographer Rob Ashford gets a long way with hyper-kinetic frugging and monkeying. A thoroughly entertaining revival that has the size and sizzle you expect from a Broadway musical.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Brian Bedford, The Importance of Being Earnest

Bobby Cannavale, The Motherfucker with the Hat

Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart

Al Pacino, The Merchant of Venice

Mark Rylance, Jerusalem

Our Pick: Mark Rylance, Jerusalem. Rylance proves once again that he is one of the English-speaking world’s greatest actors, this time in a role that, while wildly funny, goes way beyond comedy.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Nina Arianda, Born Yesterday

Frances McDormand, Good People

Lily Rabe, The Merchant of Venice

Vanessa Redgrave, Driving Miss Daisy

Hannah Yelland, Brief Encounter

Our Pick: Frances McDormand, Good People. A knockout female lead role performed by one of the finest American actress of our time. McDormand is incandescent, with exciting rock ’n’ roll energy to boot.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

Norbert Leo Butz, Catch Me If You Can

Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon

Joshua Henry, The Scottsboro Boys

Andrew Rannells, The Book of Mormon

Tony Sheldon, Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Our Pick: Josh Gad, The Book of Mormon. Butz was stiff competition, but Gad’s deliciously varied comic effects and eccentric charm put him over the top (literally) for us. Egregiously overlooked: Daniel Radcliffe, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Probably wouldn’t vote for him above the others, but the lad did deserve a nod for his efforts.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Sutton Foster, Anything Goes

Beth Leavel, Baby It’s You!

Patina Miller, Sister Act

Donna Murphy, The People in the Picture

Our Pick: Beth Leavel, Baby It’s You! Housewife turned record company exec Florence Greenberg is magnetically channelled by Beth Leavel. Leavel fills her portrayal of Greenberg with a profound soulfulness, and sings and dances with a fiery vigor that keep the whole thing moving.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Mackenzie Crook, Jerusalem

Billy Crudup, Arcadia

John Benjamin Hickey, The Normal Heart

Arian Moayed, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Yul Vázquez, The Motherfucker with the Hat

Our Pick: Arian Moayed, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Moayed played disillusioned Baghdad gardener Musa with great sensitivity and detail – a singularly striking and emotional performance.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Ellen Barkin, The Normal Heart

Edie Falco, The House of Blue Leaves

Judith Light, Lombardi

Joanna Lumley, La Bête

Elizabeth Rodriguez, The Motherfucker with the Hat

Our Pick: Judith Light, Lombardi. Light was particularly marvelous as a woman who isn’t thrilled with being a “sports widow” but nonetheless loves her man enough to realize that his happiness depends on the game and not on her.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

Colman Domingo, The Scottsboro Boys

Adam Godley, Anything Goes

John Larroquette, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Forrest McClendon, The Scottsboro Boys

Rory O’Malley, The Book of Mormon

Our Pick: Adam Godley, Anything Goes. A standout performance, and a bit of a stealth performance: he tools along gracefully until his big Act II number “The Gypsy In Me” when – Bam! Pow! – he totally nails it, delivering the song and dance with real fire, knocking all of the song’s comedy right out of the ballpark.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Tammy Blanchard, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Victoria Clark, Sister Act

Nikki M. James, The Book of Mormon

Patti LuPone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Our Pick: Laura Benanti, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Laura Benanti stole every scene she was in as ditzy model Candela.

 

Best Scenic Design of a Play

Todd Rosenthal, The Motherfucker with the Hat

Rae Smith, War Horse

Ultz, Jerusalem

Mark Wendland, The Merchant of Venice

Our Pick: Ultz, Jerusalem. Ultz’s very impressive set laid out a pastoral but chaotic scene in fastidious detail, evoking both the gutsiness of the play’s trailer-dwelling hero and the grand mysteries of nature (and even supernature).

 

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

Beowulf Boritt, The Scottsboro Boys

Derek McLane, Anything Goes

Scott Pask, The Book of Mormon

Donyale Werle, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Our Pick: Donyale Werle, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Werle created an audience-surrounding environment, which successfully blended early 19th Century hunting lodge realness with witty 21st Century kitsch. Egregiously overlooked: Brian Thomson, Priscilla Queen of the Dessert. Garish, yes, but gorgeous, too. Flamboyant, fabulous, an outpouring of pure joy that I liked better than Werle’s work.

 

Best Costume Design of a Play

Jess Goldstein, The Merchant of Venice

Desmond Heeley, The Importance of Being Earnest

Mark Thompson, La Bête

Catherine Zuber, Born Yesterday

Our Pick: Desmond Heeley, The Importance of Being Earnest. Glamorous, giddy and glittery, Heeley’s excellent creations go elegantly, entertainingly over-the-top; his costumes for Lady Bracknell in particular are easily among the best of the year.

 

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner, Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Martin Pakledinaz, Anything Goes

Ann Roth, The Book of Mormon

Catherine Zuber, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Our Pick: Tim Chappel & Lizzy Gardiner, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Goes even further over the top than Heeley’s Earnest designs (this is a drag queen musical, after all) and are even more wonderfully witty and complex than their own Oscar-winning designs for the Priscilla film.

 

Best Lighting Design of a Play

Paule Constable, War Horse

David Lander, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Kenneth Posner, The Merchant of Venice

Mimi Jordan Sherin, Jerusalem

Our Pick: David Lander, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Lander’s rich and profound yet delicate lighting is perhaps the most successfully evocative thing about this production, practically bringing us the smells and flavors of wartime Baghdad.

 

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Ken Billington, The Scottsboro Boys

Howell Binkley, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Peter Kaczorowski, Anything Goes

Brian MacDevitt, The Book of Mormon

Our Pick: Howell Binkley, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Rarely have pastels been so vibrant! Binkley’s swirling lighting literally caresses the How to Succeed set. Egregiously overlooked: Nick Schlieper, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. See scenic design above. Same story.

 

Best Sound Design of a Play

Acme Sound Partners & Cricket S. Myers, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Simon Baker, Brief Encounter

Ian Dickinson for Autograph, Jerusalem

Christopher Shutt, War Horse

Our Pick: Simon Baker, Brief Encounter. Baker is literally the wind beneath this production’s wings, giving support to the production’s many musical interludes, as well as creating emotional and symbolic soundscapes all his own.

 

Best Sound Design of a Musical

Peter Hylenski, The Scottsboro Boys

Steve Canyon Kennedy, Catch Me If You Can

Brian Ronan, Anything Goes

Brian Ronan, The Book of Mormon

Our Pick: Brian Ronan, The Book of Mormon. Always a difficult category to judge, but one that comes down to this – can you hear the lyrics and does the music sound full? Ronan suceeds loud and clear on both counts.

 

Best Direction of a Play

Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, War Horse

Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe, The Normal Heart

Anna D. Shapiro, The Motherfucker with the Hat

Daniel Sullivan, The Merchant of Venice

Our Pick: Anna D. Shapiro, The Motherfucker with the Hat. As always, Shapiro delivers a production that is very sharp and well-calibrated while also being profoundly human and emotional. Egregiously overlooked: Brian Bedford, The Importance of Being Earnest. He didn’t just play Lady Bracknell and let the chips fall where they may. This production is the best Earnest in a long time because Bedford imparted the true spirit of Wilde to his cast with intelligence, joy and vigor. I’d pick him over Shapiro, if only by a bit.

 

Best Direction of a Musical

Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes

Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, The Book of Mormon

Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys

Our Pick: Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys. Stro is doing some of her best work ever here, using minimal means to create a constantly compelling theatricality. Sometimes her direction and choreography do diametrically opposite things at the same time, to truly stunning effect.

 

Best Choreography

Rob Ashford, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Kathleen Marshall, Anything Goes

Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon

Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys

Our Pick: Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys. See above. Egregiously overlooked: Jerry Mitchell, Catch Me if you Can. Precise, even tricky high-energy steps, that tell the story and reveal character very effectively. I’d still probably give the prize to Stro, but Jerry truly deserved a nod.

 

Best Orchestrations

Doug Besterman, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Larry Hochman, The Scottsboro Boys

Larry Hochman and Stephen Oremus, The Book of Mormon

Marc Shaiman & Larry Blank, Catch Me If You Can

Our Pick: Larry Hochman, The Scottsboro Boys. The show satirizes minstrelsy’s worst tendencies while also allowing Kander and Ebb to write an energetic, engaging score of minstrel-style songs. Hochman unflinchingly captured all the wonderful things that made this music so abidingly influential.

 

Theatre Review: “Jerusalem”

by Jonathan Warman

 

Playwright Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, title to one side, is a seriously pagan play. Drawing its title from a hymn based on a mystic poem by British poet William Blake, Jerusalem takes place in the woods of South West England, where Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Mark Rylance), a middle aged former daredevil motorcyclist and modern-day Pied Piper, is a wanted man. The council officials from town serve his rural trailer an eviction notice, while a motley crew of friends, mostly very young but ranging up in age to an elderly, visionary English professor, continue to consume his ample supply of drugs and alcohol.

The show opens with a little fairy singing Blake’s odd yet patriotic hymn, interrupted by a blast of lights and dance music reminiscent of English raves. That opening is pregnant with signifiers of everything that follows – Rooster’s deep roots in the land, his Dionysian hard-partying ways (which is what brings all the kids to his trailer) and hints of powerful magic in this charismatic, limping gypsy. He tells stories that are too supernatural and just plain crazy to be true and then produces what appears to be physical evidence.

Mark Rylance (Boeing Boeing, La Bête) proves once again that he is one of the English-speaking world’s greatest actors, this time in a role that, while wildly funny, goes way beyond comedy. Rylance is well served by his taste for parts that have fireworks built into them that he is uniquely suited to exploit. Rooster is beyond Shakespearean, he’s something out of myth or legend, while also being just a broken-down sodden bloke.

Jerusalem also owes a great deal to those raves mentioned above, even though that opening salvo is as boogie-down as the evening gets. English raves have reconnected whole generations, not only with the outlaw spirit of English heroes, but with the deeply weird druidic magic of the English countryside. That trancey dancing spirit definitely courses through this play’s veins. In fact, Jerusalem gets most bogged down when trying to show us the more ordinary parts of Rooster’s life. With a tapestry this vivid, we only need a little bit of neutral for a background, and there’s at least an unnecessary half-hour of kitchen-sink drama in the play.

With this, Rylance is the man to beat for the Tony, and the play itself is one of the more gleefully baroque pleasures to hit Broadway in quite some time. Not necessarily everybody’s cup of tea, but I loved it!

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see Drama Queen.

Theatre Review: “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”

by Jonathan Warman

I’d only ever read this Tennessee Williams drama before, and I must say it plays even better than I thought it would. Structured with great originality and daring, it shows more of his fire and talent than, say, Summer and Smoke or Night of the Iguana – and also puts his wicked humor on abundant display.

In The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Flora Goforth (Olympia Dukakis), a wealthy, widowed American socialite, has retreated from the world to write her memoirs. Without warning, handsome and mysterious visitor Christopher Flanders (Darren Pettie) arrives at her picturesque Italian mountaintop villa to keep Flora company. Their relationship plays out over two summer days, as the ocean surf booms below, and as Flora races against time and wrestles with her impending death.

Dukakis happily sinks her teeth into this role packed with red meat. While there are some nuances about the masks that Flora wears that Dukakis misses, she goes right for the jugular, never a bad choice with the always-hot Williams. Pettie does a fine job balancing the mercenary and compassionate sides of Flanders, even if he isn’t quite as much of a sensualist as the role seems to require. Edward Hibbert works a fine edge between camp and brutal honesty as the Witch of Capri, a deliciously bitchy role legendarily played by Noël Coward in Boom the film version of Milk Train.

There’s a strange thing that’s going on with contemporary theatre reviews of Tennessee Williams. Back when Milk Train first opened, critics and commentators were taking to describing Williams plays as “lurid”, “excessive”, “florid” and “overwrought” – all basically code for “too damn queer”. Today’s critics have a tendency to receive those old opinions as factual, taking those epithets at face value and ignoring the venomous strain of homophobia that underlies them.

Thing is, you can find all the words I listed above in recent reviews of this production. Milk Train is, without a doubt, a colorful, eccentric, over-the-top, often intentionally campy play. It is also insightful, highly thought-provoking, sometimes hilarious but more often moving, and occasionally quite beautiful. It is a play to be reckoned with and taken seriously.

If this was a newly discovered 1963 play by an unknown playwright, I have no doubt that people would proclaim it for the visionary if flawed work it is. But because it’s Tennessee Williams, we get all this heinous, hateful bullshit rehashed. And, in honor of his 100th birthday, I say let’s stop it right now.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

%d bloggers like this: