Wednesday, March 26, 2014

IF/THEN: An Ordinary Story About Ordinary People

People, we have a new turntable on Broadway, and no, I'm not talking about the revival of Les Miserables. Tom Kitt & Brian Yorkey's new musical IF/THEN opens tonight on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. This is a modern musical about everyday people doing everyday things. Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) is a recently divorced almost-forty Urban Planner who has recently returned to Manhattan. Urban Planning, how modern? She is faced with a series of choices, both personally and professionally, that will affect her life drastically. Pretty ordinary, right? None of this screams, "let's make a musical," right? I've always loved the old saying "the characters sing when they can't speak anymore," but I rarely felt that these characters were pushed to the emotionally brink, at least not enough to merit a song. The only thing really intriguing about the plot is the overlapping exploration of Elizabeth's multiple lives. The audience gets to watch both sides of her choices play out, which is fantastic in theory, but really makes for a confusing plot. If you're a fan of the show LOST, think of those flashes-sideways and you'll have an idea of what is going on here.

The opening scene, set in Madison Square Park, is reminiscent of Sunday in the Park With George as the actors seem to spring out of the set. The opening number speaks repeatedly about choices, and though it is didactic and basically hits you over the head with the themes of the show, at least it let's the audience know what we will be seeing. It is very Comedy Tonight in that way, which is no surprise since Tom Kitt has mentioned more than once that he is a Sondheim disciple. 

Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) faces an endless series of choices in the show, beginning with the decision to go by 'Liz' or "Beth". She carries this show on her back and vocally, she is stunning as always. Her vocal power hasn't regressed at all in the ten years since she last Defied Gravity. The highlight is certainly the 11 o'clock number where she questions why she did what she did before finding contentment in the finale. I didn't find the character particularly interesting, but she does well with what she is given. You can see how tortured she is when her life doesn't go the way she planned, and she's way too proud to ever ask for help from friends, even though she is always a rock for them.

Kate (LaChanze) is the standout of the show. Her performance is what the "Best Featured Actress" TONY was made for, a bright light in an average production. She delivers the one liners perfectly with snap, and sometimes with bite. Her energy is absolutely palpable, even from the rear mezzanine where I so humbly sat. Her confidence and strength play perfectly against Elizabeth's confusion and uncertainty.

In the show that is a not-so-subtle love letter to RENT, it's fitting that Anthony Rapp plays Lucas like he played Mark. Lucas is all "power to the people" and sexual confusion, which is both annoying and frustrating. It just seems so been there, done that. In the past, and in one of the many alternating presents, Lucas and Elizabeth had/have a romantic relationship. Maureen and Mark anyone? Do we see it yet?

Ultimately, Michael Greif's production begs us to ask ourselves "what happens to the other versions of ourselves when we make different choices?" It certainly makes you think about your own life choices, and for that, we should applaud this production. Cut the plane crash, the bisexual bestie from 1994, and the shmaltzy melodrama and we could have something here, but as of now, it's nothing all that special. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Bridges of Madison County is Almost Real(ly Good)

Soaring melodies, lush arrangements, romantic performances, and the voice of a Broadway generation, these are Hallmarks of The Bridges of Madison County, based on the novel and movie of the same name. If you don't mind sacrificing plot depth for musical complexity, then skip on down to the Schoenfeld where Bartlett Sher is taking audiences on a tour of Iowa eight times per week. It is a simple story where we learn about the Johnsons, a seemingly average Iowa family. Bud is a former soldier and his wife Francesca (Franny to the locals) is an Italian war bride. They live on a farm with their two children and all is well until Francesca is left home alone for a few days and Robert Kincaid, a mysterious photographer and soon-to-be love of her life appears on the farm.

Kelli O'Hara and her voice are the true stars of this production. I've seen her in other shows and concerts, and while she is always fantastic, she was born to play this role. It is a different type of character than we've seen her play in the past, no longer an ingenue, and Brown's music sits right in her sweet spot. Her Francesca feels like a Rodgers and Hammerstein's leading lady with a lot more issues. These flaws make her Francesca feel more contemporary and therefore, relatable in a way that she's "Almost Real," hence my title. Francesca is every woman who has ever been in a loveless marriage, has regrets, or wishes her life would have turned out differently. I'm slightly appalled that I would get behind a character who would sacrifice her family for another man, but when Francesca takes us through her past and we see how much she has endured, we want her to have every bit of happiness. O'Hara does an Italian accent, and I thought it would be a distraction, but after the first few minutes of the piece it seems so natural that you don't even question in. In fact, in makes her seem more exotic and even more out of place in the flat Iowa farmland. Vocally, this is the best she has ever been. Her soprano is a breath of fresh air in an era where you can't go into a Broadway house without hearing belting, or even worse, screlting. Her singing is very controlled for the majority of the show, but there are a few times that she really let's it fly, especially in "Almost Real" when she takes us back to Italy and in "Before and After You/One Second & a Million Miles," during her last moments with Robert.

It's hard to believe that this is Steven Pasquale's Broadway musical debut. Why on earth hasn't some director scooped him up? Because he is fresh for the musical theatre audience, he works even more perfectly as Robert. First of all, he is terribly handsome and just rugged enough to make us believe he was a former cowboy and current vagrant artist. His brilliant baritone really makes Brown's music sing, no pun intended, and his chemistry with Francesca Kelli O'Hara is undeniable. It is a credit to their acting that the forbidden affair between their characters becomes something that the audience not only accepts, but actually roots for. Pasquale portrays Robert as a shy, polite gentleman who simply tries to keep to himself until fate puts him on Francesca's front porch. His intensity grows throughout the show in a way that feels natural and honest, peaking during his final moments of Francesca. When we see Robert again at the end of the show, he is quiet and reflective, resigning himself to the fact that he will live his final days alone in such a way that we as the audience and heartbroken that he never tried to go after her again.

The songs are the heart and soul of the show, as they should be with a composer such as Brown who is known for his nuanced and layered music, but this also highlights the weaknesses of the book. Outside of the songs, the characters aren't particularly well-developed. This is fine for Francesca and Robert, who sing the majority of the songs, but it is a true disservice to the rest of the characters. For example, Bud, (Hunter Foster) Francesca's husband, is written as so flat and boring that the audience roots for the affair and pulls for Francesca to leave him. It is only the presence of their children that makes Francesca's decision a true moral dilemma, not only for her, but for the audience. And even the children, Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena) have few redeeming qualities. Both are written, and acted, as so whiny and annoying that it's no wonder Francesca can finally let her hair down when her family goes off to the Indiana State Fair. Marge (Cass Morgan) is the one likable member of the supporting cast. The nosy neighbor could easily become a caricature, but as she nails the one-liners with such zip, she also shows her heart in the end when she just subtly lets on that she knew about Francesca's affair all those years ago and never once judged her for it.

Bartlett Sher's direction is pretty traditional, highlighting the romance and beauty of the score and his two leads. It's actually quite similar to his work in The Light in the Piazza. He does spice things up a little, particularly in Act I, with a scene that can best be described as a flashback. As Robert tells Francesca about his first wife, Marian (Whitney Bashor) actually takes the stage to sing the story. Sher took a stab at a different type of storytelling, but it just doesn't feel particularly necessary. Bashor does have a fantastic voice, but it seems like Sher liked the actress and created a character for her that wasn't integral to the story. The montage scene near the end of Act II is a triumph for Sher in that it covers several decades seamlessly without feeling forced. In another director's hands this scene could have really dragged on, but he keeps it moving with Brown's bluegrassy/folksy "When I'm Gone".

The Bridges of Madison County has the makings of Jason Robert Brown's first big broadway hit. He is known for The Last Five Years, Parade, and other slightly more offbeat shows, but this piece was clearly written with Broadway patrons in mind. It is a "big show" in every sense of the word. You have a marriage-turned-love triangle unfolding in a gossipy small town in the ever changing 1960s. All of this is the perfect framework for drama and music. We've all heard the old theatrical adage "we sing because we can't speak anymore," and it plays out perfectly in this show. Emotions are running high throughout, which leads perfectly into the songs, particularly in Act II. Brown blends his layered, complex musical sensibility with the local character of Iowa to create a folksy, yet sweeping piece of Americana. This score harkens back to Aaron Copland as much as Stephen Sondheim. If you're looking for a perfect production, this show isn't that, but then again what is? I, and I think most people, see musicals for the score and the performances, so if you go in the right frame of mind, O'Hara and Pasquale's voices and Brown's music will sweep you away.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ticket Giveaway for THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN on Broadway!

A Broadway season that has already marked the Broadway returns of numerous fan favorites will get even better on April 12th when Daniel Radcliffe returns to the boards. The Cripple of Inishmaan, already a hit on the West End stage, comes to Broadway this spring.

“Daniel Radcliffe delivers his finest performance to date. He is remarkable,” raves The New York Times. Radcliffe, star of the eight Harry Potter films, makes a triumphant return to Broadway following his 10-month sold out run in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in the Broadway premiere of Martin McDonagh's riotous comedy directed by Tony® award winner Michael Grandage.

Set on the remote island of Inishmaan off the west coast of Ireland, word arrives that a Hollywood film is being made on the neighboring island of Inishmore. The one person who wants to be in the film more than anybody is young Cripple Billy (Radcliffe), if only to break away from the bitter tedium of his daily life. McDonagh’s comic masterpiece examines an ordinary coming-of-age in extraordinary circumstances and confirms his position as one of the most original Irish voices to emerge in the second half of the twentieth century.

"5 Stars! A stupendous performance by Daniel Radcliffe. The finest piece of acting I have seen all year.” - Tim Walker, The Sunday Telegraph

“The most politically incorrect play in the West End – and probably the funniest.” - Robert Gore-Langton, The Mail on Sunday

To enter our ticket giveaway, reply to the following trivia question in the "comments" section below by Monday March 17th. Be sure to include your email address so that we can contact you.

In which play did Daniel Radfcliffe makes his Broadway debut? Good Luck!

Tickets are currently available on

The Cort Theatre 138 West 48th Street (btwn 6th & 7th Aves) New York, NY 10036

Previews begin Saturday, April 12. Opening Night is Sunday, April 20.
Tuesdays: 7pm
Wednesdays: 2pm and 8pm
Thursdays: 7pm
Fridays: 8pm
Saturdays: 2pm & 8pm Sundays: 3pm

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Sochi Figure Skating Thoughts and Feelings

Where on earth do I begin? I have feelings of Olympic proportions about these Olympics we just experienced. I waited for a week to post because I didn't want to say anything I would regret in the heat of the moment. Read between the lines and you know who I'm talking about. Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

The Team Competition
What I Loved: I loved seeing the pride that the skaters have for their country and I also loved seeing national rivals pretend to like one another. I'm looking at you Diva Wagner. I liked that the top skaters had a chance to get the Olympic jitters out before the event.
What I Hated: I hated that some of the skaters felt like they weren't taking this seriously, though I think that may change in a few Olympic cycles if this event becomes more important. I also hated the points system and that the free skates barely mattered. Since IJS is all about those points and breaking records, let's just add up all the total points and be done with it. In the future, I would like to see this event at the end of the Games so the top skaters aren't conserving energy for the individual events.
What I Was Apathetic About: I found myself not caring about any team outside of Russian, Canada, and the US because they had no shot at the podium.
Feelings Meter: I was as anxious as I always am the night before the TONY awards when I can't predict how they will stage the opening number.

The Pairs Event
What I Loved: Volosozhar & Trankov in the short program, Savchenko & Szolkowy in the short program, Pang & Tong's passionate farewell free skate, and Ksenia Stolbova's facial expressions in the free. I also loved seeing Volosozhar & Trankov stand up under all that pressure. Though I was really over Russia later in the games, all seemed right with the world with two Russian pairs on the podium. I love the spunk of Kirsten Moore-Towers and hope they medal at worlds and keep going.
What I Hated: I hated the OCD flare-up I had when Tatiana Volosozhar's bun came loose in the free skate. I hated how I was bored during their Jesus Christ Super Star until the lift in the second half on the "Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ" music. You know what I'm talking about. I hated how the over scoring of Volosozhar & Trankov (a plus GOE on a throw with a hand down) made me feel dirty inside and made me skeptical that the judging would get worse and worse.
What I Was Apathetic About: I found myself not caring about any pairs outside of the top 5. None of the other performances got me excited.
Feelings Meter: I felt about Volosozhar & Trankov winning gold like I did about Bernadette Peters winning the TONY for the revival of "Annie Get Your Gun." I was so happy they won, but the win wasn't supported by great material.

The Mens Event
What I Loved: I loved Jason Brown in the short, everything about Takahashi at all times, the clean skating of Denis Ten, and the fact that it was over and eventually the falling stopped.
What I Hated: I hated that craptacualar mess of a free skate and the fact that we have an Olympic Champ who fell several times. I hated that we couldn't copy and paste Jason Brown's skate from Nationals and snag him a bronze medal.
What I Was Apathetic About: I stopped caring that Javier Fernandez wasn't on the podium because if he cannot count the jumps at this stage in his career, he doesn't belong on an Olympic podium. I couldn't bring myself to feel bad for Patrick Chan because Hanyu left the door open for him and he couldn't triple axel through it cleanly.
Feelings Meter: I felt like I was watching the women's All-Around finals in Sydney and knew disaster was upon us and could do nothing to stop it.

The Ice Dance Event
What I Loved: I loved the short dances of Virtue & Moir, Cappellini & Lanotte, the free dance of Pechalat & Bourzat, and the look in Meryl's eyes during the free. I loved the sigh of relief on the faces of Charlie & Meryl when they saw that all of their hard work paid off. I loved the Spanish team's Picasso free skate and I hope to see more from them in the future.
What I Hated: I was angered by the fact that Pechalat and Bourzat's superior skating and artistry were not rewarded and were beaten by (in my opinion) a knock-off ballet. They lost that mandatory 3 points for skating while not being Russian. I hated the nastiness directed at Bobrova & Soloviev on social media, it wasn't their fault that they've been propped up for so long and were upset when scored semi-appropriately. I especially hated Canada's inability to form an argument. Either lash out at the judging or at Marina, not both.
What I Was Apathetic About: Oddly enough, Weaver & Poje did nothing for me, though I generally love them. I didn't feel strongly about either American team, which worries me for the future.
Feelings Meter: That bronze medal decision was like "La Cage aux Folles" beating "Sunday in the Park with George" for best musical in 1984; camp was chosen over true art.

The Ladies Event
What I Loved: I must start by saying that Mao's free skate was one of the finest programs I've seen in my 20 years watching figure skating. I loved Carolina's ethereal angelic short program, Carolina's sassy nuanced free skate, and everything else that Carolina did. I loved the subtlety of Yuna's short program and the emergence of Gracie Gold as a major threat on the world stage. I loved that Ashley Wagner had no filter when speaking about the judging, and though it was a little bit of sour grapes on her part, she's saying what we're all thinking. What I loved most was how out of control and ridiculous we got on twitter during that ladies event. I'm looking at you Dave and Ann.
What I Hated: I hated seeing Julia fall, especially when I heard that reporters were stalking her family and bugging her house, and all I wanted to do was give her a hug. I hated seeing Diva Wagner's scores drop in front of her very eyes as the judges chose a new favorite American and I really hated that she cut the post-short program ponytail flip in the ladies event. I hated seeing Mao crumble in the short, because I strongly believe that she'd be Olympic Champ if she had skated that short cleanly. I hated when Sotnikova waved at me from her spiral sequence, but we will blame Peter for that and not her. I hated the judging in most events, but the judging errors really were egregious in this ladies event.
What I Was Apathetic About: I feel nothing about our ladies champion. I know I should be outraged that Carolina didn't win, but when I look back on some of our recent ladies champions (cough Tara, Sarah, Shizuka) they don't represent the best of that era of skating either, so whatever.
Feelings Meter: I wanted to throw a floor lamp out of my 2nd story dressing room window like Patti LuPone did when Andrew Lloyd Webber fired her from Sunset Boulevard.

As mother Evita would ask, "Where do we go from here?" I know we are going through skating withdrawal, but worlds are just a hop, skip, and a jump away. I have a love/hate with Olympic-year Worlds because many of our favorites will retire, but there are always "A Star is Born" moments too when the babies step up and reach the podium. I'm looking at you Gracie and Julia! See you in Japan!