And I Cannot Really Tell You (Stage Thoughts, Dreamgirls, The Savoy Theater)

DreamgirlsOn my recent visit to London, the one show I really wanted to see was Casey Nicholaw’s production of ‘Dreamgirls’ at The Savoy Theater.  I have never seen a proper production of the show, and this particular production has been revered and slated to be moving to Broadway later this year – its first Broadway revival ever. After purchasing tickets, I fully immersed myself into the cast recording, and based on that alone, had several questions. Firstly, why does Deena here have a really weak singing voice, especially along side Amber Riley’s.  I mean, is this an obvious directorial choice? Also, I observed that Amber Riley’s performance seems a little too clean, based on the cast recording anyway. But I still was so looking forward to seeing the production, and to say I was excited would be am understatement.

Enter a horrific experience getting in from Heathrow – long lines at passport control, an Uber ride from hell, and found myself rushing to theater late. And adding insult to injury, realized that Amber Riley was on vacation that week, so I was doubly crestfallen. But make no mistake, Marsha Wallace, her understudy, did a more-than-competent Effie.

So what did I think of the production? Nicholaw is more than competent as well, and I loved several directorial touches (There’s a ‘reveal’ in ‘I Am Changing’ that made me utter ‘wow)  Gregg Barnes’ costumes do wow, and the lighting by Hugh Vanstone, set by Tim Hartley impress. But they impress, at times, just for the sake of. I did not find a lot of synch because each item is to sleek, too shiny, too polished. I always imagine Michael Bennett’s staging – all sleek towers that ebb and flow, and the only thing I can wonder is if he would approve of the modernness of this production.

Plus. this seems too influenced by the movie version. The addition of ‘Listen’ never did anything for me, and here as performed as a duet by Effie and Deena, still seem lifeless – all sound no fury. And the super amplification doesn’t help it. And while we are on the subject of Liisa Lofantaine as Deena, I was still bothered by her sometimes pitchy singing. As an actress, she was fine, but I honestly had cringey moments while listening to her singing.

As for my disappointment on not seeing Riley? When I was on TKTS booth in Leicester Square the next morning, the very knowledgeable young lady recommending shows told me that she thought Amber Riley was much too young to essay the role of Effie, and felt her performance hollow. Well, maybe I am just being bitter but perhaps in this production, it really doesn’t matter which Effie you see in the role. Even in her viral performance singing ‘And I Am Not Telling You,’ I felt disconnect with her character. Of course, I cannot definitely say that because I did not see her performance, but it did make me pause.

Musical Tonight (Movie Thoughts: Opening Night)

opening-night-poster01The Tonys were last night, and I have mixed feelings about the telecast. Maybe it stems from my dislike of Kevin Spacey, but I just did not enjoy the telecast at all, although of course I enjoyed a lot of the content, and it is that rare night in television when Broadway is highlighted. It kind of whet my appetite and I ended up today watching ‘Opening Night,’ this film set backstage of a Broadway musical. Directed by Isaac Rentz, the film is about a stage manager (Topher Grace) who used to be a star himself on Broadway. We get to see him diffuse fire after fire in an attempt to let the show go on on opening night. It’s a cute film, and if you were to take it seriously you will find a lot of flaws, but it moves quick enough and there are enough laughs – and music – to distract you from logic. I like the fact that the musical they are staging is interesting – a jukebox musical of one-hit-wonder songs – and even stars JC Chasez of NSync.  And Grace is cute and charming in a ‘straight guy’ role among a bunch of crazy actors and performers. there are some good musical performances as well from Taye Diggs and Leslie Margherita, and that’s no surprise because those two are seasoned Broadway performers.  I enjoyed the film a lot, and recommend it especially if you are a Broadway baby like myself.

Human Kindness Is Overflowing (Stage Thoughts: Come From Away, Gerald Schoenfeld Theater)

poster_cfa-show 361x517 Show PageThe Tony’s Telecast (aka Showqueen Superbowl) is tonight and for Best Musical, it comes down to Dear Evan Hansen vs Come From Away. They are said to be battling neck and neck. If I were to choose between the two, my vote would probably go to ‘Come From Away.’ Written be Irene Sankoff and David Hein and directed by Christopher Ashley, this show is small, homey, and comfortable, but shows kindness bigly and hugely.  It is set on 9/11, in Gander, Newfoundland where planes landed after air space got closed that Tuesday. This musical, with songs also by Sankoff and Hein, shows how the people of Gander and their neighboring villages welcomed these thousands of people with open arms, providing shelter, clothes and feeding them those days before the air space reopened. It also shows the interpersonal relationships between the stranded passengers, how love formed, and for some, how love dissipated.

It’s a touching show, and damn it if I didn’t end up with tears in my eyes. I am always wary of anything that ‘exploits’ 9/11, but this is a story of any tragedy. The catalytical conflict could have been anything, and it just happened to be 9/11. I was there in New York City that day and at times feel protective of it, and this musical stirred a lot of the emotions I felt that day. The music is down to earth and folksy, but it has a sense of humor that was unexpected and effective. I was a little wary of the score but liked some of the songs, especially Jenn Collela’s song about how the world changed its innocence that day. (The score reminds me a lot of ‘Once’) The messages ring truer today, as we struggle to keep xenophobia in check. I know I am rooting for Collela tonight, but the whole ensemble is fantastic as well, and Chad Kimball has that star quality that I couldn’t help but follow my eyes to wherever he is on stage – that’s a star if there ever was one. I know this show is a hot ticket nowadays, but I hope it does more – enlighten people on their bias and prejudices. If one bigot from a red state learns a lesson from this show each night, then that’s already an achievement far greater than a Tony Award.

The Bette Parade Passes By (Stage Thoughts: Hello Dolly! – Shubert Theatre)

bwetMy biggest fear, before seeing the new revival of ‘Hello Dolly,’ now playing at The Shubert Theatre, is that Bette Midler would be playing Bette Midler, not Dolly Levi.  Midler has a big personality that she could easily usurp the character.  (Or worse, I thought she would do a Sophie Tucker Dolly)  But I need not worry, because the role of Dolly Levi is in good hands. Fifty years after she last appeared on Broadway, Midler comes back swinging, and hits a home run. Her Dolly is full of brass, sass, and charm. This is a most likable Dolly, and Midler knows when to give, and when to hold back. The best things he does here is to add restraint – she doesn’t mug, she doesn’t overcook her performance. She doesn’t need to – the book and music is near perfect, and her cast shines just as bright, so she just needs to let every piece fall in its place. But make no mistake – her Dolly is unforgettable, and when (not if) she gets the Antoinette Perry next month, it will be well deserved.  I would have to admit that her singing the score is more Midler than Broadway – and yes, if I have to be honest, some parts were a pitchy. If I were more of a purist, I would complain, But Midler will already have everyone at the palm of her hands minutes in, so nothing else would matter.

I guess I should mention everything else about the show.  The production values are first rate : Santo Loquasto’s sets are bright and cheery,  like we stepped into the She Loves Me parfumerie,  and seeing Warren Carlyle’s romantic choreography made my heart flutter.  Michael Stewart’s book show no creaks, and is there a more classic Jerry Herman score, with every song a veritable show tune (Talk about humming the scenery!) And the rest of the cast is near perfection, as evidenced by all their nominations. Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel both have moments, and that’s sweet sweet cherry on top of this sundae. I know I’ll have both their solos on infinite loop as I listen to the cast recording.

Most of all, though, watching the show made me smile. Once Midler comes out with her  red gown with matching head piece. I had this emotion come over me that was pure giddiness. I can’t remember the last time a scene from any show from a recent production had that effect on me. A lot of today’s musicals tackle deep issues that it was nice to see just a simple, feel-good, and most importantly, tuneful show.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but for me that’s what makes a grand night at the theatre.

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All For One (Film Thoughts: Disney’s Newsies, Fathom Events)

Newsies-BroadwayMusicalStagetoScreenI am liking this trend of Broadway shows being filmed for posterity, and Disney Theatricals has embarked on it as well by presenting a film version of ‘Newsies,’ the Broadway musical. I saw this show at the Nederlander in 2012 with its original cast and liked the production a lot. And surely, I thought the original cast, particularly Jeremy Jordan (as Jack Kelly) was fantastic. The show has been touring but for this ‘event programming’ they reunited the four principals: Jordan, Kara Lindsay, Ben Fankhauser, Andrew Keenan-Bolger. That made this filmed production even more special.

This show was based on a 1992 Disney movie starring Christian Bale, and had music by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman. For this production, they added seven new songs and the book was written by Harvey Fierstein. The production, in 2012 was nominated for a slew of Tony’s, and the choreography by Christopher Gattelli was mostly lauded. That choreography is preserved here, with a cast of talented and robust dancers. Seeing them is really a treat, and you will definitely be wowed by the leaps and dexterity of these dancers. But just like anything Disney, you ask yourself, why did that just happen? But we shouldn’t second guess, as these scenes are absolute crowd pleasers, and you will find yourself jumping for joy. Jordan is fantastic here, and the big screen just magnifies his star quality. Lindsay is a beautiful romantic lead with a sweet voice. The well-cast ensemble is its biggest asset, and I loved that in their bows, their names were highlighted one by one. The film direction is a bit too busy, as I wish the action was photographed more from afar, so we can see the depth and breadth of the show. The frequent closeups added more intimacy tot he experience, though. This is still very Disney, for better or worse, and I appreciate it for what it is.

My Funny Valentine (Stage Thoughts: Holiday Inn, Roundabout Theater Company at Studio 54)

holidayinnAnother “lonely” Valentine’s Day, but I am getting such an old hand at this that I know how to deal with it. At this point in my life, it hardly matters. This year, I am dealing with it by watching Broadway HD’s live performance of ‘Holiday Inn,’ the ‘new’ Irving Berlin musical. This production by the Roundabout Theater Company opened in October 6, 2016, and played until January 15, 2017, presumably to take advantage of the Holday season. Directed by Gordon Greenberg, with a libretto by him and Chad Hodge, the show is based on the 1942 movie starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.

I guess I chose to see this today because I think Irvign Berlin wrote some of the most romantic songs of my lifetime, and when hard-pressed, I always say he is my favorite of all the Standards composers. And this show is chock full of them, and they are interpolated int he story nice enough. The show is of the let’s-put-a-show-on-the-barn variety, and in these modern cynical times, I can see how it cannot be accepted with a straight face. But I am an old-fashioned hopeless romantic, so I really appreciated this show, even as the ‘critic’ in me acknowledges it creaky book. However, you cannot doubt the fantastic performances here, starting with Bryce Pinkham as Jim Hardy. Linda Mason exuded nice leading lady charm, but I was most impressed by Corbin Bleu, who I know was in the High School Musical series. He dances with great flair, and has that rare ‘star quality.’ Denis Jones’ choreography is fantastic, with its old fashioned charm, and I know some critic complained that there were too many tap numbers here. I didn’t mind, and even said bring it on!

To make things topical, the show pairs one of my favorite Berlin numbers, ‘Be Careful It’s My Heart,’ with today’s holiday, and it’s a moist match. Yes, we can shunt he romance because we have to sometimes, but we can also embrace it, and for one brief song moment tonight, I felt in love – with the scene, with the song, with the holiday. The show brought that to me, and it made that moment for me a funny valentine.

Dear Heart (Stage Thoughts: Dear Evan Hansen, Music Box Theater)

4424583I didn’t know how I would feel about ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ before seeing it. I know everyone and their mothers have been raving about it, but what I have heard of the score I wasn’t impressed by – that Jason Robert Brown style of modern theater music is a genre I have never embraced, although I do get it, and I do get why so many people – mostly younger Broadway fans – embrace that style. And will i be able to relate to this? Am I too old for this?

It turns out that I am not, since I liked the show a lot. It tells the story of Evan (Ben Platt) a socially awkward teenager who is unexpectedly caught in a suicide of an acquaintance, with his therapy assignment being mistaken for the other teenager’s suicide note.  He plays along with it, even inventing imaginary emails between the two of them. It is kind of a take on the catfish story line set in this era of viral videos and social media postings (superimposed in the background)

Justin Paul and Benj Pasek wrote the songs here, and at first listen, to my eyes, they do kind of all sound the same, but that may be just my prejudice running rampant – these songs are tuneful, and a lot of them will stick in your head. Well, maybe not as well as  Jerry Herman tune, but you get the drift. The oldie in me would really rather play ‘Dear World’ than ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ of course, but I gotta say, I kind of dig the songs here after assimilating myself to it. And of course it helps that they are mostly sung by Ben Platt, who has Evan makes a star-making performance (Clear a space on your mantel for your Tony, Ben) who digs into these songs with gusto you cannot help but feel embroiled in Evan’s turmoils and triumphs. In the end, though, this may be one of the shows I admire more, and while I certainly appreciate it a lot, ultimately I just did not connect to it as much as I am sure others do. It’s not you, it’s me, I always say, as probably one of the few people in the world who hated Rent, speaking of Michael Greif, who directed both productions. I have never ever been a fan of rock or pop musicals, and I don’t think I will start here.

Happy Hippie (Music Thoughts, Renaissance, Cheyenne Jackson)

2016-07-04-1467674740-6122782-Renaissance-thumbThe great Michael Feinstein describes Cheyenne Jackson as someone who “can sing anything!” Jackson is a modern man’s renaissance man, someone who can effortlessly move from stage to television to movies. And musically, he can move from one genre to another without missing a beat. His new album ‘Renaissance’ proves that. Thematically this is a collection of songs from the 60s, culled from songs he sings from his cabaret show ‘Songs From The Mad Men Era.’

So he goes from Broadway (‘Feeling Good’ from ‘The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd) to bluesy R & B (‘A Change Is Gonna Come’) to pop rock ‘(Elton John’s ‘Your Song) with ease and confidence. I love the variety of arrangements here, from the Latin flair of ‘Besame Mucho,’ to Ska-ish ‘Americano,’ sung with the English lyrics of The Brian Setzer Orchestra. And I get positively giddy when he duets ‘Something Stupud’ with his 30 Rock co-star Jane Krakowski. They certainly put a lot of their characters in singing that song, and it’s mirth is infectious. He gets serious and artsy with Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You,’ and in a song he composed with Feinstein himself, ‘Red Wine Is Good For You.’ It’s a song about his late grandmother who used to say that phrase to him.

I guess if I were to nitpick, I could say that I wish the repertoire were  little more adventurous, as most of these songs are too familiarly associated with the era, but I guess I would be repurposing his theme. The good thing about the album is that not only do you see Jackson’s great musicality, but also his great personality in the way he sings his songs. In both ways, a win-win!

God Be With You (Stage Thoughts: Fiddler On The Roof, Broadway Theater)

ind2exHere we are, almost a week after the Orlando shootings,a nd I am still a little bit of a wreck about it. Lives were senselessly ended, and we ask why, and try to find the answers. The actor Rory O Malley tweeted on Sunday that for a lot of us, Broadway is our church, and there we will find solace. I decided to watch the new revival of Fiddler On The Roof, and that haunting image of people leaving Anatevka is a stark reminder that sometimes we have not progressed – there is still hate there is still a majority out there who will not be happy with our differences, instead of celebrating them.

As with other Bartlett Sher productions, this Fiddler is simpler – none of the obvious comic excesses of Zero Mostel. He tries to get the human emotion of Teyve, and Danny Burstein is perfect to a T. There is no mugging here for laughs, he trusts the book and music enough to do it for him. There are times that I thought his interpretation was a little too modern, but I got over that quickly. He deserves a Tony for his performance, but I could also say Lesley deserved his, too, so there’s no winning in any of our statements. And the glorious score is sung and played there on stage at The Broadway Theater. Again, this is one of those shows where there is no throwaway song, and there is still a pierce in my heart whenever I hear ‘Sunrise Sunset.’  Jessica Hecht is a subdued Golde, and I kind of miss the wackiness of previous actresses doing the role (I remember an almost out-of-control Rosie O’Donnell in the 2004 revival, and well, maybe we don’t need that crazy a performance)

But I go back to the stage-as-church metaphor, and certainly watching the show made me feel a lot better, and when Teyve says in the end. “God Be With You,” I almost feel like he is talking to all the forty nines lives who perished at Pulse Nightclub.

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Perfumed Daydreams (Stage Thoughts, She Loves Me, Studio 54)

Screen_shot_2016_02_10_at_12.26.58_PM__63572.1455125299.1280.1280Often, when someone discovers that  I am a theater geek, they inevitably ask me my favorite musical of all time . And to be honest, it changes depending on the day. But there is one that is always in my top three: She Loves Me. Why? Because it is unabashedly romantic, and is romantic in the most simple way – it’s no coincidence that teh story has been adapted on the big screen numerous times, from ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ up to ‘You’ve Got Mail’ And, it has a fantastic score by Sheldon Harnick – no clunker in the songs, with a wonderful  musical thread that permeates the whole score. And of course, perfume lover that I am, is there any setting better than a parfumerie in 1930s Budapest?

And this new revival, directed by Scott Ellis,  by The Roundabout Theater Company at Studio 54 is a gem, mainly because of its attractive and talented quartet of a cast. Gavin Creel is a deliciously fey Steven Kodaly, and Jane Krakowski as Ilona is diva in the best possible way. And Zachary Levi is charm personified. I was astounded by the tears in my face after he finished singing the title song – so much joy in one performance it overflowed up to Columbus Circle. At first I was a but put off by Laura Benanti – Amelia should be vulnerable which Benanti is never – but she wins you over, and her beautiful soprano will bring you to heaven. I think I can listen to a day scored by an infinite loop of ‘Will He Like Me,” and I will still not tire of it. I cannot think of an ensemble cast so in tune (well, yes, Hamilton’s is, as well, but…) that every note, every chord, every harmony here is pure sparkle. obviously, I never saw the 1963 original cast, but I had thoroughly loved the 1993 cast (also directed by Ellis) Still, I think this production for me trumps – it’s this perfect cast that just gets to me. Some peole say that this show is too bright, too happy, but with all the doom and gloom with what is happening in the world today, we need this show to just brighten our day for a little bit. I was so happy to see this that at the curtain call, I openly wept. And just for the record, tears of joy. Fall in love, see this show.