Saturday, 18 August 2012

Broadway, Off Broadway & a Cabaret Show: Adventures in New York Theatre

Once - one of the highlights of my trip
and my theatre-going year


There are forty theatres that comprise the world famous Broadway. Altogether, there are over 230 theatres in New York, if a talking tour bus is to be believed. And what of cabaret venues and non-traditional performances spaces? New York must be the city with the highest concentration of live performance in the world. It’s hard enough to keep tabs on everything that’s happening in Melbourne’s theatre scene. In New York, it’s impossible.

Which is why New York is so enticing, but also so tricky. How can I even sample everything the city has to offer? Can I avoid the temptation of Broadway itself, with its shiny marquees and Tony Award Winner notices plastered everywhere? Where do I begin Off Broadway? Whose recommendations do I take?

This trip was inspired by a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods – a transfer of a production from London’s Regents Park to New York’s Central Park. I’ve always wanted to see one of the Public Theatre’s shows at the Delacourte, so why not fly half way around the world to see one of my favourite shows in a production that was acclaimed in London?

But attending a “Shakespeare in the Park” show means landing in the middle of a New York summer (sweltering), arriving too early for a swathe of new season Broadway shows (starting up in September) and finding a lot of curated theatre companies taking the summer off (this is true in Melbourne, too – try finding anything much opening in December or January). And, for some reason (the economy?), a lot of major Broadway shows didn’t even last through the tourist-heavy summer season.

For a city with so much choice, the selection was somewhat narrowed. Not that I’m complaining; it meant the possibilities were less overwhelming. Here, then, is some short reviews on shows I saw in New York between August 1 and August 11, 2012. In chronological order, because ranking them proved to be, there’s that word again – impossible.

Avenue Q – New World Stages (Off Broadway), August 1, 2012

I hadn’t planned on seeing this but first night in town, we failed to win The Book of Mormon lottery and it was Audra McDonald’s night off from Porgy & Bess – and by the time it came to choose a show, TKTS was offering only a handful of things I even wanted to see. Expectations of what I wanted to see and what I ended up seeing was as fluid as my plans for other places I wanted to explore in New York City.

Having seen the Australian production, there were no real surprises in this transfer from Broadway back to Off Broadway, where the show had begun its life. I did enjoy the fact that this cast didn’t need to fake their American accents (which is something transfers to Australian stages sometimes have to contend with), but as with RENT later in the week, there were no real stand-outs in the cast. Every performer was solid, but none of them grabbed me especially.

Trivia: “Fox News is only for now!”
Tony Award Pedigree: Best Musical 2004

Peter and the Starcatcher – Brooks Atkinson Theatre (Broadway), August 2, 2012

I wasn’t sure about seeing this show, but I’m so glad that A) we listened to recommendations and B) won the ticket lottery. It’s billed as a prequel to Peter Pan, but I feel like it’s a celebration of storytelling and the wish-fulfillment of Peter Pan rather than really being a precursor to J.M. Barrie’s story. Given how well the show uses theatrical tricks to tell its story – narration, direct address, mime, music, songs, puppetry, the list goes on – it’s also a celebration of live theatre in all its glory. 

The large cast is nearly all men, playing men and women, telling the audience a story and acknowledging how well the story is going as it progresses. While we didn’t get to see Tony Winner Christian Borle in the role of Black Stache, his replacement (Matthew Saldivar) is quite wonderful. Adam Chanler-Berat and Celia Keenan-Bolger are incredible in the roles of Boy and Molly but the production itself brings the story of the telling of a story to grand, imaginative life.

Trivia: I didn’t see a lot of actors this time that I also saw on stage in 2010. Chanler-Berat played Henry in Next to Normal, though.
Tony Award Pedigree: Nominated for Best Play 2012, it lost to Pulitzer Prize Winner, Clybourne Park

Into the Woods – Delacourte Theatre, Central Park (Off Broadway), August 3, 2012

I was only slightly worried that travelling to New York to see a new production of an old favourite would put slightly too much pressure on the show to get it right. I was more worried that I would stand in line all day and still miss out on tickets, but that’s what you have to go through to get tickets to the Public Theatre’s free shows at the Delacourte Theatre in Central Park. And that seven hours in line in Central Park... well, there are worse places to sit and read and chat while waiting for free theatre tickets.

There’s been some changes to the show and, for me, they make the show even stronger than it was before. And putting a show called “Into the Woods” into a park... that’s a great idea that worked perfectly. I mean, just the opening moments of the show, where the pre-recorded squawk of a bird dovetailed nicely with a flock of birds alighting from the trees in the park... I mean, you can’t script that. Well, you can – but then it’s not quite as magic as that moment was. Art and nature, working in tandem.

There’s also a pretty amazing cast. Donna Murphy as the Witch. Dennis O’Hare as the Baker. Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife. Sarah Stiles as Little Red and Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf, their scenes together stealing the show. Chip Zien, the Baker in the original Broadway production, playing the Mysterious Man.

And the theatrical trickery that brought to life the Wolf in Granny’s bed, the rise of the beanstalk and the Giant’s Wife were... extraordinary. I was ecstatic from the opening strains of music and gobsmacked at how well those changes to the book and the narrator made the final moments of the show even better than they ever have been. I mean, seriously, I flew halfway around the world to see a production of Into the Woods that improves on perfection. How lucky was I?

Trivia: the Regents Park production is available to download
Tony Award Pedigree: Nominated for Best Musical 1988, it lost to The Phantom of the Opera (!!!!!)

RENT – New World Stages (Off Broadway), August 4, 2012

The original production of RENT closed in 2008 and I had hoped to maybe catch the 2009 US tour, if it extended into 2010, but it did not. So my first visit to New York was practically RENT free, though I did get to visit the Life Cafe briefly, which has since closed down. Meanwhile, RENT has returned to New York, Off Broadway where it began its life.

The production is directed by Michael Greif, who directed the original production – and so it doesn’t feel entirely different, just a little bit tweaked. A little bit polished. Maybe too polished. The set is certainly a marvel of black metal scaffolding that evokes New York’s ubiquitous fire escapes. The costumes feel closer to modern, without clashing too much with a show that’s set in the early to mid 90s. The appearance of cell phones seems odd, but not the kind of progression that seems too at odds with the passion and emotion of the show.

It was great to see this iconic New York show in New York. It was fun to see it knowing the places the characters were talking about – “the enemy of Avenue A” and “they say that I have the best ass below 14th Street”. And the cast was solid, if not spectacular. It’s odd to come out of RENT not talking about stand-outs in the cast. I’ve seen problematic interpretations of Mimi, but I’ve never seen one that seemed so by-the-numbers. I loved Maureen, but I think I always love Maureen. Mark was strong, but Roger was too baby-faced to be a rock star.

But the show is strong. The songs are still full of passion and defiance. And the show is so full of detail and layers, I’m still seeing and hearing details that have alluded me before. Or, if not alluded me, things I haven’t focused so closely on before.

Great show, strong production, with a solid if not spectacular cast.

Trivia: this production had an Alex Darling instead of an Alexi Darling, unless perhaps the regular Alexi was out and they shuffled in a guy from the ensemble for the night? I think Mark might have referred to him as Alexi at one point:
Tony Award Pedigree: Best Musical 1996

The Book of Mormon – Eugene O’Neill Theatre (Broadway), August 4, 2012

Just getting to see this show is an adventure. It’s sold out months and months in advance, unless you’re willing to pay premium prices to ticket re-sellers or scalpers. But they do offer a front row or box seat lottery (which gets around 300 entries every day!) and 28 standing room only tickets, if you are willing to stand in line for several hours to get them. We tried the lottery three times, but at the end of the third failed attempt, we were already in the line for the standing room only tickets and we managed to get those, so – yay! As much fun as the lottery was, I didn’t want to spend half my trip organising time to be there for the lottery.

The show itself? Well, what would you expect from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park and Team America? Well, you get exactly what you would expect – profane language, biting humour,  catchy songs and a little bit of a moral at the end, though it’s suitably ambiguous and perhaps a little soft given how wrong some of the early songs are. I know South Park often ends with a lesson for the boys – and this is Broadway after all, so a happy ending is almost required. But damn, if the satire doesn’t suffer for that.

But, boy, the show is a hell of a lot of fun. I mean, making fun of Mormons seems like a easy target – but Parker and Stone are smart guys and it’s not just about poking a religion but having a laugh at institutions and beauracracies. Laugh, I almost didn’t stop the whole way through.

Trivia: Disney seems okay with the show making fun of The Lion King, but given the dodgy costumes for Yoda and Darth Vader, it seems Lucasfilm has no sense of humour
Tony Award Pedigree: Best Musical 2011

Impromptu Molly Pope – Duplex (Off Off Broadway), August 6, 2012

After missing her at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2010 and hearing such great things about her from New York friends ever since, it was a lovely coincidence that Molly Pope announced an impromptu concert at Duplex on our first Monday night in town. I mean, Monday nights are basically dark on Broadway, so it’s not like I was going to see a show that night! And boy, a last minute show that’s free entry? Count me in!

I am so glad this happened. Pope is a great singer, very entertaining – and can knock back shots of Jamesons with the best! The variety of songs was impressive, as was her emotional engagement with one or two of them. The surprise appearance of her husband in the audience (or does he always/often attend her shows so he can be a punchline) was great. And a crazy rendition of a Ke$ha song to round out the night? Fantastic!

Also, filling even a small cabaret venue with less than a day’s notice? Wonderful.

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man – Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre (Broadway), August 7, 2012

I will admit, that it was the star-studded cast that lured me to the Gerald Shoenfeld to see this play. (Just as another star-studded cast at lured me to A Behanding in Spokane at the Shoenfeld in 2010.) Now I’d have loved to have seen the original line-up for this revival, but I was still ecstatic to see James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos and Kristin Davis all sharing the stage. Seeing them leave the theatre after the performance – filled with people exiting the theatre and throngs of theatre-goers and Darth Vader fans waiting in the street to see James Early Jones appear – that was pretty special, too.

After the passing of Gore Vidal only a few days earlier, I did a bit of reading on the history of the play and previous productions. And I went in wondering how well a political play from 1960 would work in 2012. Too well, probably. This play could have been written now and still felt vital and significant in what it has to say about party politics and how politicians act and how their pasts can haunt them.

And the cast, beyond being star-studded, were excellent in their roles. I could not fault Earl Jones, Larroquette or Davis. John Stamos surprised me, though he strikes me as perfect to play a sleazy manipulator. I wondered if perhaps Shepherd were a little bit understated in the role, but I think the quite, reserved political wife with no knack for public speaking probably required holding back.

One of the highlights of my theatre-going trip.

Trivia: Ronald Reagan auditioned for a role in the original Broadway production and Vidal knocked him back, suggesting he didn’t seem suited to playing the role of a Presidential candidate
Tony Award Pedigree: Nominated for Best Play in 1960, but lost to The Miracle Worker. Nominated for Best Revival of a Play in 2012, but lost to Death of a Salesman

Dogfight – Tony Kiser Theatre, Second Stage (Off Broadway), August 8, 2012

Once in a while, a play or a show or a film comes along that gets great reviews, entertains audiences and I just loathe. This musical version of the film Dogfight is one of them. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed the first act. There are some great songs, lovely choreography and two stand out performances by Lindsay Mendez and Annaleigh Ashford. The men are put through their paces with great ensemble songs, but none of the characters really make an impact. It’s hard, of course. The men in this piece are pretty loathsome and hard to like. The women are better defined – and perhaps that was a choice by the creators, allow them to be defined by their layers. 

But when you tell a story like this and allow most of the characters to be blank slates, it’s difficult to know what the point is. Is the show saying that all men are alike? The male characters seem pretty interchangeable. Is it pitting the complex female characters against a kind of unthinking, unfeeling mysognist mass and trying to make a point about sexual politics? It’s hard to say because... the story is a mess beginning in act two and the songs seem to only appear at random. The entire second act made me wish the show had been adapted as a play, rather than a musical. Then maybe the show could have showcased fully-fledged characters dealing with very difficult situations.

If there’s one thing that defined many of the shows that I saw was a great sense of stage craft – and I think this production gave a great sense of time and place with a set that seems cold and sparse but begins revealing more and more of itself throughout the show. If only the characters and the story were allowed to do the same.

Once – Bernard B Jacobs Theatre (Broadway), August 9, 2012

The stage version of the Oscar-winning film Once, begins before all the audience has had a chance to enter the theatre. The cast is already on stage, singing and carousing and dancing up a storm - hey, the charcters are Irish, what do you expect? The set is a bar. It's a working bar. And while the Jacobs theatre continues to fill, audience members who aren't at the bar at the back of the theatre, or in their seats, are on stage clapping and tapping their feet and buying a drink AT THE BAR ON STAGE. It's immersive theatre on Broadway.

The songs continue, the audience are ushered (technically stage managed) back to their seats eventually and the house lights remain up while the cast of ONCE continue to entertain and serenade us - the audience as characters in the show, as people packed into this bar, being entertained by the locals. And while the line between audience and cast must be drawn eventually, the lights down on the audience is a slow fade - but the energy remains from that moment and throughout the show. We are there. We are with these characters all the way.

I loved the film version but this warms my little theatre-making and theatre-going heart like nothing else I've seen on this trip. Where Into the Woods was big and grand, Once is small and simple and warm and inviting and passionate and inventive and beautiful and charming and touching and sweet. And the lead actors, Steve Kazee and Cristin Milotti, are incredible actors, singers and musicians. The entire cast, in fact, play instruments throughout the show. But unlike the cold precision of John Doyle’s actors-playing-instrument adaptations of Sondheim, this makes Once feel all the more genuine and touching and tender. Like we are there. In those rooms. In that pub. Singing and dancing and carousing. Watching a guy and a girl make great music together and maybe, perhaps, fall in love.

Perfection.

Trivia: Both this time and last time I went to New York, I got to go on stage. At the bar before Once and as part of the post-show rendition of “Let the Sunshine In” after Hair. Could this be part of the reason both shows were at the very top of my favourites from each trip?
Tony Award Pedigree: Best Musical 2012

Heartless – Signature Theatre (Off Broadway), August 11, 2012

The Signature Theatre’s seasons are driven by presenting the works of contemporary America playwrights – occasionally leading to a programme of a full season by one writer. The other thing the Signature Theatre is known for, is the inexpensiveness of its tickets. Given how great the theatre space is, I love that a playwright-driven, cheap ticket model can work for a theatre company. But it seems to.

Sam Shepard is one of the great contemporary American playwrights. True West is one of his most well-known plays and one of my favourite plays, so it was exciting to get to see a performance from the premiere season of his latest play, Heartless. Bonus points for the production starring Gary Cole and Lois Smith.

Shepard is a well-known actor, too – and his plays always serve the actors on stage. Even when I thought the narrative was losing focus, the actors never did – sinking their teeth deeper and deeper into their characters and giving astonishing performances all round. Gary Cole has always struck me as being a chameleon that hides behind a very clean-cut, fresh-faced looked. He’s a character actor who looks like a leading man. And yet I’ve never seen him become as unhinged as he gets to in this play.

It was also one of the few shows I saw in New York that really needed me to think about it afterward. Not that other shows I saw were shallow; most of them are not, but most of them I have seen and thought about before. This was a brand new work from a great playwright that didn’t tell an easy story at all – and certainly not in an easy way. And I was thrilled to see it in its first production.

One Man, Two Guvnors – Music Box Theatre (Broadway), August 11

I was all set to see Audra McDonald in Porgy & Bess this night, but she was off sick and it was after seven and we needed to make a very last minute decision on what tickets to pick up at TKTS. I heard great things about this show and particularly James Corden in the leading role. And why not have one great big laugh for my last show in New York for this trip?

While the show is based on the classic commedia dell'arte play, The Servant of Two Masters, that’s really just an excuse to use a classic comic structure to put a British sitcom on stage. And I guess that’s where everyone’s mileage may vary. It’s bawdy and base and silly and full of prat falls and bad puns and audience interaction – and it’s not the very best of Britcom, but it is hilarious for much of its running time.

And recognising James Corden with a Tony is not entirely unwarranted... though James Earl Jones was marvellous in The Best Man and I imagine Phillip Seymour Hoffman was amazing in Death of a Salesman. In fact, James Corden makes the show work. I’m not sure I can imagine the show working without him – so I’m glad I saw him in it and didn’t wait for 2013, when the show will tour Australia without him.

The rest of the ensemble were great and the supporting band were fabulous. It all felt a bit padded out – a variety show more than a play. But when the variety is this entertaining, it’s hard to complain.

Trivia: Some of the “audience interaction” seems spontaneous but is actually tightly scripted – and I wonder if people know the sandwhich joke now and come prepared.
Tony Award Pedigree: Nominated for Best Play 2012, it lost to Pulitzer Prize Winner, Clybourne Park

*

And that was that. The absolute highlights were Into the Woods and Once but nearly all of these shows I found worthwhile seeing. There were other nights and matinees I could have filled with more shows, but this was a good amount to balance out days of visiting museums and galleries and wandering the streets of New York soaking up the atmosphere and appreciating a city for its vibrancy both on and off stage. Five stars.


2 comments:

noplain said...

I was so sceptical about ONCE being turned into a stage show. The movie is so wonderful, small, and with a real sense of honesty and spontaneity. Every time I read they pulled it off I am happy, even though I'll probably never get to see it.

Esther said...

Great recap! I'm glad you had such a good time in New York.

I also loved The Best Man. I'm a history and politics junkie and like you, I was amazed at how this 50-year-old play felt like it could have been written today. I also loved seeing James Earl Jones onstage for the first time. What a presence! I was awestruck.

Once and Into the Woods have also been highlights for me. Once is just unique and captivating. I love how it unfolds leisurely, the humor.

And waiting in Central Park for seven hours for tickets for Into the Woods will go down as one of my favorite New York City experiences ever. I was with about a half dozen friends. I loved watching the park come alive during the morning. And I got a front-row seat. It could not have been a better day, a better first experience at the Delacorte.

I also loved the inventive stagecraft in Peter and the Starcatcher and the humor in One Man, Two Guvnors, even though by now I know about the audience interactions. James Corden is wonderful - a big teddy bear of a man.