Posted in based on a true story or event, historical musical drama, musical theater, theater

Righting Broadway’s Story

Joshua Henry, Brandon Victor Dixon, Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell, with Richard Riaz Yoder in Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, featuring music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, with a new book and direction by George C. Wolfe and choreography by Savion Glover, at The Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street). © Julieta Cervantes
Joshua Henry, Brandon Victor Dixon, Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell, with Richard Riaz Yoder in Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, featuring music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, book by F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, with a new book and direction by George C. Wolfe and choreography by Savion Glover, at The Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street).
© Julieta Cervantes

George C. Wolfe has taken a Broadway melody of 1921 and placed it in its historical context. In 1921, the year when Shuffle Along was produced, it was exiled to a theater on 63rd Street. Yes, it was considered a Broadway house, but it was many blocks north of the main stem.

Shuffle Along‘s success, however, was extraordinary. The all-black production team enjoyed critical and popular acclaim, and an unexpectedly long-run of 504 performances.

Shuffle Along made stars of its lead actress, Lottie Gee (Audra McDonald in Wolfe’s retelling) and its creative team. Wolfe’s musical has jettisoned the  F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell)-Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter) book and replaced it with his own, while keeping the music and lyrics from Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) and Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry).

Adrienne Warren and company perform “I’m Just Wild About Harry” © Julieta Cervantes
Adrienne Warren and company perform “I’m Just Wild About Harry”
© Julieta Cervantes

Nearly a century later, the musical theater remains indebted to the men and women of color who revolutionized and emboldened Broadway style and syncopation. This is the backstory to Wolfe’s story, but despite the high concept and lofty intentions, the 2016 Shuffle Along… is a very entertaining vaudeville.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, with Adrienne Warren (fourth from left), Billy Porter, Audra McDonald and ensemble © Julieta Cervantes
Brian Stokes Mitchell, with Adrienne Warren (fourth from left), Billy Porter, Audra McDonald and ensemble
© Julieta Cervantes

As it was refreshing to have a musical like Bright Star based on the American idiom of bluegrass, it is welcome to have one that is based on the other all-American art form, tap. The dances, as designed by Tony-award winner (1996 for Bring in Da Noise Bring in Da Funk, and presumptive for 2016 for Shuffle Along…) are masterly. One number takes the cast on a long circuitous train-trip of tryouts in completely mesmerizing taps. The songs are classics from the Blake-Sissle repertoire, including “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Love Will Find A Way,” from the score for the 1921 Shuffle Along.

The ensemble is excellent, with Brandon Victor Dixon  and Adrienne Warren (bothTony nominated for Featured Actor and Actress) standing out. The always able Brooks Ashmanskas, as the designated white guy in the cast, performs an excellent second act rain-on-their-parade number.

Audra McDonald in © Julieta Cervantes
Audra McDonald in
© Julieta Cervantes

Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, unlike its progenitor, is playing in the heart of Broadway at The Music Box. It is in an open run, although Audra McDonald will exit on July 24th and return in the winter, to be replaced by Rhiannon Giddens. Choreographer and tapper-extraordinaire, Savion Glover will join the cast on July 24th.

George C. Wolfe may be on a mission to right the
story of Broadway’s past, but he does it deftly and
with a showman’s touch

 

 

 

 

Posted in musical theater

The Demon Banker of Wall Street

Did it ever occur to you that murder and its kin, murderous thoughts, could be funny?

Drew Moerlein as Bateman’s nemesis, Paul Owen Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Drew Moerlein as Bateman’s nemesis, Paul Owen Photo: Jeremy Daniel

If not, watching American Psycho-The Musical, at the Schoenfeld in an open run,  now closing June 5th,** will likely give you a case of the giggles. This is the intended effect of the musical based on Bret Easton Ellis’s bestseller, published in 1991. The show, like the novel, is a satirical look at ’80s excesses, at least among the privileged class of New York Masters-of-the-Universers. Those excesses include killing off those who dis you, or whom you deslike.

Patrick Bateman (Benjamin Walker) in all his glory and fancy suits is still insecure enough to have to list his possessions by their labels. Brandishing name brands is a constant in American Psycho‘s send-up of consumerism. The song, “You are what you wear,” performed by most of the ladies of the cast, is one excellently placed example. Duncan Sheik’s music and lyrics are catchy and clever. The book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is breezy and well-wrought.

Benjamin Walker and cast. Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Benjamin Walker and cast. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Bateman associates with members of his own preppy-yuppie group, although he feels his exceptionalism. He may think outside their box, but he is not immune to the narrow yet competitive group think. Bateman’s signature song, “Not a common man,”is not presented without irony. His secretary, Jean (Jennifer Damiano), believes she knows and understands him, perhaps because she is in love with him.

Helene Yorke and Morgan Weed. Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Helene Yorke and Morgan Weed. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Bateman’s girlfriend, Evelyn Williams (Helene Yorke) and her  best friend, Courtney Lawrence (Morgan Weed), like most of Bateman’s circle, stay in the shallow-end.  Their thoughts are aptly expressed in musical numbers like “At the end of an Island” or, for the boys in the crew, “Hardbody.”

Benjamin Walker and the men of American Psycho. Photo: Jeremy Daniel
Benjamin Walker and the men of American Psycho. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

 

 

Walker carries the show, narrating, singing and dancing, with gusto and revealing inner turmoil even in his physicality. His crazy has many layers and a great deal of subtlety. Lynne Page’s choreography gives this character’s meltdown a palpable reality.

A standout in the large cast, which includes Alice Ripley in a few smallish roles, is Drew Moerlein as Bateman’s nemesis, Paul Owen. Moerlein’s superb dance moves and aggressiveness inspire and challenge Bateman to ever greater combativeness. Rupert Goold directs the ensemble through the darkness in American Psycho with a light touch.

Is it ironic that the minimalist-in-the-extreme sets, by Es Devlin, were one of the two TONY nominations that American Psycho garnered? The other nomination was for Justin Townsend’s dynamic lighting. The hardrocking star, who really should have gotten a nod, got no recognition.

On the face of it, a musicalization of American Psycho begs a “what were they thinking?” On the stage, that question is answered by an uncompromisingly entertaining production.

For more informaton, and tickets, visit the AP-The Musical website.

**The first to fall to underwhelming TONY nominations, AP The Musical experienced losses of over 8million dollars for its backers. RIP, Patrick etal.

Posted in based on Chekhov, drama, theater

Rising to the Chekhov challenge

Anton Chekhov, it seems, provides excellent inspiration for contemporary Americans in his line of work. As if the Chekhov challenge asks the modern playwright to match him wit for wit and build on his premises.

Chekhov teases imitators, adaptors, translators and audiences with themes of grandeur and loss. His plays are shown on stages large and small each year; his works are mimicked in pastiches, like last season’s Stupid F**king Bird at the Pearl, or the upcoming Minor Character— in Brooklyn from June 17th-25th. In the latter, multiple versions of Uncle Vanya merge in a mist of millenial angst.

The Cherry Orchard is on sale again in the Roundabout’s 2016-17 seasonStephen Karam (whose The Humans, nominated for a Tony,  continues at the Helen Hayes on Broadway) is rising to the Chekhov challenge in this adaptation. Simon Godwin will direct Diane Lane and an as yet unconfirmed cast.

From June 17-25th, Brooklyn-based Invisible Dog presents New Saloon, an Off Broadway troupe, in Minor Character. The 16 character play also rises to the challenge, by compiling  6 translations– from a 1916 edition to one from Google — of Uncle Vanya, that connect Chekhov with millenial angst.

 

Posted in comedy, drama, musical theater, theater, Tony Awards

TONY Business

Bringing home the TONY can mean the difference between shuttering a show and extending a run.

There are exceptions, notably, Something Rotten, which despite not being TONY’s BEST Musical of 2015, persists in entertaining audiences well into 2016.

There are plenty of other awards, keeping casts and creatives out late on school nights all through the spring each year. The Drama Desk and the Outer Critics add lustre to an artist’s or a show’s resume, but TONY is the ultimate Broadway party.

Tim Pigott-Smith & The Cast of King Charles III © Joan Marcus
Tim Pigott-Smith & The Cast of King Charles III © Joan Marcus

One Sunday in June–this year it’s the 12th, 8/7C televised on CBS and live from the Beacon Theatre— the theatrical community dresses up to cheer each other on. The Tony Awards celebration is Broadway’s Oscar night.

The five people and shows nominated in each TONY category are each a defacto winner, and will perpetually be labelled a Tony nominee. Anyone winning is, well, truly a winner.

Everyone loves a winner

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck in a scene from The Humans. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck in a scene from The Humans. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

TONY is the big get for producers, as well as for stars and the creative team. Having a Tony enhances your star power and can take your show into the next year. Subscription houses can turn a TONY into a larger patron base and the sale of additional regularly priced tickets.

The most coveted prizes in the TONY panoply are for BEST Musical, BEST Musical Revival, then for BEST Play or Revival. When a production snags one of these, it’s the producers– not the author, actors, crew or director– who take the bow, and make the speeches. The investors have had the foresight to back a winner.

Without at least a TONY nomination, shows fold their tents and make untimely exits from the Great White Way.

How long can a mere shadow mimic life or fill a Bway house?

Alex Brightman and the kid band from School of Rock - The Musical Photo by Matthew Murphy
Alex Brightman and the kid band from School of Rock – The Musical Photo by Matthew Murphy

Straight plays are less likely to fill 500 seats over the long-run, the way a musical can do. TONY is here to help, but it can only go so far. August Osage County lives on in a film version, as does Driving Miss Daisy, for instance, but how many plays have the years of success like the musicals Phantom or Chicago? For playgoers, and those involved in putting on the shows, the TONY for BEST Play and BEST Revival of a Play are still much anticipated.

All The Way, the 2014 winning BEST Play, which also won Bryan Cranston the lead actor Tony, has been turned into a much-anicipated HBO film, premiering on May 21st.

Who will win?

Akosua Busia, Lupita Nyong'o, Saycon Sengbloh, and Pascale Armand in a scene from Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, directed by Liesl Tommy. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Akosua Busia, Lupita Nyong’o, Saycon Sengbloh, and Pascale Armand in a scene from Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, directed by Liesl Tommy. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Your guess may prove better than mine, but I have made some predictions and invite you to compare notes now, and then again on TONY’s night, to see how I did, and how you did. Also, follow along on VevlynsPen.com to see what I think the contest will look like. That story will be up soon.

For now, get the nominee list for the 70th Annual Tony Awards from http://www.tonyawards.com/.

 

 

 

 

Posted in based on a true story or event, love story, musical theater, theater

Incandescent

There is an all-American breed of comic who is not just a clown but also a genius.

Steve Martin is one of these. He has a brilliant and inventive mind. He is not merely clever, but he’s also erudite. Along with songwriter Edie Brickell, Martin has won a Grammy for Best Original American Roots Song for the album that inspired the musical Bright Star currently enjoying an open run at the Cort Theatre.

The musical, an indigenous art form as American as opera is Italian (or French, depending on your point of view,) has never before been entrusted to this particular native musical genre: Bright Star is Broadway’s first blue-grass musical.

Carmen Cusack and company of Bright Star. Photo by Nick Stokes
Carmen Cusack and company of Bright Star. Photo by Nick Stokes

It’s not a completely original story– it’s billed as being “inspired by a true event”– but it is told with complete originality. Rob Berman and his band of merry men and women provide tuneful accompaniment from inside the cabin on stage. The hoedown that opens the second act is not the only crowd pleaser in Bright Star.

Broadway newbie, Carmen Cusack who stars as Alice in Bright Star, and her co-star Paul Alexander Nolan as Jimmy Ray both deserve the wild applause that greet them. A.J. Shively as Billy Cane and Emily Padgett as Lucy are also natural stand outs. In fact, the entire cast and ensemble are all glorious. Director Walter Bobbie has everyone moving with graceful ease in, around and through Eugene Lee’s excellent minimalist sets. Josh Rhodes provides appropriately country-style dance numbers.

For tickets and information, please visit www.brightstarmusical.com/

Dateline, May 26, 2016: see also the review on VevlynsPen.com at The Wright Wreport.

 

 

Posted in 2016 Tony nominations, Audra McDonald, musical, musical revivals, musical theater, theater

Whoops, I overlooked a contender or 2

In my predictions for the nominations Tony is about to make, http://wp.me/p5jq0w-OI, I left out some of this year’s Broadway starts. School of Rock was not mentioned, and truly, despite its spunk, I doubt it stands a chance in this contest. Nor will American Psycho overturn Hamilton in its run to the top.


May 3rd, noon, Looks like the Tonys left out a contender, too: Audra McDonald was not nominated for the Best leading actress in a musical.


Here’s where the oversight is more serious: From the list (entitled The Chanteuse) below, I have left out Laura Benanti, a soprano to be contended with, often on the short list for many an Award, and Tony winner (for “Gypsy”). Benanti stars beautifully in a wondrous revival of She Loves Me, the musical descendent of a personal favorite among Magyar tales–Little Shop Around the Corner. (In view of this oversight, no ice scream for me.) Laura Benanti is as I said always on the nominees list, and we loved her in the underrated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

THE CHANTEUSE

The contest for Best among musicals leading ladies is always one that excites, and this year is no exception.

Audra McDonald is a powerhouse performer with 6 Tonys to her credit. Jessie Mueller is a Tony winning actor whose charm shines in every role she takes. Her portrayal of Jenna in Waitress is no exception, of course, even if the pop style is not strictly in her wheelhouse. These two are the likely contenders for the 2016 Best Lead Actress in a Musical, with Bright Star‘s Carmen Cusack giving them a long-shot’s run for the gold.

Musical Revivals

If Shuffle Along… prevails in its plea to be considered a revival, it will be in the contest with The Color Purple, and the aforementioned She Loves Me.

There are no guarantees, but in such a case, despite the star power and sincerity of Shuffle Along…, it might have a struggle beating out the brilliantly cast, effervescent She Loves Me. The latter is as bouyant as the shlag in your coffee, with a lovely if familiar romantic story to tell. We have yet to see Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter etc etc in the George C. Wolfe helmed Shuffle Along…. Chances are we’ll be blown away by the cast and Savion Glover’s choreography, so we’ll keep you posted.