Lucky Guy

My first summer in relatively close proximity to New York has begun, and it's already paying off! Lucky Guy, playing its final weekend off-Broadway, had been on our radars for quite a while, based on the involvement of Kyle Dean Massey, so when it announced a premature closing date a few days ago (May 29 - tomorrow, as I write this), and my calendar had nothing listed for Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, I knew I'd be making a trip to the Little Shubert Theatre.

Overall, the story of Lucky Guy was extremely straightforward:
- Small-town country Boy (Billy Ray Jackson, played by Mr. Massey) wins a writing contest for his song, "Lucky Guy" - written about his dad, not a Lucky first, anyway - and comes to the big city of Nashville to record it.
- Boy meets Girl (Wanda Clark, played by the adorable Savannah Wise), and they fall in love.
- A local hairdresser (Chicky Lay, played by Jenn Colella) and her to-be-fiance of 13 years (G.C. Wright, played by Jim Newman) randomly appear and add to the hilarious cast of characters.
- Boy runs into some real characters who try to seduce him (Miss Jeannie Jeannine, played by Varla Jean Merman) and steal his song (used car salesman Big Al Wright, played by Leslie Jordan of "Will and Grace" fame).
- The truth about Boy's Seductress is revealed. In this case, the ever-so-humble Miss Jeannie Jeannine (read: lives in a mobile home with 28 rooms) didn't really grow up in a one-room shack - she's actually a debutante from the Main Line (HA) of Philadelphia!! (Cue dramatic riff from the pit.)
- Boy forgives Seductress by singing a touching song about friendship and learning from each other before parting ways for good.
- Boy reunites with the Girl of his dreams, AND gets to sing his song on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
- Everyone gets married at the end! (Billy Ray and Wanda; Chicky and G.C.; and Big Al and Jeannie, who now has a bun in the oven!)

The show was exactly what I had expected: a large dose of camp, in the best sense of the term; sparkling, flashy costumes; lots of innocent sexual puns and bad jokes (the kind that make you laugh and groan at the same time); and Mr. Massey doing his thing as a singing, dancing cowboy! He was wonderful, the audience totally ate him up, and his songs were definitely the best parts of the show for me. I'm now a strong believer that Mr. Massey should just sing country music (of which I'm not even a fan) all the time. He's also got a gorgeous lower register that the scores of Next to Normal and Wicked didn't necessarily give him the chance to show off. He and Ms. Wise had a great sense of All-American chemistry together, with Ms. Wise displaying the perfect mix of innocence and spunk.

The obvious marketing pulls of the show were the two leads, drag queen Varla Jean Merman and Leslie Jordan. While each was hilarious and extremely well-cast in their role, I have to admit that both started to wear on me by the end of act one, and throughout act two. They fulfilled the jobs of their characters well, however, dancing around in ridiculous sequined costumes. Jordan frequently popped up in the most random of places in the middle of scenes, which actually never got old, and the physical juxtaposition between the towering Merman and 4' 11" Jordan provided many laughs as well.

Another highlight of the show were the Buckaroos, a four-man ensemble who served as somewhat of a Greek chorus and also popped up randomly in nearly every scene, dressed as everything from Indians to island dancers to mechanics to Elvis to angels with full-extension wings in the act one finale, "Do What You Can Do." Hilarious. My favorite moment of theirs took place in Miss Jeannie Jeannine's dressing room, when it turned out to be their heads under the several wigs resting on her cabinet and table, which then turned around to the audience and began to sing.

Despite the show's short run, plans for a cast recording are in place, and while some of the songs were better than others and none were extremely clever or complex, all were sung strongly by the talented cast. One of the show's best numbers, "Needle in a Haystack," ends with Billy Ray and Wanda sitting on a quaint little bench, sipping Cokes out of glass bottles, and that scene pretty much sums up the show - sugary sweet, cheesy, adorable, campy, and so predictable, but so much fun.

Arcadia - I may not have understood all of it, but I enjoyed it

A couple of months ago, Michelle and I were able to obtain rush tickets to see Arcadia at the Barrymore Theater. They were all the way in the back, the last row of the mezz, but the theater is relatively small so we were still able to see what was going on. I, for one, was very excited to see the play because even though I had only a vague idea of what it was about, it was a Tom Stoppard play, and I've always wanted to see his work performed. A running joke between my sister and a few of our friends involving Tom Stoppard, Angela Lansbury, and the Tony Awards may also have played a role in my excitement to see a Tom Stoppard play, but that's a story for another time.

I'll admit, for the first 10-15 minutes of the show, I had no freaking clue what was going on. There seemed to be some sound problems at the beginning of the show, and combined with the British accents of the cast, I was confused and having trouble understanding what was being said. In his review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that many of the cast members had trouble with their diction and at times were guilty of swallowing their (admittedly long) lines, and that may have been a problem at this performance as well (for those of you interested in reading Mr. Brantley's review, it can be found here). However, as the show continued, I found myself adjusting to the accents, and actually hearing the words became less of a problem than understanding what in the world they were talking about.

It's difficult to to say what the play was about without giving too much away plot-wise. It's a very complex piece that features two generations of the same family, one in the 1800s and one in the present day. The show's website offers this concise summary:

April 1809, an elegant English country estate… a gifted pupil, proposes a startling theory well beyond her comprehension.  All around her, the adults, including her tutor, are preoccupied with secret desires, illicit passions and professional rivalries.
Two hundred years later, two academic adversaries are piecing together puzzling clues, curiously recalling those events of 1809 in their quest for an increasingly elusive truth.

Essentially, the plot boils down to this: In the past, Thomasina Coverly is being tutored by Septimus Hodge, a classmate of Shelley's who may or may not have been having an affair with the wife of another guest of the family. In the present, Valentine and Chloe Coverly are siblings who live on the same estate as their ancestor, Thomasina Coverly. Hannah Jarvis is a historical novelist whose latest piece is related to the hermitage on the property and the man who may have inhabited it (for those playing along at home, a hermitage is a small house or cabin located on the property that houses, you guessed it, a hermit). Bernard Nightingale is a historian who is attempting to publish an article expressing his belief that Byron Shelley murdered a man on the Coverly family estate back in the 1800s. Both Hannah and Bernard seek to publish their work, and so both are devoted to attempting to uncover the mystery surrounding Lord Byron's presence at the Coverly estate.

Despite the confusing and lofty subject matter - there is talk of mathematical theorems, discussions of literature and relativity and machines and multiple references to Lord Byron Shelley (despite being one of the central figures in the plot, he never appears onstage) - the story still feels accessible and grounded thanks to the cast. Billy Crudup is wonderfully pompous as Bernard Nightingale, and Raul Esparza is delightful as Valentine Coverly, a descendant of 18th century child-genius Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley) who is himself a math whiz. The rest of the major players (Grace Gummer as Valentine's sister Chloe, Lia Williams as historian and novelist Hanna Jarvis) are fantastic as well. But to me the star of the show is Tom Riley, who plays Septimus Hodge, Thomasina's tutor and a contemporary of Lord Byron. In his Broadway debut, Mr. Riley's Septimus is both bright and dashing, imparting knowledge to Thomasina while simultaneously recognizing that her intellect exceeds his own. The relationship between Septimus and Thomasina, and the conclusion that their story reaches at the end of the show, is one of the most emotionally resonant aspects of the play. I was surprised that Mr. Riley was overlooked for a Tony nomination for his work.

Mr. Stoppard is known for his verbose and lengthy plays, and Arcadia is no exception. The dialogue is alternately witty and serious, and often moves at breakneck speed. There is unrequited romance in both the past and the present, and subtle flirtations throughout. As the play switches back and forth between the two time periods, the audience begins to understand that the present's conception of the events of the past is incorrect, with each character in the present having different (partially correct and partially incorrect) theories of the past. For the majority of the play, the past and the present stay separate through the use of lighting and transitions, but at the end of the play, the two come together as their stories play out simultaneously. It is slightly disconcerting seeing the characters of the past and present onstage at the same time, particularly because the young boy, played by Noah Robbins, is in both the past and the present. The play also ends on what I thought to be a somewhat odd note, but perhaps there was some symbolism or deeper meaning that I did not catch.

At its heart, Arcadia seems to be about the human quest for knowledge. The characters in the show demonstrate that even though we may be completely incorrect in our theories about the past, and the answers we find to our questions may be faulty, it is the fact that we strove to find those answers in the first place that matters. It does not matter if our area of passion is words or numbers, logic or fantasy - what matters is our thirst for knowledge and understanding. In that regard, Arcadia speaks to the detective in all of us, that part of us that always wants to know more. We may not understand the answers we find; in fact, we may not even find them at all. But as long as we continue to question, to seek truth and understanding of the world around us, we will continue to be human.

I've Got A Story I'd Like To Tell...

One last crazy day of shenanigans for the semester brought Hillary and I to New York for two shows that we'd been long awaiting: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (about which this post is not), and Catch Me If You Can (about which this post is). CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, dear readers. A show that was pretty close to the top of our list for this spring's lineup, for a few reasons. (If you've seen the 2002 movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, you're familiar with the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a young man who conned millions of dollars by acting as a pilot/doctor/lawyer, all before the age of 19. The Broadway production features Aaron Tveit and Norbert Leo Butz in the roles of Frank Jr. and Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent who spent years pursuing the mysterious con man.) We'd planned on taking advantage of the show's student rush policy, but thanks to a contest on the show's Facebook page, we managed to win a pair of tickets in the second row of the Neil Simon Theater's mezzanine, dead center.

Read: if we hadn't been freaking out (and admittedly fangirling a little) before, we certainly were as we lined up outside the theater on 52nd Street that night.

It's probably not a surprise to any of our readers that Hillary and I happen to be modest fans of the show's lead, Aaron Tveit, based on his work in Next to Normal as well as other projects. We remember when Mr. Tveit temporarily left the role of Gabe two summers ago to take part in Catch Me's out-of-town tryout in Seattle. Oh, those were the days. We also remember when the hype surrounding Mr. Tveit's performance in Next to Normal did not, sadly, result in a Tony nomination for the talented actor. (Still bitter about that whole debacle...) If you follow the Broadway scene at all, you're aware that Mr. Tveit was again overlooked during this year's awards season. In fact, the 2011 nominations had been announced the very day before we saw Catch Me. As such, we were very aware of the fact that we were going into the show with a rather large bias towards Mr. Tveit, but all the same tried to set that aside and view his performance, and the show as a whole, through a critical eye.

The only problem with that? Director Jack O'Brien, book-writer Terrence McNally, and composer-lyricist team Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (of Hairspray fame) designed their show in the style of a 60s variety television program, in which the character of Frank Abagnale Jr. plays host to a show chronicling his own life and all the characters in it. As a result, Mr. Tveit's job (simplified, to a degree) is to play the suave, charismatic con man, which he does well. Very, very well. I mean, come on - one particularly descriptive article described him as "impossibly handsome...there could be apple pie filling running through his veins." While we'll leave that metaphor to your discretion, there's no denying the man's stage presence and talent. So it was up to the show's material to validate for us whether or not we could call Mr. Tveit's lack of nomination a snub or not.

By the time intermission came around, we were enjoying ourselves immensely. Mr. Tveit's voice, both belt and falsetto, is godly - no surprise there. He's got incredible stage presence. He can DANCE! (And on a shallow note, some obligatory shirtless-Tveit drooling took place.) But even through our rose-colored glasses, we felt that we could definitely see why Mr. Tveit's name had been left off so many awards lists. Throughout act one, Frank Jr. seemed more like a tour guide to the audience than a character, coming off as kind of fake and show-y. We didn't get a whole lot of insight into the character, other than through other characters' perspectives, which created a sense of disconnect between him and them. While (somewhat limited) time is given to developing the characters of Frank Sr., Hanratty, and Brenda, most of what we know about Frank Jr. is filtered through the notion of "only knowing what people tell you. We saw fleeting moments of emotion (see: the beautiful scene at the very end of the act, a touching phone conversation on Christmas Eve between Frank Jr. and Hanratty that reveals just how lonely each of them really are). Yes, he's onstage for an impressive 85-90% of the show and displays awesome stamina both vocally and physically, but in act one he's isolated, there merely to introduce snapshots of his life, more or less - not too difficult of a job. We attributed that deficiency to the material entirely (which, by the way, was much more similar to the movie than I'd been lead to believe), and thought that Mr. Tveit was doing the best he could with a somewhat weak book. At that point, then, it seemed to us that his lack of nomination seemed to be justified.

And then act two happened, and the opinions we had formed at intermission were knocked off their keister, stomped on, and flattened by a bus.

Thanks largely to the introduction of Brenda Strong, Frank Jr.'s first real love interest (played by the adorable Kerry Butler), we immediately began to see more of Frank's human side, and it became crystal clear that Mr. Tveit came off somewhat flat and one-dimensional in act one because he chose to. Brenda brings out the emotion and vulnerability in Frank for the first time, and it's only when we see him interacting with her, her family, and his own father, later in life, that the audience understands exactly how Frank's lifestyle has isolated him from the other characters in the show so badly. The entire tone of the show changes because Frank has found/chosen his family for the first time, and we believe that this was a deliberate choice made by the creative team. It completely explains why he came off as all tour guide and no character in act one. And that's why "Goodbye," quite possibly one of the most stunning 11:00 numbers I've ever heard, is so heartbreaking - because we finally understand how Frank Jr.'s lifestyle prevents him from living a normal life, and that he'll never really be able to leave that behind, no matter how much he wants to.

Yada, yada, yada. Let's just say that we left the theater engaged in a fairly passionate discussion about the differences between act one and act two. In our eyes, Mr. Tveit carried the show. Yes, Leading Actor in a Musical was an extremely competitive field this year, we haven't seen The Book of Mormon yet, and Mr. Butz was fantastic and very much deserved his nomination (see the next paragraph!). But Mr. Tveit's performance has a lot more depth to it than he's been given credit for. Mr. Butz was great, but that was in part because he had the better material; Mr. Tveit was amazing because he made butter out of cream (ooh, show puns!) with what he was given. We feel badly that he wasn't recognized for that.

As conniving and relentless FBI agent Carl Hanratty, Mr. Butz wins the award for completely bringing down the house in the middle of the show with "Don't Break The Rules"! In the onstage relationship between Frank Jr. and Hanratty, Mr. Butz frequently got to deliver the punchlines while Mr. Tveit played up the straight side of the joke, and won the audience over because of it. He was charismatic, natural, and just plain wonderful. And hey - now we can say we've seen the original Jamie and Cathy live onstage! In our Perfect Land of Broadway Dreams, the show's producers would have petitioned for Mr. Butz to be eligible in the Featured Actor category, leaving Mr. Tveit alone to compete in Lead - they have amazing chemistry with one another, and their rapport is completely responsible for the show's high points. (If you click on one link throughout this entire review, choose that one.)

We'd also say that the show's score and orchestrations were snubbed as well, although the sound was a little spotty at times during the performance we attended. While I definitely need a second listen at a few of the jazzier songs, all were beautifully put together and fit the style of Frank's world so well. Not to mention that "Fly Fly Away," sung by Ms. Butler, and "Goodbye" are two of the greatest solo numbers ever written, in my humblest opinion. Even though Ms. Butler wasn't given a whole lot of material to work with (she doesn't even appear in the show until the very end of act one), she certainly leaves one of the biggest impacts of the night with her number. Like...I have chills just thinking about the emotional build-up at the end of the show. One, I wasn't expecting this show to make me cry. Two, It's moments like those that remind us of the power of theater, and of adding emotion to a story through music, and that's SO corny but honestly. Nothing else in the world gives you that feeling. Ms. Butler crying through her big number, and Mr. Tveit standing in the spotlight as the giant set pieces pulled away and then faded into black, leaving just him there to command the stage...serious chills.

As far as Jerry Mitchell's choreography, I have to admit that I was a tad bit underwhelmed, with the exception of a few fantastic numbers ("Don't Break The Rules" and "Live in Living Color," to name a few). After expecting Catch Me to be a full-out dancing show, it didn't live up to the hype for me, especially placed in direct comparison with How to Succeed, which we had seen earlier that afternoon. Nevertheless, the ensemble of showgirls (and boys) was extremely strong - I just felt that they could have handled more difficulty!

Even though pretty much every character besides Frank Jr. and Hanratty had very little stage time, Tom Wopat as Frank Abagnale, Sr. had a huge impact as Frank Jr.'s idolized father figure who slowly crumbles before his son's eyes. I was particularly moved by his performance towards the end of act two, when he handles some of the most emotional material in the entire show with ease. The other real standout for us was the HILARIOUS Linda Hart as Mrs. Strong. (A red-headed Kristin Chenoweth, anyone?)

A few pieces of constructive criticism, for what it's worth:

- The use of trapdoors in the stage floor to change set pieces. I'd read a description on BroadwayWorld regarding this as "whack-a-mole, Broadway style," and from our view up in the mezz, that's exactly what it felt like. I'm all for taking time to ensure the safety of objects/people who are being loaded onto the platforms, but having the doors open five minutes before anything rose to stage level was very distracting

- At times, the show's setup felt too busy with sets and props. (See: this ridiculous number.)

- After being confused for so long as to how "Goodbye" wasn't the final song in the show, we finally saw things in context. The actual last number, entitled "Strange But True," was great and wrapped things up nicely...but still. "Goodbye" certainly left a bigger impact on us, but having one song after it did work.

No, it's not the second coming of Christ in Broadway form. (From what I've been hearing, we're going to need to make the trek over to the Eugene O'Neill for that one.) But Catch Me If You Can is more than a guilty pleasure show. We were *hoping* not to feel the need to return immediately...but guess what. While the material could definitely have been made stronger, the show doesn't try to be anything it's not, and we appreciate it for its old-fashioned, swingin' Broadway style, charismatic performers, and the fun theatrical escape it provides.