Summertime, and the bloggin' is slow - Musicals

Happy Labor Day, readers! With the end of this weekend comes the unofficial close of summer 2012 and the beginning of fall on Broadway. What better time to close out our theatrical expeditions of the past month? Check out the musicals we've seen recently below (notes on Ghost's closing night can be found here), and head over to a separate post to read about our play ventures.

Into The Woods at the Public's Delacorte Theatre has been the talk of the town this summer, for more reasons than one. When all is said and done, the production's run is closing tonight, with the likelihood of a transfer to Broadway all but gone, and you know what? I'm okay with that. I feel glad to have seen the production twice, once as the show was still settling and once as it neared its conclusion, and reassure myself that, in my opinion, this was an excellent production. Everything hinges, I suppose, on whether you bought the concept that director Timothy Sheader first employed in the show's London production two years ago - using the frame of the Narrator as a young boy, run away to the forest from an argument with his father, to start the story, and inserting modern references via the rest of the fairy tale characters' costumes and props. We felt that this device worked very effectively and added yet another level to the already-complex tale. It's an incredible feat when a production of a show makes you consider the material in a different light than you had before, and I definitely left the Delacorte both evenings I saw the show pondering various parallels and connections that had only just unearthed themselves to me. Take-aways from this production include a gorgeous three-tiered set that must have grown right in the middle of Central Park, Sarah Stiles as Little Red Ridinghood (in what we thought was an absolutely charming breakout performance), Jessie Mueller as a truly heartfelt and golden-voiced Cinderella, Donna Murphy's sexualized portrayal of the Witch (I particularly loved her during the first act), and an Amy Adams who clearly grew an infinite amount into her role as the Baker's Wife between the first time we saw the show and the second. Kristine Zbornik as Jack's mother also left an impression on me.

And if I'm the only person on the face of the earth who loved Denis O'Hare as the Baker, so be it. I will defend his characterization and his relationship with Ms. Adams as the Baker's Wife to the end. I've always found the Baker's storyline to have the most depth to it, and for some reason, all of Mr. O'Hare's choices - from his pronunciations, to the way he told his Wife that she was not to accompany him into the woods, to his gravely-yet-pleasant singing voice - reminded me of my grandfather.

Triassic Parq has since closed at the Soho Playhouse, but you should keep an eye out for its cast recording, to be released in September. The tongue-in-cheek musical, narrated by "Morgan Freeman" (hilariously "portrayed" by Lee Seymour - check out his picture to see why so many quotation marks are necessary), tells the story of a tribe? pack? gaggle? of dinosaurs, on the brink of uncovering why some of them have numbers tattooed on their backs. (Hint: a scientific laboratory plays a part in the mystery.) The show had me laughing out loud more than once, and also had a surprising amount of heart buried underneath the sometimes crude comedy. Highlights included Alex Wyse as the Velociraptor of Innocence, Wade McCollum as the Velociraptor of Faith and the "Mama Dino," and Brandon Espinoza as the Mime-a-saurus. (The character is what it sounds like.)

- Most likely for the first and only time in our lives, Hillary and I saw Mamma Mia! at the ginormous Winter Garden Theatre. For the sake of brevity, the experience was exactly what we had imagined, complete with the Abba remix dance party at the end of the night. The new Broadway cast brought a great energy to the show, which now feels somewhat dated, especially Zak Resnick and Christy Altomare, who we've seen previously in other projects. Also, Aaron Lazar. In a neon yellow bedazzled disco bodysuit.

- The new rendition of Forbidden Broadway, subtitled Alive and Kicking!, is certainly alive and kicking at the 47th Street Theatre. What a fun, fun night. Although I hear that the show, which doesn't open until September 6, has been undergoing constant changes, it opened on the night I attended with "Patti LuPone" yelling, "Stop taking pictures!! Right now!! Who do you think you are?!" at a "bootlegger" coming down the center aisle, which segway-ed into a "Broadway Baby"-inspired version of "Bootleg Baby." (Speaking of which, if you've never seen LuPWNed! The Patti LuPone Audience Freakout Remix," NOW'S THE TIME.) Two major highlights for me were Marcus Stevens playing Matthew Broderick TO A T in a skewering of Nice Work If You Can Get It - "Nice song if I could sing it, but if I sing it, you'll cry" - and a skit about Once, featuring "Anne L. Nathan" and accordion, "Paul Whitty" and beard, an ultra-wide-eyed "Cristin Milioti," and a pretentiously melancholy "Steve Kazee."

- Seeing Will Chase as Matthew Broderick's vacation replacement in Nice Work If You Can Get It didn't change what I think of the show as a whole, but it was an absolute joy to hear him sing through the beautiful Gershwin score after being exposed to that side of his voice in Pipe Dream earlier this year. He and Kelli O'Hara were born to sing together, it seems. (So, Theatre Gods, let's make this happen again soon, please.) I think Mr. Broderick brought a lot of natural, Broderick-y comedy to the role of Jimmy Winter, where Mr. Chase played a more believable romantic lead. So my review ends at the conclusion that the show led by Mr. Chase felt like a completely different show than when it was led by Mr. Broderick. Both were enjoyable in different ways. Additionally, if the seasoned and terrific Michael McGrath ever decides to do a solo show, I would be there in a heartbeat.

- And finally, the concerts; or rather, just one concert - Frank and Friends, a monthly series held at Birdland and hosted by the man himself, Frank Wildhorn, as a showcase for his many, many works. Laura Osnes, Melissa Van Der Schyff, Stark Sands and Constantine Maroulis were on hand to sing some tunes and lend their classy presences to the evening, which felt appropriately Bonnie and Clyde-heavy. (Not that we were complaining.) We also got a preview of the upcoming Broadway-bound tour of Jekyll and Hyde when Mr. Maroulis closed the show with an impressive rendition of "This Is The Moment." Favorite performances included Ms. Osnes and Ms. Van Der Schyff singing "Candle In The Window" from The Civil War; Ms. Osnes and Mr. Maroulis doing a swing number, "Heat of the Night," from the upcoming Scott and Zelda; all four singers performing "Money To Burn," also from Scott and Zelda; and Ms. Osnes bowling the audience over with "When I Look At You" from The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Summertime, and the bloggin' is slow - Plays

Happy Labor Day, readers! With the end of this weekend comes the unofficial close of summer 2012 and the beginning of fall on Broadway. What better time to close out our theatrical expeditions of the past month? Check out the plays we've seen recently below, and head over to a separate post to read about our musical ventures. (Notes on Ghost's closing night can be found here.)

- For those of you who haven't seen Peter and the Starcatcher yet/since Christian Borle's departure, I shake my fist at you. While I truly do believe that the show itself is strong enough to stand on its own two feet, Matthew Saldivar is doing some great work over at the Brooks Atkinson. His choices as Black Stache are 100% different than Borle's - I wonder if Saldivar ever chose to watch Borle's performance in the show or not - and he is still hilarious. There wasn't a second where I found myself comparing the two actors. The pirate leader is now a bit more macho and cartoon-y, with a little Groucho Marx and Arnold Schwarzenegger thrown in for good measure. It really was fascinating to experience the show without its "star" for the first time, to hear different lines get louder laughs than they had in the past, and to see the audience fall into the world created by Rick Elice, Roger Rees, and Alex Timbers just as they have every time I've returned to the show.

- I feel compelled to mention Bullet for Adolf because of how much I disliked it. The play, running at New World Stages, was written by real-life friends Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman; according to the show's website, its characters are "based on real people, though the events depicted are fiction and the names have been changed." With that, the audience is inevitably supposed to wonder just how autobiographical the story of the play is, although I have to admit that I didn't care much one way or the other. There are some plays where something happens - great! - and some plays where people sit around in a room and talk - also great! In my opinion, Bullet for Adolf fell somewhere between the two, and as a result had absolutely no point whatsoever to make. I didn't identify or sympathize with any of the characters, I didn't find any of the jokes to be particularly funny, and while the inter-scene bursts of 80s music and news footage were the most entertaining parts of the afternoon for me, they were extremely superfluous, even if their purpose was to set the scene. Sorry, Woody...better luck next time.

- Not having known anything at all about Judy Garland's life prior to seeing End of the Rainbow, I'm not sure how I felt about the play itself. I found the writing to be pretty standard, and I'd be curious to know how Garland aficionados, or people who knew her, felt about the show's depiction of the legend. But the real reason to see this play, as I expected, was Tracie Bennett. As with her other British counterparts that I've seen on stage (Mark Rylance and Tom Edden come to mind), her performance was very technical as far as inhabiting and recreating Judy's physicality and mannerisms, but not at the expense of creating a character as well. I thought her most impressive moments were in the vulnerability she displayed in the transitions between being high and sober. What a sad story, and I think that's where my main reservation about the show lies - I wasn't sure if I was supposed to leave the theater feeling somber for a talented woman worn down by show biz, or electric at just having seen a recreation of her last major concert series, "The Talk of the Town" in London.

- Richard III, a production of the Mobile Shakespeare Unit at the Public Theater, was my first exposure to the play. As per usual for Shakespeare that I'm unfamiliar with, I lost track of several characters halfway through the ninety-minute condensed version of the play, although the cuts made to fit the story into an hour and a half may have contributed to that confusion. Other than that, we loved the theater-in-the-round concept, as well as the simple, modern staging and the cheat sheet (literally, a bed sheet) used to help the audience keep track of which royalty had been killed off.

- There are a million and one puns I could make about seeing Cock on a Sunday afternoon. Insert whichever you prefer here. I loved this piece of theater, otherwise known as The Cockfight Play. The idea of being contained in a tiny theater, in-the-round, the audience seated in bleacher-style seating, watching three characters peck at each other while trying to figure out their relationships, was absolutely captivating and REALLY well-written and acted. The premise: John is in a relationship with M (a guy), but when they decide to take a break, John falls in love with W (a gal). In the end, it's not who you love, but why you love, and Mike Bartlett's script, paired with honest and spirited performances from Cory Michael Smith, Jason Butler Harner and Amanda Quaid, did the topic justice.

- One Man, Two Guvnors closes tomorrow, and if you didn't see it, I'm truly sorry. After seeing it pre-Tonys, I knew I had to make a return visit before its run at the Music Box ended. I wasn't sure if I'd find the physical comedy and improv bits as funny the second time around, but to be quite honest, I think I laughed harder this time than I did in June. I read a quote once that talked about it being harder and more exhausting to maintain a comedy night after night at its highest level than it is a drama, and I totally believe that to be true, so extra kudos to the funniest cast on Broadway for making me sweat from laughing so hard. Besides the outrageous comedic performances from, among others, Tom Edden and Daniel Rigby, what impressed me the most this time around was the way leading man James Corden had the audience eating from the palm of his hand. Ben Brantley compared Mr. Corden's mischievous grin to "butter melting in a skillet over a low flame," a metaphor I'm in love with for its accuracy, and amazingly, his connection with the audience translated into the (short-lived) sad moments in the play, when *SPOILER* Stanley and Rachel each think the other has died. The crowd grew so quiet you could've heard a pin drop - until the farce was revealed, and the level of laughter rose up once again.

- Approximately eight years after the rest of the theatrical world, I finally saw War Horse, and spent the show with my jaw on the floor from the brilliant creation and use of puppetry in the production at Lincoln Center Theater. It certainly helped that my seat was in the front row, but watching the puppets and puppeteers at work, bringing Joey and his horse counterparts to life, was something else. I cannot conceive the hours of research and practice that must have gone into creating something so technical and so lifelike. That's pretty much how I felt about the production as a whole as well. Design-wise, it seemed very minimal, but was actually extremely detailed and technical...but because the tech was all executed in service of the story, the complexity evaporated, AS IT SHOULD. I also loved the poetry that wove its way into the staging - the way in which the "young Joey" puppet split apart and fell back as the "grown-up Joey" puppet came charging forward, and the images of red flowers growing on the scrim of the stage during one of the battle scenes, which literally symbolized seeping blood, but also invited reference to the poppies in John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Field."

Ghost's Final Performance: Or, Caissie Levy Belts Her Face Off

Hillary and I spent more than one night during Ghost's final week on Broadway attempting to win lottery tickets for the show, which we'd already seen twice. Our first time was early in the spring, for free, and while we completely understood why the show received mostly mixed-to-negative reviews, we had a really fun time (shocker: it felt like watching a chick flick!), and agreed afterwards that we'd enjoy going back if given the chance. Cut to a few weekends ago, when we lost the lottery for another show, finally ended up at Ghost for the second time, and had an absolute blast. From a standpoint of Good Theatre, I know I should have hated this show, but we couldn't help but find it wildly entertaining. What's not to like about a show that never tries to be anything more than an enjoyable night out, features actors who sing the crap out of their songs, and involves some truly mind-boggling illusions? (Ghost-Sam, played by the lovely and British Richard Fleeshman, literally walked right through a door on stage, and for the life of me, I still cannot figure out how it was done.)

What followed was the epitome of what can happen when anxieties are abandoned and fate is accepted; with each concurrent lotto loss, I'd grown more and more resigned to the fact that I wouldn't have the chance to see the show from up close again. By the time the lottery for the show's final performance last evening rolled around, we was well prepared to head off the mad dash to the box office after the lottery winners had been picked and purchase up a discounted ticket in the rear of the theater so that we'd at least be able to enjoy the show one last time. After all, lotto tickets for the final performance were being given away to the winners for free, so naturally upwards of 400 people showed up to try their luck.

Of course, Hillary's name was pulled, and we ended up sitting front row, dead center, on closing night. I think we're both still shaking like leaves.

Ghost's final performance was the fourth Broadway closing night I'd been privileged to attend, and the premise of this post is to try and convey what exactly that means and why it's so unique. In addition to Ghost, we both made crazy, crazy travel plans to attend the closing performance of Bonnie and Clyde last December, and we were also present for the last performance of Catch Me If You Can on Broadway just about a year ago. Combined, these shows ran for an average of 110 performances and won a single Tony Award. The longest played for almost six months (not considered anywhere close to a success unless the production was billed as a limited run from the beginning, which it was not), and the shortest for just two months.

The fourth closing night I attended was also my first. Next to Normal was a huge part of my theater-going life for over two years. Unlike the other shows discussed in this post, Next to Normal played to audiences for nearly 750 performances on Broadway and recouped its capitalization costs. It won several Tony Awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize and the hearts and minds of critics everywhere.
The morning after seeing Ghost's closing performance, I couldn't stop meditating on why I felt the need to see each of these four shows off as they concluded their journeys on the Great White Way - and more specifically, how Ghost fit into this special category. I don't think I'd ever make (and would definitely never win) the argument that Ghost is one of the best shows I've ever seen. Prior to closing night, I'd only seen it twice, which pales in comparison to my totals for Next to Normal, Catch Me If You Can, and Bonnie and Clyde. All of these shows built up core groups of fans, people who you'd get to recognize from their constant presence in the rush line or at lotto, who fell so hard for the show that they just couldn't stay away for long. For better or worse, I've been that fan before, but not for Ghost.

I returned to each of these shows because something about them grabbed me. With Ghost, it was the opening chords to "Suspend My Disbelief/I Had A Life," "With You," and "Rain/Hold On" that made something in my brain click and say, "Yes, I've seen this before, and I know exactly what's going to happen, what this song's going to sound like, but I cannot wait to see it again." Maybe it was the chemistry between the actors that made their onstage relationship so dynamic, so electric, so believable. Maybe it was the opportunity to watch characters go through devastating and complex developments, and to trace the parallels and consistencies among the steps in their onstage growth. Maybe it was simply because the show was fun. (Note: this also includes the "crying your eyes out," cathartic kind of "fun.")

I think the thing about closing nights is that there's no holding back. There's no need for the actors to conserve their emotions or save their voices for the next show, no need to dwell on the smallest of mistakes or the what-ifs of making a particular acting choice. (See: Caissie Levy's insane riffs during "Rain/Hold On." Literally insane.) Sure, there's the danger of being swept too far into a moment in the show that takes on extra poignance in the waning moments of a production's life - Sam's "See ya" as he bids farewell to Molly, Bonnie's "It's death for Bonnie and Clyde" poetry as she comforts Clyde before they drive off to their inevitable ends - but if that should happen, it's okay, just this once. There's the heartache of seeing an actor walk onstage with a few extra tears in his eyes, or watching two onstage lovers linger just a few moments longer, knowing that the memory of this creation and these relationships will remain, but soon take on a different dynamic, or watching an actress, like Da'Vine Joy Randolph, come on stage for her final curtain call bow in her Tony-nominated Broadway debut with tears in her eyes. There will be a surprise riff here and there (Bryce Pinkham definitely checked these off on closing night, sounding the best I'd ever heard him), maybe an extra comedic ad-lib, and a few special moments shared between cast members, only visible to the few audience members who have seen the show enough times to notice the smallest changes. There's an edge in the air that makes closing night definitively different from every other performance.

I also think that Ghost, just like Bonnie and Clyde and Catch Me, had a cast that was not only talented, but cared deeply about the work they were doing. Despite being slammed by the critics, dismissed by awards committees, and playing to houses that weren't always full, I never had anything but respect for the actors who put their souls on display every night because it was obvious that they believed in themselves when no one else did. There will always be the argument that talented cast members are "too good" for a show that lacks creative complexity, but I'm not sure I buy into that. I think that commitment is one of the most important qualities that any production can claim, and trust me when I say that each member of these productions committed completely to their characters and to the integrity and rules of their particular show. So to allow the cast to perform one final time for an audience that stands on the same page as them creates an electricity that is unique and unforgettable. It's a way of expressing a sense of gratitude for hours of enjoyment in the theater - not to mention that the inevitable presence of the show's creative team presents another opportunity to say thank you to the minds who invented the show in the first place.

I cannot describe waking up the morning after a closing show as anything else but weird. And yes, I realize that that in itself is weird, because I have not had a professional attachment to any of the shows I've talked about, or personal relationships with the people involved in them. It's just such a sense of finality. I've always been one for nostalgia, I suppose, and nothing feeds that monster like watching a show that is being performed for the last time, by these actors for the last time, on this stage for the last time, after months and months, and in many cases, years, were spent bringing this thing to life. I wonder what it will feel like when the day arrives that I'm working on a show that closes. I wonder if it hurts more if the show is forced to end before its time, or if it's had a long and respectable run. Since not every show can be your favorite, I wonder what it's like when you've had an up-and-down relationship with a show you've worked on from the beginning. I wonder if it's looked down upon to become emotionally invested in your own show, and to be crushed when it "fails." I wonder if it's possible to work on a show and NOT become invested in its success. I hope that I'll never become jaded enough to lose investment in the shows I'll work on one day, and truly don't believe I will; the cyclical nature of the theater industry has proven time and time again that, for every closed show I hold close to my heart, there's another show just around the corner that I'll cultivate a new love for, and the heartbreak of watching shows close is a necessary part of the cycle.

I can't remember the last time I attended a show in New York that didn't receive a standing ovation at the end, and I don't believe that every performance deserves one. The lack of a standing ovation shouldn't detract from the value of a performance; rather, the presence of one should add to its value. Regardless, I strongly believe that every show does deserve a standing ovation on its closing night, in a show of respect, solidarity, amazement, and appreciation, and I was so happy to be a part of that for the cast and crew of Ghost.