Tony Picks #4 & 5: Matthew James Thomas & Rachel Bay Jones

Pippin Rachel Bay Jones Matthew James Thomas

Matthew James Thomas & Rachel Bay Jones, Pippin

Ok, ok, they’re not actually nominated, but whatever: Rachel Bay Jones and Matthew James Thomas are wonderful in Pippin, and gosh darnit, they should be among the officially honored. Why? Because both manage to delivery thoroughly quirky, individual performances in the mega-watt machinery of a big Broadway musical—no small feat, indeed! For Thomas, this means his giggly sense of fun never gets lost; for Jones, it’s all about her particular, indescribable MO (you know what I’m taking about if you’ve seen the show). Their way with the material is unrepeatable and—in the very best sense—totally whimsical. I’m reminded of Jones’s wonderfully strange delivery of the line, “I was putting on my eyelash.” Pretty straightforward on the page, but fabulously odd as said by Jones. Thomas, too, is magnetic for how completely he does “his thing,” especially in his sweet interactions with his grandmother. These wonderful actors remind us that it is performers’ particularities rather than their “regularities” that make them most interesting.

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Tony Pick #3: Tony Shalhoub

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Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy
As a distraught, immigrant Italian father in this Odets oldie, Tony Shalhoub used a pitch-perfect accent as a direct channel to the pathos of his character. Shalhoub’s way around extended vowels and clattering consonants somehow make the role emotionally true; he used every Italian cadence and lifted phrase as another display of his character’s psychology, and the collective thrust was beautiful. If there’s any justice on Broadway, it’s Tony time for this real-life Tony!

Tony Pick #2: Lauren Ward

Matilda Broadway

Milly Shapiro, Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward

The second act of Matilda reduced me to a blubbering snot-mess, in large part because of the title character’s touching relationship with her teacher, Miss Honey. The cross-generational bond is the heart of the show, and Lauren Ward as Miss Honey makes it work perfectly with easygoing, beautifully sung soul. The way she charts her symbiotic relationship with Matilda is expert and sensitive: Frightened, she and Matilda look to each other for strength, and in so doing receive it. It’s crazy moving, as is Ward’s simple and perfect delivery of my new favorite show tune, “My House,” itself a perfect pean to being satisfied with simple things. To boot, the show’s final sight—Ward cartwheeling into the sunset with Matilda—crystallizes all that is good about Ward and this production: their sincerity, their whimsy, and their sense of heart.

Photo by Sara Krulwich

Tony Pick #1: Kristine Nielsen

Maybe I’m just on an end-of-season, Matilda-inspired high, but Broadway seemed particularly smoosh-smashed with some truly noteworthy performances this year. As Tonys are approaching, it’s time to write about them! Let’s get started with the ultimate highlight…

Tony Pick #1: Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Kristine Nielsen

“Brilliant! Heartbreaking! Genius!” Critics like to throw these words around, even if they’re not always appropriate. But when the actress is Kristin Nielsen and the play is Vanya and Sonia, such distinctions are actually accurate: She is brilliant; she is heartbreaking; she is a genius. A great synthesizer of the tragic and the comic, Nielsen uses her extraordinary vocal and physical technique in the service of something almost frighteningly, hilariously real in this beautiful, funny play. Tony folk, I beg of you: Vote early and vote often for what is unquestionably the performance of the year.

Read more about Nielsen in Vanya here.

That Time Julie Andrews Spoke at My Brother’s Graduation

Julie Andrews Colorado College Boulder Graduation

Every year or six it’s important to leave New York—one can only stand so much of $7 cereal and the G train, after all. Last week I took one such sojourn to my brother’s college graduation in Boulder, Colorado. Here, I thought, was my chance to leave behind Mr. Man Hattan. To clear the head. To consider—very briefly—matters beyond the footlights. Sure, Sondheim’s “Our Time” might flit through my mind at The Big Event, but that moment would pass, and I would soon be thinking on, well, whatever it is non-theater people think on.

And then I learned that the graduation speaker was to be Julie Andrews.

Not kidding.

At first I thought I was being had. “Right,” I said to myself. “Julie Andrews? Who’s her date, Richard Burton? Rex Harrison?”

But the joke was on me: Apparently Dame Julie had some connection to the University, and, in a remarkable coup, had been roped into delivering the annual basket of “go get ‘em” pleasantries.

(The theater will find you, people, even if you fly four hours to the foothills of the Flatiron Range. It will find you.)

Graduation morning dawned blue and overture-worthy. Walking towards the ceremony, to be held in the football stadium, I glanced up at the mountains that cradled the city and I wondered—was Julie up there, crooning “The Hills Are Alive”? Or, I considered, passing the marijuana shops, was she there, selling loverly “flowers”? In other words, was it a Sound of Music day or a My Fair Lady day? A Victor/Victoria morning or a Boy Friend one? Which Julie were we going to get?

Silly me. An hour later, as Julie ascended to her throne/podium, the answer became clear: Today was a Camelot day, and Julie, oh Julie, was our beloved Guinevere. How could it be otherwise? It was, you see, a cheery morn in this Lusty Month of May.

“I LOVE YOU JULIE,” someone screamed from the crowd as we rose to our feet. We love you, too, our hoots concurred. We love you too!

Who knew the Colorado set was so discerning?

“Thank you,” she said, quieting the crowd, “thank you.” Then—

It’s all a Julie blur. Sorry.

There was something about overcoming adversity (egregiously overlooked! the botched operation!) and the importance of the arts, as well as brilliant lines about “my signature turn” and how “the hills truly are alive with the class of 2013,” but I was too taken with her regal poise and the mere Fact of Julie Andrews to remember much more.

Because here’s the thing about Ms. Andrews: Girl knows how to work a crowd. Seriously. Though you’ll never meet a more gentlewomanly creature on God’s green earth, Julie owned us with the strength of an iron fist—a fist draped in dainty blue satin sashes, but a fist, nonetheless. Never once was our applause allowed to get in the way of her message, never once were we anywhere but the uber-competent palm of her hand.

Such control is a miracle to behold, and renders message almost irrelevant. The way she said what she said was the meaning of what she said. Not to get all modernistic… but it really was.

So thanks, Julie. Thanks for spoiling my theater hiatus. I’m not going to spout that line about the world, and how it’s a stage—not gonna do it—but such, it seems, is the truth. You can’t, it seems, escape the theater.

And if Julie Andrews is involved, it turns out, you won’t want to.

Poor Christine Ebersole

Winning two Tony Awards apparently isn’t enough to warrant above-the-title billing in movies these days. The wonderful Christine Ebersole is the only person on The Big Wedding poster not to be named… even someone named Ben Barnes (?!) gets himself up there. Look at her, sadly watching from the corner…

photo

Ever the underdog, Ye Old Theatre…

“The Glass Menagerie” at ART

Glass Menagerie Photo: Michael J. Lutch“The play is memory,” announces our narrator toward the outset of The Glass Menagerie. A twinge of regret in the back of his throat, he continues. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Pretty clear instructions for a director, no?

But most productions of this Tennessee Williams classic (at least the ones I’ve seen) don’t take Tom’s statement—“it is not realistic”—at face value. While they may veer towards something more heightened in a few characterizations, and in the delivery of Williams’s poetic writing, they are generally grounded in the cold, hard truth of the kitchen sink.

Not so John Tiffany’s production, at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. If you’ve read any of the pre-show publicity, you know that Mr. Tiffany and his designers (Bob Crowley on sets, Natasha Katz on lighting) have opted for a more unconventional look. The stage is a pair of honeycombed platforms atop a sea of black water, and behind the deck is another equally eerie abyss of blackness. From first glace, it is clear: your average Menagerie this is not.

Movement director Steven Hoggett ups the anti-realism ante by supplying fantastical little interstitial dances that knit various scenes together. A stylized flourish here, a shocking entrance there—like the design, it’s more the stuff of contemporary movement theater or experimental work than classic American drama.

And that’s what’s so right about this production. Its melding of classic psychological realism (those well-known scenes) and the best of new theatrical techniques (the design, the movement, the direction) yields something that feels shockingly current. I was so taken by the modernity of everything, the self-awareness of so much of the narration, that I went and checked the original text, wondering if Tiffany had altered any of the language to make it feel more 2013. But this doesn’t appear to be the case. His direction merely gives the proceedings the feel of something new.

That freshness also pervades every performance. Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith all match Tiffany’s freshness with their own, and you never for a moment doubt that what they’re doing is happening right now.

Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that this alloyed evening works so well. Williams directed it to be so from the start—remember that first quote? Maybe that’s what’s always exciting about Glass Menagerie, that from the first, Williams insists we braid old technique and new, past and present. With feet in two eras, the result is doubly strong, doubly potent.

POSTSCRIPT
(The production also makes incredibly effective use of underscoring. I wish it was a tool more commonly deployed—it seems such a useful tool in drawing audiences in.)

Photo (above) by Michael J. Lutch, below, by theater-words

The window-walls of ART are covered in letters Williams wrote his mother.

The window-walls of ART are covered in letters Williams wrote his mother, the model of Menagerie‘s Amanda.

__________________________________
LIKE THIS? YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
Pippin at ART
Ye Olde Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

In Rep with “Cloud Atlas”

The Repertory System isn’t dead!

Back in Ye Olde Days, troupes of actors would rehearse several shows at a time and perform them on alternate evenings. Audiences got the unique thrill of seeing the same set of actors perform, say, a Shakespeare on Tuesday, and a Durang on Wednesday. (Now that would be a fun bill!) For reasons of cost that system is mostly dead.

Or is it? Cloud Atlas, the wonderfully big-thinking movie based on David Mitchell‘s novel of the same name, puts the idea of the old Rep System back to use, and brilliantly so. Built out of six seemingly separate stories, Cloud Atlas flits from one narrative to another, a handful of actors changing garb and temper along the way. We get Halle Berry as a Space Agey adventurer in one tale and a hard-hitting journalist in another. Tom Hanks has equally heavy lifting, playing everything from a scientist to a strange tribesman to a murderous writer.

Thematically, this continuity seems to suggest that the characters are reincarnated versions of themselves. But on a less heady, more concrete level, it’s also just really damn cool seeing great actors in different digs.

Witness Madame Berry and Mr. Hanks…

and Hugo Weaving…

Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doo-na, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon and others round out the chameleonic cast.

So cool, right?!

Favorite Moment: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Sometimes, dead silence is the loudest applause.

Indeed, the best moments in theatergoing—staggering moments, spine-tingling moments—often cast a heavy, suspended quiet, not a clappy rumble. There sits the audience, overwhelmed and totally involved, the noisy slapping of hands the last of its concerns.

Such an earned, weighted silence came towards the end of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the rollicking and sweet and beautiful new comedy now at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, soon to greet New Yorkers at Lincoln Center Theater. Kristine Nielsen, playing the frustrated, underloved Sonia, gets a quietly soaring moment that, at the performance I attended, sucked the wind out of the theater. Having attended a costume party the night before, and having been a smash success as “Maggie Smith,” and having finally—finally!—stepped out of the shadow of her movie star sister (Masha, Sigourney Weaver), Sonia fields a phone call from a man who is asking her out.

That’s never happened before.

Sonia handles the man with her typical self-depricating fatalism: No, no, she can’t see him Saturday, so sorry. She’s busy. Yes, she’s quite busy.

Another door shut.

They keep talking.

But… but…

She pauses, jokes, “rechecks her planner.” Maybe, well, maybe.

No, not maybe, yes.

As handled by Nielsen, the moment is momentous and heartbreaking. A woman is offered a surprise gift, and, fighting habit and comfort, says yes.

And when the phone monologue ends, you don’t clap. No, what you’ve witnessed is too intimate for that.

You just sit.

What could be better?

__________________________
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang
Directed by Nicholas Martin
McCarter Theatre, through October 14

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Pictured: Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce

The Katharine McPhee Entrance

Yes, I enjoy entering Times Square at the “Katharine McPhee Subway Entrance” on 43rd, and yes, I quietly moan “Let Me Be Your Star” each time I ascend those steps.

Not weird at all.

Right?

The “Most Promising Season Award” goes to…

Playwrights Horizons! Woohoo! Oh, the honor, oh the glory!

But really, was there every a question? Playwrights is always pretty great, but 2012/13 looks like it’s going to be SENSATIONAL. Any lineup that includes Annie Baker AND Amy Herzog AND Greenberg/Frankel/Korie, plus many others, is pretty much the bee’s knees by me. Here are the tantalizing titles and their respective slots:

1. DETROIT, the “better than Broadway” slot.
Initially scheduled for the Rialto this past spring, Broadway’s loss is Playwrights’ gain: Anne Kauffman is sure to steer this tale of economic woe into the tragic stratosphere. Oh, and it’s already got a Pulitzer nom. Whatever.

2. THE FLICK, the “our young writers are better than yours” slot, Part I.
If you don’t already love Annie Baker, you should. She writes plays, not plays that want to be movies, and her latest—something about the last 35 millimeter film projector in New England—practically screams “beautiful! melancholic! theatrical!” Resident genius Sam Gold helms.

3. THE GREAT GOD PAN, the “our young writers are better than yours” slot, Part II.
First of all, there’s the brilliant title. Secondly, there’s the super hotshot team of rising stars Amy Herzog and Carolyn Cantor. Thirdly… I don’t even know. I just want to see this.

4. FAR FROM HEAVEN, the “2013 Tony Awards” slot.
Let’s be real: this one is gonna charm the hell out of Mr. New York Times, skip east to Times Square, reopen “with sharper focus and impossibly fuller performances,” and clean up at the Tonys. Because with Richard Greenberg, Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, Michael Greif, and Kelli O’Hara on board, IT SHOULD.

5. THE WHALE, the “The Book of Mormon for off-Broadway” slot.
Aside from telling the story of a 600-pound man (!!!), this one’s about Mormon country, and Mormons are where it’s at right now. So, Sam Hunter’s play is bound to be all zeigeisty and amazing. Davis “I directed February House, what what” McCallum leads the way.

6. THE CALL, the “you’re going out there a youngster but coming back a star” slot.
Not gonna lie: Never heard of Tanya Barfield, the brains behind this one. But Leigh Silverman is directing, and, as In the Wake and Go Back to Where You Are as my witnesses, she and Barfield are sure to deliver.

__________________________________
So congratulations, Playwrights. May your season charm, upset, anger, entertain, enliven, scramble, and uplift us into theatrical ecsatsy. Cuz that’s what good plays do, y’all.

Cancer Drama

Rita Lyons and Vivian Bearing: Not so different after all!

The Lyons and Wit, recently acclaimed “plays of sickness,” might appear to have no more than a cancer ward in common—the former, after all, is mostly giggles, while the latter is mostly tears. But look closer at each play’s grand dame, as played, respectively, by Linda Lavin and Cynthia Nixon—both Tony-nominated—and some striking similarities emerge:

- Both women love literature. For Vivian Bearing (Wit), poet John Donne is the font of wisdom. Rita Lyons (The Lyons) is equally enamored of what appears to be “Architectural Digest,” gleefully gleaming renovation ideas from its esteemed pages.

- Both women know how to face adversity with strength. Vivian accepts an aggressive chemo regime with steely resolve; Rita, cheering up her terminally-ill husband, gives him the perspective he needs: “Death’s not so bad, not when you consider the opposite.”

- Both women finally learn what love is, Vivian from a caring nurse, Rita from the guy her daughter was sleeping with, a guy with whom she jet-sets to Aruba the day after her husband’s death.

Vivian and Rita—woulda, coulda, shoulda been friends…

Photo of Linda Lavin by Carol Rosegg. Photo of Cynthia Nixon by Joan Marcus.

Poster Analysis: “Anything Goes”

As anyone who took a taxi in the past year knows, Sutton Foster was the beginning and the end of the marketing for Roundabout’s Anything Goes. Photographed for that show’s poster, heels up with a cheeky grin, Foster was everywhere.

But seasons change: Now that Foster is stuck on TV (thank you, “Bunheads”) and Stephanie J. Block is click-clacketting her way through Reno Sweeney’s paces, what’s become of those old shots?

One word: paint.

Let me take you back. Here’s a “Foster-era” poster:

But this is the image currently adorning the Stephen Sondheim Theatre:

Notice anything different?

The second figure—while just as lithe and rambunctious as the original—is more “Foster-esque” than “Foster.” Yes, she’s a white sailor with an admirable waistline, but she’s not fully Sutton Foster. By rendering Foster’s image in paint instead of photo, the specificity of the show’s original star gives way to something more general and flexible. Any number of performers look sort of like the second image; there’s only one that looks like the first.

As always, it’s interesting watching a hit show find its sea legs without its deal-making, original star. Here’s wishing Stephanie J. Block and all future Renos best of luck—they might not get the ol’ camera treatment, but what was good enough for Van Gogh sure is good enough for me.

The Spring Season: Start Your Engines

The Spring season kinda already began, but hey, it’s still worth flipping through the listings to get excited. There’s a huge swath of tantalizing work, so these are just a few of the plays I’m excited to see, in no particular order. Note your own picks in the “comments” section!

1. Death of a Salesman I mean, obviously: Few shows are a sure thing, but this Salesman, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, seems pretty unassailable. I’m especially excited to see the original, Joe Mielziner set that this production is using.

2. The Big Meal Director Sam Gold has worked nonstop this year, and with good reason: his shows are always honest and surprising. The Big Meal, a multi-generational family play, is Gold’s collaboration with with Dan LeFranc, and will (hopefully) match up to his other work this season.

3. Newsies All sources say Disney’s done good by this Broadway adaptation of its flop-movie-musical, and I’m already excited about hearing the money note in “Santa Fe.” (Don’t lie, you know what I’m talking about…)

4. The Maids Red Bull Theater takes on this enormously difficult absurdist text, the strangeness of which is bound to make for a compelling and freaky evening.

5. Clybourne Park – This Broadway transfer has stirred quite the backstage hubbub, but Bruce Norris’ gentrification play would be pretty incendiary even without all the crazy producer drama. And that Pulitzer Prize doesn’t exactly hurt.

6. Nice Work if You Can Get It – George Gershwin, Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Broderick? Done, done and done.

7. An Early History of Fire – David Rabe teams up with a certain Lily Rabe on this New Group world premiere. Advance plot details are scant, but Rabe (the dad) is always angry and exhilarating.

More off-off-Broadway excitement will reveal itself as the weeks wear on (downtown hits generally give less notice), but these titles should do for now.

And you kind sir/fair madame? Where will you be parking yourself Spring 2012?

photo by theater-words

“Brothers and Sisters:” LIVE!

Rachel Griffiths and Matthew Rhys on "Brothers and Sisters"

Fans of TV’s “Brothers and Sisters”—yours truly included—now have a thrilling double shot at catching Matthew Rhys (“Scotty”) or Rachel Griffiths (“Sarah”) live and in the flesh. Rhys trades sweetness for sting in Look Back in Anger, at the Roundabout, while Griffiths rides a tell-all memoir to Broadway in Other Desert Cities. TV celebs don’t usually make good by their stage roles, but this situation is different. Why?

1- Griffiths and Rhys earned theater cred before going to Hollywood;
2- they’re perfect for their parts; and,
3- “Brothers and Sisters” was just that good. Sue me.

Griffiths had this to say about doing theater: “It really is our penance for taking the money in television. I’m a Roman Catholic, and [Rhys] is a Welsh Methodist. You must repent. Got to go kneel in the cathedral of the theater.” (NY Times, 1/19/12)

Repentance, then, involves a lot of fury and despair: Both Other Desert Cities and Look Back in Anger light huge fires under fraught family fracas, then bathe in the ensuing sparks. “Jimmy,” Rhys’ character, is cooped up in a 1950s London flat and endlessly condemns the world on personal and political levels. “Brooke” (Griffiths), a writer, is unsure about exposing the secrets of her Palm Springs family and dances around her right-wing parents like an anxious minesweeper. In both plays, tears are shed, papers are thrown, souls are burned. And yes, it’s all pretty wonderful.

[Read more...]

Richard and Porgy: A Tale of Two Legbraces

Kevin Spacey (“Richard III”) and Norm Lewis (“Porgy and Bess”) must need some killer massage therapy this season…

Photos: Joan Marcus and Michael J. Lutch

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