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.


What Would Clifford Odets Say?!

There’s some major title plagiarism on network TV these days. Oh, CBS…


Somewhere underground, Clifford Odets is pulling on his boxing gloves and shouting, “Strike! STRIKE!”

The theft is almost as galling as this one, committed by novelist Lauren Groff:

Arcadia Lauren Groff

We love you girl, but don’t go stepping on Tom Stoppard‘s toes.

It’s not as if these titles aren’t well known: Both plays have been recently revived to great acclaim on Broadway. Clearly, TV and books execs are counting on the ignorance of the general public. Such sadness!

Any other tales of stolen titles you can think of?

— SMASH: An Outsider’s Take
— #broadwayproblems

The Hard Sell: “Bethany” at the Women’s Project

Women's Project Theater's Bethany by Laura Marks directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch l to r Tobias Segal and America Ferrera Credit Carol Rosegg 0267

Poor Crystal—her kid’s in foster care, sales at the Saturn dealership are down, and now she’s squatting in an abandoned home. Hey, at least this one’s got water and electricity, right?

That’s not much consolation in Bethany, Laura Marks’s new play at the Women’s Project, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Nope, Crystal (America Ferrera of Ugly Betty) needs more than just utilities to pull her life back together.

One day that miracle seems to appear in the form of Charlie (Ken Marks), an inspirational speaker who trades in Purpose Driven Life-style consumerist optimism. And when he makes moves on a sexy new ride, the hefty commission waiting for Crystal seems like an answered prayer. And yet… Charlie isn’t quite who he seems, plunging Crystal into a web of deceit and manipulation, turning her into a pawn in the evil chess game of post-millennial economic malaise. Yes, my dears, there will be blood.

The discomforting conclusion is that vice begets vice. As the world mistreats Crystal, so too does Crystal mistreat the world. The play’s best scene actually tracks this flip flop in real time: Upon learning threatening information, Crystal instantly morphs from abusee to abuser, no blink, no thought, no pause. (It is a credit to the writing and Ms. Ferrera’s effortless charm that you never fault the character for her bad behavior.)

Behind this screen of personal drama Bethany successfully hides a political message, one that condemns Crystal’s society, not Crystal herself. In Bethany that’s a society of manifest destiny consumerism, of the “law of prosperity.” It’s a kind of material-oriented thinking that leaves Crystal and company in the dirt. “What am I supposed to do?” she asks at one particularly distressing moment.

No easy answers, not in 2013.

What is she supposed to do?

All of us are wondering.

Bethany, by Laura Marks, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
featuring Emily Ackerman, America Ferrera, Kristin Griffith, Ken Marks, Tobias Segal, and Myra Lucretia Taylor
at City Center II, through February 17
click HERE for tickets
photos by Carol Rosegg, pictured above: 
Tobias Segal and America Ferrera; below: America Ferrera and Emily Ackerman

Like what you see? You might enjoy…
– Detroit House, an exploration of an abandoned theater and a meditation on economic decay
Feminism to the Rescue?, a writeup of 
Rapture, Blister Burn and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

Women's Project Theater's Bethany by Laura Marks directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch l to r America Ferrera and Emily Ackerman Credit Carol Rosegg 0496

The Jake Gyllenhaal Chronicles

What is JG shouting in this scene of his new play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet?

Um, do you really need to ask?

“We are NEVER EVER EVER getting back together!!
You go talk to your friends talk to my friends talk to me…
But we are NEVER EVER EVER EVER getting back together!”

This is exhausting.

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.


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…]

Cruisin’ Town with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim is on the media circuit, and those of us hoping for a Christmas delivery of “Look, I Made a Hat” have had to whet our appetites by following his tracks around NYC. That’s right—theater-words saw SS live and in person, twice in the past two weeks. Here’s word from the frontlines.

1.  The Colbert Report, 11/30
Although attending a TV taping is like boarding an airplane (Security! Waits! Delays!), it was worth it—briefly. In a very quick interview, SS played the straight man to Colbert’s dominant, ironic persona, and revealed that he was behind Colbert’s participation in the Philharmonic’s production of “Company.” (Before the taping, Colbert told the audience that his favorite Sondheim song is “Finishing the Hat.”)

2. Barnes & Noble, interview with Anna Quindlen, 12/7
Although there was no TV excitement, this conversation was far more satisfying and illuminating than Colbert’s. Sondheim and Quindlen are good friends—as evidenced by the number of times they collectively teared up—which made for a free-associative, infectious enthusiasm. SS gems poured and poured: He said that “movies and TV are set in aspic” compared to live theater, that a “standing ovation disturbs the exuberance” of a great performance, that “those of you who saw [the 2008 Broadway revival of “Sunday”] were lucky” because of its technological artistry. But most interesting was this: Were he stuck on an island with one of his shows performing every night, he’d want it to be “Forum.” (Because it’s funny!) And if a time machine could take him back to a single performance of his, he’d see the Roundabout revival of “Assassins,” excerpted below.

[Read more…]

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