Review: Twelfth Night

twelfth night“Twelfth Night” has long been my favorite of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. In it, Shakespeare takes love between people of the same sex very seriously — all you have to do is look at the character names.

The play follows the romantic adventures of Viola (Anne Hathaway) and her identical twin Sebastian (Stark Sands), both shipwrecked in the enchanted dukedom of Illyria. Viola is a poetic name for the violet flower, which Sappho was known to have woven into her garlands; they were also an important part of the religion of the ancient Earth goddess Cybele. Sebastian alludes to St. Sebastian, a martyr who had by Shakespeare’s time appeared in very homoerotic paintings by Botticelli and Titian, among others. Shakespeare was familiar with all these things; using one of those names might have been a coincidence, but using both suggests conscious design.

Director Daniel Sullivan’s production, however, doesn’t dig anywhere near that deep. The more explicit gay content of the play — the baldly declared love of the sailor Antonio for Sebastian, the mix-ups Viola falls into by disguising herself as a boy named Cesario — are dealt with in a refreshingly clear-cut manner. Indeed, for better or worse this is the most straightforward “Twelfth Night” I’ve ever seen.

It’s also one of the most exquisitely cast I’ve ever seen. Hathaway is transcendent as Viola, playing every doubt and surprise (and Viola has many of both) with great detail. David Pittu is magnificent as the wise clown Feste (his performance is the only one that successfully brings out the play’s richer colors of mysticism and melancholy). And the musical settings by folk group Hem are gorgeous — one trio between Pittu, Hathaway and Raul Esparza (as Duke Orsino) is very moving indeed.

I can recommend that you see it for Hathaway’s performance, but I can’t recommend it as “definitive.” Pittu and Hem aside, it’s simply missing the danger, exhilaration and ache this play should have.


To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Interview: Euan Morton

EuanMortonFrom June 2009:

Most famous for playing Boy George in Broadway’s “Taboo,” transplanted Scotsman Euan Morton is homesick, and in true show biz fashion, he’s doing a cabaret act to deal with it! 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous songwriter and poet. To celebrate, Scotland is calling ’09 the Year of the Homecoming.

To mark this great occasion and to bring a wee piece of home to New York City, Euan is performing his new Scottish-themed one man show, “Caledonia: Songs for the Homecoming” through the last few weeks in June. I caught up with Euan to ask a few questions about the show and what he’s been up to.

How did this act come about?

It’s a departure from the other cabaret concerts I’ve done. I used to sing all of these Scottish folk songs as a kid — my mum’s a singer and she taught us — but I’ve never done this stuff in public. I’m doing a lot of traditional Scottish music, as well as modern stuff like Annie Lennox’s “Why” and “500 Miles” by the Proclaimers. We did it for the first time last night and people really seem to enjoy it. It wasn’t even my idea: I was hanging out with Dessie Moynihan from the Shubert Organization. I told her it was the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth, and Dessie suggested the idea of a Scottish celebration concert — I owe it all to her.

You’re known for playing good-hearted but scandalously outrageous characters — is any of that on display in “Caledonia”?

I can’t go as crazy in cabaret as I can when I’m playing Caligula or Boy George or any of those other riotous men. But the part of me that goes into those characters is definitely something I enjoy playing with onstage. My director Lee Armitage and I are much more organized with this show than other concerts I’ve done before. We’ve actually written a script out, which I haven’t done often before. It’s a really good thing, because my mind sometimes wanders and I say stupid things and repeat myself just before, you know, a tender ballad. Plus, it gives us a chance to consciously draw out those parts of my personality you mentioned, which definitely contrast me with a more traditional cabaret performer.

You’re missing Scotland?

Not just Scotland! I haven’t left the USA since March 2005 — for me that’s strange because from London or Scotland it’s so easy to travel. You can get to Spain for $120 round trip, Amsterdam $80, France $40 and I used to leave the UK four to six times a year. So I miss all those places. I have a reason to go home next year. My little sister is getting married in June 2010; by that time it’ll be six and a half years.

Any dream projects in the works?

I’ve talked about writing my own musical. I’ve always loved the Carpenters. And I’m even more fascinated by the darkness and addictions that come with success. I wanted to write a show about a boy who was obsessed with the Carpenters and ended up living like Karen did. Because no one ever talks about male anorexia. It’s actually much more common than we think. Then I realized he didn’t need to be a Carpenters fan, that in fact that cheapened both the boy’s problem and the memory of Karen. You could just do a show about male eating disorders. People have pooh-poohed the idea but now comes “Next to Normal,” bringing bipolarity to Broadway, so perhaps that’s something I’ll get back into. Writing-wise now I’m working on writing a movie — it’s about a woman who was a fighter in the French Resistance in World War II, who became a leader in it. There were a handful of women like her in the Resistance, but they are rarely recognized. She’s now 105 and she practices the art of the “healing hands.” I’m also involved in two new musicals, leading roles. “Behind the Limelight,” which is the life of Charlie Chaplin and the other is “Caligula,” which I did in the first season of NYMF. Both of those are definitely dream projects, even though, like “Caledonia,” they weren’t necessarily an original idea of mine.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: The Marvelous Wonderettes

marvelous wonderettesIn “The Marvelous Wonderettes” the 1958 Springfield High School prom — and the 10-year reunion in 1968 — provides the title quartet of choirgirls the opportunity to harmonize to the great hits of those respective eras. You can tell going in that this is pure fluff, strictly intended as entertainment, and on that level it succeeds fairly well.

The hits come non-stop, from “Mister Sandman” to “Son of a Preacher Man” and everything in between, and the singers are terrific with a strong sense of style to match their powerful voices. The crepe-paper-thin plot serves mostly to frame the songs — at best it gives them a bit more oomph, at worst said “plot” is inane nonsense.

It’s all quite contrived, which, given the show’s light-hearted aims, is perfectly fine. At times, however, the show seems cynically calculated, which is less forgivable and dampens the fun. For example, the audience is asked to vote for their favorite girl as prom queen. That seems like a harmlessly amusing way of drawing the audience in and engaging them, right?

Wrong! Those votes are swiftly tossed away, and the prom queen that the plot calls for is promptly crowned. Why did we bother to vote? That borders on contempt for the audience that the creative team otherwise seems so bent on entertaining. That, and a handful of other similar things, isn’t really that big a bummer, but collectively they do mean that “Wonderettes” is merely diverting, rather than the true delight it could so easily have been.


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Review: 9 to 5

9to5bway030r_smI had a perfectly good time at “9 to 5,” but it’s not what I might have hoped from the first Dolly Parton musical — there will be others, right? I hope so, because I know so many musical theater queens who are also big Dolly fans. As a matter of fact I’m often struck by how many gays I know, of every stripe, from club kids to alterna-queers, are huge Dolly followers.

And indeed Parton’s score is quite tuneful, with a handful of winners like “Backwoods Barbie” and “Shine Like the Sun,” and a clutch of the best sort of soaring anthems near show’s end. Very few of the songs, though, are anywhere near as instantly memorable as the title tune. This is especially noticeable in a season with such instantly catchy stuff as “Solidarity Forever” from “Billy Elliot” or “I’m Alive” from “Next to Normal.”

Following very closely the plot of the movie on which it’s based, “9 to 5” follows a trio of overworked and undervalue office workers as they hatch a plan to get even with their boss, a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” It’s mostly the performances which make the evening as much fun as it is. Marc Kudisch is much sexier as evil boss Franklin Hart than the film’s Dabney Coleman was, but he’s every bit as deliciously oily and reprehensible.

Megan Hilty successfully channels Parton herself as sexy executive secretary Doralee Rhodes. Stephanie J. Block’s portrayal of newbie Judy Bernly is the biggest departure from the film, giving Judy an extra bit of vulnerability that underlines her place in the story as the woman who undergoes the greatest transformation.

Allison Janney has a bit of a handicap as office manager Violet Newstead — Hilty and Block are both phenomenal singers, and Janney, while strong, is clearly more an actor-singer than the other way round. That said, she’s got the sheer charisma to sell the hell out of a number, and knocks her big number, “One of the Boys,” clear out of the ballpark. “9 to 5” isn’t going to make theater history, but it’s a highly enjoyable ride that I hope has a successful run.


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Review: The Temperamentals

the tempermentalsYou must see this. Not just because it’s an excellent gay-themed production. Not just because it’s a chance to see Michael Urie of Ugly Betty fame in an intimate theatre setting, showing some very strong acting chops. No, you must see this because it brings to life a too-little known part of the history of gay liberation, in a surprisingly moving and engaging way.

“The Temperamentals is, more than anything else, the story of two men in love in the early 1950s: sometime actor and constant activist Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan) and the fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (Urie). Above and beyond their mutual sexual attraction and romantic feelings, they both passionately commit to building the first gay rights organization in American history, the Mattachine Society.

Urie is winsome and whip-smart as Gernreich, but the performance that most elevates this production is Ryan as Hay. Hay is one of my very few personal heroes, and Ryan vibrantly portrays everything that I found admirable about him: his lightly borne erudition, his love of revolution, his spiritual sense of the place of gays in the world, his puckish humor and his habit of tearing up when politics and music mix (happens all the time to me too).

I repeat – you must see this.  This lovely and rewarding show needs to be seen by a broad audience.


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Review: The Norman Conquests

norman conquestsIf the success of a Broadway show were based on the quality of the production alone, then the Old Vic production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests” should be a hit. In three plays that cover the same calamitous weekend in three different rooms of a country house, we watch as frantic, loudmouth seducer (and assistant librarian) Norman woos his sister-in-law Annie, spars with his brother-in-law’s wife Sarah and reconnects with his estranged wife Ruth – from Saturday evening through Monday morning.

British director Matthew Warchus (“Boeing-Boeing,” “God of Carnage”) is rapidly becoming the go-to boy for Broadway comedy, and the “Norman” trilogy is staged with the same airtight timing and flair for psychology that Warchus brought to those other productions.

So what’s the best order to see them in? I’d suggest “Living Together” first (set in the living room) as it has the most consistently entertaining first act, and thus is probably the best introduction to this set of characters; second, “Table Manners” (dining room), probably the most serious of the three; and lastly “Round and Round the Garden” which has the most satisfying and conclusive ending. But that’s just me. See all three and tell me what you think.


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Review: Next to Normal

Next to Normal - Arena StageI’m not enraptured by the new musical “Next to Normal,” but I can’t help but admire its soaring ambition and the craft that brings it very close to reaching its aim. Alice Ripley brilliantly slashes through the central role of Diana, a suburban mother who is coping, or more often failing to cope, with debilitating mental illness.

Tom Kitt has packed his score with lots of jagged energy and emotion, to the point that the cast spend much time belting at the high end of their range. It’s viscerally exciting, yes, but this full-roar approach doesn’t quite match the breadth, variety and complexity of bookwriter Brian Yorkey’s intelligent and involving story. That said, the song “I’m Alive” was running through my head for much of the following day, and that’s a very good sign.

The show is definitely Ripley’s, and I’d be surprised if she doesn’t get a Tony nod for this brave performance. Also quite good is Aaron Tveit as her strangely affectionate son Gabe: the vocal gymnastics he performs with his clear, high tenor are dazzling. He’s also quite easy on the eyes and the audience on the night I went was packed with young Tveit fans of both sexes.

This didn’t move me the way that “Spring Awakening” or “Rent” did, but it’s the only truly original musical on Broadway this season, with a raw honesty than none of the other musicals this season could hope to touch. That alone deserves praise.


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Review: Mary Stuart

mary stuartJanet McTeer and Harriet Walter are amazing actresses of great intelligence and power, and I’m not just saying that because they’re Brits playing Broadway in a German play that’s 109 years old (I’m not that kind of snob). McTeer plays Mary Queen of Scots, who when we first see her is all mildness and virtue. Not two scenes later, however, she is the embodiment of wounded royal pride, and McTeer plays her sudden savagery with leonine ferocity.

Walter plays England’s Queen Elizabeth I, and her first appearance is a carefully couched diplomatic negotiation. Very shortly, though, we see her teasing and intriguing with her courtiers in private, and Walter plays the woman behind the mask with sharpness and relish. Schiller’s 1800 drama, like so many of his plays, is a psychological thriller dressed up as a thoughtful tragedy. Director Phyllidia Lloyd has a finely tuned sense of when her leading ladies should restrain themselves and when they should go ahead and have the scenery for lunch.

But her production isn’t perfect. First off, there are far too many repetitions in the big speeches which should have been pruned away. And, the best that can be said of her nearly monochrome styling of the show is that it doesn’t particularly get in the way. The queens are dressed in understated vaguely Elizabethan dresses, while all the men wear 21st century business suits. This is only really effective once, when a fellow courtier observes that Lord Burleigh likes to go on political witch hunts and we notice that he’s been styled to resemble Dick Cheney. Otherwise, it’s a minor distraction.

Lloyd has also misfired on staging the last few scenes, ending each one with a solemn piece of stagecraft (a grand procession in one, an ominously slow fade in another, etc.). Each time, it seems that the show has ended, and each time the next scene takes too long in starting—very awkward. These are quibbles with this superbly acted revival, but I am a bit surprised that Lloyd, so careful in staging certain moments, has been so careless in staging other vitally important moments.


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Interview: Lesley Gore

lesley goreFrom April 2009:

Singer Lesley Gore, a through and through New Yorker – born in Brooklyn and raised in Tenafly, New Jersey – was discovered by music legend Quincy Jones and recorded “It’s My Party” when she was just 16 years old. In the years that followed, she helped create the soundtrack of the 1960s with over two dozen chart hits, including the proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me,” becoming the most commercially successful solo artist of the “Girl Group” era.  A few years back, Gore also quietly came out as a lesbian by serving as a host on the PBS series In the Life.

The 1960s legend will be doing a breif stint at Feinstein’s at the Regency, May 5 to 9. She’ll perform a selection of her 1960s chart-toppers as well as contemporary pop classics.  I chatted with her about her plans for the show at Feinstein’s, the growing acceptance of gays and one of her most resonant songs

Any particular plans for Feinstein’s?

There are few wonderful clubs in New York, you’ve got the Carlyle and Feinstein’s. I’ve visited Feinstein’s, I’ve seen a lot of wonderful talent there and always aspired to play there. In terms of figuring out a general direction for the show, I know it’s a room I need to cater to. At the same time, I do come in the door with a couple of hits, which probably people are buying a ticket or two to hear, so I’m obliged to do those. I’ve got a number of songs that I’ve loved and which I’ve been performing over the last 44 years. I’m putting all of those into a context that’s right for Feinstein’s and right for Lesley. I think it should be a great show! We nod to the songs of the Great American songbook that Michael Feinstein does so beautifully, we do a couple of what I call “modern classics,” and I get an opportunity to sing a couple of ballads, which I think every singer enjoys more than an up-tempo song.

What to do you think of the state of gay rights?

I frankly don’t care whether I get married or not, but I think our civil rights depend on it. I think it’s important, not so much to be married to your partner as to be given the civil rights that married couples get, so I’m on that bandwagon. I think it’s 2009, I really don’t think that straight people have a problem with gay people any longer. But of course I live in New York. I don’t know what’s going on in Kansas and Utah, but I imagine they’re a little bit behind us—and its time to catch up!  I know it takes some people a little longer. They come to this with histories, apprehensions, fears because they don’t understand. The more people understand that they probably already know a gay person, and in fact adore them, then the better off we’re gonna be—and that may take awhile, but it’s happening, for sure. By the time I shut my eyes for good I’ll have seen a real difference, I think, and I’m happy about that.

Could you talk a little bit about your protofeminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me”?

When I first heard that song at the age of 16 or 17, feminism wasn’t quite a going proposition yet. Some people talked about it, but it wasn’t in any kind of state at the time. My take on that song was: I’m 17, what a wonderful thing, to be able to stand up on a stage and shake your finger at people and sing you don’t own me. I thought of it as a humanist anthem—I could see a guy saying that to a girl as well. As time went on the feminist movement did grab a hold of it, and frankly I’m very proud of that. It’s the one song that I do every time I’m on a stage, more often than not it’s the song I close with, because frankly in all my years I’ve never found a song that’s stronger than that. It’s imbued with something different every time I sing it. It’s a great song, so when you really think about it, different things pop up all the time. It has a lot of layers which I think is the test of a good song.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Rock of Ages

rockofagesprod460eI can’t fight this feeling: “Rock of Ages” is as much fun as a barrel of drunken monkeys. Yes, it’s another jukebox musical, perhaps the first on Broadway to truly deserve the moniker, featuring songs by dozens of bands, mostly of the ’80 hair metal variety. And sure, it’s aimed squarely at an even rowdier set of straight boys than the nerds that flocked to “Spamalot.” But bookwriter Chris D’Arienzo and director Kristin Hanggi have injected enough wit, good humor and plain old silliness into their simple boy-meets-girl plot to keep all but the most thoroughly old-fashioned entertained.

And it’s more gay than I expected it to be (this is Broadway, after all). Not too far into the show there are already gay whiffs in the air—who’s that Michael Urie-lookin’ mofo in the bowtie spinning around the pole in the opening number? And why does our high-energy narrator Lonny (the hilariously deranged Mitchell Jarvis) flounce a bit and occasionally launch into ballet moves? These hints are resolved in unexpected and emotionally satisfying ways in Act II.

On balance, I’d recommend “Rock of Ages”—it isn’t as innovative as “Spring Awakening” or as moving as “Hair” but it rocks as sincerely as either of those, has a good heart and offers a lot of goofy fun. And what’s wrong with that?


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