Review: Memphis

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I love this show! Another show that Memphis director Christopher Ashley directed, All Shook Up, featured the early Elvis Presley song “That’s All Right.” That song is deceptively simple, but Ashley’s staging of it mined all of its implications, most vividly the racial tensions that lay under the success of Elvis, “the white man who sang like a black man.”

In Memphis everything that was implicit in that riveting moment becomes electrifyingly, grippingly explicit. In July 1954, a Memphis DJ named Dewey Phillips was the first DJ to broadcast “That’s All Right” the young Elvis Presley’s first commercially released record. Memphis fictionalizes Phillips into the character of Huey Calhoun, who defies the racism of Memphis to express his love of rhythm and blues — and not coincidentally his love for beautiful, black rhythm and blues singer Felicia.

Everybody here is working at the very top of their game. Ashley, best know for his gifts at staging comedy, proves he can be even more compelling and engaging (and entertaining) when dealing with dead serious themes like racism and the fear of success. David Bryan’s music, while it is more ‘60s rock & soul than ‘50s r&b, is miles more sophisticated than his work on The Toxic Avenger or anything he did with Bon Jovi.

Joe DiPietro’s book is inspirational, heart wrenching and devastatingly smart — sometimes all in the same moment. Chad Kimball kicks ass as Huey, and Montego Glover positively glows as Felicia. If I were to pick one performance out of the stellar supporting cast, it would be Derrick Baskin as Gator, arguably the show’s wounded but joyous soul.

Of course it’s not perfect: Ken Travis’s sound design frequently obscures the vocals, rendering a fair portion of the lyrics unintelligible. What lyrics I can make out are of a piece with DiPietro’s wonderful book, so I really do miss hearing them. Nonetheless, if somebody were to ask me what the Broadway musical at its very best is capable of accomplishing, I would give Memphis as a prime example.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Royal Family

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I’ve really been looking forward to The Royal Family, more than any other show at the Friedman Theatre since Manhattan Theatre Club reopened it (as the Biltmore) in 2003. It’s a classic by Georgre Kaufman and Edna Ferber, and Kaufman is one of my favorite comic playwrights of all time. Although it feels like director Doug Hughes has let a handful of sure-fire laughs get away from him and his cast, this production is nevertheless as solid and rewarding as anything MTC has done in years.

We are in the lavish Manhattan apartment of the Cavendishes, a famous family of stage stars, not so loosely based on the Barrymores. And what an apartment it is: Scenic designer John Lee Beatty delivers a magnificent jewel box of a set that could only belong to a truly histrionic family of actors.

The Cavendishes exchange scripts like other families trade glances, going through personal problems between matinees and evenings, trying to balance the need for love with the need for the stage, not always with success. The cast is uniformly wonderful, right down to downtown queer marvel David Greenspan in the small but plummy role of Jo the butler.

The wonderfulness starts at the top, with Rosemary Harris glowing as matriarch Fanny, definitely a creature breathing the air of the 19th century elegance and melodrama. Also terrific are John Glover and Ana Gasteyer as Herbert and Kitty Dean, the somewhat less successful relatives. And Reg Rogers is great fun as the clan’s swashbuckling Hollywood prodigal son.

But the play belongs to Julie Cavendish, the biggest star in the family. Comic stalwart Jan Maxwell finally gets to play a part worthy of her talent in a production that’s up to her standard. Maxwell locates both Julie’s deep, almost spiritual love of the stage and her longing for a more leisurely life, and plays them beautifully and effusively. Truly one of the more satisfying nights I’ve spent in a Broadway theatre in a while.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Hamlet

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Jude Law’s a fine Hamlet, but he’s in a production that, aside from his passionate and crystal clear performance, is undistinguished. Yes, it’s great to see an actor as smart and energetic as Law in the role, but that alone is not reason enough to do Hamlet.

In this, Shakespeare’s most accomplished tragedy, the King of Denmark is dead. His tortured ghost visits his son Prince Hamlet, goading him to avenge his death. Peter Eyre mumbles, rumbles and rushes through the small role of the dead king’s ghost, giving little sense of supernatural dread. That’s left to Christopher Oram’s hammer handed yet drab set, which fairly screams “This is tragedy!” in case you somehow missed it (To give Oram his due, the enormous upstage pocket doors which shift with each passing scene are pretty fabulous).

I’m not saying that this is a substandard production of Hamlet. It’s clear that the cast and creative team understand the play and do their level best to communicate it to the audience, which is more than you can say for a lot of Shakespearean stagings. It’s just not a very insightful or accomplished production either.

Director Michael Grandage has simply put up more or less the usual production of Hamlet, which is a disservice to a play this great. I’m not saying he should have done some wacky concept — that would have been a greater disservice. He just didn’t dig deep enough.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Wishful Drinking

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As celebrity one-person autobiographical shows on Broadway go, Wishful Drinking doesn’t suck. That may not be saying much, but thankfully Carrie Fisher’s abundant wit as a writer and her staunch refusal to take even her worst problems that seriously (for the purposes of this show anyway) make this a reasonably enjoyable evening in the theatre.

In spite of a comfy set of furniture on the Studio 54 stage, there’s precious little that’s spontaneous. That’s understandable, since Fisher’s life was incredibly complicated from birth, and making any sense of it takes a lot of structure. In one of the show’s most entertaining moments, Fisher tries to narrate the complicated love lives of her parents Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, for which she needs an intricate chart and a pointer to keep score.

Of course, Fisher is best known as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars. And so naturally, the end of Act One is devoted to Fisher deconstructing her relationship to that “asinine hairdo” as she calls it, the affected English accent that comes and goes in the course of the movie, and her merchandising as everything from shampoo to a Pez dispenser. To say nothing of the gold bikini in The Return of the Jedi.

Much of Act Two is devoted to Fisher’s struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. She doesn’t so much talk about these problems as dance jokily around them, which I must admit is a refreshing approach when compared to the maudlin self-indulgence of most celebrity confessionals. I had the nagging feeling that this would be better poured into a fictional form, as she did so successfully with Postcards from the Edge. Still, this show is clearly a crowd pleaser, and I wish Her Craziness well.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Jane Krakowski

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Jane Krakowski may be making her cabaret debut, but she has all the skills that cabaret requires and needs to be a little less self-deprecating about it.  She knows how to use her “sexuality,” as her 30 Rock character Jenna Maroney puts it, and can sing all kinds of sexy, from silly to femme fatale. She’s also one hell of a belter, and she could let that loose a little more often.

One of the evening’s highlights, a rewrite of “Zip” to reflect the Twitter age (new lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), comes a bit too soon. It’s absolutely hilarious, and Krakowski delivers it with a rapid-fire delight worthy of Rosalind Russell.

In a tip of the hat to Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl,” she does a pretty-fly-for-a-white-girl rap to “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” She follows this up with a tribute to the cocaine-fuelled days of Studio 54, in the form of another rapid-fire number, Oscar Levant’s “Wacky Dust.”

She’s got great timing, a great voice, and a solid act that just needs a little more shaping (maybe she could get Scott Wittman in for a tune-up?).  What she really needs to stop doing, is wondering aloud how anybody knows who she is. Jane, dear, you’re on one of the biggest hits on television, and not for the first time (remember Ally McBeal?). Plus, perhaps more pertinently for this crowd, you have a freaking Tony (for Nine). We know who you are. We love you! Relax and enjoy it!

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Superior Donuts

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Is Tracy Letts a “Great American Playwright” in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams? Or is he simply a playwright with a gift for engaging, entertaining characters who gives them just enough grit to make his plays seem weighty?

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and we probably won’t actually know until he’s written a few more plays. His August: Osage County flirted with greatness enough to deserve the term “masterpiece,” putting him in a harsher spotlight than most playwrights ever have to face.

Superior Donuts artfully dodges the issue: it’s a comedy with more than a little sentimentality (but then again didn’t O’Neill write Ah Wilderness and Williams The Rose Tattoo). While things aren’t tidied up in a contrived way at the end, we can see the last few plot points coming (to Letts credit, the exact way they arrive is actually satisfying).

It is above all a very successful character sketch. Michael McKean plays Arthur, the owner of a Chicago donut shop who has cocooned himself away from the world. A Vietnam draft dodger, he suffers from the gnawing feeling that he’s a coward.  But a bright-eyed, very intelligent young black kid named Franco (Jon Michael Hill) asks Arthur for a job, beginning an unexpected friendship that will change both their lives in ways that neither expects. 

McKean delivers a knockout performance, really getting under Arthur’s skin. If there’s anything great about Donuts it’s the lead role, and McKean should definitely get his share of nods come award time.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Love, Loss, and What I Wore

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A friend who couldn’t remember the name of this show kept calling it “How I Lost My Shoes.” Oddly enough, that title captures the general tone of the show better than the more pretentious title it actually has. Someone else described it as “The Vagina Monologues for clothes,” and that’s pretty accurate, too (only playwrights Nora and Delia Ephron don’t quite have Eve Ensler’s pungent feminist edge).

To be totally fair, Love, Loss and What I Wore is a notch or two better that the previous paragraph suggests. This is mostly due to the terrific comic timing of the current cast, which features Tyne Daly and Rosie O’Donnell at the top of their form.

I’d venture anything, however, that what’s keeping them in such top form is the example of whippersnapper Katie Finneran, she of the oh-so-natural, scarily precise timing. This quality is what earned her the Tony for Noises Off, and it is on even more generous display here. Why isn’t she some kind of star yet?

This is a chick play through and through, even from the perspective of a gay man. I mean, it’s well written and quite well performed, but it is decidedly what it is. Maybe a student from F.I.T. could get a practical insight here or there, but outside of that I’d suggest dropping off your gal pals at the show and heading to one of the Hell’s Kitchen bars for happy hour.

Review: A Boy and His Soul

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Boy, do I feel Coleman Domingo! A Boy and His Soul is an autobiographical one-man show, but it escapes almost every single pitfall of that genre. Domingo views his own story through the life-giving lens of soul music (which I love very nearly as much as he does), imbuing that story with a glowing, rich texture and warmth.

We’re not talking just one genre of soul music, either, but the whole gamut of R&B music from Aretha to “quiet storm” to orchestral disco to synthesized funk. If any one style predominates, it’s Philly soul, created in Coleman’s hometown of Philadelphia. It’s almost as though the piece is more about the music, with his personal story as a subplot, a very refreshing angle.

Director Tony Kelly founded a theatre company in San Francisco called Thick Description, and the thickness of the details in A Boy and His Soul contribute mightily to the show’s appeal. Domingo paints very specific pictures with very specific soundtracks, which makes his stories crackle with vivid life and humor.

I really identify with the joy Domingo expresses as he thumbs through cartons of soul LPs, that rush of memory, of pure energy. A Boy and His Soul is also, in part, a coming out story, and Domingo’s use of Teddy Pendergrass’s “You Can’t Hide From Yourself” gives that story a touch of profundity even as “The Hustle” and “I’m Coming Out” bring out its campy highlights.

I’m a great believer in the power of music to tell stories that words can’t fully express, and of dance (or hell, any kind of movement) to add even more dimension.  A Boy and His Soul is packed so full of that power that it positively vibrates, making it one of the most deeply pleasurable experiences I’ve had in the theatre.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: A Steady Rain

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Originally reviewed for Gay Socialites.com.

Make no mistake, A Steady Rain is the hottest ticket in town because it features two of the hottest male movie stars on the planet. Sure, the first few minutes I found myself mostly admiring Hugh Jackman’s broad figure and striking face and Daniel Craig’s square jaw and brooding demeanor.

After that, however, the show revealed itself to be a gripping, if not particularly deep, psychological thriller. And Jackman and Craig proved themselves to be masterful stage actors, not merely slumming movie stars. We already knew from The Boy from Oz that Jackman could rule the stage, but it’s really nice to find him equally matched with Craig.

Our strapping twosome portrays two Chicago cops and lifelong friends going through a rainy summer. During this time, their respective flaws catch up to them in traumatic and tragic ways, as the more macho of the two (Jackman’s Denny) is hounded by a pimp he has harassed, and Craig’s more conscientious Joey finds himself making some bum choices in both his personal and professional life.

A Steady Rain relies on a lot of familiar formulas about hard-nosed cops, but mixes them up just enough to keep you guessing, to keep the suspense taut. All in all, a superbly acted, reasonably substantial evening of theatre.

For tickets, click here.

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