Review: Brighton Beach Memoirs

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Reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

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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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