Review: The Kid

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The Kid is a modest musical that hits its modest marks, but with subject matter this promising, you hope for a little more. Based on the book of the same name by sex columnist Dan Savage, the show follows Savage (Christopher Sieber) as he and his boyfriend Terry (Lucas Steele) decide to start a family. 

The show’s greatest strength is its book by Michael Zam, which deftly captures the kindly smirking tone of Savage’s writing. The score by Andy Monroe (music) and Jack Lechner (lyrics) is sturdy pop/rock (except for some creaky recitative) which on a few occasions rises to the level of the memorable. There’s a terrific duet for Dan and Terry called “Gore Vidal” in which the couple amusingly recall how a shared affection for that author solidified their relationship.

Jangly, dreamy, every-so-slightly jazzy mid-tempo pop songs seem to be Monroe and Lechner’s comfort zone. Several of the best songs are in that vein, but there are enough of them that they blend together a bit.

Director Scott Elliott has assembled a tasty array of musical theatre’s quirkier talents. Sieber has to carry most of the show on his shoulders, and he does so amiably and ably. Steele plays “I’m so much more than a pretty blond” to a T.  Susan Blackwell gives adoption agent Anne a coolly disciplined edge, barely concealing great wells of compassion. Sterling musical comedians Ann Harada, Tyler Maynard and Brooke Sunny Moriber are their usual hilarious selves in a collection of roles.

The Kid addresses the important issue of gays adopting in a largely satisfying way. It’s not the best show in town, it’s a bit on the long side, but it does the job and manages to be more entertaining than not.

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Review: Everyday Rapture

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In many ways, Sherie Rene Scott’s Everyday Rapture is a glorified cabaret act — an eclectic selection of songs with more or less autobiographical patter in between, with Scott’s brassy humor and soprano on splendid display throughout. The accent, however, is definitely on the “glorified,” since Scott has brought in a crackerjack creative team (including American Idiot director Michael Mayer) and a full band for this show.

Everyday Rapture entwines spirituality and show biz.  It follows a young woman as she grows from a Mennonite to a Manhattanite, with many psychological and spiritual challenges on the way.  That woman is named Sherie Rene Scott, and is similar to, if not exactly identical with, the woman of the same name who plays her. Gay men, Judy Garland and two preachers named Fred all form major parts of the tapestry Scott weaves.

One of those Freds is Phelps, of “god hates fags” fame; apparently Sherie sang in a church choir with his daughter, only to wonder why she now screams instead of sings. The other Fred is Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame (yes, he was an ordained preacher); she does a medley of his songs, singing them slowly and reverently, beautifully drawing out the deep humanity underlying their deceptively simple word and melodies.

Scott and collaborator Dick Scanlan put all this and more into a smart and funny “book.” In the Off-Broadway run of this show, the end was marred by a bit of maudlin hand-wringing. The content of the end is largely the same for the Broadway version (perhaps a bit trimmed), but Scott plays it more simply and with more humor, which makes a big difference. The ending still feels like it could be tweaked, but there’s obviously been some smart clean-up done already.

One might be concerned that an intimate show like this would be swallowed up by the cavernous American Airlines Theatre, but that concern would be misplaced. Ms. Scott fills the space even better than some large cast shows that have passed through there. An earlier incarnation of this show was titled You May Now Worship Me and I think that’s an entirely appropriate attitude to take.

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Review: Collected Stories

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Manhattan Theatre Club and Donald Margulies have a symbiotic relationship: the Freidman Theatre, MTC’s Broadway stage, played host earlier this spring to a fascinating Margulies premiere, Time Stands Still (which will be returning for a commercial run in the fall), and now a revival of his Collected Stories. Little wonder, in a way: His Sight Unseen was the first play to be an unqualified success in their Broadway theatre in 2004.

Collected Stories follows the relationship between successful New York author Ruth (Linda Lavin) and young student Lisa (Sarah Paulson) to whom she becomes a friend and mentor. The great majority of the play carefully examines the often fraught mentor/mentee relationship. Where Time Stands Still examines people slightly missing connections, Collected Stories spends more time exploring the joys and dangers that come with a deeply connected friendship.

Towards the end, their relationship deteriorates, and Margulies shifts his focus onto the ethics of appropriating people’s personal stories for the purpose of writing fiction. Was the first two-thirds of the play leading up to this all just set-up? Hardly: Margulies’s gift is filling his relatively simple plots with rich tapestries of people faced with moral and emotional ambiguity, and there’s plenty of that here.

Time Stands Still was filled with subtle and quiet moments. Collected Stories, while still very intimate, is more rambunctious, focusing as it does on the lives of driven and ambitious writers. Lavin, in particular, plays many colors, from gentle disciplinarian to conflicted supporter to wounded animal. If Lisa does in the end betray Ruth, Paulson plays it as though she has thought the act through very precisely. Paulson does wonderful work with what is innately the less interesting role.

This isn’t the best play of the season, or even the best Donald Margulies play of the season. It is, however, decidedly well written, directed (by Lynne Meadow) and acted, a rewarding if not revelatory night in the theatre.

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Review: Fences

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Truth be told, Fences isn’t my favorite August Wilson play. Oh, it’s a hell of a play, with extraordinarily vivid characters. But Wilson’s plays after he wrote Fences became increasingly mystic, epic, funny, and, to my taste anyway, more profoundly original.

He’s already a master playwright with Fences, but one still strongly influenced by Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. Troy Maxson, the central character in Fences, is a tyrannical American father very much in the mold of O’Neill’s James Tyrone (Long Day’s Journey into Night) or Miller’s Joe Keller (All My Sons). His personality is 100% Wilson, but his tragic trajectory has a familiar ring to it.

Maxson is haunted by the discrepancy between his past success in the Negro baseball leagues and his future, unpromising at best. Denzel Washington is magnificent as Troy, playing him as a man who never doubts himself — even when he probably should — a man who would rather be angry at the world and everybody who loves him, than ever admit he’s wrong or in pain. Viola Davis won a Tony for playing one of Wilson’s wronged, powerful women (Tonya in King Hedley II), and here she gives just as powerful a performance as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose.

The character most redolent of Wilson’s later plays is Gabriel, Troy’s brother who was wounded in World War II. He was left with a substantial amount of shrapnel in his head. Gabriel’s wounds left him simpler than before, but also more in touch with the supernatural. This is a realm that grew in importance as Wilson continued to write, and Mykelti Williamson effectively magnifies this flavor, in a performance that successfully restores the mystery to Fences’s often grimly desperate world. Branford Marsalis pitch-perfect 1950s-style jazz and rhythm & blues score also give subtle, supple support.

Fences is by any measure a great American play, and director Kenny Leon has given it a suitably thoughtful and soulful production. Well worth seeing.

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Review : Promises, Promises

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When they are confidently in their element, the stars of Promises, Promises can shine pretty brightly. When Sean Hayes is called to do breezy, light comedy, he excels. Give Kristen Chenoweth a number, ballad or up-tempo, that she can belt to the back wall, and she’s as delighted as she is delightful. Both are given plenty of opportunities to use their respective gifts, a fact that keeps the evening buoyed up.

Unfortunately, though, Promises, Promises features many shifts in tone and focus, and there are many times when these great talents appear a bit at sea. Many of those shifts in tone can be chalked up to the weird combination of authors involved. Jokester Neil Simon seems uncomfortable adapting Billy Wilder’s worldly screenplay for The Apartment to the musical theatre. And then we have the brilliant lyric writer Hal David, wittier than either of them, but also more deeply humane. That’s a set of sensibilities shooting in all sorts of contradictory directions.

Hayes, as Consolidated Life Insurance Company employee Chuck Baxter, is fine as long as he gets to play Baxter’s leering charm or rueful cynicism (in an effort to advance his career, Chuck lends executives his apartment for their adulterous trysts). He doesn’t land the thrilling title number, however, somehow missing its big, joyful, even redemptive dimensions, going right for aw-shucks lightness.

Chenoweth, as Chuck’s deeply conflicted love interest Fran Kubelik is more successful, landing every number she’s given and nimbly navigating all those odd shifts. Problem is, in the interest of beefing up Fran’s part, for this revival she’s handed a couple of songs that make precious little sense. She sings and acts the hell out of them, but there’s only so much she can do.

Katie Finneran is given the much easier task of milking comic floozy Madge for all she’s worth. Finneran (queen of immaculate comic timing) couldn’t be better cast, and her performance is the happiest marriage of performer and role in the show.

It’s not that Promises, Promises is hopeless. The gorgeous score by David and pop composer Burt Bacharach is worth the price of admission, and in the right hands, those shifts in tone could be made into the theatrical equivalent of a thrill ride. But that didn’t happen here, and I’m not altogether sure why: director/choreographer Rob Ashford is one sharp cookie. I’m flabbergasted.

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Review: Sondheim on Sondheim

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My husband put it very accurately: Sondheim on Sondheim is like a PBS American Masters documentary on Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim — minus interviews with anybody but the man himself, or any kind of narration. And with his songs song by some really wonderful musical theatre talents. Which, more or less, works for me.

The core of the show is a series of interviews, some new some from deep in the archives, with Sondheim, ingeniously splayed over dozens of plasma screens by video designer Peter Flaherty. These do indeed offer a few engrossing insights into the psyche and artistic process of musical theatre’s most acclaimed songwriter.

I was most pleased to see Sondheim’s comic, even manic, side — not what you think of when contemplating this famously shy and laconic man. He occasionally gets a slightly crazy energy in his eyes, mostly when he’s offering his sharpest insights into the actual mechanics of writing a really good lyric. Who knew he could be this much fun!

As for the live performances, individually they’re mostly marvelous, but together add up to less than the sum of their parts (the usually nimble director James Lapine has for some reason staged them somewhat lazily). I’m not surprised that Leslie Kritzer and Euan Morton have the lion’s share of great moments — you’d have to be nuts to deny that these two are among the very best young musical theatre performers anywhere.

The most moving moment for me: Sondheim muses on the importance of teaching, on his teachers, and those he’s taught. Then, immediately, Barbara Cook launches into a soaring (one might even say definitive) version of “Send in the Clowns”— as Leslie and Euan and the rest of the cast look on. That’s a hell of a high level of artistic education, the best of one generation showing the best of a later generation how it’s done. That made this son of two teachers kvell.

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Review: American Idiot

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I’ve long found punk’s articulate rage distinctly theatrical, and as a director have from time to time tried to find a way to put that rage to actual theatrical use. American Idiot is the first musical on Broadway to attempt to bring punk downstage center, and I’m excited to report that it does so very successfully.

Based on Green Day’s concept album of the same name, American Idiot follows three young working-class friends carving parallel but diverging paths through Dubya-era America. The guys migrate from the suburbs to the city — or a battle zone in Iraq — on the hunt for meaning, or even just release.

Director Michael Mayer, the driving force behind this adaptation, has crafted a show that more than delivers on the excitement that punk promises. The visuals, music and story all come at you with mosh-pit speed and energy, but also with power chord sharpness and clarity.

I wasn’t as moved as I thought I’d be by the arrival of an aesthetic (punk) that means a lot to me, at a place (Broadway) that means just as much. Upon reflection, though, it’s not surprising that the impact of American Idiot is more on the brain and the gut than the heart. Punk was always stridently anti-sentimental. In this show, our guys do go through wrenching situations, but we aren’t dragged into sympathy. Instead, we’re made to look at the fucked-up world that put them (and by extension us) in this position. American Idiot is, in a way, currently Broadway’s headiest, smartest musical.

Oh, and did I mention the boys are, like, way cute? John Gallagher, Jr. is every inch the charismatic rock star as central character Johnny, Stark Sands is ever so hunky (and occasionally shirtless) as Army enlistee Tunny, and Michael Esper seethes proletarian sexiness as “the one who stayed home” Will.  My fave, though, is Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy, who is either Johnny’s drug dealer or a hallucinogenic symbol of his inner demon — or both. Vincent thoroughly embodies punk’s skinny boy slinkiness as he whips himself up and down stairs and across the stage.

This literally demands to be seen, for its fresh ideas, innovatively designed lights (Kevin Adams) and video (Darrel Maloney), and raw heat. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I think what it has to show and tell deserves your attention.

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Review: Million Dollar Quartet

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This makes a rollicking good time out of what could so easily be a corny tribute show. Million Dollar Quartet tells the story of what happened on December 4, 1956 at Sun Records’ storefront recording studio in Memphis, when Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley unexpectedly showed up at a Carl Perkins session, where Jerry Lee Lewis was playing piano.

Whether it was all a photo opportunity set up by Sun honcho Sam Phillips, or a pure chance occurrence, is the subject of some debate. However it came about, the four jammed on into the night, and Phillips kept the tape running as they played 40-some songs ranging from Chuck Berry rock songs to bluegrass, country and gospel.

If one read the show’s book (by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux) on the page, it would seem like corny, hero-worshipping fluff — it does a good job of capturing the personalities involved, but doesn’t go much further. Director Eric Schaeffer and his cast have, however, performed some kind of alchemy and have truly captured the raucous, decidedly Southern flavor of roots rock.

Perhaps the most crucial decision Schaeffer made was casting performers with extensive experience as working rock and roll musicians. Robert Britton Lyons clearly knows in detail what it means to play guitar like Carl Perkins, to the degree that his guitar is practically another character in the show. Perhaps the most impressive performance comes from out (and sexy) performer Levi Kreis as Jerry Lee Lewis. Of the four, Lewis had the brashest persona and the most flamboyant, out-of-control performance style, and Kreis very successfully “goes there.”

Lance Guest as Johnny Cash and Eddie Clendening as Elvis Presley also go miles beyond impersonation, finding human beings underneath the legends of “The King” and “The Man in Black”. If you have even the slightest taste for 1950s rock ’n’ roll, this is not to be missed.

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Review: The Addams Family

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The Addams Family works passably well as an entertainment, a spectacle to pass the time. It doesn’t work, however, as a musical, nor does it successfully capture the spirit of Charles Addams’s gleefully ghoulish New Yorker cartoons.

It’s been observed by many that the plot of The Addams Family is old-fashioned: odd girl Wednesday brings “normal” boy Lucas home to meet the family. Well, that’s not necessarily the central problem here — sturdy old plots like this can be made to generate fresh sparks, given some creative prodding. It seems here, though, that the prodding has been unfocused and in the wrong direction.

Perhaps that biggest flaw in the book is a misguided attempt to make it “relatable” by, for example, showing Morticia fretting about getting older. This fundamentally misses the joke that makes Charles Addams’s characters so perversely appealing. The Morticia we know and love would positively relish getting older, find irresistible the image of “crow’s feet” showing up on her face.

Note to all bookwriters of musicals based on non-realistic source material: don’t build dreary kitchen sink back story for otherwise fabulously over the top characters. This is not the first time I’ve seen this happen, and it doesn’t do a damn thing for anybody, actors or audience. Follow the direction the material is already going in, don’t fight it.

All that said, The Addams Family features one of the hardest working casts on Broadway. Nathan Lane plays Gomez as a manic master of ceremonies. Jackie Hoffman (as Grandma), as usual, shamelessly works every funny moment for every drop of comic juice that it’s got, and rightfully gets the evening’s biggest laughs. Bebe Neuwirth hitches up Morticia’s skirt to dance a charming “Tango de Amor”. Kevin Chamberlain makes a truly lovable Fester.

Master puppeteer Basil Twist also provides some engaging visual magic, animating Cousin Itt, making Fester airborne for a pas de deux with the moon, and giving life and comedy to a giant squid. The Addams Family is far from being a total waste of time, but it’s equally far from being as fun as it should be.

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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see