Review: Other Desert Cities

I’m so thrilled that 2011 can be marked as the year that two very promising American playwrights crossed over into visibly being really great writers. David Lindsay-Abaire did it on Broadway in the spring with Good People, and Jon Robin Baitz did it Off-Broadway with Other Desert Cities. I rarely miss anything on Broadway, so I knew about Lindsay-Abaire’s triumph first-hand. I heard Baitz’s triumph trumpeted frequently by people whose taste I trusted, so I was very much looking forward to the inevitable Broadway transfer of Other Desert Cities. I was not disappointed.

In Other Desert Cities, writer Brooke Wyeth (Rachel Griffiths) reunites with her parents (Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach), former members of Ronnie and Nancy Reagan’s inner circle, her brother (Thomas Sadoski) and her aunt (Judith Light), in Palm Springs, to celebrate Christmas 2004. Six years after writing a hit novel, Brooke announces that she is about to publish a memoir focusing on an explosive chapter in the family’s history, throwing the holiday reunion into turmoil, as the Wyeth family struggles to come to terms with their past.

This is first-rate, intelligent family drama, as powerful in its own way as Tracy Letts’s breakthrough August: Osage County – and more tightly written. Political hot-button issues of all sorts are raised, their personal dimensions smartly explored – the comparisons and contrasts between the personal and the political are thoroughly worked over – and no easy answers are offered (though Baitz resolves the family stories in ways that feel earned, honest, and satisfying).

Rachel Griffiths is terrific as Brooke, and Stockard Channing is frighteningly accurate as she charts the shifting perspectives of Brooke’s mother Polly, a Texas Republican who also happens to be a Jewish ex-screenwriter, full of all kinds of surprises. The most compellingly writen character of all, though, is Polly’s fuck-up liberal sister Silda, which Judith Light plays to perfection. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the first serious contender for 2012’s Best Play Tony.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Chinglish

While visiting mainland China some years back, playwright David Henry Hwang was invited to see a new arts center in a large provincial city. He was very impressed with the state-of-the-art facility; he was also thoroughly taken aback by the embarassing mistranslations between English and Chinese that populated the signs at this otherwise immaculately turned out center.

In Chinglish, Hwang explores the deeper problems that these mistranslations point towards, while also exploiting the hilarious misunderstandings they engender for maximum comic effect. American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) – owner of a sign-making business – knowing nothing about either the culture of China or its language, seeks a relationship with government officials, hoping to expand his market. Along the way, he becomes involved in an intrigue with the guarded, mysterious Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim).

Lim and Wilmes play out the complicated relationship between Daniel and Xi with great attention to detail, not letting a stitch drop when it comes to the social and moral implications of what goes on between them. Leigh Silverman’s taut direction helps a lot, too, filling out the third dimension in Hwang’s occasionally over-schematic script.

Chinglish is also an impressively designed show: Anita Yavich’s costumes make droll points about the fetishization of Chinese culture by Westerners and vice versa. David Korins’ double-turntable set is a marvel, especially when moving in sync with sound designer Darron L. West’s pungent musical selections.

The surtitle projections by Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan – an essential part of a show where a large percentage of dialogue is in Chinese – are mercifully clear, but the need to focus on them for long periods of time can be a bit headache inducing. Chinglish is intelligent and insightful, but wears its smarts lightly. All in all, a brisk, engaging comedy with some serious issues on its mind.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Venus In Fur

How do you adapt one of the cornerstones of kinky culture, without creating pornography? Playwright David Ives has come up with a very creative solution for this smart, sexy show, by showing us an extended, out-of-control audition in which a director and an actress act out the major scenes in Venus in Fur, a watershed 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – a book so sexually ahead of its time that the word “masochism” was derived from the author’s name.

Vanda (star-in-the-making Nina Arianda) is a young actress determined to land the lead in a new play based on Venus in Fur. Or at least that’s what she claims to be, though hints are dropped pretty quickly that she may be up to more. The adorable Hugh Dancy, wearing a very tight gray t-shirt, plays Thomas, the play’s adapter/director. While Ives’s main thematic prey is the psycho-sexual depths explored in the novel, he also takes ample delight in pointing out the sadomasochistic truth about show business, and auditions in particular.

The play is especially delicious as a tour de force for two actors. As wonderful as Arianda was in Born Yesterday, she is positively dazzling here. And Dancy is a terrific foil – it’s very hot indeed to see this hunk’s skin get flushed in some of the show’s more intense moments.

The show’s handful of failings include being too long (even at an hour and 45 minutes, there still is much that could be cut) and the occasional lapse into lazy pretension. That said, Ives has done a marvelous job of making sure that the play isn’t just red meat for actors, but a roller coaster of a good time for the audience. Venus in Fur is a hot plate of kinky fun.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Godspell

The principal joy of Godspell is the richly tuneful score by Stephen Schwartz, featuring the huge hit “Day by Day”. Godspell was his first hit, and really put him on the musical theatre map. This new Broadway revival certainly does well by that lovely score, with vigorous new arrangements by Michael Holland, and a cast full of incredible voices, especially those belonging to Telly Leung, Nick Blaemire, Lindsay Mendez and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle.

If I have one complaint about the musical side of this new Godspell, it would be regarding Andrew Keister’s somewhat treble-heavy sound design. From what I could make out, Steve Millhouse is a very fine bassist, and for this score to really rock and roll like it should, we need to hear more of Millhouse.

The book has always been the problematic side of Godspell, and director Daniel Goldstein and his team have only partially solved it. The musical is loosely structured around a series of parables from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, with the passion of Christ treated briefly near the end.

Godspell‘s conceiver and original director, the late John-Michael Tebelak, scripted a book that was inspired by games, clowning and improvisation. This suited the times in the early 1970s, but the approach hasn’t aged well. There are some very up-to-date topical references in this new Godspell (presumably by Goldstein and the cast since no-one is credited with “additional material”) and they are easily the most entertaining non-musical part of the show. Unfortunately, their success makes the other parts of the script feel even more mustily patchouli-scented.

Yes, I loved the score as much as I ever did, but – in spite of the best efforts of a game, energetic and stunningly talented cast – I still found the rest of the show very trying.

For tickets, click here.

Review: John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey

On the basis of their new cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle, entitled “When Worlds Collide”, I can confidently call the husband and wife team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molasky the king and queen of mash-ups. No, really. These may not be dance-floor-ready combos of club and pop hits, but this show is all about unexpected combinations of songs and arrangements; in fact they raise the idea of the mash-up to as high and rarefied an art as you can get while still being “pop”.

The Pizzarellis represent the very height of cabaret’s jazzier side, with profound musical intelligence at work. The combinations they make are more than apt, they’re positively elegant. Some of them are almost too sophisticated to make an impact in a live situation. Their intricate combination of James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam” with Joe Henderson’s “The Kicker” will probably reveal itself better on repeated listens on their upcoming CD.

More often, though, they are right on target. There’s an instantly moving, very satisfying “fire and ice” mash-up of Jessica soulfully singing Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” opposite John smoothly whispering Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters of March”. And then there’s the Allman Brothers rock instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” cooled down and sped up in the spirit of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, allowing John and the band to solo with vigor, verve and virtuosity – breathtaking.

Overall, the singing’s smart, the music’s deftly swung and the atmosphere sparkles. Cabaret doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Marilyn Maye

Ella Fitzgerald once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world”. That’s no exaggeration – she may be the only singer alive who combines a great vocal instrument with interpretative flair and savoir faire equal to Ella’s own. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices but I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range – at 83, her voice would be the the envy of singers 40 years her junior.

Her new show at Feinstein’s (until November 12), “The Best Of Times Is Now!” honors the legendary Broadway composer Jerry Herman on this 80th Birthday year, featuring songs from his shows, both hits and obscurities. Marilyn starred in Herman’s Hello, Dolly! many times – she was known as “the singing Dolly” for the simple reason that no-one else who played the role sang it with more musicality. She loves the show so much that she’s recorded an album including every song (by every character) from the Tony Award-winning score.

Herman’s songs bring out the showman in Maye, the high spirits spurring her on to high kicks. Musical director Tedd Firth brings a glossy, sophisticated jazz musicianship to the proceedings, providing a luscious frame for Maye’s multifarious artistry. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. If you love classic songs sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Rent

When Rent first opened I was freshly transplanted to the East Village from the Midwest. I arrived weeks before it opened, and was mildly curious about this edgy little musical playing at the New York Theatre Workshop. I didn’t go, though, and didn’t make it to the Broadway production, either. Instead I first saw it in Boston and Philadelphia, when a friend was in the first national touring company. By this time I was a confirmed East Village gay boy (at a time when that still signified something) and found a lot in the show that resonated with me – and nearly as much that I found a little silly and inaccurate.

Rent tells the story of a group of young artists struggling in New York’s East Village in the early 1990’s as they deal with AIDS, poverty, creeping gentrification and homophobia. This revival, helmed by original director Michael Greif but with new staging and designs, attempts to correct some of the those inaccuracies, focusing more squarely on the realities of bohemian East Village life circa 1991.

Especially strong in that regard are the subtly adjusted musical arrangements by Steve Skinner and Tim Weil, which have a stronger flavor of the indie rock and punk prevalent at that time and place. when I saw the show, the usually excellent sound designer Brian Ronan hadn’t quite found the right balance yet – we missed some of Jonathan Larson’s always pungent lyrics, a problem completely unknown in Ronan’s Tony Award-winning work on The Book of Mormon.

Angela Wendt’s revamped costume designs are more appropriately thrift store-ish; her designs for the original were more chic than these kids could afford. Oh, and yes these actors seem to be more genuinely in their late teens and early 20s than the original cast, a terrific choice on Greif’s part. Particularly good is Adam Chanler-Berat’s clear-eyed, sweet and smart take on budding filmmaker Mark Cohen. Larry Keigwin’s choreography literally gives the songs a fresh, muscular kick in the pants.

This new Rent is certainly refreshing in all kinds of ways, but hadn’t quite settled into its new Off-Broadway home when I saw it in August, and I hope the then-still-apparent kinks have been worked out.

For tickets, click here.