Review: Camille

Camille

“Ridiculous theatre”, a tradition of queer theatre born in New York in the 1960s, has its own particular acting style that mixes high camp, high energy, maniacal precision and an almost supernatural conviction. Director John V. N. Philip’s entertaining revival of Camille by Charles Ludlam – Ridiculous theatre’s most accomplished playwright – succeeds best when the actors involved have a command of that vivid, kaleidoscopic acting style.

Ludlam adapted Camille from Alexandre Dumas, fils novel La Dame Aux Camelias as well as lifting liberally from other other versions of the Dumas story, such as Verdi’s opera La Traviata, and George Cukor’s 1936 film Camille starring Greta Garbo. It follows the life of the Marguerite Gautier, a Parisian courtesan suffering from tuberculosis, who falls in love with a provincial young man, Armand Duval.

Marguerite is a tour de force of a role that Ludlam wrote for himself, and any production of his Camille must have a powerhouse in that role. Steve Hayes more than fills the bill, attacking the role with fearless sauciness and breathtaking comic brio. Ludlam reportedly had a sense of danger and moments of sudden deep seriousness in the role; Hayes doesn’t have that, but finds other ways to scale this particular mountain.

A couple of other actors nail the Ridiculous style: Mariah Bonner gives the maid Nanine a New Yawk accent and buckets of insouciance, which works terrifically well. Phil Stoehr plays Olympe de Taverne in high drag style, all plumminess and hauteur, another great success. Bruce-Michael Gelbert even injects a bit of grand opera – by way of La Traviata – into the proceedings. The rest of the company is more uneven. At best, they attempt the Ridiculous, but execute it less expertly; at worst, they perform in an ersatz operetta style that is just all wrong here.

Designer Andrew Loren Resto’s costumes are appropriately over-the-top, but his set sits uncomfortably in the tiny Casa Mezcal stage, and has some pretty bad problems with sight lines. Something simpler but flashier would have been better. Overall, though, this is a mostly successful take on Ludlam, and in any event lots of fun.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Richard Rodgers Theatre

This is a good, solid, production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Is it brilliant or in any way definitive? No. Much like the 2008 revival it is far from perfect, but it is for certain a similarly strong attempt at this difficult show – from a decidedly different angle – and well worth seeing.

The play forcefully portrays the Pollitts, a wealthy, dysfunctional Mississippi family, including the larger-than-life characters of Maggie “the Cat” (Scarlett Johansson) her alcoholic (and possibly closeted) husband, Brick (Benjamin Walker), and the blustery, foul-mouthed family patriarch, Big Daddy (Ciarán Hinds).

Director Rob Ashford is nothing if not detail-oriented, and nothing in this production seems rushed or not thought-through. However, it misses what the less detailed 2008 production had in spades: the heat behind it all. Scarlett Johansson delivers Maggie’s fierce rage with claws flying, but the lust and, more importantly, genuine love she feels for Brick feels glossed over.

Walker is in many ways the best Brick I’ve seen, hitting every mark in this complex, deceptively passive role. But again, the heat is missing a bit: we should at least see the occasional glimmer of the old good-humored Brick to give us a better sense why everybody loves this stoic drunk. Hinds isn’t quite the life force that James Earl Jones was as Big Daddy, but – in what is easily the evening’s strongest performance – he does a better job capturing the awkward distance a macho Southern patriarch feels when dealing with a son he loves but doesn’t understand.

Make no mistake, Cat is as complex and difficult a play to conquer as any of Shakespeare’s tragedies. If we were to combine the virtues of this production and the 2008 version, then we’d get a Cat that would approach the brilliance of Tennessee Williams’s original conception. But to be fair, we have to realize that is an incredibly tall order.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Picnic

Picnic

When I think of playwright William Inge I think of two things. I think of his hero worship of Tennessee Williams – I share it, but think that in some ways it limited Inge as a playwright. And I think of the gay Inge’s propensity for including well-built young men wearing as little as possible in his plays. And for that, Bill Inge, I am truly thankful.

Actually, Inge’s hero worship of Williams does have a definite benefit. Inge was entranced with Williams’s big naturalistic successes. Inge, in the final analysis, was probably more temperamentally suited to naturalism than Williams. Williams was always itching to experiment more than was expected of him – Inge was really the playwright the public thought they had in Williams.

Inge digs much more into the details of mundane everyday lives, into both harrowing quiet desperation and hope born of dogged, stubborn determination. Williams has the ferocity of the best jazz in his writing, while there’s something very country and western about Inge. And not entirely in bad way either.

Picnic takes place on a balmy Labor Day in early 1950s Kansas, where two neighboring households of women prepare for a picnic. When a handsome young drifter named Hal – cue the shirtless Inge hunk to end all shirtless Inge hunks (the appropriately stunning Sebastian Stan) – arrives, his physique and animal charisma have a life-changing impact on nearly everybody he comes in contact with.

Director Sam Gold’s revival catches the tone of Inge’s rueful comic melancholy exactly right, never quite going all the way to sentimental corniness (a definite danger with Inge). A superb ensemble cast brings home Inge’s coded queer messages about love, difference, tolerance and defiance with ringing clarity. Good stuff.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Other Place

The Other Place Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

This is a play about dementia. Some people might accuse me of “spoiling” with that statement, but theme trumps plot in The Other Place – what is said in this play is of infinitely greater importance than the way it is said, and I don’t think it hurts anything to announce the subject up front. Playwright Sharr Whitehas some truly thoughtful and insightful things to say about dementia, he’s not merely using it as a clever plot device. White is indeed a masterful craftsperson, but he’s put his craft in service of saying something intelligent and moving about the human condition, and that’s something more like art.

Laurie Metcalf portrays Juliana Smithton, a brilliant neurologist employed by a pharmaceutical firm, whose life we see slip from her iron grasp. The Other Place is first and foremost a smart and deeply humane meditation on dementia, but it also not-so-coincidentally is a real tour de force for the actress playing Juliana. Metcalf is one of the great American actresses of her generation, and her richly layered performance in The Other Place is the best proof of that we’ve yet had on the New York stage.

Dementia challenges what makes us human and what makes us unique individuals more than almost any other mental condition, and White has quite correctly not provided any tidy answers for this incredibly messy situation. Are Juliana’s mental difficulties caused by a cruel emotional double-bind she experienced in her life, or are they the random result of the DNA-protein-folding she herself is an expert in? Never fully answered, and quite rightly, too. This is deep, probing stuff, no movie-of-the-week. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

I’m directing a reading of “The Passion of Ed Wood” a new musical

EdInAngora

I’m directing a reading of the new musical The Passion of Ed Wood, presented by Musical Mondays (on Thursday) Theatre Lab, on Thursday January 10, 2013 at 6pm at the Jerry Orbach Theater in the Snapple Theater Center. The Passion of Ed Wood has a book and lyrics by Justin Warner and music by Rob Kendt. Musical director is Jody Schum.

In The Passion of Ed Wood, the infamous 1950s Z-movie director, labeled the “worst director of all time,” gets a chance to redeem himself by presenting his incredible life story, narrated by his idol Orson Welles.

The cast will feature Lance Rubin as Ed Wood, Drew Eshelman as Bela Lugosi and Raymond Bokhour as Orson Welles, as well as Dewey Caddell, Sydney Harris, Megan Stern and Jeff Ward.

For tickets, click here.

For more about my directing work, click here.

Review: Marilyn Maye “By Request”

marilyn maye-popup

This is not to be missed – and the last show is next Wednesday, and the seats are selling fast! 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 84, her voice is the envy of singers 40 years her junior.

She’s also a “saloon singer”, a singer who has a fantastic rapport with her audience, singing them beloved songs from a startlingly wide variety of genres. These shows at the Metropolitan Room take full advantage of this facet of her talent. Marilyn asks her audience to pick her “Marilyn By Request” set list by making song suggestions when making their reservations. It makes for an evening filled with surprises, and plenty of energy from both sides of the footlights.

Musical director Billy Stritch – a frequent foil for the likes of Liza Minnelli and Christine Ebersole – is the perfect match for this footloose kind of approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. 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. And always, always fully at home in – and totally committed to – the music.

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 songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Donna McKecknie

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Donna McKecknie is the definition of triple threat – Broadway dancer/actor/singer – being herself one of the first generation of such creatures. And one of the best triple threats of that time (the 1960s and 1970s), who has famously played exactly that kind of triple threat in A Chorus Line (her character, Cassie, has to work hard to stop acting so that she can blend in with the rest of the chorus). So it’s a great boon that the stage at 54 Below has enough room for her to move – she’s a dancer before everything else.

This show, titled “Same Place, Another Time”, focuses on McKechnie’s memories of West 54th Street in the ’60s and ’70s, starting with a disco tribute to her time at Studio 54, but dealing mostly with her romantic life when she lived on the street. She spends no time on her Michigan upbringing – “that’s a whole other show” she jokes – talking instead about pretending to be a “Native New Yorker” (while she never actually sings the Odyssey disco classic, her music director John McDaniel wittily weaves it into the show as a recurring musical theme).

As a singer, McKechnie is a great belter, but in the softer sections of the early part of the show she didn’t sound fully warmed up. It didn’t matter much since the show travels steadily from lighter to heavier material, and her ability to fully act a lyric always more than made up the difference. When, later, it came time to do some heavy vocal lifting for “At the Ballet” from Chorus Line (not her song, but definitely her story) and Irving Berlin’s “Lost in His Arms” she was more than up to the task – thrilling, actually.

For tickets, click here.