Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stew's Passing Strange Is Perfectly Seasoned

Photo: Carol Rosegg
(left to right): 1. Chad Goodridge, Daniel Breaker, Colman Domingo, Stew and Rebecca Naomi Jones

Reviewed by Tony Vellela

Passing Strange, at the Belasco, cannot be neatly categorized, its story cannot be easily encapsulated, and its energy cannot be remotely contained.  Its title is lifted from Othello, another classic that involves the tortured journey of a Black man trying to live at odds with his identity.

Here are some of the reasons why Passing Strange is the Best Musical of the 2007-2008 season ...

It's not really a musical.  It's a lyric rap-inspired coming-of-age performance poem set to a dazzling array of musical styles. 

It's not the conventional 'coming-of-age' story.  Writer Stew takes his personal journey, that stretches back a few decades, lays it out in nostalgic detail, then slaps you in the face with its universal relevance.

You can hear it.  As Stew relates this indictment of modern hypocritical society with an intelligence rarely heard in musical theatre, the audio component of the performance is calibrated so carefully that it actually allows you to comprehend what is being said and spoken.  Kudos to sound designer Tom Morse.

Your imagination is permitted to use itself — not in the 'back wall painted black' style, or the' three chairs and a light bulb' style, but in the style of the most stimulating Expressionist paintings come to life.

It's genuinely emotional.  The stripped-down basics of this person's formative years, fleeing from an upper middle class African-American Los Angeles suburb  to Amsterdam and then Berlin during the post-hippie  [1978] era challenges the cynical, mocks the self-indulgent pseudo-sophisticate and inspires the innocent.  As Youth, the central character stand-in for Stew, adopts Zen Buddhist attitudes and angst-driven lost artist zeal, he embraces whatever happens to him or whoever happens to come to him, all the while seeking to catch the previous decade's spirit to Do Your Own Thing.  From The Glass Menagerie to The Fantasticks, the coming-of-age journeys that have endured are the ones that anyone can relate to, despite the specifics.  Youth is this generation's stage version of Francois Truffaut's  Antoine Doinel.   In this stunning case, Stew selectively pulls from his own CV of creative acts,  and guides us through the experiences and their interpretations as deftly as Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager.  This usually mishandled device succeeds here because we see him doing it to his younger self, and he lets us in on it, mistakes and all.  It's as poignant as Little Edie in the second act of Grey Gardens; telling us about the grim emptiness and emotional exhaustion of another winter in a summer town.

And since this is a musical, it must be emphasized that the musical elements [lyrics by Stew, and the composing shared with Heidi Rodewald],  which flows effortlessly and naturally from gospel, rock, rap and soul to jazz, funk and punk, is amazing.  Period.

When The Beatles released their animated feature Yellow Submarine in 1968, a popular parlor game (often chemically-enhanced) involved listing the acid-inspired sight gags and the visual non-sequiturs, missing the "whole" point — the synergy that all the parts resulted in a unified experience.  So, yes, Stew manages to weave in unobtrusively people as diverse as James Brown, Picasso, Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker, Fellini, Hendricks, Camus, Hegel and James Baldwin, as well as My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz, Cabaret, and Bach fugues.  But the whole is a live stage experience similar to the culinary version of its key creator's name — a savory theatrical stew of sounds, sights, thoughts, moves, and most of all — words.  Stew's book and lyrics rise above anything else Broadway presents eight times a week.  He reports on the times when "You can trip all day till your mind just melts; makes Berkeley look like the Bible Belt." He chuckles recalling that "Molotov cocktails cops could handle; but performance art scared them to death."  He confesses that "my pain fucked my ego and I called the bastard art."

On March 31, 1943, the curtain went up on another revolutionary musical.  Instead of a big rousing chorus number, an old woman sat alone on a prairie front porch, churning butter.  Oklahoma! broke a good many conventional Musicals' molds, and with any luck at all, Passing Strange will do the same.  In case it doesn't, make sure you catch this one, because it's not the 'strange' that should be of concern, but the 'passing.'

PASSING STRANGE will perform Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesdays - Saturdays at 8pm; Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2pm; and Sundays at 3pm at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street) on Broadway. Tickets are priced $111.50 - $66.50 - $36.50 - $26.50, and are available through Tele-charge at www.TeleCharge.com, or by calling 212-239-6200. For additional information, visit www.PassingStrangeOnBroadway.com.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies" His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Play of the Week: May 7, 2008
God's Ear

God's Ear by Jenny Schwartz

Look, you're fairly intelligent. You know your stuff. You're shopping at the Drama Book Shop, right? So I can only assume you care about the ever-evolving literary forms of the theatre.

Jenny Schwartz agrees with you. As Mel and Ted cope with the near-drowning of their young son, God's Ear is an intimate hurricane in plot alone, but Schwartz wrenches her characters' inner turmoil to the surface through a relentless language that leaves the audience giggling dumbly and blushing for shame.

Sensing gimmickry in the cast list? Breathe easy – Schwartz is a far cry from cleverer-than-thou, and in a play that lays bare the precious like so much evidence before the court of humanity, the Tooth Fairy and GI Joe must report for duty.

New Georges' death-defying production is being revived at the Vineyard right now, and you should probably see it.

Scenes/Monologues: Scenework, scenework. Mostly for middle-aged men and women.

Recommended by: Jesica

God's Ear by Jenny Schwarz
Paper, April, 2008. 158 page.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Play of the Week: April 28, 2008: Bernice/Butterfly

Bernice Butterfly by Nagle Jackson

"Our Town" meets "The Twilight Zone" in this pair of short one-acts set in a dying Midwestern town.

In the first, "Bernice at Bay", the title character--a waitress at a small diner-meets and greets her regular customers as they stroll in for breakfast. Until its surprising (and heartbreaking) conclusion, the play is a solo piece written entirely for Bernice as she simultaneously engages in colorful and often hilarious conversations with the locals. When an unexpected visitor arrives and we find out what has REALLY been going on, the sudden turn of events is worthy of a cameo by Rod Serling himself.

The second piece, "The Butterfly Effect", features Randall, a verbose and somewhat muddle-headed fellow in the midst of addressing an audience after receiving a coveted award from the American Philosophical Society. But is he? His peculiar behavior, odd surroundings, and rambling digressions seem to indicate otherwise. When the play concludes--and the playwright links Randall to Bernice in a most unexpected way--what had been a sometimes funny, sometimes touching vehicle for a single actor becomes, once again, a useful little scene for two.

Scenes/Monologues: Monologues for a man and a woman that can be performed in their entirely or, more effectively, in parts.

Recommended by: Stu

Acting Edition
Bernice/Butterfly: A Two-Part Invention
Acting Edition, 2007. $7.50

Monday, May 12, 2008

'A Catered ... Liaison'
Can Be a Great Affair

Reviews of A Catered Affair and Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Tony Vellela

Something less is happening at the Walter Kerr and the American Airlines Theatres these days. And like they used to say back in the last century, ‘Less is more.’

‘A Catered Affair,’ [at the Kerr] and ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ [at the Roundabout’s AA Theatre], though widely and wildly different from each other in so many ways, share a welcome common feature – they resist the temptation to glitz up where it is not necessary. And the results, in both cases, reveal just how satisfying a focused, well-reasoned approach can be when you are targeting audience members over the age of twelve.

Based on the Paddy Chayefsky teleplay adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal, “A Catered Affair” is a deceptively simple story ‘about’ a taxicab driver, his weary spouse, their adult children and her bachelor uncle, set in The Bronx in 1953, as they prepare for their daughter’s sudden decision to marry. [If you enjoy discovering small often-overlooked little cinema gems, rent the exquisite film that starred Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds and Barry Fitzgerald.] And to his credit, Harvey Fierstein pursued and secured the stage rights to this property, shepherding it through all the developmental phases that turned it into a chamber musical. There are no dance numbers. There are no sequins. There are no hummable tunes. What are there, then ? There are real moments, moments when the characters and their life events resonate with anyone who has been in a relationship for a long time, or anyone who is thinking of attempting it.

In style, the closest recent comparison might be the 2000 production of ‘James Joyce’s The Dead,’ brought to the stage by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey. In ‘A Catered Affair,’ Fierstein adapted the book, and brought in composer-lyricist John Bucchino, to fashion an appropriately-looking time-worn music box of a show. When their daughter accepts an offer to drive a car that needs to be delivered to California for a friend, she decides on a quick civil ceremony, so she and her intended can honeymoon on the road. Her mother wants a catered affair, something to fortify her daughter’s spirits as times get hard, and for the mother, a perfect day to make up for her own arranged, plain wedding. [There are echoes of Momma Rose here, wanting something for her daughter she did not or could not have, even though the daughter may not share that dream.]

The lyrics are appropriately pedestrian. [It can be jarring at times in musical theatre when plain folk start singing in multi-syllable internal rhyme.] The staging is purposely spare, although the projections could have used some color. And Harvey does tip the balance somewhat, re-imagining the uncle as the point-of-view narrator character, an accepted, witty gay florist with an unseen ‘partner’ in every sense of the word, an inside outsider.But the overall pared-down quality enhances the tenderness and strain, the need for vengeance against a cruel past, and the constant agony of never having enough. “We always lived under the cloud of money,” the mother explains.

As the parents, Faith Prince and Tom Wopat deliver spot-on performances, devoid of any sentimentality, rich with texture and history. When he finally breaks under the relentless pressure from his wife to pretend to a social status they do not have, he sings “I Stayed,” a powerful stunner that speaks for every man who believes that uncomplaining loyalty is so greatly underappreciated. It is the equal to, and mirror image of what Boyd Gaines presents as the loving, and ultimately disgusted Herbie in the current “Gypsy” revival. And at the point where the whole charade in “A Catered Affair” implodes, Prince holds the audience with her very long last few moments, lingering alone on the fire escape, where she makes us feel all that has flowed through the woman’s veins during this tortured ordeal about the rituals, struggles and rewards of sharing your thin, grey life with another person.

Christopher Hampton’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” set in mid-1780s France, is also laboring under the shadow of past productions, notably a fondly-remembered 1987 staging starring Lindsay Duncan as the wicked Marquise de Mertueil, and two subsequent films, one with the same title starring Glenn Close and the other, “Valmont,” with Annette Bening in the role. This revival presents Laura Linney with an opportunity to inhabit the part viewed through a different lens, and by extension, the play itself. She does it, gloriously. And she does it by doing less.

Using a farce sensibility to interweave the various plotlines of decadent upper-class aristocrats burdened with too much wealth and too much time, the central characters are the Marquise and her former lover Valmont [here depicted with convincing salaciousness by Ben Daniels]. They indulge in the kind of mind-manipulating games that blend sex and cruelty, the latter being her favorite word. It’s a little like George and Martha with servants and wigs.

In past productions, this sparring, where they seek to outdo each other in twisting the fates of unsuspecting innocents of both sexes, has been executed with a kind of heightened relish, the Marquise’s eyes sparkling at the thought of another conquest, another intervention. She could be the great grandmother of Hedda Gabler, wanting to alter someone’s destiny and rule their soul. But what has been an exercise in delight from former players has now become a heavy-lidded, almost mechanistic routine for Linney’s Marquise. And to see it through this prism, she is not seeking entertainment, but revenge. She has always felt superior to men, and resentful that the society in which she lives denies her any opportunity to use her ‘skills,’ those cunning strategies that are here limited to inflicting humiliation and embarrassment on others, and seducing any man she chooses. Like a slow-running but accurate timepiece, Linney quietly stalks the premises, and like burning lava, she incinerates anything or anyone in her path.

Because her performance sets the tone and pace, the intricate plotlines are easier to follow here than in previous incarnations. There is time to absorb what is unfolding, because the woman’s calculations are on view, not just her wardrobe. And criticism of this casting reflects a common prejudice that continues to occur – attending a revival with a mindset that expects first-rate theatre artists to mimic others’ past work. Classics have attained that status because they are inherently sturdy enough to absorb, even welcome new interpretations, fresh analyses, and in this case, a thoughtful, defensible re-examination of this delicate balance of a play.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
By Christopher Hampton
Acting Edition: $7.50

Available from The Drama Book Shop. Please call 800-322-0595

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Michael Portantiere's FOLLOW SPOT: May 6, 2008, from Broadway Stars

KEEP YOUR MOUTH OFF THE MERM! You may have noticed that some people who have a stake in revivals of classic musicals feel it necessary to trash the stars and other aspects of the original productions. Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? I'd be a fool to give you a reason, but I can report that some theater pros are very upset by this practice.

Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard) recently raised eyebrows when she described Ezio Pinza, the opera star who played Emile de Becque in the original Broadway production of South Pacific, as a "fat old geezer."...

(Read the rest of the article on broadwaystars.com)

Michael Portantiere comes to BroadwayStars after seven years as Editor in Chief of TheaterMania.com, having previously worked as an editor and writer for InTheater magazine and Back Stage. He has contributed articles to Playbill and Stagebill, and has written notes for several major cast albums. Michael is also a professional photographer.

Learn More about 'The Merm": Read Brian Kellow's entertaining and authoritative biography.

Ethyl Merman

Ethel Merman: A Life by Kellow, Brian

Friday, May 02, 2008

'Character Studies' Offers Great Theatre Artists Exploring Great Dramatic & Musical Characters

Paul Newman, Cynthia Nixon Head All-Star Cast on
Character Studies Special (two minute video preview)

CHARACTER STUDIES is a non-profit education organization devoted to creating materials about theatre. Its most significant project is the production of a documentary series for PBS called “Character Studies,” which premiered in 2005, where fictional theatre characters from the most important plays and musicals of the last century are treated like real people – a biography show about great characters. Past episodes have included Amanda [‘The Glass Menagerie”], Rose [“Gypsy”] and Ruth [“A Raisin in the Sun”], all featuring interviews with several actors who have played that role, and at least one actor who has played every other major character, plus a director, and when available, the creators [such as Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim for “Gypsy”]. Its current offering, airing at different times across the country, is a one-hour special “Living and Dying in Our Town,” which focuses on George and Emily from Thornton Wilder’s classic “Our Town.” A new series of short segments for PBS, titled “Character Studies Comments,” using short excerpts from original interviews, was launched in March. Resident Drama Bookshop theatre critic Tony Vellela is the writer and executive producer of the Character Studies programs. Details about all Character Studies projects can be found at www.characterstudies.net.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

After 26 Years, Tennessee Williams' Last Full-length Play is Published!

Tennessee’s Williams’ last full-length play, A House Not Meant to Stand published by New Directions.

By Thomas Keith

“I am offering you my Spook Sonata and probably it would astonish Strindberg as much as it does you and me.” —Tennessee Williams, from draft notes for A House Not Meant to Stand, A Gothic Comedy

It only took 26 years, but some things that arrive from the department of “better-late-than-never” are well worth the wait. A House Not Meant to Stand by Tennessee Williams is one of those things.

In 1980, a one-act by Tennessee Williams called Some Problems for the Moose Lodge was presented with two other Williams one-acts on an evening called Tennessee Laughs at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Williams decided to expand Moose Lodge into a full-length play, and the Goodman’s artistic director at the time, Gregory Mosher, offered him space and time to experiment. The expanded version, then titled A House Not Meant to Stand, opened in the spring of 1981 in the their studio space.

And a final version, the one now published, was produced on the Goodman’s Main Stage in May 1982, just nine months before Williams died.

This play is subtitled “A Gothic Comedy” and that it is to say it is a dark comedy, at times a very dark. As it begins, Cornelius and Bella McCorkle of Pascagoula, Mississippi are returning at midnight from a funeral: their oldest son is dead, their daughter is in an insane asylum and their other son is upstairs having loud sex with his pregnant, holy-roller girlfriend. The wife has hidden money in the house, but has forgotten where she put it -- the husband wants to tear the house apart to find the money. Every one in this play is either trying to have another character committed to the booby hatch or steal their money.

For the publication of House, director and producer Gregory Mosher has written a foreword that is a beautiful and moving first-hand account of working with Williams and about the evolution of the play. I edited the final text and wrote an introduction for the book that speaks to Williams’ styles in his later work, the important connections between The Glass Menagerie and A House Not Meant to Stand, the nature of Williams’ comedy, and where the play fits into Williams’ canon. Mosher is planning a staged reading for New York, perhaps as soon as Fall 2008.

“Hilarious, horrible madness, A House Not Meant to Stand is ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ on the Gulf Coast.” —The Chicago Tribune

“The most entertaining and cohesive of Williams’ later works—themes of aging and death share the stage with a parade of comic characters and a hunt for a legendary stash of hidden money.” —David Cuthbert, The Times-Picayune

“A meticulous honeycomb of a story, with a gossamer heart and a granite spine. This is a playwright who has shed his tears, but you know there’s a cackle around the next corner.”—The Chicago Sun-Times

“The best thing Williams has written since Small Craft Warnings. —Time magazine

"Williams could always hear America’s heart before the rest of us: A House Not Meant to Stand is a ferocious scalding comedy. Tennessee Williams pushes the boundaries right up to the very end."—John Guare

A House Not Meant to Stand: A Gothic Comedy by Tennessee Williams
Edited by Thomas Keith with a Foreword by Gregory Mosher
New Directions, 2008
Trade Paper: $14.95

Also Recently Published by New Directions:
Traveling Companion and Other Plays

The Traveling Companion and Other Plays, by Tennessee Williams
Edited, with an introduction, by Annette J. Saddik
Twelve previously uncollected plays that all embrace, in one way or another, what Time magazine called "the four major concerns that have spurred Williams' dramatic imagination: loneliness, love, the violated heart and the valiancy of survival."
New Directions, 2008
Trade Paper: $17.95

Purchase BOTH titles and recieve a FREE* copy of either:

Theater: A Crash Course

Theater: A Crash Course
by Rob Graham

Here’s a ticket to instant sophistication for anyone who delves into this loving celebration of theater art, past and present, scripted in a lighthearted but highly instructive voice. Watson-Guptill, 1999. Hardcover, pages 144. List Price: $14.95. Our Price: $4.95

Theatre Quotation Book

The Theatre Quotation Book: A Treasury of Insights and Insults
Edited by Russell Vandenbroucke

A collection of close to 1000 anecdotes, aphorisms, adages and assaults written and spoken by actors, directors, composers, producers, critics, etc. Hardcover, pages 243. List Price: $14.95. Our Price: $4.95

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