Thursday, September 20, 2007

JRB's Parade Makes West End Debut

As I mentioned in a recent post, I spent this past weekend in London on a bit of a theatre binge. Since I've got another one coming this weekend, I figured I should be diligent in my posting so that I am sure to get all my reviews and commentary in while they are still relevant!

My Friday evening was spent at the London production of Wicked. Mind you, I was fortunate to have seen the original Broadway cast, with the exception of Norbert Leo Butz who was having back surgery. But his understudy was Taye Diggs, so that was cool. What was not cool was the fact that I was suffering from a rapid onset of the flu and don't really remember that much of it. Of course, I have since become very familiar with the show and was happy to finally see it with a clear head.

Saturday afternoon was spent at the Dirty Dancing matinee. You can read my complete review but I think I can sum it up in one comment: The only way that you will get me to see that show again would be if Prince William himself was Johnny Castle. I'm appalled that the presale for this show was the equivalent of ~$24M. GAWD!

Fortunately my Saturday night ended on a theatrical high. When I was checking out listings, I was absolutely thrilled to stumble upon the fact that JRB's Parade was due to begin previews the very weekend I was going to be in London's West End. I have been wanting to see this show live and what better place than at the respected Donmar Warehouse?

After a quick spot of Indian food, I headed over to the Donmar to watch this haunting and distinctly American musical unfold before a British audience. Rob Ashford, who was the swing in the Broadway production, adapted the musical nicely to the small space and effectively reduced the cast size from a staggering 35 to a modest 15.

The story, based on actual events, is skillfully retold by Tony and Pulizter Prize-winning author Alfred Uhry and the increasingly popular composer Jason Robert Brown. Set in 1913 Atlanta, Parade tells the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who is accused of killing a 13-year-old girl in the basement of his pencil factory. The ensuing trial and media circus provides a timely commentary on one of those shameful points in American history where ignorance and greed will out over truth and justice.

After having sat through an afternoon of tortured American accents, I was pleased to see that this cast had been well-coached. Their Southern drawl was believable enough to pass muster with me anyway. So I was able to quickly more to the heart of this production. The cast. Led quite impressively by Bertie Carvel as the mild-mannered Leo Frank, this troupe manages their multiple roles in a way that truly defines ensemble.

Ashford's crisp staging has the actors facilitating the scene changes, allowing little opportunity for interstitial applause. This technique benefits this particular production nicely and is aptly managed through use of music, a quickly-paced dialogue or the establishment of a new scene. While Ashford is noted for his Tony Award-winning choreography, I felt his staging bested his choreography, which came off as frenetic and out of place. Also out of place was the "phantom actress", who was double-cast as Lila and Mary Phagan, when she appeared from time to time in full Scarlett O'Hara regalia.

Jason Robert Brown's music really is quite beautiful. And there are moments in this score that just cut you to core. Almost as harrowing as Moritz Stiefel's funeral in Spring Awakening is the scene when the young girl who has been murdered is buried. Making use of the traditional hymn, "There Is A Fountain", Brown overlays the ballad "No It Don't Make Sense" with devastating effect. Watching a parent bury a child is about as gut-wrenching as it gets and, in this instance, it is exquisitely accompanied by the score.

I was disappointed, however, that "Big News" was cut from this production, as it really is a great piece. However, it is challenging for even the best of singers and sometimes directorial and artistic decisions have to be made. There are several other beautiful ballads in Parade but the song that you leave the theatre humming is "The Old Red Hills Of Home". The show's opener and closer, with its patriotic build and well-blended harmonies, is gloriously sung by this London cast.

Of course, every cast has its standouts. Carvel navigated his character's emotional and vocal levels with just the right blend of timidity and fortitude. Lara Pulver delivered a fine performance as Lucille, Frank's crusading and supportive wife. However, there is a lyric describing Lucille Frank as a mousy wife and Ms. Pulver read more stunning and refined than mousy. Mark Bonnar was convincingly detestable as the prosecuting attorney, Hugh Dorsey, and Stuart Matthew Price, as the murdered girl's vengeful friend, countered the ugliness of his character with a lovely tenor.

The minimalist set served the various scenes nicely, with an upper level used for the factory, the judge's bench, a fishing bridge and the gallows from which Leo Frank is lynched. This climactic moment needs a little tightening, as it seemed an eternity that I was focusing on the caribiner being attached to the actor's harness. The backdrop, a weathered portrait of a community in the Confederate South, added a bit of interest without being overbearing. The one exception is when the Confederate flag is illiminated by a garish red light for some reason, which I can't recall. It must not have been to any tremendous dramatic effect or I think I would remember.

The costumes remained within period, with the exception of the black jersey-knit boxer briefs that Leo Frank was wearing when he stripped down to his skivvies. I don't usually tend to comment on costumes, unless something really stands out. Since this was the second public performance, I will presume that the safety pins that held many of the costumes will be replaced by sturdy thread. And while I am commenting, they needn't bother strapping down the bosoms of the actresses portraying the younger set, it does not flatter the costumes. I'm quite certain all will be in order come opening night. Believe me, I know what opening weekends can be like.

All in all, I found this production to be very moving. It had the right blend of talent, structure and material to make me feel as though I spent my money wisely. This is definitely a production where the return on your investment stays with you long after you paid your credit card bill.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Omigod, omigod you guys! Set your TiVo, there's a big surprise!

In an unprecedented television/theatrical event, MTV will air Legally Blonde: The Musical, in its entirety, on Saturday, October 13th at 1:00pm.

No musical has been aired on television in the middle of a healthy run. None that I can recall anyway.

Making currently running musicals available via other media is a recent trend that has a had a positive impact on Broadway box office numbers. MTV now ups the ante by making the crossover to the small screen, an action that I think deserves kudos. In my opinion, I think it is critical to experience Broadway. Of course, this opportunity is not readily available to most. How wonderful to afford America the opportunity and not in the form of a history lesson or an awards show!

Let's hope this is the beginning of a new trend. And whilst we hope, set your DVRs and enjoy!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Time Of My Life? Not So Much...

As good fortune would have it, my work occasionally gives me the chance to cross the pond and spend time in one of my favorite places in the world - Great Britain. My office is about an hour from London, so when I am there I make every effort I can to see something that I would not have the opportunity to see on Broadway.

When I was here a year ago, it was right around the time that Dirty Dancing had just raked in its £12M pre-sale for the London run of the Australian hit. I have to admit, I was curious. I loved the movie. In fact, I saw it 7 times in the theatre and even got to the 1988 video release party at the Palladium in Manhattan. So I took the bait. One of the great things about travelling alone is that you have a higher likelihood of getting a ticket to sold-out shows. And I got one...

Upon arrival at the Aldwych Theatre, the first thing I noticed was the female to male ratio was about 30:1, if not higher. I would expect this - it is dancing after all. And no matter how dirty that dancing is, watching football at the pub 'round the corner almost always trumps musical theatre. At least for the gents.

Now there is no shortage of film-based musicals on stage - 9 on Broadway and 6 in London. Original ideas are the anomaly in the theatre world, a fact I've come to accept. I've seen several of these "formerly-known-as-a-film" productions and have even enjoyed some of them. But Dirty Dancing doesn't leverage the film, it practically rapes it. Virtually every scene is blocked as a frame-by-frame replication of the 1987 film and seldom does the book stray from the screenplay. Utilizing a revolving stage, a cyc, gobos and video effects, the technical designers did their utmost to keep up with the constant change of scene. The scene where Baby is learning "the lift" in the lake is as close to a mash-up as I've seen in live theatre, with just the right combination of video, smoke, sound and light.

Now Dirty Dancing is being billed as a musical. I find great humor in the fact that there is an original cast recording available for purchase. There were only a few numbers that were, in fact, sung by the cast. The soundtrack is just that - a soundtrack. During the campfire scene, one of the few original moments in the play, "We Shall Overcome" is beautifully performed. However, furthering Neil's more serious freedom ride storyline seems forced in a jukebox-style musical. When the cast did sing, they did it well. Chris Holland's falsettoed performance of "In The Still of the Night" was lovely and performances of the 80s music were fun, albeit out of place.

But this is a show about the dancing, isn't it? As such, that is the area where I had set fairly high expectations. I had read a few reviews before seeing the show and raves for Kate Champion's choreography were a common theme throughout. Of course, I wonder how Kenny Ortega feels about that, since she managed to lift virtually every single dance move that he created for the film. I guess he's too busy basking in his High School Musical glory to care. And it is the dancing that carries the show.

That and Josef Brown's six-pack abs.

From their reaction, you would have thought that English women never saw a physically fit man in their lives. There were several moments when the screams and whistles were so loud that you couldn't hear the dialogue. Mind you, this was not a total tragedy because the acting was REALLY BAD. I don't know if it was because the actors were focusing too hard on their American accents or if the bad acting was meant to be an homage to the mediocre acting in the film. Again, it is a dancing show, so I can forgiving.

And there was that six-pack. Or was it an eight-pack?

At the top of Act 2, when Johnny gets dressed, people were actually moaning with disappointment. I told the woman seated next to me that I felt badly for the actors, since somewhere between "Cry To Me" and "Love Is Strange" the show seemed to cross over into the realm of exploitation and soft porn.

So, do I have anything positive to say? Sure I do. When Johnny comes back to Kellermans at the end of the show and boldly states that "nobody puts Baby in the corner," you can't help but cheer. And you're still thrilled when Baby does the lift, even though you know it's coming. But do you need to spend £35+ for the live action version of the DVD?

I think you know my answer.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Great Local Theatre Resource

I am very excited to let you all know about one of the new projects that I am involved with. After over a decade of involvement in Connecticut theatre, I (among others) have recognized the need for a single source of information for theatres and theatrical artists in our fair state. There are several great resources out there, mind you, be we felt there could be so much more. About a year ago, I stumbled upon The Connecticut Callboard and, as it would happen, its editor Sean had a similar vision. When poking around the site, I noticed that most of the information was very Litchfield County-heavy. So, instead of reinventing the wheel for Fairfield County, I reached out to Sean and asked him what he thought about joining forces. Apparently, he thought it was a good idea, because I am now a contributing editor.

So what does that mean? It means that I now have a new blog, Page2Stage (and back again), over at The Connecticut Callboard where I can pontificate about all things theatrical. Those who know me, know that sharing my opinions is something I'm always happy to do. Furthermore, I will be leveraging my professional database marketing experience to help to make the site even more robust than it is (and I have to say, it's pretty damn good!). I expect great things from this site in the next few months and truly believe that it has a future as the single online source of information for theatre artists in Connecticut.

If you are involved in or appreciate theatre in any way, I urge you to wander over to The Connecticut Callboard. Take a few minutes to register/subscribe and you will find, at your fingertips, a compendium of information related to Connecticut community theatre including audition & show details, discussion forums, reference materials and more!

And tell 'em Alicia sent ya! :)