Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rising Above It All

A tribute to Heath Ledger on a viral site for The Dark Knight speaks volumes

We often feel personally connected to actors and musicians that contribute, through their art, to events that shape our own lives. Sometimes, sad as it is, we feel that connection gives us the right to speculate and pass judgement. Even sadder, the media makes it virtually impossible to escape that proclivity.

I've seen it happening, on a very grand scale, with the madness surrounding the death of Heath Ledger. And on a smaller scale with Johnny Gallagher's departure from Spring Awakening and Old Springs Pike.

Every one of us, at one time or another, battles demons. And not a one of us is immune to tragedy. We make choices, or have them made for us, and those choices pave the road for our journey ahead. And when it comes to people we don't know personally, none of us is really qualified to decide if those choices are right or wrong.

Wouldn't it be great if we were all classy enough to quietly acknowledge life's tragedies with a simply placed black ribbon?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Masterpiece That Is August: Osage County


In a year when the play is the crowned jewel of Broadway, I have found myself watching actors get their story on without having to break into song. Although, oddly enough, several of those actors did dance since four of the plays I saw had fairly impactful and deliberate music. Yesterday's "play with music" was this little ditty of a tale called August: Osage County. The Steppenwolf production of Tracy Letts' dysfunctional tour de force had an advance of $3M, has just extended its run, is guaranteed a bevy of Tony Awards and will most likely garner the Pulitzer.

Our rear mezzanine seats came complete with militant usher. Or as my husband likes to refer to her, the preshow. As she deftly sat her audience, she referred to the rear mezz as "her section." I am pretty sure this woman has guided me to my seat before. Not sure if she was an Imperial Theatre staple or not. I would have loved to see her wrestle the digital camera from the unsuspecting woman snapping a photo. "That is copyrighted material!" shouted our usher, gesturing toward the stage at the three-story set which, truth be told, is the real preshow.

The family tree in the Playbill suggests you might want to get familiar with the lay of the land before you head on over to the Weston house. After studying the house and the hierarchy, I felt eager with the anticipation of what lay ahead in the next 3 hours and 20 minutes.

Act 1. Scene 1. Patriarch Beverly Weston, portrayed by the playwright's father Dennis Letts, delivers a whiskey-soaked speech about the state of affairs in his Oklahoma home. For the quiet Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), the poet/professor paints a brutally honest picture of life amidst his books and his bottle. That picture comes further to life in a brief interruption by his pill-popping wife, Violet (Deanna Dunegan). After Violet recoils and retreats to sleep off her drug-induced stupor, Beverly hires the girl as their housekeeper, or more appropriately, their caretaker.

Days later, Daddy Weston journeys into one of those sultry August nights, never to return. Enter the family, descending like vultures upon that house in the plains, with its window shades sealed with tape. First dysfunctional lot to arrive, Violet's belittling sister Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), her immasculated husband Charlie (Francis Guinan) and the Weston's "lost child", Ivy (Sally Murphy), who is geographically predisposed to keeping an eye on her parents.

However, it is Barbara (Amy Morton), the eldest Weston daughter, whose arrival Violet awaits before emerging from her cave. With her pot smoking daughter (Madeleine Martin) and philandering husband (Jeff Perry) in tow, Barbara takes the reins of this careening apple cart while navigating her mother's venomous tongue. One the apple cart is settled, or passed out, She and her husband prepare for bed. After her husband dismisses her father's disappearance as a bender, she pronounces, "My father's dead!" and turns her back on her husband. Deep into that peaceful night's slumber, the household is stirred by the flashing lights of the sheriff's patrol car and the news of Beverly's death. Sheriff Gilbeau (Troy West), who happens to be a former beau of Barbara's, asks the family for someone to accompany him to the morgue to identify the body. Unable to awake Violet from her Darvon haze, a bereft and unwilling Barbara leaves with the sheriff.

Following Beverly's funeral, Karen (Mariann Mayberry), the youngest of Vi and Bev's offspring, helps her sister prep the table for the post-funeral meal. Barbara, thirsty for her wine, listens to her sister spout platitudes of self-help. Meanwhile, Violet attempts to coax the mousy Ivy into a beguiling dress. Under her mother's icy gaze, Ivy declares that she has found someone. We soon discover that this someone is, in fact, her first cousin, diminutively called Little Charlie (Ian Barford). The men, including Karen's lecherous fiance Steve (Brian Kerwin), return with the wine and everyone begins to drink.

Young Jean, who spends the majority of the play tuning herself out, immerses herself in Lon Cheney's Phantom of the Opera. The television, invisibly the down center focal point, serves the escape route for several characters throughout the evening. Karen's fiance, also attempting to allude the madness, bonds with Jean. He notices the lingering aroma of marijuana and promises the 14-year-old a Florida variety like none other she's tried. Later.

The family is called to dinner. And with alcohol and painkillers lubricating the wheels on the locomotive that is Violet Weston, we watch this train wreck of a family eat a meal. In real time. Haunted by the ghosts of her own past, Violet picks and claws at everyone until there are nothing but bloody caracasses at her feet. Like many meals with a kids table and ample amounts of alcohol, it does not end well. In fact, it ends with Barbara wrapping her fingers around her mother's throat.

Desperately trying to take charge of a situation more volatile than a tsunami, Barbara orders her family to scour the house for Violet's pills. Secret after secret comes tumbling out of drunken mouths while the women reminisce, the men play cards with Jean and Little Charles watches television. Suspicious that her son has become intimate with Ivy, Mattie Fae divulges a secret of her own to Barbara and then saddles her with the responsibility of telling her sister. Hours later, with the household fast asleep or passed out, Steve and Jean share a joint. Confident that Jean's judgment is significantly impaired, Steve asks her to show him her breasts. In a vain attempt to lure her more, he offers to show her his wares. He turns off the light and there is an uncomfortable moment of darkness that is quickly interrupted by Johnna and her buzzkilling frying pan.

The powder keg now exploded, the family begins to abandon ship, wagging their accusing fingers all the while. Ever quixotic, Karen states her intent to remain with her pedophiliac fiance because, after all, she will be honeymooning in Belize.

Before Bill leaves with Jean, in a rare tender moment, Barbara asks him if he is ever coming back. When he answers as she anticipates, she bemoans herself for being a failure. As a wife, a mother, a sister. But she says nothing about failing as a daughter. Just as with Beverly's omnipresence, Letts makes the most poignant statements with elements that are unseen or unheard.

In the final round, Vi delivers a one-two punch: you need to stop canoodling your brother and, yes, I knew. Ivy retreats in horror and despair, leaving Barbara alone with Vi. In a gasp eliciting moment, Violet's forked tongue lashes at Barbara, accusing her of being responsible for her father's death. Numbed by the realization that she has indeed become her mother, Barbara takes the keys from her purse, stumbles out onto the porch and leaves. Headed for anywhere but there.

In his play, Letts brings to life the adage that we either become our parents or marry them. For many, that metamorphasis is one that is gladly endured. For the Westons, however, it a downward spiral of devastation, with no bottom in sight.

There is not a weak link among this cast comprised mostly of Chicago-based actors. I did, however, recognize Kimberly Guerrero from the Cigar Store Indian episode of Seinfeld and I did see Madeleine Martin as the cross-bearing daughter from The Pillowman. However, she was silent in that production and in August I found her voice to be a little nasal and grating at times.

The men, who could have easily been swallowed up by the massiveness of the female characters, should not be dismissed as the lesser sex in this estrogen charged story. Each of them helps the women to navigate the tumultuous Weston waters with great aplomb. Most notable, the gentle delivery of Dennis Letts' lonely professor and Jeff Perry's resolved Bill.

While all of the women have their shining moments throughout the performance, without doubt the most scintillating performances come from Deanna Dunegan and Amy Morton. From the frenetic highs to the devastating lows, they attack these meaty roles with no fear. Because of their flawless performances, you leave the theatre filled with Violet and Barbara's pain and drained by their sorrows. The 2008 Tony Awards will find these ladies in a head-to-head battle for Best Actress in a Play. Dunegan will most likely walk away with the award but it will be a close race.

Subject matter notwithstanding, August: Osage County is riddled with classic one-line zingers, too numerous to single out a favorite. Thankfully, amidst all the tragedy, Letts gives you the opportunity to experience the greatest emotion to be felt in a theatre: laughter through tears. In fact, during each of the intermissions, the 9-year-old girl that sat behind us kept telling her parents how funny she thought it was. Yeah. I'll give you a moment to digest that...

The limited run engagement of August: Osage County closes on April 13, 2008. While this masterpiece is bound to live in perpetuity at regional and community theatres, I implore you to make every effort to experience this life-altering piece of theatre during its Broadway run.

But please, leave your 9-year-old at home.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Told Ya So, Told Ya So!

In a January 16th post, I made reference to a few shows whose grosses were similar to those of the soon-to-be-closing Rent:

I noticed a few musicals with attendance hovering in the 40th to 50th percentile, including The Color Purple, Legally Blonde and Xanadu. However, it was Rent's 54.5% attendance that prompted me to say to my husband, "Rent is going to close soon." I'm serious. I said this just last night!

Then lo and behold,
today's headlines on announced that the award-winning rock musical will take its final bow at the Nederlander on June 1st. This comes as no surprise, really, following the summer's stunt of bringing the original leads, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, back into the fold. Jumping the shark is always a sign of things to come. I predict a similar fate for Oprah's The Color Purple."

Yes, you heard it here, folks, just 9 days ago. No insider information, just a knack I have, I guess. And now it's official. Tickets to see the show before it closes on February 24th can be purchased here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Recipe for Good Times

In times when the television is plagued with coverage of tragic breaking news, political hijinx and a troubled economy, I am so very thankful for diversions that bring you to a happier place. The question, then, is which of these diversions provides the greater promise of Nirvana?

The new Xanadu commercial (click image below to view)


Joe Iconis announcing a new ROCK N ROLL JAMBOREE gig at Joe's Pub
(click image for details and to order tickets)

My recommendation? Combine all three, shake vigorously and serve straight-up! And we'll call it a Nirvana Cocktail!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Gone Too Soon

On the day the nominees for the 80th Academy Awards were announced, actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his Manhattan apartment. The apparent cause of death was a sleeping pill overdose. Ledger, who was nominated for an Oscar for his riveting portrayal of the tortured Ennis del Mar in Academy-award winning film Brokeback Mountain, is reported to have been sick with pneumonia.

Ledger recently wrapped the latest Batman installment, The Dark Knight, where he recreated the character of The Joker opposite Christian Bale. Ledger was filming Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus with Christopher Plummer when he passed away. He was the father of a 2-year old girl, Matilda, for whom he shared parenting responsibilities with actress Michelle Williams. The couple recently were recently separated following an engagement to be married.

As with the death of River Phoenix , James Dean and others who leave us too soon, I am profoundly saddened and shocked by this sudden and terrible loss to the entertainment community.

Misunderestimated in Hollywood

What do you get when you combine Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone (JFK, Nixon, Born on the 4th of July, Platoon) with scribe Stanley Weiser (Wall Street, Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story)?


In a deal inked in Hollywood on Sunday, a feature film based on the life and presidency of George W. Bush is coming to a theatre near you. The script, with working titles that included POTUS (President of the United States) and Misunderestimated, was finished prior to the WGA authorizing the strike in Hollywood. It has been reported that Stone is in talks with No Country for Old Men star Josh Brolin to portray the president.

Oops, sorry...

And the California caucuses are when? Two weeks, you say?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Holy Genius, Batman!

Life really does take you on a fascinating ride sometimes, twisting and turning (sometimes loop-de-looping) through the years. And just like a roller coaster, life is comprised of a series of connected tracks that ultimately end up guaranteeing a thrill!

My own personal thrill ride has led me here:

I know that there are a few of you that are saying, "Oh, yeah, Joe Iconis. I heard of him like, you know, yesterday." But for those of you that have never heard of him I say this:
"Go to his Web site. Download his music. Watch the videos
on YouTube. Buy tickets to his shows. And simply bask in the the amazingness that is Joe Iconis!"

For instant gratification, click here to see the fierce Krysta Rodriguez perform "Blue Hair" from Iconis' work Black Suits.

Bask, I tell you, bask!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rent: Paid Up and Movin' To The Burbs

In life, timing is everything. There are many occasions in my life where I am struck by my own personal sense of timing. Last night I was perusing Steve On Broadway's blog when I was struck by his observations about the extension of August: Osage County, the weight that straight plays are carrying and the Broadway grosses for the week ending January 13th. I toggled over to the report and started to scroll down to look at the "big picture."

I noticed a few musicals with attendance hovering in the 40th to 50th percentile, including The Color Purple, Legally Blonde and Xanadu. However, it was Rent's 54.5% attendance that prompted me to say to my husband, "Rent is going to close soon." I'm serious. I said this just last night!

Then lo and behold, today's headlines on announced that the award-winning rock musical will take its final bow at the Nederlander on June 1st. This comes as no surprise, really, following the summer's stunt of bringing the original leads, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, back into the fold. Jumping the shark is always a sign of things to come. I predict a similar fate for Oprah's The Color Purple.

Jonathan Larson's musical, which boasts the credential of being the 7th longest-running musical in history, is deserving of its place in Broadway's timeline. Many compare my adored Spring Awakening to Rent. Largely, in my opinion, because it is a rock musical based on a previously written work that embodies many controversial subjects. I also feel it bears its similarity in the number of young theatrical careers that have been launched by it. The OBC included Pascal, Rapp, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won a Featured Actor in a Musical Tony for his portrayal of Angel. I predict similar big things for the OBC of Spring Awakening. You heard it here.

So, to the Production of Rent, I tip my hat. Your seasons of love have been an incredible journey for us. Thanks for bringing us along.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Take A Look In These Big Blue Eyes...

Capitalizing on the success of Hairspray, Broadway may have another winner with Cry-Baby, the latest musical adaptation of a John Waters film. Recent headlines indicate that the quirky 1950s musical will take residence at the Marriott Marquis, recent home to The Drowsy Chaperone, which sadly closed before I was able to honor the tickets I had in hand for February.

Photos of newcomer James Snyder are included in both of the articles that I read but this photo in particular caught my eye:

While James is a newcomer to Broadway, my introduction to him was via the definitive recording for bare: the musical. When I saw the above photo, I thought: “WOW! Those eyes are really blue!” I didn’t recall his eyes being that blue when I watched the DVD that accompanied the recording.

I then recalled a post I read from an online friend of mine about a lyric change in “You and I” in the bare recording. The lyric that several of us have become familiar from the sample CD is: “feel the beat of my racing heart and you’ll understand”. However, in the studio recording, this lyric has been changed to “take a look in these big blue eyes and you’ll understand”. So I thought, maybe James Snyder has really blue eyes and that’s why the lyric was changed.

But guess what!?!

So I’m befuddled. And I agree with my friend, the “racing heart” lyric says so much more. But I will save those observations for my very overdue review of bare.

Regardless of the color of the eyes doing the crying, I am very pleased to see that Cry-Baby has had good out-of-town notices and I will definitely make a point of seeing James in his Broadway debut. I was an early Johnny Depp fan thanks to 21 Jump Street so I have recollections of seeing this film on the big screen. Depp’s recent award-winning turn in the title role of Sweeney Todd has several people referencing his early days in a rock band. Similar references were made when Cry-Baby was released in 1990, since he did his own vocals as the Elvis-influenced bad boy of Baltimore. His vocals and the musical numbers must’ve been all right because somewhere I have the soundtrack on cassette. And since I have the soundtrack to Xanadu on vinyl, that could be a good omen for Cry-Baby

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Spring With All The Swings

The review below was written by request from DramaMama, an online friend of mine. Since Spring Awakening had several cast changes in the last month, I thought it might be of interest to the Junkies that read my blog. This review is unique in that it has not only reviews of the three new regular cast members, it includes reviews of three understudies that went on that night. Enjoy!


January 1st was my birthday. For my birthday, my husband and I spent the evening doing some of the things I love to do most: having Japanese food and seeing Spring Awakening. And as luck would have it, our seats this time were the onstage variety, which gives this review its own flavor.

The first performance of Spring Awakening in 2008 had three new actors I was expecting: Kate Burton as the Adult Women, Glenn Fleshler as the Adult Men and Blake Bashoff in the pivotal role of Moritz, recently vacated by Tony-winner John Gallagher, Jr.. But then I was pleasantly surprised to see three swings listed on the understudy board: Matt Doyle as Ernst, Gerard Canonico as Otto and Jesse Swenson as Hanschen. I’ve seen both Matt and Gerard do roles in their tracks before but never Jesse.

Mind you, the last time I saw Spring was on December 9th, the show’s 1-Year Broadway-versary performance. The original Broadway cast was in it that night, save Gideon and a few swings, and it truly was the best I had ever seen it. That performance really warrants its own review, if I ever get around to it. So when I talk about Tuesday night’s show and the six new actor/role combinations, it really is comparison to that amazing show on the 9th, which is a tough one to be compared against.

When we arrived at the O’Neill, we went to store our stuff only to discover that one of our lockers was already occupied. Fortunately, we were able to smoosh it all into one locker and spared ourselves the hassle of getting the House Manager involved. So long as there wasn’t a butt in one of my seats, I didn’t care. As we made our way to our seats I spotted someone I thought I recognized from college. The college I went to over 10 years ago in small town Ohio. Seriously. And I only had two glasses of wine.

We settled into our incredibly comfortable wooden straight-back chairs (ha, ha) and listened to the spiel about leaving the stage and not tripping the actors. I was suddenly VERY conscious of my feet. Since all the girls went on, both Eryn and Alexandra made their way to the stage, while Gerard and Matt’s chairs remained unfilled. I scanned the audience to see if I could locate my college friend look alike. I did. But she didn’t look up. Enter Lea and the show began. Ah, bliss!

I think I will take the actor-by-actor approach to this review, focusing specifically on the performances that were new to me. Overall, the energy was a little less than contagious that night. I’m guessing that can be attributed to the fact that it was New Year’s Day and there may have been a late-night party or two on Monday night. Just maybe. Not excusing, just explaining.

It is no secret that I find Johnny Gallagher to be an incredible performer and I truly loved what he brought to Moritz. He has definitely left his brand on the role. I’ve seen both Gerard and Blake u/s Moritz and both interpretations have definitely incorporated some Gallagherisms. That is a compliment in its truest form and a testament to why Johnny won the Tony. I think Blake does a great job and, as he becomes more comfortable in the role, I’m hoping he will stretch his performing muscles even more. I think his vocals fit the show nicely – not too trained but then nothing spectacular either. Where he’s got chops is in the acting. The pacing between him and Groff during the Faust/”Touch Me” scene was great. And I loved the whole “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” scene - dialogue and song. He is definitely an intimate actor and sitting up close gave you a real sense of Moritz's character. I think Blake is still in the “by-the-book” phase of his performance in regard to vocals, blocking and character. He is taking direction at this point and hasn’t quite reached that comfort zone that comes with time. To be fair, he was working off of three understudies that night, so he had even more to focus on than when the regulars are on.

This was my first time seeing Kate Burton and, having read others’ reviews, I did not have high expectations. One of my friends said that the only way she could improve the production would be by leaving. My opinion is not that harsh. However, I agree with the general consensus that she needs to find the humor in the role. With Christine, there is also a sense of warmth that I did not get from Kate. Fortunately, the show is not about the Adult Women, and in the end she managed to progress the plot and convey her various roles throughout the story.

Thankfully, too, the play is not about the Adult Men. I really did not care for, Glenn Fleshler, the replacement for my beloved Stephen Spinella. What I liked about Spinella’s Adult Men was the everyman quality they had, which juxtaposed nicely against the harshness of his characters. It gave you a sense that no man is safe from the dangers of conforming to societal pressures. With Glenn, there is a physical presence about him that makes him come off oafish and bully-like. And he scowls a lot. And he was nasally. And why doesn’t he look like his headshot, DramaMama, why? OK - so I guess I didn't really like Glenn. But again, not about him.

And then there were the boys:

Matt Doyle, ever the consummate professional, was very focused and definitely hit his mark as Ernst. I got the sense from his blog that he doesn’t go on in his Ernst track very often. Vocally he was right on, which I know is his strong suit, so no surprises. He got quite a few laughs in the vineyard scene, which was nice to see, since Melchior doesn't get a whole lot of laughs. Of all of the swings, I love it most when Matt is in a role. I’d love to see his Georg someday. Hopefully before some other project sweeps him away.

The currently controversial Gerard Canonico, went on for Otto. Why controversial? There’s a message thread where a few people have their knickers in a twist about his behavior onstage when he’s not performing. So I made a point of watching him closely. I have to say, he was a great Otto. His “Touch Me” solo was great, I really liked his delivery of the “you’re just a fly” line in TF and he totally rocked BoL. And when he was in the sidelines, he was appropriately engaged. In fact, I found myself noticing bored looks on OTHER cast members’ faces, so maybe it is indeed a directorial choice. This is the third time I’ve seen Gerard in a role and I can safely say that that is where he shines and is probably where he prefers to be. But then, what actor wouldn't?

This was my first night seeing Jesse out of his Ensemble chair. I’ve seen JBW five times, so I was ready for a change. I have to say, I really liked his Hanschen. He seemed to get a few extra laughs during the Desdemona scene. And you can include Gerard amongst those, because he seemed to be enjoying the scene immensely. What I really liked about his performance was how well he captured Hanchen’s elitist attitude. He also gave Hanschen a slightly crueler edge, in both his line delivery and his physical presence. I definitely would like to see his in his Melchior track. I wonder is that call Jesschior?

As for the rest, nothing really stood out as exceptionally good or bad. I did find myself looking at shoes a lot. But then, I’ve seen it enough times that I tend to look at things that I normally would not be looking at when I’m at a Broadway show. I noticed that Kate has real boots, whereas Christine wore character shoes with those cloth covering things. That always bothered me. And why on Earth did Gerard have to wear girlie brown boots that look like something out of an 80s fashion magazine when all the other boys have black shoes? I mean really, guys, you have recouped, right?

I also noticed that in Melchior’s study scene, when he is writing in his journal, that he is writing with a ballpoint pen. And a pretty contemporary-looking one at that. I would think that ballpoint pens had not yet made their way to 1891 provincial Germany. I could be wrong, I’m not an expert in writing implements. Of course, one could argue that they didn’t have wireless microphones either.

While the first performance of 2008 was a markedly different performance than the December 9th show, it still found me resisting every temptation to leap out of my chair and scream “blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah!” at the top of my lungs. There is just something about that score. And there are performers that are consistently good and most of them were there to ring in the New Year with a show that, ultimately, rocked!

So, I think I’ve had my fill of Spring for a while. Although I’m sure that I will find my way back before Groff and Lea leave. And I’ve yet to get onstage tickets for stage left. Funny, how I always find a reason to go back. But it won't likely be until March, at the earliest.

Oh, and as for that girl that looked like someone I knew from college? During intermission, I was standing by the bar, looked up and there she was. And it actually was her! Small, small freakin’ world, eh?