Friday, September 30, 2011

"Bluebird": Confessions are Good for the Soul - Aren't They?

Review by Judd Hollander

There's something about cabdrivers that makes them easy to talk to and confide in. As with bartenders, priests and psychiatrists, listening is part of the taxi driver's job. Such is the case with Jimmy (Simon Russell Beale), a former novelist who now drives a taxi full-time, plying his trade each night on the streets of 1998 London in Bluebird by Stephen Stephens as presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.

Jimmy is the perfect cabbie: quiet, calm and a sort of blank slate. Listening to those who need to talk, engaging those who need human contact, and having just enough of a sense of humor to wheedle information out of those who would rather say nothing. Among his passengers are Guvnor (Tobias Segal), a somewhat seedy-looking plainclothes cop; Angela (Charlotte Parry) a working-girl presently down on her luck; and Robert (Michael Countryman) an officious sort who's suffered a terrible personal tragedy.

In between the tales these and others passengers tell, a portrait of Jimmy begins to emerge. He doesn't own a cell phone, smokes quite a lot, and hasn't seen his wife in five years, although he still thinks of himself as married. Jimmy is also haunted by an incident in his own past, one for which he is desperately trying to make amends.

With Bluebird, the playwright has constructed an absorbing tale of a flawed individual, one trying to atone for past sins, albeit all on his own terms. Not quite a martyr, he continually punishes himself for what has gone on before, projecting an attitude of not caring about what happens to him personally. As evidenced with his choice of lifestyle and his rather fatalistic attitude with some of his passengers.

Indeed, it is the way the different stories are told that really holds one's interest. The darkness of the cab (actually just a few chairs), together with a feeling of oppressive stillness from all around, makes one feel completely immersed in the action. Some of the more affecting tales include Countryman's heart-wrenching portrayal of a man who suffered a shattering loss; and those told by Richard (Todd Weeks), a worker on the London Underground; and Andy (John Sharian), a professional bouncer at a local night club. There's also more than a hint of danger present throughout, with several of the passengers projecting an ominous aura to Jimmy via their attitudes and conversations.

In a nicely nuanced performance, Beale offers a good portrayal of a broken individual whose soul is unpeeled layer by layer over the course of the play. He also brings more than a bit of pathos to Jimmy, someone who never seems truly happy; rather a man putting up a good front and lending an ear when he can. He does his best to help those he comes in contact with through a kind word, cigarette or smile; but never receiving what he himself needs in return.

As the entire play is seen through Jimmy's eyes and experiences, most of the other characters are rather undeveloped, but all acquit themselves well. After all, it's not easy to enrapture an audience just by sitting and talking, but it certainly works here. The only other fully formed person in the piece is Clare (Mary McCann), Jimmy estranged wife, who brings to their meeting years of anger and rage not only for what happened earlier, but also over Jimmy's mysterious absence, one which left her to handle the resulting fallout. Not surprisingly, she is not all that eager to see Jimmy again.

Set by Rachel Hauck, basically a few pieces and props here and there, works very well in contributing to the overall quiet and lonely atmosphere; as does Ben Stanton's lighting and Darron L. West's sound design. Gaye Taylor Upchurch's direction is quite good, letting events come together slowly and naturally, both through the individual stories told and via the overall play itself.

Bluebird is a sobering piece of theatre and a journey through one man's tortured psyche. It also has a somewhat open-ended finale that works perfectly in terms of the contextual structure of the piece.

Also in the cast are Mara Measor and Kate Blumberg.

Featuring: Simon Russell Beale (Jimmy), Tobias Segal (Guvnor/Billy Lee), Michael Countryman (Robert/Man), Todd Weeds (Richard/Enthusiastic Man), Charlotte Parry (Angela), Mara Measor (Girl), Mary McCann (Claire), Kate Blumberg (Janine), John Sharian (Andy)

Written by Simon Stephens
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck
Costume Design: Sarah J. Holden
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Composer: Mark Bennett
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Casting: MelCap Casting
Production Stage Manager: Kasey Ostopchuck
Assistant Stage Manager: Molly Minor Eustis
Press Representative: Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Production Manager; Michael Wade
Associate Artistic Director: Christen Parker
General Manager: Jamie Tyrol

Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company
Atlantic Stage II
330 West 16th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
Closed: September 9, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Olive and the Bitter Herbs": Sweet Enough, Though Not Always Savory

Review by Judd Hollander

Playwright Charles Busch spins an amiable and gentle web in his latest comical offering Olive and the Bitter Herbs, (with some dramatic overtones worked in), presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. While not nearly as powerful or over the top as some of Busch's other works, the play does contain some interesting life lessons about trust, respect and growing old. 

Olive (Marcia Jean Kurtz), an aging actress whose main claim to fame was being "the sausage woman" in a 1980s television commercial, is, to put it mildly, a rather bitter person. (Literally anyone who has ever come into contact with her has a resulting unpleasant experience to relate.) She's also a constant and chronic complainer, getting into arguments with those who live nearby, such as with Robert (David Garrison) and Trey (Dan Butler), her new next-door neighbors. Olive's only real close companion is Wendy (Julie Halston), a woman who volunteers as an aide to the elderly.

Recently Olive has had a new person, or actually an entity, come into her life. This new arrival being a ghost who she often catches a fleeing glimpse of in her living room mirror. Said spirit goes by the name of Harold and who, it turns out, has a connection not only to Olive, but also to Wendy, Robert and Trey, as well as Sylvan (Richard Masur); a thrice-widowed elderly gentleman who finds himself becoming attracted to Olive. It's a feeling Olive, who despite all her best (and worst) efforts, soon starts to reciprocate.

Photo by James Leynse.
At its heart, Olive and the Bitter Herbs is an interesting character study of the lengths people will go to prevent being alone. Such as when Wendy arranges for an armistice of sorts, setting the stage for a rather hilarious and ultimately ├╝ber-disfunctional Passover Seder. (Robert's well-meaning attempts to understand a tradition he knows nothing about are hysterical.) Another subject Busch repeatedly touches on is that of pride and how people are willing to sacrifice portions of their self-respect in order to maintain a seeming illusion of stability.

As mentioned above, there's nothing earth-shattering presented here, but the performances are rather enjoyable. Kurtz is a wonder as Olive, a cantankerous older woman who has had such a tough life, and been hurt so much, that she no longer allows anyone to get close. At least not until Sylvan enters the picture. An extremely telling moment occurs when Olive tries to prevent Wendy from moving away, thus depriving her of the only person she really depends on. Kurtz is also able to evoke great sympathy for Olive at points, much of it involving the character's upcoming guest appearance on a popular television series.

Garrison and Butler play off each other well as the cultured gay couple; Robert being the more upper crust of the two, while Trey is the more blunt and bitter. Yet both men find themselves drawn to Olive (and Harold) for their own specific reasons. Masur is fine as Sylvan, one of those people who can best be described as “pliable,” taking everything life throws at him with a smile while coming back for more. Halston is good as Wendy, a stalwart defender of Olive, at least until a particularly funny scene where Wendy finally boils over and rages at the world for the way her life has turned out.

Direction by Mark Brokaw is sound, though nothing all that special, kind of like the play itself. Anna Louizos's set of Olive's apartment is both realistically neat and shabby, and the lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger and sound design by John Gromada are okay. There are however, several places where the play could have ended before the audience is finally presented with the endgame Busch actually picked.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable piece of theatre, offering an interesting blend of comedy and pathos. Not a bad play in any sense of the word, and one could actually do a whole lot worse.

Olive and the Bitter Herbs

Featuring: Marcia Jean Kurtz (Olive), Julie Halston (Wendy), David Garrison (Robert), Dan Butler (Trey), Richard Masur (Sylvan)

Written by Charles Busch
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Set Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: Suzy Benzinger
Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Properties Coordinator: Kathy Fabian/Propstar
Production Stage Manager: William H. Lang
Production Supervisor: PRF Productions
Press Representative; O&M Co.
Casting: Stephanie Klapper Casting
General Manager: Toni Marie Davis
Director of Development: Jessica Sadowski Comas
Director of Marketing: Elizabeth Kandel
Associate Artistic Director: Michelle Bossy

Presented by Primary Stages
59E59 Theaters

59 East 59th Street
Running time: Two Hours, 10 Minutes (with intermission)
Closed: September 4, 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"The Judy Show: My life as a sitcom" - Endearingly Funny and No Laugh Track Needed

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Are you ready for The Judy Show? Comedienne/actress Judy Gold certainly is, and thinks of rest of America should be too, her desire to get the show on the air forming the major thrust of her solo stage production, The Judy Show: My life as a sitcom. 

Gold has a keen affinity for the sitcom format, noting more than once how the genre had a major influence in her life. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s she would watch them for hours, often wishing her life was like that, where every problem or issue was solved in 30 minutes (including time for commercials). Among the programs she watched were such "classics" as M.A.S.H., Family Ties, The Brady Bunch (her all-time favorite), One Day at a Time, Maude and Welcome Back, Kotter.

Judy Gold in The Judy Show - My Life As A Sitcom
Photographer: T. Charles Erickson

However Gold's actual life, as she tells it here, was somewhat different from the people she saw on television. Her parents argued frequently and she was never close to her two siblings. Yet conversely Gold was always the "go-to" person in the family - i.e. the one everyone prevailed upon when they had problems. Gold also spent her formative years trying to come to terms with her homosexuality, not to mention consistently being one of the tallest kids in her class and a frequent object of teasing. Though the more Gold looks back on the significant incidents in her past, which includes her first major relationship, the birth of her children and eventually meeting the love of her life, the more she realizes that most of what she went through is indeed something of the sitcom variety; or at least a reality show. It's a premise which, in Gold's able hands and the hands of director Amanda Charlton, becomes quite poignant and funny.

Gold's amiable presence is the reason the entire evening goes down so easy, as she offers up a warm and welcoming attitude while taking the audience on a nostalgic journey through her life. After all, anyone who understands the significance of Sherwood Schwartz in the pantheon of television sitcom history is definitely someone worth listening to. Gold also draws the audience in via her playing excerpts from various sitcom themes on a handy piano and relating them to incidents in her own history. She also comes up with numerous theme songs for the Judy Show, only to find time and again that the world, or at least television programming executives, isn't quite ready for the scenario that Gold has to offer. Or at least, not so far.

The stage play is also a very personal experience for Gold as she looks at her sometimes strained relationship with her parents, at growing up in New Jersey, and the realization of how popular she became when she learned she had the talent to make people laugh. The awkwardness and pressure Gold feels as she struggles to find her own way is one of the things that make the story very relatable to those watching. There's also the gentle lesson that while one's parents can often drive you to distraction, when looking at all that happened with the benefit of hindsight, you start to realize that just perhaps they weren't that crazy after all. It's moments like these where you find yourself rooting for Judy and her extended family to triumph over all the problems they face and wind up happy. Just like in a sitcom. Although it would have been nice to have learned more about Gold's history with her brother and sister, who are only mentioned in passing, as well as some additional back story on her raising and interacting with her two children. The inclusion of which would have added an extra emotional layer or two to the proceedings.

Direction by Amanda Charlton is very good, allowing Gold to make full use of the stage and also to really express herself through the material, making it seem both immediate and fresh. Set by Andrew Boyce is fun-especially the wallpaper consisting of images from different classic sitcoms, some of which you've probably loved since childhood, others which you may have long forgotten. Sound design by Alex Neumann and Janie Bullard, which includes selections from many of the afore-mentioned sitcoms, is quite enjoyable.

The Judy Show hasn't made it on the air yet, though it's come close a few times. But until it does, the Judy Show: My life as a sitcom will do just fine.

The Judy Show: My life as a sitcom
Starring Judy Gold
Written by Judy Gold and Kate Moira Ryan
Directed by Amanda Charlton
Original Music by Judy Gold
Lyrics by Kate Moira Ryan and Judy Gold
Additional Material by Eric Kornfeld and Bob Smith
Music Director: Kris Kukul
Scenic and Projection Design by Andrew Boyce
Lighting Design by Paul Toben
Sound Design by Alex Neumann and Janie Bullard
Stylist: Emily Deangelis
Marketing: HHC Marketing
Advertising: Hofstetter + Partners/Agency 212
Production Stage Manager: Scott Pegg
Production Manager: Joshua Scherr
Associate Producers: Alexander Fraser, Jeremy Katz
General Management: Maximum Entertainment Productions
Presented by Daryl Roth and Eva Price
Produced in association with Jamie Cesa, Lynn Shaw, Tom Smedes, Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman.
Press Representative: Keith Sherman and Associates

The DR2 Theater

103 East 15th Street
Tickets; 212-239-6200 or

Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Extended through November 27th, 2011

May be inappropriate for children under 12

Book Review - Rock the Audition: How To Prepare For And Get Cast In Rock Musicals by Sheri Sanders

Review by Rob Hartmann

ROCK THE AUDITION: HOW TO PREPARE FOR AND GET CAST IN ROCK MUSICALS.  By Sheri Sanders.  264 pp.  Hal Leonard Books, 2011.  $29.99 (paperback with DVD); ISBN 978-1-4234-9943-5

You could read this entire review, or you could save yourself a few minutes and just run out and get this book now. Order it online, whatever you need to do. Trust me, if you’re working in musical theater, you want this book – no matter if you’re a performer, director, composer, or music director.

This is one of those books that, as you devour it page by page, you think, why hasn’t someone written this book before? And then you think, who else could have written this book? The author, Sheri Sanders, has a distinctive thought process and writing style which attempts to demystify the process of auditioning for rock musicals. (A disclaimer: I worked briefly with Ms. Sanders on a number of readings of new rock/pop musicals at the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at New York University. I can attest to the fact that Ms. Sanders knows what she’s doing – she was always first on our must-call list for rock musicals.)

As part of her research while she was writing the book, Ms. Sanders sat in on a number of auditions for rock musicals, interviewing the casting directors and other members of the production teams to get the answer to every actor’s question: what are they looking for? Surprisingly, she found that a common complaint, even at the Broadway level, was that actors were coming to rock auditions unprepared – unsure of how to do their best work in a rock or pop idiom. Ms. Sanders also points out that many times, creative teams don’t know how to describe what they’re looking for – which contributes to the vicious cycle of everyone involved knowing they need to solve the mystery of just how to deal with pop and rock music in the context of musical theater – but not really knowing specifically how to go about it.

Ms. Sanders smartly begins by breaking down the task into manageable pieces: the first lesson, of course, is acknowledging that the rock and pop genres cover over a half a century’s worth of music – the styles varying from decade to decade, with multiple subgenres springing off from one another. Her points are simple, but useful (for instance, knowing the difference between the musical era in which a musical was written and the era in which it takes place.)

One of Ms. Sanders’ most useful observations is that the singer must be aware of the social forces which gave rise to any genre of music. She provides pithy observations on the historical events of each decade – hopefully spurring her readers to further research of their own. I was particularly struck by the smart way she translated her history bullet points into useful advice on audition clothing choices. For example, when discussing the 70s, she writes:

Look at John Travolta (Tony) and Karen Lynn Gorney (Stephanie) in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. When on the dance floor, their moves were choreographed to be profoundly crisp and clean. However, inside of that “crispness,” their moves are fluid, loose, languid, relaxed and easy. Their clothes are tailored and really tight, but take a look at their legs! You’ll see the men (and women) are wearing bell-bottom pantsuits! With platform shoes! This was truly an era of freedom inside a structure.

The real meat of the book, however, is the section in which Ms. Sanders discusses the nuts and bolts of cutting songs to make them appropriate for use in an audition. Making rock and pop songs (which are so often guitar-based) work in a situation where they are being sung with solo piano accompaniment is notoriously challenging. The book addresses this problem, along with how to create a dramatic structure in a song where one might not naturally exist, through judicious cutting from section to section. (Ms. Sanders’ understanding and explanation of song structure and dramatic build is why I recommend this book to writers, composers and directors as well as performers.)  Most importantly, the book contains example after example of sheet music with cuts and notations to the pianist written in – demystifying the process of creating a well-prepared piece of audition music. (So often audition technique books merely describe the process of assembling, say, a sixteen-bar cut, but don’t actually show the reader what that means.)

The text is written in a very personal style: get ready to be called ‘darling.’ The cynical reader might roll his or her eyes  - but Ms. Sanders’ writing is genuine and honest. That’s who she is – her particular emotional energy emanates from the page. Since this book is in essence all about the art of personal self expression (the key to making rock music come alive in an audition room), the choice of style seems perfectly appropriate. I particularly enjoyed the section in which Ms. Sanders relates the Kinsey sexuality scale to performing rock music. (I can’t describe her analogy further and do it justice: you’ll need to read that for yourself.)

The book is a deceptively quick read: the narrative structure pulls you along through the book (a real feat which many “how-to” books don’t master.) There is so much packed into the text, however, that the reader should resist the temptation to swallow the book in a single gulp.

On its own, the book is a must-have; as a bonus, the accompanying DVD does what so many books of this type can’t do – demonstrate in action what can’t be fully explained in words. The DVD contains short videos which were shot as though the viewer were sitting in on one of Ms. Sanders’ master classes (with voice teacher Tom Burke at the piano.) In her energetic and engaging style, Ms. Sanders tackles “Voice”, “Body” and “Final Performance.” Under the topic of “Voice”, she covers the essentials of vocal styling of various decades by breaking down exactly what a singer can do with a sample song of the era. She contrasts rock styling with traditional musical theater vocal styling – demonstrating what approaches work and why. She’s loose and funny in the videos (at one point holding her nose while she sings to demonstrate what an 80s song sounds like with no nasality at all.) 

Any performer who is serious about wanting to perform in rock musicals should have this book; performers who may have avoiding rock auditions because they are intimidated will sleep better with this book by their side. Using Ms. Sanders’ clear and specific approach, directors, music directors and writers will find new ways to communicate with their actors about the sounds and styles they’re looking for. The essence of the book comes through in a quote from casting director Geoff Johnson:

“Casting directors just love to claim, ‘Oh, I gave this person their big break, I gave that person their big break.” In truth, they don’t give any actor their big break. An actor does. Actors give themselves their big breaks. We merely hold the door open for them to come through. Give yourself the big break that you deserve.”

Rob Hartmann is a composer/lyricist who is on the faculty of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review - Eightythree Down (Hard Sparks)

By Byrne Harrison

Sometime everything just clicks into place.  A strong play, a great cast, an amazing director - it all just comes together to make a memorable evening of theatre.

Hard Sparks' first full-length production, Eightythree Down, is one of those shows.  This short, taut thriller about four desperate people thrown together on New Year's Eve 1983 is terrific.

Photo by Hunter Canning
Martin (Brian Miskell) is a young man who is stuck - stuck at home, stuck in life, unsure how to move forward.  That is until Dina (Melody Bates), an old high school friend, crashes into his parents' basement with two friends in tow - Stuart (Ian Holcomb), a strutting, highly sexual Brit punk, and Tony (Bryan Kaplan), a thug with self-control issues.  On the run from a string of bad decisions, Dina has brought them to Martin, the smartest guy she knows, hoping he can help them out.  What follows is a fast-paced game of cat and mouse, full of sexual tension and violence.

Photo by Hunter Canning
The cast is amazing and does an excellent job with playwright J. Stephen Brantley's script.  Bates is outstanding as Dina, at times child-like and innocent and at others, marvelously manipulative, but always with a mixed together core of sadness and hope.  Watching her peel back the layers and exposing just a little bit more of Dina's true self is marvelous.  Kaplan radiates menace as Tony, but there is a charisma there, too, that explains why Dina and even Stuart would be attracted to and repelled by him.    Holcomb's Stuart is full of heat which he aims at any target.  Sensing shy Martin's true nature, Stuart goes into power seduction mode.  A brief sex scene between Stuart and Martin is both exciting and disturbing, due to superb work by Holcomb and Miskell.  Miskell's Martin is outstanding.  Timid and cringing, socially awkward, alone on New Year's Eve, he could easily become pathetic.  But Miskell creates a fully fleshed-out character, whose choices, while not as violently wrong as Dina, Stuart, and Tony's, have still led him to a dead end, leaving him as desperate as they are, even if he can't recognize that at first.  Shocked out of his torpor by sex and violence, Martin can either crumble to nothing or finally grow.  Though the resolution is no surprise to the audience, the beauty of Miskell's performance is that it is clearly a surprise to Martin.

Director Daniel Talbott has done an exceptional job building the tension in the play, teasing it out in fits and starts until it comes crashing down like an avalanche.  He uses every inch of the albeit small space at UNDER St. Marks, not playing to the audience as some directors do, but making the audience feel like voyeurs, peeking into the basement and watching the story unfold.  And he doesn't shy away from physical violence - books fly, shelves teeter, people crash into walls - further increasing the tension.

Eightythree Down is an exciting play and bodes extremely well for this new company.  Hard Sparks is definitely on my list of companies to keep an eye on.

Eightythree Down
Written by J. Stephen Brantley
Directed by Daniel Talbott
Sound: Janie Bullard
Scenery: Eugenia Furneauzx-Arends
Lighting: Brad Peterson
Costumes: Tristan Raines
Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
Assistant Stage Manager: Alex Marks
Assistant Director: Evan Caccioppoli
Fight Choreographer: Laura Ramadei
Casting Director: Jenn Haltman
Press Representative: Emily Owens
Graphics: Julia Bernadsky
Assistant Set Designer: Judy Merrick
Casting Director: Jenn Haltman

Featuring: Melody Bates (Dina), Ian Holcomb (Stuart), Bryan Kaplan (Tony), Brian Miskell (Martin)

UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st Ave and Ave A)
September 1-17 (Thursday through Saturday at 8pm)