Friday, January 25, 2013

Mark’s 10 Best (and 2 Worst) Theatre Moments of 2012

By Mark A. Newman

Another year has passed into posterity and since everyone else has been making “Best of” lists, I thought I would get into the act. Thankfully, 2012 saw more hits than misses, more cheers than jeers, more praise than…well you get the idea.

The following is a list of my favorite theatre moments from the last year, as well as a couple of my resounding duds. You will undoubtedly have your own thoughts on what you loved and loathed in 2012 and you should share those in the comments section. Also, feel free to call me stupid, crazy, or simply uninformed; you won’t be the first, or the last!

And here’s what I liked and loathed:

10. Forbidden Broadway: Alive & Kicking

Even though this is a brand new production of the multi-decade, Off-Broadway standby, there’s something about Forbidden Broadway that always takes me back to the first time I saw it in a little theater on the Upper East Side in 1990. This production takes on the usual suspects: Newsies, Ricky Martin in Evita, Follies, and all the other shows that make for ripe parodies. However, this version contains the first spot-on Matthew Broderick impression I have ever seen. Scott Richard Foster deftly skewers Nice Work if You Can Get It with the number “Nice Song If I Could Sing It.” This is one of those shows I could definitely see myself seeing more than once due to the abundance of belly laughs and an impressive cast.

9. Working: The Musical

Speaking of seeing a show more than once, I saw this “revisal” at the tiny Keegan Theatre in Washington D.C. twice. This musicalized mishmash of Studs Terkel’s oral history of everyday working folks should strike a knowing chord with everyone. Theatre enthusiasts know the show’s tortured history despite the stellar talent (Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, etc.). The Keegan’s game cast was not particularly “Broadway-caliber” per se but they were affable, talented, and a pleasure to watch. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s two newer contributions were highlights and helped bring the framework and the feel of the show out of the late 1970s. I hate I missed the production in New York at the 59E59 Theatres in December, but when a show has a limited run, you need to act fast. 

8. Now. Here. This. 

To say I was eager to see the gang from [title of show] up to their old tricks again would be an understatement. This crazily charming show at The Vineyard Theatre in New York was just as engaging as the team’s earlier work and felt more like a reunion tour or an unofficial sequel to [title of show], since we’ve already been on one journey with this motley crew. The gist of the show was about living in the moment and appreciating what you have. The fact that the songs were sung and the stories were told by Jeff Bowen, Hunter Bell, Heidi Blickenstaff, and the insanely hilarious Susan Blackwell made Now. Here. This. a must-see for any true theatre fan. I would be remiss if I did not give special props to Bowen who recounted his high school years of being a closeted gay man who hid behind impressions to fit in. While his Martin Short was awesome, I guffawed to the annoyance of people around me at his Madeline Kahn impression from “Clue,” of all things. The show is no longer with us but the cast recording is. Get. It. Now.

7. The Addams Family Tour

Despite the star power of Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, and Terrence Mann on Broadway, the show landed with a dull thud for me. The tour, however, was fun since this version had an altered book from the mess on Broadway (that whole bit about the love song to the giant octopus is axed, thankfully) and the cast was a hoot to watch. Douglas Sills –whom I had not seen since his star turn in The Scarlet Pimpernel – was a riot as Gomez and Sarah Gettlefinger was purely charming as Morticia. Admittedly, I only saw the tour at the Kennedy Center thanks to a discount via, but it was more enjoyable than what was full-price in New York, despite the absence of the aforementioned actors as well as Jackie Hoffman and Kevin Chamberlain. If the tour comes to your hometown, don’t miss it. My biggest complaint with the tour is the same as it was with the Broadway production: why was the classic Addams Family TV theme not featured in its entirety? Seems like an opportunity missed.

6. John Lithgow in The Columnist

To see John Lithgow in the title role in David Auburn’s The Columnist was easily one of the biggest treats I had this past year. I’ve always been a fan of Lithgow and haven’t seen him in anything on stage since his tour de force role as Lawrence in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As famed columnist for The Washington Post Joseph Alsop, Lithgow played the arrogant gadabout with a perfect mix of ego and pathos. Yes, Alsop was a piece of work but he was a lonely man who suffered for his “art,” that of being a newspaper columnist during the Cold War era. While Lithgow fully inhabited the role, there were still the explosions of typical “Lithgowisms” that made this a truly memorable theatrical experience.

5. Prison Dancer: The Musical 

Who would’ve thought that a scrappy little show about a YouTube video would be one of the most entertaining shows I saw all year? Prison Dancer: The Musical’s run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival was sold out through its entire run so I was lucky to snag a single ticket to this hot show. My original review [] goes into greater detail about this off, off, off-Broadway gem, but I am amazed and disappointed I haven’t heard anything further about this show, which was clearly a hit at the festival. Luckily the concept album is available and after a recent listen I was reminded as to just how catchy these tunes were. Honestly, it’s the best prison-set musical I’ve ever seen (Sorry, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman!)

4. Evita Revival on Broadway

While there were certainly a number of things to dislike about this production – namely Elena Roger’s caterwauling portrayal of the title character – I found that there was much more to enjoy, especially since I ended up seeing it three times. First, I found Lloyd-Webber’s score performed live utterly entrancing. The only other versions of the show I had seen before were regional tours. In Alabama (“Don’t Y’all Cry for me now Argentina, ya hear?”). So to hear a newly re-orchestrated version performed by a real live orchestra was in itself a treat. Secondly, I loved the sets, lighting, and costumes; I thought they fit the production ideally. Thirdly, I am a Ricky Martin fan, period. So, yeah, that happened. Yes, I know that Ricky Martin is no Mandy Patinkin and personally I’m thankful for that. A little Patinkin goes a long way in my book. The Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris was definitely another highlight of this production as he found the vulnerability in Peron that I hadn’t seen – or heard – in other productions. Plus, it’s a legendary musical that hasn’t been on Broadway in over three decades. It was pure joy to see it live.   

3. Dogfight, the Musical

Based on a little-seen River Phoenix movie from the 1990s, Dogfight: The Musical was one of the most lovely and touching productions of 2012. The show played a limited engagement at the SecondStage Theatre off-Broadway and was truly a revelation, both for leading lady Lindsay Mendez as well as for the composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book writer Peter Duchan. Mendez plays the role of Rose, a less-than-gorgeous waitress in San Francisco in the early 1960s. Picked by soldier Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena) in a game of who can get the ugliest girl, Rose rises above and she and Eddie actually end up spending a tender night together. The pop/rock-flavored score kept the action moving along with Christopher Gatelli’s choreography. Dogfight was one of those many overlooked off-Broadway treasures that ended up being one of the year’s theatrical highlights. 

2. Les Miserables: The 25th Anniversary Tour

While much has been written of late about the movie version of Les Miserables, lest we forget the show is still very much alive on the stage…just not on Broadway. I actually caught a performance of the 25th Anniversary Tour at the National Theatre in Washington D.C. the night after I saw the movie for the second time. As much as I enjoy the movie, I have to admit that nothing will EVER replace seeing this show performed live on stage by actors WHO CAN SING AND ACT AT THE SAME TIME! Be warned: this is not the Les Miserables of your childhood; the show has been restaged, re-designed, re-orchestrated, and essentially reborn in a faster-paced production that sometimes seems like the original cast album LP has been sped up to 45 rpm! And to that I say, thank you very much, directors James Powell Laurence Connor! From the opening scene where Jean Valjean (the amazing Peter Lockyer) is in the bowels of a slave ship, you know that this is going to be a very different experience than what you saw in the 1980s or 1990s. Andrew Varela’s Javert is a breath of fresh air and he has the stoic, driving, baritone that we’re used to and that is more suitable for the role than poor Russell Crowe’s warbling. Devin Ilaw as Marius was a champion at playing the young star-crossed revolutionary with equal parts heroism and innocence and Jason Forbach’s Enjolarus soared mightily. It was easy to see why the students would rally around this charismatic leader. Every singer in the 25th Anniversary Tour is better than those on the silver screen and that should come as no surprise. Not that all of the movie actors were bad, just that all of the tour actors were better, every last one of them. The tour has engagements in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and a variety of other U.S. cities and if you’re in the neighborhood, do yourself a favor and re-acquaint yourself with this show LIVE! 

1. Bring it On: The Musical

First off, let me just stay that In the Heights by Lin-Manual Miranda was the closest to a religious experience I have ever had in the theatre. So the fact that he is one of the major components of Bring it On – along with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green -- had me chomping at the bit to see it. I even considered a seven-hour road trip to Charlotte or a flight to Toronto to take it in. Thankfully the musical planted itself on Broadway for a limited run where I got to see it a couple of times last year. This is one of those rare musicals where I have absolutely nothing negative to say about it. The direction, choreography, acting, dancing, singing, and – most importantly – the score, were all dazzling. Granted, it was hard to be bored by such an energetic cast who spent the majority of the show bouncing all over the stage. But the score works just as well on your iPod – unlike the equally energetic Lysistrata Jones from last season – as it did on the stage. The cast was filled with throngs of young actors – and they were ALL young – making their Broadway debuts, some of them from the professional cheerleading world. I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of these kids, especially Taylor Louderman, Adrienne Warren, Ryann Redmond, Jason Gotay, Gregory Haney, and Nicolas Womack. Let’s hope the Tony Committee remembers some of these actors, as well as the show itself, when awards season rolls around. 

…and the 2 Worst of 2012, if not of all time!

2. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at the Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia

As I said in my original review [], this show is just bad. Despite the talent ensconced at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, there was no way to save this dreck. Whorehouse should never, ever be revived. It is easily the worst musical I have ever seen. Well, except for…

1. Leap of Faith: The Musical

Awful, dreadful, and horrid cannot begin to describe this inept production that stunk up the St. James Theatre worse than a train full of vomiting hobos. In fact, recalling this musical actually makes me angry. The only good thing I can say about this debacle was that at least it didn’t take up too much valuable theatre space for too long. I don’t know what I disliked more, the lackluster score by the usually solid Alan Menken or the collecting-a-paycheck-but-would-rather-be-in-ANY-other-show performance by Raul Esparza. Esparza, who is easily one of the brightest lights currently shining in the world of theatre, was woefully miscast as the con artist preacher stuck in the middle of nowhere with his band of cohorts. Seriously, was Esparza blackmailed into the role or did he lose a bet? He had neither the charisma nor the passion to portray the damaged soul the story needed. This would’ve been a role made in heaven for Norbert Leo Butz…that is, had the score had any redeeming tunes (Paging David Yazbek!). Leap of Faith is the absolute worst show I have ever seen on or off Broadway…and I saw Shogun: the Musical, Good Vibrations, Pirate Queen, and Dracula!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

2nd Annual Poetic License Festival Runs Through This Weekend

By Byrne Harrison

I was lucky enough to have attended the first Poetic License Festival and was amazed both by the creativity of the participants, and the way they integrated poetry into their works.

This year's festival promises more exciting work by new participants and several of those from last year, including Darian Dauchan, Caroline Rothstein, Takeo Rivera and Eboni Hogan.

The festival is in full swing.  The remaining performances are:

Wednesday January 23rd
6PM   6@6 reading of The Will To Knowledge written by Takeo Rivera

8PM   Breaking Our Silence featuring by Joanna Hoffman, Charan P Morris, Storm Thomas & Elliott D. Smith

Vibrant LGBTQ poets share their experiences of coming out, finding love and crashing through the barriers of shame and silence to emerge into a new world.

Thursday January 24th
6PM   6@6 reading of Love in a Time of Blood Quantum written by Tanaya Winder

8PM   Black Girls Don’t Smile Mosaic in Front of Strangers written by Mahogany L. Browne

Directed by Kamilah Forbes, Featuring choreography and dance by Keomi Tarver, Co-Presented with Hip Hop Theater Festival

Come witness the transformative journey of a woman in the heart/cracked globe of a city where apples, lights and love seek refuge. Where the stereotypes are challenged and blackness finds safety in a woman's smile.

Friday January 25th
6PM   6@6 reading of Braided Sorrow written by Marisela Treviño Orta

8PM   Foreign Bodies written by Eboni Hogan

Directed by Nicole A. Watson, Featuring Eboni Hogan, Samantha Cooper, Ayo Oneké Cummings, Joell Jackson & Teniece Divya Johnson

On a mania-driven trek from NYC to Ghana, poet Eboni Hogan delivers an unflinchingly true testament to the complexities of the fragile mind, the breakable body and the resilient heart.

Saturday January 26th
6PM   6@6 reading of She Who Struggles by LaTonia Phipps

8PM   faith written & performed by Caroline Rothstein

Directed by Alex Mallory, Winner: Oustanding Production of A Solo Show, 2012 Planet Connections Theatre Festivity

One woman's gut-wrenching struggle to cope with the expectations and turmoil of coming of age.

Sunday January 27th
2PM   Foreign Bodies written by Eboni Hogan

Directed by Nicole A. Watson, Featuring Eboni Hogan, Samantha Cooper, Ayo Oneké Cummings, Joell Jackson & Teniece Divya Johnson

On a mania-driven trek from NYC to Ghana, poet Eboni Hogan delivers an unflinchingly true testament to the complexities of the fragile mind, the breakable body and the resilient heart.

6PM   6@6 reading of Untitled conceived by Natalia Duong

8PM   From Table to Stage written & performed by Warrior Writers NYC

Original Veteran writing in a staged, multimedia performance that explores a range of experiences from recruitment to homecoming, from surviving war to the conquest for life.

All performances will take place at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street. Tickets range in price from $5 to $15 and can be purchased at the door on the day of the performance.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Poetic Theater website.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"The Great God Pan" - A Powerful Tale about an Uncomfortable Subject

By Judd Hollander

Selective childhood memories and hints of something horrible are explored in Amy Herzog's riveting drama The Great God Pan, now at Playwrights Horizons. 

Jamie (Jeremy Strong) leads a relatively uneventful life. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, has a decent relationship with his live-in therapist girlfriend Paige (Sarah Goldberg), and a cordial one with his New Jersey parents Cathy (Becky Ann Baker) and Doug (Peter Friedman). However his mostly stable existence is completely upended when he meets Frank (Keith Nobbs), a childhood friend whom he hasn't seen in more than 20 years. Frank reveals he was sexually abused by his father when he was very young, and there's the possibility his dad also molested other children during that period, including Jamie. An encounter Jaime, who would have been about five years old at the time, has absolutely no recollection of.

It's this not knowing that forms the crux of the play as Jamie tries to reconstruct memories, feelings and images from that long ago time - such as a scratchy couch - and then have them confirmed by those who were there. People such as his parents, or Polly (Joyce Van Patten), Jamie and Frank's childhood babysitter. While Jamie is attempting to find out if he was actually abused, the emotional stain of such a possibility causes his life to unravel.

Presenting a tightly written story, Herzog adds to the tension by tossing in numerous elements of guilt among the characters, all of which Jamie is forced to confront in his search. Such as from Doug and Cathy who in hindsight were more concerned about their own problems then that of the children involved; and who may have inadvertently put their son in harm's way. There's also Polly who, while she may have thought Frank's dad a bit strange, never considered him capable of what he stands accused of and more importantly, what he has admitted. Things don't get any easier for Jamie when Paige tells him he's going to be a father, a situation he finds himself completely unable to deal with at the current moment.

Strong is perfect as the angst-ridden Jamie. An everyman who never knows more than the audience, he ends up becoming a de facto victim through association rather than fact. In the hands of Strong, Herzog and director Carolyn Canter, Jamie is presented as a totally conflicted soul, one who eventually explodes with rage and anger as he's forced to reevaluate everything and everyone he knew through the prism of these new potential experiences.

Nobbs is deceptively powerful as Frank, someone who appears only briefly in the play, yet his presence is eventually felt by all. In a particularly deft bit of acting, Nobbs is able to instantly turn Frank from a seemingly perennial slacker to a someone who immediately elicits sympathy and compassion.

Goldberg works well as Paige, the actress having the most difficult job in the piece in terms of making her character fit into the story. Not a part of Jamie or Frank's past and initially kept in the dark about this whole situation, Paige finds Jamie becoming more and more distant without knowing the reason why. Yet at the same time she must also think of her own needs and those of her unborn child before deciding if she wants to stay with in her current relationship. 

Baker and Friedman are good as the concerned, if somewhat stereotypical parents, with the news of what may have gone on forcing them to reconsider their relationship with their son. Van Patten is compelling as Polly, a woman struggling with dementia and trying desperately to pierce an ever-growing veil of confusion in order to be able to give both Frank and Jamie the answers they seek. Rounding out the cast is Erin Wilhelmi who turns in an excellent performance as one of Paige's patients; a young woman battling an eating disorder and who, despite Paige's best efforts, may be falling off the recovery wagon.

Cantor's direction is picture perfect, keeping Jamie's search for the truth at the forefront of the tale and allowing the tension to slowly build as Jamie emotionally bottoms out. Jamie's scenes with Frank, which bookend the play, are particularly moving, the two characters playing off each other quite well. The only pacing problem occurs in Goldberg's scenes with Wilhelmi. While those moments are certainly compelling, they also feel somewhat disjointed as they're not part of the main thrust of the play.

Mark Wendland's sets are nicely appropriate, as is the lighting by Japhy Wiedeman, the latter being especially effective in the final scene. Costumes by Kate Voyce are okay.

Tapping into the fear of the unknown and the terror of discovering a dark truth, The Great God Pan is a stimulating and sobering play about hidden memories and the effects they can have when finally uncovered.

The Great God Pan

Featuring: Keith Nobbs (Frank), Jeremy Strong (Jamie), Sarah Goldberg (Paige), Becky Ann Baker (Cathy), Peter Fitzgerald (Doug) Erin Wilhelmi (Joelle), Joyce Van Patten (Polly)

Written by Amy Herzog
Directed by Carolyn Canter
Scenic Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Japhy Wiedeman
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Casting: Alldaffer, CSA
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Production Stage Manager: Cole P. Bonenberger
Production Manager: Christopher Boll
Assistant Stage Manager: Marisa Levy

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission

Closes: January 13, 2013

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

CD Review: Telly Leung, “I’ll Cover You,” Yellow Sound Label

By Mark A. Newman
Full disclosure: I’m already a fan of this young Broadway stalwart and have been since I first saw him in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures in 2004. So I knew his solo album was on the horizon and I was eagerly anticipating it. The problem with some of these recordings by Broadway favorites is simply that they don’t sound like they did when you saw them in that show that time. Sometimes it’s disappointing (Brian Stokes Mitchell). But sometimes it’s a revelation.
Thankfully, Telly Leung’s “I’ll Cover You,” is indeed a revelation. Anybody who saw Leung in the recent revival of Godspell can attest to his ability to rattle the rafters with one lung tied behind his back. However, on this collection he is accompanied by a jazz combo and he tends to – as so many performers say – “bring it down a notch.” But this notch is definitely Leung’s musical sweet spot.
I’m not saying that the belting – one of Leung’s trademarks – is not present, but it’s not overdone. After all, he’s not on stage selling a scene, he’s in your ear buds selling a song. And it’s well worth the price.
The 13 tunes on the disc is an eclectic treasure trove. There are timeworn standards from the second half of the last century (“In My Life,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “I Can See Clearly Now”) as well Broadway covers one of the most effective of which is “I’ll Cover You” from RENT, a show where Leung played the tragic role of Angel. In the show the song is presented as a rollicking duet between Angel and his new love Collins during the first act. However, in the second act the song is a reprise sung by a mourning Collins at Angel’s memorial. [Oops, spoiler alert.] Leung has opted to take a more melancholy approach. However, instead of being mournful (if you had a heart, your eyes were not dry during the second act reprise in RENT), it has the feel of a quiet celebration of a devoted romance that has either lasted through the ages or is just beginning.
The collection starts off with a rollicking rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet” that truly soars and Leung’s vocal acrobatics are perfectly matched to a tune that celebrates being in crazy love. It is an ideal prelude to what’s to come. His take on the Beatles’ “In My Life” is my favorite rendition since Johnny Cash recorded it late in his career. It’s also my favorite Beatles tune of all time and Leung’s thoughtful interpretation is one of the collection’s many aural pleasures.
His take on “Before the Parade Passes By” puts him in the company of several male singers who’ve adopted this song as of late (it’s even Norm Lewis’ favorite audition song). From the gentle rumbling of the snare drum the arrangement has a driving feel and Leung rejoices and makes the most of this song about being determined not to miss any opportunities that may present themselves. The same is true with oft-recorded “Children Will Listen,” a song that feels like it has even more meaning for the singer due to his work with youngsters. Leung really means what he sings here.
A couple of the tunes are far from typical Broadway vocalist fodder – Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” and Katy Perry’s “Firework” – both of which come off remarkably well and devoid of camp. One minor quibble was keeping the lyric in “Papa” in its original context, specifically: “’cause I was always your little girl.” Makes you wonder who he’s singing it to. Then again if he was going for a gender-neutral feel then, well, my hat’s off to him. A less popular song from the pop canon is The Indigo Girls’ “Galileo,” a song I’ve never heard before but was immediately charmed by.
I would be remiss if I did not commend the arrangements by Gary Adler and Mary Ann McSweeney. So many vocalists’ CDs are fairly staid affairs but the use of a small string section as well as a jazz trio (piano, bass, drums) make this a collection that will not gather dust on a collector’s shelf – it begs to be listened to. The instrumentation is ideal accompaniment for Leung’s clean tenor and provides enough variety that no two songs sound alike.   
The collection takes the listener on a jazzy journey through a variety of styles and tunes. Aside from the aforementioned numbers, there are also tracks by James Taylor, Nat King Cole, and Holly Cole. But the disc’s coda is a live track of Whitney Houston’s “I Believe in You and Me.” You can feel the energy of the live audience responding to the panache that Leung brings to a live performance (there’s even a “Whoop!” in there by an enthused audience member). It’s a great finale to an immensely likable disc and a tribute to the late Whitney Houston that she would undoubtedly adore.