My partner and I caught one of the last performances of the Broadway revival of David Hirson’s verse comedy La Bete, and all I can say is it’s a crying shame it couldn’t at least finish out its originally planned limited run–and then run a whole lot longer! I did not see the original, short-lived Broadway production, but my partner Tim did, and he tells me that in this version, the character of Valere is played much more down-and-dirty, much more a real seat-of-the-pants street performer. It seems to have helped highlight the contrast between Valere and the high-minded Elomire (an anagram of Moliere). It’s been a long time since I saw a play this funny, and with this much on its mind. You could view the competition between the two men as a battle between bawdy, crude street theatre and classical tragedy, between Ego and Id, between Reality TV and Merchant-Ivory, or perhaps even between Republicans and Democrats! The fact that the play is written in rhymed verse only heightens the fun, and the cast handled the sparkling language beautifully.
The three stars all shone very brightly indeed. Joanna Lumley (the brilliant Patsy Stone of Absolutely Fabulous, and Purdy of The New Avengers, among other things), made her Broadway debut as the spoiled patron Princess. She was alternately hilariously silly and cuttingly serious. She had a wonderful moment where she sat in one of the side boxes at the gorgeous Music Box Theatre to watch the performance onstage. Without an acknowledgment or wink to anyone, she took the rag doll (read: adult pacifier) that had been dangling from her gown, and sat it on the wall of the theatre box, stuffed face pointed at the stage, ready to watch the play with her. The production abounded with inspired moments of silliness like that. David Hyde Pierce as Elomire shouldered the huge burden of playing straight man to a comic cyclone with grace, and he too scored both in his withering criticisms and his genuine pleas from the heart. He also had the unenviable task of saying nothing while Mark Rylance, so superb in Boeing Boeing, again demonstrated just what a remarkable, flexible, and deliciously shamless actor he can be. The first part of the play is taken up with a 30-minute (no exaggeration) monologue for the sublimely fatuous Valere, and Rylance sailed through it brilliantly. He and director Matthew Warchus paced this olympian feat of verbal silliness expertly, introducing a world of variety, and using both HydePierce and the delightful Stephen Ouimette (much loved from TV’s Slings and Arrows) to season and heighten the outrageousness of Valere’s narcissistic logorrhea. Tim tells me that in the original production, the actor was entirely alone onstage, and used the audience as his audience instead. While I didn’t see that production, I can tell you this approach to the difficult monologue worked superbly, and you almost wanted Rylance to just keep going.
Playwright Hirson does a crafty job of setting up the audience for the inevitable battle between the established, scholarly Elomire and the upstart clown Valere for the patronage of the mercurial Princess (a Prince in the original, by the way; the sex change is purportedly the only change Hirson made in his script for this revival). And it’s to Hirson’s credit that by the end, you may join the Princess in questioning which of the men is, in fact, La Bete (the beast). I’d say they both had some beastly traits, and that perhaps the artistic middle ground the Princess sought might not be such a bad goal after all, though unachievable between Valere and Elomire. But there’s no question that the denouement is a sobering and thought-provoking one. Perhaps it’s inevitable that Reality TV will win in the end?
It’s a wonderful play, and if you didn’t see the Broadway revival, I hope you are able to see it in an excellent regional theatre production near you. In fact, I hope I’m in the production. I would jump at the chance to play either Valere or Elomire; I’m constantly being asked “Why don’t you understudy David Hyde Pierce, or play his brother or something? You guys could be twins!” I think the ultimate would be to do another production where the two actors trade off playing the two roles. That might be gilding an already well-gilt lily, but it sure would be fun. Bravo to all involved in this Broadway revival, and thank you all for giving Broadway something to think about. Something very timely indeed.
My partner Tim and I joined my buddy (and composer pal) Eric Barnes recently to see Bonnie Langford: Christmas in New York, a new cabaret performance that is part of the 59E59 Theatre’s “Brits Off Broadway” series. Eric and Bonnie had worked together on the recent national tour of Chicago, with Eric on keyboards and Bonnie as Roxie. I also fondly remembered seeing Bonnie as Mel, assistant to the sixth Doctor Who in the long-running British TV series. Her remarkable career has had a number of other notable highs to date, including playing Baby June to Angela Lansbury’s Mama Rose, originating the role of Rumpleteaser in the original UK production of Cats, and scoring a smash in London as Sweet Charity.
Eric is also old friends with Bonnie’s music director and accompanist, the wonderful Michael Lavine. As fate would have it, we ended up running into Michael and Bonnie before the start of the show, and they were both so gracious that after two minutes, I felt like I’d known them for years. And in fact, in a masterstroke of unlikely fate, Michael astonished me by revealing that we had sort of met before: he had actually seen my Harvard College Hasty Pudding show, A Little Knife Music (my personal off-the-wall salute to Stephen Sondheim) many moons ago during the one week it played in NYC. Very few people can claim that!
Bonnie was delightful in her show, and managed to pack in a lot of entertainment, both in terms of a wide variety of song styles, and some genuinely hilarious ‘coming of age in the business” stories from her own career. Nöel Coward was particularly catty, but Bonnie has the last laugh. Bonnie was ably abetted by Michael in a couple of duets (they make a very good team), and his playing throughout served each song beautifully. While the uptempos and comic numbers were all delightful (and one allowed her to reveal some serious operatic chops), Bonnie was equally effective with a few simple ballads, making each one land gently, suffused with genuine feeling. And happily, Bonnie threw in a few Doctor Who references for those of us in the know! She’s had quite a life already, from child star in the UK at the age of 6 to her recent acclaimed performances in the US as Roxie Hart. In fact, Bonnie finished her set with a sizzling selection of songs from Chicago that sent the capacity audience out on a cabaret high. Try to catch this fun act if you can before it closes on January 2nd. If you miss it, keep an eye out–luckily for us, Bonnie and her family have recently relocated to Manhattan, so here’s hoping she’ll be back with a new show in the spring!
You can read more about Bonnie and her career at her web site: www.bonnielangford.co.uk/. And if you’re a musical performer seeking coaching, or trying to find the sheet music for a tantalizingly obscure theatre song, visit Michael’s site: www.michaellavine.net. He has one of the largest privately-held collections of sheet music in the world. And he knows how to use it.
I love good plays. I love good movies. So I was glad we found a chance to see Brief Encounter on Broadway. I had never seen the classic film version, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoying this unique stage incarnation. In fact, now I can’t wait to see the film! Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre has done a wonderful job of having their cake, and eating it too. This version is part homage, part deconstruction, part send-up, part music hall entertainment, and yet somehow it all comes together by taking the story with utter sincerity. Stars Tristan Sturrock and Hannah Yelland are superb, balancing occasional flights of theatrical fancy with complete commitment to the intensity of the bond between the two almost-lovers. They are genuinely moving. And the whole company supports them admirably, managing to move from vaudeville to very real danger without missing a beat. The production is filled with visually imaginative flourishes, and while I have seen such elements misused in other shows, here the trickery is intricately woven into the storytelling and never feels anything other than fresh and right. Hats off to everyone at Kneehigh involved in bringing this work to the stage. And a special salute to Adaptor/Director Emma Rice for envisioning this uniquely bewitching and genuinely charming production. It’s playing only through January 2nd, so this week is your last chance to catch it. Navigate your way around the snowbanks and head over to Studio 54 for tickets. I would call it a genuine don’t miss!
I’ve just now realized to my astonishment that I never got around to doing a post about the Broadway production of Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. I’m particularly abashed, because it’s one of the best plays we’ve seen in a long, long time. We caught it in its final week , and all I can say is that it deserved a much longer run, particularly with the beautiful production it was given. The cast, including Michael Cerveris, Laura Benanti, Maria Dizzia, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Thomas Jay Ryan, Wendy Rich Stetson, and Chandler Williams all navigated Ms. Ruhl’s delicate dance of romantic misfires (or perhaps I should say short-circuits) and unsatisfied longings with honesty, sensitivity, and genuine feeling. Director Les Waters applied the perfect gentle touch to reveal the play to be in equal parts funny and moving. I’m now in love with this script; Ruhl manages to show us a world where most attempts at intimacy fail, sometimes hilariously, sometimes heartbreakingly, while infusing each interaction with a genuine compassion for every character. She even throws in a little touch of magic realism at the end that gives us hope for change. Annie Smart did the beautiful and very practical set, David Zinn the gorgeous period costumes, and Russell Champa the evocative lighting; all three elements play particularly key roles in this story that deals with secrets behind a door, the sheer difficulty of getting a woman out of restrictive corsets and dresses with too many buttons, and the dawn of electricity. The fact that this play was inspired by real historical elements only makes it more illuminating and potent. When my partner and I saw the show, we brought along a couple of my friends from the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, who were visiting from out of town. We all loved the play and the production, and when I saw my friends again a few months later at an LCSNA meeting, the first thing one of them said to me was: “I’m still thinking about that play.” And I knew exactly how he felt! I bought the script recently and read it, and it’s a lovely, grown-up, genuinely thought-provoking work. I hope I’ll have a chance to play Dr. Givings someday soon; in the meantime, I’ll look forward to seeing more productions of this superb piece. Well done, Ms. Ruhl, and well done all. Now I can’t wait to see Ms. Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s sublime Orlando!
Last week, we went to see buddy Afton C. Williamson, who has stepped into the starring role of Susan in David Mamet’s hot-button Broadway play, Race. Afton was every bit as fabulous as I would have expected, and the role turned out to be a very juicy one! It was great seeing her take advantage of it, and claim her space alongside wonderful co-stars Eddie Izzard (whom we also loved in the stunning Joe Egg revival a few years back, as well as in his one-man standup shows), Dennis Haysbert (super in the play, and maybe one of the nicest smiles on Broadway), and Richard Thomas (whom we loved in Terrence McNally’s fascinating Prelude and Liebestod). Izzard and Haysbert are beautifully matched as a lethal (and very real) pair of lawyers, Thomas radiates the utter blindness of an overprivileged party boy, and Afton deftly supplies the necessary Mamet “spark” to kindle the flames. All were excellent, and all were clearly having a great time with each other, playing out Mamet’s sly, twisty, and provocative plot. I recall the reviews dubbing this play a lesser work, but I’d have to disagree. I think it’s economical, and makes its points beautifully. It throws the audience into a race-related legal situation, and stirs up the plot repeatedly with little revelations so that as audience members we’re constantly questioning who to root for, and whether our own racial prejudices might be affecting our sympathies. Having whacked the hornet’s nest, Mamet ends the play abruptly, leaving us to continue the discussion outside the theatre. Afton has the last line, and delivers it like a cannon volley over the prow of a well-armed battleship. It’s an extremely clever play, and also very funny despite the serious topic at hand. If you haven’t already seen it, you really should. It closes August 21st.
After the show, we went backstage to congratulate Afton, and she invited us to meet her co-stars. We had a great time chatting; what a gracious, funny, lovely bunch! They clearly have a wonderful time together offstage as well. Congrats to all!
Tim and I caught Next to Normal a couple of nights before Alice Ripley left the Broadway cast. Like a lot of people, we were a bit leery of what sounded like some pretty dark subject matter. So we kept putting it off. But we didn’t want to miss it, having heard such good things, and we certainly didn’t want to miss Ms. Ripley. We first saw her perform when she went on in the role of Mrs. Walker the night we saw The Who’s Tommy. We were absolutely blown away by her work, and couldn’t believe she was the understudy. Then came Sideshow, in which she and Emily Skinner were nothing less than magnificent; they were that show, and utterly, utterly believable as the lovesick conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. We also enjoyed them in James Joyce’s The Dead.
When we went to see Next to Normal, we were disappointed that Brian D’arcy James (another favorite since his astonishing work in The Wild Party) was out that whole week–something the show’s web site had not mentioned when we bought our tickets! But Ms. Ripley and the rest of the superb cast did not disappoint. It’s so refreshing to see a musical that embraces the form on its own terms, and succeeds so well. And the theatrical device that authors Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey employed (which I will not spoil here) was beautifully handled. Michael Grief’s direction was admirably restrained and unfussy, letting the story speak for itself. Was it a “feel-good” show? Well, it was funny, thought-provoking, upsetting at times, and moving. That’ll do nicely. Ms. Ripley happily has a few months off to rest before headlining the national tour; it’s great that audiences around the country will have a chance to see her performance, and this powerful show, somewhere close to home. Because that’s exactly where the show hits. The new Broadway cast, meanwhile, now stars the wonderful Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley (real-life husband and wife, for those few who don’t already know that!). She deserved a Tony for her showstopping turn in Kiss Me, Kate a few years back, and he broke my heart in The Full Monty. We may just have to go back to Normal. And if you haven’t gone yet, you should.
Saturday night, Tim and I went to see my buddy Steve Hauck take on the title role in The Screwtape Letters at the Westside Arts Theatre, Off Broadway. Steve is standby for star/adaptor Max McLean, and happily knew in advance that both he and his fellow standby, Elise Girardin, would be going on for both shows Saturday. As expected Steve made a wonderful Screwtape, and Ms. Girardin also aquitted herself elegantly as the wordless but expressive Toadpipe. Tim and I were both familiar with the original C.S. Lewis work, so it was interesting seeing it adapted for the stage–always tricky for a work in epistolary format. It was a handsome production, and Steve was delightful. Well done! Steve played Estragon to my Vladimir in Vermont Stage Company’s production of Waiting for Godot, and we had a fantastic time. Here’s hoping we get to play together onstage again sometime soon. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Steve!
We went to see Everyday Rapture recently, as we had loved Sherie Rene Scott in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. She did not disappoint! What a lovely, gracious onstage presence. And then that fabulous voice! It was no surprise that she can turn on the wattage whenever she wants, but what was especially lovely about this self-created piece was a lot of the quiet moments, of which there seem to be very few in today’s “big” musicals. I imagine it must be very satisfying for Ms. Scott to be receiving such recognition for a piece she co-wrote, where she had the option of deciding just what aspects of her talent she wanted to share, as we performers so rarely have that level of control. Ms. Scott is surrounded by a talented supporting cast and band. The night we saw it, her backup singers were Lindsay Mendez and Natalie Weiss, both of whom rocked, and Eamon Foley scored big-time in an extended second act sequence about an internet teen outreach attempt gone hilariously (and all too believably) wrong. It was also great to see an artist not afraid to touch on some challenging topics in a mainstream entertainment. I can’t wait to see what she does next!
Tim and I went to catch The Temperamentals before its closing. The five member cast did a beautiful job of telling the remarkable story. I really knew nothing about Harry Hay, or his Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization in America. It’s a remarkable tale, and a humbling one. And the fact that he was brave enough to advocate for gay rights in the 1950′s, in the era of McCarthyism, makes his story all the more remarkable. Who knows; perhaps fine organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the Empire State Pride Agenda, among many others, might not even exist yet if Hay and his four compatriots hadn’t taken the first step back then. I salute them, and playwright Jon Marans for telling their story.
I’ve been enthalled by the work of Stephen Sondheim since my freshman year at Harvard, when a college friend played the LP of A Little Night Music for me in his dorm room many years ago. I had never heard anything like it, and I fell in love. I decided right there that I had to write theatre lyrics–which I still do.
The latest tribute to Sondheim’s genius is the lovely, intimate revue Sondheim on Sondheim, which is notable not only for the wonderful songs and wonderful cast (eight superb performers, including Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, and Tom Wopat), but also for the film clips of Sondheim himself explaining how he does what he does, with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s a don’t-miss evening for any fan of his work.
Seeing Mr. Sondheim talking humorously at length in his own home also brought up wonderful memories of the one time I met him. It was 1982, I was 22, and had just moved to NYC to start my career as a lyricist and performer. I had been told that Mr. Sondheim was very supportive of young writers, and had lots of advice. I mustered up the nerve to write to him to ask for his guidance, and displayed even more nerve by telling him that while I loved his songs in Merrily We Roll Along, I didn’t like the book! Ah, youth. I received a courteous but firm hand-typed note on small stationery, saying politely that he liked the book just fine, thank you, but that if I wanted to stop by some afternoon, he’d be glad to speak with me.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading! But I called his assistant and set up a time to visit him at his home. I arrived wearing a summer-weight seersucker 2-piece suit, bowtie, and my best lace-up shoes. He opened the door and looked at me, probably wondering to himself from what planet I had just arrived! He invited me in, and excused himself for a moment to stir some soup he was making. I looked around, still in shock. It was a beautiful room. He came back in, invited me to sit, and started firing career questions at me. I don’t even remember what they were. I just remember that every word out of his mouth was so articulate, so pointed, so penetrating, that it took my breath away. And he was just chatting. My answers must have been halting, because he looked at me for a moment, the seersucker deer in headlights, and said: “Would you like a drink?” I answered yes immediately, and sure enough, while I have never been much of a drinker, I started to calm down and breathe after a couple of sips. We had a fantastic conversation, and he recommended both the BMI and ASCAP musical theatre workshops (I went on to attend both). We talked a bit about the project my composer friend of the time and I had been working on (a musical based on The Seagull), and I told him there were so many other ideas out there that I’d encountered that I wasn’t sure where to start. I asked him if he’d ever seen a film called Passione D’Amore by Italian director Ettore Scola. He said he wasn’t familiar with it. I told him my childhood best friend and I had been mesmerized by it recently, and that it seemed perfectly operatic in scale. I had loved the fact that when the repellent heroine finally made love to the hero, she remained ugly. I remember telling him it seemed more suited to opera than musical because of the grand passion, but that it definitely felt like it needed to sing. I suspect the idea was filed away in that brilliant mind of his and forgotten until sometime later when perhaps someone else mentioned the film, or he came across it on his own later, or perhaps he was already working on his musical Passion and didn’t want to burst my bubble. But it’s nice to believe that in exchange for all the advice and encouragement he gave me, maybe I unwittingly gave him something useful, too.
When we were wrapping up, I remember telling him I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by New York City and the challenges that lay ahead. I told him I had always thought I was fearless, but now that I was really in the city on my own, I wasn’t so sure anymore. He looked at me and said: “How old are you?” I told him, 22. He said “And you moved from Boston to NYC alone to be in the theatre without knowing a soul here?” I nodded. He looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said “That sounds pretty brave to me.” I have never forgotten those words, and I will never forget his kindness. See his new show. You won’t be disappointed.