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May 1, 2015

April’s Leftovers and May’s Brainteaser

I was excited to hear that Thornton Wilder’s lost manuscript for A DAY IN SANTA FE has finally been found. Rumors had abounded for years that Wilder did not limit his full-length play output to a play set in New Hampshire (OUR TOWN), New York (THE MERCHANT OF YONKERS, revised as THE MATCHMAKER) and New Jersey (THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH). Hadn’t he written one set in the only other “New” state – New Mexico? Now, I’m happy to say, that’s been proven true.

And THAT, my friends, was as malicious as I got with my April Fool’s Day joke this year.

So what did I think of the Tony nominations? Pretty much what you did. Given that they came out three days ago, they’ve already been discussed ad nauseam. You don’t need me to reiterate that everyone else has been saying for the last seventy-two hours.

There’s quite a different HAMLET at Classic Stage Company. Claudius (the low-key Harris Yulin) and Gertrude (the forceful Penelope Allen) are substantially older than we usually see them, more in line with 44-year-old Peter Sarsgaard as Hamlet.

Yes, Hamlet is rarely played by a kid of college age, and we must believe that he was a super-senior in high school and took quite a bit time off (in order to find himself) before heading to Wittenberg, where he must now be going for his doctorate. Thus, director Austin Pendleton has put age matters more into line with his casting and also suggests that Claudius and Gertrude did what they did to grab a last thrill on their way to the cemetery.

Maybe Hamlet’s been slow with his studies because he does drugs. Keep your eyes peeled for a scene where that happens. This occurs long after Hamlet gets pretty Oedipal with Gertrude. We’re denied his conversation with The Ghost, for Hamlet talks to him offstage. Is it possible that there was no ghost at all, and that Hamlet has already begun his descent into madness? Sarsgaard plays that well for the next three hours.

Notice, too, the pseudo-innocent “What’s the problem?” look he gives Claudius after the performance of THE MOUSETRAP. It is, you’ll recall, his revisal of THE MURDER OF GONZAGO. (This MOUSETRAP has over time had more performances than Agatha Christie’s MOUSETRAP in London.)

Lisa Joyce’s Ophelia gives the best mad scene I’ve witnessed in the fifteen HAMLETS I’ve caught dating back to the 1964 Burton. Glenn Fitzgerald shows that Laertes isn’t looking forward to revenging the death of his daddy, but feels he must. Stephen Spinella gets a good laugh at the way he reacts to Gertrude’s request that he offer “more matter, with less art.”

Some may chide Pendleton for playing with the text, but he doesn’t change a word in the final bloodbath scene while offering completely different takes on some of the deaths. Yes, it’s a very different HAMLET in which the interpretation’s the thing.

As the trial of James “Dark Knight” Holmes started in Colorado, playwright David Meyers deftly brought us into the mind of Kevin McFadden, his fictional serial killer in BROKEN. Meyers was also superb in playing the maniac who murdered seventeen in a mall. Now that he’s brought in to be evaluated by the prison doctor, he knows he has the power as long as he’s uncommunicative. Michael Pemberton was equally strong as Dr. Palmer, trying every which way to reach the fiend, making us realize (perhaps for the first time) just how difficult a job this is. And yet, the playwright pointed out that the doctor’s patience only lasted so long in an honest and powerful ending. Let’s see more from Meyers and BROKEN.

I can’t remember worse choreography than FINDING NEVERLAND’s in the last 54 years at approximately 85% of Broadway’s musicals as well as plenty in regional, stock, community, high school, middle school and grade school theater. Everyone seemed to be inflicted with St. Vitus Dance and reminded me of the sadly unbalanced beings that populated MARAT/SADE.

The show’s truly terrible, and not just because it avoids asking a question I’d like to ask. Given that J.M. Barrie told Peter Llewelyn Davies that the kid was the inspiration for Peter Pan, doesn’t he owe the boy an explanation why his namesake would be played by a girl?

Here’s all I have to say about AIRLINE HIGHWAY, Lisa D’Amour’s comedy-drama about so called loveable losers. When I watch a play about people who waste time, I feel that I’m wasting time.

Is there any lyric-less piece of music and musical staging that brings on the joy and tears of “March of the Siamese Children” in THE KING AND I? The smiles and tears come more often in Bartlett Sher’s new production because the director makes each kid an individual. The one who caught my eye most was the tall, gangly boy who proved that going through adolescence is a universal thing.

How moving, too, that Sher has Anna sense the boy’s awkwardness and goes to him. It’s in keeping with Kelli O’Hara’s very intelligent take on Mrs. Anna. When she says that The King should “put your best foot forward,” she’s already ahead of him in knowing that he’s going to take her literally and put out the foot he assumes is the better one. When she tells the King that Abraham Lincoln “educated himself,” she adds a subtext of “If he can do it, you can, too.” The way she stresses the word “like” in “There is much I LIKE in you” (in R&H’s second-greatest soliloquy) neatly conveys, “So near yet so far, King.” She’s firm but not cruel in a performance I’ve heard too many people take for granted.

Add me to the group that believes that Ken Watanabe is impossible to understand. Too bad, for he’s otherwise giving a fine performance. Making him bald, however, was a bad idea, and not merely because it brings Yul Brynner to mind. As Scott Miller pointed out in his excellent book STRIKE UP THE BAND, there was a reason why Christopher Renshaw kept Lou Diamond Phillips’ head hairy in his 1996 revival. Thai people believe that “kwan” – a person’s soul that contains self-confidence and self-respect – can escape through one’s head if he’s bald, so the head should always be covered in some way.

Credit to HAND TO GOD, Robert Askins’ delightfully irreverent play for its unique advertising campaign. While we’re all used to seeing the same ad in Playbill after Playbill, HAND TO GOD took a full-page ad many a show playing on Broadway and made a specific comment on each. For THE KING AND I, it said “I’m all about ‘Getting to Know You.’ For a good time call 212.239.6200.” For that marvelous front-runner for the Tony at Circle in the Square, “My home is always fun, baby.” For FINDING NEVERLAND, “Don’t bring the kids.”

(Frankly, FINDING NEVERLAND should place in every Playbill an ad that says “Don’t bring the kids, adults or yourself.” That’s the humane thing to do.)

At the Laurie Beechman Theatre, LOOK UP is no WHOOP-UP. Lyricist Anya Turner and composer Robert Grusecki have turned in one of the season’s brightest scores. Better still, they appear in the show, and director Stephen Nachamie knows how to make them, Darcy Yellin and Tom Picasso utterly delightful.

We’ve all heard shows desperately try to find new ways to tell us to turn off our cell-phones, but these two have written a witty song about it. The song “Golden Age” has nothing to do with The Golden Age of Broadway, but the song itself is worthy of it. There’s a Christmas song set in a very different locale, and a trendy song about a virtual friend. They’re all accomplished.

Turner may also be the first to rhyme “skyline” with “High Line,” that popular stretch of downtown elevated railway. She’s even written a primer on how to write a song, and, believe me, she and Grusecki know how. My favorite moment? The enchanting Darcy Yellin sings about the fetching young pedicab driver who took her around Central Park. Yellin was just subtle and yet knowing enough when informing us “He knew his way around.”

LOOK UP plays again twice in May. You can look up when, but I’ll do it for you: May 5 and 19 at 7 p.m. There’s a $20 cover charge and $20 food/beverage minimum.

Lehman Engel’s BMI Workshop students caught on quite quickly that when the master said that a song had “pretty music,” he didn’t think much of it. There’s plenty of pretty music in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO.

There are also such lines as “I can be a valuable friend or a dangerous enemy” and such phrases as “before we do something we regret.” Howell Binkley’s lighting is appropriately dark, but the problem with dark lighting is that it impedes you from being able to see on your wristwatch how much time has passed and how much there is to go.

Many musical theater programs – such as Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and The University of Michigan – bring their seniors to town each spring to do a revue for agents. With songs as disparate and unlinked as “This Can’t Be Love,” “Anyone Can Whistle” or “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” in an hour-long program, each senior hopes to dazzle the ten-percenters and get signed.

The A. Max Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre at The University of Oklahoma is trying something different. Its students will perform a book musical: THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, those marvelous talents who wrote THE STORY OF MY LIFE. It’s a show specifically for and about college students and is said to be “SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD meets THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE.”

(Let’s hope, now that they’ve met, that they get along.)

It happened because Paul G. Christman, a director at the school, met the writers at the 2006 NAMT Festival of New Musicals. When he heard Bartram and Hill’s material, he was intent on getting them to that state where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.

The pair have since aired a couple of their musicals on campus, and when Christman heard that they’d been commissioned by Sheridan College to write a show about college kids, he saw it as the ideal platform for a senior showcase. Head to 54 Below on Tuesday, May 12 at 7 and 9:30 p.m. There’s a $25-$35 cover charge and a $25 food/beverage minimum.

Returning to ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, I once again recalled my favorite experience with the original production. No, it wasn’t seeing a star born in Judy Kaye (thrilling as that was), or even catching the then-unknown Christine Ebersole go on for Kaye one night (magnificent as she was).

It happened on November 2, 1978 when I took my train-obsessed six-year-old son Jason to see the show. He even paid attention to the scene in which Lily ostensibly takes pity on the down-and-out Oscar and gives him a check for $35. But Oscar had recently received his check of “five zeroes preceded by a two” from Mrs. Primrose, so in his usual over-dramatic way he says “Lily, you always said I was a magician! Look! Look! Nothing up my sleeve! I fold this simple check,” he adds crumpling it into a ball in his fist before offering her the check in his other hand: “I have $200,000!”

And my innocent kid turned to me and with widened eyes, he guilelessly said in an awe-filled voice, “That’s a pretty good trick!”

The answer to last month’s brainteaser -- which asked what the original productions of these long-run Broadway musicals have in common – CATS, A CHORUS LINE, JERSEY BOYS, MISS SAIGON, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, RENT and WICKED -- that they DO NOT have in common with the original productions of these long-run Broadway musicals: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, 42ND STREET, GREASE, LES MISERABLES, THE LION KING and MAMMA MIA.

The answer is that each musical in the second group of shows moved from its original theater to at least one new one; the musicals in the first group all stayed put (or have so far).

Michael Hall was the first to get it, followed by Jack Lechner, Michael Thomas, Stuart Ira Soloway, Christopher Connelly, Ron Fassler, Ian Ewing, Cary Winslow, Karen Valen, Ed Weissman, Noel Katz, Brigadude, Mark Hanson, Bryan Brooks and Jeff Vellenga.

This month’s brainteaser: What FOUR things do these musicals have in common? THE APPLE TREE, BELLS ARE RINGING, DREAMGIRLS, FOLLIES, LITTLE ME, ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, PACIFIC OVERTURES, RAGTIME, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and WEST SIDE STORY. (One, two or three will not do; you must have all four.)

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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