Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide by Ethan Mordden

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

On SondheimIn Passion, Fosca sings, “If you have no expectations, you can never have a disappointment.” These are wise words to bring with you to Ethan Mordden’s latest book, On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide. Judging by its title, you might expect the book to provide a complete listing of Sondheim’s output with the author’s assessments of same, but it is oddly inadequate as both opinion and guide. The book immediately shirks its guide obligations by referring readers on the very first page to SondheimGuide.com (without a mention of Michael H. Hutchins, the man responsible for putting it together). It falls short in the opinion arena as well, offering far fewer than the title implies and hardly any that might register as controversial. And yet, taken on its own terms it offers pleasures for both the Sondheim expert and newbie alike.

Mordden knows his subject well, but he occasionally lets that get the better of him. Acknowledging in his preface that he generally did not consult other books on his subject in the writing of this one, he lets the occasional misstatement slip through. Mordden’s prose style is characterized by an awkward combination of SAT words (“manumission,” “equiponderant”) and slang (relating an artistic disagreement as a “hard-on contest,” or describing the opening scene of My Fair Lady as “an Instagram of the show’s analysis of class”). A quick poll of acquaintances who have read other Mordden uncovers that this is a common quirk of his writing about musicals, and the percentage of those who hate it is fairly close to those who adore it.  Continue reading

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Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman and Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way by Stewart F. Lane

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

The Great White WayIf you dive into Warren Hoffman’s The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical expecting it to be a catalog of minorities on stage, you might want to take a second look at the title. Hoffman’s book does indeed cover shows like Show Boat and Flower Drum Song, which focus on the experience of minorities in this country, and it takes a look at all-black productions of traditionally white shows like Hello, Dolly! and Guys and Dolls. But Hoffman is quick to point out that an understanding of race and the Broadway musical can’t possibly be complete without an attempt to understand Whiteness on stage as well. Hoffman asks readers to consider not only what shows like West Side Story (which place white characters in opposition to characters of other races) might have to say about being white, but also to focus on shows like The Music Man and 42nd Street, which white audiences have typically seen as “not about race.” The Great White Way provides an enlightening experience with the potential to open the reader to radical reconsideration of classic and contemporary shows alike. Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – The Untold Stories of Broadway

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

Untold StoriesHistory, as we all learned from Stephen Sondheim’s “Someone in a Tree,” is shaped as much by the storytellers as it is by the story. Herein lies both the charm and the challenge of The Untold Stories of Broadway by Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the first in a projected four volumes of “tales from the world’s most famous theaters.” Tepper, armed with little more than a tape recorder and chutzpah, interviewed over 200 Broadway professionals, including actors, writers, musicians, designers, stagehands, producers, ushers and doormen, to create this oral history of Broadway organized by theater.

For those unfamiliar with Ms. Tepper, she is the 28-year-old director of programming at 54 Below, and the Millennial most likely to be dubbed Mayor of Broadway when it’s time for that title to pass to her generation. Between assisting Michael Berresse on the Broadway production of [title of show], working for Davenport Theatricals on shows such as Godspell and Macbeth, and producing a variety of beloved concert series including If It Only Even Runs A Minute (celebrating Broadway’s flops), Once Upon a Time in New York City (featuring new songs by Broadway composers reflecting on their relationship with the city), and the Joe Iconis & Family shows, it seems like Jennifer is everywhere and knows everybody.  Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Reviews – Nothing Like a Dame

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com

Nothing Like A DameEddie Shapiro is best known for bringing out the gaiety at the Happiest Place on Earth as the co-author of Queens in the Kingdom: The Ultimate Gay and Lesbian Guide to the Disney Theme Parks and the producer of Gay Days at Disneyland. His latest book, Nothing Like A Dame, focuses on a different kind of royalty: twenty-one of Broadway’s leading ladies, every one of them a Tony Award winner, encompassing over sixty years of Broadway history, from Carol Channing, whose debut was in Let’s Face It in 1941, to those opening in shows this season like Idina Menzel and Sutton Foster. (Twenty interviews appear in the book proper. A bonus chapter about Tonya Pinkins is available as a download from the book’s website.)

Subtitled “Conversations with the Great Women of Musical Theater,” Shapiro’s book delivers exactly what the title promises: interviews with (mostly) above-the-title stars, presented as straightforward Q&As. While there are only a couple of notable omissions (Bernadette Peters being the most obvious), the book makes no attempt to be encyclopedic. In fact, in his introduction, Shapiro acknowledges that many of these women have written their own memoirs (or, in the case of Elaine Stritch and Chita Rivera, performed in autobiographical Broadway shows) and, rather than attempt to retell the same stories, he hoped to complement and expand upon what they’ve already offered about themselves. Given that approach, this book might not be the most accessible to casual theatergoers. If shows like Call Me Madam and Kiss of the Spider Woman or names like Graciela Daniele and Gwen Verdon send you running to Google, you may find the reading experience challenging. Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: Book Review – Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway Hit

Originally published on TalkinBroadway.com.

Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway HitThere’s an entire genre of books detailing the “making of” Broadway musicals from idea to opening night, and it’s not hard to understand why. Few musicals spring forth fully formed from the minds of their creators, no matter how perfect the final product. The collaborative nature of theater, and musical theater in particular, ensures that the birthing process involves disparate artists hoping to merge their individual visions into one production, and their individual personalities into a team. When the unified vision, or the team, fails to coalesce, you may end up with a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark situation, where the creative differences and the backstabbing combined to make a narrative more interesting than the show itself. But as Newsies: Stories of the Unlikely Broadway Hit demonstrates, even a relatively smooth creative process can make for a good read. Taking the form of an oral history, including diverse voices from the property’s history brought together by editor (and Newsies dramaturg) Ken Cerniglia, this new addition to the genre makes an entertaining and informative read, whether you’re a “Fansie” or not.

If the word “Fansie”—that’s what Newsies fandom has dubbed itself—causes you to make involuntary gagging noises, don’t worry. Although this book might look at first glance like an elaborate souvenir program pandering to teenage girls, the “Fansie” content is limited to a few interstitial pages of fan-submitted photos and quotes about how the film or the show affected their lives. Well, that’s only half true, for one of the biggest revelations of the book is how many members of the team that brought Newsies to Broadway, from management to designers to (especially) the dancers, were inspired by the original film to pursue careers in the arts. Continue reading

Talkin’ Broadway: The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.

Stephanie Umoh and Jaime Cepero III

Don’t be scared by the verbose title:Bubbly Black Girl is a surprisingly traditional musical coming of age story.  The spirited cast takes us from Los Angeles in the early ’60s to New York in the mid-’90s in a series of musical scenes loosely based on the life of playwright/composer/lyricist Kirsten Childs.  Childs first hit the stage as a Broadway dancer, eventually starring in Chicago opposite Chita Rivera.  Becoming frustrated with the roles available to African-American actors, she turned her talents to writing.

Bubbly Black Girl follows the story of Viveca, a black woman not entirely unlike Childs, who finds life much easier to navigate with a smile and a “bubbly” exterior. Eventually, her experiences growing up in the civil rights era and struggling to succeed as a Broadway dancer call into question the wisdom of living behind this façade. As the title promises, by the eleven o’clock number we see her shed her “chameleon skin” and commit herself to living with integrity.

Jacqui Parker, the star of last year’s Caroline, or Change, has stepped into the director’s spot for this outing.  Along with choreographer David Connolly, she’s put together a show that dances from scene to scene, era to era with grace befitting a show written by a dancer. Connolly makes good use of period dance steps to convey the passage of time, and he gives us a couple of delightful set pieces showing off the entire cast.

Stephanie Umoh, as Viveca, is on stage for almost the entire intermissionless show. While she sings and acts well, she’s not particularly convincing as a dancer, and she never quite achieves the luminosity of star quality called for by the role. She’s entertaining, but not nearly magnetic enough to carry this show on her back.

Her job is made a bit harder by the terrific supporting cast, many of whom prove to be far more interesting than the leading lady in the scenes they share with her.  Anich D’Jae, as Viveca’s friend Emily, exhibits expert comic timing as she teaches her friend the new rules for courting in the age of Black Power.  Jaime Cepero II similarly steals the spotlight as Viveca’s love interest, Gregory.  From his very funny turn as the only little boy in Viveca’s childhood dance class to his more adult declaration of love in the number “Beautiful Bright Blue Sky,” Cepero is a magnetic presence on stage.  Towards the end of the show, Trecia Reavis brings down the house with “Granny’s Advice,” a show-stopping blues number.

The cast is ably supported by a tight five-piece band under the direction of José Delgado.  John R. Malinowski’s evocative lighting and Eric Levenson’s minimal set pieces skillfully convey the variety of locations called for by the script.  Seth Bodie’s costumes are at times delightful, especially when he takes the opportunity for exaggeration, such as in the hippie and Black Power scenes.  However, his clothes for Umoh are distractingly ill-fitting, and some of the wigs employed make the women of the cast look like drag-queens parodies of the ’70s.

The biggest problem inherent in the show is one that Parker never quite solves.  The play is not nearly as edgy or adventuresome as one might expect from the title.  And that title also tells us exactly how the play will end, so the director’s challenge is making the journey there as captivating as possible.  And, despite some great supporting performances and a few excellent numbers, Bubbly Black Girl never quite sheds its own theatrical skin to become something greater.

SpeakEasy Stage Company presents The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin, now through December 9 at the BCA Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. Tickets and times atBostonTheatreScene.com, 617-933-8600, or at the Calderwood Pavilion Box Office, 527 Tremont Street.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

 

Talkin’ Broadway: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Little Shop of Horrors, The Women

Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The opening of Boston’s very own company of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee gave me occasion to revisit the show, which I first saw over a year ago in its Broadway incarnation. At the time, I posted my feelings on a message board:

“The show is very, very funny. Very funny. Hilarious. The performers are all fantastic, landing every joke, nuance, and song. But … but …

“Well, you can feel the show’s roots in improv. The characters are all fully realized, and the situation is funny, but there’s not a whole lot of depth. Any ‘journey’ a character takes happens in typical William Finn ‘one song epiphany’ style. There’s not much of a through line or an arc to the evening.”

While all of this is still true, it didn’t bother me nearly as much the second time around. Perhaps because I knew what I was in for, I was more able to simply sit back and laugh, which is exactly what I did.

The cast assembled for the Boston production is every bit as good as the New York originals, in a few cases even better. Betsy Wolfe, as host and former spelling champion Rona Lisa Peretti, provides the perfect center to the exuberantly chaotic goings-on at the Bee, a mothering presence who nonetheless has a touch of zaniness herself. She’s joined on the adult side of the proceedings by two excellent character actors: Daniel Pearce, pathetically hilarious as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, and James Monroe Iglehart, striking both fear and comfort into the hearts of spellers and audience members alike as comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney.

Each of the “kids” is a standout in his or her own right. To single out a few: Sara Inbar, as the earnestly dorky, politically-active Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, is so perfect in her role that I hoped this time she might win despite the script. Stanley Bahorek’s Leaf Coneybear, the
weirdest of the weird kids assembled, manages to be entertainingly odd in an entirely different manner than Jesse Tyler Ferguson was on Broadway. Jared Gertner captures the nuances of William Barfee, the loser who has convinced himself that winning is better than having friends, without being quite as creepy as Dan Fogler was in the part. The result is a character who’s just as memorable, but considerably more likable and easy to root for.

James Lapine’s direction keeps the show moving along at an exciting pace, and he’s adapted the show well to a more traditional proscenium setup. The design team transfers the show’s gymnasium feel to theatre well, with Beowulf Boritt’s set extending out through the audience and even into the
lobby, thanks to lots of laminated “schoolwork” and motivational posters. The five-piece band serves the score well, with conductor Janet Roma getting in a couple of choice moments of stage business as well.

Spelling Bee may not be a classic for the ages, but it’s a guaranteed evening of laughs. And you’ll definitely want to catch this talented young cast so that when the 50th Annual Bee rolls around, you’ll be able to say you saw them when …
Little Shop Of Horrors

For a different sort of “I saw them when …” opportunity, head down to the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, where the Animus Ensemble’ fourth season has begun with a new production of Little Shop of Horrors. The company seems to specialize in musicals about people living on the fringes of society, having presented memorable productions of Once Upon A Mattress (with a male Winifred) and Promises, Promises in previous seasons.

Like those shows, Little Shop deals with outsiders looking for a way into society, in this case the poor schlemiel Seymour Krelborn (Christian Daniel Kiley), orphan flower-shop attendant who sees his big break come in the person of a strange and unusual plant dubbed Audrey II (Neil
Graham). What sets this production apart from every other Little Shop you’ve ever seen is that rather than haul old the rented Audrey II puppet, director John Ambrosino has cast a large, bald, tattooed rock and roll singer to not only voice but also embody the plant on stage. (As the plant
grows, Graham is joined by dancers Erin Pellechia, Christin Fagone, and Maria Larossa.)

The good news is, the approach works, and not only because Graham is a tremendously charismatic personality on stage. Removing the puppet forces audience members who have seen the show before and think they know it inside and out to reconsider what’s happening on stage and take Audrey II a
bit more seriously as a character. The tone shifts from that of a campy tribute to shlock horror to something more akin to a morality play. The result is sometimes goofy, but more often provocative and even a little bit threatening, without sacrificing any of the warmth or humor of the script.

The production is also blessed with a perfect pair of leads. Kiley is a strong singer and endearing presence, winning over the hearts of the audience so we’re on his side even as he begins to kill his acquaintances to feed his plant. Erin Tchoukaleff brings to the role of Audrey a sense of knowing worldliness underneath the bimbo exterior that adds weight to her decisions. It doesn’t hurt that she sings beautifully, either.

The show is played on a unit set, designed by Peter Watson, dotted with evocative ’50s era propaganda and film posters. Choreographer Josie Bray utilizes the “plant dancers” and the ubiquitous urchin girls (Heather Fry, Emilie Battle, and Sehri Wickliffe) in establishing the atmosphere for various scenes, giving each group their own distinct dance vocabulary. And the four-piece band, led by Bob Mollicone, ably balances the rock and roll leanings of the score with the theatrical necessities of the piece, letting loose at just the right moments.

While the show aims high, it doesn’t quite reach the stature of previous Animus productions. Eric Ruben is miscast at Mr. Mushnik, delivering a rather flat portrayal of the flower shop owner. And at times, the performances of supporting players Jim Jordan (hilarious as Dr. Orin Scravello, the S&M dentist) and Perri Lauren in a variety of small roles slip dangerously close to silly collegiate theatre.
The Women
Maureen Keiller and Georgia Lyman in The Women
Next door at the BCA’s Roberts Studio Theatre we have almost the opposite situation: one of our most established
theatre companies (SpeakEasy Stage Company) performing a classic play (The Women) in a relatively straightforward rendition. Director Scott Edmiston wisely gets his ladies on stage and then lets them do what they do best without too many bells and whistles. And this stage is filled with just about the best set of actresses I’ve ever seen assembled. The play centers on Mary Haines (Anne Gottlieb), a sweet woman married to a successful businessman. Mary’s biggest flaw, at least at the start of the play, is her choice of friends, a bunch of gossipy, catty women whose happiness seems dependent on the suffering of others. Of course, what may be misery for the characters is pure delight for the audience, and Clare Boothe Luce’s script is chock full of bon mots deliciously delivered at a breakneck pace.

Leading the charge is the hilarious Maureen Keiller as Sylvia Fowler – imagine Christine Baranski playing Dorothy
Parker in a foul mood, and I mean that in the best possible way. Nancy E. Carroll is the perfect counterweight as Nancy Blake, the acerbic narrator of the show whose deadpan delivery is an ideal balance to the larger than life
Keiller. Gottlieb treads the middle ground, succeeding in the difficult job of creating a sympathetic, interesting, and real heroine amidst the verbal barrage of her friends. Gottlieb manages the most surprising trick in the show – making the audience care as much about the story as they do about the oratory acrobatics.

So much of the cast is so perfect, it’s impossible to find descriptions of their performances, but trust me when I say that from the youngest (Sophie Rich as Little Mary) to the oldest (Mary Klug’s Countess de Lage, or perhaps Alice Duffy’s Mrs. Morehead) the cast sparkles. Georgia Lyman, as
the “other woman” in Mary’s husband’s life, is a pro at the screwball-style machine-gun patter but occasionally missteps in her more dramatic scenes. But most of the missteps are minor in the scheme of this production.

The only serious flaw comes at the end of the first act, when for reasons entirely unclear to me Edmiston makes his directorial hand all too visible by inserting a musical number. The song isn’t entirely inappropriate – Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths (on the 90th Floor)” certainly captures Mary’s mood at the end of the act, and one could envision it as background music during a filmic fade out on that scene. However, Edmiston brings out his entire cast of nearly two dozen women to belt out a jazzy rendition that dissolved much of the audience at the performance I attended into giggles.

Luckily, that moment is followed by intermission, enabling us all to regain our composure and erase the memory of the moment by the start of act two, which quickly returns to the high quality of the rest of the show.

Photo: Mike Lovett