250 Word Reviews: Red Speedo

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

RED SPEEDO
(Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop)

The intersection of fame and family – and the tremendous pressure that each can produce – animates Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo. This ethical dissection centers around Ray (Alex Breaux), a swimmer from a poor family on the verge of achieving Michael Phelps-level stardom pending his performance in his Olympic-qualifying race. A doping scandal finds him torn between his brother/manager Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) and disgraced ex-girlfriend/ex-physical therapist, Lydia (Zoë Winters).

As each in Ray’s orbit calculates how far they will go to take advantage of the opportunities Ray’s nascent celebrity affords them, the play teeters dangerously on the line of abstracting its characters into symbols. Hnath’s Mamet-like Wall Of Dialogue script, particularly in the play’s early scenes, doesn’t help as people make long-winded declarations at each other in exchanges that only vaguely resemble the act of conversation. When director Lileana Blain-Cruz allows the characters room to breathe (and even occasionally pause), their humanity peeks through and the play becomes more than a philosophical debate, aided by strong performances all around.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set, which includes an onstage pool, is both iconic and functional, but it’s the architecture of Alex Breaux’s superhumanly muscular body that really steals the show, occasionally to the detriment of the dialogue. Combined with Thomas Schall’s blatantly artificial fight choreography, one wonders if Blain-Cruz was aiming for BrecthianVerfremdungseffekt. If so, she falls a bit short, and we’re left puzzling over these half-characters as much as, if not more than, the ideas they suggest.

Production photo by Joan Marcus. Pictured (l-r): Zoë Winters as Lydia and Alex Breaux as Ray.

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CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: Merman’s Apprentice – Original Cast Recording

Originally published on CastAlbums.org.

054871If you’ve ever uttered the phrase “they don’t make ’em like they used to anymore,” I would kindly direct your attention to Merman’s Apprentice, the new musical byStephen Cole (book & lyrics) and David Evans (music), which tells “a musical fable” about La Merm mentoring a teenage star to take over the role in David Merrick‘s all-children version of Hello, Dolly!

Wait, what? No, Merrick never pulled off that stunt, though one can easily imagine him hearing about this show from the afterlife and ruefully thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” This is fable, not documentary. But like the best fables, it has plenty of heart and you might learn a little something from it too.  Continue reading

Billboard: ‘Grease: Live!’ Freshens a Favorite With Mix of Old and New

Originally published in Billboard.

grease-live-sandy-pink-ladies-2016-billboard-650

Kether Donohue, Julianne Hough, Carly Rae Jepsen and Elle McLemore during the dress rehearsal for “Grease: Live!” airing live on Jan. 31, 2016 on FOX. MICHAEL BECKER/FOX

 

Fox made a bold step into the live television musical arena tonight with Grease: Live!, a technically ambitious production that upped the ante set by NBC’s recent shows by adding multiple soundstages, exterior shots, and a live audience.

Unlike NBC productions including The WizGrease: Live! was based primarily on the 1978 film version of Grease, with story structure, sets, and even a significant portion of the script coming from Bronte Woodard’s screenplay (based on Allan Carr’s adaptation) rather than Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey’s script to the 1972 Broadway musical on which it was based.   Continue reading

CastAlbums.org: REVIEW: The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Studio Cast

Originally published on CastAlbums.org

300_hunchbackIf you only know The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the 1996 Disney animated film, you’re in for a surprise the first time you listen to the newly released Studio Cast Recording of Disney Theatrical’s stage adaptation. Taking a more “adult” approach to the material by hewing closer to the Victor Hugo source, composer Alan Menken, lyricist Stephen Schwartz, and librettist Peter Parnell have given us a Hunchback that bleeds, lusts, and ultimately soars.  Continue reading

The Sondheim Review: No guarantee of happiness

The destructive potential of the American Dream

Originally published in The Sondheim Review.

Mark Linehan (center) played John Wilkes Booth in New Repertory Theatre's October 2014 production of Assassins in Watertown, MA. Photo by photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

Mark Linehan (center) played John Wilkes Booth in New Repertory Theatre’s October 2014 production of Assassins in Watertown, MA. Photo by photos by Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

Stephen Sondheim has distanced himself from the practice of reusing discarded songs from old shows when writing new pieces. He has only ever acknowledged dipping into his trunk twice, both for Wise Guys: “Addison’s Trip,” present from the first reading in 1998, and “It’s In Your Hands Now” from the 1999 workshop. What distinguishes these from one another is that while “Addison’s Trip” reused material from an unknown song from a dead project (“Lunch” from Singing Out Loud), “It’s In Your Hands Now” came from Assassins.

It makes sense that if two shows were to share music, it would be the two written with John Weidman about the destructive potential of the American Dream. Even to the untrained ear, “It’s In Your Hands Now” sounds like Americana, with a melody based on the tones of a bugle call and a lyric about the “land of opportunity.” According to Look, I Made a Hat, “It’s In Your Hands Now” is based on “Flag Song,” an abandoned opening number for Assassins that focused on regular Americans before introducing the titular killers. But if you’re reading The Sondheim Review, chances are the first time you heard “It’s In Your Hands Now,” your subconscious started singing along with a different set of lyrics: “I just heard / On the news / Where the mailman won the lottery.” Continue reading

It’s dlevy!: David’s Favorite 2015 Theater

Originally published on itsdlevy.net.

I’m not sure how many shows I saw this year, and I didn’t keep good enough record to count. Suffice it to say, I saw a lot, but not everything. Therefore, I’m not in a position to tumake a “best of” list or anything of the sort. Instead, I present to you a list of my favorite theater from 2015, in alphabetical order.

Last year, I listed a top 13, with one honorable mention plus three additional shows I had loved enough in previous years to see for a second time during 2014. This year’s list includes 15 shows, two of which were return trips, plus two honorable mentions, so I guess I have a fairly consistent amount of love in my heart available for great theater.  Continue reading

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