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 Wiz, Grease: 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 →
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 →
One gets the feeling about halfway through the first act of On Your Feet that were you to quiz the cast where the song they were performing takes place, most of them would fail. The cynic in me says it doesn’t matter: the Latin rhythms (provided by a band that includes six members of the actual Miami Sound Machine), spiffy pastel costumes (by ESosa), and energetic dancing (courtesy of Sergio Trujillo) are entertaining enough that we can set dramaturgical demands aside and enjoy the concert. But while Alexander Dinelaris’s book aspires to be more than a greatest hits revue, it’s only intermittently successful. Jerry Mitchell’s nebulous direction does it no favors, and the show trips over itself to fit in most of Estefan’s hits while charting the rise of her career against the destabilization of her family. The latter gets shortest shrift, despite Eliseo Roman, Andréa Burns, and Alma Cuervo all making the most of two-dimensional characters. Genny Lis Padilla, as sister Rebecca, doesn’t even get that much, existing somewhere between prop and backup singer.
Regardless, the show lives and dies on the strength of Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra as Gloria and Emilio. Villafañe perfectly embodies the Estefan we remember from the 80s: beautiful, strong, and with a voice that never falters. Segarra cuts a striking figure, but his breathy singing never quite makes it past the lip of the stage. Regardless, the show should please Gen X’ers who longed for a Jersey Boys of their own.
Production photo by Matthew Murphy: Ana Villafañe as Gloria Estefan with ensemble.
If there’s one reason to see Sylvia, A. R. Gurney’s 1995 canine comedy making its Broadway debut, it’s Annaleigh Ashford. As the titular tail-wagger, she delights with comic delivery worthy of Lucille Ball and canine physicality that even Lassie would admire. (Credit to “Physicality Consultant” Nathan Peck.)
Unfortunately, there’s no second reason. Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, the show plays like burlesque for gentiles, more over-extended sketch than play. Greg (Matthew Broderick) and Kate (Julie White) are recent empty-nesters relocated to the Upper East Side. He is unhappily an investment banker, she a do-gooder educator determined to bring Shakespeare to the city’s underprivileged junior high schools. When Greg brings home a stray dog he befriended in the park, he sees companionship and new vitality; Kate only sees disruption of their newly organized life.
While Ashford brilliantly milks everything from chasing cats to being in heat for laughs, Broderick is saddled with the uncomfortable task of making rape jokes about animals mating while not appearing to be a beastialist himself. Robert Sella, juggling a trio of supporting roles, dispenses with all dignity playing two drag parts that might have been amusing to Republicans in the 90s but were exceptionally distasteful to this liberal today. While Broderick manages to deliver one of his better performances in recent memory despite sub-par material, White disappears beneath her underwritten part of nagging-but-well-meaning wife.
While one might imagine this was a charming amusement off-Broadway twenty years ago, today it is largely a bloated embarrassment.
Production photo by Joan Marcus: Matthew Broderick as Greg and Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia.
Dames at Sea first delighted audiences in 1966 with its low-budget, can-do spunk. A gentle spoof of 1930s movie musicals, the show prefigured the nostalgia crazy of the 1970s and introduced the world to Bernadette Peters as the ingénue-who-becomes-a-star, Ruby. Now making its Broadway debut, the show’s been gussied up with fancier sets (by Anna Louizos) and costumes (by David C. Woolard) and a major infusion of tap dancing by director/choreographer Randy Skinner, the contemporary master of the form. Can this extra dose of razzmatazz make up for the lost intimacy and proximity to its antecedent? Only intermittently. Eloise Kropp, this production’s Ruby, is a fine singer and dancer, but she lacks “it.” Thankfully, Lesli Margherita as overbearing diva Mona is full of “it,” and she walks away with every scene she’s in. The rest of the tiny cast get the job done, but the show is so light and frothy it leaves little lasting impression. The book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller are heavy on references that will be lost on contemporary audiences and surprisingly light on jokes. Jim Wise’s melodies do the heavy lifting; audiences are sure to hum the tunes for weeks. Some of the show’s old-fashioned features, like the song “Singapore Sue” (despite its uncredited new lyrics) and the decision to cast only white people, might have better been left in the past. Ultimately: a fun but inconsequential diversion of just about two hours, but who wants to pay $155 for that?
Production photograph by Jeremy Daniel. Pictured (l-r): Danny Gardner, Mara Davi, John Bolton, Eloise Kropp, Cary Tedder, and Lesli Margherita.
If 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 →
It looks like I’ve seen 96 shows (not including cabarets) in 2014. It didn’t make sense to me to try to make a top-ten list, but I did go through an highlight my favorites, so here they are, in the order I saw them: Continue reading →
There’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 →
On December 29, 2013, my mom, Lois Levy, passed away at age 67. (Read my eulogy for her.) In her memory, I’d like to offer a different kind of Broadway history: a short history of the Broadway lessons my mother left me.
Nothing Says I Love You Like AShowtune
Like most mothers, my mom loved to sing to me when I was little. Her favorite? “I love you / a bushel and a peck…” It wasn’t until years later that I realized the song that she sang over and over again to tell me she loved me was originally written as a strip tease number for Guys and Dolls. (If you think the “hot box girls” are supposed to be anything else, you’re deluding yourself.) Luckily, I seem to have avoided any long-term psychological baggage from making this connection.