New School Old School
Intergalactic Nemesis is hard to explain. Here’s a trailer (with an introduction by Conan O’Brian, no less!):
This live performance is a deliberately old-school radio show – with visuals. There is a screen which shows scenes from a graphic novel. On the stage, there are 3 stations. Station on the right is a piano player who plays old fashioned radio-y mood music. Station in the middle is a sound effects person who mimics all sorts of things – trains, rain, thunder, etc. Station on the left consists of 3 actors who voice the parts shown via the graphics. The net effect is a dramatized radio broadcast. It’s all very deliberately cheesy and dramatic, in a Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of way.
We liked, but did not love it. The whole program seemed like a big of a gimmick, albeit an enjoyable one. Manufacturered old time effects seem a tad, well, manufactured! It is a little bit like Prairie Home Companion, which I have to admit I am not a fan of (and where this show may have gotten its start). But all the components of the show – the actors, the sound effects and the pianist – were dandy. I just thought it all a bit of a schtick.
Rating: ** (out of ****)
Every year Ann Arbor hosts a Summer Festival (http://a2sf.org/desktop/). It is one of the greatest things (and there are many great things) about Ann Arbor. For 3 weeks starting in mid-June the whole town turns out for nightly entertainment. There are big-name draws (like Ira Glass and Bernadette Peters), free music, and, when it gets dark, movies. There are also food booths, one of which is our nascent BBQ venture. Suffice it to say I don’t go out with my husband much during this time. So I take my 12 year old son to various events. The Summer Festival sweetens the pot for family-friendly performances and only charges $10 for a child’s ticket. So this encourages us to check out acts we wouldn’t otherwise see.
One such act is the Montreal-based “Les 7 doigts de la main.” This group is a small, graceful circus. The 7 members of this hardy band leap, twirl, flip and dance. Here is a YouTube promo for their “Sequence 8” show we saw: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CumFUHSUSGQ.
It occurs to me as I write this that I am really blogging more about the Summer Festival than this particular group. I have not seen many contemporary circus acts in general and as such am not quite sure how this troupe compares to other circus performers. But we enjoyed ourselves. The acrobatics were amazing. So was the choreography, and the music. When the group was not performing, twirling or dancing, however, it was just ok. There was some banter on the part of the host that fell a little flat, and an act in which two performers stripped down to their underwear clashed with the spirit and tone of the other pieces. But some of the performers, Alex in particular, were tremendous. Many of the pieces are truly marvelous to view, and I recommend seeing this troupe if they visit a nearby venue.
Rating: *** (out of ****)
Go, Neil, Go
The Tonys are an oddity; an awards show ostensibly honoring Broadway which stars TV and film stars. There is a reason for this. Most Broadway stars (Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster, etc.) are well known within the world of theater, but hardly household names outside of it. And the Tonys are All About Eve Ratings. The theater powers that be understand people are more likely to watch an awards show featuring marquis presenters. The more people watch the Tonys, the more likely it is that at least some of those people may actually attend a Broadway performance at a later point. Given that Broadway ticket prices are easily over $100 per show and often hit $250, (not including the exorbitant costs of traveling to and staying in NYC) marketing Broadway is quite a challenge.
In fairness, most of the presenters were stars who have done theater (or starred in a show about theater, or a cappella music – hello Anna Kendrick!) Chief among them is host Neil Patrick Harris, who has had a charmed career. One of the few child actors to successfully transition to adult star (he was Doogie Howser!), he is a major TV star, with legit theater creds. This was his 4th hosting gig for the Tonys, and he just agreed to host the Emmys this Fall. This year the Tonys had the best ratings they’ve had in 4 years, a 20% spike from 2012.
Given that the show features excepts from the nominated musicals, the evening’s caliber depends on their quality. This year the quality was good (particularly Matilda, Kinky Boots and A Christmas Story). The producers had the good sense to spotlight Pippin, which I have raved about elsewhere. Neil did a great job hosting, and killed it with the opening number. Cyndi Lauper stole the show (twice!) with her acceptance speech for Kinky Boots and her performance of True Colors. There was a skit mid-show about Smash-like cancelled NBC shows featuring former Broadway performers. The concept of this skit was funnier than the execution, but it was good the connection between Hollywood and Broadway was acknowledged.
The rest was of the evening was … fine. The producers were reluctant to cue the music to cut the speeches and the evening dragged as a result. But on balance the Tonys were well done – watchable, entertaining and a good snapshot of Broadway’s finest.
Matilda is one of Roald Dahl’s best books. It is a dark tale about a gifted girl with hideous parents. To say it presents a tonal challenge is an understatement. But the movie, directed by Danny Devito, succeeds. When I heard that Matilda the musical had opened to much acclaim in London, I had high hopes. I bought tickets last Fall, and waited. And in fact, Matilda opened to rave reviews on Broadway. It was nominated for lots of Tonys. Were we witnessing the birth of a classic?
In a word, no. Although Matilda is worth seeing. The staging is excellent. There is a tremendous sense of kinetics, the students are always moving, on swings, trampolines, scooters and desks. The set is marvelously inventive, a great backdrop for a show about learning. It looks like a giant exploding Scrabble board. The performances are strong. Four girls rotate playing Matilda. We saw Sophia Gennusa, who was excellent – small, strong, and fierce. Bertie Carvel reprises the role of Miss Trunchbull, which he originated in London. The choreography is good, the costumes are wonderful, and have I mentioned the staging? You have to see it to believe it.
The problem? The songs. The lyrics are difficult to hear. I think this is a sound problem more than an enunciation problem. More importantly, the songs aren’t memorable or tuneful. Since the whole point of a musical (to me at least) is … THE MUSIC, I’m afraid Matilda doesn’t quite succeed. Usually I leave a musical humming a song or two. This was not the case with Matilda. So, although Matilda is a creative, well staged, well acted musical, it fails to deliver on, well, the music.
Rating: *** (out of ****)
Nathan Lane Show
I wanted to love The Nance. In this period drama, Nathan Lane plays Chauncey, a gay man who is part of a burlesque company during the late 1930s. Chauncey is a “Nance,” a prancing, preening, fawning, walking gay stereotype. Apparently Nance-like characters performed in burlesque shows during this time, while at the same time gay activity was prohibited and punished. Sounds like an interesting and thought-provoking topic, right?
Nathan Lane is consistently amazing. Even a poor vehicle (Hello, The Addams family!) shines due to his tremendous talent and luster. He had several noteworthy TV performances this year, including Cam and Mitch’s voluble friend Pepper on Modern Family and a staid bankruptcy administrator on The Good Wife. And indeed, Nathan Lane’s performance is tremendous. Both when “on stage” as the over-the-top Nance and when off-stage struggling with his homosexuality, Chauncey is magnetic.
However, The Nance doesn’t quite work. It is interesting, well staged, and mostly well acted. Jonny Orsini plays a young man who becomes Chauncey’s lover, and his performance is ho-hum, although we are treated to a full frontal nude scene! There is a nice sense of ensemble both on and off-stage among the actors in the burlesque company. But the second act is weak. When conclusions falter it can be hard to figure out why, but I blame the script, which doesn’t successfully transition to the conclusion. The Nance is good, not great, but I’ll take a good play with Nathan Lane over a great play without him.
Rating: *** (out of ****)
Magic to Do
Full disclosure: Pippin is one of my favorite musicals. Having said that, seeing a much-loved musical can be problematic. Shows are sometimes stale. Expectations for Broadway revivals are high. And I am sick of critics bashing Pippin. Pippin is often somewhat snidely referred to as a minor musical. I disagree! I think the songs are memorable and the lyrics fun and witty. The story may be a little hackneyed, with Pippin in search of the meaning of life, but, hey, aren’t we all in search of the meaning of life to some degree?
The producer, Diane Paulus, had the inspired idea to stage Pippin under the big top of a circus. The metaphor of life as a circus works perfectly with the musical’s story and theme. The players are all acrobats, replete with fire, trapeze, high wire acts, and astonishing acts of strength, coordination and balance. “Magic to Do” and “Morning Glow” in particular are spectacular. Pippin soars.
The performances are all excellent, particularly the women: Andrea Martin as the show-stealing Granny, Patina Miller as the lead player, and Rachel Bay Jones as Catherine. It is a great idea to cast a woman as the lead player instead of a man because any male would be unfavorably compared to Ben Vereen, who originated the role. Miller is a wonderful singer, dancer and acrobat, with amazing upper arms. The role of Catherine the widow is tricky, since the character is slightly annoying. Jones is awkward and funny and vulnerable all at the same time. With amazing music, truly unforgettable staging, strong performances, and distinctive costumes, Pippin is practically perfect. Pippin is hands down the best Broadway musical I have seen in years. Go.
Rating: **** (out of ****)
P.S. Star sighting! On the way out, I saw Harry Hamlin (wearing his the glasses he sports this season on Mad Men) and Lisa Rinna (she of proudly artificially plumped lips).