Archive for the REVIEWS Category

Brilliant Moments in the WOODS

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, REVIEWS, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2014 by erikball123

My favorite line in INTO THE WOODS has always been the Witch’s “I was just trying to be a good mother.” It’s widely received (on the stage anyway) as a laugh line to transition a moment. But in Rob Marshall’s version of this story, it’s a poignant, remarkable bookmark that made me almost tear up sitting in the Red Rock Regal Cinema. You see, everyone LOVES Sondheim. (And if you’re a theatre person and don’t…we’ll stone you to death.) But, the thing is…WHY do people love Sondheim? As a patron, is it his release from formulaic musical convention? As an artist, is it the challenge of skillfully crafted material? As a young actor, is it the blood, bad buys and nuances that are so much fun to love of hate? I think the answer is YES on all accounts. But, I would ask you to look past all of this for one moment…and look at the relationship between WORDS and MUSIC.

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Bernadette Peters (the Original Broadway WITCH) rehearses with Stephen Sondheim.

 

I’ve argued with anyone who has ears that Stephen Sondheim is a poet. The words he uses in his songs are cleverly and perfectly set to the moment. High schools across the country have presented INTO THE WOODS…heck, there is even a Tumblr site dedicated to low-budget Milky Whites, that I find most amusing. (https://www.tumblr.com/search/lowbudgetmilkywhites) From a producer’s perspective, INTO THE WOODS has a wonderfully twisted ensemble with parts for skilled vocalists, up-and-growing “green” performers, and optional ensemble parts. It has little dance (which is always a concern for drama groups) and costuming, set and prop elements can be as simple and complex as you’d like. The only tricky element is the source material, which in turn bookmarks this musical as a perfect example for those theatre groups hoping to engage students in lessons about simply telling a good story. (And for those who have a hand for creating transportive theatre, the show is a wealth of opportunity.)

Rehearsal for Faith Lutheran's INTO THE WOODS (2005). Andrew Eddins and Cash Black portrayed the tormented Princes. (Please Note: Kelly Odor and several lunch tables are in the background!)

Rehearsal for Faith Lutheran’s INTO THE WOODS (2005). Andrew Eddins and Cash Black portrayed the tormented Princes. (Please Note: Kelly Odor and several lunch tables are in the background!)

I’ve seen about a dozen live INTO THE WOODS productions. (Including one I directed in a high school gymnasium.) I’ve seen wild variations. One included a minimalist production told in an aristocratic living room during a thunder storm, as each high-society snob acted out the parts in turn “making up the story” as they went along. Interesting. I’ve seen video projections, puppetry, one told inside a closed book store and even one production where the Witch transformed from beautiful to ugly (instead of the other way around) and they played it off that the Witch preferred it that way. Hm. I’m sure there was an intended creative choice there and an accompanying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” message they were trying to send (much in the same light as Violet’s invisible scar, in Violet – The Musical, maybe??) Lots of fun to be had with characters we all know already…which is why I think directors feel magically compelled to “reinvent the wheel” (as snobby critics say) in their artistic vision of this particular musical. (Which is why it is so often regarded as a “good musical to produce.”)

The Central Park INTO THE WOODS.

The Central Park INTO THE WOODS.

 

The Original Broadway cast was superb…I show the filmed production to my classes…and it served as a springboard for Bernadette Peters to be cast in platinum as the production’s “forever Witch.” (Much in the same way that we’ll compare everyone who plays Elphaba to Idina.) The Broadway Revival, which started out in L.A. and featured a GIGANTIC giant foot that stomped on patrons waiting outside when it transferred to New York was wonderfully bland. I blame Vanessa Williams as unconnectable Witch, but that’s just me. (Loved her in Ugly Betty!) The British version wasn’t really well-received and included the new song “Our Little World.” (I can take it or leave it. I usually disregard it. The show is long anyway. Do we really need to lament more on the Witch and Rapunzel’s relationship and combing her hair?)  The Central Park, free admission production offered about 4 years ago was untraditional and offered a creepy Witch, a jungle-gym of a set and a Little Red in a bicycle helmet! I can hardly wait to see the Roundabout Theatre variation that is slated to head to Broadway very soon. (I’m ga ga over the piano concept in their minimalist design. Wackadoodle!)

Roundabout Theatre's INTO THE WOODS.

Roundabout Theatre’s INTO THE WOODS.

INTO THE WOODS is everywhere, which was why I went into the theatre today curious. I was pleasantly surprised at Marshall’s “CHICAGO” and I liked…not loved…liked, Burton’s “SWEENEY TODD.” What was going to become of another one of my favorites, and arguably a more often produced musical (moreso than CHICAGO and SWEENEY TOOD) at a high school level. I’m always worried how the non-theatre-going demographic is exposed to theatre in general. Live theatre is the most essential storytelling device we have in the world today. Music is the only thing we as a culture universally share as a binding agent. (We all love music.) Put the two together…and we have the opportunity to move mountains. As a director, I have the privilege (and burden) of shaping a production in the manner in which I hope to offer it up to an audience (full of the most critical theatre-loving critics and first-time theatre goers). When you take a musical that already means so much to you, personally…and redevelop it as a movie…the opportunity to loose integrity is great. (I would argue that the elimination of the chorus of pie-eating patrons in the Sweeney movie made the London masses, a collective character and important voice in the story, made the movie more about a monster of man…instead of the fact that we all might have a little bit of a monster inside of us. “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” How do we know to think about that, if we don’t have a collective voice telling us? But, I digress.)

The cast of Rob Marshall's movie version of INTO THE WOODS.

The cast of Rob Marshall’s movie version of INTO THE WOODS.

The Rob Marshall INTO THE WOODS is quite possibly the best theatre to film adaption I’ve ever seen. It’s a wonderful story, presented thoughtfully without any loss of integrity. Those who love the musical will love the movie. Those who have never seen the musical will not miss out on any “inside jokes” or thematic elements potentially lost int he translation. There aren’t any. It tricks you. It’s not a movie-musical….it’s a musical-movie. On three different occasions I burst into a round of applause after a musical number, forgetting that this was a movie, not a musical. It nips and tucks in all the right places, and while I’ve been hearing a drone of “I wish the song NO MORE was included” among my theatre friends, I would argue it was not needed. The handling of the Mysterious Man was well-done, and the elimination of the physical Narrator (replaced wisely by the voice of the Baker, foreshadowing the tear-jerking final moment…which was BEAUTIFUL) made the song a bit redundant. They covered what they needed to cover…and good news!…you can still sing that song in the musical! Other missing musical elements are minimal, but as you’ll note, they were all connected to theatrical devices within the story that were eliminated in the movie. Nip tuck, nip tuck. (It’s a movie…without an intermission.)

What struck me as the most profound choices in the film were the choices. Allow me to highlight a few. *SPOILER ALERT*

  • The fact that there wasn’t a single title or credit at the beginning of the movie…brilliant. Immediately it plunked us down into this world. Before we could blink an eye…we were 20 minutes into the film and all of the exposition was laid out for us and we were actively engaged.
  • The contemplative “On the Steps of the Palace” was whimsical and perfectly staged as a moment in time. How often have we scrambled our brains to make a decision in a heartbeat…millions of times throughout a day? How wonderfully theatrical of our director to present this song in such a way, and deconstruct the moment that we all know as a simple act of leaving a shoe behind. Fun stuff.
  • The Princes’ song “Agony” (a borderline stereotype portrayal of the rugged and babyfaced Princes we all know from their respective stories) found two very likable characters temper-tantruming through splashy waters as they gaze upon their kingdom. It was thoughtful, well-filmed and hilarious. You INSTANTLY championed these two devise characters.
  • There is a danger in putting Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Who doesn’t love Johnny Depp? Those not familiar with the show may be heart-broken to only see him for ten minutes of screen time and catching stills from the set prior to watching the movie made me nervous. In performance, traditionally the Wolf is either portrayed as a personification of the age-old lesson of “don’t talk to strangers” or as a evil man of some kind, because all men are dogs…or, rather, wolves. The publicity photos saw Depp as a sort of Zoot Suit wearing gigalo. (Aside from the addition of some fun fur…Depp kinda looks like he was taken right off the street in his usual wears and onto the movie set!) I was pleased to see that HOW Depp portrayed the Wolf. It was very wolf-like…darting between trees to catch a glimpse, his trademark sneer when offering a sprig of flowers to the girl….it was VERY fun. I didn’t care how he was dressed…all I cared about was the fact that Depp was “the wolf” and how it was related was acceptable to me. Sometimes I wonder if I analyze stuff too much. HA!

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  • The kids were GREAT. Daniel Huddlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red were perfect fits. (I would have loved a bit more snarkiness from Red…but, I’m being picky.) Emily Blunt is a superstar as the Baker’s Wife. James Cordon is adorable and sympathetic as the Baker. Everybody loves Pitch Perfect’s Anna Kendrick IN Pitch Perfect. They were quick to critique her in this film…but I would argue that she gave Cinderella the exact amount of torment. I was initially worried that she’d be too contemporary, but she was wonderful in the role. Tracy Ullman, Chris Pine….shoot, the entire cast was simply well-suited for their roles. Is there an award for CASTING a movie?
  • Now let’s talk about Meryl Streep. Preface: I’m a huge Bernadette Peters fan. I’ve always thought Streep was a great actress, but I never understood the tidal wave of hype about her. (In the same breathe…what’s up with the torrent love affair with with Barbara Streisand? I like her…but I don’t get the obsession. Another blog post for another day.) With that said…I cannot imagine another actress who could have played the role better. She sang beautifully and extracted from us the perfect about of sentiment and emotion. We loved her…we hated her…we feared her…and (most importantly) we found ourselves feeling sorry for her. In the song “Children Will Listen” (which is a song that could stand-alone as the show’s landmark) we were transported from the world of many characters’ strife to the inner struggle of a would-be mother and her desperate struggle to connect with her child and shield her from the dangers of the world. It’s beautiful. I LOVED “Last Midnight” for the same reason. I love how I can COUNT ON my students getting pissed off when the Witch disappears at the end of the Broadway version. “Did she die?” they ask. Maybe…maybe not. She’s definitely gone. They HATE unresolved. (Remind me to never read them the folk tale “The Lady and the Tiger.”) The Witch is at the center of this story…and Streep connects in every right way. (And I love the blue hair.)

I’m thrilled that another generation of could-be theatre goers will be exposed to this movie variation. It tells a great story and more importantly it relates (through WORDS and MUSIC) that truly no one is alone in their pursuit to communicate, be needed, protect and survive tragedy together. It’s a bedtime story and when the Baker is telling the tale to his son in the final moments…and the camera peels away…you desperately want to remain, a part of the audience. But no…our director takes us out of that world…and then for the first time presents the title: “INTO THE WOODS” reminding us it’s just a story. Wow. Brilliance.

INTO THE WOODS is the story of all of our lives, (whether we’re Bakers, Princes, Witches or Giants) and can effectively remind us that at the end of the day, we’re all going into a world that presents dangers, and only together can we survive and more importantly thrive.

I sit, poised and ready to purchase the Blue Ray upon its release. I have the projector in my classroom warmed up.

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REVIEW: IF/THEN

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2014 by erikball123

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IF / THEN

I didn’t know much about IF/THEN, even after the Idina Menzel post-“Let It Go” media blitz at its incarnation. I had tickets to the show, and I purposely didn’t do any research on the show, avoided over-exposure to photos, clips, news, etc. so that my first impression of the story offered a relatively fresh perspective. With big-time names (and expectations, I would argue) comes big-time opinions. I suppose I didn’t want someone else’s opinion to be my own before I even saw it.

Allow me to try to explain the story. And I do mean, “try.” Frankly, I’m not positive I can after just one viewing.

We meet Elizabeth, a 39 year old transfer to New York from Arizona who has just divorced her husband and is hoping to surround herself in a new life in the bustling city. She’s driven, determined and pissed that she’s wasted the last 15 or so years of her life.  A pissed off character is one Menzel plays best, I guess….because from the first snarky comment, which was indeed funny, the entire theatre exploded in laughter, wrapping Menzel in a welcoming embrace. Have you ever heard a fashion designer say that the model “isn’t wearing the dress” but rather the “dress is wearing the model?” Well, it’s something like that. The story doesn’t feature Idina Menzel….it’s “Idina Menzel” who happens to be doing a show for us tonight. (Make sense?)

Anyway…back to the story. She meets up an old college friend Lucas a bi-sexual one-man army of a zoning and housing activist and outspoken terrier of a man. (Played by Anthony Rapp originally..but he went in for emergency knee surgery the night before. I’m sure there is a “break a leg” joke here somewhere….but I’ll spare you. So we got the understudy Curtis Holbrook who was very good in the role.) Elizabeth befriends Kate, an outspoken, lesbian, kindergarten teacher who lives across the hall (played by Tony winner LaChanze who is the most likable character in the whole show. Perhaps it’s because she the only one I could ever realistically seeing myself having a conversation with, should this truly be a real world.)

Once we establish the basis for these relationships in the exposition, we are introduced to the first in a multitude of “shifts” from one reality to another. Elizabeth is asked to go to a protest with Lucas (who calls her “Beth” because it’s a more sensible name), but she kinda wants to go to an impromptu street concert with her new, crazy buddy (who calls her “Liz” because every sexy, driven New Yorker would be a “Liz” not a “Beth.) Add the addition of a pair of hipster glasses to the “Liz” character and you can see how this whole concept is going to work….flip-flopping the story back and forth, in and out of “Liz” and “Beth’s” worlds, like some grown-up, contemporary Choose Your Own Adventure novel, alternating between what IS and what COULD’VE BEEN. (Although we’re never privy to what reality is the true one. A bummer of a detail that I thought for sure would flesh out in the end…and, unless I missed it, never did.)

The two plots unfold (neither taking a back seat to the other, there is no secondary-plot…so it demands a LOT of the audience’s attention. It’s like watching two mini-series play out by the same actors at the same time.) Liz/Beth meets Josh by chance (or not by chance?) and the one story line finds her marrying, having children and accepting a reasonable but expected outcome to what one might deem a considerate life.  The other story finds her thwarting the tug of her heart….choosing to invest in her career as a city planner (with the help of another old college friend who leverages her into a position of authority, whom she’s attracted to. But of course he’s married.) Twists, turns, complications and decisions that come home to roost all flesh out in front of us while Menzel snaps in and out of the opposing “Liz” and “Beth” storylines. I have to admit…I gave this whole musical my undivided attention, and I was a bit confused at parts. By the time my brain caught up (“oh, this is the ‘Beth’ storyline now”) it was halfway thought he scene and I was having to reorganize myself to regain the information that I had lost while in limbo.

You see, that’s the thing…the story is not a bad one. It’s a strong concept…with equally strong performers who communicate in clever ways. (The book is clever and crisp.) There are three problems with the show:

  • PROBLEM #1: There is not a single song I can put in my pocket and take with me. (And strangely enough…the musical numbers are NOT listed in the playbill. Very odd.) The music is empowering and drives us from moment to moment flawlessly….there’s barely a seam or break to even take an extra breath in the whole show. (And on a funny side note…I was like “dang this sounds like ‘Next to Normal’” before knowing it with the composer and lyricist to “Next to Normal.”) But, unlike NEXT TO NORMAL, it doesn’t bind the story together, like some recognizable hard-cover book that we’ll be able to find on the shelf later. It’s presented and serves the story like long, laborious footnotes on the bottom of every page of this story.
  • PROBLEM #2: The central character (our supposed “hero”) is carved out of sharp marble, with little finesse. Menzel is brilliant with a very distinct personality and voice, that’s why we love her. But, I felt that at every turn, and in every intention, I was hit on the head with the Idina Menzel rubber mallet and “gently” reminded…*BONK*….”you AGREE with this.” *BONK*….”you like this.”….*BONK*….”you are upset about this.” As an audience (an engaged part of the action, but traditionally as a voyeur) I don’t like being pigeon-holed, especially when the show impresses demands upon you. Perhaps they should have employed a device that would give the audience the choice to see what story line they want to see next? (Like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.) It’s a gimmick…for sure…but they applied all the demand on the audience without relinquishing any of the creative control. That’s not risk in my book. I felt held hostage at times.

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  • PROBLEM #3: I’m not sure this show would be as well-received if it lost one of two (or both!) things:
    •  If Idina Menzel left the show…would people still feel passionate about this Elizabeth character? I doubt it…the character seems to be written to portray the actress herself (down to her barefooted moments, which we all know is Menzel’s “thing.”)
    • If it played anywhere else but New York, I don’t think the setting would be welcomed in the same way. I wouldn’t say it’s a love letter to New York, as it sure does call to attention ALL the problem with development in the city, but it beckons you to relate to New York “stuff” at EVERY TURN. (And I mean every turn, poking fun at subway woes, rival cities, sports teams, etc.) I wonder if plays in Las Vegas, for instance, if anyone would care about such things.

With that said…I cannot express how beautiful the show looks. The set design by Mark Wendland successfully creates other worlds in unique ways with a poise and gloss like an upper west side, art deco coffee table. Of this, most impressive is a giant, tipping mirror that reflects the shiny floor. (It sometimes giving us a fun bird’s eye view, sometimes reflecting lights in the floor creating “stars”…even a roadmap of New York, etched out in LEDs on the floor makes for a fun moment.) The turntable set, multi-functional boxes and chairs offer up many locations in New York. (I stopped counting how many scenes we visited after I reached a dozen.) The staging is gorgeous and fluid. The choreography is contemporary and at some points takes itself SO seriously, that it comes across as a bit pretentious, and not “from the heart” as I think they were going for.

The play touches on every relevant buzz topic of today. You may find that hilarious and personal (catching on thorns lodged firmly in your own personal paws) or you may find that really annoying. It depends on your view….but one thing I admired about the show is that the message and it’s champion makes a very loud noise and does so in a practically perfect way. There is no doubt that there is no one in the whole world like Idina Menzel. The one “major tragedy” the authors enlisted…we saw coming a mile away.

The story has tremendous arch and both realities tied things up very neatly in the end…and again, I would have loved to find out which reality was the TRUE reality. (Or maybe they  didn’t want us to know?)

I wonder IF my opinion of this show would have been different, had I read up on the plot structures, reviews and anticipated the production value more? I didn’t take that path….so, I guess we’ll never know.

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REVIEW: Rocky – The Musical

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2014 by erikball123

*NOTE: These are just a few thoughts from a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic. 

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ROCKY – THE MUSICAL

 

After watching ROCKY-THE MUSICAL, I felt like I truly went 15 rounds with Apollo Creed. I was exhausted, tense, and a bit overwhelmed. Mostly in very good ways. Mostly.

But, I cannot express enough, that where this musical made unbelievable strides as a theatrical spectacle and as an offering of a beloved brand that millions love (Rocky is undoubtable the true underdog story of the ages) I cannot help but wonder if it would be less of a spectacle and more of an impactful wonder if it had been reworked for the stage as a simple play.

The story (as if you don’t know. If you haven’t seen the movie, shame on you. It’s a cinematic masterpiece as the making of the film was an underdog story in itself) finds Rocky Balboa, a beat-up, boxer with a heart of gold. We get a quick shot of who his is with the charming and fun “My Nose Ain’t Broken” in the close confines of his seedy apartment (complete with Cuff and Link his two turtles…who got their own bronx-cheer when introduced. Fun!)

He’s in love with pet store worker Adrienne who is Pauly’s (Rocky’s friend) sister. We find that she’s got a lot in common with her admirer (and Margo Seibert is wonderful as the shy Adrienne) but her ballad “Raining” is very heavy-handed for an exposition song. We don’t know her quite yet…and we have yet to see the quirky charm that is our hero’s love…before hearing a draggy lament about her strife. I don’t know…maybe I’m being too harsh…but I thought “okay, I get it” at least twice during the song.

Rocky is facing hard times, boxing for pennies, barely making ends meat and even acting as a part-time “ruffian,” collecting debts in a shady side-job. (Of course, he’s too good of a guy to actually break thumbs or rough people up.) What is brilliant about this iconic character is how Andy Karl brings him to life without giving us a Stallone impersonation. Many actors turn in stellar performances…but Karl is simply a genius as the down-and-out boxer.  Simple gesturing and unbelievably grounded attention to details throughout are engaging. You find yourself laughing when he laughs, breathing heavier when he runs, and you almost feels the blows he takes in every match. Rarely do I see such touching portrayals…and the fact that he didn’t get the Tony for the role is a crime. (If you struck ALL of the razzamatazz and the technical amusement park that is the set….more on that later….and left Andy Karl onstage all by himself….I would still pay full price.)

Back to the story. Close-up on Apollo Creed, the story’s immediate antagonist and the Heavyweight Boxing Champion. He’s a flashy and rich mover and shaker, who is just as much a promoter as he is an athlete. He doesn’t have a championship match for New Year’s Day because his opponent breaks his wrist in training. So, insert the Italian Stallion, who is perceived by Creed as the perfect “American Dream” promotion opportunity. Think of the publicity! Terence Archie (who plays Creed) is a stoic, chiseled bad guy. He’s as poised and scripted as a WWE wrestler and is so much fun to watch. His number “Patriotic” is fun. Too bad that this is truly his only musical vehicle in the show.

While Creed thinks about the theatrics of the boxing match….Rocky is busy trying to woo Adrianne, make “good” decisions, and train for this once in a lifetime opportunity. Of course we have grizzly Mickey, the curmudgeon boxing gym owner who winds up training Rocky…but this character never really gets a fair shot. TV and movie character actor, Dakin Matthews is SO GOOD in everything he does…but in this, I thought, “eh.” (And frankly….I a little upset that I didn’t hear my favorite Mikey line “you’re gonna eat lightning, and you’re gonna crap thunder!”) And his lone musical moment “In the Ring” is disinteresting and long.

Now lets talk about the technical wonder that is ROCKY. The Winter Garden Theatre has been turned into a playground of discovery, and at EVERY single turn of this show, we are wowed with giant, towering set pieces that fly-in, fly-out, transform before our eyes, and offer giant visuals that will remain with you for a long time. The boxing ring itself is flown in and out, tipped sideways and serves as a movie screen and provides breath-taking, symbolic subtext opportunities. The meat locker where Pauly works consists of rows of GIANT slabs of beef in a cooler that drop from the ceiling on giant meat hooks. So cool! It created an audible gasp from the audience.

The lighting design is unreal, and the projections are taken to an interactive level that is pure genius, and makes the iconic movie moments such as Rocky’s training montages or the Philadelphia Museum of Art moment come to life. Details like rain projected on the entire set, carefully digitally generated so as to look like it’s actually hitting the set pieces are WONDERFUL!

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The second act is the real treat however. We eagerly anticipate the big fight…and when it comes time to deliver, the whole room transforms into a giant boxing arena. Ceiling monitors drop and the first 15 rows of the orchestra are redirected to the stage to sit in bleachers behind the ring which rumbles forward and covers the seating area to create a true “theatre in the round” ring-side experience. How they executed the change-over, complete with actors’ entrances, video commentary, and audience participation was something I enjoyed watching as it was choreographed as strategically as the fight scenes. Add some brilliant lighting nuances, and I tell you…I felt like I was at a boxing match. It was unreal.

Of course, the play, our hero and the audience “go the distance” and we all cheer in wild excitement as Rocky screams “ADRIANNE!” at the end of the fight.

You see…the show has the right formula and a willing and able (and I might even say EAGER) audience in waiting. They cast the right people…the spectacle is superb….it’s just the music. (And I hate to say it, because with music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, one might figure “how can you go wrong.”) I think the problem is the same problem I had with Spider-Man….it’s too ballad-y with not enough songs you can tap your toes to.

But, my question is this…should ROCKY be a musical you tap your toes to? I argue that without canceling out ANY of the special effects, technical hoopla and stellar performances, you could make this a theatrical PLAY that would garnish the same type of hype, in my opinion. (I still think WAR HORSE is one of the most amazing spectacles I’ve ever seen and they had musical elements…but I would argue it would suck as a musical.)

I hate to say it…because I love sparkly things….but perhaps the technical elements aren’t needed.

I liked this musical…a lot….but…..what if this story were told….as a beat-up, worn-down, underdog of a story…with underdog set elements…perhaps holding a mirror up to Balboa’s world?

Perhaps that’s why I’m struggling with this one….it’s a BRILLIANT “Rocky” story with a brilliant “Rocky” leading man….but it’s an APOLLO CREED-type of a musical.

Too gussied up.

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REVIEW: Heathers – The Musical

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2014 by erikball123

*NOTE: These are merely the thoughts of a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic. 


 

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HEATHERS – THE MUSICAL

Book, music and lyric authors Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe know how to write a musical following a tried and true formula. An opening number like “Beautiful” grabs you by the shirt collar and draws you it….and follow-up numbers like “Candy Store” firmly establishes our antagonists and offers a kick of dark comedy. By the unbelievably catchy “Dead Girl Walking”, halfway through Act One, I found myself thinking…..”CRAP! I think this is a musical I’m going to really like.” Which is weird, because before I even walked into the theatre, I was mulling through my mixed emotions about this late 80’s cult movie turned musical.

HEATHERS, (which is widely recognized as Hollywood vehicles for then-freshman Christian Slater and Wynona Ryder) seems to be perfect fodder for a stage adaption. It offers murder, bullying, love, lust, danger and high school stereotypes, cliques and strife….not necessarily in that order. HEATHERS in the end left me thinking “well…it’s not a PERFECT musical, but it’s not a bad musical either.” I found myself whistling a song in the taxi on the ride back…that speaks to its likability. They’re doing something right.

It’s 1989 and we’re blinded at first glance with the neon world of Veronica Sawyer (played this evening by Charissa Hogeland…a first-rate performer in her own right) who’s life is ritualistic in that it sucks pretty bad. Her and her only friend, Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock (another brilliant performer Katie Lander) are routinely picked on, humiliated and for the most part treated as nonentities by the elite, the popular and the more athletic. You know, typical high school stuff. We meet “the Heathers” a waxy trio of Barbie-doll like, big-banged divas who rule the school. (The parallels to the popular Lindsay Lohan MEAN GIRLS movie are uncanny. But remember, HEATHERS came first!) Of course they are terrible to Veronica until she saves them from detention by forging a hall pass launching herself into the Heathers’ world as their handy resource. (Like some sort of dressed-up, decked-out human Trapper Keeper.) She’s all too willing to oblige as she is now respected. Of course her friendship to Martha suffers, because while Veronica dresses up nicely, everyone is always mean to the fat girl.

Enter J.D., played by Christian Slater look-alike Dave Thomas Brown. He’s the black trench coat-wearing, hair-tossing hunk of a bad boy that wrestles with authority, breaks the rules, quotes controversial novels and everything else ideal dreamboats do. Veronica and J.D. wind up together (including a fully-clothed but suggestive sex scene, I’m reminded of Avenue Q. Why?) and seem to be poised to answer each other’s life questions. The problem is Veronica has stepped in to defend the loveable but naive Martha one too many times and now socially banished by the Heathers and nearly everyone in school. What does one do in a black musical comedy when they are wronged? That’s right….kill the accuser. Rather predictable, but we are then turned on our heels when the now-dead Heather soliloquies over the shoulder of Veronica as she forges her suicide note. (A clever devise…and good fun. But, much like the “Dear Diary” narration in the beginning of Act One…is quickly disregarded when the plot device is inconvenient and becomes the show’s “wallpaper”…it’s there in the background…but does anyone really care about wallpaper?)

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At the risk of giving too much away…let’s just say that the plot thickens and becomes more and more dangerous. J.D. slow-burns into a complete enigma and we wonder at the turning point who is the real villain here. We have a new enemy as one of the remaining Heathers steps up to don the “lead Heather” position of authority (by putting on the infamous red scrunchy….a prop that was terribly ill-used, in my opinion. I know it is a staple of the movie…but the authors could have given it more significance or it’s own moment / song…make it a magical scrunchy, or something….but it serves as a mere after thought and doesn’t carry any gravity).

Iconic lines are delivered (and in some cases given their own musical numbers…”My Dead Gay Son” squeezed every drop of funny you could possibly imagine out of a single one-liner) and we reach a cross-roads when J.D. proves to be way more dangerous that Veronica ever imagines.

We watch Veronica struggle with wanting to be good and do what’s right as she discovers that it’s not necessarily the individual that makes a situation “bad”…and by eliminating that “bad” person…one only creates another “bad” situation. Not a “bad” message, actually. But the problem is the show kinda holds us hostage in the second act when the forward momentum should propel us into even further madness, requiring us to demand a sane outcome (much like Veronica.) Unfortunately…and allow me to point out the problem, like every good bully should….the second act is a veritable see-saw of unbelievable poignant moments (like cheerleader Heather’s “Lifeboat” ballad…one of the highlights of the entire show) and big idea moments like secondary character Ms. Fleming’s flashlight clad dance number “Shine a Light” which is very catchy…but completely out of place and leaves you wondering “what was that all about?” (Who really cares about Ms. Fleming? Leave her as a device.)

The momentum of the second act made me tired…as we hiccuped our way to the final moments. The finale seemed to be well-received by the audience…but I still challenge patrons to consider that it seems a tad unlikely that people “return” after being shot and fall to the ground seemingly dead (ala every corny horror movie)….Martha’s failed suicide attempt and follow-up appearance on a motorized hospital scooter garnishes the absolute wrong reaction to this very likable and tortured character…..and am I REALLY supposed to be believe the final bad-girl Heather has turned-around completely simply because it’s the end of the show and she turns to an awkward ensemble member and smiles? Too convenient. (I had the same reaction after Hairspray. Really? The VonTussels are good guys now? Please.) Everything seems rushed, which is too bad, because the ballad-y closing number, “Seventeen” is quite good. (Although the improvised, super long-winded post curtain call dance party onstage was nothing short of awkward. I just stood there, like an out-of-place high school stereotype at a popular girl’s party.

The show wreaks of LEGALLY BLONDE influences and the costuming, while simple and effective (there are hardly ANY costume changes…they wear the same thing the whole show…but we buy into it) is completely ripped off from the movie CLUELESS. The unit set is minimal (and a smart choice) and while the choreography is perfect for each moment….it certainly wasn’t the cleanest dancing I’ve seen. (Someone behind me actually said “you can tell it’s an Off-Broadway show. Ouch.)

In pontificating about the show, my wife said to me, “yeah…but you haven’t seen the movie. If you had, it would make more sense.” But I see that as yet another problem of the stage adaption…you shouldn’t HAVE to see the movie in order to “buy into” every choice. Theatrical momentum should be presented so as to serve the story on its own.

Overall…I enjoyed it. I’ll get the soundtrack. I do predict, however, that one-by-one theatre patrons will start to die off…and pretty soon the show will close. I do think however, it’ll be reborn again and have a brilliant and much sought-after amateur theatre afterlife.

heathers rating

REVIEW: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Posted in REVIEWS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2014 by erikball123

*NOTE: These are merely thoughts by a theatre lover, not necessarily a theatre critic.


 

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A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

The perfect poison? Add three ounces of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE’S style/grace and two dashes of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BY JEEVES…shake rigorously until laughing and then add dynamic character actor Jefferson Mays and a whirlwind of costume changes, cheeky sight gags and a story that could be a castaway from a “write your own British murder mystery” contest…and you have one of the most entertaining musicals in a long time: A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER. And it’s potent.

It’s sad that so many musicals are considered “unknown.” Take gems like 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE or the wickedly clever play THE EXPLORER’S CLUB at the Manhattan Theatre Club, that are both very successful and yet aren’t considered proverbial powerhouses in their own right. Shame.

It’s 1909 and we find Lord Montague D’Ysquith Navarro, (a wide-eyed and perfected Bryce Pinkham, who is romantic, perky, and a right stinker! Wonderful portrayal) in prison writing his memoirs, a confession really about the murders he’s recently committed, eight in fact, all his relatives and heirs to become the next Earl of Highhurst. The stage upon a stage (a clever and altogether beautiful esthetic, I took notes for future reference….the devil is in the details!) then unmasks his flashback to when he first discovered his life’s turn-around point at the death of his mother. His D’Ysquith bloodline will surely advance his social and financial status enough to capture the heart of Miss Sibella Halward, surely.  But, as so many musical comedies flesh out, we find a torrid journey ahead of us and a twisted plot as Navarro executes a plan to one-by-one eliminate the descendants, some by “accident” and some with cunning villainy. All with many laughs.

There’s a fall from a dreadful high place, a swarm of bees, a decapitation via barbell, a heart-attack, a poisoning, and one is thought to be eaten by cannibals. All before intermission. We shouldn’t be surprised, the ensemble (in a comedic nod to perhaps Sweeney Todd) warned us that this tale is grim and if we are weak of heart…we should leave. We were warned! The second act begins with a marked suspicion that Navarro is up to something. Without giving away details…I will just say that I fought to try and decide WHO I wanted to root for in Act Two. (Reserving a small part of my rascal of a heart for Navarro…who was SO charming.)

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Of course we flesh out a love triangle, and throughout we meet a menagerie of colorful and sometime caricature-like personalities….lots of musicals have that. That’s not what’s compelling about GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE. What is unlike any murder-mystery comedy I’ve see is simply: Jefferson Mays (who plays all of the D’Ysquith family members, and offers moments with lightning fast costume changes. Surely, there HAD to be doubling…wasn’t there?) It’s part comedy of errors and part magic show. It’s all wonderful! Mays is a captain of this vessel and his and Pinkham’s timing (with all the quirks that make British aristocrats so much fun to impersonate!) are spot on. There was one time that I laughed out loud (one of those annoying “explosion guffaws” that you absolutely hate when people set free) at a time that no one else laughed…and Pinkham was simply reacting to something. It was so funny though! I couldn’t help it. My apologies to the lady sitting in front of me who I scared. (Which, of course elicited even more laughter which I fought hard to suppress.) It’s one of those types of shows….you find what YOU want to find funny…and there is a whirlwind of “funny” to choose from.

Standout numbers include “I Don’t Understand the Poor”, the extraordinarily insinuative “Better With a Man” and “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun” and the accompanying spit takes…which the afore-mentioned THE DROWSY CHAPERONE taught us, is always necessary. (Who says musical plot devices aren’t direct descendants of other musicals?)

The comedy is thoughtfully writing with an old-world Agatha Christie charm and an Importance of Being Earnest flare…it makes you pine to be born in that era so in which you didn’t feel so unsophisticated. I drank tea when I got back to my hotel room.

I can see why Tony voters liked this show so much. It’s a relaxing break from the eye-popping mega musicals and teeters on the cusp of Monty Python-like foolishness and laugh-out-loud situational comedy, wrapped tightly in a very very talented ensemble. (Special pops to Eddie Korbich, who is brilliant in EVERYTHING he does.) The show is kinda in a school of it’s own, as it cannot be defined as anything you’ve every seen. The book is well-written and often wafer-thin, so as to see right through it which is well-received at every turn. (Just so long as we’re in on the joke and we KNOW that’s a false mustache on Mays’ lips…then we’re okay.)

The show cannot be truly defined as a murder MYSTERY, as we see nearly every plot device and subtext nuance drop dead before our eyes. There’s nothing mysterious about it. Yet, we root for the heavy veil of plot (woven in dramatic irony) to drop at the characters feet. And when it does…often as a result of Mays unbelievable changing-in and changing-out of characters….we applaud. (And I applaud those backstage changers as well.) The show is matter-of-fact, tongue-in-cheek, and slap-stick all at the same time…and yet I feel somewhat refined after having watched it. It’s weird.

Overall…if you pine to see a killer musical…one with every ingredient that it takes to offer a fun and certainly unique story (with surprises in the ending as well!) then purchase your tickets now. Orchestra…not balcony. The Walter Kerr Theatre has very little leg room in the balcony. My left leg was as dead as Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith halfway through Act One.

gentlemen's review

 

 

 

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