Video Friday: It Takes Two

In honor of the upcoming release of “Into the Woods” THE MOVIE (keep your eyes peeled for a review of the film), I would like to dedicate this Video Friday to…wait for it…Into the Woods.

This is my all-time favorite musical, hands-down, no questions asked. And one of my favorite tunes from the show is “It Takes Two.” This is likely due to my life-long dream to play the Baker’s Wife. As a result, I’ve always been partial to her numbers and everything related to Joanna Gleason (how about that Newsroom finale?). So to share today, I have two videos of that song.

First is from the 1987 original staged musical (which was aired on American Playhouse in 1991) performed by none other than Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason as the Baker and his Wife.

Second is their beautiful reunion many years later at Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert in 2010.

What are your favorite songs from Into the Woods?


Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult

You can always count on Kneehigh Theatre for a whimsical treat for the soul.

When I first heard St. Ann’s was presenting the theatre company Kneehigh’s production of Tristan & Yseult, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Plus I got to see it with Shannon, one of my favorite people, who was visiting from Chicago last week (to launch Brontosaurus Haircut Productions!). Kneehigh’s style is right up our alley so we were eager to drink in the performance. I’m sorry to say that the run ended on Sunday night, so unfortunately I can’t recommend that you go see it (slash I’ll keep this brief). But here’s the trailer to give you a taste.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to Kneehigh is their seamless threading of storytelling with dance, music, and physicality. It’s consistently innovative, exciting, and unexpected. I got to see Brief Encounter at Roundabout Theatre Company in 2010, and while I don’t recall specifics (except the swinging on chandeliers), I definitely remember how it made me feel. I remember being awed, thrilled, and challenged by the acrobatics, ideas, and designs. It was simply beautiful (here’s the clip reel).

Their newest production is the story of Tristan and Yseult, your classic case of star-crossed lovers. We are greeted by a group of self-declared “Lovespotters,” who also introduce themselves as the unloved in this world. They are all dressed in uniform track jackets, hoods up, carrying around notepads and binoculars as they search for signs of love (this ensemble also doubles as the characters of the main story). I loved the unloved. They were like the minions in “Despicable Me” – working in unison, saying random things, singing and stomping around, and called names like Steve and Kenneth. They’ve also been known to croon sappy love songs and modern pop songs with the kick-ass band at the Club of the Unloved.

Even though I can’t recommend this particular play, I can tell you to keep your eye out for Kneehigh shows. We went on a journey of love, heartbreak, song, and dance as these characters sailed on ships, battled, and flew in the air. The storytelling is quirky and light until you realize just how heavy-hearted things can be.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult
Written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Closed December 14, 2014
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo


Side Show

Side Show

The musical about conjoined twins brings double the thrills and double the heartbreak.

As I’ve tuned into the word of mouth and critical response this season, I’ve noticed that there are two camps of thought regarding the revival of Side Show. The buzz was nothing but positive early on, it got a great Times review, and many loved it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, I’ve talked to people who couldn’t stand it – from the updated book to the direction of the entire piece. Whether or not this divisive response is a sign of good theatre is a conversation for another day. Instead, I’m here to tell you I’m in the first camp. I liked it! Quite a bit (watch a sneak peek here).

Side Show is based on real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, and their lives in the side show and vaudeville worlds of the 1930s. It had a brief Broadway run in 1997 starring Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner (watch them sing on Rosie O’Donnell’s old show here). The current revival is a revised version which started out at La Jolla Playhouse and then had a successful run at the Kennedy Center last summer. Now, I never saw the original, but I’m relatively familiar with the cast recording. I couldn’t sing the whole thing through from memory, but I recognize most of the tunes. All that to say, I’m not loyal to the original as I know some are. A friend of mine was very unhappy with all of the changes and found herself missing what it once was. About 60% or so has been revised: new songs, new scenes, the works.

The book is not without its flaws. The love stories get a little sloppy, but for some reason, it didn’t bother me. Things get melodramatic at times, which has never been a preference of mine, but it rides the edge nicely enough and never fully collapses into that style (like The Last Ship). A major flashback has been added to Act 1, filling in the girls’ backstory and how they ended up in a side show in Texas as the rightful property of the ringmaster. If there was one section that didn’t grab me as much as the rest, it was this scene. I understand the significance of including it, but the way it was told didn’t grab me. Harry Houdini stops by for a bit, and the action comes to a halt.

The two love interests, Terry and Buddy, who rescue the girls from the side show and make them vaudeville stars, kind of blend together. Basically, they’re underwritten. I suppose you could argue that it’s because they’re not the focus – we’re here for the twins and the twins alone. But come to think of it, the way the male romantic leads are written is similar to how many female roles are written in the canon. Not much to them, no real defining characteristics, there only to serve the purpose of the main (male) characters (Cosette, anyone?).

Flaws aside, the freaks are awesome in this. We begin with the side show and the charged opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” In the original, the choice was made to have everyone look “normal.” Kind of like in Violet – no make-up is used to display Violet’s terrible facial scar. It’s left up to the imagination and drives home the point of “they’re just like everyone else.” In the revival, there is nothing left to the imagination. The costumes and make-up are fantastic, and I think the message still comes through.

But let’s get to back to Daisy and Violet. Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are the heart of this musical. These two actresses are so in sync with each other that when the sisters are at odds, it’s all the more effective and challenging to watch them struggle (hear them talk about the experience of sharing a hip here). The Act One Finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” is worth the price of admission in my book. Their voices together – oof, such power in their sound. Chills down my spine. The same goes for the Act 2 Finale, “I Will Never Leave You.” Both songs are show stoppers, combined with beautiful voices that lock in together perfectly.

Freak shows speaks to the inner part of us that wants to see people who look different or grotesque. I think it’s for the same reason drivers slow down on the highway to look at an accident. Ultimately, Side Show is a heart-breaking story about being different and longing for acceptance. Everyone can relate to feeling like a freak and wanting to be loved. It’s not a mistake when the spotlights on stage turn to shine on us for just a moment during the reprise of that taunting opening number. So come on, folks. Come look at the freaks.

Side Show
Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell, Music by Henry Krieger, Additional Book Material and Directed by Bill Condon
St. James Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Emily Padgett and Erin Davie


Video Friday: Sun and Moon

This video is one of my top picks for repeat viewings on good ol’ YouTube. I still watch it with a sense of wonder.

This is footage from Lea Salonga’s audition/callback for Miss Saigon. She’s only 17 years old in this video. She was 18 when she originated the role in London in 1989; two years later she debuted on Broadway.

We get to witness her hear the beautiful song, “Sun and Moon,” for the first time as Claude-Michel Schonberg, one of the writers, teaches her on piano. One of my favorite moments is at the end when the camera cuts to producer Cameron Mackintosh, director Nicholas Hytner, and writer Alain Boublil just staring with awe and speechlessness. They’ve found their Kim! They’re watching a star in the making!

Her voice is so beautifully innocent, young, and full of hope with the lightest touch of vibrato and that low note – chills. The song starts 00:51, but if you want to see the adorable opening moments of Lea asking for an autograph, start from the top.

Here is “Sun and Moon.” I hope you enjoy.


Les Misérables

Les Miserables

Well, it’s definitely better than the movie.

Okay readers, I’m warning you now – there will be plot spoilers in this review. So if for some reason you don’t know the plot of Les Misérables and wish to remain in the dark, you may have to skip this blog post. Don’t know Les Miz and want to? Watch the 10th Anniversary Concert; that’s the best way to get introduced. Not the Russell Crowe movie, not the Claire Danes movie, not the 25th Anniversary Concert – the 10th Anniversary Concert featuring the best of the best which aired on TV in 1996 (and which I then watched religiously for the next ten years).

Anyway, if it’s not clear from the above, I grew up with this musical. I saw the original three times on Broadway and twice in London and was honestly nervous to see this new production. The last revival I skipped because I heard it was a mess (despite Lea Salonga’s return). This one is far from a mess. I enjoyed quite a lot of it, but of course, I can’t help but have mixed feelings. Admittedly, this may be one of those cases of how can something ever beat the original. Regardless, here’s a look at where I stand on the newest Broadway revival of Les Misérables (click here for clips).

Things I Liked:

Caissie Levy can sang. Yes, she has more of a pop voice than we might be used to for Fantine, but it’s still nice to sit back and not have to worry that notes won’t be hit. Caissie can do those notes in her sleep.

Ramin Karimloo. Damn. I’d heard wonderful things but remained on edge for the first 20 minutes or so. Early on he had the tendency to be a little bit sharp, but that soon faded. This guy has a very powerful voice from his strong belt to his gorgeous falsetto (and apparently he’s never trained which is just crazy given his sound). Plus it doesn’t hurt that he’s a mighty fine specimen to look at.

Cosette. Now there’s a surprise. I have never liked Cosette. She’s underwritten and basically only there to serve the plot of the characters around her. Growing up however, my reasons weren’t as advanced (I just wanted to hate the pretty blonde who got the guy). But Samantha Hill’s voice floats up in those higher octaves in such a way that I actually didn’t mind the character as much. How I wish she had been in the movie instead of Amanda Seyfried.

Gavroche. Albeit I don’t know if I’ve ever not liked Gavroche. He’s always played by such a charming little kid. For his final scene, I am partial to the staging of the original production; the new one feels a little self-indulgent.

“Bring Him Home.” As I mentioned above, Ramin has a beautiful falsetto, and he does not disappoint on arguably one of the best songs/moments in the show. Everything in this epically enormous show gets dialed down for these few minutes, and you’re left with this one man singing his heartbreaking plea.

Things I Didn’t Like:

Marius. Sorry. I wasn’t into him. Andy Mientus is talented, but no one will ever top Michael Ball for me. Both the 12-year-old and 30-year-old in me will forever think his voice is the dreamiest.

Wow, my attention span is not what it used to be. No matter what other shows come along, Les Miz will have a place in my heart, but man, is that a long first act. It takes so long to get to the meat of the story. It’s possible I was super conscious of the pacing because I was there with Matt who was seeing it for the first time, and I was nervous that it might be too slow for his taste. I think he enjoyed it though!

The Thenardiers. I knowwww. I like both those actors, but the approach/direction didn’t feel right to me. They were dark, scary characters, and that’s fine! Still though, we crave that comic relief in this beast of a musical. We need laughs desperately, but “Master of the House” was just another tune passing by.

Things I’m Mixed About:

Projections are a big part of the set design, but I can’t comment on their use because I was sitting very far house right and could only see pieces of them. I wish I could have seen if they were effective or not.

I like Nikki M. James (Eponine) a lot. She was the heart of The Book of Mormon (for which she won a Tony), and I also got to see her at NYTW last year in Fetch Clay, Make Man. And her big note in “On My Own” was indeed chill-worthy, but I fear she might be miscast. I don’t think her singing voice matches the style of this music. It’s not a good fit to my ear.

For the most part I didn’t miss the turntable. I did my best to go in with an open mind knowing how different the staging would be without this iconic design. Sorry though – the barricades simply aren’t as impressive as they once were without them spinning around with Enjolras hanging off the back atop the red flag. That was the image of Les Miz. Now he’s in the same position…in a wheelbarrow.

Random Anecdote:

During the performance, I finally came to understand something that has been bothering me for as long as I can remember. It always dug at me that Fantine got to come back in the end in her beautiful white dress while Eponine was still stuck in her poor get-up. Why did Fantine get to be all ghostly and Eponine so dirty? But this time, for absolutely no reason at all, it clicked that the white dress is literally what Fantine dies in. It’s her hospital gown. Mystery solved! She wasn’t being favored by costume designers across the world! Is it just me? Am I the only weirdo who wondered about this?

Conclusion:

In closing, if you’re already a fan of the musical and feel the desire to see it again, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the newest revival. If you’ve never seen the show? This is a pretty reliable way to experience it live. Again though, you’re talking to the girl who was once a toddler bouncing around the house singing what I thought were the lyrics to the opening number: “Up down, up down, up down up down up down.”

I know, I’m a natural.

Les Misérables
Music by Claude-Michel Schöenberg, Book by Alan Boublil, Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, Adapted by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Imperial Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Pictured: Ramin Karimloo


You Should Be Listening To: Serial

Serial

Looking for your next show to binge-watch? How about a binge-listen?

We’re venturing into new territory here on Becca on Broadway: the land of podcasts. I’m pretty new to the experience, having only been introduced in September, but now I cannot get enough. Today we focus on one in particular.

If you’re a regular podcast listener, then you likely already know alllll about Serial, which is currently the top station. It’s a spinoff of This American Life, the popular public radio show hosted by Ira Glass. Each episode of TAL has a theme and is typically split into three acts as we hear different peoples’ stories (it was also a television series on Showtime back in 2006). Serial began in September, coincidentally right after I started subscribing to the podcast world. Sarah Koenig, a journalist and producer of TAL, is the host and executive producer. The primary difference between the two podcasts is that Serial focuses on one nonfiction story over the course of the whole season, each episode diving deeper and deeper into the details. There have been nine so far, ranging from 30-45 minutes each (it’s still TBD how many episodes there will be).

This first season is about a murder case from 1999. A Baltimore high schooler named Hae Min Lee was strangled, and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison not long after her body was found. Fifteen years later, Adnan is an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility. But when we start to look into the case against him, it’s not the most clear-cut. Between the conflicting testimonies, confusing phone records, and lack of follow-through on examining the evidence, how sure are we that Adnan was rightfully convicted of this crime?

Not to say that’s all the podcast is about. Sarah Koenig isn’t just trying to prove Adnan’s innocence. He very well may be guilty (many listeners firmly believe he is), but either way, Sarah ultimately wants to get to the bottom of it. So she starts from scratch and is now reviewing the case piece by piece all these years later. This leads to many new mysteries as she interviews friends, family, and witnesses from the winter of 1999 – kids who are now grown adults. We also get to know Adnan, as Sarah has weekly phone conversations with him in prison.

Honestly, no matter what I say it won’t begin to cover how compelling this story is. I don’t know how they do it, but every episode is better than the last. Listeners are incredibly invested in this case, and it’s actually easy to forget sometimes that it’s real life. These are not characters in a movie. This isn’t a mystery novel. This is a tragedy that really happened which took one girl’s life and forever shaped her classmates’ futures. Episodes cover all kinds of emotions. I’ve had friends text me about crying on the subway as they listen. I’m pretty sure I often look stunned, with my mouth hanging open, as I listen on my commute.

Along with the captivating evidence reveals, testimonies, and recordings from the trials, Sarah is also a fantastic host. She’s riveting and relatable. We are going along on this journey with her, and she is just as stumped as we are. Her delivery is calming and smart, and she asks all the right questions (although the parody that’s going around right now is hilarious and a pretty spot-on impression of her intonation). While we’re on the topic actually, for you fans out there, I also suggest checking out these great charts (thanks for sharing, Dina!).

Want more reasons to listen? The theme music. The editing. The pacing. And the MailChimp ad at the beginning which somehow we’ve all grown to love and look forward to every Thursday morning.

So here is your assignment:
1) Install the Podcast app on your phone.
2) Subscribe to Serial.
3) Download the episodes.
4) Start with Episode 1: The Alibi (note: you definitely want to start at the beginning.).

They’re off this week due to Thanksgiving so it’s the perfect time to start catching up. Go with my blessing, friends. Give thanks, and binge!


On the Town

On the Town

Fantastic dancing and a bright, talented cast make this one helluva revival.

For those of you out there who say you don’t know On the Town at all, I guarantee that you know at least one song. Originally produced on Broadway in 1944, it was also made into a film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra later that decade. The story doesn’t go far below the surface. It’s about three sailors trying to get laid during their 24-hour shore leave in New York City. Yup. That’s the Leonard Bernstein musical in a nutshell. But for an old-timey classic, it’s dirtier than you might expect, packed with innuendos and euphemisms.

It’s a funny thing about revivals. When a new show comes out, most of the reviews are about the content – the quality of the book and music. With something this old-school, no one is commenting on the quality of the show itself; instead it’s about the production. How the material is approached this time around. And when you’ve got John Rando at the helm (Tony winner for Urinetown), you know you’re in good hands. The production value is fantastic, the choreography stunning, plus a funky design, and an awesomely talented cast.

On the Town was the first production I was cast in at Muhlenberg; my sophomore year I played…wait for it…the Little Old Lady. She’s literally a running gag, randomly running across the stage throughout the show. The always-funny Jackie Hoffman doubles as the Old Lady and Madame Dilly (actually she pops up as other random characters, too). The focus, though, is on the six stars (the main sailors and their respective matches), and they all get a chance in the spotlight. Tony Yazbeck as Gabey is such a beautiful dancer to watch. His Tulsa really struck me in the Gypsy revival as well. Jay Armstrong Johnson’s Chip is goofy and lovable, and Clyde Alves as Ozzie never runs out of energy. Megan Fairchild plays Ivy with simple grace, and her big dance sequence with Yazbeck in the second act is wonderful. I love Elizabeth Stanley in everything, and she doesn’t disappoint as Claire de Loone. And this was my first introduction to Alysha Umphress as Hildy; that girl’s got pipes (here she is singing I Can Cook, Too).

So why see On the Town now? In the current decade? Matt and I debated this on the ride home. It’s a return to a simpler time for sure. Escapism at heart, right? Musicals today tend to make you think more (or at the very least, Sondheim intellectualized some of them). While escapism, fluff, bubblegum (whatever you want to call it) still come and go on the Broadway stage, there certainly aren’t contemporary shows with dancing like this anymore. We were trying to think of a modern musical that has full-on dance (maybe Thoroughly Modern Millie comes close?). Sure, there are dance numbers/breaks, but songs fully dedicated to dance are few and far between. You’ll typically only see that in revivals like Anything Goes, The Music Man, 42nd Street, etc. On the Town provides the eight-minute long dance sequences we’ve been missing, and this revival doesn’t flounder in that department. It features beautiful pas de deux and ensemble work (highlights here). The choreography and execution are gorgeous in this production and one of the best reasons to go see it. And it’s not just the ensemble – this is a show in which the principles have to be real dancers as well. You know it’s a legit dance show when the lead woman is New York City Ballet’s #1 ballerina.

So yes, it may be a random, at times senseless plot (with some objectifying of both genders thrown into the mix for good measure), but for a great Greene/Comden/Bernstein throwback, classic show tunes, and beautiful dancing, I say it’s worth a trip to go get Carried Away.

On the Town
Music and Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein, Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Directed by John Rando
Lyric Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: The Cast of On the Town


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