Old Times: Not the Best of Times

Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sorry for my absence, y’all. I’ve been here:

The beauty of packing

Moving day!

This is what 13 hours of shopping looks like.

Thank goodness for large elevators.

Don’t worry; I haven’t gone far! Only about 10 blocks west of my last place, but a new apartment nonetheless. Which means for the past two weeks all I’ve been doing is packing and cleaning and tossing and taping and unpacking and IKEAing and building and burning cash, on repeat it seems. Soon, friends. Soon our home will be livable.

FrownAnyway, because of the move delay, I didn’t get to write about Old Times before it closed last week, but here’s a quick note about the production. You may have already seen my #InstaReview on Instagram (p.s. follow me). Harold Pinter was back on the Broadway in this revival, and I was left feeling the same way I did last time at No Man’s Land: unfulfilled. And to be blunt with you: bored. The same thing happened when I saw The Birthday Party many moons ago during my semester abroad in London.

A two-sentence synopsis: Married couple Deeley and Kate are hosting Anna, an intriguing friend of Kate’s from years before. Together they reminisce and discover unexpected connections among them, all the while trying to maintain the upper hand in the conversation. I didn’t care for the characters in present day, much less their past. There was no forward momentum. Old Times is power play after power play, but I felt like we were in a stalemate the whole time. Each pause was so weighted, and every line meant so much. It’s exhausting having that much subtext, and I love subtext! It’s delicious when a character says one thing and means another; that’s real life. However, here it was tiring, despite the very talented cast. Too much subtext and not enough substance. The design was attractive, but what did it mean? It gave me the impression that we were floating in limbo. The play gave that impression, too. It’s a cat and mouse game, but I didn’t know who was chasing whom. They certainly weren’t chasing my attention.

I’ll be completely honest with you: I don’t know the ultimate reason that Old Times didn’t appeal to me. The common denominator here could be Pinter, end of story. Another part of me wonders if there is still a chance for Pinter and me; if I need exactly the right combination of director, cast, and story. Regardless, Pinter is in the canon for a reason, and I know I enjoyed reading his plays back in school. That love should be able to translate to the stage. But it seems Old Times was not the right time for me.

***
Old Times
Written by Harold Pinter, Directed by Douglas Hodge
American Airlines Theatre, Closed November 29, 2015
Running time: 65 minutes, no intermission

Cast: Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly, and Eve Best

Credits: Set Design: Christine Jones; Costume Design: Constance Hoffman; Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman; Sound Design: Clive Goodwin; Music: Thom Yorke: Hair Design: Amanda Miller; Production Stage Manager: Nevin Hedley

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It Shoulda Been You

It Shoulda Been You

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but It Shoulda Been You is not the way to go this season. The premise is promising – an old fashioned wedding story of families colliding with a modern twist – but this brand new musical comedy misses the mark.

It’s Rebecca’s wedding day, and nothing is going well. Her mother and the groom’s mother aren’t getting along, her ex-boyfriend has gotten wind of the nuptials and is on his way to crash the ceremony, and her sister Jenny, always the bridesmaid, is expected to keep everything together (click here for highlights).

The book is weak and offensive. I suppose I might be more forgiving if the score were likeable, but the songs, after an hour and a half, were like nails on a chalkboard to my ears. The lyrics also include gems like, “How you pulled that out of your hat is making me smile like a Cheshire cat.” The music is made up of random notes following one another, trying to force a melody. I was looking forward to Lisa Howard’s 11 o’clock number because that woman has pipes, but I sat there thinking, this is what she has to sing every night?

Speaking of my excitement for Lisa Howard, I was so psyched for her to finally have a lead role on Broadway, but there’s a terrible subplot about her weight and her mother’s rude comments. The book is packed with fat jokes, Jewish jokes, black jokes, gay jokes, and alcoholic jokes, but none are smart. Mostly they made me cringe, and I’m not easily offended. I’m typically fine with that style of humor (The Book of Mormon, anyone?), but when written poorly, it just comes off as mean.

What a waste of talent. It’s a fantastic cast full of big names (Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, David Burtka), and the brilliant David Hyde Pierce at the helm directing, so I can’t help but wonder what went wrong here. I’ll give it this much: there’s a surprise in the show that neither Matt nor I saw coming, and I don’t know the last time I was that genuinely surprised by a plot shift. But it doesn’t save the show by any means. For a brief moment I did think, “Oh, this will help the story,” but it only made it more convoluted.

But really, the show’s tagline is, “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be home by 10.” I mean, what? Their best foot forward is how short the show is?! That’s not gonna cut it for me. It shoulda been better.

It Shoulda Been You
Book & Lyrics by Brian Hargrove, Music by Barbara Anselni, Directed by David Hyde Pierce
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Lisa Howard


Honeymoon in Vegas

Honeymoon in Vegas

If you’re into outrageous musical comedies, then Honeymoon in Vegas is the show for you. If not? I’d honeymoon elsewhere.

I can’t remember the last time I was at such a loss for what to say about a show. I honestly don’t know if you should run toward or away from Honeymoon in Vegas. It’s one of the more absurdist musical comedies I’ve ever seen. It is one huge compilation of random, campy moments, and yet all of that happens amidst a very clear (albeit insane) storyline (check out the clips here).

I suppose if you’ve seen the 1992 film then you’re likely better prepared for the plot than Matt and I were. The movie stars Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and James Caan, and from what I’ve read of the synopsis, the musical seems to stay pretty loyal. But I mean, what?? This plot! Although, Matt did point out that it was similar to how he felt watching On the Town, which also has a relatively absurd play-by-play. So you gotta be prepared to just sit back for a wild and crazy ride. That’s kind of all you can do with a show like this. You can’t sit there with your critical hat on, or try to find the logic within the madness, or have a life-changing experience as it realigns your outlook on life. Nope. Instead, tap your foot, laugh with it (and at it at times), and sit there with the goofiest smile on your face. Because when you have Vegas showgirls, a dead mother’s curse, a song called Friki-Friki, Tony Danza tap dancing, and skydiving Elvises, what else can you do?

So the plot. A guy named Jack Singer loves his girlfriend Betsy (as he makes very clear in the opening number “I Love Betsy”), but he’s afraid to pop the question. Why? Because his mother’s dying wish (ahem, curse) was that he never get married. Every time he comes close, something goes terribly wrong. But when Betsy finally puts her foot down, they fly to Vegas to tie the knot. There we meet an older gentleman, conman Tommy Korman, who tricks clueless tourists into rigged poker games and walks out with thousands of dollars. He spots Betsy at the pool and falls immediately in love because she’s a dead ringer for his dead wife. He draws Jack into a game of the aforementioned poker, and when Jack finds himself out $10,000, Tommy says they can call it even if he can have one weekend with Jack’s girlfriend. Then they all go to Hawaii.

And that’s just Act 1.

I haven’t even mentioned the Garden of Disappointed Mothers in Act 2. Can we talk about this for a second? I don’t believe this scene is in the movie, but let me paint this picture for you now. It’s one of the few heart-to-heart moments in the show as we find ourselves surrounded by a bunch of women dressed as trees. Fog is pouring off the stage so that the first three rows can barely even see. I look to my left and see Matt crying in his lap he’s laughing so hard as we notice an old man in the front row stand up in the middle of the scene to attempt to see over the fog and then give up altogether and abandon his seat. It’s a ballad between mother and son, and you’ve got the amazingly talented Nancy Opel stuck in a tiki tree costume. The juxtaposition of these things has to be intentional, but I think we were the only ones laughing, sooo your guess is as good as mine.

Rob McClure, Tony nominee for the short-lived Chaplin, is great and well cast as nebbish Jack. Betsy is played by the charming and funny Brynn O’Malley. And as the sly con artist, Mr. Tony Danza holds his own, and boy, are folks excited to see him. Opel as Jack’s mother is sadly underused, not to mention Matthew Salvidar as Tommy’s sidekick. What a waste of his talent! I wonder if he had a song that was cut somewhere along the line.

I do, though, want to say, “Good on you, Jason Robert Brown.” First, for writing an Overture and Entr’acte (what happened to those, friends?) and highlighting the fabulous orchestra. But also, for writing this fun, jazzy, over-the-top music immediately following last season’s The Bridges of Madison County for its lush, romantic, Tony-winning score. It’s hard to believe they’re written by the same composer.

Honeymoon in Vegas starts off so strong. It’s campy and knows it. But when the characters head to Vegas, I found myself less on board. It was like a game of tug-of-war; I kept giving up, and then the most insane thing would happen, and I’d find myself smiling. And then I’d get fed up all over again. I try to avoid quoting other critics, but I think Ben Brantley hits it on the head in his (note: incredibly positive) review from the Papermill Playhouse run: “It’s a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness.”

And as my pal Matt put it, “I had fun!! Do I think it’s a good musical?…No.”

Honeymoon in Vegas
Book by Andrew Bergman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and Directed by Gary Griffin
Nederlander Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Tony Danza and Rob McClure and the Cast of Honeymoon in Vegas


It’s Only a Play

It's Only a Play

This Terrence McNally revival packs a lot of star power but no punch.

Listen folks, I’m sorry to report that I was disappointed by It’s Only a Play. Matt and I were very much looking forward to it, and being that it’s one of the hottest tickets, this was one of our splurges money-wise this season. With its starry cast, stellar creative team, and modernized script, we figured we couldn’t go wrong.

The loose plot centers around a group of theatre people at an opening night party awaiting the reviews, primarily the Times. You’ve got the producer (Megan Mullally), the playwright (Matthew Broderick), the director (Rupert Grint), the star (Stockard Channing), a critic (F. Murray Abraham), the playwright’s friend who passed on the project (Nathan Lane), and the coat check boy (“introducing Micah Stock”). All in one room told in real time (click here for highlights).

Things start out amusingly enough. I mean, I’ll watch Nathan Lane live anytime with a perfectly content smile on my face. There’s a section early on with just him on stage, and I would have been happy if the whole play had been that. Maybe I’ll go watch The Nance on PBS instead and revisit that production.

It’s Only a Play is overflowing with inside jokes about the theatre world, many of which would completely go over the average theatre-goer’s head. McNally has updated all of the now-dated references to today’s celebrities and to more recent theatre tiffs (e.g. Shia LaBeouf, Alec Baldwin). Practically every show currently running on Broadway is thrown into the mix, and it gets old fast. There is more name-dropping in this show than…um…just trust me. Hilary Clinton, Denzel Washington, Frank Langella, Lady Gaga, a whole lotta names – most of which are mentioned alongside jokes at their expense. There are so many punchlines that are equivalent to a celebrity shout-out that it started to get on my nerves. Those are cheap shots in my book (although the malicious jokes didn’t seem as malicious coming out of Lane’s mouth).

Matthew Broderick’s stiff performance falls flat with his consistently understated and monotone delivery. Any energy that is built up by the other characters collapses around them when he arrives onstage. He has a huge speech in the first act (which ends with the line: “Speech done”) when he gets up on a soap box and talks about the theatre today and how its integrity is basically falling apart at the seams. What have we done to it? Remember the good old days? And so on and so forth. People applauded like crazy afterward, yet I sat there feeling insulted. I understand the self-awareness aspect of referencing the trend of movie stars taking over Broadway and names above the title, and that’s what this play is doing too (get it??), but it didn’t come across as witty to me. [title of show] did the self-aware comedy much more effectively and humorously. Nathan Lane’s character referring to the actor Nathan Lane for an easy laugh? Come on. There was so much applause after lines, big speeches, entrances, and exits, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Were the people around us clapping for the play? The production? Or just the stars they love? Does Stockard Channing leaving the stage after saying something triumphantly warrant exit applause? If it had been any other actor, would the audience have cared?

Wow, I’m starting to sound bitter. Let me dial it back, and get back on topic. Take a breath, Becca.

Perhaps I’m not the target audience. I know that the most of the reviews tell me I’m in the minority, but neither Matt nor I laughed much. Grint was a caricature, as was Mullally. This approach could maybe work if everyone was giving the same stylized performance, but with Broderick, for example, playing everything down, you’re left with a bunch of people in different plays. One of the things that makes You Can’t Take It With You such a hit in my book is that it has a cast of fully-realized individual characters who all could be the star of the show with their crazy antics, but simultaneously, they’re in sync with one another. That family is under the same roof and in the same play, whereas It’s Only a Play’s characters all seem to be attending different opening night parties.

It’s Only a Play
Written by Terrence McNally, Directed by Jack O’Brien
Schoenfeld Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing


The Last Ship

The Last Ship

I think you’ll find that everything about Sting’s new musical The Last Ship feels very epic (click here for highlights). They certainly spared no expense with their advertising. The stakes are quite high for this small, English seafaring town, but unfortunately, it didn’t resonate with me. I think this may be because the book is trying to cover too much ground. It’s like an odd mix of Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots (or any other musical that takes places in the United Kingdom) – take out the miners and replace them with ship builders, trade out a son running away from his pop’s shoe business, and this time around, make it about, ya know, ships.

Let me see if I can describe the plot briefly (loosely based on Sting’s childhood). Gideon Fletcher is a young boy who is expected to build ships with the rest of the men in town, but he sees a different future for himself. He ditches his injured, abusive father and his ship-building roots to explore the world instead. He also leaves behind his girlfriend Meg. Fifteen years later he returns, and due to the economic depression, the shipyards have closed down, and his ex is engaged. Will Gideon return to his roots? Will he embrace the shipbuilders’ cause? Will he win back his girl?

Even though it seems like the show is pulling from all of the plots we’ve seen before, it is a new score. I think Sting has become one of the more successful pop/rock stars to shift into the musical theatre genre. Like Cyndi Lauper (Tony-winning composer of Kinky Boots), he’s got his own thing going on and has written a lush, dark score with an actual arc (something Spiderman could have used). Several melodies were very catchy, although the songs that were stuck in my head afterward may have been due to the fact that they were reprised approximately 13 million times.

Alongside the solid score is a very cool set design and a strong cast. Rachel Tucker as Meg has a great voice and presence. Fred Applegate (her father and the town preacher) is reliable as always; he brings some of the much-needed humor to the piece. I like Michael Esper (Gideon), but it also took me till about halfway through the first act to start understanding whatever he was singing about. I could not get my ears to wrap around his accent. Collin Kelly-Sordelet brings a tough innocence to his performance as Tom Dawson, Meg’s 15-year-old son (hmmm, I WONDER who the father could be?).

Here are some of the reasons I had trouble with the story. One of the biggest plot points is that these men aren’t going to be allowed to build ships anymore. So they start a revolution and resolve to build one anyway – one last, this-is-gonna-be-the-best-ship-ever – but for what purpose I don’t know; it’s never made clear. Then, the protagonist’s big shift in the end of Act I which ultimately builds to the finale, didn’t do anything for me. His decision to all of a sudden go from completely indifferent to caring passionately about a cause came out of nowhere. Dramatically you need more of a believable transition to go along for that ride. There simply wasn’t time to spend on his character shift, much less the supporting characters. Most came across as one-dimensional, there only to serve one purpose. The love triangle also drove me crazy. It’s like it only exists because it’s expected in a musical. This guy returns after 15 years and starts making moves on the woman he left behind, leaving her conflicted as to whether she should stay with her long-term, kind, committed, hot (thank you, Aaron Lazar) boyfriend. Are we really supposed to be rooting for Gideon to win her back?

The book is trying to cover so many different things that it leaves us with majorly underdeveloped characters. They remain archetypes: the rebel, the scorned woman, the adamant ship-building guys, the wide-eyed boy, the sarcastic preacher who drinks, the dedicated boyfriend who is also apparently the guy in charge of keeping the shipyards closed down…I didn’t really understand that part.

Despite a talented cast, haunting score, and exciting design, The Last Ship’s story will unfortunately leave you out to sea.

The Last Ship
Music by Sting, Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, Directed by Joe Mantello
Neil Simon Theatre, Closing January 24th, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Fred Applegate, Jimmy Nail, and the cast of The Last Ship


The Real Thing

The Real Thing

If you went to high school with me, then you know I fell in love with Ewan McGregor when I was 17-years-old, saw “Moulin Rouge” for the first time, and my young mind exploded. You also know that I had a Seth Green phase earlier in high school, but let’s move past that for the moment. After I proceeded to watch as many of Ewan’s films as I could the following year, I eagerly awaited the moment to see him in a live play (since I tried and subsequently failed to see him in Guys and Dolls when I was studying abroad in England). So yes, I admit, Ewan was the primary reason I wanted to attend the newest revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a playwright. His current play is about a woman who cheats on her husband, starring his wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) and an actor named Max (Josh Hamilton). In real life, Max is married to Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). When we learn that Henry and Annie are actually having an affair, art begins to imitate life. Or is it the other way around?

Sadly, this production left me wanting in many ways. I wasn’t invested in these characters, emotionally or intellectually. They don’t need to be sympathetic (which they aren’t) for me to be invested, but I still have to want to go on a journey with them. Instead I felt left behind. This was in part due to the story itself being confusing at times (intentionally), and it can be hard to follow because the language is so dense. But that aside, I couldn’t connect to the style itself. It was very presentational and plotted out. Rather than discovering on the line, all of the words seemed planned. If a character had a big speech, it was performed like he or she had memorized it and had reached the appropriate time to recite it. It did not feel spontaneous.

Matt and I were discussing that maybe this was because of the slightly heightened, highly intellectual language, but on the other hand, Shakespeare is heightened and poetic. Even if you don’t catch all of the metaphors, subtext, and meanings in the first hear-through, you are still with the characters. You’re discovering things together, in the moment, no matter the density of the words. For example, when I saw the revival of Stoppard’s Arcadia a few years back, I went in blind, and while I was desperately confused at times (lots of math talk in that play), I still felt like I was there with the characters, going through something with them, trying to figure it out together.

The Real Thing won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1982 and Best Revival of a Play in 2000. It took home the Drama Desk, and the leads won Tony Awards in both productions. I mean, it makes sense! Stoppard is one of our most popular playwrights, known for his intense, philosophical, beautiful dialogue and topics. And I love all four of these actors in their other works. I think the root may be a direction/style choice. I’m curious what the previous productions did differently that made them so successful.

This play is about love, marriage, and in/fidelity. It’s about the feelings that are left unsaid, acting the opposite, playing it cool. We find out rather quickly that the first scene is a performance, a play within a play, but come the second scene in “reality,” it still feels like a performance. This might have been the point, as it partly represents the lack of honesty being shared among the characters, but then again, there needs to be a contrast. There are only a couple of moments with that kind of truth sprinkled in (Ewan has a touching moment alone onstage in the second act that I appreciated). I don’t mean that the characters need to show this truth to each other, but the vulnerability could be shared with us. Someone should be honest with the audience and make that connection, if only for a moment, because we want, we need the real thing.

The Real Thing
Written by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Sam Gold
American Airlines Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor


Aladdin

Aladdin

So the critics and I haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye much of late. ROCKY received mostly negative reviews, and I think it’s one of the more exciting shows this season. Meanwhile, Aladdin received rave reviews, and to be honest with you, I didn’t think it was all that amazing. People are lapping this show up; the audience was on its feet before the bows even started. And I doubt the show will have much trouble selling tickets being that it’s…ya know, Disney’s Aladdin (albeit The Little Mermaid wasn’t much of a success).

Here’s the thing: this production is a huge and colorful spectacle, but ultimately, I thought it lacked heart – the heart that I feel is deeply a part of the movie. Lines taken directly from the film (lines that still make me cry despite having watched the movie a thousand times because it’s my favorite Disney flick) actually made me roll my eyes. I don’t think the show goes much deeper than the glitzy surface. Aladdin comes off as pretty bland, and it becomes even more apparent how much this hero lies.

My biggest complaint may be the cutting of the animals. Yeah, yeah, I know – it’s a new musical, it’s not the same as the movie, and I have to let certain things go. But I’m sorry! This is Disney! They have so much money. Figure out how to make Abu work instead of throwing him to the curb and giving Aladdin three pals who follow him around instead, churning out jokes like “I feel awful.” “Did someone say falafel?” Iago is still in it, but now he’s Jafar’s human sidekick. He does have some funny moments, but I want the parrot! Abu, Iago, and Raja are iconic characters. As far as I’m concerned, it’d be like doing Beauty & the Beast and cutting Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts.

Oh, and I imagine you want to know about the flying carpet. Yes, the carpet does fly. It’s cool magic, and I don’t know how it’s done, but “A Whole New World” (one of my favorite songs of all time) falls short. The stage is dark except for the stars, and you can barely see the actors as the carpet makes its way all over the stage. The orchestrations are thinned out, and as a result, I didn’t feel the charge and excitement that typically comes hand in hand with that number.

Okay, enough negativity. Let me talk about the things that do work. You guys! Jafar is THE Jafar! Jonathan Freeman, the voice of the original Jafar, plays the role, and the kid in me definitely got a kick out of hearing him live. Some of the new songs are nice (written by Alan Menken and Chad Beguelin) and for the most part add to the story (A Million Miles Away is a lovely new tune).

Basically, the thing to know is that the Genie is the show. It should actually probably be called Genie. James Monroe Iglehart, who was also pretty darn fabulous in Memphis, gets another truly flashy role to show off his comedic and physical chops. “Friend Like Me” is an enormous production number and is the principal reason to buy a ticket. The way critics are saying it’s worth going to ROCKY for the last big fight? That’s what this song is. Nothing else matches it. (Speaking of which – why is it not the Act 1 Finale? I wonder if that’s changed since I saw it in previews. There are more scenes after that and another reprise of “Proud of Your Boy.” Bring the curtain down! Nothing can top that number!)

So listen, if you go see Aladdin, I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself. I just felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities. There were more tricks and magic in the Finding Nemo production I saw at Animal Kingdom in Disney World. And the “wink wink nudge nudge” humor in the new material becomes so dominant that when you get to the deep-down spirit of story, the energy drops. The show is still fun as a whole, and the target audience will certainly be entertained. As for me, I think if more time had been spent on the heart of the show rather than all the mugging, I might have walked away feeling differently.

Aladdin
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Book and Lyrics by Chad Beguelin, Directed by Casey Nicholaw
New Amsterdam Theatre, Open-Ended
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann
Pictured: Adam Jacobs