Half-way to ’18 already! My goodness, where did the time go?

With the year nearly half spent, some random observations before leaving for Ontario to cover the Stratford and Shaw Festivals for Digital First Media newspapers in Michigan (and online) and for MC2, the Canadian National Mensa magazine. So…a few observations from first half of 2017:

Much ado about very little: The Public’s free Shakespeare in Central Park’s production of “Julius Caesar,” condemned and cut off financially by folks who probably didn’t see it (and interrupted mid-scene by one zealot) was not a particularly outstanding production of that play. As in most others I’ve seen, the final third (after the orations) was a heavy sit-through. The principals were well cast and acted, with Elizabeth Marvel most interesting as Marc Antony, despite portions of her Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech being overpowered by a distracting, wandering, undisciplined horde of supernumeraries. As for the Trump-like Caesar flap: as my colleague Charles Gross pointed out, Caesar actually resembled Bill Clinton as much as he did Trump. And, you’ll recall, the misguided conspirators all end up dead, some by their own hands. Shakespeare knew: Assassination does not pay.

From left: Tina Benko (Calpurnia), Gregg Henry (Caesar), Teagle F. Bougere (Casca) and Elizabeth Marvel (Marc Antony)

Best Broadway musical adapted from a movie: With intricate jig-saw-puzzle staging and a terrific performance by Andy Karl, “Groundhog Day” is a worthy evocation of the classic film.

Best play seen twice: “The Little Foxes,” once with Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie, and once with the reverse casting. Of the four excellent performances, Nixon’s emotionally devastating Birdie tops the chart.

With Cynthia Nixon at the Drama Desk nominees reception

Favorite lyric line in a musical: It’s from “Mary Poppins,” revived at Paper Mill Playhouse, in which  Mrs. Banks sings to Mr. Banks  “I’m bereft dear; another Nanny’s left dear.” She’s bereft !  Gotta’ love it.

Unexpected Tony Award upsets: Two of my best-bet selections came up short. Danny DeVito lost Featured Actor in Play to Michael Aronov (“Oslo”), and Jenn Colella was bested as Featured Actress in Musical by Rachel Bay Jones (“Dear Evan Hansen”). DeVito and Colella each won at Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, both voted by theater critics, which Tony is not. Correctly predicting 18 of the 24 Awards did earn me second place (a complimentary dining certificate) in the ETC/ETC restaurant pool.

Favorite theater-going companion: A first-place tie between granddaughter Carolina, age 13, who joined me for “Come From Away” in March, and her brother Sam, 10, who accompanied me to “Cirque du Soliel Paramour” in February. (I suspect they’ll tie in this category again…and again.)

Best sidewalk sign spotted along Chestnut Street in Philly:  

Best Broadway musical adapted from a movie: With intricate jig-saw-puzzle staging and a terrific performance by Andy Karl, “Groundhog Day” is a worthy successor to the classic film.

Best Shakespeare and Shaw plays: Looking ahead a week on these picks. Two of six plays scheduled at Stratford are Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and “Twelfth Night” and two of four at The Shaw are his “Saint Joan” and “Androcles and the Lion.” A labor of love for sure. More on these plays anon…

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

Musicals in the Garden State: “Little Jo” at Two River and Paper Mill’s “Mary Poppins”

Anyone who does not believe truth is stranger than fiction hasn’t been following the news lately…or has never heard about Joe Monaghan, whose story is encapsulated in the playbill of Two River Theater Company’s “The Ballad of Little Jo.” The relatively short article is an absorbing read about the real-life fellow whose life is fictionalized in the musical play, in turn adapted from director/screenwriter Maggie Greenwood’s widely praised 1993 movie.

Okay, the ‘fellow’ tag is a tease. Joe Monaghan was a woman.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

The 2017 Broadway Tony Awards: Predictions and Preferences

Some Broadway plays and musicals succeed or fail regardless of Tony Award consideration, but the fate of many more depends heavily on nominations, not even considering wins. Ticket sales for “Oslo” and “Groundhog Day,” for example, perked up the very day after their Best Play and Best Musical nominations were announced. Conversely, the musical “Amalie” announced its premature closing (on May 21) soon after receiving none.

While all shows are not Tony-dependent (hello “Hello, Dolly!”), others, including “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” with its dozen nominations, need the boost. Some 850 voters will determine the fates among those anointed by 43 nominators. The 850 include press reps, producers, road-show bookers and other theater insiders. (For reasons known only to the sponsoring American Theatre Wing, most critics were disenfranchised several years ago. Go figure.) CBS-TV will broadcast the Award ceremony at 8PM on Sunday, June 11.

Following are predictions and preferences in 14 major categories:

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“The Government Inspector” is worth inspecting…

Part of my enjoyment of Red Bull Theater’s “The Government Inspector” derived from not knowing how accurately Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation translates Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 source play, “Revizor.” Or, for that matter, whether or not the performance is in the original style. Based on Hatcher’s billing as adaptor (not translator) and the actors’ eye-winking delivery, I’d say we’re not in Tsarist Russia anymore.

But, as Hatcher notes, the play, about bureaucratic hypocrisy, has not been up-dated. It wasn’t necessary. Modern audiences can see the contemporary versions of Gogol’s characters in the newspaper or on cable TV, or, as Hatcher suggest, you’ll have no problem making the connection between the venal 1830s Russian politicos and a town council meeting or House of Representatives committee hearing. Gogol himself said that he “decided to collect everything that was evil in Russia, all the injustices committed in places where justice is most of all expected…and laugh it off.” In that vein, “The Government Inspector” is a Trumpian spoof in spite of itself.

Michael McGrath, left, Mary Testa, Michael Urie and Talene Monahon (Photos: Carol Rosegg)

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

There’s a lot to love in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me”

The set for “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” features a metal-frame stand-up desk upon which set microphones, a tape deck, amps and speakers, various other electronic devices and, oh yes, a set of bongo drums hanging on a side pole. It’s like an elaborate DJ platform. “This looks like fun already,” I thought as I walked in. Little did I envision how much fun this 90-minute musical adventure would be, how creative, how rhythmic, how engrossing, how downright wonderful.

With a book by Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”), music by Brendan Milburn, “a stay-at-home dad who also writes songs” (great priorities), and lyrics by GrooveLily’s brilliant electro-violinist Val Vigoda, the piece is essentially a rock opera within a rock opera that works on both levels.

Wade McCollum and Val Vigoda

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

But soft! What light on NJ Rep Stage? ‘Tis “& Juliet”

There is an intriguing one-act, 80-minute play on the New Jersey Repertory stage. Unfolding in the fertile theatrical setting of higher-education academia, it deals with faculty jealousy, conflicts between established and fresh values, artistic integrity and racial tension. It takes some digging, however, to excavate that play from Robert Caisley’s two-act “& Juliet,” which is burdened by 20 extra minutes of repetitious dialogue. “Get to it!” I wanted to call out several times as the characters talked around the same topic over and over before finally making their points.

Those points revolve around newly-hired Theatrical Department director Charlie’s decision to pass over well-prepared African-American female student Annie in favor of casting a 14-year old boy as Juliet in the upcoming Shakespearian production.  (Despite Gwyneth Paltrow’s luminous turn in “Shakespeare in Love,” the original Juliet, circa 1598, was Robert Goffe, whose modern-day counterpart is an off-stage presence in Caisley’s play.)

John Fitzgibbon, left, Jacob A. Ware and Nadia Brown in “& Juliet” (Photos: SuzAnne Barabas)

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