Theater

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

By Pearl Chen

“Man, I hope Spider-Man doesn’t fall on us,” I thought as I looked up at the aerial equipment lining the Foxwoods Theater. Most likely I wasn’t the only one in the audience feeling a little nervous; until recently, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had been known as one hot mess. Broadway’s most expensive production ever had racked up a notorious parade of injuries, delays, scathing reviews, and even the firing of its original director Julie Taymor (Lion King). Like the actors who dangled mid-air as technical difficulties loomed, the show came to a standstill last month when the entire production shut down and underwent a complete facelift.

So when the $70 million production finally (FINALLY!!) reopened this past Tuesday, more than a year after its original due date, an air of trepidation filled the theater: Would the trainwreck continue? Would the show that had been called “the worst show in Broadway history” actually redeem itself?

It’s on its way. No major snafus occurred the night I attended, but more importantly, the show has done away with many of its most egregious faux pas. By all accounts, the original Taymor version had been plagued by an incomprehensible plot, unnecessary characters (e.g. Arachne, Geek Chorus), and bad pacing. This latest version of Spider-Man, revamped by Philip McKinley (The Boy from Oz), takes pains to undo the damage. Arachne’s role has been reduced from a key villainess to Peter’s guardian angel. The relationship between him and Mary Jane is more developed. The Green Goblin figures much more prominently, and his climactic fight with Spidey now ends the show rather than the first act. And of course, there was more FLYING.

Watching Spider-Man soar through the theater should make most people feel like they got their money’s worth. If the musical wanted to prove itself as a production that attempts things never done before on Broadway, it certainly delivers on the aerial spectacle. There isn’t a thrill quite like seeing Spider-Man zoom over your head as he fights the Green Goblin and shoots a cascade of webs into your lap. Or watching Peter literally bounce off walls in an enclosed room as he discovers his powers. Or taking in the magnificent web that Arachne’s “spider ladies” spin in the opening scene. (I’d imagine the views are even more impressive and complete with seats in the mid-mezzanine rather than the orchestra.)

And there is truly no Broadway production that so vividly makes you feel like you are in a comic book. Sets ingeniously mix 2-D hand-sketched design with moving, breathing, sliding constructions and jumbo screens. Skewed perspectives make Gotham City look breathtakingly ominous, while the fishbowl-lenslike aura of many scenes drum up the grotesque, fantastical vibe of the show.

Spider-Man is definitely heavy on spectacle – but very light on story. For many critics, watching the show trade complexity for coherency is a victory in itself. But I never witnessed the original, and seeing how watered down the story has become made me realize just how confusing its predecessor must have been. Unlike in the movie, Peter has now been stripped of the guilt that directly motivated his resolve to become Spider-Man. Arachne is now the voice guiding his decisions, and while played beautifully by T.V. Carpio, still seems unnecessary. The early-onset romance between Peter and MJ is touching, yes, but also loses that tension that made the movie great: Will the geek ever get the girl? Given the arduous path that this production has taken, though, I forgive the creators for dumbing down the plot.

What I can’t overlook are certain elements that still don’t quite work. With the exceptions of songs like “Rise Above” and “Boy Falling from the Sky” (both sung earnestly and convincingly by cutie lead actor Reeve Carney), the music in this show sucks. Sorry, Bono and The Edge, I’m just not feeling those mediocre head-banging rock numbers.

Costuming is also questionable. While eye-popping in some characters (like sparks-shooting Electro), they can look like cheap, Disneyfied Halloween get-ups in others. One too many plastic inflatable dolls live in this production — and it knows it (“It’s like you’re fighting an inflatable doll!”). The Green Goblin looks the worst. He is a piano-playing emerald-colored buffoon:

Of course, none of these shortcomings seemed to bother the standing-ovation audience. The show is pure, escapist, family-friendly entertainment. While Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is more fitting for Vegas, it’s got enough momentum now to taste those bright lights of Broadway.


Posted on 16 Jun 2011 at 5:18am

Catch Me If You Can

By Pearl Chen

I’m usually suspicious when a musical talks straight to the audience. It can cheapen a narrative, and it jolts us out of the escapism that theater often provides. So when the stars of Catch Me If You Can, arguably this season’s hottest movie-to-stage offering on Broadway, shared early on that they would tell their tale via the “Frank Abagnale Show,” a TV production, I was hesitant. But as it turns out, this show-within-a-show conceit was very fitting. After all, life onstage isn’t all that different from the world the real-life Abagnale built at the height of his $2.5 million identity-swapping crime spree: None of it could have happened without the power of pretense.

Created by the dynamos behind Hairspray–Marc Shaiman (music & lyrics), Scott Wittman (lyrics), Jack O’Brien (director)–Catch Me If You Can is a rollicking, faithful adaptation of the 2002 Spielberg movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. We follow Abagnale from his teen years, watching him learn the tricks of the trade from his father (”They only see the pinstripes “) and later crumble with the news of his parents’ divorce.

One thing the book (by Terrence McNally) does well is to clearly spell out Abagnale’s motivation for running away and leading the double life he did: He wanted to help his father get back on his feet and win back his mother. Along the way, as movie fans will remember, he forges checks and impersonates a teacher, a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer — with an uncanny ability to weasel his way out of any sticky situation. “Just keep talking,” he reminds himself (and instructs the audience). People only hear what you tell them.

Aaron Tveit proves himself to be a likable leading man in Frank Abagnale. Previously known for supporting roles like Link in Hairspray, the hottie’s transitioned smoothly into the spotlight and channels Leo well. Norbert Leo Butz, on the other hand, as Police Chief Carl Hanratty (the poor detective who chases after Abagnale), is no Tom Hanks. He’s more of an Elmer Fudd — slapstick, clueless, and irresistably adorkable. “I have never been cool and I don’t intend to start now,” he announces unapologetically. In the highlight of the production, he led an ensemble showstopper that had audiences applauding long after the the music ended.

Other notable cast members include Kerry Butler as Brenda, the young nurse Abagnale falls in love with. She’s a little underutilized here–Butler was much more memorable headlining Xanadu–but she’s got the innocent, girl-next-door quality down cold. And by the end, she soars with her swan song, “Fly, Fly Away.” Not to be outdone, Tveit also delivers a moment of his own. “The show’s over,” he sings with tears in his eyes in one scene, and suddenly the life of pretense he’s built — here onstage and in the context of the story — feels shatteringly lonely.

I wished there was more of that kind of emotion in this musical. It would have elevated the show beyond its candy-colored sets, high-kicking dance numbers, and glamorous vibe. Not that those weren’t dazzling. Shaiman’s created a score that feels jazzy and cabaret, and everyone–from the leading actors to the leggy women–hams it up. The lyrics are, as usual, charmingly clever too.

But if this was a show about a boy who simply, at the end of the day, just wanted to get his family back together, then it could have put on a little more emotional weight. That said,  Catch Me If You Can is a thrilling, transfixing show. If all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then Frank Abagnale is an indisputable star.

******

Catch Me If You Can has an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theater (250. W. 52nd St.). Tickets: $60-$125.


Posted on 06 May 2011 at 10:11pm
The Taming of the Brew

The Taming of the Brew

By John Marshall

The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare in the Bar

P & G Corner Cafe

380 Columbus Ave., nr. 78th Street

2:00 gathering, 3:00 reading

Free admission, donations accepted

Everyone’s been to Shakespeare in the Park or Shakespeare in a park, but few people outside of Shakespeare’s actual friends and co-workers have experienced Shakespeare in a drinking establishment.

Until now.

This Sunday the Hudson Warehouse Theater Company entertains Bard and brew lovers alike with the latest installment of its intoxicating series, Shakespeare in the Bar. At the P&G Corner Cafe on the Upper West Side, they will perform an unusual staged reading of The Taming of the Shrew with their usual gusto.

Audience and actors will share the same space, even the same tables. The character sitting next to you, quaffing an Amstel Light, might be one of Shakespeare’s. You won’t know until he or she stands up and starts talking in iambic pentameter.

“I got tired of the usual boring staged readings,” said Hudson Warehouse founder and producing artistic director Nicholas Martin-Smith. “This is much more lively.”

A natural outgrowth of the Warehouse’s critically acclaimed summer productions at the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Monument, Shakespeare in the Bar seeks to create the same intimate, accessible atmosphere, not just for Shakespeare, but for other classics as well.

Last month the Warehouse performed The Seagull in the bar and the audience was surprised to discover so many laughs. “The play’s suffering is only apparent if you have the humor,” said Martin-Smith. “Playing it in an intimate setting relaxed people and brought the humor out.”

Since January of last year, Warehouse fans have also imbibed Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Richard II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor, which gave theater-goers a chance to hoist a few alongside Shakespeare’s most famous drunk, Falstaff.

Hudson Warehouse was founded in 2004 to present the classics to as wide an audience as possible, which it attracts every summer to the steps of the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Monument, at West 89th and Riverside Drive. They perform three plays, one Shakespeare and two others, billing themselves as The Other Free Shakespeare in the Park. But theirs are more accessible.

“The space is open to anyone who uses the park,” said Martin-Smith. “Joggers, dog walkers, bike messengers – anyone who comes through becomes part of the action.”

Martin-Smith said that settings such as a park or a bar not only don’t detract from the classics, they enhance them. “The spontaneity, casualness and comfort inspire the actors,” he said. “They are compelled to do something different.”

Future Shakespeare in the Bar productions include Titus Andronicus on March 13 (where a Bloody Mary would be appropriate) and Moliere’s Tartuffe on April 10.

There is no drink minimum at Shakespeare in the Bar. But as Chekhov said, if you introduce a beer in the first act, you must drink it by the third. Further info is at www.hudsonwarehouse.net.


Posted on 18 Feb 2011 at 6:06pm
Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage

Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage

By Pearl Chen

Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and if you’re happily in a relationship, you might be thinking, “Great!” If you’re not, maybe it’s more like “Greeaaat.”  Leave it to Miss Abigail to build a little consensus on love. Her off-Broadway gem, Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage, shows that love may be elusive, confusing, and even unexpected – but it certainly never hurts to look at it with a sense of humor.

Inspired by the real life Abigail Grotke, the show stars Eve Plumb (Jan in The Brady Bunch) as relationship advisor extraordinaire. She wants to take us back to a time when “fidelity wasn’t just an insurance firm” and “intern was not English for ‘whore.’” And in this adorable, witty 90-minute play, she covers quite the gamut. Wondering how to flirt? Miss Abigail will show you how. Thinking about the perfect kiss? Just ask Miss Abigail for her magic word. Along the way, she’s assisted by Paco (Manuel Herrera), her much younger sidekick who has a goofy Mexican accent and no shortage of kooky visual aides.

One of the greatest strengths of the show is the audience interaction. (Its creators Ken Davenport and Sarah Saltzburg previously worked on highly interactive shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The Awesome 80s Prom.) Volunteers get a chance to play the “Love, Lust or Stalking” game, or learn how to attract dates with Miss Abigail’s three-step technique (sit, lip lick, heinie). In our performance, one dude got so into it that I thought he was an actor planted into the audience (he wasn’t; he just had really agile eyebrows). Another laugh-out-loud segment is “what not to wear on dates.”

But the biggest surprise of the show is Paco. Herrera infuses this character with all the charisma and sex appeal of Enrique Iglesias but none of the sleaziness. In fact, it’s Paco who makes such insightful  observations like the fact that there’s “I age” in the word “marriage.” Next to Plumb, who turns in a likable, gracefully understated performance, Paco seems a little crazy. … And as we find out, it’s because he’s secretly crazy in love with Miss Abigail. I’m not usually a fan of cougar-type relationships, but Paco made me root for this one.

Miss Abigail could’ve been stronger if her advice wasn’t so cliché or dated. (Women, let the man thinks he wears the pants. Men, always remember the anniversary.) It’s nothing you haven’t heard of before, and the raciest material comes in the form of a short, vintage-spoofing video. Still, the “tame” nature of the play takes nothing away from its genuine hilarity and charm – or its knack for making spot-on pop culture references. Yes, learning about love would’ve been nice, but laughing about it feels so much better.

*****

Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage has an open-ended run at at Sofia’s Downstairs Theater 221 W 46th St. (Between Broadway and 8th Avenues). Tickets: $69-125.


Posted on 02 Feb 2011 at 5:19pm
The Addams Family

The Addams Family

By Pearl Chen

I will be honest: I can’t understand why The Addams Family got slammed by so many critics. For a show that provides such a quintessential Broadway experience – spectacular art direction, big-name stars, laugh-out-loud comedy, and crowd-pleasing musical numbers – judging it on anything other than its fun-spirited energy seems beside the point. Forgive me for siding with the masses who have applauded this family-friendly production. (Yes, I, too, snapped my fingers along with those familiar Addams Family theme-song notes in the overture.) When a show provides this much entertainment,  I can’t help but defend it:

Common criticism #1: “The plot is dull and unimaginative.” Gomez and Morticia Addams must face their worst nightmare: Their daughter Wednesday, 18, has fallen in love with a “normal” young man. His middle-America, whitebread family — the complete opposite of their morbid, creepy, kooky clan – are coming to dinner.

No, it’s not a nail-biting dark satire, but when it comes to this iconic franchise, plot is really second fiddle to the more important sell of this show – reconnecting us with familiar characters we have grown to love. For this purpose, the storyline is enough to highlight one of the Addams’ appeals: Beyond their twisted universe, they really are just people with desires and fears like the rest of us.  A daughter discovering first love. A mother feeling the pangs of mid-life crisis. A father learning to let go. For all their oddities, the Addams are strangely relatable.

What the show lacks in plot intricacy, it more than makes up for in artistic design. Death motifs may permeate the show, but the stage features an absolutely living and breathing set. The Addams family’s mansion, set in Manhattan’s Central Park, is a character all its own.  Staircases, windows, walls slide in and out through a menagerie of scene changes. Cemeteries take on an eerily romantic glow under a sprawling tree. Faint city skylines shimmer below a harvest moon. A ghostly chorus of  family ancestors strut in elaborate, period costumes. Innovative puppets add a magical, fantastical flair.  With big-budget Broadway glam, the Addams Family have never been more in style.

Common criticism #2: “Everything from the book to the music/lyrics is corny.” Indeed, the show likes to rhyme. (“Was Napoleon right for Josephine? Was nausea right for Dramamine?”) And yes, much of the music feels almost vaudevillian, allowing the overall effect to seem cartoonish. But what a crime this turned out to be: making Charles Addams’ 30s New Yorker cartoon characters  look like cartoons. That’s just unthinkable.

In a country where the Addams Family has been such an indelible part of our culture, every member of this macabre clan has license to be as much of a caricature as they want to be. This has always been a family of outrageousness. A show that milks their every eccentricity with campy humor – no matter how obvious, “low-brow,” or absurd (like Uncle Fester’s silly love affair with the moon) — isn’t necessarily doing them a disservice. It’s playing to the spirit of a family that has always been off their rocker. Corniness, in the hands of composer Andrew Lippa and writers Mashall Brickman and Rick Elise (Jersey Boys), can feel bizarrely charming. Jokes are funny BECAUSE they’re lame.

Common criticism #3: “Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth squandered their talents on a show like this.” Oh, but these stars “squander” so well. Neuwirth brings a cool, suave, intentionally detached vibe to Morticia and leads those choreographed ensemble numbers with poise and ease. The night, though, belongs to Lane, who makes for one over-the-top, hyper-Spanish Gomez. The man is a master at turning simple things – like pausing in speech or holding a note too long – into comedic gold. Watching him manipulate each mannerism, tone, and line (“What I lack in height, I make up in shallowness”) makes you wonder why he was snubbed for a Tony this year.

He and the rest of this endearing cast – including Jackie Hoffman in a nutty turn as Grandmama – deserve much more credit than they’ve been given. Not seeing this show just because critics panned it … now that would be truly ghastly.

*********

The Addams Family has an open-ended run at the Lunt-Fontanne theater (46th and 7th). Tickets: $51.50-$126.50


Posted on 06 Aug 2010 at 3:00am
Million Dollar Quartet

Million Dollar Quartet

By Pearl Chen

With the 64th Tony season underway, Best Musical nominee Million Dollar Quartet just might be the dark horse come awards night June 13. On the surface, it looks like a musical that grandparents would like — a soundtrack of early rock ‘n’ roll hits by legends Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The four stars aligned for one historic, impromptu jam session on December 4, 1956 at Sun Records, and the show lets us peek into their immortalized meeting. Yes, the playlist is dated, though the production (transplanted from Chicago) is anything but. For 95 minutes, the Nederlander Theater is transformed into one absolutely explosive, wildly entertaining concert hall. If this is what grandparents listened to when they were young, then boy did my generation miss out.

Unlike most jukebox musicals, Million Dollar Quartet doesn’t just roll through a roster of songs but actually weaves them seamlessly into a simple but passable plot: Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (Hunter Foster) — the “father of rock ‘n’ roll” — is trying to hold onto the company of young talent he has discovered. He’s already lost Elvis (Eddie Clendening) to RCA Records and doesn’t know that Johnny Cash (Lance Guest), a chart-topper by this point, is about to jump ship as well. Master guitarist Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), writer of “Blue Suede Shoes,” is bitter that Elvis stole his spotlight and credit and is hankering for another hit. And newcomer pianoman Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) is eager to prove himself among these burgeoning recording legends.

Shortly before Christmas in 1956, these eventual rock ‘n’ roll greats mesh their personalities and their talents together in Memphis, singing gospel numbers  like “Down by the Riverside,” later released on a record. The show, however, also reimagines their meeting by throwing in many of their greatest hits, like “Hound Dog,” “Walk the Line,” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Elizabeth Stanley, playing the girlfriend Elvis is rumored to have brought to this session, rounds out the cast with memorable covers of her own, including a tastefully sultry “Fever.” The result is a truly captivating production — filled with both high-octane energy and soothing a cappella harmonies — showing without a doubt why such music became so iconic in American history.

As musicians and impersonators, the four leads of Million Dollar Quartet capture the essence of these Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers. Clendening as the young Elvis doesn’t quite sound exactly like the King, but channels enough good looks to be swoon-worthy. Guest as Johnny Cash is almost the opposite — not a complete lookalike but a deadringer in that deep bellow of a voice. I was most impressed, however, by Lyons, who tears up the guitar with virtuosic gusto; and especially Kreis, who steals the show by putting some serious steam into that piano AND for playing the likable, flamboyant goofball of the group. (That Tony nod for Best Featured Actor is well-deserved.) When the four pose and reenact the famous photograph taken of the musicians mid-jam, they create one of the most poignant moments on Broadway.

Throughout the production (directed by Eric Schaeffer), we get to know the fab four not only as musicians but as people. We see, for instance, a young unsure Elvis, timid in his singing style until Phillips mentors him. “Sing to me the way you sing to Jesus,” coaches the producer. These characterizations wouldn’t have been possible without a narrative, written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, that complements the music rather than competes with it. Flashbacks, asides, and scenes slide in and out of the rousing musical numbers easily and naturally, unlike the truncated style of Jersey Boys, which annoyingly didn’t finish songs because of intrusive dialogue. For a jukebox musical, Million Dollar Quartet has the best balance between music and narrative I’ve encountered so far. (And in a season of disappointingly book-less musicals, I was glad to see at least some sliver of humor and dramatic tension mixed in.)

By the end of the show, the four stars throw it all down for an out-of-this-world, glitter-tux encore of greatest hits. My friend and I may have been sitting among a sea of salt-and-pepper hair in the audience, but everything about the atmosphere at this point felt insanely youthful and unbridled. A woman in front of us waved her hands in the air. People clapped and sang along. Jaws hung open at the backwards guitar playing and other crazy shenanigans. In these moments, we see the magic of an era in all its glory — more so than in any other rock musical also nominated for a Best Musical Tony this year (American Idiot and Memphis). Phillips, with the wisdom of a visionary, said it best: “This rock ‘n’ roll thing ain’t a fad — it’s a damn revolution.” Million Dollar Quartet makes you believe every word.

4/5 Stars

*************

Million Dollar Quartet has an open-ended run at the Nederlander Theater (41st street between 7th and 8th). Tickets: $45-125.


Posted on 01 Jun 2010 at 6:45pm
This Side of Paradise

This Side of Paradise

By Pearl Chen

Before Angelina and Brad, Lucy and Desi, Marilyn and Joe, there were Zelda and Scott. The Fitzgeralds were the “it” couple of the Roaring Twenties: young and beautiful, impulsive and idealistic, glamorous and hopelessly restless for a life that even the Great Gatsby might not have dreamed of. Their story, from their passionate love affair to their crumbled marriage, is the focus of the latest literary-themed production from the Culture Project: This Side of Paradise, now playing off-Broadway at the Theater at St. Clement’s.

The musical begins with the elder Zelda, now confined in a sanatorium, recalling her life with Scott to a concerned doctor. Flashbacks bring us to 1918 Montgomery, Alabama, where Zelda, the daughter of a prominent judge, is the belle of the ball — as well as the love at first sight (and later the muse) for F. Scott Fitzgerald, a budding author who is fresh from a tour of duty in WWI. The two begin a tumultuous love affair, staked in large part on whether Scott can make it as a novelist. He succeeds with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, and the couple catapults into instant stardom and a high-rolling lifestyle. Happiness, however, is elusive; Scott’s drinking and Zelda’s obsessive, often-illusory pursuit of a talent of her own overshadow their fragile relationship. She suffers a mental breakdown, and he dies of a heart attack at age 44.

It’s a story as tragic and alluring as the novels it inspired – and it’s disappointingly under-executed in this production. Accomplished jazz musician Nancy Harrow, who composed music and lyrics (based on her 2003 CD Winter Dreams) and cowrote the book with director Will Pomerantz, takes care to portray the Fitzgeralds’ lives as they lived them. The easy-to-follow plot proceeds with historical faithfulness but falls short of capturing the romantic intrigue and complicated codependant-destructive relationship that lay at the heart of these two legendary figures.

Much of the problem has to do with the unremarkable writing, which surfaces most egregiously in the lyrics of the production’s uptempo, elementary-rhyme songs:

We’ve won,

It’s fun

We’re all really beautiful

And we can pay the price

It’s this side of paradise

Other times, songs don’t match the gravity of the situation. When Fitzgerald is in financial ruin near the end of his life, he and his creditors break out in a charming but inappropriate song-and-dance number “Dear Max.”

What’s even more disturbing is that Fitzgerald, played by Michael Shawn Lewis, never ages, while Zelda is portrayed as a young woman by Rachel Moulton and later in life by Maureen Mueller. Moulton injects great vitality into Zelda, epitomizing her as the “First American Flapper” whose greatest fear was living a “sordid, colorless life.” Still, for the most part, the cast, including supporting members Clark Carmichael, Jamie LaVerdiere, and Mandy Bruno in a versatile rotation of roles, are more believable as singers rather than actors.

To be sure, the music in this production can actually be quite lovely. Harrow has an ear for creating luminous melodies, and her more somber pieces, such as “My Lost City,” “My Swan,” and “Until It Comes Up Love,” shine with the support of a sophisticated jazz ensemble. It is in these songs that we catch a glimpse of the tragic weight of genius, the heartbreak of reaching the top early in life and having no other place to go but down. “It’s a terrible time when you realize your triumphs are in the past, so fast,” sings Fitzgerald. If only he knew how immortal his triumphs would truly become.

*************

This Side of Paradise plays at the Theater at St. Clement’s (46th St. between 8th and 9th) through May 9, 2010. Tickets: $65.


Posted on 27 Apr 2010 at 6:14pm
American Idiot

American Idiot

By Pearl Chen

When I first learned Green Day’s American Idiot was opening on Broadway April 20, 2010, I was ecstatic. The rock musical, about young people coming of age in post-9/11 America, looked like it had the potential to be the next Spring Awakening – winner of 2007’s Tony Award for Best Musical. And it certainly seemed to have much going for it. Not only was it based on the eclectic, 2004 Grammy-winning album American Idiot by Green Day, it was co-authored by lead vocalist/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, led by Spring Awakening’s director Michael Mayer, and featured one of its breakout stars, Tony-Award-winner John Gallagher Jr.

So when that curtain rose to an absolutely electrifying opening scene, I felt shivers run up and down my spine. Designed with the glam-industrial look that worked so well for Spring Awakening, the high-ceilinged stage setting seemed to rise endlessly into the air with walls of glowing LCD screens flicking a visual/audio potpourri of this country’s collective cultural history. “Don’t wanna be an American idiot. One nation controlled by the media,” sang the talented young cast in the scintillating title number. They never sounded more convincing.

Unfortunately, this dazzling opener turned out to be the highlight of the show. For the rest of the intermissionless, 90-min. rock opera, which originally premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in September 2009, a drastically barebones storyline only loosely coalesced Green Day’s music into a coherent narrative. Three young men hell-bent on breaking out of their suburban lives were angry: mad at the media, disillusioned with the government, raging against the machine. Why exactly? Not important. In light of Green Day’s bent on addressing America’s problems, we needed to take at face value that these rebels without a cause were leaving home to embark on a soul-searching journey.

Two of the guys immediately dropped out of the trip (one stayed behind with his pregnant girlfriend while another joined the military), leaving only Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), the lone “Jesus of Suburbia.” Alone and adrift, he wondered what would become of him in a quietly dignified rendition of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” but quickly let his inner demon trap him in a whirlwind of drugs, lost loves, and self-destructive behavior.

Green Day’s music was undeniably rich for interpretation. Enormous range and lyrical complexity in their recognizable repertoire, from the head-banging energy of its rock numbers (“St. Jimmy”) to the bone-chilling beauty of its poignant melodies (“21 Guns,” “Whatsername”), made it solid material for this jukebox musical genre. Even non-punk fans may find themselves intermittently hypnotized by Green Day’s allure.

The problem was that, without a strong unifying story or even likable characters, the nuances and emotional energy in this music fell through, and the chance to elevate the songs’ significance by weaving them into a plot (like Rock of Ages did with 80s tunes) was disappointingly wasted.  An under-developed script made the show feel more like an exhausting rock concert than a Broadway musical. (I’m grateful, though, that at least some transitions were there, unlike the virtually silent Come Fly Away.)

With a deficit in narrative, American Idiot’s ties to Spring Awakening were strained at best. Aside from a similar choreography style, both shows featured young people grappling with growing pains. But Spring Awakening’s characters (from the justifiably rebellious Melchior to the vulnerably insecure Moritz — the role that won Gallagher his Tony) were believable and emotionally connected with the audience. American Idiot’s characters, by contrast, rebelled in their own world, never quite allowing us to sympathize with their angst. Rather than being antiheroes, they were simply just…antsy for change they couldn’t quite articulate. Johnny acknowledged at one point that he not only never “amounted to anything,” he was “nothing.”

The ending redeemed the show somewhat, as these American idiots came to terms with their own “idioicy.” But by then, it was clear that, despite great potential, similar premises, and familiar rockin’ energy, this musical was no Spring Awakening.

****************

American Idiot plays at the St.James theater (44th St. between 7th and 8th). Tickets: $32-$127.


Posted on 17 Apr 2010 at 10:32pm
Come Fly Away

Come Fly Away

By Pearl Chen

As Act I stretched on, a daunting reality set in: These people are never really going to talk, are they? Sure, the choreography to Come Fly Away, Twyla Tharp’s new jukebox “musical” based on the Frank Sinatra songbook, was undeniably high-caliber, and the romantic moonlit stage atmosphere transported audiences to the magic of a bygone era. But none of this will quite make up for the surprise that may befall newcomers to Tharp’s work. This is, for anyone out there who likewise expected a show to be more than just dancing, a plot-less, unconventional, jazzy ballet masquerading as a Broadway musical.

There are those, of course, who will not be bothered by the near-total lack of narrative and will praise the show on inherent artistic grounds. I’m certainly not discrediting the enormous amount of sweat, creativity, and spirit that obviously went into this production, the latest in Tharp’s unique line of dance theater, including the Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out and her signature 80s ballet Nine Sinatra Songs. The dancers in Come Fly Away are seasoned professionals in the truest sense. They flew across the stage with effortless ease, twisting and turning their sinewy, acrobatic bodies with lyrical grace, fluid lifts, and animalistic energy. It was a modernist spectacle that’s ripe for interpretation and imagination.

But let’s get real here. Stripping a meaningful story from a so-called musical made it far less entertaining than it could have been. Even the purest, most wordless dance theater needs some inkling of dramatic substance to propel it forward, and Come Fly Away’s abstract, cursory portrayal of “love affairs” offered no urgency, no motivation for the audience to want to know what happens next.  It was beautiful dancing, yes, yet also unshakably similar from scene to scene. And it couldn’t squelch that nagging question: “So what?” Tharp, who has choreographed to Sinatra since the 1970s, may have reinvented the definition of “musical,” but at the end of the day, I still can’t help siding with Webster: “musical numbers and dialogue based on a unifying plot.” No story, no problem? Um, no.

To be sure, this show was not entirely devoid of a “premise.” With a live band playing along with an enchanting but exhausting stream of Sinatra recordings (intermeshed with covers by Hilary Gardner), we followed four couples as they embark on a journey of infatuation and flirtation, jealousy and obsession, heartbreak and reconciliation — all portrayed in the realm of movement and (sometimes gleefully sterile) facial expressions. Of these, the most delightful was the youthful and playful arc captured by Laura Mead and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges, whose humorous antics were the closest thing to acting in this production. None of the other relationships in this show featured chemistry as strong as theirs, an inadequacy that undercut the entire “love affair” concept of the show.

For a production to bill itself in this way, there has to be an emotional connection between the characters as well as with the audience. While these dancers portrayed romance and sultriness onstage, they never quite came across as characters we care about and root for. Dance as a medium can certainly tell stories and channel unspeakable feelings, but in the case of Come Fly Away, we were simply left with too many fancy lifts, too little believable passion.

Die-hard Sinatra fans should enjoy this production (the audience featured a markedly older crowd). So will many dance enthusiasts with the trained eye that will allow them to most appreciate technique. Heck, I can even see a market in non-English-speaking tourists. Nevertheless, calling Come Fly Away a Broadway musical would be denial at best, deception at worst. I’m left let down by what appears to be a growing trend of scriptless productions so far this season. (Come Fly Away actually made the razor-thin plot of American Idiot look like a saga.) Come on Broadway, beef up your books.

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Come Fly Away plays at the Marriot Marquis (46th St. between Broadway and 8th Ave.). Tickets: $65-$125.


Posted on 02 Apr 2010 at 10:26pm
Vodka Shoes

Vodka Shoes

By Andrew Singer

When Leslie Goshko describes the struggles of her youth in her new solo show Vodka Shoes (directed by Kyle Erickson), it helps for the sake of a compelling tale that she grew up in a wacky family where everyone battled a different set of problems.  But what sets this show apart from others is how masterfully and economically she handles every single sentence, building up entertaining subplots that flush out a grand epic filled with looming failures and quiet victories.  She milks each moment for maximum enjoyment so that the audience can laugh with her now at episodes that were certainly heartbreaking and painful when they occurred.

Notes:

•    This is not Leslie’s first foray into storytelling.  Ardent Goshkoholics will recognize her from her previous solo show S.C.A.B.s Stick Together, as well as her frequent performances in The Liar Show, Speakeasy and her own monthly gig Sideshow Goshko.

•    The characters in her story begin as broad comical tropes but grow and develop over time, with intriguing histories that inform their denouements.

•    Try to avoid reading any promotional material for the show, as it gives away some of the plot, and it’s more fun to experience it right as she tells it to you.  Just trust in Goshko and go to the show.

•   FYI these following points do not give away any actual spoilers.. They are just teasers:

•    Usually when you hear about molestation within a family, it’s cause for concern, but here, it’s described as a fun game.

•    She puts on a pair of stunning ruby red slippers that whisk her off to a place much more wonderful and frightening than any fantasy world.

•    There’s one part where you may suddenly find yourself crying when you least expect it.

•    The show clocks in at a full hour’s length, but when she took her final bow, it felt as though it had only been around 20 minutes.  I heard other audience members say this as well.  The show moves at a very fast pace and covers a lot of ground, and it definitely leaves you wanting more.

Vodka Shoes runs Thursday, February 25, 2010 through Sunday, March 07, 2010 in Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place in East Village) as part of the FRIGID New York Festival.

Purchase Tickets.

All photos by Craig Ruttle.

Andrew Singer performs all over the NYC as comedic rapper “soce, the elemental wizard.” He has toured Europe and the U.S., and been featured on numerous media outlets, including MTV, VH1, Here TV, Logo, The Source, Out, Howard Stern and Sirius Shade 45.  His music is available on iTunes, and you can catch him performing at a weekly stand-up comedy show with Abbi Crutchfield called Positively Awesome.


Posted on 04 Mar 2010 at 6:09am