Theatre Reviews

Ken AshfordPopular CultureLeave a Comment

Well, although U.S. Air’s computer reservation problems made national news, but it didn’t deter or delay my travel plans that much, and the New York Theatre WeekendTM was a very pleasureable success.

Below the fold are my "reviews"….


Well, what can one say?  It’s become a Broadway classic, and for good reason.  One of the nice things about seeing a mega-hit on Broadway is that they work so hard to keep it clean and polished.  The shows are on national tour never come off quite as well as the Broadway version, if only because the cast simply doesn’t rehearse, and they are always adapting to new spaces (and many times, the show is pared down in terms of cast size, orchestra, or set).

Now in its 4th year, "Wicked" on Broadway shows no sign of aging.  The production values are high, and the performances are tight.  When we saw it Friday night, the understudies were playing both Glinda and Elphaba, which didn’t bother me since I never heard of the principles.  (In fact, the next morning, I saw a film clip of the current principles singing "Popular" and I think I actually liked our Glinda and Elphaba better).

We (Cheryl and I) had 5th row center orchestra seats, which might have been a little close to "take in" the gestalt of the amazing set, and you got to see things that you weren’t supposed to (body mikes, safety harnesses, etc.).  On the plus side, you really felt like a part of Oz, and you didn’t miss a nuance of any performance.

Immediately after the show, we met up with Kristin Chenowith, who just happened to be exiting a nearby theater in which she had just finished performing a revival of "The Apple Tree".  She graciously signed Cheryl’s "Wicked" program.

The following morning, Cheryl slept in while I went to the "Behind The Emerald Curtain" tour — which is a "backstage" look at "Wicked".  I had some reservations about going — the whole concept struck me as a little tourist-y, and I was afraid I would be subjected to things like "This is a scrim.  Everybody say that: ‘scriiiiiiiiim’." 

But it was nothing like that.  In the first place, our tour guide was none other than Sean McCort, who was in the original cast of "Bat Boy".  Interestingly, Sean is no longer with the cast of "Wicked" — he’s now down the street in "Mary Poppins", but (for some reason) he still likes to give the "Wicked" tours.

Anyway, the tour was a lot of "inside baseball" stuff, and very educational.  "Wicked", we learned, has a running crew of 125.  The set is constantly being maintained by a team of carpenters, who work everyday on keeping it looking at its best, and (above all) safe.  Other things we learned:

  • The drummer and the harpist for the show are not in the orchestra pit.  They each are in a separate room elsewhere in the building, and their contributions are miked in.  The drummer, for example, wears a cap with a mike on it so that sound is picked up from whatever direction he is facing.  They look at the conductor through monitors.
  • Even today, most stage managers on Broadway are backstage.  But in "Wicked" the stage manager has his/her own special booth in the wall to the right of the mezzanine, separate from the sound booth and the light booth.  It resembles an air traffic controller’s console, complete with monitors.  The show has four ASMs backstage.
  • Because of the demands, there are actually four stage managers who call the show.  They are on a rotating schedule.
  • One of the cameras used is in-fared, which allows the stage manager to see the stage during a blackout (to makes sure actors are on/off, set pieces have been flown in, etc.)
  • There are 345 cues in the show.  That surprised me — I thought there would have been more.
  • Glinda’s "bubble" costume (that she wears when she flies in on the bubble) cost $25,000.
  • Every costume is handmade to specially fit every actor.  This is quite expensive, because actors may play different "tracks", depending on the night. 
  • Let me explain about "tracks".  One "track" may be Shiz University student #3, Palace Guard #2, and Flying Monkey #5.  Most chorus members have to learn several "tracks" (including the different choreography), and sometimes they may not play a particular track for weeks or even months before they are suddenly called upon to do it.  And here’s something that surprised me: tracks may change even in the middle of a performance.  So an actor may go into the theatre on night thinking he’s playing certain parts, only to discover that he’s going to be doing a couple of additional things.  So they’re always on their toes.
  • They rehearse A LOT.  Almost every day.  Sometimes it’s to work in new cast members; other times, it’s just a brush-up.  They also change things, even now.  That’s because the producers of "Wicked" want to keep the productions consistent.  For example, "Wicked" is playing in London right now (Idena Menzel is Elphaba), and they reworked "Dancing Through Life".  So they had reworked the Broadway, Chicago, and National tour choreography for that number over the course of several days.  This put them in the weird position for several days of learning the dance numbers during the day, while performing the "old" steps at night.  It’s a wonder they don’t all collide with each other.
  • More on costumes: As you might expect, a lot of time and expense went in to making the costumes for the original cast.  But once the show became a hit, it was clear that many more costumes would be needed for future and touring casts.  Unfortunately, a lot of the material that was made for the one-time original cast was no longer being made.  So, "Wicked" has essentially its own fabric manufacturing shop, which makes and stores the specific fabric (and buttons and small details) before it goes to costuming for all the various productions.
  • During the Q&A, an audience member asked if there are better times to see a show than others.  For example, is the cast less "up" for a Saturday matinee, as opposed to a Friday night?  The answer gratified me.  The answer is generally "no".  First of all, they’re all professionals — this is their job to give it their all for every performance.  But to the extent that they might be more "up" for one show over another, that depends not on the day of the week, but the audience.  A lively psyched audience can invigorate the cast regardless of whether it is a matinee, a Tuesday evening, or a Friday evening.  "It’s that way in every theater," McCort said, "from community theater on up.  What the audience gets depends on what it gives."

Anyway, that’s only a drop of the whole "Wicked" experience.  I’m glad I can finally check that off my "before I die" checklist.


It’s these kind of shows that make me love the theater.  I mean, most people outside of New York are only aware of the mega-hits — the plays (usually musicals) that make a big splash.  But I really enjoy theatre that is small and intimate.  I’m talking about where you see great actors doing new plays in a small house.  For me — the less "Disney" it is, the better.

"Jack Goes Boating" was that kind of theatre experience.  It is a new play by Bob Glaudini and directed by Peter Dubois, performed in a small off-Broadway house which seats 200 at the most.  Unlike the mega-hits where the actors have to play to the back of the house several hundred feet away and every aspect of the production is a BIIIIIIG and expensive spectacle, here you can enjoy subtle refined performances.

JGB was produced and performed by the Labyrinth Theater Company, and starred Labyrinth company member Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Jack, a rather schlubby and awkward limo driver trying to venture into a romantic relationship with a "damaged" woman named Connie (played by Beth Cole).  His two married friends — Clyde (played by John Ortiz) and Lucy (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega [the original "Mimi" from "Rent"]) — assist Jack in this endeavor, while coming to terms with their own marital problems.  Specifically, they reveal to Jack their past marital indiscretions, and while they each claim that those events are "worked out" and "in the past", it becomes clear that they still cast a cloud over the couple.

The play is not deep in terms of meaning, but it would be wrong to dismiss this as a mere "romantic comedy".  All the characters have their own baggage, and their own reasons not to take steps into relationships. 

Hoffman’s character is the richest of the four.  Jack is shy and reserved, but also a bundle of nerves about winning over this woman and doing it the right way.  Most of the plot centers around his meticulous date preparations — learning to swim under Clyde’s tutelage so that he can take Connie boating in the summer, and preparing the perfect dinner party, even though he can’t cook.  His nervousness is revealed by his almost persistent throat-clearing which starts off so subtle that one might think Hoffman was struggling with a sore throat (well, Cheryl thought that).  Eventually, when the dinner party goes awry, Jack goes into a near-spasm of coughing.  However, when their relationship is consummated, Jack is, we see, the perfect man for a woman who needs patience and understanding.

That said, the play was charming without being saccharine.  It was also very funny, but it was the kind of humor that sprung from the performances, rather than being a play with "jokes" or unrealistic madcap slapstick.  The dialogue was realistic and true, with people conversing in real-life ways (talking past each other, not finishing sentences, "uh"s and "you knows", etc.).  In other words, it was a nice quiet contemporary comedy/drama that didn’t feel the need to slap you upside the head with zany situations, bizarre characters, or deep messages.  The four characters, flawed as they may be, were all likable and you wanted the best for them.  A really pleasant show, without "fluff".


Does it get any better than seeing the original Broadway cast in the Broadway hit of the year?  I think not.

"Spring Awakening" is everywhere.  They recently performed on David Letterman, and they’re getting praises everywhere.  Zach Graff calls it’s like "’Dead Poet’s Society’ on extacy set to music", and that’s a pretty good description.  It’s based on an 1890’s German play, and is set in that time period.  It follows the lives of teenagers during a time when adolescents were seen and not heard; when the mysteries of life — specifically, sex — were not discussed.  How did teenagers deal with the angst within their body when they lacked the vocabulary and knowledge to understand it?  This is what "Spring Awakening" is about, juxtaposing the conservative social mores of the time (through the dialogue) with the unbridled teenage confusion and passion within (through the rock music score).

Aside from its great score, "Spring Awakening" is known for two things: the fact that some of the audience watches the show onstage, and the nudity.  As for the first, we saw the show from the 4th row (within spitting range, as the saying goes), and because it is essentially "in the round" you don’t always see everything (but then again, neither does the audience onstage — click here for an article on the "sitting onstage at Spring Awakening" experience).  Since this isn’t a musical "spectacle", these were ideal seats.

As for the nudity, well, it was graphic but essential.  I think the only thing striking about it (and let’s get real, nudity onstage isn’t that striking anymore) was the fact that these kids are young.  (Last week, they had auditions in Florida for a replacement cast, and if you were over 21, then you were out of luck.  Some in this original cast, by the way, got in a lot easier.)

I knew and loved the score before I went, and seeing the production only enhanced my liking.  Seeing the songs in context only makes them more exciting, or sensual, or sad, or whatever.

This was a phenomenal cast, especially John Gallagher, Jr. as the troubled, eraser-headed, pigeon-toed student Moritz and the gorgeous Lea Michele as Wendla.   But the entire cast is phenomenal. 

So if you’re going to New York soon, and you have only time for one show, make this the one.

Here’s a taste ("My Junk"):


So what’s the next big thing on Broadway?  Well, chances are pretty good it’ll be another Disney movie — probably "The Little Mermaid" (currently in out-of-town tryouts), another step in the disturbing trend of converting Disney movies into Broadway musicals ("Little Mermaid" will join "Beauty and the Beast", "The Lion King", "Tarzan", and "Mary Poppins" — we can just be grateful that "Shitty Shitty Bang Bang" closed.)

To avoid that calamity, I wanted to see something in previews which might stand a chance of counteracting the Disney plague.  So we went to "Curtains" (click for website), the new Kander & Ebb musical starring David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk.

Sadly, I was not blown away.  Not even close.

"Curtains" is a family musical like the family musicals of the 1970’s and before.  In fact, it was very reminiscent of "Kiss Me Kate", a musical about putting on a musical.  The musical within the musical is "Robbin’ Hood", a musical set in the Old West.  Set in 1959, at out-of-town tryouts in Boston, the lead female star (a famous no-talent) of a show headed for Broadway is murdered.  Enter the Boston detective, played by Pierce, who wants to solve the murder and, as a fan of musical theater, see that the show turns out successfully.  (Why?  We don’t really know).  It turns out that everybody has a motive to make sure the show closes and never reaches Broadway, because they all have been blackmailed for one reason or another to participate in it (as an actor, director, chorus member, etc.)

Much about "Curtains" is familiar and predictable, even stereotypical.  There is the male-female writer and lyricist and — guess what — she ends up in the show (a la Nanette Fabray in "The Bandwagon") when the star is murdered.  There is the ditsy dumb blonde in the chorus.  There is a nod to shady mob-types who fund the show. and stage mothers.  There is even a musical number devoted to theatre critics (Guess what? Actors don’t like them unless they give good reviews.  Who knew?).  And since "Robbin’ Hood" is a western musical, you have a lot of what should be banned from musical theater — hoedowns and can-can dances. 

Whose to blame for this?  Well, the book was written by Rupert Holmes, who will probably never surpass his only good contribution to pop culture — the hit song he sang in 1979, "Escape" (better known as "The Pina Colada Song").  Yes, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was okay, and I recently saw a one-man show about George Burns called "Say Goodnight, Gracie" which Holmes wrote — that didn’t suck.  But this book was nothing but theatrical cliches and lame jokes (Here’s an example: "Gee, I wanted this show to make a killing, but not like this.")

The score by Kander & Ebb was not much better.  There was nothing memorable or catchy.  These two have been collaborating since 1963, which means that they probably just drool on music paper and call it a score.  Let’s face it, with the possible exception of "Kiss Of The Spiderwoman" in 1992, Kander & Ebb reached the high water mark in the 1960’s and 1970’s with "Cabaret" (1966) and "Chicago" (1975).

With a book and score working against it, it’s hard for me to see this show taking off when it opens on March 22.  Pierce and Monk and the supporting cast do the best with what they have, and do it quite well.  For the most part, the performances were terrific (although several noted that Pierce’s Bostonian accent seemed to drift in and out).  There were nice moments when they rose above the material — for example, a "dream" sequence where Pierce and his co-star imagine they are in a Marge & Gower Champion musical number, complete with smoke and white staircases.  That afforded the best laugh of the show when they both come out of the dream sequence to the bare backstage area: "I just had a vision of us dancing together like Marge & Gower Champion."  "That’s incredible!  I did too!  Who were you?"  "I was Marge!"  "WOW!  I was Gower in mine!"

The choreography by Rob "No Relation" Ashford was also outstanding.  Maybe, if anything, TOO outstanding.  Yes, it actually looked TOO difficult for some of the performers, particularly Karen Ziemba as the lyricist-turned-performer in the show-stopping act-one "saloon" number.

When the show premiered in L.A., the reviews were generally good, mainly because of David Hyde Pierce, who more-or-less carries the show.  But The Hollywood Reporter critic wrote:

"If the slow-to-get-going pacing of the first act, the unclear plot exposition and the relative lack of hummable tunes don’t bring it down, Curtains could not only make it to Broadway but triumph there as well, especially if Pierce is along for the ride." 

Presumably, the show has had some re-working since its L.A. run, and maybe there are some more changes between now and its March 22 opening.  And who knows?  It could be the next Broadway smash.

But me?  I think one line from "Curtains" — a laugh line, presumably — sums it best: "This show is lackluster.  It lacks . . . well, luster."  Yup.