5.3.14 – From the very first note she sings in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Audra McDonald dives deep into the persona of Billie Holiday and never comes out. It’s not a superficial impersonation or even a musicianly tribute to an indelible style. It’s a carefully studied and crafted performance, ever so slightly stylizing the vowels she sings in a way I’ve never heard anyone else do. It doesn’t even necessarily sound exactly like Holiday but I liked the curious and specific attention McDonald paid to each moment of each song. She has had excellent help from her director, Lonny Price, who took a pretty drab script by Lanie Robertson and made an event out of it, surrounding the singer’s bandshell with cabaret tables to make the usually cumbersome Circle in the Square Theater deliciously intimate. McDonald has a surfeit of conventional beauty, something Holiday lacked, but she’s willing to get rough and look unpretty. The moments when she starts building a tirade about racism in the music business or financial exploitation and her accompanist Jimmy Powers (played by Shelton Becton) gently guides her back into a song reminded me uncannily of Nina Simone in concert (see her riveting, disturbing Live at Montreux video). You know you’re watching a brilliant performer in serious decline, yet Price finds a way to end the show with a spot of unexpected theatrical grace.
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May 2 – Cock is the provocative, titillating, and completely misleading title to Mike Bartlett’s play, which won awards when it premiered at the Royal Court Theater in London and is in previews at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street. Talk would be more appropriate. Ninety minutes of talk talk talk talk talk, no particular action. The audience sits on a small plywood five-row arena looking down at circular playing area roughly ten paces across. The actors use no props or costume changes. They stand and talk. We view them as specimens, I suppose, much the same as in director James Macdonald’s production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number at New York Theater Workshop, where the seating was similarly configured. The main character, John, is a twentysomething gay guy (played by Cory Michael Smith) in a relationship with M (Jason Butler Harner) who one day meets a girl (W, played by Amanda Only-Two-Names Quaid) in his neighborhood who talks him into sleeping with her. The play consists of their belabored hashing out of what this means, with some last-minute participation by M’s father F (Cotter Where’s-MY-Middle-Name Smith). Even setting aside the absence of any male genitalia onstage to justify the salacious title (extremely disappointing to the largely gay audience at the preview Allen and I saw), I found the main character’s dilemma both unbelievable and uninteresting. The characters talk in playwright-speak rather than anything that reflects honest or recognizable human sentiment. For instance, W (perhaps we can acknowledge Edward Albee as the inspiration for the character names) lets John know that she’s turned on because she has “a gap-on.” And singing her praises to M, John exclaims, “Her vagina is awesome!” I had a similar reaction to Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, another award-winning British play about a bisexual love triangle that MCC Theater produced a couple of years ago. I guess these plays must be somebody’s cup of tea, but not mine.
May 3 – My friend Misha Berson, tireless Seattle theater critic, invited me to be her guest to see The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which was a mixed bag. In the interests of mounting a production that would be popular with Broadway audiences, director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks crunched the running time from four hours to two and a half, chopping down the play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward that had inspired the opera and reducing the orchestra to 22 pieces in a piano-heavy adaptation by Diedre L. Murray. There are some magic moments and some misfires. I walked away thrilled by Audra McDonald’s raw emotional Bess and David Alan Grier’s high-energy Sportin’ Life, but not much else.
May 4 – Misha also took me to see Once, which I was happy to revisit, third time for me. I love just about everything about this show. (You can read my detailed review on CultureVulture.net.) Steve Kazee is just great in the central role, as are Cristin Miliotti and Anne L. Nathan and David Patrick Kelly, but really the whole ensemble is strong. Seeing a show repeatedly, you can’t help increasing your attention and affection for the supporting roles: Will Connolly’s Andrej, Elizabeth A. Davis’s Reza, Lucas Papaelias’s Svec, and Paul Whitty’s Billy in particular. I was glad Misha liked it as much as I did – she noted that ten years ago, before Spring Awakening, it would be impossible to imagine seeing a show like this on Broadway. One of the things I love most is how quiet it is. It makes the audience lean forward and pay attention, rather than get blasted back in their seats. I’m happy it got so many Tony nominations, and I can’t imagine that it won’t win Best Musical.
March 15 – In 1985, Stephen Holden and I sat in the tenth row center to see “Follies In Concert” at Avery Fisher Hall, which turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of musical theater I’ve ever experienced. If you’ve heard the excellent recording, you can imagine what I mean. Happily, Stephen invited me to be his guest for “Sondheim: The Birthday Concert,” the spring gala for the New York Philharmonic – same venue and some of the same cast. The occasion was Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday, and the show was a tasteful and surprisingly low-key affair, directed by Lonny Price – pleasurable, never boring but never actually thrilling either. For one thing, hardly any surprises. The one Sondheim rarity showed up early in the program, when Victoria Clark came out to sing “Don’t Laugh,” a number that Sondheim wrote for Judy Holliday as a favor to Mary Rodgers when the short-lived 1963 musical (Holliday’s last) Hot Spot was in trouble out of town.
The biggest musical discovery for me was Nathan Gunn, whom operagoers have been drooling over for a few years (both for his gorgeous baritone and his gorgeous bod, stripped to the waist in Billy Budd — see above). He sang “Joanna” from Sweeney Todd and “Too Many Mornings” from Follies with Audra McDonald, which was the highlight of the evening for me – what a great song! Laura Benanti sang a lovely version of “So Many People” from Saturday Night. It was great to see some original cast recreations: Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason from Into the Woods, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters from Sunday in the Park with George. And the show culminated in a Diva Showdown where Bernadette, Audra, Patti LuPone, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie, and Elaine Stritch (all in beautiful red Diane von Furstenberg gowns) sang songs they’re not associated with. Stritch was forgivably shaky, and the others were fine, but there were no revelations. David Hyde Pierce made for a droll host, nattering on about wanting to hear Sondheim songs in other languages and perpetually chiding conductor Paul Gemignani (who did a spectacular job, by the way) to stay away from Sweeney Todd (“We’re eating cake tonight, not people!”). The choruses from a bunch of Broadway shows filled the stage and the aisles and the balconies to end the show with a blast of “Sunday.” And Sondheim himself took a curtain call, sweet and humble, as you might expect, and moved to tears, which I don’t think any of us would have expected.
We had fun chatting at intermission with Tony Kushner and Mark Harris (Tony said he’s freakishly adept at memorizing lyrics and had astonished Sondheim at dinner once by reeling some off) and afterwards with Tony Tommasini and his friend Scott Wheeler.