Posts Tagged ‘stephen sondheim’

Performance Diary: FUN HOME, MARIE ANTOINETTE, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, and Robert Kraft at Joe’s Pub

October 31, 2013

October 19 – The musical Fun Home at the Public Theater is a rich intense meal of a show. It’s an adaptation of the award-winning graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, the great cartoonist best-known for her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” about growing up in a funeral home, coming out as a lesbian, and her relationship with her father, who was a closeted gay man and committed suicide not long after she came out to him.
funhome panel
Jeanine Tesori wrote the score, which is quirky and deep and includes fantastic roles for young kids, not unlike “Caroline, or Change.” And the book and lyrics were written by Lisa Kron – I enjoyed seeing traces of Kron’s own family memoir, 2.5 Minute Ride, show up here. The first half of the show is a little lumpy and awkward as the story jumps around in time, portraying Alison at three different ages – the 9-year-old daddy’s girl (Sydney Lucas) who is transfixed at the fleeting sight of a butch lesbian, the college girl (Alexandra Socha) whose life is transformed by her first fling (Joan, played by Roberta Colindrez – “Tako” from Girls), and the adult cartoonist (Beth Malone), who spends a lot of time standing on the sidelines watching her earlier selves.

But the musical numbers are as unpredictable and specific as Bechdel’s fantastic writing (a commercial for the funeral home, a Partridge Family tribute, a lovesong to that butch lesbian called “Ring of Keys”). And once grown-up Alison sits down for the car ride and conversation she never had with her gay dad, I was an emotional wreck. Michael Cerveris (below, with Sydney Lucas) is spectacular as mercurial Bruce – brilliant, kind, demanding, secretive. David Zinn’s elaborate set especially serves to reveal depths of Bruce’s character beyond words – his love of beauty, his attachment to surfaces and masks.

funhome production shot

Afterwards, Andy and I stumbled out into the lobby, where a whole other emotional experience unfolded. Bechdel was in the house, and we got to meet not only her (Andy could barely contain his fanboy delight) but also Edie Windsor, who’d already seen the show once before and loved it so much she went back, with her publicist, the indefatigable Cathy Renna. Chatting with two legendary lesbians topped off the evening spectacularly. 10-19 alison bechdel andy

October 20 – I’m not really sure what David Adjmi’s play Marie Antoinette is really about, other than retelling the historical tale of the French monarch’s rise and fall in 21st century language, a la Sofia Coppola’s movie. But it does provide the occasion for an amazing performance by Marin Ireland in the title role (below, with Marsha Stephanie Blake and Jennifer Ikeda). I’ve seen Ireland give any number of admirable performances, including her previous gig at Soho Rep in Sarah Kane’s Blasted, but I’ve never seen her undertake such a stylized role. It’s pretty great, beautifully directed by Rebecca Taichman. All the actors are superb – there’s a tiny Cassandra-like role for A Sheep, and the production was lucky enough to land David Greenspan to play it. The production design has been stripped down from previous incarnations at the American Repertory Theater in Boston and the Yale Rep. It’s pretty bare-bones but suitable to the intimacy of the Soho Rep space.


 October 23 – I’ve been a big fan of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along ever since I saw the original Broadway production, somewhat misbegotten, poorly reviewed, and quickly shuttered (though the cast album holds up very well even now). I’ve seen it onstage again several times, and I was happy that I had an evening free to catch the screening at the Ziegfeld of the live broadcast of the recent London production staged by Maria Friedman. Many have touted this as the best production of the show ever, including Sondheim himself. There are a few things it does extremely well – it establishes from the first scene that the entire show consists of what in 12-step circles is called “a searching moral inventory” by the central character, Franklin Shepard: how did you get to be you? How did it happen? A key image that no other production has introduced is Frank (played by Mark Umbers) clutching a red-bindered copy of his friend Charlie Kringas’s play at the end of the opening scene. As the show moves backward in time, we see this script show up again and again, symbolizing the numerous opportunities Frank had to pursue the artistic ideals he had when he was a kid and the myriad times he chose to postpone or override them in favor of commercial interests or other people’s values.

Although it’s always been subliminally obvious, this production makes unmistakeable that Mary (Jenna Russell) has been in love with Frank from the moment they met on a tenement rooftop in New York City. Russell, who played Dot in the London revival of Sunday in the Park with George (which subsequently came to Broadway), gives an excellent performance, as does Damian Humbley as Charlie. (Pre-show backstage footage reveals that, underneath his wig and glasses and shambolic Charlie attire, Humbley is one hunky Australian actor.) Otherwise, though, I found the production to be pretty mediocre – overacted, cartoonish, a few ideas pounded home relentlessly. I still think the best version of Merrily was James Lapine’s production at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 starring John Rubenstein, Chip Zien, and Heather MacRae. And the second-best was Lapine’s staging last year for the Encores! series at City Center with Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Elizabeth Stanley, who was a revelation as Gussie.

October 30 – Speaking of the Franklin Shepards of the world…the last time I had contact with singer-songwriter Robert Kraft, it was the mid-1980s, and he was excited because Harold Prince (producer and director of many Stephen Sondheim shows, including Merrily We Roll Along) had taken an interest in developing a musical by him for Broadway, a show called Metropolitan Serenade. Robert recorded three albums during this period, full of whimsical and tuneful original pop-jazz compositions. I remember he did a show at the Bottom Line with Patti LuPone singing songs nominated for Academy Awards. Then he moved to Los Angeles and vanished from my radar. I was vaguely aware that he had gotten involved with Hollywood in some capacity as music director, but I never knew the details (I’ve since looked them up on Wikipedia).

A couple of years ago we became Facebook friends, and then suddenly here he is, doing a gig at Joe’s Pub to celebrate the release of a boxed set of his studio albums and a never-released live album. He sat at the piano and played a bunch of his songs from 30 years ago – “Who’s Seducing Who,” “Out with My Ex,” “False Start,” “Café Society” – accompanied by a former student, Katie Theroux, on upright bass. I learned from the show that he’d collaborated with his buddy Bruce Willis (who was in the audience at Joe’s Pub) on the movie Hudson Hawk and he was nominated for an Academy Award for a song he wrote for the movie version of Oscar Hijuelos’s lovely novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love. (I also learned from him that Hijuelos just died recently – sad.) I will probably buy the boxed set when it comes out in December, to have CD versions of beautiful ballads such as “Bon Voyage” and “Rosette.” Robert apparently spent almost 20 years supervising movie music for Fox Filmed Entertainment…but what about that Broadway show?

My life as a Culture Vulture: week of February 19

February 25, 2012

Busy fun culture week.

SUNDAY: I got to see the penultimate performance at the Encores! series of Merrily We Roll Along at City Center. It’s always been one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, if not my very favorite. This is the adaptation of a Kaufman and Hart show-biz drama that moves backwards in time, starting from the present when the central character, Frank Shepard, is a super-successful Broadway composer who’s sold out to Hollywood and then moving back through the pivotal experiences and relationships that made him who he is.  I’m not even that much of a musical theater geek, but I saw the short-lived original Hal Prince production in 1981 and loved the show and the music and the emotional sweep of the show, despite the ridiculous costumes and production design. As with many Sondheim shows, it was impeccably recorded (by Thomas Z. Shepard for RCA Records), and it’s through the original cast recording that many, many people grew to love this show. It’s great theater for the ear and a fantastic score. To my taste, there’s never been a better Charley Kringas than Lonny Price (especially his version of “Franklin Shepard, Inc.”), and I’m very partial to Ann Morrison’s performance as Mary (for me, she kinda owns “Like It Was” and “Now You Know”) — plus Jason Alexander’s finest moment, as Joe.

I’d go see any production of Merrily that comes down the pike. I did see the pretty mediocre York Theater production (directed by Susan H. Schulman, starring Malcolm Gets) but the gold standard has always been James Lapine’s staging at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 with John Rubinstein, Chip Zien, and Heather McRae. Encores! tapped Lapine to mount the concert version at City Center, and he did a great job — not quite obliterating my fondness for the La Jolla version, partly because the full staging made that production more forceful. But it was pretty damn good at City Center. The show is such a moving, intense, bittersweet, super-ambivalent slice of adult wisdom — rueful in suggesting that we inevitably lose significant shards of our integrity as we age, upsetting in its honesty about the light and shadow aspects of friendship,  and yet inspiring in the way it captures youthful idealism. It’s a deep show, and it’s hard not to be moved to tears by the kids at the end claiming “It’s our time!” At City Center, I couldn’t help thinking that today’s versions of the twentysomething Frank and Charlie and Mary would be Occupying Wall Street.

Lovely performances by Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Mary and Charley, but for me two other performances by non-hyphenated actors were revelations: Colin Donnell as Frank and Elizabeth Stanley as Gussie (above). Donnell is so good I may have to go see Anything Goes, and Stanley is definitely star material — she got to do the new number that Sondheim cooked up for this production, the act-two opener that gives us an excerpt of Frank and Charlie’s hit show, Musical Husbands.

MONDAY: I’m a big fan of Edmund White and will read anything he writes. I enjoyed Jack Holmes and His Friend a lot while reading it, so I was surprised to feel a little letdown by the very ending. It seemed weightless and inconsequential. But the form of the novel, which centers on a gay man who is in love with a straight friend, is somewhat experimental, so it works on you after the fact. The four sections alternate between third-person omniscient narrative and first-person narrative by Will, the straight guy — I think this is White’s first attempt to write in the voice of a heterosexual male, and at times it seems strained and somewhat cliched, though I can’t be sure if that’s intentional on White’s part. Ultimately, it’s an intriguingly detailed, characteristically sexually explicit take on how the advent of AIDS affected the kind of straight people who were just starting to explore the sexual freedom gay men claimed for themselves in the 1960s and ’70s.

I was alarmed to read an interview with White in the Gay and Lesbian Review, where he mentioned that he recently had a stroke. Nevertheless, his writing here is strong, and many passages dazzled me and made me laugh, such as this description of two women working as personnel directors for a literary magazine: “They’d been sitting in the same small office, with its dust and snake plants, for thirty years. Every surface was covered with files. They wore hats perched incongruously above their wide, bloated faces, like flowers taped to livestock.” And: “He’d never thought of his grandmother as a woman before — more as a matron with a firm, molded mono-bosom and a diamond brooch and a low, Southern twang than as a woman with soft white breasts like warm dachshunds in constant motion, dogs with huge brown noses.”

TUESDAY: Anthology Film Archives in the East Village is running a fantastic and comprehensive film series devoted to the Wooster Group, including a 10-program retrospective of film and video documentation of their glorious stage productions. When I ran into Cynthia Hedstrom at St. Ann’s Warehouse last week, she urged me to show up for the video reconstruction of Rumstick Road, and I’m so glad I did. The middle piece of the group’s Three Places in Rhode Island, Rumstick Road was really the work that launched Spalding Gray’s career as a solo performer and storyteller. At the center of the piece is Spalding telling the story of his mother’s suicide, using tape-recorded recollections by his father, his grandmother, and a psychiatrist who’d treated his mother. And Elizabeth LeCompte was just beginning to hone the tools that have made her the legendary genius director she is: having the actors lip-synch the recordings and developing with her three outrageously talented and fearless performers (Gray, Ron Vawter, and Libby Howe) and kindred-spirit techies (Jim Clayburgh and Bruce Porter) a variety of physical actions and visual images to complement the verbal material.

The piece was first shown in 1977 and performed periodically through 1980 (I saw it, weirdly enough, when it had a brief uptown run at the American Place Theater), back when the Wooster Group was called The Performance Group and were virtually unknown and barely scraping by. Various bits and pieces of Rumstick Road were captured on video, film, and audiotape but never a complete documented performance. Recently, LeCompte and filmmaker Ken Kobland sat down with the hodgepodge of chunks and ingeniously reconstructed the entire performance. It’s very rough and sometimes crude, which is of course perfect for LeCompte’s aesthetic. And looking back at the piece now, it’s astonishing to see how original and strong a work of art it is. The reconstruction includes a number of close-up shots that enhance the viewing experience (I hadn’t retained a clear memory of the crazy moment when Ron Vawter, wearing a latex old-lady mask, examined Spalding’s mouth at length, pulling out and stroking his tongue with his fingers). It was thrilling to re-experience the show, but also sad recalling those wonderful young actors lost to AIDS (Vawter), suicide (Gray), and mental illness (Howe).

WEDNESDAY: Rehearsal with Gamelan Kusuma Laras. I’m excited that I’m slowly, slowly starting to learn how to play a new instrument, bonang panerus (below), with lots of help and coaching from more experienced players (thanks, Carla! thanks, Dylan! thanks, Oki!).

THURSDAY: I finally finished reading Electric Eden, British music critic Rob Young’s dense, ambitious, obsessive, and impressive history of a certain stripe of British pop-folk music. He originally set out to focus on a specific set of quirky, seminal bands and performers who bridged the gap between traditional English folk music, rock and roll, and post-Dylan singer-songwriters — the likes of Fairport Convention (whose members included Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny), the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, Donovan, and Nick Drake. But his research led him to deep thinking about the British history and culture and geography that music emerged from, and he also found himself tracking the artists forward through the tributaries of psychedelia, art-rock, glam-rock, punk, and other sound experiments. It’s one of the most impressive, intelligent books about pop music I’ve ever encountered, extremely well-written, scrupulously factual, and free of cheap, stupid generalizations.

I learned lots about music that was near and dear to me as a precocious teenage listener, and he writes about tons of artists I’ve never heard of before who sound fascinating (Mighty Baby? Comus?). His discography alone provides a graduate-level study guide to some beautiful and curious musical byroads. I never knew, for instance, that the Beatles created a 15-minute sound collage called “Carnival of Light” around the time of Sgt. Pepper! Here’s his succinct description of the tipping point, when the hippie-dippy pastoral rootsiness of acts like the Incredible String Band began to be eclipsed by the dark urban edginess of David Bowie: “If folk, folk-rock and its tributaries were, however subconsciously, believed to spring from collective, stable racial memory, glam tipped music into a wilderness of masks and mirrors, divided selves refracted through a succession of grotesque invented facades.”

FRIDAY: I was asked to give a nine-minute talk introducing the Wim Wenders/Sam Shepard film Paris, Texas at the Rubin Museum‘s Cabaret Cinema series, which prompted me to read this informative interview with Wenders and also gave me the delightful opportunity to watch the film again. I hadn’t seen it since it opened at the New York Film Festival in 1984. Man, Robby Muller’s cinematography is spectacular, starting from the opening shots of Harry Dean Stanton striding with absurd purposefulness through the lunar landscape of the Grand Canyon. And Ry Cooder’s music has never been more beautifully matached with a film. I will admit that I slipped out early, so as to avoid watching Nastassia Kinski, whose performance I recall as acutely embarrassing. The Rubin is a great museum, the people who work there are super-nice, the place was packed and buzzing on a Friday night, and I look forward to using my gift membership to view their always-engrossing exhibitions, starting with a show I know Andy will want to see: “Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics.”

Theater review: FOLLIES

September 17, 2011

My review of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies has just been posted on Check it out here and let me know what you think.

It’s a show that musical theater mavens never tire of seeing, discussing, thinking about, and no wonder — it’s good, substantial stuff. Two surprises in the new Broadway revival: Bernadette Peters is The Weakest Link, and for song-and-dance panache Terri White (below center, as Stella Deems leading “Who’s That Woman?”) pretty much steals the show.

In this week’s New Yorker…

November 30, 2010

Aside from the cheeky and up-to-the-minute cover image by Barry Blitt (above), I was most intrigued with Kelefa Sanneh’s Critic-at-Large essay, ostensibly a review of Jay-Z’s book Decoded, which betrayed an extreme familiarity with every scrap and tittle of Jay-Z’s music and discusses it with the detailed obsessiveness that Stephen Sondheim fans apply to every new item from the master. And then Sanneh goes on to review Sondheim’s memoir Finishing the Hat. A rare cultural critic whose sphere of reference spans hip-hop and Sondheim, innit? Go, Kelefa!

Speaking of cross-cultural stretch and the New Yorker, I was intrigued to read in New York magazine that the New Yorker‘s rapacious pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones has been hired as culture editor of The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s new iPad-aimed digital newspaper.

What else? I was also fascinated to read Gay Talese’s almost breathlessly starstruck account of traveling with the young opera star Marina Poplavskaya, currently appearing at the Metropolitan Opera in Don Carlo. She sounds like a terrific singer — can’t wait to hear her in person.

Performance diary: Marina Abramovic and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE

April 12, 2010

April 8 – Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MOMA, “The Artist Is Present,” includes many of her intense body-based performances recreated by a squadron of young recruits. There’s the one where two naked performers stand in a doorway so that those wishing to pass from one room to another have to brush against them. (Originally this was the only entrance to a gallery show, and the performers were a naked man and a naked woman. Watching the documentary film adjacent to the current installation, you can witness how most people enter without looking at either performer and most of them choose to face the woman rather than the man. The gender aspect was nullified the day I visited MOMA, when both performers were women. Plus, it’s not the only way into the room so anyone can avoid touching naked people.) There’s “Hair Piece,” in which a man and a woman sit back to back, their long hair tied together. My favorite body piece had a naked man lying on his back with a skeleton lying on top of him; in the same room is a series of films projected onto the wall, one of a dozen naked men humping a grassy field, another of women pulling up their skirts and exposing their crotches to the falling rain. I admire Abramovic’s commitment to the body as art, though the work is very very cerebral, not very erotic or even emotionally compelling. She likes durational pieces, and nothing she’s done before has been quite as demanding as her current residency at MOMA, where she sits in the big rotunda on the second floor at a table (below, in red dress) while visitors come and sit opposite her silently for as long as they want. I perceive it as a form of darshan (that’s when spiritual teachers give audience to their devotees one at a time, usually very briefly), an encounter with the artist or guru as a mirror of oneself. Spectators do seem to be taking it that seriously. When I walked by, two different young somber-looking women sat opposite Abramovic, the two of them staring at one another. The guard told me that some people have been sitting with her for hours at a time and if you don’t get in line by 10:30 am you’re not likely to get your chance that day. In addition to the spiritual presence aspect, there’s something very Warholian about this performance as well – it takes place surrounded by fancy lighting, in the atmosphere of media circus.

I was more taken with the performative aspects of the William Kentridge show, “Five Themes.” His animated films are very beautiful and worth taking the time to sit through. I especially admired “Ubu Tells the Truth,” a fascinating take on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings, in which perpetrators of horrendous crimes during the apartheid era were granted amnesty for telling their stories – a theoretically healing process for the country, but paradoxically also a public airing of outrageous brutalities (Ubu-esque is a terrific way of framing them – a reference to Alfred Jarry’s fictional tyrant-clown). There’s also an elaborate hour-long show featuring an adaptation of The Magic Flute on a scale model of an opera stage – something I want to go back and spend more time with another day.

April 11 – Anyone Can Whistle is the kind of show that the Encores! series at City Center was created to present: a flawed musical that flopped in its day, hasn’t been seen much, isn’t really worth a full-scale revival, but has a score that’s worth hearing under circumstances that aren’t too demanding. Most of the time when I go to Encores!, I assume I’m going to see a pretty dumb show with a lame book, but if there are a couple of fine musical numbers and a handful of delightful performances I count myself lucky. Anyone Can Whistle definitely had one of the better casts in my experience: Donna Murphy as Cora Hoover Hooper, the brassy, maniacal mayor of a small-town that needs some kind of miracle — no matter how phony — to survive economically (Angela Lansbury played her originally); Edward Hibbert as Comptroller Schub, her partner in crime; Sutton Foster as Fay Apple, the head nurse at the local psychiatric hospital, sensitively referred to as The Cookie Jar; and Raul Esparza as J. Bowden Hapgood, who arrives in town as a patient and gets mistaken for the doctor-savior whose job is to decide definitively who’s crazy and who’s not.

The premise for Arthur Laurents’ 1964 play (with songs, of course, by Stephen Sondheim) comes straight from the heart of the countercultural ‘60s, when the very notions of sanity and craziness, right and wrong were up for questioning. The play is a kind of fractured fairy tale out of a Nichols-and-May nightclub routine, with the kind of sweetly neurotic mental patients and caricatured crooked authority figures that populated Jean Anouilh’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and the long-running cult film King of Hearts. Simplistic and vaudevillean, and yet Laurents was getting at the arbitrariness of classifying mental illness (after all, he and Sondheim were both gay guys in psychoanalysis at a time when homosexuality was officially designated a mental illness). And the hilarious, crazy way that the townspeople unquestioningly go along with Hapgood’s dividing them up into two factions – the A team and the 1 team, both of whom consider themselves superior – speaks to the fierce us-against-them state of American politics today.

[Further thoughts: Anyone Can Whistle was written right in the midst of the tumultuous civil rights movement, when crazed white racists were bombing black churches and Southern white cops were setting attack dogs on non-violent freedom marchers. And the McCarthy era was fresh in the memory of politically alert New York Jewish artists like Arthur Laurents. Those events are part of the backdrop for songs like “Simple,” which cheerfully trots out a series of syllogism: the opposite of dark is bright, the opposite of bright is dumb, therefore dark = dumb; the opposite of left is right, the opposite of right is wrong, therefore left = wrong. That’s a lot of political content for a musical comedy circa 1964, plus it’s delivered in an edgy, Brechtian way — not by modelling Right Thinking for the audience but by espousing offensive sentiments as if they were acceptable, forcing the audience to actively object rather than sink into the warm bath of agreement. David Gursky, Rob Berman’s assistant musical director for the show, told Andy and me afterwards that Angela Lansbury told the company that at the curtain call for the original production, the actors could totally feel the hatred coming from the audience.]

There’s a lot going on, emotionally and psychologically, amidst the play’s crazy cartoon atmosphere. Certainly, the mayor is a dazzling and entertaining monster, and Donna Murphy had a ball playing some wacky mixture of Jackie Kennedy, Tammy Faye Bakker, Kay Thompson, Ethel Merman, and Barbara Streisand. The always-appealing Sutton Foster got to play both the buttoned-down Nurse Apple and her liberated faux-French alter-ego in red dress and wig. “I love a woman who comes with an accent” was my favorite smutty line, spoken by Raul Esparza, suitably genial and manic as Hapgood. Once considered an obscure Sondheim score, Anyone Can Whistle brims with songs we now call classics: in addition to the title song and “There Won’t Be Trumpets” (which Foster sang with her usual dazzling lucidity), there’s “Everybody Says Don’t” (Esparza) and the ballad I can’t get out of my head, “With So Little to Be Sure Of.”

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