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Top Five Reasons to Go See The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera is a Broadway staple.  It’s one of the productions that tourists come to New York City to see.  Last year it celebrated its 25th anniversary on Broadway making it the longest running show in the history of The Great White Way.  With grosses over $800 million, it’s the most financially successful theater production to date.  In May The Phantom of the Opera made history once again by adding the first Phantom of color, actor Norm Lewis.

The Phantom of the Opera began its epic run on Broadway in 1988 and after 26 years it still packs in the crowds.  One might think that after all this time this musical juggernaut might have lost its steam – what with all the new productions dealing with more modern issues – but there is a reason why classics never die.  If you haven’t seen The Phantom of the Opera, I’m here to tell you that you should and I have five good reasons to back me up.

4.2018005. Unrequited Love

The Phantom of the Opera intertwines this theme into the beauty and the beast subplot.  The Phantom in all his grotesque glory loves Christine Daaé, a beautiful young soprano.  So much so that he will kill to ensure her success at the French opera house.  She is his muse and musically they do share a connection, but his disfigured face and criminal behavior prevents her from conceiving of the possibility of returning his love.  Another complication for The Phantom is the reemergence of Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, Christine’s childhood playmate and first love.  Everyone has their favorite fables about unrequited love.  Wuthering HeightsGone With the WindThe Phantom of the Opera definitely ranks up there with the greatest love stories told on stage or screen.

5.2018144. Norm Lewis

There is a new Phantom in town and his name is Norm Lewis.  Stepping into a role as iconic as the Phantom can be quite the undertaking, 25 years and several other Phantoms before you, and every die-hard Phantom fan has their favorite.  But Lewis holds true to magic and sinister nature of the Phantoms before him.  In fact, he adds another dimension to the story of a brilliant man forced to hide in the shadows of an opera house because of the way he looks and is driven mad by the isolation and rejection.

4.2018013.  Sierra Boggess

Sierra Boggess has been playing the role of Christine Daaé in various productions since 2006.  She first played the role in a production of The Phantom of the Opera in Las Vegas.  She played Christine in the sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies.  On Broadway, she reprised the role in 2013 for a six-week engagement. In March, it was announced that she would return along with Norm Lewis.  As soon as Boggess utters the first note you can tell how familiar she is with the role.  Her voice fills the Majestic Theatre with a power and tenderness that can be felt from the orchestra to the mezzanine.  If you are not a fan of opera, Boggess will make you one or at the very least you will have a greater appreciation for the craft.

3.2017992.  Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart

The music of The Phantom of the Opera was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics written by Charles Hart and additions from Richard Stilgoe, who also wrote the book with Webber.  The music and lyrics are one of the reasons why The Phantom of the Opera is the most successful theater productions on Broadway and around the world.  Just hearing the entrancing number “The Music of the Night” is enough to fill seats or the beautiful exchange between Raoul and Christine in “All I Ask of You”; the music and lyrics captivates the audience from beginning to end and gloriously illuminates the genius of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

3.2018101.  It’s an authentic theater experience

From the lavish sets and costumes, the music and lyrics, to the performers, The Phantom of the Opera harkens back to a time when going to the theater was a complete transformation into another world and the audience felt lucky to be a part of it because it was happening live in front of them.  The pageantry and opulence of The Phantom of the Opera holds a mirror to the mediocre productions that somehow get backing and land on Broadway and says, “Tisk…tisk…tisk.  This is how you create theater.”  Simply put, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore and no matter your age or generation quality is quality.  And the fuel that runs The Phantom of the Opera is excellence.

Photos by Matthew Murphy

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Holler If Ya Hear Me Adds to the Legacy of Tupac Shakur

It’s official kids… the force of nature that is hip hop has crashed down on the Great White Way.  The music and culture that was created in the Bronx has changed the course of music and pop culture and influenced the world.  Hip hop and I grew up together.  When it was still a burgeoning form of music, hip hop served as a medium to convey the joys and sorrows of one’s neighborhood.  It was through hip hop that I learned how folks got down in Cali, of Bloods and Crips and low riders.  I learned what it meant to be chopped and screwed.  Through the vivid stories of MCs nationwide, I got to see what made all impoverished areas different and the same.   No MC reported the tales of the streets and the ills of society more poetically than Tupac Shakur.  When Tupac passed away on September 13, 1996 of respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest in connection with multiple gunshot wounds, a part of my heart and youth died.  Since his untimely death at the age of 25, Tupac rose to the heights of icon status.  His lyrics and life inspired college courses and he is considered one of the greatest artists and MCs of all time.  Now the music of Tupac Shakur is the driving force of a new musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me, playing at the Palace Theatre.

5.201699Holler If Ya Hear Me uses Pac’s music to tell the story of urban plight, love and change.  John, played by the Saul Williams, has just returned to the neighborhood after serving a stint in prison.  With his hustling days behind him, he is hell-bent on changing his life for the better, but it’s hard to find change when the cycle of poverty keeps circling.  John’s friend Benny is murdered by a rival gang and the neighborhood is reeling.  Revenge weighs heavy on the heart of his brother Vertus and the homies that are left behind.  Violence seems imminent.  Even John has appeared to have discarded his plan of peace, until he is reminded there is a better way.  As John and Vertus decide to abandon any notions of retaliation, the neighborhood is rocked by another senseless death, which proves how the cycle of violence will only continue if strides aren’t made to break it.

5.201697The jukebox musical is a sure fire way of guaranteeing a successful theatre production.  The music and lyrics already have a legion of dedicated listeners, which promises at the very least the ability to recoup the monies invested in bringing a production to a Broadway stage.  One can almost argue that a jukebox musical is cheating because half the work has already been done.  The struggles of inner-city life and the desire to break away from its hopelessness isn’t a new theme.  In fact, one the most brilliant productions to ever explore this topic, A Raisin in the Sun, is currently enjoying another revival on Broadway.  Even the idea of hip hop isn’t entirely new.  Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced elements of the musical genre to the stage in In the Heights. But what is new is a jukebox musical based off of hip hop, and now rap has one with Holler If Ya Hear Me.

5.201700With the music of Tupac Shakur fueling this production, Holler If Ya Hear Me was poised to blow the roof off of the Palace Theatre.  However, there was one thing that stopped this production from rocketing off into the stratosphere, the book.   The neighborhood, which is set in the present day, could be any ghetto USA.  I’m in total agreement that Tupac’s lyrics are timeless, but the story could’ve benefitted by setting it in a specific city or region of the country.   One can argue that the story is clichéd taking cues from Menace to Society and Boyz in the Hood as well as West Side Story.  Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s just challenging to create an original story in this century, but the book didn’t deliver on the dynamism reflected in Pac’s music making the production unbalanced.    The choreography wasn’t as explosive as I had hoped and the lack of a set left the actors drowning in on a half empty stage.  But even with these flaws, Holler If Ya Hear Me still shines because of Tupac’s music and the ability of Saul Williams to transcend past an overdone story to deliver a powerful performance.  Williams is no stranger to exuding passion on stage, after all he is one of the world’s most well-known slam poets.  Williams rage, sensitivity, charisma and presence were felt in every corner of the audience.

5.201701When it is all said and done, Holler If Ya Hear Me will join the long list of musical productions made during this millennium that teeters somewhere in the middle, not disastrous but not reaching the glorious spectacle of what musical theater used to be.  But I know very well that the people won’t come to this musical because they love musicals or Broadway.  They will come to pay homage to Tupac Shakur – a man who indeed was like a spark and through his ignition he succeeded in changing the face of hip hop and the world.  If nothing else this production shows how relevant Tupac still is. Holler If Ya Hear Me roars and I holler back, “Viva Tupac Amaru Shakur!”

Photos: Joan Marcus

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Under My Skin Provides A Healthy Dose of Laughter

I don’t think there is a person alive that hasn’t heard the phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  As for myself, I prefer “Laughter is the best medicine.”  Laughter may not have the ability to cure all ailments, but it definitely heals the soul.  And a prescription filled with laughs is what the members of the audience at The Little Shubert Theatre will receive when they view Under My Skin. 

6.200106Taking cues from Switch, Big and Freaky Friday, Under My Skin adds a whole new chapter to the old body exchange tale. So here’s the story… Mr.  Harrison Badish III is the CEO of Amalgamated Healthcare, the nation’s leading healthcare provider.  He’s a cold, shrewd business man who cares more about making money for the company than making a difference or knowing his employees, one of whom is Melody Dent.  Melody is a single mom from Staten Island who works part-time at Amalgamated with her best friend Nanette.  Both she and Nanette had a problem being seen by Badish until one fateful day when a cup of coffee sets off a chain of events that leads to Melody and Harrison coming face to face with an angel.  The angel, compassionate to their pleas, decides to bring them back to life, but there is a catch, their souls are placed into the wrong bodies.   And while the pair waits for the angel to switch them back, they discover what life is really like for each other and learn more about the trials and tribulations of the opposite sex. By the time Melody and Harrison are themselves again, they realize they can’t live without each other.

6.200111Cheeky and chock full of humor, Under My Skin lodges itself directly into the marrow of the audience’s funny bone.  Husband and wife writing team Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser harmoniously weave comedy and social commentary with this production.  The good ole “make ‘em laugh” approach is a tried and true method of slipping in points of view that require introspection.   Along with adding new layers to the age old battle of the sexes debate, they also weigh in on the state of healthcare, or lack thereof, in our nation and how it affects the everyday, working American.

6.200112The neon lights of Broadway do burn bright. But sometimes they shine even brighter Off-Broadway. Under My Skin is one of the most dynamic shows I’ve seen in a while.  If you find yourself on 42nd Street, take a walk down to The Little Shubert Theatre for an thoroughly enjoyable 90-minute laugh-fest.

Photos: Joan Marcus

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The Cripple of Inishmaan Is Straight-Up Funny

What do you think would be funny about a cripple orphan, a remote town in Ireland and a Hollywood documentary?  If you’re thinking how I was thinking, then you’re answer is probably not very much.  But like me you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that my first thought was totally off the mark.   Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan is a total laugh riot.

top-7-largeMcDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan is a dark, delightful comedy, think of Peyton Place with razor blade roads.  This play is as twisted as Forrest Gump’s back before the braces.  Set in the small community of Inis Meáin off the western coast of Ireland circa 1934, McDonagh uses the real life filming of the documentary Man of Aran as the foundation of the play.   A Hollywood film crew arrives in the neighboring town of Inis Mór to make a film about life on the islands.   The news, carried by town gossip Johnnypateenmike, sets the town ablaze and gives Billy Claven or “Cripple Billy” as he is called by the townsfolk, the idea to finally escape the place that treats him like a poor orphaned outcast.  Billy finds out that local bully Helen McCormick has finagled Babbybobby Bennett, a boatman, to sail her and her henpecked brother Bartley over to Inis Mór for an audition. Billy conjures a heartbreaking tale to secure a seat on the voyage and winds up getting the opportunity to take part in a film in California.  Billy’s sudden departure puts his adopted aunts Kate and Eileen Osbourne into a tailspin.  Kate begins talking to a stone and Eileen devours all the sweets in their shop to try to avoid worrying about the fate of Billy.  But you know what they say about the grass being greener, missing home Cripple Billy returns to face the place he tried run from, the hurt that was left in his wake and the secrets that have haunted him no matter where he traveled.

top-4-largeThe Cripple of Inishmaan first opened December 12, 1996 at London’s Royal National Theatre.  In 1998 the play opened in NYC and L.A.  The play returned to London’s West End in 2013 with Michael Grandage at the helm directing and Daniel Radcliffe as Cripple Billy.  The production was a hit and fresh off the heels of its sold-out run across the pond, The Cripple of Inishmaan opened at the Cort Theatre on April 20 for a limited 14-week engagement.  And this is one engagement that is not to be missed.  This play is may be about a cripple, but there is nothing deficient about this production.  Daniel Radcliffe truly shines in this revival.  The more he sheds his Harry Potter skin the more we are able to witness how his talent has matured.  He is a wonder to watch live, whether he is singing and dancing or using a crutch, Mr. Radcliffe is rad!  In fact, the whole cast is exceptional.   An awesome ensemble, they authentically project the intimate bonds that are created in a small town.  Sarah Greene is a terror as Helen McCormick, but as frightening as she is, she is equally as charming.  Pádraic Delany radiates brooding appeal as Babbybobby.  Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna are equally delightful as Cripple Bobby’s smothering adopted aunts. The zingers delivered by June Watson and Pat Shortt, who play Johnnypateenmike and his alcoholic mom, are absolutely scandalous and some of the best shade (insult throwing for those of you who don’t know) that I’ve heard on stage in a long time.  The scene and costume designs created by Christopher Oram transported the audience to that 1930’s Ireland and aided in projecting a close-knit community aesthetic.

top-1-largeIrreverent in all the right ways, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a winner and with the support of a great cast, this production stands with the best that Broadway has to offer this season.

Photos: Johan Persson

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Bullets Over Broadway Is A Shot To the Funny Bone

Woody Allen has been known to make a good film…or two…or three.  In fact, Cate Blanchet just snagged herself an Oscar playing the tragic protagonist in a Woody Allen film.  In 1994, Allen and Douglas McGrath penned a crime-comedy film titled Bullets Over Broadway.  The film starred John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri and Jennifer Tilly with Allen sitting in the director’s chair.  Bullets Over Broadway garnered seven Academy Awards; Wiest won for Best Supporting Actress, the second Academy Award win for her under Allen’s direction.

8.198889If you haven’t seen the film, the gist of the plot goes like this…set in the roaring twenties, a young, struggling playwright named David Shayne gets the break of a lifetime. His play will be produced on Broadway and he will direct it ensuring his vision will come to fruition.  Only problem is producer Julian Marx receives the funds to front the production from gangster Nick Valenti, and to get the money Valenti’s girlfriend, Olive Neal, must be cast in one of the roles.  Olive is no more than a second rate line dancer, but David casts her in the role of the psychiatrist in order secure the funds.  Also, he convinces Helen Sinclair, a legendary stage actress and lush, to play lead role and gets compulsive eater Warner Purcell to be the leading man.  Soon David realizes that getting a play on stage as its director isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  He also learns that he isn’t the great artist he thought he was as all his re-writes, which the cast adore, are written by Cheech, Olive’s bodyguard and Valenti’s hitman.

5.198890In 2012, plans for a musical adaptation were announced.  Allen adapted the film into a book and used songs from the American songbook for the musical numbers.  Susan Stroman was brought on as the director and choreographer.  The cast included Zach Braff as David Shayne, Marin Mazzie as Helen Sinclair, Vincent Pastore as Nick Valenti, Helen Yorke as Olive Neal and Nick Cordero as Cheech.

5.198888The minute the curtain rose at the St. James Theater and I saw the title being shot into the set I thought, “Well this is starting off with a bang, I hope it ends with one.”  What I would come to learn is that Bullets Over Broadway doesn’t overshoot in the laughs department.  It’s a cute comedy that lends itself to a family night at the theater.  The biggest laughs and smiles were delivered by Nick Cordero, Helen Yorke, Brooks Ahsmanskas, who played Warner Purnell and Mr. Woofles, the sweetest little pooch since Toto.  Marin Mazzie offered a good rendition of Helen Sinclair.  I’m sure any members of the audience who had seen the film were just anticipating her saying, “Don’t speak.”  That classic line didn’t fall into the silence of the air. Like the film, it was a hilarious bull’s-eye.

4.198885My complaint with most new musicals as of late is that they are all song and lack dance.  With Bullets Over Broadway, my gripe was the opposite.  Although the songs used in this musical were standards, the use of tunes were flat and was absent of the pop I like to hear, but the choreography, under the leadership of Susan Stroman, assisted in placing the musical numbers on an even-keel.

It seems as if Woody Allen has struck again.  If you want to a good giggle and some good hoofing then Bullets Over Broadway is musical for you.

Photos: Paul Kolnik

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The Bridges of Madison County Crosses Over With Glorious Soundtrack

The root of the word musical is music.  Everybody knows that.  But the word that stands in the shadows of the root word is good.  Songs crammed into a book does not a musical make.  Fortunately, “The Bridges of Madison County” doesn’t suffer from that problem.

10.196053“The Bridges of Madison County” originated as a novel written by Robert James Waller and published in 1992.  It stayed on the “New York Times” best-seller list for three years.  In 1995, it was adapted to a movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep as Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson, the main characters.  The film was equally as commercially successful as the novel garnering an Academy Award Best Actress nomination for Streep.

The plot of “The Bridges of Madison County” centers on two lonely people that find comfort and true love in one another during a four-day long affair that each carries with them for the rest of their lives.  Robert Kincaid is an aloof photojournalist working for “National Geographic.”  Francesca Johnson is an Italian war bride that was looking for an escape when she married her husband Richard and settled with him in a farming town in Iowa.  Richard takes their teenage children, Michael and Carolyn, to a state fair leaving Francesca alone when Robert pulls up in her driveway.  He was sent on assignment to photograph the covered bridges in the area and was lost.  He asks Francesca for directions to the Roseman Covered Bridge. She shows him how to get there and the two hit it off.  The chemistry between them is palpable and after a conversation and dinner the pair begins an affair.  Realizing each other is the love they had been waiting for; they contemplate sharing their lives together.   Francesca decides that she can’t abandon her family, so the two separate and never see each other again.

9.196055 “The Bridges of Madison County” the film is the quintessential chick flick for an evening in with your spouse or a girl’s get together.  The musical adaptation of this story is no exception.  In fact, the music and lyrics of composer Jason Robert Brown only amplifies its beauty.  The longing and vulnerability that Francesca masks is fully exposed in Kelli O’Hara’s performance.  She was joy to watch in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” the pleasure of seeing her on stage increased triple-fold after seeing her in this production.  Her voice is lovely and the score makes good use of her range.  After seeing Steven Pasquale walk on stage from the audience, I could see why Francesca’s locked desires were released.  He makes for a much sexier Robert Kincaid than Clint Eastwood.  There is no one in the audience that couldn’t understand why Francesca was close to jetting off into the sunset with him.  The synergy O’Hara and Pasquale created onstage was complimented by the score as the two created wonderful harmony together. In this adaptation the music is the third member of this love triangle and the scrumptious singing of O’Hara and Pasquale makes the audience want to root for their romance. Hunter Foster has a sturdiness to him that makes him perfect for the no-nonsense, all-American fellow.  Once again he excels in his portrayal of Bud (Richard).  For me the breakout performance is delivered by Cass Morgan who plays Marge, the nosey neighbor with a heart of gold.  Her solo of “Get Closer” was the hit of the night.

10.196051It’s delightful to see a new musical with a score like this keeping the future of the American musical alive with vibrant energy.  However there are a few components of “The Bridges of Madison County” that fell short.  One was the lack of choreography.  When it comes to musicals I believe music and choreography are what make a musical number and assist in driving the book forward.  There is only one number in this production that has choreography, and while the music is stimulating, the lack of movement makes the entire show somewhat incomplete.  Also, throughout the musical the extras are present on stage, sitting in chairs quietly observing.  But from time to time they are moving about, assisting with moving the set around.  At first I was unsure they were just there to move the set or if their presence had a more artistic meaning.  The optimist in me hopes for the latter, for if not the extras would be an awkward solution to the issue of changing the set and its props.  But these are just minor glitches that can be overlooked when one hears the incredible score and the great chemistry of O’Hara and Pasquale.  All and all “The Bridges of Madison County” is a bridge worth coming to.

Photos:  Joan Marcus

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Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad Head to the Big Screen as Romeo and Juliet

Last fall Orlando Bloom made his Broadway debut playing opposite two-time Tony Award nominee Condola Rashad in “Romeo and Juliet”.  This month the production made its debut in movie theaters nationwide as part of Broadway HD.  Broadway HD combines the experience of The Great White Way with Hollywood, taking a live production and showing it in a different medium.

Filmed at the end of its Broadway run, “Romeo and Juliet” is playing a limited engagement in theaters, which ends on February 19.  Seeing this production when it first premiered at the Richard Rogers Theater, I felt the show was a bit comme ci comme ça, but after seeing this production in the theaters, I felt that it had come full circle.  Both Bloom and Rashad seemed more comfortable with the language.  The production in its entirety, which seemed to not be fully complete when I saw it, exhibited a richness that wasn’t present when I saw it last year.

Another aspect of this film version was the distinct difference of viewing “Romeo and Juliet” on stage as opposed to seeing it on the screen.  On Broadway the audience is part of the experience; the actors are performing for you.  Watching it on screen I got the sensation of a voyeur – a gate crasher sneaking through the side door who quietly watches the show unfold.  The excitement wasn’t as palpable; however it was still there.

If you ask me Broadway HD is a brilliant concept.  Not everyone has the luxury of living in New York City and those that do don’t always have the opportunity to see productions while they’re making their run.  Broadway HD allows Broadway to be accessible to everyone no matter if you are in Atlanta, Denver or Brooklyn.  I’m looking forward to watching future productions courtesy of this innovative series.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

 

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Macabre and Metaphysics Intertwine in Macbeth at Lincoln Center Theater

We are all familiar with the story of Macbeth, the Scottish warlord who would become king partly on the count of the Three Witches.  After a victorious battle, Macbeth encounters the Three Witches and upon doing so is told he will be king.  Macbeth and his wife then plot to murder Duncan, the current monarch.  Under the guise of merriment and despite Macbeth’s reservations, he and his wife welcome Duncan and his kinsmen into their home, get the king’s chamberlains drunk and assassinate the king.   Newly crowned, Macbeth descends from sovereign to psychopath murdering his loyal friend Banquo.  A second caucus with the Three Witches only heightens Macbeth’s paranoia and prompts him to have the family of Macduff, a fellow kinsman, murdered.  Meanwhile, Lady Macbeth, overcome with guilt, plummets into depression and begins to sleepwalk.  Eventually she commits suicide.  Macbeth is ultimately vanquished by Macduff and Duncan’s eldest son Malcolm becomes king.

MB4No matter the interpretation, the theme of the supernatural is constantly present in “Macbeth”.  You can’t get away from it, but what makes Shakespeare’s work so genius is that the interpretation of his plays depends on the road you take.  Director Jack O’Brien’s offering of “Macbeth” chooses to take the metaphysical path.   In this version, the Three Witches aren’t just a trio of wacky soothsayers convening around a cauldron. Oh no. These conniving necromancers morph into other characters on stage, thus taking on the personas of puppet masters ensuring their marionettes move their strings in the exact order they desire. The witches’ almost ubiquitous presence calls into question the subject of fate and action.  How much of Macbeth’s destiny relied on his own ambition or that of the Three Witches? Was Macbeth’s belief in the witches’ prediction responsible for all the events that followed? How responsible are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth for their actions if their actions were just pit stops along their destined path?  Jack O’Brien’s interpretation of this classic tragedy sets the mind ablaze with questions about the workings of the universe and the individual’s role in it to create good or evil. What I find most intriguing about this production is that O’Brien doesn’t attempt to supply the audience with answers, the answers you must discover for yourself.

The visuals of “Macbeth” only intensify the mystical happenings on stage.  From the moment the audience takes their seats and views the carved mandala, they become keenly aware of the conjuring set to take place.  And just like the actors, we are at the witches’ mercy, forced to watch two lovers plunge headlong into the abyss of destruction.  Along with the sacred symbol of the universe, the production is draped in the primary colors of black, white and blood red – hues that have meaning in the occult.  The lighting provides a stark perception of the actors making the tragic events more exaggerated and the imagery more daunting.  The costumes and sets courtesy of Catherine Zuber and Scott Pask produce a minimalist, sleek quality without dedicating itself to one particular time period.

MB3And what of the thespians who resurrect the bubbling and boiling characters full of toil and trouble? Color me impressed.  The vernacular of Shakespeare is a language we learn in high school and unless you take courses in it in college, there it stays. If not performed correctly, the rich wording of Shakespeare’s prose can come off like pubescent ramblings of students looking for a mid-term grade.  Some reincarnations of Shakespeare’s plays I have witnessed as of late have possessed this puerile quality.  Not so with this production.  Led by Ethan Hawke, the cast as a whole is more fair than foul.  I’ve viewed productions where actors performed Shakespeare as if they were competing for top prize in “Who Can Scream Loudest.”  Hawke’s Macbeth is a combination of shrewd underplaying offset by fierce outbursts of emotion.  He is the personification of a man slipping into darkness.  As Lady Macbeth, Anne-Marie Duff is sensational.  She embodies the grace of a queen and psyche of a sociopath. Together Hawke and Duff brilliantly represent one word…karma.  Malcolm Gets, John Glover and Byron Jennings portray the pied pipers of wizardry in this numinous production.  Although they look like rejects from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, the sorcerers don’t just play to win, they play for keeps.  The havoc they render adds the spice that makes this supernatural gumbo complete.  On a surprising note, I was pleased with Daniel Sunjata’s Macduff.  Though a bit heavy handed in his delivery at times, he proved to me that he is more than just a pretty face.   What I enjoyed most about the production was its fluidness.  It moved like a choreographed dance, constantly adding layers.

MBChristmas hovers in the air, tis the season to be jolly, but for Hawke and company tis the time to be wicked, the naughty reign supreme at The Vivian Beaumont Theater.  “Macbeth” has a limited run and ends on January 12.  Take a break from tidings of cheer and take a walk down the paranormal path.  Without a doubt, this production is worth seeing.

Photos: T. Charles Erickson

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Several Incarnations …One Life- Becoming Dr. Ruth

Holocaust survivor, sniper, sex therapist, author, mother of two, widow, grandmother of four all packed in 5-foot-4-inch frame, can anyone say #WOW?  While some sit and contemplate how to get one life going, Dr. Ruth has had several and at 87 this force of fierceness is still out and about every night.  Listen up Millennials, before there was a Carrie Bradshaw there was Dr. Ruth.  When she launched her radio show, “Sexually Speaking”, in 1980, the idea of a woman speaking so candidly about sex was still taboo. Dr. Ruth is a trailblazer, but what led her to become America’s favorite sex therapist?  That journey is poignantly explored in Becoming Dr. Ruth.

3.192955The one-woman production takes place in 1997 at Dr. Ruth’s apartment in Washington Heights.  Recently widowed, she is preparing to move and talking on the phone when she realizes she has company (the audience).  Dr. Ruth, colorfully played by Debra Jo Rupp, then breaks the fourth wall to lead the audience through a narrative of the events of her life before we came to know her.  Born Karola Ruth Siegel in Wiesenfeld, Germany, Dr. Ruth was forever separated from her family when her mother and grandmother decided to send her to Switzerland as part of the Kindertransport.  She details the harsh reality of living in that environment while still dealing with the issues of childhood.  At 17, she was a member of the Haganah in Jerusalem serving as a scout and sniper.  In 1950, Dr. Ruth moved to France studying and teaching psychology at the University of Paris.  In 1956, she immigrated to New York City, moving into the same apartment she inhabits today.  And if that wasn’t enough, she divorced two husbands, gave birth to a daughter, married her beloved Fred Westheimer, became a mother for the second time, earned a master’s degree in sociology and completed her-post doctoral work in human sexuality before the name Dr. Ruth became synonymous with sex. The play also chronicles what life was like after she became the most famous sex therapist of the 20th century.

Four-stars usually signify that a creative endeavor has achieved an A+ grade.  Well in my opinion, four stars don’t adequately display how wonderful this production is.  Becoming Dr. Ruth is triumphant – a soul-hooking display of the resiliency of the human spirit.  From the time Debra Jo Rupp acknowledges the audience until the lights dim, spectators are swept-up in a tale so epic Homer would be envious that he hadn’t written it.  The narrative is so engrossing that no other characters are necessary.  Dr. Ruth’s story makes for the quintessential one-woman show.

3.192957Playwright Mark St. Germain wrote my favorite play in 2010, Freud’s Last Session, and I believe he has done it again with Becoming Dr. Ruth.  To create a character in your head, infuse him/her with a dose of humanity and make him/her relatable to an audience isn’t an easy commission, but the best writers can make the transformation seem effortless.   What is even more difficult is converting a real person into a character. This is St. Germain’s genius.  He can translate a story, real or fiction, of historical figures that preserves their human quality without making them caricatures.   When St. Germain wrote the play, he knew he wanted Debra Jo Rupp to portray Dr. Ruth and he was so right.  Rupp’s performance is magnificent – she nails the amalgamation of Dr. Ruth’s German, Hebrew, French and English accent with the accuracy of a sharp shooter (pun intended).  To say she is a delight to watch is a gross understatement; her presence is its own spotlight.  She fills the stage warmth.

Becoming Dr. Ruth encompasses everything you want in a play – it tells a powerful story with candor, humor and sophistication.  It’s a brilliant artistic representation that mirrors a life that is equally as brilliant.   Many of us have followed Dr. Ruth’s advice, now take my advice…go to the Westside Theatre and see this play!

Photos: Carol Rosegg, Lanny Nagler

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Lady Day Illuminates The Little Shubert Theatre

I always knew that Broadway was haunted. Apparitions of playwrights, producers, actors and famous characters skulk around theaters and are as eternal as the neon lights that electrify the Great White Way.  Each season we are revisited with the ghosts of productions past, but this fall two New York City theaters are being visited by the spirits of iconic vocalists past.  On Broadway, Janis Joplin and her musical influences rock The Lyceum Theatre from floor to roof, and Off-Broadway the music of one of her influences is receiving its day.   Lady Day, the musical about Billie Holiday, provides its audience with a stunning visual and aural lesson in tragedy and triumph.

hc-billie-holiday-20131023Anyone who has seen or read Lady Sings the Blues knows the calamitous story of Billie Holiday’s life.  Overflowing with agonizing memories, abusive men and addiction, the pain Holiday experienced habitually showed in various aspects of her life – most often in her music.  Her sound carried listeners through the valleys of the blues transforming agony into musical ecstasy.  You don’t just hear Billie Holliday…you feel Billie Holiday, and that essence is fabulously represented in this production.

Lady Day is an overwhelming emotional tribute to the legacy of Billie Holiday.  The musical takes place at a theater in London.  Billie Holiday and her band are playing the final leg of her European tour.  The first act consists of the rehearsal and the second act is the show.  Woven between 25 of Holliday’s most famous songs is the recounting of her troubled life.  Through music Billie tries to fight the demons haunting her in rehearsal, but winds up still fighting them during the show – something I suspect that happened repeatedly during her brief life.  As Billie exposes her scars, the audience bears witness to an unflinching portrait of pain, but it is how her hurt is translated into song that makes this production shine – each song helps to build the story.  Like Billie Holiday’s music, this production burrows underneath the skin and lingers in the pit of your gut.

lady_dayThe success of this musical is largely due to the performance of Grammy-winner Dee Dee Bridgewater.  She plays the role of Billie Holiday as if she is possessed and her voice is spot-on.  I have never heard anyone capture the timbre of Lady Day as she has.  Bridgewater is simply amazing; you won’t be able take your eyes off of her.  And you won’t soon forget Lady Day the musical.  All artists are tasked with the frightening aspect of revealing their souls to the scrutiny of the masses, but there is something in the way a jazz musician does it that is undeniably raw and palpable.  Billie Holiday’s voice was an instrument that could rival the bent notes and artistry of any of the jazz greats.  She was the voice of her time.  Her influence can still be heard in singers today.

A good story and good music will always yield promising results.  It is as simple as saying one plus one equals two.  At The Little Shubert Theatre, the life of Billie Holiday (which includes her music) and the brilliant showcasing of Holliday’s work (courtesy of Dee Bridgewater) make for compelling theater and two good reasons to see this show.

Photos: Carol Rosegg