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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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VIVA JANIS!

Holy revival Batman!  There is a nightly resurrection going on every night at The Lyceum Theatre.   In an era when rock titans such as Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison walked the earth and groups like The Who asked to die before they got old, a little lady from Texas with extraordinary chops offered up pieces of her heart and become just as legendary as the boys –her name was Janis Joplin.

J3Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943.  She was raised in a cocoon of various musical influences courtesy of her mother and father.  When she finally did spread her wings, she flew to San Francisco in 1963.  She briefly returned to Texas only to go back to California in 1966 to join Big Brother and the Holding Company as their lead singer.  By the time of Joplin’s untimely death in October 1970, she had ensured her legacy as a rock goddess and with her unique interpretation of songs, one of the most recognizable voices ever.

I don’t think the world needed any reminders about the raw power and beauty of Janis Joplin’s voice, but in case it did A Night with Janis Joplin served a stunning aide-mémoire.  This production is a hot rocking time capsule.  Once it starts the audience is shuttled back to the Age of Aquarius with one of its most colorful figures as mistress of ceremonies.

J2I expected A Night with Janis Joplin to typical a jukebox musical chronicling the highs and lows of Joplin’s life with the musical numbers accentuating the book.  I was pleasantly surprised.  A Night with Janis Joplin is more like a concert and is all about the music, mainly the singers that influenced Joplin’s sound – singers like Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and Etta James.  Even the Queen of Soul was present to do a number with Janis that injected everyone in the audience with the spirit. Mary Bridget Davies is nothing short of phenomenal as Janis Joplin, it’s like she comes from another plane.  For an individual who didn’t get the opportunity to experience Janis Joplin when she was alive, Davies’ performance is awe inspiring. Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell and Nikki Kimbrough round out the cast of ladies on stage playing The Joplinaires as well as The Chantels, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin –their voices soar to right out of the theater and up to heaven.

A Night with Janis Joplin is a loving tribute to music of the Pearl and the strong, mainly unsung women that inspired her.  There was never a point in the show where I wanted to be contained in my seat, my feet never stopped tapping.  I wanted to sway, shake and move in the aisle and enjoyed watching the audience becoming part of the show and singing along.  Hearing “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Ball and Chain” and “Stay with Me” performed live brought me to tears.   Mary Bridget Davies doesn’t just sing she performs a séance.  A Night with Janis Joplin is a prime example of how music can transport and uplift the soul.  It’s a must see.

Photos: Joan Marcus

Nice Work If You Can Get It Top Musical for 2012

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Matthew Broderick’s star rose into the stratosphere after staring in the title role of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  He played a devil-may-care playboy that could do no wrong.  Decades later, that character still fits him like a long leather glove on Carrie Bradshaw’s arm, and when you add the absolutely scrumptious music and lyrics of Gershwin you have achieve Broadway Gold.  Nice Work If You Can Get It is a musical done the right way.  It personified the phrase, “If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it.”

To view F.A.M.E NYC Editor’s review of Nice Work If You Can Get It, click http://famenycmagazine.com/2012/04/30/gershwinbroderickwho-could-ask-for-anything-more/.

Let the Church Say Amen, Leap of Faith Soars

“Let’s make it rain” – the catchphrase for Jonas Nightingale and his sister Sam.  But when they say it, they don’t mean prayers for the drought in the Kansas town their Mercedes bus broke down in; they mean it in a pouring of dollars at a strip club sort of way.  That’s right Broadway; you got a con man in your midst.   And he is the son of a preacher man.  Let’s face it, the traveling confidence man promising rain is no stranger to Broadway or Hollywood.  In 1954, N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker debuted at the Cort Theatre.  In 1956, Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn starred in the movie.  In 1963, a musical based on The Rainmaker titled 110 in the Shade premiered at the Broadhurst Theatre.  In 1999, the play was revived on Broadway.   However, this new musical is based on the 1992 dramedy that starred Steve Martin and Debra Winger.

Similar to the film, the musical centers on Jonas Nightingale is a traveling, “let the power of God work through my hands” faith healer bouncing from town to town, holding nightly revivals and playing on the hopes and fears of the local yokels.  After the third night (and a possible tryst or two) he blows town after bilking the townsfolk out of all of their money.   Although the concept of the musical is based on the film, it appears that musical doesn’t go by the book (no pun intended).  Besides Jonas and a local paralyzed boy who believes Jonas could make him walk again, the book of this production transforms the sheriff into a female love interest and adds a new cast to assist in raising the roof off of the St. James Theatre. 

The musical begins before the curtain rises.  As the audience takes their seat, they are greeted with the sounds of gospel music, while a cameraman fine tunes his camera on stage.    Suddenly the audience realizes they are a part of show as their faces appear on the screens, located on opposite ends of the stage, and cast members hand out fake money to people seated the first few rows.  The show opens with an electrifying performance by the Angels of Mercy (Jonas’ choir) and Jonas beginning the last night his New York City revival by telling the audience about his road to redemption.  The audience then travels back a year as Jonas, his sister Sam and the Angels of Mercy decide what to do after their bus breaks down.  After realizing that Jonas is wanted in multiple states and the repairs on the bus will take a few days to fix, Jonas and his team choose to pitch their tent in the sleepy, drought stricken town and take them for what little they have. 

The scam is on but not before Sheriff Marla McGowan can give Jonas a stern warning, which does little to stop them.  As night one of the revival begins, Jonas’ has enough info on the town to make them believe has descended from heaven –mirrored jacket and all – to deliver rain.  His staunchest supporter is Jake McGowan, a disabled boy who happens to be the son of the sheriff.  He believes wholeheartedly that Jonas will make him rise up from his wheelchair and walk.   Jonas and his troupe aren’t the only newcomers to the town.  Isaiah Sturdevant, son of choir director Ida Mae Sturdevant and brother of Angels of Mercy ingénue Ornella Sturdevant, is hell-bent on saving his mother and sister from Jonas’ clutches and uncovering him for the charlatan that he is.

Although the sheriff wants Jonas gone, the two enter into an uneasy agreement with benefits and Jonas gets to finish his revival as long as he doesn’t aim any of his empty promises at her son.  Over the next two days, Jonas is exposed, falls in love, watches Jake’s faith give him the ability to walk again, questions his faith and decides to give his traveling church to Isaiah, a true believer.  Inspiring ending, right?  But I know what you FAMERS really want to know is, did Jonas make it rain?  Make it rain he did, literally and figuratively.  Leap of Faith soaks its audience with good vibes, wonderful voices and a new spin on an old tale.

One issue I feel that a movie turned musical has to overcome is any lingering feelings that an audience may carry with them into the theatre about the previous work.  People attach emotion to works of art that have moved them – no matter the genre as well as to the actors that bring a characters alive.  So the question becomes, is this going to be a remastering of an already established work, or will be sad reincarnation of a script with music and dancing crammed in where it could fit in?  Luckily I had never seen the Steve Martin film, so I had the privilege of viewing this work with a fresh pair of eyes.  And to answer my own question, I never felt that this incarnation of Leap of Faith was a comedy with music and choreography shoved in willy-nilly.

Leap of Faith carries enough of the “Broadway Formula” that it will be appealing to Broadway diehards and fresh enough to bring newbies out and into the seats.  Janus Cercone and Warren Leight wrote a book that parallels the movie, but still is its own entity.   Alan Menken’s music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are crafted well enough to have the audience toe-tapping in their seats.  The choreography of Sergio Trujillo had a Horton- esque quality to it with the movements tailored to every member of the cast.  The cast makes good on the material – Raul Esparza shines brighter than those glittery suit jackets he wears as Jonas Nightingale, Jessica Phillips is convincing as the sadder but wiser sheriff scared to trust and Talon Ackerman’s earnest performance of Jake could melt anyone’s skeptical heart.  But what really makes Leap of Faith rise through to the stratosphere are the voices of Kecia Lewis-Evans, Leslie Odom Jr., Krystal Joy Brown and The Angels of Mercy choir.  They could give the New Jersey Mass choir a run for its money.  Esparza breaks the fourth wall periodically throughout the show, which I enjoy and with the audience being a part of the musical, the production provides an interactive experience.   The casts projects a universal feel not seen in a lot of musicals and I found the sight of all different body types dancing on the stage to be wonderfully refreshing.  They are not just toned dancers; instead they do feel like individuals you would meet at your local parish.  I don’t know when you visited church last, but the St. James Theatre is holding church every evening and twice on Saturday and Wednesday.  I suggest you hightail it down there and get your dose of hosanna with Leap of Faith.  It is a jump worth taking.

Photos courtesy of Broadway.com

A Testimony for RENT

Every Sunday those who are filled with the spirit, regardless of their denomination, attend church.  In the Baptist faith, there is a part of the service called devotion.  During this time, parishioners and visitors stand before the congregation and give their testimony, which generally consists of a narration that details the trials and tribulations that they have gone through and how they have overcome them (usually with  the assistance of god).  I spent season after season of my childhood in church listening to people’s testimonial; none of them were as dynamic as the affirmation I received after watching RENT.

There is no doubt in my mind that Jonathan Larson’s most seminal piece of work was and still is the ultimate testimony of a life lived.  The story behind RENT is beyond legendary.  The fact that Larson died at 35 of an aortic aneurysm the night before its off-Broadway premiere in 1996 is a detail that epitomized the phrase “life imitating art.”  Like the character Angel, who looked after his friends after his death, it seemed as if his spirit departed this earthly plane so that he could be a guide, lifting this production on his shoulders, as he did in life, and ensuring that his labor of love lived on.  A labor, and a testimony in itself, Larson wrote RENT as a tribute to the friends he lost from AIDS.  And how his tribute has grown, becoming an entity of its own, when the rock opera completed its final Broadway performance on September 7, 2008, it had become the ninth longest-running Broadway.  Subsequently, it developed legions of zealous RENTheads, created several incarnations with American and European tours.  It even spawned a school edition (which toned down the language and other elements of the show) and a 2005 movie which featured the majority of the original Broadway cast. 

Now RENT has returned back to its Off-Broadway roots – full circle for a production that had been touted as the musical that spoke to Generation X the way Hair spoke to those who grew up in the 60s.  I have always believed there is a time and season for everything.   When RENT made its Broadway debut on April 29, 1996 at Nederlander Theatre, I had no desire to see it, despite the ravings of my colleagues.   I never listened to the soundtrack, nor had I watched one scene from its film adaptation.  Perhaps it was because I was too much of a rebel back in the 90s to believe anyone had my generation pegged.  Perhaps it was because I lost one brother to AIDS in 1988 and another in 1997 and had no desire to return to feelings of despair, hysteria, anger and grief of the AIDS epidemic of the late 80s and early 90s.  Perhaps it just was not my time to see it.  Suffice to say when I took my seat at New World Stages, I was a true RENT-virgin and what a cherry popping!  I sat behind a row of RENTheads who were already singing the songs before the performance started.  But once it did, they were right on queue, from the first “Voicemail” to the last.  Putting the production within the context of when it originally premiered, I understood how RENT was ahead of its time and definitely ushered in a new age of American musicals, laying out a blueprint that productions like American Idiot and Fela used.  What I was not prepared for was the flooding of tears that erupted from my eyes as I stood to give the cast the standing ovation it most definitely deserved.

There is no doubt that RENT is a masterpiece in any incarnation.  After I pulled myself together, I went home and immediately scoured the internet to view the movie and whatever videos I could find of the original cast.  Despite being overtaken with emotion by this powerful theatrical force of nature, the reviewer in me still needed to make comparisons.  Without question the shoes the current cast had to fill were larger than the Grand Canyon.  And they do so in an impressive scale, I did not feel as if I had been cheated by not seeing RENT on Broadway or in the movies.  The spirit of Jonathan Larson is still present and when they lifted there voices to sing every note, they did so with the sincerest passion to live up to the promise of the music and still make the character their own.  They delivered a dose of fabulosity that I will soon not forget.

To wax on about how wonderful RENT is would seem futile and unworthy of what I experienced.  Everyone knows it is phenomenal – a tour de force of the digital age.  Perhaps the best attempt to sum up RENT’s continual relevance on our culture is to give my testimony.  RENT hit me with a direct blow to the heart and as I cried I knew why I never saw this rock opera before.  I am a member of the bohemian class.  The group I belong to is the underground house community of New York City.  Some of us have belonged to this community for decades, others for a few months. Like the protagonists of Larson’s greatest musical production, our struggle has been to find the freedom to be ourselves without judgment from the outside world. Whether it has been The Paradise Garage, Sound Factory Bar, Body & Soul, Shelter or Soulgasm we have given our sweat, blood and spirit to the dance floor, finding our true selves in the bass and treble of the speakers, making connections with people who could only understand us because they were like us.  Now my beloved community seems to remain in an in a state of disrepair.  I have watched fellow members become ill and die.  I have viewed members dismantle precious relationships through petty actions.  I have witnessed New York City attack my culture, deeming it unworthy because we do not want to spend hundreds of dollars for bottle service or pose behind a velvet rope. As I watch cast sing “no day but today,” in the final scene, I realized RENT was created during the height of the New York clubbing experience.  I began to understand how the mistakes of our past are shaping the consequences of today and if Mimi got a second chance, maybe we would get a second chance too. 

RENT is to me what Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is to my mom and like that great musical work, will always be relevant.  Sure, some who go to see it may be in their twenties and can fully comprehend the idea of not selling out.  Others may be older and view it with through the reflection of hindsight, recognizing past mistakes and knowing they may have abandoned some principles to pay a mortgage or a child’s school tuition.  While the rest, will just hear the wonderful music and lyrics of Jonathan Larson and just be satisfied with that.  Because in the end, after you strip away all the back stories the greatest testimony of this rock opera is the music and because of it, RENT will never be evicted from the hearts and minds of anyone who sees it. 

Photos:  Joan Marcus

Spiderman 2.0 The Future of American Musical Theatre Personified

If I was presented with the task of summing up Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark in two words, I would adamantly choose creative and ambitious.  If given a bonus word, I would throw in persistent.  Indeed it was persistence (perhaps plain stubbornness) creativity and ambition that has powered the engine of this production as it steamrolled its way onto Broadway.  More often than not, Peter Parker’s journey to the stage has been the equivalent of a run away train with several derailments.  In 2002, Marvel announced that film and theatre producer Toney Adams would produce a Spiderman musical.  Three years later he would suffer a stroke and die while the creative team, which included U2’s Bono and Edge and Julie Taymor, gathered to sign contracts.  An omen perhaps, but the production found a new lead producer in Adams’s partner David Garfinkle and carried on.  During its push to opening night, the musical has obtained a ballooned budget of over $70 million, received the honor of having the most previews of any Broadway production in history and endured cast injuries, multiple tongue-lashings by the critics as well as creative and cast changes.

Despite the rollercoaster ride during its prolonged preview period, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has prevailed (at least over its former obstacles) and officially opened at The Foxwoods Theatre, located at 213 West 42nd Street, on June 14. The story of Peter Parker aka Spiderman is well-known. He is Marvel’s lead character and one of the most commercial superheroes.  His sagas have been depicted in comic books, newspaper comics, cartoons, televisions and on film with Tobey Maguire in the lead role.   Although the producers and creative team behind this production overcame epic hindrances that would have frozen most shows quicker than a gaze from Medusa, the real encumbrance was creating a musical about a character whose story is so popular.

Spiderman 2.0 begins in school with the Peter Parker reciting his oral book report, the story of Arachne the world’s first with spider, to the class.  Suddenly, Arachne descends from the ceiling ala Cirque du Soleil complete a Greek chorus visually bringing the myth to life. It was then that I realized this adaptation of the Spiderman story was going to be different than any I had viewed or read before.  The introduction of the Arachne myth was a refreshing and integral component.  In the first incarnation of the stage production Arachne was Spiderman’s villain, but in Spiderman 2.0 she is transformed into an ethereal guiding force, appearing when Peter is most in doubt about his gifts and his purpose.  I found the intertwining of Greek mythology to the Spiderman legend to be a marvelous addition to the story.  

The book is a mélange of the comic and film series; besides the insertion of Arachne (characterized by T.V. Carpio), the book brings no surprises to Spiderman’s character, which should be a relief to die-hard Spiderman fans.  Peter Parker (played by Reeve Carney) is a highly intelligent student, with a keen interest in science.  He is tormented at school by Flash Thompson (portrayed by Matt Caplan) and his band of hooligans.  He is secretly in love with Mary Jane Watson (played by Jennifer Damiano) who harbors a desire to be an actress and get away from her home life.   Peter is an orphan and lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (portrayed Isabel Keating and Ken Marks).  During a field trip to Norman Osborne’s genetics lab Peter is bitten by a genetically altered spider.  From the bite he develops a muscular frame, 20/20 vision and other spider-like abilities including releasing webs from his wrists.  At first, Peter seeks to capitalize from his new powers, but after his uncle is murdered by a thief he is persuaded by Arachne to use his powers to fight evil.  Donning a costume, he becomes his masked doppelganger Spiderman and begins taking down Manhattan’s criminals.  He also gets a job at The Daily Bugle as a freelance photographer catching exclusive photos of Spiderman for EIC J. Jonah Jameson (played by Michael Mulheren) who adamantly believes that the masked crusader is actually a criminal.   Meanwhile, Mary Jane pursues a career in the theatre as a romance with Peter heats up and Norman Osborne (played by Patrick Page) convinced that Spiderman pilfered his research decides to experiment on himself, kills his wife Emily (portrayed by Laura Beth Wells) in the process, goes insane and mutates into the Green Goblin.  As a Green Goblin Osborne manufactures a troupe of similar mutants that he labels the Sinister Six, together they unleash a terror-spree, the likes of which have never been seen, on Manhattan.  Spiderman, who contemplated retirement to protect his loved ones, must now live up to the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and has a showdown with the Sinister Six and the Green Goblin, who kidnap Mary Jane with purpose of drawing Spiderman out of hiding.  Spiderman defeats the Green Goblin, rescues Mary Jane and all is right in New York City for now.

After viewing Spiderman 2.0 I took some time to brood over what I saw.  I did not see Spiderman during its episodic ramp up period, so I researched articles from critics that had seen both versions.  Most critics did upgrade their marks from an F to a C+, but at best most of them saw the production as a boilerplate musical.  I must admit that I was ambivalent to the musical when first leaving Foxwoods Theatre.  My immediate thoughts summoned another musical that the critics impugned during its run, Taboo, the musical based on the life of Boy George.  It was edgy and ahead of its time.  There were components that worked extremely well and if not for the internal issues and the critic’s harsh reviews, it might have had a longer run.   Although there are parallels in Taboo’s Broadway story with that of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, I firmly believe that a premature closure will not be its fate.  The diligence of everyone involved in this project will not let that happen.  Also, Spiderman is a character loved globally.  If New Yorkers do not want to pay the price of admission, there are plenty of tourists that will.  I propose that as long as our friendly neighborhood superhero is starring on Broadway, this musical will be a stop on any vacationer’s list, ranking just below The Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Times Square.

Like the weaver Arachne, Spiderman 2.0 weaves an intricate, innovative web; bottom line: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turned Broadway out! Critics, including myself, are so used to the status quo musical paradigms, that it became laborious rating the production using the standard criteria.  There is a tendency to reject something that is new, but there is no doubt that a shift has happened in the theatre, a changing of the musical guard literally and figuratively.   It is trailblazing, pushing the envelope of musical theatre into the 21st century.  But like any pioneer there still bumps along this unforged path.  As a new production, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is greater than the sum of its parts, but there is no denying that certain elements function effectively better than others.  Although the book sticks close to the Spiderman comic, it is mediocre. I am a huge fan of U2 and could not wait to see what Bono and Edge would do, needless to say, it is no Tommy.  Bono and Edge’s imprint is present throughout the music and lyrics, Edge’s guitar licks and Bono’s writing style are beyond reproach.  However, there are numbers that worked to perfection while others were just average.  “Behold and Wonder,” “Bouncing Off the Walls,” “Rise Above,” “If the World Should End,” “Turn Off the Dark” and “I Just Can’t Walk Away” were pleasers with myself and the audience.  When it comes to crafting a musical Bono and Edge are not as great as Andrew Lloyd Webber just yet, but give them time and they will be.  The choreography infused urban movements like krunking during “Bullying By Numbers” as well as hip-hop/African heel-toe dance steps.  The urban choreography was not executed as strongly as other musicals that I have seen that have used these dance styles. 

Overall, the cast triumphantly works with the material they are given, and are the real success story.  It is their execution of the material that is the raison d’être why the elements that do work operate brilliantly. The sets use screens and are stimulating and visually engaging  as a 3D pop-up comic book. But it is my sincere belief that the most outstanding part of the show is Spiderman, or should I say Spidermen and the death defying aerial stunts that he and Green Goblin engage in.  Although Carney plays Peter Parker and Spiderman, there are other stuntmen and dancers that portray Spiderman throughout the show.  The martial arts inspired choreography the dancers perform is enlivening.  As much as your eyes are on stage, your pupils will be fixed on the ceiling, the balcony and all over the theatre as Spiderman uses the entire theatre to fight crime and combat the Green Goblin.     

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a boundless ride that rivals any rollercoaster at Six Flags Great Adventure – a spectacle P.T. Barnum would be proud of.  At best, Spiderman 2.-0 is an exhibition of what American musicals could be – a shining glimmer of the future.  At worst, it is a science experiment that works but still needs some fine tuning.  Personally, I reside comfortably on the fence neither loving it nor hating it completely.  Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is unlike any musical that has come before it, in my opinion it is not a musical at all, it is art on a Broadway stage –pure inspiration and that is the most paramount reason to go and see it.

Photos courtesy of O&M Co.

The Black President Comes To the Great White Way Top Broadway Production for 2009

Whether you are walking or driving in Times Square, the gridlock can feel as if you are going to a United Nations Summit.  The electricity from the flashing lights and projection screens places you are on another planet, but when you walk into the Eugene O’Neil Theater you are transported into time. 

After passing through the doors you are no longer in modern day New York City, you are whisked to Lagos, Nigeria.  Pictures of black leaders adorn the walls colored in rainbow hues.  The espiritu of the Orishas openly gather like spectators at a coming out party.   It is the time of bell bottoms and dashikis and on the continent of Africa Afrobeat is being brought to the masses.  Who is pied piper you ask, the black president of course, not Barack, but Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

On Broadway the spirit and long overlooked legacy of Fela Kuti is being resurrected through Fela! The Musical, courtesy of director Bill T. Jones.  From the opening curtain to the last one, Fela!  The Musical leads the audience through a high energy journey that follows a particular time in Fela’s life.  The musical takes place in the Shrine, Fela’s famous club in Lagos.   It may his final performance, as he is contemplating leaving Nigeria six months after the brutal murder of his mother, played by Lillias White, by the hands of government soldiers.  His existential crisis is explored through the number “Trouble Sleep.”

Like the actual performances held at the Shrine, Fela, brilliantly portrayed by Sahr Ngaujah, interacts with the audience through his music, testimonials to the corruption in Nigeria and storytelling.  The play tells the story of how Fela came to be the originator of Afrobeat, focusing on his influences like the Yoruba religion and artists like James Brown and John Coltrane.  It takes the audience back to Fela’s friendship with Sandra Isadore, played by Saycon Sengbloh, a relationship that spawned Fela’s awareness of self.  This awareness was brought to life in the number “Upside Down.” 

Fela began to reflect this awareness in his music and took it back with him to Nigeria from abroad and it is of course Fela’s music that is the highlight of this production.  For the majority of the people Fela! The Musical will be their first introduction to Fela’s music, but for me this musical is a homecoming.  As a devout househead, Fela is one of our high priests; his music is extremely influential to our community and music. 

My feet were moving to Fela’s feverish horns, African rhythms and powerful lyrics way before I knew about the man and the sacrifices he made for his beliefs.   At times it was torture to remain seated while watching numbers like “Zombie”, “Expensive Shit”, “I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)”, “Yellow Fever” and “Water No Get Enemy”, some of my favorite Fela tunes.  I wanted to get up with the rest of the cast, gyrate and move my feet in praise of the black president.

The choreography was magnificent with footwork; pelvis grinding and aerial moves that remind me of the incensed lit, baby powered dance floors I spin on and dance circles I revolve in.  In fact, everything about the musical feels authentic.  The use of multimedia helps to guide the audience deeper into Fela’s world.  Sahr Ngaujah is perfect as Fela Kuti.  Sometimes I thought he was Fela; the extensive research he did for the role paid off.  He delivers a performance that is worthy of a Tony nomination and win. 

The most powerful point in the play is the recreation of the raid on Fela’s compound.  “The Storming of Kalakuta” was one of the most compelling dramatizations I have seen on stage.  The impact of the barbarous acts committed on that day was not lost on the audience although the scene was not visually graphic, yet the visions were still seared into your mind anyway.  Fela! The Musical is a tour de force in American musical theater, long live Fela Anikulapo Kuti. 

Video courtesy of FelaonBroadway.com

From Harlem to Off Broadway Top off Broadway Production for 2009

Women had The Vagina Monologues; thanks to Jim Jones hip hop heads have their own soliloquies.  Hip Hop Monologues: Inside the Life & Mind of Jim Jones first debuted off Broadway in 2008 and had a brief revival in March.  It was a theatrical listening party of sorts as it featured singles from his album Pray IV Reign.  The play appears to be an autobiographical account about Jim Jones.  Playing himself, Jim Jones returns to Harlem to take the audience through different sequences of his life –relationships with his baby’s mom, fake friends, the police and himself are all examined.  Ultimately Jim has to decide if he should give his street life.

Director J. Kyle Manzay makes great use of the stage blending props and multimedia to give the audience the ultimate Harlem experience.  When I think of Harlem, I think of a place where cats are always on the move, even when they are sleeping they are looking for ways to make moves.  Hip Hop Monologues: Inside the Life & Mind of Jim Jones moved and Harlem shook from beginning to end.  It is a cleverly crafted showcase of an artist who is definitely on my top ten best rapper list.  My sincere hope is that more productions like it will be debuting in the decade to come.