London, Part 3 (Theater scene)

The Thinker by Rodin

Our motivation for going to London was a theater tour arranged by a local theater company. They did all the leg work including selecting shows, buying show tickets, airline tickets, finding a convenient hotel, arranging charter buses to and from the airports and London Underground passes good for the duration of our stay. And it all worked quite well leaving us days to see the city and nights in the theater. The exception was our hotel, the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in South Kensington. The hotel itself is quite upscale, but we were given a small room at the very end of a long hallway where the air conditioning and refrigerator didn’t work. With considerable work we were able to open our window to cool off the room, but when we requested a fix they couldn’t deliver. Thanks to our tour guide we were finally upgraded to a good room on Thursday night and we at least got some chocolates to assuage our discomfort. The free breakfasts though were great!

London has a huge theater scene with more shows than we could possibly take in during one week. What I found curious was the American stamp on London’s theater scene. Most of the stuff we ended up at were American shows or featured American actors. The venues were interesting too, from the massive Olivier Theatre inside the multi-stage National Theatre, to the appropriately named Old Vic to the newish Lyric Theatre hosting more experimental shows. No show was like the one that followed it. It was quite a potpourri of an experience. Brief reviews follow.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (The Old Vic Theatre)

It should be pretty exciting to come to London and see Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) on stage, but in this play Radcliffe neither gets naked (like in Equus) nor really has the leading part. Instead, Radcliffe as Rosencrantz plays a supporting role, in this case supporting Joshua McGuire playing Guildenstern. The play by Tom Stoppard will feel familiar if you have ever seen Waiting for Godot. R&G have bit parts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is the whole point of this play. We know from Hamlet that they are sent to England and are eventually reported dead. Both R&G are quite confused about who they are, what their mission is and why they are alive. In short it’s part comedy and part an existentialist romp. It doesn’t make much sense, which is the point. It’s about as real as touching cotton candy. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate its “plot” and humor, and that wasn’t me. In 2008, I saw Waiting for Godot and had the same sort of experience. Seeing Radcliffe perform on stage is really nothing special, unless you are devoted fan and there were many in the audience. But it’s really McGuire’s show.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (The Royal Court Theatre)

Who is Robert Evans? He was something of a puppet master who worked for Paramount Studios and helped bring to the screen some of the biggest hits of the last fifty years, most notably The Godfather and Love Story. The play briskly tracks his volatile career including his hits, his marriage to Allie McGraw and Evan’s tenacious ability to stay “in the picture” business despite many missteps including getting involved in a cocaine deal. The show is at once mesmerizing and uninteresting. A handful of actors play a variety of parts with a younger Evans in front of a screen and an older Evans narrating bits in silhouette behind a screen. As an integration of technology with acting it gets top marks and all the actors do a great job in their brisk-paced roles. In that sense it is a tour de force. It’s not until afterward that you will probably realize that Evans is not that interesting as a person and thus a play about his life really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But director Simon McBurney certainly puts the show in this show so you are more likely to feel dazzled by how well he choreographs the whole thing than to notice how emotionally empty Evans and most of the characters in the play are. It’s worth seeing in spite of this major issue for those who love wizardry in their stagecraft.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (The Harold Pinter Theatre)

This play by Edward Albee is now more than fifty years old but it still feels uncomfortably mature. The story about the daughter of a college president and her disappointing “associate professor” of a husband is hard to endure, particularly when a much younger couple they meet at a party come over for late night drinks. Everyone has issues, that’s for sure, and the late hour, the booze and longstanding personality conflicts all emerge in the wee hours of the morning leading toward epic dysfunction. There are so many top tier productions in London but this one is perhaps at the top of the heap at the moment, with stellar acting in all the parts (there are only four of them). The production boasts three Olivier award winners, including Imelda Staunton as Martha and Conleth Hill as George.

Amadeus (National Theatre)

If you’ve seen the 1984 movie that won Best Picture starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, this production won’t be much of a surprise. Even so it’s great entertainment and even in the huge Olivier Theater it still comes across as pretty intimate. This musical gets redone regularly so it’s not surprising that directors keep looking for new ways to stage it. In a way this production tries a little too hard to keep it fresh and interesting. The orchestra is on stage for the performance and is really a character in itself, integrating itself seamlessly into the show. You get court composer Saliari as a black Italian (played by Lucian Msamati), which seems weird at first. Adam Gillen portrays Amadeus Mozart and he’s not quite Tom Hulce but he does a fine eccentric job of portraying the gifted composer. It’s a classy, expensive, top tier production.

Seventeen (Lyric Theatre) 

This last show was the oddest one we saw. It’s the story of five teenagers on the cusp of adulthood after their final exams, but all the actors are age sixty plus portraying teenagers. They do a good job of it on a minimalist playground set but it’s quite weird. I’m not sure what the point of this was other than to show it could be done and maybe give some equity to older actors in the theatre guild. It wasn’t especially memorable or even very good, but it was different.

Review: Miss Saigon at Signature Theatre

The Thinker by Rodin

Time flies. When the musical Miss Saigon first appeared in London and New York City in 1989, the Vietnam War was still a painful wound on our national psyche. We dealt with it mostly by not thinking about it. Miss Saigon made us look back at the war, specifically the end of that war, and relive a lot of that hurt. It was done in the context of yet another retelling of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Now, here it is nearly a quarter of a century later. More than one generation has been born with no memory of that war. Today, Miss Saigon, when it is performed, serves many purposes but one of them is simply to present that raw time in our national life to new generations in an engaging and realistic way. America as the country that always won and always did right died as those helicopters pulled away from our embassy in Saigon in 1975.

As staged in the tight quarters of Arlington’s Signature Theater, this musical from the team that brought us the more successful Les Miserables is not quite what I recall seeing on stage in the Kennedy Center sometime in the 1990s. For one thing, there is no helicopter dropped from the rafters, although there is what looks like the underbelly of a helicopter. There is also a new song, “Maybe”, that bridges the introductions of the two women who love Chris and a confrontation scene.

Popular musicals fortunate enough to get restaged in Signature Theater’s intimate setting are always worth seeing. This was our fourth show at Signature, and all of them have been impressive. Happily, their staging of Miss Saigon was no exception. Theater buffs will be impressed not just by the quality of the show, but if you have not been there before also by the intimacy of the theater. There is not a bad seat in the house. Signature spent a bundle on this show. This production cost over a million dollars, which made me feel better about the ticket price I paid, which was over a hundred dollars a seat when you include taxes and surcharges.

There is one surprise in this musical: the understudy plays the pivotal role of Chris. A Washington Post article has the details if you are interested. If there is a defect in this performance, it is that the understudy Gannon O’Brien’s performance while competent is not on quite the same level as other pivotal players. In particular, Thom Sesma as The Engineer and Diana Huey as Kim get to suck out most of the energy on the stage instead. Of the two, Huey is the more impressive, but she is also blessed with a role that calls for manifesting extreme emotions, so it is hard not to focus on her. Arguably, Sesma’s role as the creepy and slimy host of the Saigon strip bar Dreamland, which thinly masquerades for a house of prostitution, is the more challenging. It is actually the better role, as evil characters are generally more fun to play, and The Engineer is certainly as slimy as they come. Dreamland depends on U.S. Marines for its income, and there are few of them around in Saigon in 1975 except at the American embassy as the Vietcong encroach on Saigon and the Americans plan a hasty retreat.

Our seats were on the wings of the Dress Circle (upper level), which were both good and bad. The good were that we were close to the actors but the bad were that our view of actors and the set was obscured from time to time. This is the price you pay when you wait too long to get tickets. The extra intimacy though was quite nice at times. We could watch Kim’s face drain when she learns that Ellen is Chris’s wife, for example. Huey as Kim is an inspired choice because she brings intensity and complexity to the role that traps her like a vice between impossible forces.

The music tends to be quite dramatic with little in the way of comic relief, except the Engineer’s soliloquy song “American Dream” toward the end of the show. It is also quite engaging and impressive music. Its only failure is that it isn’t Les Miserables. This is not so much a failure as it is an impossibility. Les Miserables hit an impossible to dislike story with impossibly great music. Miss Saigon is a tragedy. Les Miserables is a story of both tragedy and redemption.

Still, there are similarities between these brother musicals, products of the same creative team. They were not obvious to me until last night, mainly because I had not concentrated on the contrasts and similarities before. Thenardier and The Engineer are definitely two peas from the same pod, both disgusting and fascinating at the same time. They both provide comic relief and sustain interest over the two plus hours in the theater. Both shows have tragic dying scenes that are eerily similar: Kim’s at the conclusion of the show and Eponine’s in the arms of the man who does not love her, Marius.

Signature delivers high impact emotional scenes, which are many. The emotional highlight should be the ending scene, but that’s only if you don’t know the plot. If you do know the plot, you wait for the helicopter-less scene. It may be sans helicopter, but it is not sans excitement as Vietnamese with close American ties try to board the last helicopters out of Vietnam. Kim is one of them pressing against the embassy gate that separates her from her lover Chris. It was smart to put this scene as a flashback toward the end of Act Two. It would have lost much of its emotional impact if it had been put in Act One.

Signature Theater may have gone a bit overboard with the dry ice. The idea is to recreate the mist and humidity of Vietnam but of course the theater is cool instead of tropical. It makes the set a bit hard to view the set and actors at times. And as with Chess that we saw there, there is some smoking on stage, but only in the first scene, which will be painful to chronic nonsmokers like us.

The show has been extended through October 6. If you like the musical and can afford the three-digit ticket price, you’ll find it money well spent providing that you can snag a remaining ticket. It’s worth the effort to find out.

Review: Jekyll & Hyde at the Kennedy Center

The Thinker by Rodin

Musical composer Frank Wildhorn is one of the few composers to have had two shows running on Broadway at the same time, specifically Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Of the two, the older is Jekyll & Hyde, first produced on Broadway in 1997. This predictably dark musical has had a number of revisions over the years. The one that appeared Thanksgiving evening at the Opera House at the Kennedy Center feels very much like the latest, and not necessarily best revision.

It is hard for me to say for sure, of course, since this is the first time I have seen it staged live. I did watch a pay per view performance with David Hasselhoff playing, of course, both the humanist Dr. Henry Jekyll and his alter ego, the murderous Edward Hyde. I was disappointed both because I find Hasselhoff very annoying and because the musical had been toned down from the much darker version first tried out in Houston, Texas that I have on CD. This version is gratefully darker and brings back numbers that did not warrant disappearance, and maybe made it off limits for children like the bawdy “Bring on the Men”. But it also feels more jangled and rock-like. While not a rock musical, it feels like it is experimenting with it a bit on the edges. Moreover, some of the notes have been changed making the songs less fluid and a bit off key. It didn’t help that the acoustics in the Opera House were less than ideal, with the sound dramatically over-modulated and frequently excessively loud.

The result was an uneven performance that had some merits but many detractions. Constantine Maroulis, a fine actor, does not have the best voice, at least for the songs he has to sing here. He sounds breathy when he sings. It turns out that the musical’s true flaws lie elsewhere: with its script. It must have been good enough to survive four years on Broadway, but at least with this version produced by Nederlander Presentations it simply lacks plausibility and heart. And that’s a shame because all the murders that Edward Hyde wreaks don’t mean much if the characters he kills are all cardboard, which is largely the case here. One thing is for sure: you won’t be living long if you are a member of the St. Jude’s Hospital Board of Governors, and if you are a member then you are a flaming hypocrite that maybe deserves to be slashed and/or strangled to death.

Granted, it’s hard for a musical that is mostly about killing other people to have heart, but in this case you have to believe that Henry Jekyll is the passionate humanist he claims to be. I didn’t feel it in Maroulis’s performance. John (played by Laird Mackintosh) is supposed to be Henry’s best friend and his lawyer, but there simply isn’t enough dialog and interaction for us to feel that any friendship exists. “Look behind the façade,” the actors sing in one of the opening numbers. The audience though is left with the feeling that the musical is a façade, flashy but not terribly engaging and ultimately not terribly compelling.

Not that there aren’t some good performances. Deborah Cox landed the role of Lucy, the harlot with a heart who is drawn to Jekyll because he is the only good man she has ever met. Cox is a great actress and has a voice to match. To the extent that this version is worth seeing, it is probably for Cox’s portrayal of Lucy. There is also the music, which when it is good is quite memorable. Wildhorn and lyricist Leslie Bricusse can put together some memorable show tunes that rival some of Andrew Lloyd’s Webber’s best. In Jekyll & Hyde we get “Take me as I am”, “Bring on the Men”, “This is the Moment”, “Alive”, “Dangerous Game” and “Confrontation” that are all compelling.

The direction and staging are competent but not particularly compelling. Jekyll’s laboratory has been redesigned so we get fluorescent flasks of bubbling chemical concoctions delivered into Jekyll’s veins via tubes instead of flasks. Special effects, such as they are, are saved for the song “Confrontation”, which are well done but do not really redeem the musical’s many faults.

I don’t feel that ripped off, however. Tickets were only $49, a good deal for the Kennedy Center, but were perhaps priced so low because word had gotten around that this production was less than stellar. If you have a hankering to see the musical and can snatch any of these tickets, it is probably worth seeing, but you had best hurry, since it’s last performance at the Kennedy Center is on Sunday. If you paid full price, well, I’m sorry. You are likely to feel disappointed.

While this production does have some merits and I have seen much worse at the Kennedy Center, it is probably not Jekyll & Hyde at its best. You might want to wait for a better and more compelling production.

Review: The Music Man at Arena Stage

The Thinker by Rodin

If one had to decide on a best American musical, The Music Man would surely rank in the top half dozen. It feels quintessentially American, with equal parts of turn of the (20th) century small town America and shysterism.

I have a special connection to the musical. It was first released in 1957, the year I was born. Second, I grew up listening to its music. Sunday mornings were music day in our house, and the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record from the movie starring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston was often playing before or after breakfast. Its story and lyrics are stored in my permanent long-term memory. It was also something of a naughty musical for its time and our conservative Catholic household. My parents often had us skip “Shipoopi” because it elicited so many giggles from us kids. It wasn’t until I had read Nathaniel Hawthorne that I understood what Harold Hill meant by the lyrics that he wanted “for Hester to win just one more A.” My Dad found the music irresistible. In 2009, I took him to The Kennedy Center to see a highly abridged staging, but mainly for him to see Shirley Jones. So this is really the second review of The Music Man to grace this blog.

This staging is being done locally at Arena Stage in southwest D.C. in its theater in the round (well, more accurately theater in the square), the Fichlander. We haven’t been to Arena stage since 2004 where we saw a spectacular production of M Butterfly. Since then the theater has been remodeled, although the stage itself appears unaltered. Before the show we were remarking that we had never seen a bad production at Arena Stage. I am happy to report that Artistic Director Molly Smith did not disappoint with this current staging of The Music Man either.

If The Music Man has a problem, it is that it is done too often and thus is too familiar. I have seen it performed at least three times before last night. The movie is committed to my brain as well. It’s become almost like holy writ: there should be no messing with the musical. Putting it on a theater in the round though did introduce some complications. At least at Arena Stage, the musical doesn’t transition too well to a theater in the round. The stage is not that big and the audience across from you is impossible to tune out. River City is supposed to be as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread, but this is the 21st century, so Molly Smith added a couple of African Americans and an Asian. Yeah, it’s just theater and shouldn’t matter but is still a bit jarring.

This staging has some great plusses to it. You don’t particularly think of dancing when you think of The Music Man, but Molly Smith makes it a feature and there is not a clubfoot among the cast. In fact, they are all little Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers, which makes the otherwise unmemorable “Shipoopi” memorable indeed. Also terrific are the two prominent child parts: Ian Berlin as the stutterer Winthrop and Heidi Kaplan as Amaryllis. It is truly surprising to see such talent from children so young.

The heart of the musical of course is the relationship between Harold Hill and Marian Paroo. Hill (Burke Moses) is the traveling salesman masquerading as a music professor but just out to make some quick bucks selling boys bands to gullible townies. Marian Paroo (Kate Baldwin) is the town librarian and one of the few people in the town who knows how to think critically. She is immediately suspicious of this “common masher”, particularly when he is hardly off the train before he is wooing her. Marian, of course, is secretly worried about becoming an old maid at (gasp) age 26 and with no prospects. Marian apparently had a close relationship with the founder of the library before he died, and inherited all the books in the library as well as the position of librarian. Harold Hill assumes she is a fallen woman, and finds such women attractive.

Robert Preston originated the role of Harold Hill. In fact, Meredith Willson wrote his music specifically for him, since Preston did not have much of a singing voice. Mostly he speaks more than sings. Preston is long gone, but Moses does an impressive job of recreating Preston on stage. One minor problem for Moses is he is arguably too old for the part. He is 52. Kate Baldwin is not quite the 26-year-old Marian either (she is 37), but certainly looks like she could be. Aside from the age incongruity, both deliver exceptional performances. Baldwin makes a terrific Marian, which is good because arguably she has a hard part to get right. She must be at once critical, smart and perceptive, yet emotionally vulnerable and ultimately kind hearted. She also has to be an exceptional singer as well as dancer, and Baldwin delivers all the goods magnificently. Try not to cry when she hits those high notes at the end of “Will I Ever Tell You.”

Both are blessed with an able cast of supporting actors. It’s hard to pick favorites but I especially enjoyed John Lescault as Mayor Shinn and Will Burton as Tommy Djilas, the local “bad boy”, such as they have in bland River City. The orchestra sits under the stage, making the quality of the sound a tad less than ideal.

The Music Man may be over performed and feel mostly out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but it is undeniably musically infectious. Particularly if you have never seen it before, this staging should delight. You are almost guaranteed to be humming tunes from it for days afterward. While not the best showing I have seen at Arena Stage (so hard to decide between Animal Crackers and Guys and Dolls) it is A-grade stuff, guaranteed to please in all its surreal Republican wholesomeness.

Review: Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center

The Thinker by Rodin

One of the neat things about living close to our nation’s capital (if you have the money) is to occasionally see top actors perform live on stage. Uncle Vanya, now playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through August 27, gives you three well-known movie actors performing on stage. All happen to be associated with the Sydney Theatre Company, and one of them, Cate Blanchett is not only a member of the company but its co-Artistic Director and co-CEO as well. Yes, the play Uncle Vanya is on tour and Washington is just its latest destination since the company first put it on stage in Sydney last November.

It feels at times like a mini Lord of the Rings reunion because we get two stars from those movies: Blanchett (who played Galadriel) and Hugo Weaving (Elrond, but perhaps best known as Agent Smith in three Matrix movies). But wait: there’s more, specifically Richard Roxburgh, probably best known as Count Dracula in the vacuous but very popular Gothic comedy Van Helsing.

It’s fair to say that Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a departure for all three actors. No question about it: Uncle Vanya is challenging material to work on stage. Happily, Director Tamas Ascher does an impressive job rendering this bleak story interesting on the stage. It is based on a new play by Andrew Upton, which is based on Chekhov’s original story.

Doubtless it would have been even more challenging to render it without its stellar cast. Still, at its root is a story that is both comedic and tragic that will be hard for most Americans to relate to, unless they are recent Russian immigrants. In the Russia of the 19th century, there were lots of unwashed peasants and few ways to ascend in the social hierarchy. The desperate need to be part of a higher social status is the animus of this entire play. With the exception of retired university professor Serebryakov (John Bell) and visiting physician Astrov (Hugo Weaving) everyone’s self worth seems bound to the professor’s. Through marriage to his late first wife, the retired professor has a country estate populated mostly by in-laws of his first wife, but also the biological daughter of he and his first wife. (Hayley McElhinney plays his daughter Sonya.) Since retiring, the crotchety professor, suffering from a combination of gout and a chronic lack of empathy allegedly common to many university professors, has the household in an unnatural state. Everyone is obsessively concerned with the professor’s needs and health, and will sacrifice their own physical and mental health so they can rest in the shadows of his academic glory.

It soon becomes clear that the professor’s reputation is exaggerated and that he is basically a very annoying old man. Everyone, with the possible exception of the relatively carefree Doctor Astrov, must don roles unsuited to them. Uncle Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) has managed the estate for decades, and did so faithfully for the poverty wages of five hundred rubles a year, while also spending late nights with his niece Sonya translating and promoting the professor’s writings. He still mourns the loss of his sister (the professor’s first wife), described as among the most beautiful of women. At the same time he is hopelessly in love with the professor’s second wife Yelena (Blanchett). Yelena meanwhile feels hopelessly trapped in her bad marriage, yet her self worth too depends on being the professor’s wife, so she slavishly caters to his every need while he either ignores or abuses her, while she repeatedly spurns Vanya’s numerous advances.

Poor “plain” daughter Sonya feels overshadowed by her beautiful stepmother, while secretly loving Doctor Astrov. Astrov though largely hates mankind, and is something of an environmentalist, concerned about a diminished forest he is trying to protect. He seems to hate his profession, is inured to the feelings of others, is nihilistic in nature and in particular is clueless about Sonya’s infatuation with him. Also on the estate is Vanya’s mother Maria (Sandy Gore), an old nurse Marina (Jacki Weaver) and Telegrin (Anthony Phelan), an impoverished landowner who helps the family out. Periodic bouts of comedy do help to lighten a grim story, but the fundamental problem remains: the plot is one that is hard for us to relate to.

Fundamentally, Uncle Vanya is a play about people trapped in roles and expectations, driven toward being real people instead of stereotypes, but unable to do so. As you would expect this leads to enormous conflicted feelings that have been ruthlessly repressed over the decades but which leach out under the extreme pressure of the professor’s domineering and crotchety demeanor. It almost makes you root for the Russian Revolution, so they can escape these roles, except the playwright puts these characters in somewhat more modern times, presumably around the 1950s because the radio and record player are around.

The Sydney Theatre Company delivers the goods with clever staging, directing, and fine acting that puts emotion into the gaps between words to enhance an otherwise thin script. Roxburgh’s performance is especially passionate, but Hugo Weaving and Hayley McElhinney probably get most of the time on stage. Weaving typically plays darker roles, but here he is one of the happier characters. McElhinney is anything but plain, and does an exceptional job balancing her character’s passions with the requirements of being dutiful and somewhat diminished by her mother’s low social class. Will anyone break free of the prison of society’s expectations? Come and see the show to find out, if you can get tickets. (Hint: given its bleakness, don’t get your hopes up.)

For those enamored with Hollywood stars, you get to enjoy Blanchett and Weaving together on stage for long periods of time. They are clearly comfortable acting with each other and friends. It is fun to see some sexual energy between them rendered intimately on stage. Indeed, in a brief scene they come close to getting it on.

If you enjoy your coffee extra bitter, there is much to enjoy in this fine cup of java.

Review: Les Miserables at Signature Theater

The Thinker by Rodin

Can one see the musical Les Miserables too many times? Perhaps. Les Miserables remains my favorite musical weaving some of the best tunes, lyrics, stories and characters into a three-hour musical that is almost impossible to dislike. If you do not find yourself crying at least once during the show, you are either Dick Cheney or have ice water in your veins.

I plunged into my fourth Les Miserables experience today for an important reason. While I had seen it three times before, I was so far up in the rafters that I felt like I was missing something. Since it was being restaged at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, this meant that I could finally see an intimate staging of the musical. In fact, I was able to garner front row seats for today’s matinee. My wife and I were on Left Stage, seats 1 and 3.

This was our first time to Signature Theater. It is not exactly the Kennedy Center Opera House, which is an advantage. We were one of what could be no more than two hundred fifty people in the small black box theater. Pretty much any seat you choose is going to feel intimate, but with front row seats and my feet comfortable resting under the stage, intimate theater took on a whole new experience. We were within spitting distance but really any seat on the lower level is technically within spitting distance. I frequently had actors within touching distance and even singing in my face. Wow!

In fact, on a smaller stage, there is no way to render the full Broadway theatrical version. It is just as well because while the staging was innovative twenty years ago, it had gotten somewhat dated. Rest assured though that the poor look as threadbare and as miserable in this production as they did in the original production.

I also had to wonder if the quality would suffer on a smaller stage. It is expensive to stage even on a small stage, as it requires a large ensemble and orchestra. Even with $75 tickets, I had to wonder if they could cover expenses, since the theater is new and doubtless, all the actors were earning union wages. Thankfully, the quality did not suffer at all. In fact, smaller stagings like Signature’s may be the best way to get the Les Miserables experience. For Les Mis is a powerful human story. No matter how well it is done, it loses something unless you are close enough to see the acting as well as hear the music. At Signature, you cannot help but get both.

The orchestra was excellent but at times was so loud it overpowered the actors. As with any production, some actors did better in their roles than others. Overall, any fan of Les Miserables will appreciate the quality of the performances. While some of the actors (like Tom Zemon, who had played his role on Broadway) are nationally known, most of the actors were more regionally known. Thankfully, the Washington area is blessed with hundreds of excellent actors. I doubt that anyone who saw the production on Broadway will feel cheated by this staging.

One thing was clear from this show: it was uniformly well acted as well as sung. (In my mind, this is the key difference between musicals and operas.) Many of those performing in their roles were the best I have seen in the part. Here is a rundown of some of the major actors and how I felt they did:

  • Christopher Bloch (Thenardier) – A. Absolutely the best Thenardier I have seen in the role. His performance is not to be missed.
  • Rachel Boyd (Young Cosette) – A. Her role was short (she only gets to sing one song) but she was a heartbreaking cutie with big doe-like eyes and a real stage presence. You wanted to leap on the stage and hug her.
  • Andrew Call (Marius) – B. Competent in the role but his performance is not particularly noteworthy.
  • Felicia Curry (Eponine) – A. An African American Eponine took some getting used to but Ms. Curry shines in the part. Her voice is not quite as lovely as others who have sung the part (Lea Salonga would be hard to beat) but her acting is to be savored. Mmm.
  • Sherri Edelen (Madame Thenardier). A. A worthy contender with anyone on Broadway who played the part.
  • Tracy Lynn Olivera (Fantine). B. I personally was delighted to see a plus size woman in the role of Fantine. Usually she is played as someone who is disheveled but impossibly model-like. For the first time, I found the stage image of Fantine matched my mental image.
  • Jordi Parry (Gavroche). C. Meaning no disrespect, but he is a boy after all.
  • Chris Sizemore (Enjoras). B. Typically Enjoras is cast a bit taller and more handsome, so in a way it was nice to see Enjoras looking a bit more down to earth.
  • Greg Stone (Valjean). B. The whole story of course evolves around Jean Valjean, so his role is crucial. Nothing wrong with Stone’s performance but nothing exceptional either. He reminded me a bit of a young Liam Neeson.
  • Stephanie Walters (Cosette). A. Usually Cosette comes across as a mere star-struck wallflower. Not this time. Walters provides real depth to her role. For a change she was not overshined by Eponine. Watch the way she lunges for the gate while she waits for Marius. Lovely.
  • Tom Zemon (Javert). B. My wife had a higher opinion of Zemon’s acting than I did. He was suitably grave and chisel-faced, which seems to be a prerequisite for the part. I was hoping in his death scene to see more anguish from his decision kill himself than I did.
  • The rest of the cast in general. A. They were bubbling over with enthusiasm. It helps to have a largely fresh cast for whom this is all new material. It makes a difference.

Expect a few songs to be tightened up and a few scenes changed a bit, but this is all for the better. The show has been extended through February 22nd, so if you are a fan of the musical and live in the Washington area, I recommend getting tickets. You will not be disappointed. I think you will find that the Signature Theater crew breathed new life into this amazing but somewhat overplayed musical.

In Step with The Capitol Steps

The Thinker by Rodin

There are a whole list of things that I as a Washingtonian should have done over the nearly thirty years I have lived here but have not done. Tourists often imagine Washingtonians as constantly down on the Mall or attending concerts at the Kennedy Center. The truth is few of us have that kind of money. In addition, most of us live far enough away from the center of the city where it is rarely worth either the cost or hassle to beat the traffic into the city, unless it is on the weekend. Moreover, since many of us work in the city during the week, the last thing we want to do on the weekend is drive back into it.

Therefore, I miss lots of fabulous Smithsonian exhibitions and concerts. By this time, I should have taken a White House tour. It remains on my list of nebulous things to do. I have been to the top of the Washington Monument twice, but only once as a Washingtonian. (The first visit was in 1967, when I visited as a boy scout.) Shear Madness has been playing forever in the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab. I could never could be bothered. Mark Russell plays regularly at the Omni Shoreham on Calvert Street N.W. I have only seen him on Public TV during membership weeks. Ah, but The Capitol Steps; I can finally cross them off my list.

The Capitol Steps are loosely to Washington D.C. what The Rockettes are to New York City. In 1981, for Senator Charles Percy’s Christmas party three staffers decided to create parody songs and skits based on the topical political headlines of the day. They must have been good because they kept being asked to do other gigs. At some point, they gave up their day jobs and became part of the Washington kudzu. Now, twenty-seven years later it is hard to imagine a time when they were not around. Whereas there used to be just three founding members, now there are thirty of them. Whereas they used to do one gig at a time, now they travel in groups of five or six and do multiple gigs at the same time. They even travel the country trying to meet demand. Political singing and skits now provide them with a steady income. I bet they have 401-Ks and health insurance like the rest of us. Moreover, I would not be surprised if they belonged to a local actor’s union.

I am not sure how the performers who came out to Reston on Sunday night compared with the rest of the troupe. (If they are not being hosted locally, you can find them Friday and Saturday nights at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. That’s at the Federal Triangle metro station.) However, they come out to Reston, Virginia once a year for an annual benefit for Reston Interfaith. Since I give money to the charity, live three miles away and the Unitarian Universalist Church I attend has a member who makes getting tickets easy, I felt I had no more reason to procrastinate.

I probably would have enjoyed the show more if we had not been at a table in a far corner of the Hyatt Regency’s ballroom. Our tickets, $75 each, did not get us stellar seating. The premier tables, sponsored by local IT companies, got a much better view. Nevertheless, I did not feel too put out. My view was reasonably clear and the acoustics in the ballroom were okay. A fancy dessert and all the wine we could guzzle came with admission. Also present were a host of Fairfax County luminaries who hitherto I had rarely seen outside of newspaper photos, including two supervisors, our state senator and the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Gerry Connolly.

Even though attending a regular show of The Capitol Steps costs $35, I felt like we definitely got our money’s worth. The Capitol Steps of course exist to skewer politicians. Politicians were not only skewered, but also roasted over a rotisserie for long periods. The predictable results are many hilarious sketches and song parodies like this one, which skewers poor Senator Larry Craig and who by this time must be riddled with political buckshot.

Our particular show was fast paced. I do not know how long our show was compared to most of their shows. We got about ninety minutes of material, which was padded out to a bit more than two hours with an intermission and a benefit raffle. Virtually every presidential candidate was lampooned, often multiple times. A number of sketches would not work well outside the Beltway simply because the political figures (like Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) are not names that trip off the tongue of most Americans. Yet he was one of many foreign politicians also stepped on by The Capitol Steps.

The humor of course must be topical and lowbrow. Sometimes the tunes they choose to parody are a little obscure. (I doubt that many Americans are that familiar with Springtime for Hitler.) The Steps assume though that if you are going to fork over $35 to see them, you must be politically savvy. Consequently, while the Steps will probably never appear on Broadway, they earn their money. Their songs and skits must constantly be created and reworked to keep up with current events. One of their signatures is their “Lirty Dies” segment where they do a backwards talk. This gives them a convenient way to say things you generally cannot say in polite company. You may find as I did that sometimes you cannot translate their backwards talk fast enough to laugh along.

The Capitol Steps were good enough for me to want to see them again some year. Perhaps someday I can drag a politically savvy sibling or friend into D.C. to see one of their regular shows. While I have yet to see Shear Pleasure, our perennial local lowbrow comedy, I strongly suspect The Capitol Steps are equally as lowbrow, but funnier.

Review: My Fair Lady

The Thinker by Rodin

Going to see a revival of any Broadway musical is a gamble. A musical revival is a lot like a movie sequel. It rarely lives up to the original. I have seen Les Miserables three times over fifteen years and each tour was a step down from the last tour. Each incarnation becomes just a little more shopworn. Some musicals like Cats have been on so many tours that someone should shoot it to put it out of its misery.

It has been fifty years since My Fair Lady first appeared on Broadway. I was a baby in a bassinet when it first came out. My Fair Lady is one of these landmark musicals and excruciatingly hard to do right. For one thing, Rex Harrison epitomized the role of Professor Henry Higgins, both on stage and in the movie. In 1965, he won Best Actor for the role. The film itself also won Best Picture. Consequently, any revival of the musical must be treated with asbestos gloves. The chances are you are more likely to screw it up than satisfy.

Cameron Mackintosh though took the risk with this national tour. His risk was mitigated in part by getting many of the same cast that performed it so successfully on London’s West End back in 2001. My Fair Lady rolled into Washington, DC last month. My wife, daughter and I caught one of its last performances Saturday night before it moved on.

Good news to residents of Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Newark, Los Angeles, Toronto, Costa Mesa (California) and Tempe (Arizona). This tour of My Fair Lady feels as fresh as it was fifty years ago. While obviously I never saw it on Broadway, it fares nearly as well as the 1964 movie. Since it got a good review, I felt lucky to get tickets to it at all, and had to select from one of the later performances. Dig deep into your wallet and buy your tickets now. Any fan of musicals who has the opportunity to see this tour and misses it has only himself to blame. It may not role into Tempe, Arizona until June 17th, but if I lived out there I’d still try to get my tickets now.

Its success depends in part on faithfully sticking with well-known material. Christopher Cazenove, who plays Professor Henry Higgins, borrows more than a little from the late Rex Harrison’s portrayal. Considering what an odd and cantankerous professor Henry Higgins is, he would be hard to reinvent, and that he does not is perhaps just as well. Most of the characters studiously replicate the characters that preceded them in its original production. Walter Charles, as Colonel Hugh Pickering, looks like he could have been plucked from Wilfrid Hyde-White’s portrayal on the screen.

There are some exceptions. Unquestionably, the most fun part to play in the musical is the part of Eliza’s lowbrow alcoholic father, Alfred P. Doolittle, acted in this production by Tim Jerome. Jerome brings an enormous amount of energy to his supporting part and practically carries the whole cast off with him. This is one reason why it is so surprising that the rest of the production works so well. He could easily overshadow the rest of the actors and yet he does not. Lisa O’Hare delights as Eliza Doolittle, yet she gives her role a subtly different energy than Audrey Hepburn did in the movie. Except for being significantly wider in girth than Rex Harrison was, Cazenove slips into Higgins’ role with consummate familiarity.

As you might expect, complementing the ensemble is glorious dancing, magnificent staging and a wonderful energy from the cast. The only off-note of the evening was that the horns from the orchestra tended to make the higher registers from the performers hard to hear. That may have been due in part to the acoustics of the Kennedy Center Opera House or an overenthusiastic trumpeter. I was also somewhat annoyed by patrons arriving late, which made it hard to enjoy the first ten minutes of the show.

Thankfully, I can check My Fair Lady off the list of first class musicals that I have seen staged and thoroughly enjoyed. I realize that we were fortunate to get such a fine touring version. I must remember to keep my expectations more modest for the next musical that comes into town.

Reveling in the Winter Solstice

The Thinker by Rodin

Somehow, I managed to live in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for 29 years without learning of The Washington Revels. The Washington Revels is one of nine similar revels organizations across the United States. In some ways, these organizations resemble Renaissance Festivals. Both do their part to reunite us with our past. They help us reconnect with an increasingly distant time when we lived in smaller communities and felt deeply connected to the earth and each other through myth, ceremony, song and dance.

The Washington Revels main events are an annual series of holiday shows staged at Lisner Auditorium in Washington D.C. Each show is different from the previous year’s show but they all have a common theme: celebrating the holiday season and the solstice the way distant generations of ours celebrated it. Each show strives to be not so much theater as an embracing communal experience. The audience is not entirely a passive. You may find yourself dancing in the aisles with the group.

This year’s show was oriented around Elizabethan England. It was staged to take place in the town of Norwich. The town is a destination for Will Kemp, one of William Shakespeare’s comedic actors who as a stunt over nine days danced from London to Norwich. To celebrate his success, Queen Elizabeth deigns to pay the village a special visit. This show was loosely organized into two acts but was rife with song (over fifty were squeezed in) and dance. Each song and dance is authentic, and most are authentic to the Elizabethan period.

The town of Norwich was depicted as a very busy but very musical place where every townie is something of a character. The stage of Lisner Auditorium was literally overflowing with cast, some of whom were perched on the steps leading up to the stage. It is doubtful that there was a paid actor in the whole troupe. While the dancing of the children sometimes left a bit to be desired (they are children after all), all were overflowing with holiday merriment and utter sincerity. Even Scrooge would have had a hard time leaving a Washington Revel performance without a skip to his step.

The show at times felt inspired by Norman Rockwell. There were a few understated saucy musical numbers, but overall wholesomeness, good cheer and mild buffoonery were the order of the day. This is the way it must be. Revels organizations do not exist to entertain so much as they exist to wake us out of our cynical 21st century slumber. If you have a teenager whose idea of fun is playing Nintendo games, you need to haul them to a performance. Given the chance, our common humanity can be much more engaging and delightful than electronic games. Attending a Revels performance is a bit like those clapping and singing games you enjoyed with your elementary school classmates. If you remember the elemental fun you felt back then, you should feel the same way by the end of a Revels show.

In this show, as in all the Revels shows, audience participation is par for the course. Expect to sing along in a few traditional holiday carols. If you feel so moved dance in the aisles when the show moves off the stage. Also, expect to be entertained, delighted and charmed. Few such amateur groups come so close to having their performances feel so professional. The Revels may be working solely for good cheer, but their hearts and minds are fully engaged in spreading merriment. You should feel the contagion.

I imagine that Renaissance England was not quite the merry place depicted here. For one thing, they had the Spanish Armada to worry about. Of course, this solstice celebration is idealized. Likely life in Elizabethan England was a lot less fun: dirtier, smellier, harsher, sicker and bawdier. Perhaps they made up for their chancier lives with more careless revelry and festive celebrations tied along seasonal events.

I am grateful to the Revels for pulling me out of my own holiday stupor. Before the program, I was making lists in my head of Christmas presents I needed to buy. By the end of the show, I felt a little like Charlie Brown discovering the true meaning of Christmas. I knew all along what the seasons was supposed to be. Thanks to the Revels, I felt it this year. So if you do not feel any holiday spirit this year, or even if you do, reserve your tickets now for one of next year’s performances. The Washington Revels are the perfect antidote to the bizarre Madison Avenue concoction we now call the Holiday Season. I just wish I had had a cup of eggnog to lift at the end of the show.

Review: Spamalot

The Thinker by Rodin

This is a hard review to write for a Monty Python fan. We saw here in Las Vegas Sunday night Spamalot, the musical sort of wrapped around Monty Python’s phenomenally successful 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet I was underwhelmed.

Here is the problem with Spamalot: you have seen most of it before. Moreover, what you have not seen is not always that humorous. Rather than feel like a Monty Python production, it feels like an Eric Idle production, which it is. Now there is nothing wrong with Eric Idle’s sense of humor, it is just that his humor is just one of the spectrums that made the Monty Python shows and movies funny. Lacking the other creative voices, Spamalot feels very strained.

If you enjoyed the movie, and who among us has not, you will probably enjoy the reenactments of many of the classic scenes from the movie. On the other hand, if you have seen the movie repeatedly, and can recite every line in the Knights Who Say Ne sketch by heart then seeing it on stage feels very anticlimactic. Except for the voice of God played by John Cleese, there is not a single member of Monty Python in the entire production. So what you get are comedic actors trying to act like the comedy troupe. They often come close. But just as Californian sparkling wine is not quite French champagne, while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it is still imitation, and it tends to fall somewhat flat.

In some ways, what is new in the show is faithful to Monty Python. The plot is pretty incoherent and rambling. Some of the new songs are cute including “The Song That Goes Like This” and “The Diva’s Lament”. There are a few surprises that should not be, including Sir Lancelot who is exposed as a gay queen. There are a few modest improvements. “He’s Not Dead Yet” number adds new life and humor to the bring out your dead scene.

Still, something about this experience felt fundamentally false. It was close imitation Monty Python, but not Monty Python itself. It just made me wistful for the real thing. Its short running length (just over ninety minutes, with no intermission) made it feel needlessly hurried.

Mel Brooks took his 1968 movie The Producers and turned it into a phenomenally successful musical that just recently closed on Broadway. Ironically, the musical of The Producers is also playing in Las Vegas. Having seen the musical version of The Producers, both on stage and the subsequent movie, I can say that Mel made an even better product than the original source material. That is not the case here. This production does not come even close to being as funny or inventive as its source material. Rather than adding value to the original package, it unfortunately subtracts value.

My assessment is that unless you are only a part time Monty Python fan or want to see famous scenes from the movie reenacted, just stay away. This musical will doubtless keep the remaining members of the Monty Python troupe from spending their last days impoverished. If you are feeling nostalgic, it might leave you with a pleasant buzz. I suspect it will leave you feeling more let down than entertained.

The comic energy that was Monty Python has long gone. It is best to accept it and move on. Enjoy the movies and classic shows on DVD. They were authentic. Spamalot feels like a dressed up imitation of the real thing. If in Vegas and you have a choice between Spamalot and The Producers, see The Producers instead. Even if it is only 70% as good as it was on Broadway, it would still be far fresher and more entertaining than Spamalot.