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Those Good and Crazy People

16 Jun

The truth is, I’m not anti-marriage. One day I hope to find someone I love enough to want to spend the rest of my life with — and hopefully she’ll feel the same way about me. But until that happens, I’m a perpetual third- or fifth-wheel. And admittedly, I go back and forth between being alright about it and yes, being lonely. Kind of like Bobby, the lead character in Stephen Sondheim’s Company. The classic musical, one of my all-time favorites, was recently revived in New York with a cast including Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Patti LuPone, Jon Cryer, and Christina Hendricks, and for a brief time, you can watch a recording of those performances on the big screen.

Company has no real plot. It’s basically a collection of anecdotes strung together as 35-year-old Bobby (Harris) goes from couple to couple, each of them either doting on him or too wrapped up in themselves to notice Bobby’s not comfortable being around them. None of the couples presents a real good example of why Bobby should want to be married, and yet they all feel sorry for him because he’s not married. What does Bobby himself want? He doesn’t seem to know, nor does he seem to be in any rush to figure that out. As a result, he continues to be emotionally detached, watching everyone live their lives while he is essentially watching from the outside. As one friend tells him on her wedding day, “I’m afraid to get married, and you’re afraid not to.”

The show is awesome for a number of reasons, one of them being Sondheim’s songs, which at times have such a contemptuous attitude toward married people, and at times hit the single person’s conflicted attitude toward settling down right on the nose. The show is funny, thought provoking, insightful, and not the typical “jazz hands” kind of musical. And as a 37-year-old singleton, I can identify with a lot of it.

The last time I saw Company, five years ago, the show left a real impression on me. So any future productions get measured against that one. This one just didn’t have that same effect. Produced by the New York Philharmonic, the draw here was certainly the cast. However, the talent across the board was mixed. Harris makes for a truly charming Bobby; it’s not hard to see why all these people would love him. He’s more than capable of carrying the show, and his performance is eager to please. The problem is that while Harris has a fine singing voice, it’s just not as strong as the character requires. For example, “Marry Me a Little” was fine, but “Someone Is Waiting” sounded like it was more of a challenge.

Among his co-stars, the acting was good, but again, singing was the real problem. Songs like “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” sounded off, and, well, Cryer, Colbert, and Hendricks aren’t known for their singing anyway. Better were Martha Plimpton and especially Kate Finneran, whose “Not Getting Married” was one of the show’s highlights. And then there was LuPone, whose performance was the best of the lot, not surprisingly. “The Ladies Who Lunch” was definitely the show’s peak.

In addition, the show felt long and it dragged at times. I seem to recall the 2006 revival using an abbreviated book, and this production had no such tweaks. Also, the recording was basically a video of the show and not a high def film, which made watching the show on screen instead of live less engaging and fun. It wasn’t exactly a home video, and it wasn’t a film either. I never knew if I should be applauding, even though that seemed to be the natural reaction.

So is it worth finding a theater showing Company in the next couple days? Perhaps only if you’re a devoted fan. Otherwise, check out the well produced DVD from the much more elegant 2006 revival.

2010’s Entertainment Stays with Me

31 Dec

A couple nights ago, I re-watched the series finale of Lost for the first time in about four months.

I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it as much, if not more than, I did when the episode first aired in May, and the last time I watched it back when the DVD was first released in August — and that’s not just because I’m still blown away by how great Evangeline Lilly looked in that black dress.

That’s a relief, because when the finale aired, I was lamenting the end of one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

The last episode of Lost not only lived up to the hype, but it endures and continues to be great. Continue reading

Chatting About Culture with Mr. Crane

3 Dec

There’s a pretty good chance that David Hyde Pierce won’t see this. That’s because when I interviewed him for Continental magazine a few months back and I asked him about whether he uses social media and is on Facebook or Twitter, the erstwhile Niles Crane responded rather quickly and tersely, “I’d rather die.” Alright, fine. So that subject was a dead end. But thankfully, there was plenty else for us to discuss, and some of that conversation is now on planes and on the magazine’s website for all to read.

No surprise, the man folks know from his TV, film, and stage roles is not much different from the man I “met” on the phone back in August. He was well spoken, even-keeled, polite, and calm, and happy to chat about subjects as varied as Alzheimer’s research and the difference between theater audiences in New York and London. I thought he’d be turned off by a question or two about Frasier, the show on which he starred for 11 years, but instead he told me he’s always happy to talk about it. “I have only been blessed and not been cursed by 11 years of Niles,” he said of the role for which he won four Emmy awards.

Pierce and I conducted the interview so he could promote his role in the current Broadway revival of La Bête, which opened in mid-October and is scheduled to close in early January. In the play, Pierce plays a sophisticated director who clashes with a boorish performer, and that gave me the perfect opportunity to ask him for his thoughts on the current state of pop culture. I figured he’d have something to say about the gap between silly reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and more substantial fare, and I was right:

“There’s always going to be a large market for crap, and there’s always going to be a smaller market for high art. And the really great works of theater are the ones that manage to bridge the gap. Shakespeare did that. He had his clowns smack in the middle of Hamlet because he understood not only the theater, but that life is a mixture of extreme comedy and extreme tragedy. Life very seldom separates itself into one or the other. The things I’ve been drawn to, Frasier included, are things that mix both the high art and low art, or comedy and seriousness.”

It was truly a pleasure to speak with David Hyde Pierce. If you’d like to read my article, just click here.

Everybody Loves Kristin

3 May

Kristin Chenoweth — the original Glinda in Wicked, the boozy April Rhodes on Glee, the Tony-winning star of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and an Emmy winner for her role on Pushing Daisies — is one of those actresses who everybody knows and everybody loves. So when I got the chance to interview her recently for Continental magazine, it was definitely a thrill. Chenoweth was just as sweet and nice and fun and bubbly as I’d expected her to be, and she gave me “good quote,” which I used in the article I wrote about her, which is now live.

I interviewed Chenoweth because she’s back on Broadway in the first-ever revival of Promises, Promises. If you’ve never heard of this musical, it’s based on the Oscar-winning film The Apartment, which starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Chenoweth stars as Fran Kubelik (the MacLaine role), who is having an affair with an executive who will never commit to her. Sean Hayes, from Will & Grace, makes his Broadway debut as Chuck Baxter (the Lemmon role), a coworker of Kubelik’s who has a crush on her. Baxter rises up the corporate ladder because he’s gotten in with some horny executives, to whom he rents out his apartment each week so they can (individually) hook up with their mistresses. (Martin Lieberman fun fact: In high school, I was in a production of Promises, Promises, and I played one of those executives, a guy named Eichelberger.) Mix in a book by comedy God Neil Simon, great music from Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and an early 1960s Mad Men-esque setting, and you’ve got a fun, poignant, timeless and yet totally current musical.

As I learned during our chat, Chenoweth and I were both in productions of Promises, Promises when we were younger. “I was Fran, and I had a very limited understanding of what this girl was going through,” she told me. “Now, I know.” Regarding Fran, Chenoweth continued, “this is a woman who has spent a lot of time with the wrong man hoping it’s going to be different. And I don’t care who you are, I know just about every woman in my life has a story like that. It doesn’t even matter how old you are. You can be 19 or you can be 40. That’s something that stands the test of time.”

Of course, I also asked Chenoweth why she thought Wicked has touched such a chord in so many people. “There is in every one of us a little bit of Elphaba and a little bit of Glinda,” she explained. “Elphaba, who is green and is immediately outcast because of that, actually has quite a tough little exterior but is not so tough on the inside. Glinda is pretty on the outside, but what drives her? Insecurity. And then she grows into heartbreak. The show is about love and forgiveness and friendship, and those are the reasons why it has become a classic. Nothing makes me prouder than to have been a part of something like that.”

So that’s just a taste of what we discussed. If you’d like to read the whole article, go right ahead and click here. Enjoy!

It’s Not "Jazz Hands Green Day"

26 Apr

For many years, Broadway’s been trying to hop a ride on the rock and roll bandwagon. The results haven’t always been spectacular. For every Rent or The Who’s Tommy, there’s a less successful effort that’s not even worth naming. So it’s with tempered expectations that the Great White Way welcomes the latest attempt to bring rock to Broadway, American Idiot. The show, which opened last week and which I saw Saturday night, is about as authentic a “rock musical” as you’ll find and a real blast of youthful energy, but it’s not without its problems.

American Idiot uses every song from Green Day’s award-winning album of the same name, plus a handful from the band’s follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown, and a couple of unreleased b-sides. It enhances the music by adding a story of three friends who seek an escape from their dead-end suburban lives but don’t find any happiness: Johnny moves to the city and develops an addiction to a girl and heroin; Tunny decides to ship off to Iraq, where he falls victim to the horrors of war; and Will doesn’t even get to leave town because he’s accidentally impregnated his girlfriend.

As the show begins, we’re barraged by a wall of sound and screens — George Bush, American Idol, Donald Trump, etc. — that set the scene: We’re in the “recent past,” a time of media saturation and too much noise. Just this little burst of instant replay is enough to put you on edge. Then the opening guitar chords of the title song ring out and we meet the cast of angry young men and women. How do we know they’re angry? Because they stomp their feet, thrust their bodies forward in hard motions, throw their fists in the air, and sing with rage and intensity. (It’s not exactly subtle.)

But anyway, at first, it’s a little off-putting to hear Green Day’s songs sung with harmonies and to see them choreographed. After all, this is not exactly the kind of music you dance to. But don’t get the wrong idea: This is not “jazz hands Green Day.” By the end of the second song, “Jesus of Suburbia,” any awkwardness is moot. That’s because of two of the show’s biggest assets: One, Tom Kitt’s awesome arrangements/orchestrations. Kitt, who was in my high school graduating class, and who won the Pulitzer Prize recently for Next to Normal, has maintained the integrity of the songs’ punk rock origins while opening up many of them, and even making a handful of the tracks sound better. “21 Guns” is a particular favorite of mine. Maybe you saw the cast performing it at the Grammy Awards earlier this year.

The other asset is the incredible cast. You kind of wish the Tonys had an award for best ensemble (like the Screen Actors Guild Awards does) because this cast would win it hands down. Each person gives a high-energy, fully-committed performance, and they all work together expertly. While I hesitate to mention anyone in particular, one person did stand out for me: Rebecca Naomi Jones (Whatshername) — and not because she spends most of her time on stage walking around in not much more than her underwear. When she first appears, during “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and adds her voice to the testosterone-filled air, it makes the song even more powerful. Jones’ other vocal contributions (“21 Guns” among them) are equally impressive. I wish she had more to do.

There are a lot of great moments in the show. I liked “Extraordinary Girl,” with its high-flying acrobatics, and thought “When September Ends” was a musical highpoint. I thought the direction of the show (by Spring Awakening‘s Michael Mayer) made the most of a stylishly minimalist set. And I liked that the 95-minute show moves forward at a great pace and doesn’t stop or slow down for an intermission. On the other hand, I didn’t think there was much about the three lead characters that made me want to root for them, other than the fact that one is played by John Gallagher Jr., best known for his Tony-winning performance in Spring Awakening. Johnny doesn’t really have a great story arc, and when he retreats back home at the end of American Idiot, you get the sense that he’s no better off than when he left. Also, I respect the show’s creators’ desire to preserve the order of the songs from the original American Idiot album, but after the emotional and musical peak of “Homecoming,” “Whatshername” feels like an unnecessary, rather anti-climactic coda. I’d have inserted “Whatshername” before the last section of “Homecoming” (i.e., “We’re Coming Home Again”).

American Idiot didn’t, ahem, rock my world like Spring Awakening did, but despite any issues I had, I still really enjoyed it. After all, the music is awesome, and as noted above, it’s put to great use in this show. I dare say this is the best, most hummable, most instantly memorable score on Broadway — at least compared to some other shows I’ve seen in recent years. I foresee myself listening to the original cast recording repeatedly, and I see American Idiot enjoying a long, successful Broadway run.

One Hot Number

29 Dec

He’s an Italian treasure. The “essence of Italian style … the king of Cinema Italiano.” But in the movie Nine (an adaptation of the Broadway musical, which was adapted from Federico Fellini’s film ), writer/director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is grappling with a midlife crisis that has given him an epic case of writer’s block. Add to this the pressure he is receiving from all sides: his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penélope Cruz), his muse (Nicole Kidman), journalists (including one played by Kate Hudson), his confidant and costume designer (Judi Dench), producers, and more. Suffice it to say, it’ll take a miracle for Guido to make another film, and until then, he’ll keep dangling along the various women, investors, and members of his creative team until he finally gets another idea.

Nine is, like the man at the center, not perfect. But man, did I ever enjoy it. The film is big, splashy, elegant, sexy, bold, tuneful, and really fun, and it’s an incredible advertisement for visiting Italy. Nearly every performer gets his or her own chance to shine, even if one or two of the songs do let them down (Dench’s “Folies Bergère, for example). Day-Lewis is great, though his singing and speaking voice sometimes made me think of the Count, from Sesame Street. And I was really impressed by Cotillard’s singing voice, particularly in the song “My Husband Makes Movies.” Heck, even Kate Hudson is good, and that’s saying something.

Like in his big-screen version of Chicago, director Rob Marshall stages the musical numbers as if they’re the thoughts in one of his character’s head (in this case, Guido). While I liked that device more here than I did in Chicago, I think that in his next movie, Marshall is going to have to find a new gimmick. At one point, Guido sings, “I am lusting for more. Should I settle for less? I ask you, what’s a good thing for if not for taking it to excess?” That applies to Marshall’s filmmaking, specifically his less than subtle staging of some of the numbers, a few of which are so overtly sexual that he almost robs them of their sexuality (no pun intended). Which is, partly, why Cotillard’s performance stands out. She’s so graceful, so underplaying her role, that she’s really able to shine.

I have some issues with Nine, but I still found myself smiling throughout, and I was happy to be singing the music in my head when it was over (maybe because “Be Italian” is a total earworm song). I’m not giving the movie a 9 rating, but I figure a B+ is close enough.

I Could Be Stamos’ Wingman

2 Nov

Over the course of the nearly 7.5 years that I worked on Continental magazine, I was lucky enough to interview a fair number of big-name celebrities, including Nathan Lane, Jennifer Hudson, Mitch Albom, Jesse L. Martin, Ginnifer Goodwin, Idina Menzel, Jason Lee, Joan Allen, Jason Mraz, Roger Bart, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

But I have to say, none of them was as much fun to chat with as John Stamos, who I recently interviewed for a freelance article in the magazine (my first such assignment since I left that job). And of course, I’m telling you this because the article is now online. Continue reading