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Sunday, January 10, 2010


artSMart reviewer Maurice Kort talks about the Theatre Scene in London and New York (Part 2 deals with New York)

Unfortunately, my plane from Toronto on the Saturday landed too late for me to manage a matinee that day – one cannot have everything, but I did manage a show that night. I took full advantage of matinees on the days when there were ones, but there aren’t many.

Shrek – The Musical sticks faithfully to the Dreamworks film. The young Shrek is banished from his home by his parents to face the world on his own and the teen Princess Fiona is seen to change to adulthood. All the fairy tale characters appear, as in the film, as well as the very loquacious Donkey and the despotic Lord Farquaad, brilliantly performed by Christopher Sieber on his knees throughout so as to emulate the diminutive character of the story. His appearances on a horse and taking a bath are standout scenes. The story progresses with Shrek having to rescue Fiona from the Dragon accompanied by Donkey, for Lord Farquaad, to reverse his decree banning the storybook characters to the Swamp, Shrek’s home. The dragon must be the largest puppet ever seen on a stage. The acting of the four leads is top notch and the whole concept is a delight and thoroughly entertaining from start to end.

Finian’s Rainbow, set in the mythical State of Missitucky in the 1940s, was written in 1947 in Broadway’s golden age. It concerns Irishman Finian McLonergan arriving from Ireland with his daughter Sharon and a pot of gold which he has stolen from the leprechauns with the intention of burying it near Fort Knox so that it will grow and make his fortune. Senator Rawkins is attempting to dispossess the sharecroppers of their land which their leader, the hero Woody Mahoney, is aiming to prevent. Matters do not go according to plan with the arrival of the leprechaun Og (a standout performance by Christopher Fitzgerald). The singing and performances are as expected from a Broadway show although the set is rather simple, albeit effective.

Ragtime, adapted by Terence McNally from the novel by E.L. Doctorow, is the story of three distinctly culturally different sets of immigrants to the United States in the beginning of the 1900s, the rigid Wasps, epitomised by Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Little Boy and Grandfather; the Jewish Tateh (father) and Little Girl and the African Americans, the musician Coalhouse Walker Jr and his lover Sarah. Their lives intertwine with several historical figures such as Henry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Evelyn Nesbit, all pertinent to the story, making their appearances. The large cast of 40 moves about the set consisting of a huge metal framework on three levels. Their singing and dancing are impressive and beautifully executed.

Memphis is a musical set in the 1950s and concerns a young White man Huey Calhoun wondering into a saloon in a Black neighbourhood where he hears Felicia, an African American, singing. He is immediately smitten by her and her voice, and promises to make her a radio star, which he does. He also wishes to marry her. However not everything runs smoothly; this is Tennessee in the 1950s with laws against miscegenation.

In the Heights is a new musical, a paean to Washington Heights, with Usnavi, of Dominican descent, who owns a bodega, as the narrator. Also living in the Heights are Kevin and Camila Rosario who own a car service, their daughter Nina on whom the hopes of everyone rest to escape from the barrio as she is studying at Stanford for a degree, and Benny who works for them but with aspirations to own his own business and who is in love with Nina. In addition, there are Graffiti Pete, Daniela, a beauty salon owner, Vanessa and Carla who work for her, Sonny, Usnavi’s cousin who also works at the bodega, Piragua Guy who sells flavoured ice from a cart and Abuela Claudia, the neighbourhood matriarch. Many of the songs are rap although there are more tender numbers as well and there is great choreography, despite the stage being limited due to the large set.

Next to Normal is a rock musical (Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Orchestrations) ostensibly about a normal suburban family - Diana, her husband Dan and their daughter and son, Natalie and Gabe, respectively. Not so. Diana suffers from mental illness – bipolar and possibly schizophrenic – and is also definitely suicidal. Her devoted husband seeks help from Dr Madden and then Dr Fine while Natalie seeks solace from drugs and a boyfriend, Henry. Concerning Gabe the son, that’s another whole story. All give stellar performances, Alice Ripley having won the Tony Award for the Best Leading Actress in a Musical. The novel set is a three story metallic frame which gives the cast much exercise. This is a very different musical and thoroughly riveting.

The Toxic Avenger is a fun, fun, fun off-Broadway musical based on Lloyd Kaufman’s third rate 1984 cult film. Melvin Ferd the Third, a nerd of the first order, is the superhero, out to stop Mayor Babs Belgoody’s company supplying the toxic waste destroying Manhattan. She retaliates by having her henchmen dump him in a vat of toxic waste – the birth of the Toxic Avenger. Sarah, a blind librarian, supplies the love interest, and is also the source of much politically incorrect humour but definitely not in bad taste. Off-Broadway refers to the size of the theatre, not to the quality of the productions. This is a most enjoyable show, especially watching the Toxic Avenger rip the limbs off the villains.

Also off-Broadway is Perfect Crime which opened in April 1987 becoming Broadway’s longest running play and which incredibly has starred Catherine Russell in every performance except for four, certainly deserving her entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. The play opens in the sitting room of the Brent home with the murder of the psychiatrist Margaret Thorne Brent’s husband W. Harrison Brent, also a psychiatrist, but he turns up later. Also involved in this very convoluted play is Inspector James Ascher, Lionel McAuley, a patient of Margaret and David Breuer, the host of a local cable television show (but only on TV). I left the theatre very confused indeed. Thanks to an excellent Web site with a “Spoiler Alert” tab, the mystery is explained in 17 concise points.

Superior Donuts is a small doughnut shop in Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood. This is an excellent realistic set, the worse for wear when the play opens as the glass door is smashed with the word “Pussy” in large graffiti across the back wall. Two police officers, Randy Osteen and James Bailey, are interviewing Max Tarasov, the Russian who owns the next door DVD shop. The donut shop owner, Arthur Przbyszewski, arrives, obviously preoccupied by the scene. A young African American, Franco Wicks, an aspirant author, arrives requiring a job and inveigles himself into the shop as an assistant. As the play progresses, the past secrets of Arthur and Franco’s problems emerge. The play isn’t without inconsistencies but it is most enjoyable with convincing performances all round.

The Royal Family is a revival of the George S Kaufman and Edna Ferber play first produced in 1927 and although it features the Cavendish family of top actors, it was no secret that it was a thinly veiled disguise of the Barrymores (Ethel and John), the theatre stars who ruled the roost. Rosemary Harris shone as Fanny Cavendish. Most sacrilegiously, her daughters Julie and Gwen are considering leaving the family profession for love, to get married. The flamboyant son, Tony, creates havoc of his own. The very opulent set, the duplex Cavendish apartment, to be expected from this Royal family, abounds with action supplied by the large cast.

After Miss Julie is a version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie by Patrick Marber and is set in the kitchen of a large country estate outside London on 26 July 1945, the night the British Labour Party won their famous landslide victory over Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party. That is not the only change. Miss Julie (Sienna Miller) much against the mores of the time is hell bent on seducing her father’s chauffer, John (Jonny Lee Miller). A bystander to all this is John’s fiancée, Christine (Marin Ireland). After the play the audience was invited to remain in the theatre to attend a lecture by an authority on Strindberg and the play with the three actors on stage to give their views and answer questions submitted by the audience, an enthralling experience indeed.

God of Carnage, is a play by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, the pair responsible for the very popular Art and Life x 3 plays. It takes place in the opulent home of Michael (James Gandolfini) and Veronica (Marcia Gay Harden) whose son, Henry, has been hit so hard that he has lost parts of two teeth, by Benjamin, the son of Alan (Jeff Daniels) and Annette (Hope Davis) who have been invited to discuss how the situation should be handled and Benjamin be punished. The civilised discussion soon descends to anything but. Excellent as the performances are from the stellar cast, the play did border on the slapstick and I found it a bit reminiscent of Life x 3 although the subjects are completely different.

A Steady Rain, a two-hander, also featured two very popular actors of stage and screen, Daniel Craig (aka James Bond) and Hugh Jackman (of the X-Men films) as two policemen friends Joey and Denny, respectively. Although one would understandably be overawed by their star status when the play starts, as it progresses with the two of them often speaking directly to the audience as they relate a major incident that occurred and its consequences, one becomes completely engrossed in the events. This is no small feat on their part as there are no props, only the two chairs on the bare stage, and minimal scenery, only a few back projections of street scenes to depict some of the action of their narratives.

Twice a year, there is a six-week fundraising drive at the Broadway theatres by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids when in many of the shows, after the curtain calls, an actor or actors from the cast advise that there will be cast members and ushers at the exit doors to collect whatever contributions are made. In addition, various items are available for set amounts, for example signed posters and/or programmes. After Memphis, the CD which is broken during the performance, suitably dated, can be bought. There is stiff competition amongst the shows to raise the most funds. Interestingly, Daniel Radcliffe made the top three biggest earning shows by offering the jeans he wore in Equus. On the night I saw A Steady Rain, the shirts Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig wore each fetched US$5000 in the auction held after the show.

Features of the Broadway shows are the standing ovations almost every show receives and the crowds of fans at the Stage Doors after the shows to catch glimpses of the actors, and obtain their autographs. These are generally very willingly given unless they have to rush off to an engagement or, as in the case of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig, the audience was advised that there would be no autographs as it would be unfair to those who had purchased the signed programmes. In addition, the doormen are very communicative as to whether the stars would be appearing or not.

Between London and New York I spent a week in Toronto and saw a play True Love Lies and a musical The Boys in the Photograph.

In True Love Lies, the domestic bliss of Royce, his wife, Madison, and their teenage daughter, Carolyn, and son, Kane, is severely challenged when Royce’s former lover, David, after many years, moves back home and opens a restaurant. Although Madison knew of the prior relationship, the teenagers did not. Complications arise when the daughter applies for a job as a waitress at David’s restaurant and on learning of the relationship of their father with David, the teenagers have a new interest in him. This is a situation fraught with complications and all become intimately involved, in more ways than one.

The Boys in the Photograph by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Elton John started out in September 2001 as The Beautiful Game and ran for a year in London’s West End. This has been reworked by them into this new production. Most of the songs of the original have been retained while some have been dropped and new songs have been added. The story is still set in Belfast in the 1960s and 1970s in the midst of the violence in Northern Ireland and concerns its effect on the members of a local soccer team and their girlfriends. The ensemble cast is most impressive with great sets. It can be noted that there will be a production of The Boys in the Photograph in Johannesburg in May 2010 to coincide with the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa.

Half price tickets (with an additional small handling charge) can be obtained at the newly built “tkts” booth in Times Square, New York, on the site of the old one. One can only obtain tickets for the matinee and evening performances for that day. Credit cards and cash are accepted. I made good use of this facility but tickets for the real blockbusters are often not available at this venue. In addition, I would book in advance for the more popular shows, always by going to the theatres. There is seldom any problem obtaining single seats.

I could not find any copies of the Official Broadway Theatre Guide which had been available in the past but there was a typed schedule of plays and performance times at the Tourist Information Centre in Times Square, which was being renovated at the time of my visit. – Maurice Kort