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November 28, 2007

The Ups and Downs of "The Glorious Ones"

There are all sorts of reasons we choose to see a particular show. Sometimes it's because of the actors, writers or director involved. Or maybe we're drawn by rave reviews. Or because a friend said it was something that shouldn't be missed. Or, as in my case with The Glorious Ones, because it reminds us of something in our own lives.

The Glorious Ones, the new musical now playing in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, tells the story of a troupe of 16th century Italian actors who helped to create commedia dell'arte, the improvisational form of theater that took a comic view of subjects ranging from jealousy and chivalry to love and the fear of death. I obviously wasn't around then but during my sophomore year in college a group of us started our own commedia troupe. We divided its stock roles—the sexy maid, the innocent maiden, the crotchety old man, the swaggering hero, the clever jester—among us and performed skits for our fellow students, at schools and children’s fairs, wherever they would have us. The following summer, a small group got a tiny grant and took the show around to poor neighborhoods in New York. A scholarship kid, I needed to make more money than the grant could pay so I dropped out but I look back at my commedia days as some of the happiest I spent in school. And the moment I heard about The Glorious Ones, I looked forward to the chance to experience the pleasures I'd enjoyed back then. And when I found myself unexpectedly free one night, I went to see it.


Nothing, of course, could have lived up to the memories of my youth. But I think I would have been disappointed anyway. The Glorious Ones, based on the novel by Francine Prose, isn't a bad show. There are several affecting songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team that created Ragtime and Once on This Island, among many other shows. The cast, led by the superb Marc Kudisch as the leader of the troupe, is excellent; Julyana Soelistyo was particularly winning as the runt of the group. Graciela Daniele’s direction is lively, Mara Blumefeld’s costumes are eye-catching and Dan Ostling’s set is fittingly simple. But even with all of this going for it (which I grant is quite a bit; click here to see some video clips of the show) The Glorious Ones never achieves the wonderfully manic energy of commedia for me and Ahrens' book fails to make the narrative dramatic, in any sense of the word.


But The Glorious Ones does strive to pay tribute to the transformative power of art and to the particular exhilaration that actors draw from their art form. And even though I attended a performance in the middle of the show’s 12-week run that is scheduled to end on Jan. 6, the audience was still peppered with theater folk: I bumped into a Broadway house manager I know, sat next to a well-known publicist and in front of two men discussing their upcoming meeting with the director David Grindley. The show obviously holds some special meaning for all of them but it seems unlikely to hit with the general public. Even though Lincoln Center has a subscription audience, there were many empty seats at my performance.


I will always love commedia. And I have always loved backstage musicals, even if the stage is just a wooden plank in a 16th century Italian town square. I also have real respect for the people involved in this show and for the ambitious task they set themselves. But, in the end, I found myself wishing that they could take the show back and do it over because there’s a lot of good here and maybe, with some additional tweaking, it could be a truly glorious show.

November 24, 2007

Getting Up Close to "Iphigénie en Tauride"

Seeing a show or listening to an album is usually satisfying enough for most folks. But those of us who are fanatics crave more. We want to know the inside story. We want to peek behind the curtain. We want to get (or at least pretend to get) up close to the process. Which is why instead of sleeping in and recuperating from the rigors of preparing, eating, and cleaning up after our family Thanksgiving dinner, I got up early on Friday morning, finished hand washing our fancy glasses and took the bus down to the Metropolitan Opera for a final dress rehearsal of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, which is scheduled to open on Tuesday night.

My frequent theater companion Bill regularly attends these working rehearsals at the Met and he's invited me in the past but this was the first time I could make it. But, to my great dismay, I didn't make it there on time. I somehow confused the starting time and so got there after the performance had started. Bill left my ticket at the box office but there's no admittance into the hall once the singing starts and the ushers sent me to the late room, a recital space that has a large screen so that latecomers can see (via a static and dimly lit camera) and hear (via poor mics) what's happening on stage. There were five of us, slouching in our seats like the tardy kids in a high school detention room, and we nearly bolted for the door at intermission time. Bill was waiting for me in the lobby. I abjectly apologized for being late; he graciously filled me in on what I had missed. Then we went inside to his marvelous seats in the Grand Tier and watched the second half of the show.


This isn't the familiar tale of the doomed House of Atreus that you probably read in your middle school Greek mythology. That's the one where Iphigenia's father Agamemnon sacrifices her so that the gods will carry his troops safely to Troy, her vengeful mother Clytemnestra eventually kills Agamemnon, and her dutiful brother later helps slay the mom. That version, told in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, was the Greek playwright’s second crack at the story and is perhaps most famous because it was his final work and posthumously won the Tony of its day, first prize at the Athenian Dramatic Festival. But a few years earlier, Euripides had written Iphigenia in Tauris, in which Iphigenia is saved at the last minute by the goddess Diana, carried away to a foreign land and, after much drama, eventually reconciled with her brother. The 18th century opera innovator Christopher Willibald Gluck set both versions to music and Iphigénie en Tauride is considered by many to be his masterpiece.


The production Bill and I saw debuted at the Seattle Opera last month and its New York appearance will mark the first time in 90 years that Gluck’s penultimate opera will be performed at the Met. The direction by Stephen Wadsworth, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz (you may have seen his Tony Award-winning work in Thoroughly Modern Millie and the most recent revival of Kiss Me, Kate), set by Thomas Lynch and choreography by Daniel Pelzig are all the same but the New York cast includes the dazzling mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Iphigénie, the great tenor Plácido Domingo in the role of her brother Orest (usually sung by a baritone) and rising tenor Paul Groves as Orest’s best friend Pylade.


I'm not a big operagoer and so I'll leave the appraisals to the experts (and to those who arrive early enough to avoid the late room) whose reviews should appear on Wednesday. But I love the theatricality of opera both on stage and off. And I can say that this Iphigenie is certainly theatrical.
But what I really loved was watching the musicians play in their street clothes and seeing techies run down the aisles and into the wings to make adjustments on one thing or another. I even liked watching my fellow audience members sit on the lobby floor and eat brown bag sandwiches during intermission. The production played straight through with no stops. But the cast and crew still seemed to be working on the curtain calls. At one point, Groves walked out only to scurry back off. Those of us lucky to be in the audience clapped anyway. After all, we hadn't come for perfection; we'd come to be insiders.

November 21, 2007

At Least The Shows Are Going On Online

No matter which side you're on, the stagehands' strike has depressed everyone who loves Broadway. (For the best coverage of the strike check out my blog buddy Steve on Broadway, who’s been doing a terrific job of keeping us all up-to-date). In an effort to relieve some of the gloom, I've been trolling the Internet, visiting the official websites that nearly every Broadway show now has. Some, like the one for Cyrano de Bergerac, are little more than online Playbills that simply list the credits of the cast and creative team. But others offer a cornucopia of treats for theater lovers, including production photos; audio and video clips of scenes from the shows; interviews with actors, directors and writers; newsletters with updates on events like which shows will be in this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (look for the casts of Legally Blonde, Mary Poppins, Xanadu and Young Frankenstein); downloadable wallpaper and screen savers for your computer; ringtones for your cellphone, online stores that sell cast albums, souvenirs and tickets; and fan forums where the most devoted can obsess even more about the show and its stars.

Here, in ascending order, are my Top 10 [just click the titles to visit the sites]:

10. The Little Mermaid
disney.go.com/theatre/thelittlemermaid
I'm not a big fan of the Disney sites, which seem kind of chintzy given the resources they have. But this one made it onto the list because it gives a sneak preview of the costumes and set design for the show (one of the four that has postponed its opening due to the strike). The designs look to me like "under the sea" versions of those for Wicked. I'll leave it up to you whether that's a good thing or not.

9. The Homecoming
thehomecomingonbroadway.com
It's obviously harder for plays to create entertaining sites than it is for musicals and this one for the revival of the Harold Pinter classic scheduled to open next month is still a work-in-progress. They haven't posted any photos or video clips yet and director Dan Sullivan has written only one entry on his blog. But it makes my Top 10 because of its wonderfully informative timeline of the Nobel Prize-winning writer's work on Broadway and in the movies, illustrated with the original posters from each production.

8. A Bronx Tale
abronxtaleonbroadway.com
You wouldn't expect a one-man show to offer much but in addition to clips of Chazz Palminteri's engaging performance, there's an audio clip in which he answers questions that fans have posted on his MySpace page.

7. The Drowsy Chaperone
drowsychaperone.com
Truth be told there's not that much really special about this site. But what it does—all the basics: photos, video clips, and an archive of articles about the show—it does really well. And that attention to detail includes making sure that the latest replacements, as well as the original cast, are included in the photos and video clips.

6. Spamalot
montypythonsspamalot.com
All the expected stuff is here (video clips of the big numbers, audio clips of favorite songs, production photos of the various companies) but what I love most is an absolutely silly interactive "Cow Toss" game that's completely in the zany spirit of the show and totally addictive.

5. Hairspray
hairspraythemusical.com
This site pulls out all the stops. There's a history of the show's evolution from the local Baltimore dance show that inspired the John Waters film to the Tony winning musical now in its fifth year on Broadway. And there are video clips of some of the stage show's big numbers, a "jukebox" that plays audio versions of the songs, and a karaoke section that features sing-along instrumentals for hundreds of familiar tunes.

4. The Phantom of the Opera
thephantomoftheopera.com/poto/home.php
The Phantom folks clearly know how to market a show and they don't disappoint here either. There are photos and videos from the show's numerous companies around the world and over the years. And the many, many extras include a Cliff-notes style study guide that talks about subjects like the role of the outcast in literature, a list of interesting facts and numbers connected to the show (total ticket sales $3.2 billion, and counting), and a rundown of all the song numbers with the ability to download some of them for free.

3. Les Misérables
lesmis.com
Everything you could possibly want to know about the show is on this dazzlingly comprehensive site. There's a scene-by-scene breakdown of the show, over two dozen photos, video clips of four production numbers, 10 audio clips and an "education" section that includes a mini-biography of Victor Hugo and a history of his classic novel. The online store offers souvenirs from both the US and UK productions.

2. Rock 'n' Roll
rocknrolltheplay.com
There's something for everyone on this site. History buffs will appreciate the timeline covering the real events,
from the Prague Spring of 1968 to the present, that inspired the play and short background articles on major events and players that figure in the action including the Czech rock band The Plastic People of the Universe and founding Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett. Music fans will enjoy the soundtrack area where they can listen to clips of the 22 songs that underscore the plot during the performance. And for theater lovers there are more than a dozen articles about playwright Tom Stoppard.

1. A Chorus Line
achorusline.com
What makes this website stand out above the rest is the way it replicates the experience of the live performance. The best feature is a series of video clips in which each of the actors talk about what dance means to their lives, just the way the show’s characters do in the "audition" to become part of the chorus line. The webmasters also tie the site to the show by inviting visitors to put themselves on the line by video-recording stories about their lives and uploading them to YouTube. It sounds hokey but some of the entries are surprisingly sweet.

November 17, 2007

The "Radio City Christmas Spectacular"

See two updates on the stagehands' strike at the end of this entry.

Most kids probably get their first exposure to the theater during the holiday season that runs from the week before Thanksgiving to the week after New Year's. Lots of parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts buy tickets for their little ones to see big Broadway shows like Wicked and The Lion King. But a large part of the seasonal merriment comes from the special limited-run shows that play multiple times a day, offer at least some tickets at family-friendly prices and disappear before all the Christmas tinsel is packed away.

Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, with ticket prices running $25 to $99, was scheduled to do up to seven performances a weekend at the St. James Theatre before the stagehand’s strike shut it down (although settlement talks are underway even as I type this*). A few blocks uptown in a big tent in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, the Big Apple Circus is celebrating its 30th season with a new show called Celebrate! that, according to its press handout, features "a live, original musical score, a chic British ringmistress, and of course our own lovable Grandma the Clown" and seats starting at $28. This year the Cirque du Soleil folks got into the holiday spirit with Wintuk, a holiday-centered extravaganza at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden with ticket prices of $30 to $110. And then, of course, there's the granddaddy of holiday family shows, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, where tickets cost $40 to $100 until the end of its run on Dec. 30. Road companies of the Christmas Spectacular are playing across the country this season in places like Fort Lauderdale and Phoenix but, call me provincial if you like, there’s nothing like seeing it in the glorious performance cathedral that Radio City Music Hall is.

I first saw the Christmas Spectacular there when I was about seven and I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen. I loved the precision-dancing Rockettes and the pageantry of the show's version of the Nativity story with its parade of live animals, including camels and an elephant. I took my niece Jennifer when she was around the same age back in the mid '80s. But by then the show seemed a little run down and tacky. Jennifer, a veteran theatergoer by the time she was four, wasn't much impressed. And so it's been about 20 years since I've been back to see a Christmas Spectacular but my family is big on traditions and this year Jennifer and I took her four-year old god-brother Max to see it.


The show is celebrating its 75th anniversary and it's undergone a makeover to make it more attractive to kids who even at the earliest ages are more used to being entertained by Jay-Z music videos and CGI-animated cartoons (click here to see a behind-the scenes NYTimes video on the making of the new Spectacular). The result is a mix of the old and the new. The Rockettes, looking great, perform their traditional, and still amazing, "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" routine, which debuted in 1933, but they also do a few numbers that include some hip-hop moves. "The Living Nativity" is still there (albeit with fewer animals than I remember from the old days) but there's also a high-tech, 3-D animated tour of New York (3-D glasses are pasted in the program). They still do an excerpt from "The Nutcracker" with a lovely little girl ballerina but there's also a jazzy number with dancing Santa Clauses. And there's plenty of opportunity for audience participation (or interactive involvement, as we now call it) from carol sing-alongs to, at the finale, the spinning of small pen lights (they came with the programs too at the opening-night performance we attended).

The 90-minute show didn't live up to the memories of the ones I'd seen in my childhood. But I'm going to let four-year Max have the final the word here. "It was," he told his mother when he got home, "a great Christmas show."

[*An update on Nov 19: According to NY1, the local 24-hour news station with good sources in the Broadway community, How the Grinch Stole Christmas has a separate contract with the stagehands' union Local One and its producers, clearly unhappy to see the other kiddie shows thriving while theirs remained dark, made a separate arrangement with the strikers over the weekend so that its shows can go on starting Nov. 20.]

[A later update on Nov 19: the powers that be at the Jujamcyn Theaters are now threatening to lockout the Grinch producers, who, in turn, say they are going to court to fight for the right to put on their show. I got this info from by buddy Steve at Steve on Broadway.com, which has provided the most comprehensive and update coverage of the strike of any media outlet. So, click on to his blog if you want to know the latest on what has become Broadway's most riveting drama.]

November 14, 2007

Support for the Strike and for "Richard III"

Like many theater lovers, I have mixed feelings about the stagehands' strike that is now in its fifth day. On the one hand, I totally support the stagehands who deserve their share of the record-breaking ticket sales that The League of American Theatres and Producers keeps bragging about and I'm delighted that most of the public seems to feel that way too. "I definitely understand that people work hard and need an increase because of the cost of living," one mother told the New York Times on Saturday morning, the first day of the strike, even as she comforted her young daughter who was disappointed about not seeing Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!. My husband K, a pit musician and a member of the musicians' union Local 802, also spent Saturday on the streets of the theater district showing his support for the stagehands. Local 802, to the dismay of K and many of our musician friends, stayed out only four days when its contract talks broke down during the holiday season of 2003. But the stagehands, apparently seeing how little the musicians got for playing nice, have built up a $4 million war chest and say they are prepared for a long siege. Right on, as we used to say back in the '70s.

On the other hand, I hate to see a dark theater. And street after street of them is depressing enough to make me want to down something strong like a double shot of Dewar’s, and I don't even like Scotch. The brightest spot in all of this is that off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows are still open. There's nothing like a Broadway show but there is some terrific stuff to be seen in the smaller venues too. Last weekend my friend Ellie and I went to see the Classic Stage Company's production of Richard III. It opens the company's 40th season and as we waited for the show to start, Ellie, a former actress, fondly remembered auditioning for CSC when she first got to New York. Ellie now teaches literature and writing to college kids but the folks at CSC are still her kind of people: actors and directors who love the classic canon and who love making it come alive for contemporary audiences. My relationship to the canon, particularly to Shakespeare, is somewhat more ambivalent than Ellie's. I'm usually eager to see what people do with one of the Bard's plays but I'm also often disappointed after I've seen what they've done. But I wasn't disappointed this time. In fact, I had one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in the theater in months. And as regular readers know, I go to the theater a lot.


The evening didn't get off to a great start. The curtain was held for nearly half an hour while the crew worked on an electrical problem. And while they labored, the audience had to stand outside in the theater's small lobby down on East 13th Street. But then, to make the waiting easier, staff members passed around complimentary glasses of red and white wine and cups of espresso and latte. You don't get that kind of treatment on Broadway. What could have been a surly crowd turned into a festive group. Nearly everyone was in a good mood when the doors finally opened.
As it turns out, the show would have been worth the wait even without the libations.

Richard III may be the theater's greatest villain. He's totally evil but, in the right hands, he's also totally entertaining. Michael Cumpsty, an actor who deserves far more recognition than he's gotten, is as sure-handed as they come. For starters, he doesn't declaim the lines, as too many actors do, he just speaks the words as though he were telling you something you want to hear, and as a result you listen and are glad you did. Cumpsty also serves as the production's co-director and he and Brian Kulick have put together an excellent cast, lead by Roberta Maxwell's searing Queen Margaret, the vengeful widow of the king Richard and his brothers deposed and killed; and Michael Potts as the steadfast but ill-fated Duke of Buckingham.

Mark Wendland's simple but elegant set also gives literally brilliant support. Chandeliers are raised and lowered throughout the performance, a mirrored wall slides up and down at the back of the stage, both provide just the right lights, shadows and reflections to illuminate the play in every way. It's a low-budget production and so there's a doubling and tripling of roles that is sometimes confusing and there's some hokey audience participation but not hokey enough that you don't want to participate. All in all, though, it’s the kind of show that gets you involved on every level.

November 10, 2007

"Frankenstein," "Young Frankenstein" & Me

If you ran a popularity contest, Frankenstein would certainly be among the finalists for everyone's favorite monster story. Until now. I've never much cared for horror movies and so I belong to that embarrassed minority of people who have never seen James Whale's 1931 version of "Frankenstein" or Mel Brooks' original 1974 "Young Frankenstein." But even I have kind of an affection for the old green guy and over the past two weeks I couldn't resist seeing the off-Broadway musical, Frankenstein and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein (to call it by its full formal name), which, of course, was the most anticipated show of the Broadway season. I bet I would have had a better time at the movies.

Each of the musicals is a horror in its own way. The off-Broadway production at the 37 Arts theater is a gloomy affair with music by Mark Baron and book and lyrics by Jeffrey Jackson that evoke the worst of the British megamusicals that were big in the '80s. Young Frankenstein (to call it by the name everyone does) is little more than a remake of The Producers in monster drag; only this time the gags and Brooks' pastiche songs are only intermittently amusing and
there's no Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick to make you laugh even when the jokes aren't all that funny.

And that's one of the big problems that both these new shows share: leading men who aren't big enough to lead the productions they're in. Hunter Foster was just right for the boy ingénue parts of Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and Bobby Strong in Urinetown, but I didn't believe for a second that he was the tormented doctor in Frankenstein driven mad by his obsession to recreate life so tha
t he might bring back the loved ones he'd lost. Roger Bart was an hilarious standout as the effeminate Carmen Ghia in The Producers but in Young Frankenstein, he is dwarfed by big-personality performers like Shuler Hensley as the monster; Sutton Foster as Inga, the doctor’s assistant; Megan Mullally as his fiancée Elizabeth; Christopher Fitzgerald as his humpbacked go-fer Igor; and the always magnificent Andrea Martin as his creepy housekeeper Frau Blucher.

The most successful Broadway horror stories have been anchored by spellbinding actors. The slyly seductive Frank Langella propelled the 1977 production of Dracula that went on to play 925 performances. A mesmerizing Michael Crawford helped launch the 8,200 and still counting performances of The Phantom of the Opera. And Robert Cuccioli brought a compelling angst to Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde, which ran for 1,543 performances. If you're going to see a play or a musical about a mad scientist or a monster, you want him to be frighteningly mad in a straight telling of the tale or zanily madcap in a comedic one. You don't want him to be as cute and chipper as a chipmunk.


My husband K and I had gone to see Young Frankenstein on the eve of K's birthday and, in need of some cheer after we left the Hilton Theatre (ironically one of the few theaters not affected by the stagehands’ strike that has closed down most of Broadway today) we walked down 42nd Street to Chez Josephine, the French bistro owned by Jean-Claude Baker, the adopted son of the legendary entertainer Josephine Baker. It is unfailingly one of the best shows in town, from the images of Josephine that decorate the red walls to the pianist who plays show tunes (Harry Connick, Jr. once had the job). But the biggest attraction is Jean-Claude himself. Always nattily dressed in smoking jackets or caftans, he makes a point of coming to each table and chatting with patrons as though they were old friends. We traded opinions about Young Frankenstein and he told us a story about how he had arranged for the cast of Three Mo’ Tenors to sing at a birthday party for Jessye Norman and how they so impressed the great opera star that she joined in singing to herself. Then he swept off to visit other tables and K and I tucked into our dinners (lobster cassoulet for him, boudin noir, the wonderful French black sausage, and crispy frites for me.) It was, by far, the most entertaining part of the evening.

November 7, 2007

Rockin' With Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll

There was a time in the 1960s when you could tell a lot about a person, or thought you could, by the rock bands he or she liked. Everyone loved The Beatles; it was the others that defined you. I split my loyalties between the arty surreality of Jefferson Airplane and the soulful loopiness of Sly & the Family Stone. The boy I loved was in thrall to Jimi Hendrix. My best friend was mad about Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. I knew people who worshiped The Doors, who adored The Rolling Stones, who idolized The Who and who were simply fanatic Deadheads. Apparently Tom Stoppard's bands of choice were Pink Floyd and a reluctantly rebellious Czech group called The Plastic People of the Universe. Both play pivotal roles in his thought-provoking new play Rock ‘n’ Roll about the Sixties, the revolutions it spawned, and the promises they did and didn't fulfill.

I didn't think Rock 'n' Roll was so wonderful while I was sitting there trying to get through its first act. There was so much to absorb about the cranky Cambridge professor, played by Brian Cox, who refuses to renounced communism even after Nikita Khrushchev had revealed Stalin's horrors during the purges of the 1930s and the Soviet Union had cracked down on Hungary's bid for independence in 1956. And about the professor's classics scholar wife, played by Sinead Cusack, who specializes in the poetry of Sappho and wages a fierce battle against cancer. And about the couple's hippie daughter, played by Alice Eve as a young girl and as a middle-aged woman by Cusack. And most especially about the professor's young Czech protégé Jan, brilliantly portrayed by Rufus Sewell, who loves the west and rock music but returns to his homeland shortly after the Soviets sent in tanks and troops to crack down on the reformist Alexander Dubček, whose election had set off a heady but ill-fated period that would come to be known as the Prague Spring.

You usually have to drag me out of my seat at intermission but I couldn't wait to get up after the first 90 minutes of Rock 'n' Roll. It was unseasonably cold outside and so my buddy Bill and I huddled together in a little niche at the back of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and commiserated about the fact that even though we both had admired Stoppard's nine-hour trilogy The Coast of Utopia last season and thought we were reasonably smart people who were aware of the momentous events of 1968, including the Prague Spring, we weren't having a good time. Others seemed to share our dismay. A few, including the people sitting right in front of us, left. "Oh," said Bill, "there's Nathan Lane walking out with his coat on. I wonder if he's coming back?" He did. Bill and I returned to our seats too. And how glad I am that we did. Just a few minutes into the second act, almost all the things I hadn't understood began to make sense and to emerge as a fascinating commentary on a tumultuous time.

It's become quite trendy for people to be rueful about the '60s. And there are traces of that in Rock 'n' Roll. But Stoppard being Stoppard, it doesn't stop there. The playwright, who was born in Czechoslovakia, left before he was 2 and was raised in England from the time he was 9, has said Jan is his alter ego, the person he might have been had he returned to his native country. The play ends with the triumph of Václav Havel's Velvet Revolution in 1989 and all of its scenes are punctuated with smartly-chosen cuts from rock albums of the 20-year period covered in the play (the song titles and all of the music's credits projected on a scrim between the scenes). Unlike The Coast of Utopia, which celebrated the big name revolutionaries of Russia’s 19th century, this play focuses on average people caught up in the convulsions of their time, people like you and me.

After the show, Bill and I walked to Thalia, which I think has the best burgers in the city, although their reputation suffers among cool-conscious foodies because the quick-cook TV chef Rachel Ray has endorsed them. We ordered the burgers, which come with gruyere cheese, great spicy fries and a lovely little salad, along with glasses of the restaurant's “Big House” red wine to wash them down. And we marveled at how much we had enjoyed Rock 'n' Roll. I said I wanted to see it again. But, of course, there's a big part of me that wants to relive the '60s again too.

November 3, 2007

A "Cyrano" With Too Little Panache

My mother never thought of herself as a romantic but she couldn't get enough of stories about unrequited love. The tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, the long-nosed French boulevardier who loves his cousin Roxane but, believing himself too ugly to win her heart, woos her for another man, may have been my mother's favorite and my sister Joanne and I grew up hearing her sing its praises. Our mom was far from the only one who fell in love with Cyrano. The French playwright Edmond Rostand debuted his fictionalized portrayal of a real-life 17th century soldier and writer in 1897. Some historians speculate that the real Cyrano may have been gay but Rostand's heterosexual love triangle was an immediate hit. Within a year, a production opened on Broadway.

Over the 110 years since, there have been Cyrano ballets and operas (including one that premiered at the Michigan Opera Theatre just three weeks ago), movies (most notably José Ferrer's Oscar winning portrayal in 1950), movie adaptations (among them, Steve Martin’s "Roxanne"), a samurai version ("Life of an Expert Swordsman"), a Bollywood version ("Padosan"), at least three Broadway musicals (none of which worked, not even one by Victor Herbert) and 12 play revivals, including the latest which opened this past week starring Kevin Kline as Cyrano, Jennifer Garner, who made her name as the butt-kicking spy on the ABC series "Alias", as Roxane, and Daniel Sunjata as Christian, the good-looking lunkhead who makes up the third in their love triangle.


Kevin Kline seems a natural for the role of the swashbuckling, poetry-spouting Cyrano who introduced the word panache into the English vocabulary. Kline is also my sister's favorite actor and so on her birthday Joanne and I went to see the new Cyrano de Bergerac which is playing a limited run through Dec. 21 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Kline, widely acknowledged as America's leading classical actor, was fine. And Garner, making her Broadway stage debut, was OK too. But both of them, along with director David Leveaux’s entire production—including a cavernous, barn-like set and strangely dim lighting—struck me as overly subdued. When you've come out to cheer on a grand old warhorse, you don't really want to see someone just trot it around the stage, you want them to get on and ride the hell out of it. And maybe that's unfair. Maybe, particularly when the works are so old and have been done so many times, both actors and audiences need to be open to new ways of presenting them.


There are two classics playing on Broadway right now and both have attempted to go off in new directions. In Pygmalion, Jefferson Mays plays Henry Higgins as a petulant man child instead of the crusty old coot that Rex Harrison, Peter O'Toole and others made of him. And instead of walking out of the theater thinking that there might be an after-the-curtain-falls romance between Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, I thought there was probably more of a chance of something blooming between Higgins and his sidekick Colonel Pickering. Pygmalion's playwright George Bernard Shaw famously disliked any suggestions that Higgins and Eliza would come together and so he might have been happy with the Roundabout's current production but the critics weren't crazy about the different interpretation.


Now, Kline has rejected the flamboyant grandiloquence that actors like Ferrer, Walter Hampden (who did three Broadway productions in the ‘20s and ‘30s), Ralph Richardson and Derek Jacobi brought to Cyrano; instead, Kline’s Cyrano is low-key, introspective and almost aloof. Garner, making her Broadway stage debut, puts a different spin on Roxane too, portraying her with the same kind of pluckines that made her "Alias" character Sydney Bristow such a you-go-girl icon; there's even a scene where her Roxane engages in a little swordplay of her own, which the audience at the performance we attended loved.


Some critics, most notably the New York Times' Ben Brantley, also seem to love this production. But I can't help it, I wanted a little more old-fashioned romance and well, a lot more panache.