Archive for October, 2010

Review – The Scottsboro Boys – Lyceum Theater (New York City)

October 11, 2010

Of all of the shows opening in New York this autumn, the one I was most excited about was Scottsboro Boys. Not Elf, not Pee Wee Herman, not Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – but a (for all intents and purposes) new musical by the brilliant team of Kander and Ebb. I couldn’t wait to have the chance to hear their musicality and wit applied anew (albeit somewhat after the fact given that Ebb died in 2004, leaving the lyrics behind). Frankly, the chance to see this show was a cause for hootin’ and hollerin’ and practically reason enough to support my pilgrimage across the pond to the Great White Way (though I was mostly going to see ballet). Previews were starting the last three days of my visit, and by gum, I was gonna go!

Four days later, I’m still finding it a bit difficult to summarize the show in a review-worthy way. In its offensiveness, it’s right up there with Jerry Springer:The Musical – a show I adored for its high-kicking, multi-racial chorus line of Ku Klux Klansmen at the end of act one. But watching a play that digs so hard at America’s racist past without feeling uncomfortable was pretty much impossible on the face, and add to it shovelfulls of creepy “ole time” images (such as black men in white face and an actor scratching his head like he was a gorilla) with a thick helping of anti-Semitism on top (what was the name of that song, “Don’t Take That Jew Money?”* – not one I’ll be singing at the piano bar any time soon), and you, too, may be asking yourself if this is a show worth sitting through (like the African-American audience woman I queried at the end of the show who was ready to walk after 20 minutes). I had to ask myself: if we support this show as audience members, are we supporting the racist and anti-semitic messages of its characters and of several aspects of the production?

This question is further complicated by the obvious anti-racist message: the whole point of the show is that the nine black men accused of rape in 1930s Alabama were individuals with hopes and dreams, talent and ambition. Our ability to tolerate the evil attitudes of the society surrounding them is somewhat tempered by having all of the roles played by these men (other than the near-invisible “interlocutor”): thus the sherrif who beats them and the women who accuse them are all black men, a situation which, I think, just barely manages to temper the evil words that come out of their mouths. Still, when the Alabama attorney goes on an anti-Northern, anti-Jewish rant … suddenly I was brought back to the history of enmity between these two communities, and I didn’t find it the least bit comic. It was ameliorated by the fact that the character being reviled was quite decent, just as much as his defendents (if clearly suffering from his own superiority and racist issues, per one of his songs), but … nails on a chalkboard, I tell you. Letting the nine men rip apart a song about the sweet old South – and how crappy it really was if you weren’t white – didn’t do enough to sugar over these other vile words.

Being uncomfortable really does seem to be at the heart of this show. The actors were the creme de la creme, and I was thrilled to see, finally, a stage full of black talent (how long has it been?), in a show that really let them show off their skills as performers. The show has great singing, a horrifying (yet well-executed) tap dancing routine, and an execution that lets the actors display their range as they (nearly all) play several roles. I was disappointed that the music didn’t show the lyrical wit of other works by Kander and Ebb …. yet there was no doubt that what I saw was extremely powerful. I’m not familiar with the conceit of a minstrel show, so I can’t say to what extent it held up (or held a warped mirror up to) the tradition.

Still …. when I thnk back on all of the musicals I’ve seen this year, Scottsboro Boys will stand out for many reasons. I’m still out on whether it’s a must-see or better-to-avoid. Yet, as someone who’s dedicated to theater as an art form, I am leaning toward see, because anything that makes me this uncomfortable and sparks as much discussion as this show did is probably better faced and dealt with than avoided.

* Actually the song is called “Financial Advice,” but, like “Dance 10, Looks 3” it’s unlikely to be known by its actual title.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on October 8, 2010. For another view, see David Finkle’s review in the Huffington Post or Steve On Broadway’s review of the Guthrie production. The show is booking at least through the end of February, 2011. For a deeper analysis of what this show is trying to do, please see Patrick Healy’s New York Times article.)

Review – A Life in the Theater – Schoenfeld Theater NYC

October 8, 2010

With only one week to see shows in New York, what was I going to see? I have been dividing my time between ballet and theater, but ballet was easy; there’s really only one place to go (City Ballet) and it was just a matter of figuring out which casts I wanted to see. In figuring out which plays to see, I used Steve On Broadway’s website, which has listings of new show openings, and picked from them … well, amongst other shows, A Life in the Theater, because 1) it’s by David Mamet, who I think writes good plays 2) it is only 90 minutes long, leaving me time to socialize with my hostess 3) it has Patrick Stewart in it, and he rocked my socks as Macbeth a few years back. So, tickets in my grubby hands, my hostess and I headed to Times Square and ducked down a little street (full of amazing theaters!) for our $75, 3rd row (but rather a bit off to the side) seats.

To my disappointment, the audience gave Stewart an ovation for the act of walking on stage. People! He is an actor, wait to applaud until he’s actually done some acting! However, once that was over, we settled down to a very pleasant show with a shocking lack of swearing (though it was funny to hear four letter words in such distinguished tones). The play is set up as a series of scenes between two actors, done back stage, on stage, in the wings, after the show, et cetera, though always in the theater. I thought it was going to be kind of “All About Eve” ish, with the young actor, John, (T.R. Knight) trying to step over the established pro Robert (Stewart); but the scenes they were shown doing on stage didn’t indicate that the younger really was ever understudy to the older. Instead, it was more about the older actor passing on the traditions of the theater to the younger one … but also about the younger actor rising up in his career and sort of getting to the point where the older one, rather than feeling superior because of his knowledge, is now feeling insecure because his career is fading in comparison to John’s.

However … this may have been a theme and what created the “story,” such as it was, but what I liked about this play was not the character development so much as the scenes they did when they were actually on stage during shows. There are a lot of things that can go wrong during a show, and I LOVE it when I get a chance to see an actor having to ad-lib or otherwise dig himself out of an unexpected situation on stage (like the time the power went off when I was watching a Theater Schmeater show in Seattle, or when the chair collapsed in Too Close to the Sun) as the tension is nearly unbearable. This show had several scenes in which the actors were forced to deal with a variety of such catastrophes, and while I realize these were probably not what this show was about, they were just so damned funny that, well, if I had any question in mind about whether or not to recommend this show, they’re what have pushed me over into the OMG so funny MUST SEE camp. Sure, the acting is good (Knight seemed fine but not amazing, Stewart glowed in his role, handling both comedy and pathos well), but what mattered to me is that it was a good night out, 90 nearly perfect minutes, absolutely up my alley as a topic, and some laughs like a cherry on top of the deep stuff. I think $70 was still too much to pay for this (given how spoiled I am by UK theater pricing), but I was really glad to have a chance to see this show and I’ll be pushing it to all of my friends as a perfect after work treat.

(This review is for the evening preview performance that took place on Wednesday, October 6th, 2010. A Life in the Theater officially opens October 12th and runs through January 2nd, 2011.)

Review – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – Jacobs Theater NYC

October 6, 2010

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: what is the hype about? Even from London I was hearing people say, “This is a must-see show!” “The new musical of the fall!” And so I bought tickets. Then I got to NYC and there are posters everywhere showing what looks like the cover of “Born in the USA” and talking about sexy pants. Other than the fact it was going to go for just under two hours without an interval (point in its favor really), just what was I about to see?

Walking into the Bernard Jacobs theater (down the street from Elf and Driving Miss Daisy), I was faced with an atmosphere of seedy frontier-ism – a stuffed horse hung from the ceiling (and over the audience), there were all sorts of mounted animal heads on the stage as well as an antler chandelier, the entire house had been turned into an extension of the set with red lights and Western paraphernalia everywhere. The whole place looked like an environment where anything could happen. I thought, bring it on!

So … as it turns out, this isn’t a traditional type musical (a la Avenue Q) where you have songs that you want to sing afterward – instead, it’s one of those, I think, rock type musicals (a la Spring Awakening) where the actors grab microphones and sing songs to the audience, or to each other, that sort of express what they’re thinking, but not in any kind of particularly tuneful way, just … kinda forgettable rock songs in my book.

However, the show itself is a tornado of energy with an impact that surpasses its thin-on-the-ground songbook. All of the arrogance and idiocy of Andrew Jackson’s presidency is on full display with no apologies or idolization (even of the slavery situation, which to me honest seems like small beans given how many Indians he slaughtered), and while it sounds like a dull school book, instead it is a hot pants-wearing, icon breaking, history-bending journey of every contradiction and all of the fucked-uppedness that makes America the schizophrenic nation it is today. It’s a great mirror of the Teabagger-frenzy for populism – it gets support as long as the people’s goals suit the goals of the people in power. And once you’ve got power on that big old “government for the people” platform, you just do whatever the hell you want, right?

Despite the damnable fun-ness of this show, I’m just not buying it having legs. A big theater like the Jacobs costs a pile to keep running, and I’m not imagining the people paying for the shows nearby – shows either very fuzzy wuzzy or with intellectual pretensions – really wanting to go to something so obnoxious and tasteless (i.e. shooting a woman in an wheelchair, a joke about Susan Sontag having cancer, the character who drooled ropes of spit so long they were flung into the audience). I saw some people leaving no more than ten minutes into the show – possibly offended by all of the penis jokes – and I could see a lot of what I consider the typical Broadway audience fleeing in droves – or, in this case, just not bothering to buy tickets. If that’s the case, this show will probably have a vivid life on the fringe, right next to “Cannibal, the Musical”- but I’m afraid that in my crystal ball, I’m seeing a short run for this show. That said, if this sounds like your kind of show, I recommend buying a ticket soon if you want to see it in its fully-fledged Broadway glory.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 4th, 2010.)