Thursday, April 30, 2015

Broadway Extravaganza 2014

Hi everyone,

Last fall, I planned a solo Broadway Extravaganza Weekend. At first, I was only going to New York to see Cabaret on my birthday, but when I moved the trip to October, all the stars aligned and descended on Broadway. So, I couldn't help tacking on three more shows. This whirlwind of entertainment brought out my love for theatre in full force. (The 2015 Tony Award nominations were announced this week, so I'm very timely, just seven months after the fact.) Here's the rundown.

The River, Royal Court Theatre Production, Circle on the Square, October 31, 2014

I fell pretty hard for Hugh Jackman after seeing him in his Tony-winning performance as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz in 2004. Who knew Wolverine could be charming, sing, and dance? I next saw him on Broadway in 2009 in A Steady Rain, a gritty drama costarring Daniel Craig. When I read that Hugh Jackman planned to return to Broadway in another drama last year, I bought my ticket without reading much about the plot.

The River, a new one-act play by Jez Butterworth, is about a guy who loves to fish and his two girlfriends. It takes place in the man's cabin, close to where the fishing is good. After the play was over, I heard a few people exclaim how amazing it was, but most of the people around me were bewildered. As we exited the theatre, a lady in front of me turned around and asked anyone who would listen, "Who was the woman with the scratched out face? What did it mean? Do you know?"

This play seemed purposefully confusing to spark this kind of conversation afterward. For example, Hugh Jackman's character (The Man) started one scene with Cush Jumbo (The Woman), who then walked into the bedroom off stage. Then, Laura Donnelly (The Other Woman) came out of the supposed bedroom, continuing the conversation but within a different context. They were actually talking about something else at a different time. Although nothing was ever quite clear, the play was cleverly written and entertaining. During the show, I kept making up scenarios that explained what it all meant. Maybe the first woman represents a new relationship and the other one represents a past one. Maybe he killed one of them, and her scenes are memories. I kept waiting for something sinister to happen that never did.

Cush Jumbo and Hugh Jackman 
The acting in this play made it worth it. Only Hugh Jackman could keep our full attention while talking about fish and fishing or sustaining a lengthy scene alone, preparing a fish dinner in silence – gutting the fish, cutting up veggies, putting everything in a pan and in an oven. (We didn't get to eat it.) I wondered if I'd be bored if an unknown actor was doing the same thing, but this play's other two cast members were unknown to me and yet equally fantastic.  

Someone responded to the frustrated lady's questions with what she thought everything meant, clearing it up for us with an explanation that never occurred to me: Hugh Jackman's character is a sleazy, shallow guy with commitment issues. Have I mentioned that Hugh Jackman is a really great actor?

Cabaret, Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, November 1, 2014

I've seen Bob Fosse's 1972 movie version of Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, so many times that I've hesitated seeing it live on stage, directed and performed by other people. This production, however, excited me with director Sam Mendes, co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall, and stars Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams. (This revival was a close copy of the 1998 Broadway production, which also starred Alan Cumming as the Kit Kat Club's emcee.)

Cabaret is based on a book by Christopher Isherwood about the Nazis' rise to power in Berlin in 1931. The story involves Kit Kat Club cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams) and her relationship with a young writer (Bill Heck). In a side story, their landlady and her Jewish beau share a doomed romance. The actors who played these roles, Linda Emond and Danny Berstein, were the only cast members to earn Tony nominations last year, and they deserved them! The best thing about Cabaret, though, is the musical numbers and atmospheric staging that made this show a true cabaret-going experience. I sat in the balcony, where each two seats shared a connected table and lamp that had a red shade with fringe. Ushers, dressed as waiters, walked around offering food and drinks. If you were rich enough for floor seats, you could sit at tables, as if you were really in the Kit Kat Club. Twenty minutes before the show started, dancers roamed on to the stage, stretching, posing, and chatting with audience members. We were all in it!

Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming
Reprising his role, Alan Cumming seems born to play the role of emcee. Before I saw this show, I kept unintentionally hearing that Michelle Williams was just so-so as Sally Bowles. It's not true! First, if you're comparing her to Liza Minnelli, like I did at first, forget it because they're completely different people. If you're putting Michelle Williams's Sally Bowles next to Alan Cumming's over-the-top character that was already dubbed as the reason to see this thing before it even opened, that's not fair. Though I had to get used to Sally Bowles being British and the writer being American (instead of the other way around as it is in the movie version), I thought Michelle Williams had an interesting presence in this mix of characters as well as a great singing voice. (Soon after I saw Cabaret, Emma Stone and Sienna Miller took over the role of Sally Bowles respectively before it closed in March.)

Any story about Nazis is depressing, but the Kit Kat Club will cheer you up with its nightly performances and fantastic live band. You'll get your chance to come to the cabaret when this show tours in 2016. Find more information here.

The Last Ship, Neil Simon Theatre, November 1, 2014, and January 10, 2015

Of all the shows that I saw during this Broadway Extravaganza weekend, The Last Ship was the one I thought about the least. Sting spent at least five years working on developing this musical, a story written by Tony winners John Logan and Brian Yorkey (Red) and based in Sting's hometown and on its working-class citizens. I knew I had to see The Last Ship, and that I'd have a good time, but I didn't expect how much I'd absolutely love everything about it and how delirious and emotional I'd feel by its end.

The story, which takes place in the ship-building town of Wallsend, begins with Gideon (Michael Esper) skipping town to escape his abusive father (Jamie Jackson) and the fate of taking over his job in the shipyards. He leaves behind his girlfriend Meg (Rachel Tucker) but promises to return for her once he's settled. Fifteen years later, he returns when he hears of his father's death, discovers that the shipyards are on the verge of closing down, and finds his girlfriend in new life with another man (Aaron Lazar) and teenage son (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). Encouraged by the town's likable priest Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate), the shipbuilders decide to build one last ship for pride's sake. Although Gideon fought against that way of life, he finds purpose in helping them, gains a sense of community he's missed, and struggles to come to terms with his past.

Sting released an album inspired by The Last Ship, and all of the songs are from this story's characters' points of view. I loved how this show incorporated those songs so seamlessly. The cast members sang them in character, making them entirely their own. (Lucky for us, an original Broadway cast recording is available!) The lyrics swiftly move the story along, and it was exciting to hear them make sense in this context. The show included some new songs I'd never heard before as well as some of Sting's old songs, including "Island of Souls," "All This Time," "Ghost Story," and "When We Dance." (For this show, the lyrics were changed only slightly to fit into the story and they work!) It's true that I love nearly all of Sting's music, but I think these latest songs that he wrote for The Last Ship are his best yet.

Ship-buider solidarity in the rain...  Photo © unknown
The set and staging was impressive and seemed expensive. The stage was wooden but one side of it looked like a dock, and a large basin of water extended off and along the front of the stage to represent the sea. The backdrop included stone with stained glass windows for a church setting, rusted steel with ladders to represent the ship, and metal staircases and balconies on either side for different entrances and exits. Lighting added to the atmosphere, portrayed ocean waves or sunlight flooding the church. The shipbuilders had real equipment too, working on scaffolding and with welding machines. It rained onstage at one point and, at another, the workers literally pulled the ship together, making the stage floor rise up into shape.

Rachel Tucker and Aaron Lazar
I loved that this story involved working-class people. The scenes were mostly either in a bar or in a shipyard, and everybody yelled at each other in a get-over-yourself sort of way. The choreography was unique with tough-guy moves because shipbuilders aren't dancer. (Think of West Side Story!) The cast was fantastic, including my standout favorites Rachel Tucker as Gideon's girlfriend Meg and Fred Applegate as Father O'Brien.

I saw The Last Ship a second time in early January after it was announced that Sting would take over the role of shipyard foreman Jackie White from his friend Jimmy Nail through the end of the show's short run on January 24th. Aside from attracting more theatergoers and singing the songs with his unmistakeable voice, Sting's involvement didn't make much difference to me because he was acting in character. I was so invested in the story, which was solidly written with so many fully realized characters, that I lost him in the crowd sometimes. Being the fanatical Sting fan I am, I'm pretty sure that means that they had a good thing going here. I cried at the end of both performances!

Sting! (with Fred Applegate in the background)
I was sure that The Last Ship was going to win a bunch of Tonys this year, including Best Musical, but I think it closed too soon (due to lack of ticket sales) to get everyone's attention. It received two Tony nominations for Sting (best original score) and Rob Mathes (best orchestrations). I'm sad that The Last Ship has already closed on Broadway, but I'm sure this won't be the end of it. I eagerly await its return to the stage in whatever form it may take.

On The Town, Lyric Theatre, November 2, 2014

I was still so delirious about The Last Ship that I watched On the Town the following day in a blur. On the Town is one of my favorite Gene Kelly movie musicals, which I know by heart. Like the movie musical, this Broadway revival is G-rated and family friendly. On the Town originally hit Broadway in 1944, but the story is universal. It follows three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City. They soon fall for three lovely ladies, take them on the town, and have an adventure in the big city. This funny, entertaining show, written by the great Betty Comden and Aldolph Green with wonderful music by Leonard Bernstein, is a classic that I'd never seen on stage.

What I love about this production is that the abstract sets reminded me of the backdrops of my favorite old Warner Brothers cartoons, as did some of the exaggerated performances. Jackie Hoffman as music instructor Madam Dilly and Jackie Hoffman as Lucy Schmeeler, for example, offered some broad, slapstick comedy, making us laugh just the way they walked or reacted to situations. The highlight of this show, of course, was Leonard Bernstein's score and Jerome Robbins inspired dancing (choreographed by Joshua Bergasse). The beautiful Pas de Deux performed by stars Tony Yazbeck as Gabey and Megan Fairchild as Ivy too everyone's breath away.

It was wonderful to see this show with so many others of all ages in the audience, all of us sharing a laugh and mesmerizing moments. I think this show is going to last. This production of On the Town is nominated for four Tony Awards in the musical category: leading actor (for Tony Yasbeck), best director, best choreography, and best revival. Visit the show's official website to learn more and plan a trip to see it.

You can catch the Tonys on Sunday, June 7, 2015, on CBS. Here's a full list of this year's nominees.


Production photo credits: The River – © Sarah Krulwich/New York Times; Cabaret – © Joan Marcus; The Last Ship – first two photo © unknown, photo with Sting © Photo Art; On the Town – © Joan Marcus

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