An Elegy for Angus McIndoe’s

Much to my surprise, and the surprise of many in the NY theatre community, it was announced today that Angus’ Cafe Bistro (formerly Angus McIndoe Restaurant) would close Sunday, January 3 after 14-plus years on 44th Street next to the St. James. In all honesty, I can’t remember the first time I went to Angus, but it feels as though it’s always been part of my theatergoing life. I’m guessing it must have been in late 2007, or maybe early 2008; the details are lost to me. But it quickly became a regular hangout where I spent time with good friends, and where I met so many new and fascinating (and sometimes famous) people.

To be honest, the menu didn’t interest me all that much. They made a decent burger and an even better White Russian, so I was satisfied. The location was insanely convenient, since we were almost always coming from or going to a show. We were allowed to take up residence at our table or the bar for as long as we wanted (most often you’d find us near the large windows on the ground floor).

We got to know the staff that came and went, and they were always happy to see us. Brunches, lunches, dinners, or drinks – most often with theater bloggers; it was a time to savor. There were days, often Sundays, where we would start brunch at some other restaurant, but we eventually made our way to Angus for the afternoon, and sometimes evening. There were also those rare days where we’d start at Angus, go to our respective shows, and then meet back for further hijinks.

And what hijinks they were. Kari Geltemeyer and I spotted Stephen Sondheim grabbing a quick drink after the opening night of Gypsy in 2008. (Why we didn’t think of asking him to join our own opening night party, where we drank and read reviews until they shut down, is beyond me). After the closing of this same production, the cast made its way to Angus to celebrate. I asked Marilyn Caskey (Electra) what it was like appearing in the one-performance flop The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall. She told me I was the first person who had ever asked her about that show in her entire career.

Then there was the raucous night we closed down the joint with the West End Whingers and Baz Bamingoye, all stranded in NY because of that volcano in Iceland. Or after the first preview of Finian’s Rainbow, when SarahB and I were seated by Angus himself. It seemed that everyone we knew or wanted to know was there, as we chatted with Kate Buddeke and Kate Baldwin. Sarah and I were rechristened Elsa and Max that night, as we found ourselves singing “Edelweiss” with cast members from Superior Donuts.

After a pre-show drink before the opening night of Superior Donuts with Steve Loucks, Doug Lyon and Gil Varod, I met Elizabeth Ashley in the entrance alleyway. Though she was by herself, she seemed to be holding court, with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in another. I couldn’t resist myself and said hello, and we got chatting. She asked me my name and shook my hand. We chatted for about fifteen minutes mostly about her career, and it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. Goodbyes were made when her friend (who happened to be Penny Fuller) showed up.

After the closings of both August: Osage County and [title of show], SarahB and I spent hours having a casual dinner and drinks, chatting and being ridiculous. I recall many other jaunts: after seeing A Little Night Music, Follies, Blithe Spirit — the list goes on and on. Angus was also the spot the Independent Theater Bloggers Association chose to celebrate the life of theater journalist Patrick Lee after his untimely death in 2010.

Following the closing of Mary Stuart, our party ended up at a table adjacent to Janet McTeer and Marian Seldes. Interestingly it was a table of nobodies who reprimanded our fun with a terse “PIPE DOWN, WILL YA!” (They apologized on their way out. As they should). That afternoon was as close as I’ve ever come to a full-on spit take in public.

The last time I went into Angus was about a year or so ago. I found myself nostalgic for the many good times I had spent there, but it was different. I didn’t know anyone who was working there anymore. I was still seated near the front window but even the interior had changed. I was later startled to walk by one day to discover the alleyway entrance was now the door to a fish and chips shop. The cafe’s entrance was now in the front, right where our corner roundtable once sat. I don’t know much about the restaurant business, but can’t imagine keeping a restaurant open in a prime area of NYC is an easy task. I’m sorry Angus is closing, but forever grateful for the many, many happy memories I had there with many, many wonderful friends.

The Year of Living Cinematically

Same as every other year: all films were watched in their entirety and all films that I’d never seen before have been marked with an asterisk.

*The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) 1/16
*Into the Woods (2014) 1/24
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) 2/2
*Pride (2014) 2/10
*Birdman (2014) 2/22
*The Great Race (1965) 2/27
His Girl Friday (1940) 3/25
1776 (1972) 6/5
Don’t Look Now (1973) 6/19
Breaking Away (1979) 6/24
A Man for All Seasons (1966) 6/24
The Remains of the Day (1993) 6/25
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) 6/28
*A Hard Day’s Night (1964) 7/4
*Marathon Man (1976) 7/8
*The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) 7/22
*The Strawberry Blonde (1941) 7/23
Waking Ned Devine (1999) 7/24
Sixteen Candles (1984) 8/1
*She’s Having a Baby (1988) 8/3
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) 8/6
Topkapi (1964) 8/15
*Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) 8/22
The Enchanted Cottage (1945) 8/23
*The L-Shaped Room (1962) 8/23
*The Moon Is Blue (1953) 8/24
The Magnificent Seven (1960) 9/2
*Centennial Summer (1946) 9/3
The Caine Mutiny (1954) 9/3
*Love Letters (1945) 9/5
Twister (1996) 9/7
*I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) 9/7
*Holy Matrimony (1943) 9/7
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) 9/23
Psycho (1960) 9/23
A Room with a View (1985) 9/29
The Addams Family (1991) 10/7
*Frankenstein (1931) 10/9
*Bride of Frankenstein (1935) 10/10
Addams Family Values (1993) 10/12
Day for Night (1973) 10/13
*The Mummy (1932) 10/16
Oklahoma! (1955) 10/19
My Fair Lady (1964) 10/20
*Dracula (1931) 10/24
*Gremlins (1984) 10/29
The Uninvited (1944) 10/30
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) 10/31
The Monster Squad (1987) 10/31
Halloween (1978) 11/1
In Cold Blood (1967) 11/18
The Bishop’s Wife (1947) 12/22
Christmas Vacation (1989) 12/26

My Favorite Performances, 2015

Kristin Chenoweth, On the Twentieth Century – Very rarely have I seen a marriage of performer and character more perfect than Chenoweth and Lily Garland. Ferociously funny, surprising, and using her multi-octave voice to breathtaking comic effect, she dominated from her entrance as a dowdy rehearsal pianist to her manic, idiosyncratic delivery of “How dare you?” in the last scene, which I found so hilarious, I almost had an asthma attack. A dazzling comic star turn.

Judi Dench, The Winter’s Tale – Shakespeare’s bizarre little play was given a beautiful production as part of Kenneth Branagh’s year-long season at the Garrick. As Paulina, King Leontes’ trusted advisor, Dench swept onto the stage and delivered Shakespeare’s dialogue as if it were as natural as breathing air. Her command and breathtaking control, particularly in scenes where her character is constantly on the verge of getting herself into serious trouble, gave me full-body chills. There’s a certain element of audience affection for a legend involved here, but a performance couldn’t stand on that alone. Dench has prove herself, once again, as one of the foremost Shakespearean interpreters of our time.

Ellen Greene, Little Shop of Horrors –  This summer’s Encores! presentation was more a revival in the religious sense than theatrical, with the faithful coming to worship at the altar of Ellen Greene. It’d been 33 years since Little Shop first opened off-Broadway, but Greene entered in that form-fitting dress, blonde wig and the years faded away. A triumph of humor and pathos, Greene resurrected the non-specific accent, dead-pan wit and heart as big as all out doors. The audience screamed its approval when she entered, and by the time she and her formidable co-star Jake Gyllenhaal finished “Suddenly Seymour,” the entire audience at City Center leapt to its feet for a thunderous standing ovation. During the character’s final scene, I’ve so rarely seen a performer make an audience vacillate between tears and laughter every other line. I rarely consider use the word “definitive,” but Ellen Greene’s Audrey is so perfect and iconic there is just no other term for it.

Matt Henry, Kinky Boots – I hadn’t seen Kinky Boots before its London production (because accents) and I am grateful to have seen Henry’s triumph as Lola (a role which won Billy Porter a Tony). Killian Donnelly slays as Charlie, the proprietor of the boots shop, but the evening belongs to Henry, who is fierce, funny, and moving. Mr. Henry’s flashy, flawless star turn is probably as close as we’ll ever get to Grace Jones in a stage musical.

Ruthie Ann Miles, The King and I – Providing formidable support in the court of Siam as Lady Thiang, some of Miles’ greatest moments were her arresting silences. She observed, listened, and absorbed in all her surroundings as the concerned mother of a Crown Prince, but also as the wisest person in the room. Watching her rejoice when her son accepts Mrs. Anna, or seeing her instant grief during the finale, hers was a performance of astonishing complexity. “Western People Funny,” a number that has proven problematic in recent years became, in her hands, a droll indictment of Western imperialism.

Kelli O’Hara, The King and I – A performance of such grace and strength, I found myself weeping with joy the moment she started to sing “Hello, Young Lovers,” and again many more times (most surprisingly “Getting to Know You”). She offers a first-rate rendering of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and brings a staunch feminist sensibility to Mrs. Anna (some of which is due to Mr. Hammerstein, but Ms. O’Hara’s Anna isn’t taking guff from any man). Funny, heartwarming and often quite tender; it’s a performance I want to relive again and again.

Benjamin Scheuer, The Lion – Scheuer wrote and performed this solo bio-musical, which takes us through the highs and lows of his life (thus far). He touches on a complicated relationship with his father, a battle with cancer, but Scheuer’s memoir is inspiring and moving, never maudlin. He’s more of a singer-songwriter (and virtuosic guitarist) than actor, but his enthusiasm and connection with the audience was authentic, sincere and ultimately profound.

Chita Rivera, The Visit – Ms. Rivera headlined this dark, unrelenting weird musical adaptation of the Duerrenmatt play about a revenge-seeking widow. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the show after the first preview, but it kept me up most of the night thinking about. I ended up seeing the show three times (I liked it!), including the closing where Ms. Rivera, one of the legendary pros, went on with laryngitis. She modified what was a mesmerizing performance in the spur of the moment into something transcendent. I knew by the time she got to the end of the first line of her first song that we were in for something truly special. 85% of her singing was sprechstimme, making the moments she could actually sing all the more impactful. The lack of voice only seemed to enhance her performance; everything was more visceral, more haunting and more devastating. Her eleven o’clock number received a 75-second standing ovation. A master class like none other.

Imelda Staunton, Gypsy – This performance so rocked my solar plexus that I flew over to see the show twice more during its final week. Staunton’s Rose is a harrowing, yet irresistible creation with one foot in classical theatre and the other in musical comedy. I have never been so moved by this most classic of musicals. I didn’t think it was possible at this point to surprise me, but within 60 seconds of her entrance, I had gasped aloud in shock.  Staunton’s arc is so complex and fully-realized that it made her performance at the Savoy so unsettling real and perhaps identifiable. Her “Rose’s Turn” was less a mad scene than a journey of harsh self-discovery, and her immediate breakdown afterwards was a like an exorcism. What also astonished me was how her focus sharpened over the course of the run (I’ve seen other Roses who have gone off the rails by the end of their contracts) and made certain moments smaller, more disciplined, and ultimately more impactful and terrifying. The end result was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen in a musical.

Lydia Wilson, King Charles III – Mike Bartlett ingeniously repurposes the history play as futuristic speculation, taking a look at what might happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies and Prince Charles ascends the throne. Anchored with a Lear-like portrait of Charles by the sensational Tim Pigott-Smith, the play offers the blank verse, asides and even the ghost you might find in Shakespeare. What struck me most was Lydia Wilson’s portrayal of sunny Kate Middleton as a privately Machiavellian wife; a performance of such surprise cunning that she would make Lady Macbeth flee in terror. Her feminist soliloquy explaining her actions is one of the high points of this contemporary masterpiece.

The best ensemble I saw (out of so many great ones this year) was the cast of the Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd, which I saw during its return West End engagement. With the show was pared down to its barest elements, a cast of 8 and an audience of 69 experienced a most intimate, harrowing production of the Sondheim-Wheeler classic in the most apt location: a meat pie shop. We were seated at long tables on uncomfortable benches; there was even an option to eat pre-show pie and mash. Some audience members were pomaded, while others were lucky enough to have their throats briefly kissed by Sweeney’s razor. This conspiratorial atmosphere was so perfect that the audience didn’t applaud until the end of each act; it would have destroyed the magic. Jeremy Secomb, Siobhan McCarthy, Duncan Smith, Ian Mowat, Kiara Jay, Nadim Naaman, Joseph Taylor, and Zoë Doano were exceptional. (PS: you haven’t lived until Sweeney Todd has wielded a cleaver a foot from your head).

My Year in Show Music

Last New Year’s Eve, while preparing my annual “Year of Living Cinematically” post, I sat typing with my recently-played iTunes playlist on shuffle. At some point during my transcription, I came to the realization that I’ve been less likely to listen to a full album since I started using an mp3 player. Oftentimes, I would pick a playlist and put it on shuffle (as I call it: my own private radio). For 2015, I made the conscious decision to keep a log of the albums (cast recordings, movie musical soundtracks, solo albums, live concert recordings, etc) that I listened to in their entirety. Each recording is linked to its own page on (a site I recommend for any serious collector of theatre music). An asterisk indicates a recording I listened to for the first time).

1/2: Beautiful [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/2: If/Then [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/3: Two on the Aisle [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/3: The Merry Widow [1958 Sadler’s Wells Opera Cast Recording]
1/7: Anya [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/9: Honeymoon in Vegas [Original Broadway Cast Recording]*
1/9: Kiss Me, Kate [New Broadway Cast Recording]
1/10: Hairspray [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/13: Company [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/13: A Little Night Music [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/13: Pacific Overtures [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/13: Merrily We Roll Along [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
1/14: Kiss of the Spider Woman [Original London Cast Recording]
1/16: On the Town [1960 Studio Cast Recording]
1/21: The Merry Widow [1952 Studio Cast Recording]
1/26: The Merry Widow [1978 NYCO Cast Recording]*
2/8: The Bridges of Madison County [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
2/15: The Ethel Merman Disco Album*
2/21: Side Show [Original 2014 Broadway Cast Recording]*
3/2: The Sound of Music [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – 50th Anniversary]
3/9: The Merry Widow [1978 Studio Cast]*
3/14: On the Town [New Broadway Cast Recording]*
3/14: The King and I [Music Theater of Lincoln Center Cast Recording]
3/16: 1776 [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
3/22: Paint Your Wagon [Original London Cast Recording]
4/16: Gypsy [The 2015 London Cast Recording]*
4/25: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
4/26: Matilda [Original Stratford Cast Recording]
5/3: Gypsy [The 2015 London Cast Recording]
5/4: Zorba [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
5/11: Zorba [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
5/14: Barbara Cook: It’s Better With a Band
5/15: Gigi [New Broadway Cast Recording]*
5/19: On the Twentieth Century [New Broadway Cast Recording]*
5/19: Fun Home [Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording]
5/24: Marin Mazzie: Make Your Own Kind of Music [Live at 54 Below]*
5/24: The Last Ship [Original Broadway Cast Recording]*
5/24: Mame [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
5/26: The Sound of Music [OMPS New 2-LP Edition]
5/27: An American in Paris [Original Broadway Cast Recording]*
5/30: Street Scene [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
5/31: Laura Osnes: Dream a Little Dream [Live at the Cafe Carlyle]
5/31: Laura Osnes: If I Tell You [The Songs of Maury Yeston]*
5/31: Illya Darling [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/1: Hallelujah, Baby! [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/2: The King and I [The 2015 Broadway Cast Recording]*
6/2: The Golden Apple [First Full-Length Recording]*
6/3: The Golden Apple [First Full-Length Recording]
6/7: Judy Kuhn: Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel*
6/9: The King and I [The 2015 Broadway Cast Recording]
6/10: The Scottsboro Boys [Original London Cast Recording]*
6/11: Me and Juliet [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/15: Hair [The New Broadway Cast Recording – LP Edition]
6/15: Marilyn Maye: The Happiest Sound in Town* [LP]
6/17: Rags [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/17: Ragtime [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/18: Fifty Million Frenchmen [Studio Cast Recording]*
6/18: High Spirits [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/18: High Society [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]
6/19: The Boys from Syracuse [Encores! Cast Recording]
6/21: The King and I [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/21: West Side Story [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/21: The Most Happy Fella [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/22: John & Jen [2015 Off-Broadway Cast Recording]*
6/22: Grab Me a Gondola [Original London Cast Recording]*
6/26: Misia [Studio Cast Recording]*
6/26: Miss Liberty [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
6/26: Irma La Douce [Original London Cast Recording]
6/28: Barbra Streisand: The Second Barbra Streisand Album
6/28: Giant [Original Cast Recording]
6/29: Regina [1958 NYCO Cast Recording]
6/30: The Visit [Original Broadway Cast Recording]*
6/30: Oh, What a Lovely War [Original London Cast Recording]*
7/2: The Visit [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
7/2: Little Shop of Horrors [Original Cast Recording]
7/9: The King and I [The 2015 Broadway Cast Recording]
7/11: The Visit [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
7/11: West Side Story [2013 San Francisco Symphony Cast Recording]
7/22: Porgy and Bess [Houston Grand Opera Cast Recording]
7/24: The King and I [The 2015 Broadway Cast Recording]
7/25: Gypsy [The 2015 London Cast Recording]
7/26: The Pajama Game [Original London Cast Recording]
7/28: Cabaret [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
7/29: La Cage Aux Folles [Original Australian Cast Recording]
7/30: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers [2015 London Cast Recording]*
7/30: Carousel [2015 Stratford Cast Recording]*
7/31: Doctor Zhivago [Original Broadway Cast Recording]*
8/1: Dames at Sea [Original Cast Recording]
8/2: Nine [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
8/3: South Pacific [1967 Music Theater of Lincoln Center Cast Recording]
8/4: Mary Poppins [Original London Cast Recording]
8/5: Thoroughly Modern Millie [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
8/9: The Music Man [The New Broadway Cast Recording]
8/10: City of Angels [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
8/11: Bells Are Ringing [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
8/11: Bells Are Ringing [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]*
8/15: Sunday in the Park with George [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
8/16: The Bridges of Madison County [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
8/17: Robert and Elizabeth [Original London Cast Recording]
8/19: My Fair Lady [2001 London Cast Recording]
8/22: The King and I [1977 Broadway Revival Cast Recording]
8/24: State Fair [Original 1945 Motion Picture Soundtrack]
8/26: Bend It Like Beckham [Original London Cast Recording]*
8/31: Legally Blonde [Original London Cast Recording]*
9/3: The Baker’s Wife [Original Cast Recording]
9/4: The Sound of Music [Original London Cast Recording]
9/6: On the Town [New Broadway Cast Recording]
9/6: Cyrano [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
9/7: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [Encores! Cast Recording]
9/9: Wonderful Town [1999 Studio Cast Recording]
9/10: The Girl in Pink Tights [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
9/11: Sweeney Todd [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
9/13: Baby [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
9/16: Prettybelle [1981 Studio Cast Recording]
9/17: Titanic [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
9/19: The Happy Time [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
9/20: Lady, Be Good [Encores! Cast Recording]*
9/21: Hamilton [Original Broadway Cast Recording]*
9/22: Hamilton [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
9/22: South Pacific [The New Broadway Cast Recording]
9/23: Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett: Julie and Carol Live at Carnegie Hall*
9/24: A Chorus Line [Original Broadway Cast Recording – 40th Anniversary Celebration]
9/25: Hamilton [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
9/25: Cry-Baby [Original Studio Cast Recording]*
10/1: Victor/Victoria [Original Broadway Cast Recording]*
10/1: My Fair Lady [Original London Cast Recording]
10/1: Camelot [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
10/1: Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett: Julie and Carol Live at Lincoln Center*
10/2: Mary Poppins [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]
10/2: A Man of No Importance [Original Cast Recording]
10/6: Hamilton [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
10/6: Pacific Overtures [The New Broadway Cast Recording]*
10/11: Pacific Overtures [English National Opera Cast Recording]*
10/13: Oklahoma! [1979 Broadway Revival Cast Recording]
10/16: Anyone Can Whistle [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
10/16: Mame [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
10/16: Dear World [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
10/16: Gypsy [Original London Cast Recording]
10/19: Robert and Elizabeth [Original London Cast Recording]
10/22: Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli Live at the London Palladium*
10/22: Porgy and Bess [1976 Studio Cast Recording]*
10/22: Miss Saigon [The 2014 London Cast Recording]*
10/28: Maggie May [Original London Cast Recording]*
10/28: Orpheus in the Underworld [1959 Sadler’s Wells Cast Recording]
10/29: Elf [Original London Cast Recording]*
11/13: Melissa Errico: What About Today? [Live at 54 Below]*
11/13: Steven Pasquale: Somethin’ Like Love*
11/18: Hamilton [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
11/28: Gypsy [2015 London Cast Recording]
12/2: The Bridges of Madison County [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
12/9: The Wiz Live! [Original Television Soundtrack]*
12/9: School of Rock [Original Broadway Cast Recording]*
12/14: Be More Chill [Original Cast Recording]*
12/24: Diana Ross Sings Songs from The Wiz*
12/24: She Loves Me [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
12/30: Beautiful [Original Broadway Cast Recording]
12/31: The Visit [Original Broadway Cast Recording]

City Center Encores! Announces 23rd Season

Cabin in the Sky
Music: Vernon Duke
Lyrics: John LaTouche
Book: Lynn Root
February 10-14, 2016

Music and Lyrics: Sherman Edwards
Book: Peter Stone
March 30-April 3, 2016

Do I Hear a Waltz?
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Arthur Laurents
May 11-15, 2016

The 71st Annual Theatre World Award Winners Announced!

The 2015 Theatre World Award Winners for Outstanding Broadway or Off-Broadway Debut Performance during the 2014-2015 theatrical season have been announced! The ceremony will take place on Monday, June 1 at the Lyric Theatre, once again hosted by the inevitable Peter Filichia.

Geneva Carr, Hand to God
Daveed Diggs, Hamilton
Megan Fairchild, On the Town
Robert Fairchild, An American in Paris
Collin Kelly-Sordelet, The Last Ship
Sydney Lucas, Fun Home
Karen Pittman, Disgraced
Benjamin Scheuer, The Lion
Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Emily Skeggs, Fun Home
Micah Stock, It’s Only a Play
Ruth Wilson, Constellations

The 2015 Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theatre: Leanne Cope, An American in Paris

The 2015 John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre: Chita Rivera

‘Gypsy’ – Savoy Theatre


While it seems as if there’s a new Broadway revival of Gypsy every five minutes, London has not seen a production of the legendary musical since the original West End production closed in 1974. The musical, which tells the story of Rose Hovick and her two daughters, who would go on to become Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc, has been an instant classic since its 1959 Broadway premiere and contains one of the all-time great musical theatre leading roles. When I learned that Imelda Staunton would be headlining the first London revival in over 40 years, I decided to book my flight.

This new West End production is an import from the Chichester Theatre Festival, where Staunton and director Jonathan Kent previously collaborated on a successful Olivier-winning production of Sweeney Todd. The two also worked together on the UK premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People. The critical response for Gypsy has eclipsed these two productions, garnering the sort of reviews that press agents can only dream about. Such notices can inflate my own expectations and lead to disappointment. Well, if anything, my expectations were exceeded. Imelda Staunton is giving a career-defining performance as Rose. Other Roses I’ve seen have given star turns (and were excellent), but Imelda just acts it. Her performance is epic in size, but unfailingly grounded. The cumulative result is one of the most searing star turns I’ve ever witnessed, and ranks among the top five performances I’ve ever seen in my theatergoing life.

The legendary cry “Sing out, Louise!” is heard from the back of the Savoy Theatre, and Staunton’s Rose, a diminutive spitfire, emerges from the shadows as though shot from a cannon. From these opening moments onward, there lurks a darkness in her, something a lot like rage, that sometimes rears its head at moments both expected and unexpected. These flashes sow the seeds for the inevitability of both “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (harrowing) and “Rose’s Turn” (utterly devastating). But Imelda’s Rose is also charming, playful, resourceful, alert and unrelentingly maternal. Her singing voice is also up to the challenge, nuanced and warm on the ballads, but with the ability to fill the theater with a powerful, gritty belt when necessary.

In the lead-up to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” as favored daughter June elopes and the vaudeville act falls apart, Rose’s new plan to focus on Louise (out of spite, out of desperation) was met with some uncomfortable giggling by the audience, who seemed incredulous that this woman was even remotely serious. This nervous laughter turned to silent sheer terror within seconds as Rose beat June’s letter as though scolding a child, and again moments later as Rose grabbed Louise by the nape of her neck and forced her to bow on the line “Blow a kiss, take a bow…”

Her “Turn” was in another realm entirely. During the mock-strip portion, she alternated between mocking Dainty June and imitating Louise’s gestures from the “The Strip,” caustic, withering and crazed. In a performance filled with bold risks, Imelda’s greatest was a pregnant pause before the line “Momma’s gotta let go.” The audience sat compelled in pin-drop silence as Rose worked through her maelstrom of emotions. Every second was earned and never gratuitous, and it haunted me for hours afterward.

That Ms. Staunton is so tremendous is a wonder give than the production is using the detrimental revisions made for the 2008 Broadway revival. These changes made by librettist Arthur Laurents to accommodate Patti LuPone strip away both comedy and vulnerability, and make Rose more one-dimensional. (The brilliant Styne-Sondheim score remains untouched). It’s a testament to Staunton’s triumph that she manages to bring humor and considerable pathos in spite of these limiting alterations. For the record, a more traditional ending is restored and is staged in such a way that I was moved to tears.

Lara Pulver is a good Louise. If it’s a bit of stretch to see her playing a child, her performance becomes stronger as her character ages. She is at her best after she’s transitioned from awkward Louise to elegant Gypsy Rose Lee. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the final scene played better. Blessed with an exquisite voice, Pulver also adds some delicious flourishes to the end of “The Strip.” She has one especially thrilling moment: gawkish Louise clumsily drops her glove during the opening of “The Strip” and bends over to pick it up. A cat-call is heard from the balcony. She looks up and smiles. She’s suddenly aware of her own beauty and the impact of her own sexuality on an audience. Gypsy Rose Lee is born.

Peter Davison is a warm, ingratiating Herbie, tall and lovable, with a calming presence. There have been some complaints by West End critics about his singing, and I find it amusing that we live in a time where we expect Herbie to be a good singer. Dan Burton, who is the West End equivalent to Tony Yazbeck, is a sensational Tulsa, with eye-popping technique in all three departments and a superb American accent, to boot. The three strippers are a knockout comic trio, especially Louise Gold’s Amazonian Mazeppa, complete with deadpan Lady Baritone.

Kent’s staging doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s a traditional production in virtually every respect, but Gypsy is a tried-and-true classic and doesn’t need much tinkering. His great achievement here is in the work he has done with the actors, particularly in cultivating the central mother-daughter dynamics. Some of the original dances remain, while Stephen Mear has choreographed the rest in the spirit of Jerome Robbins (the most notable: a new, more elaborate “All I Need Is the Girl” for Burton). There is a somewhat reduced orchestration (no strings), which isn’t ideal, but doesn’t detract from the overall experience.

Imelda is worth the price of admission. I would go so far as to say she’s also worth the price of the air fare and accommodation. Beg, borrow or steal; whatever you have to do to get to the Savoy Theatre before November 28 (when this extended limited engagement is set to close). This is one for the history books and you do not want to miss it.

Also: there’s a new 2015 London Cast Recording. It sounds fantastic, and while it won’t supplant other recordings in the canon (namely the superlative original Broadway cast recording starring Ethel Merman), it offers a wonderful document for those of us who have seen the production.

My Favorite Performances, 2014

Bryan Cranston, All the Way – It was staggering to see Cranston transform from the dopey dad on Malcolm in the Middle to the now-legendary Walter White on Breaking Bad. His performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson during the first year of his presidency was another astonishing feat. A tour-de-force, Cranston delivered a towering performance that was thrilling and captivating and occasionally unsettling. While the play itself seemed like it could have used some editing (particularly in act 2), Cranston’s performance was worth top dollar admission.

Jan Maxwell, The City of Conversation – While my feelings on the play are a bit complicated, my admiration for Jan Maxwell’s stunning portrait of a Washington DC doyenne dealing with her complex family knows no bounds. In fact, I’d say that this is the greatest performance I’ve seen Maxwell give, and I was lucky enough to see her in Coram Boy, The Royal Family, Lend Me a Tenor and Follies. It was worth the price of admission just to watch her excoriate her reprehensible daughter-in-law in the second act. This played off-Broadway at the Mitzi Newhouse; I wish Lincoln Center had just opened it on Broadway so Maxwell could win her long-overdue Tony Award.

Susan Mosher, Holiday Inn (Goodspeed Opera House) – I’ve always considered the film of Holiday Inn superior to its semi-remake White Christmas, and I feel the same applies to the respective stage vehicles. I don’t have much love for holiday shows of any kind, but I was taken by total surprise by this screen-to-stage adaptation of the Hollywood classic. I smiled non-stop for two and a half hours, when I wasn’t laughing at the hijinks. One of the show’s greatest gifts was a bold and brassy comic turn by Susan Mosher as the mechanic/handywoman/den mother who is utterly endearing, loving and outrageous. I cried actual tears of joy as she led a tap-happy company in a show-stopping rendition of “Shaking the Blues Away.” I hope the powers-that-be keep her for the inevitable Broadway run. I want an original cast album, and I want Susan Mosher to win the Featured Actress Tony.

Megan Mullally, Guys and Dolls (Carnegie Hall) – When it was announced that Nathan Lane would reprise his acclaimed performance as Nathan Detroit opposite Mullally, I immediately bought tickets without a moment’s hesitation. The one night concert at Carnegie Hall was musical comedy heaven from the first note to the last. Everyone was on point, well-sung and hilarious. However, it was Mullally’s Adelaide that walked away with the evening. Funny, warm and vulnerable, she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand all night. I hope she considers revisiting the role in a longer Broadway run.

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, The Bridges of Madison County – I ended up seeing this overlooked gem seven times in six weeks, much to my surprise. O’Hara was given the role of a lifetime as Francesca Johnson, an Italian-born Iowa housewife who finds herself having a brief, yet impassioned romance with a National Geographic photographer. She sang gloriously, and imbued the character with such depth that it was impossible not to care for and about her. Pasquale gave one of the finest male vocal performances I have ever heard in my life. Together, they soared in Jason Robert Brown’s glorious duets, especially the showstopping “One Second and a Million Miles,” which got a mammoth standing ovation and cries of “Bravo!” from the packed house at the show’s closing performance on May 18, 2014 (trip #7). The original cast album is one of the best-recorded in the last five or ten years; a thrilling document of a beautiful, short-lived experience.

Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Never leaving the stage for a moment in this transcendent adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel about a teenage boy with autism, Alex Sharp gives one of the most astonishing tour-de-force performances I have ever seen. I had mixed feelings on the book, but found myself enthralled from beginning to end by this imaginative adaptation. Sharp, fresh out of drama school, is making his professional debut, and his performance is a must-see. I don’t think I breathed during the last revelatory twenty minutes of the first act, as I was on edge as to what Mr. Sharp was going to do next. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the commanding work he is doing onstage at the Barrymore. I look forward to following what promises to be an astonishing career.

One of the best ensemble experiences I had all year was the Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella at City Center. In a starry cast led by Laura Benanti, Shuler Hensley, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Cheyenne Jackson, the production was a glorious, thrilling success (even more impressive since the entire cast was battling the flu that week). It was a great thrill hearing the original orchestrations played by 35 musicians, and to see a Golden Age musical presented with separate singing and dancing choruses. Of the Encores! shows of this season, this was the one that deserves a second chance and a cast recording.