“Nice Work If You Can Get It”


Nice Work If You Can Get It isn’t particularly groundbreaking and it feels like the sort of show you’ve seen time and again (fans of My One and Only and Crazy for You will probably agree), but the new musical (a loose overhaul of the 1926 musical Oh, Kay! with a new plot and characters) for all its old-fashioned sensibilities, is much to my surprise, delightful. One of those fizzy champagne (or in this case, gin), check-your-brain-at-the-door comedies with gorgeous costumes, scenery and (most especially) songs.

The book (by Joe DiPietro) is chock full of 20s silliness. The plot is negligible; something about bootleggers hiding their stash at a ritzy 47 room Long Island mansion. Farcical complications ensue with lots of colorful characters along the way. Like those period shows, the scenes are a breezy set-up for one knock-out song after another. In this instance, they are the songs of George and Ira Gershwin (with one DeSylva lyric tossed in for good measure) and the evening becomes a daffy trip through the American songbook, with 20 or so of their tunes represented.

Matthew Broderick is playing the milquetoast millionaire playboy at the center of the story. The star has a certain stiffness and drollness that at first struck me as odd, but I soon warmed to the performance. Mr. Broderick has a meager singing voice which works well with the period, while his dancing leaves something to be desired. Surprisingly, I rather enjoyed him (and faithful readers will recall the last time I saw him on stage). Kelli O’Hara plays the gorgeous tomboy Billie, who gets to sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” (with a subversive twist) and “But Not for Me.” While the role has Sutton Foster written all over it, Ms. O’Hara is a gem. I particularly enjoyed her disastrous attempt at seduction “Treat Me Rough” and her masquerade as a Cockney maid (Which reminds me: Ms. O’Hara’s next Broadway outing should be My Fair Lady, not the Lincoln Center production of The King and I). I also enjoyed seeing her and Broderick recall 30s musicals with an extended dance all over the set in “S’Wonderful.”

Estelle Parsons makes an eleventh-hour appearance as Broderick’s deus ex machina Mother, in a brief but winning cameo. Jennifer Laura Thompson makes vapidity irresistible, particularly in her clever bubble bath production number “Delishious.” Michael McGrath scores big laughs as the bootlegger turned butler, while the always-reliable Stanley Wayne Mathis plays a genial police officer. Robyn Hurder and Chris Sullivan are on hand as a comic couple with a combined IQ of 45. While the twosome are funny, their duet of “Blah, Blah, Blah” is unnecessary. The scene-stealer of the night is Judy Kaye. The Tony-winning soprano plays the Duchess Estonia Dulworth, a temperance-pushing battle-axe who sets speakeasies on fire in the first act, and swings drunkenly from a chandelier in the second (in the evening’s funniest scene and biggest showstopper).

Derek McLane’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are the best kind of eye candy. Bill Elliot’s orchestrations are the best I’ve heard in quite some time  and are very much of the period and a joy to hear. If a cast album is recorded – and one should be – I hope they record the exit music. David Chase has supplied some glorious vocal arrangements. Kathleen Marshall directed and choreographed, her musical staging very much in vogue with the period (and not a tap shoe in sight). There are no big production numbers like Anything Goes or Crazy For You, but her best work is in the smaller, more intimate pieces.

While not as dazzling as the Encores! No, No, Nanette (still the best production of a 20s/30s musical comedy I’ve ever seen), there was enough crowd-pleasing charm and style in Nice Work If You Can Get It to keep me smiling from start to finish.

Quote of the Day: Elizabeth Ashley

Elizabeth Ashley comments on playing opposite both Estelle Parsons and Phylicia Rashad in August: Osage County in an interview with Theatremania:

“They are both great actresses, no doubt about it. Estelle was dangerous and brutal; she was like an assassin laying in wait and you always saw her intelligence. Phylicia is different; with her Violet, you see the vulnerability, the loving mother, and the fall from grace when she is clutched by her demons. You see the entire spectrum of the woman. I’ve always believed that with brilliant writing there is no right way to play any part — although there are wrong ways — and actors with creative imagination, which is the greatest gift we have, can find their own way to serve the text.”

On playing Violet Weston:

I might give it a shot someday, but having worked with Estelle and Phylicia, even I might be cowed by the assignment.

Estelle Parsons to Headline National Tour of "August: Osage County"

In an interview with Playbill a couple months ago, Parsons expressed a hope that producers would offer her the August: Osage County national tour. Well, here she is world:


August: Osage County, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play that tells the bitingly funny and sensationally entertaining tale of the Weston family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, starring Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons in the role of the family matriarch, Violet, will launch its national tour, in Denver, CO on July 24th, 2009. Following two weeks at Denver’s Ellie Caukins Opera House (7/24-8/8), the show will play San Francisco’s Curran Theatre from August 11 – September 6, 2009.

Subsequent engagements will be announced shortly.Ms. Parsons is currently appearing in the show on Broadway where The New York Times recently raved, “Estelle Parsons gives a superb performance…sends chills down your spine. It may prove to be a crowning moment in an illustrious career.” Ms. Parsons joined the company in June, 2008.

Estelle Parsons first foray into the business began when she was hired by “The Today Show,” first as a production assistant, then staff writer, which eventually led her to become the first female television network political news reporter.Estelle began acting and appeared in her first stage performance on Broadway in Happy Hunting. Since then, Estelle has gone on to either star in or direct over 25 productions. Most notably, she has been nominated for the Tony Award for her performances in The Seven Descents of Myrtle, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Miss Margarida’s Way and Mornings at Seven.

Estelle’s first film role was in Ladybug, Ladybug. Her performance in Bonnie and Clyde garnered an Academy Award and she was nominated again the following year for her work in Rachel, Rachel. Other film performances include Don’t Drink the Water, I Walk the Line , I Never Sang for My Father, Watermelon Man , For Pete’s Sake , Dick Tracy, Boys on the Side and Looking for Richard.

On television, Estelle appeared in “All in the Family” and as the mother of “Roseanne” on the hit sitcom. Recently, she has appeared in the HBO television mini-series “Empire Falls” and has directed various productions of the Oscar Wilde play Salome, all of which starred Al Pacino. She also appears in the documentary Salomaybe? that was directed by Mr. Pacino.

In addition to teaching acting at Columbia and Yale, Estelle Parsons served as the Artistic Director of the Actors’ Studio between 1996 and 2001.

Written by 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts (Superior Donuts, Man From Nebraska, Killer Joe, Bug), this grand and gripping new play tells the story of the Westons, a large extended clan that comes together at their rural Oklahoma homestead after the alcoholic patriarch disappears. Forced to confront unspoken truths and astonishing secrets, the family must also contend with Violet, a pill-popping, deeply unsettled woman at the center of the storm.

Directed by 2008 Tony Award-winner Anna D. Shapiro, August: Osage County is a rare theatrical event: a large-scale work filled with 13 unforgettable characters, a powerful tragicomedy told with unflinching honesty and the unforgettable breakthrough of a major American playwright. August: Osage County premiered and was produced at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 2007.

Nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Play and Best Director, and the recipient of Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, including Best Play, Best Director and Best Scenic Design, August: Osage County opened at the Imperial Theatre Broadway on December 4, 2007, to wide critical acclaim. The New York Times called August: Osage County “The most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years,” and it was voted The #1 Play of the Year by Time, The Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, and TimeOut New York. After a sold-out engagement at the Imperial Theatre, the show re-opened at the Music Box Theatre on April 29, 2008 and will reach its 500th performance on February 3, 2009.

The show, which the London critics hailed as “the must-see play of the year – possibly a lifetime,” opened to rave reviews at The National Theatre on November 26, 2008, where it plays for a limited eight-week engagement featuring members of the original Broadway company.

The show’s creative team includes Tony Award winner Todd Rosenthal (sets), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), Ann G. Wrightson (lights), Richard Woodbury (sound) and David Singer (original music).

August: Osage County is produced by Jeffrey Richards, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler and Jerry Frankel.

Quote of the Day

“And that audience! Omigod! You know what’s great? The audience is a palpable part of the evening — which is what you’re always hoping for. As an actor in the theatre, you want the audience to be vitally, dynamically involved — and they are with this. It’s not realistic. It’s not naturalistic. It’s just pure theatre…. The very first night I thought, ‘Wow! This is like a wall of security — this audience energy. It’s fabulous.’ Every performance is different. That’s why it might be possible to play it forever, whereas with ordinary plays four months is about as long as I can take it without sorta doubling back on ‘What am I doing here?’ I’m hoping they’ll invite me to do the tour, because I love to tour. That’s the plan in my head. It’s starting in August 2009 in San Francisco. I just would really love to tour with it to see how it is in other cities. I love exploring.”

“Deanna said to me, ‘Y’know, I’m only leaving because they won’t let me do six a week.’ So I immediately called the producers and my agent and said, ‘What am I, some kind of lamb being led to the slaughter here that I’m expected to do eight when the woman who has been doing it says she can only do six?’ But she’s a very different person than me and probably not quite as strong. I have a 50 percent strain of Swedish peasant blood, not to mention that the other half is Old New England.”

– Estelle Parsons in a new article for Playbill

NY Times gives "August" another rave

Charles Isherwood administers yet another rave for the play of the year:


A Fiery New Incarnation of a Monster of a Mother

It’s really not a good idea to mess with Violet Weston, the fire-breathing dragon lady of Pawhuska, Okla., who presides over a feast of family combat in “August: Osage County.” As all who have seen Tracy Letts’s celebrated comedy-drama on Broadway no doubt vividly recall, Violet does not brook much interference when it comes to indulging her favorite pastimes.

Raise an objection to that eviscerating commentary on her daughter’s looks and you are likely to find your own being mercilessly dissected. Delicately suggest that she refrain from airing the family’s dirtiest laundry over dinner and you will be subjected to eyebrow-singeing bursts of invective.

Oh, and don’t even think of getting between Violet and the little bottles of pills she pops like Tic Tacs. That would be a sure way to lose a limb.

Violet is a maternal monster on an outrageous scale, but she is also one of the most spellbinding characters in memory to stalk a Broadway stage. So it is good news to report that Estelle Parsons, the venerable actress who has taken over this demanding role from the Tony Award-winning Deanna Dunagan, has had the good sense not to mess with her much.

All the hallmarks of Violet’s character — the implacable cruelty, the shrill self-pity, the wily manipulation and the will of iron — are present and accounted for in Ms. Parsons’s superb performance. But it is not a facsimile of Ms. Dunagan’s unforgettably astringent approach to the role; Ms. Parsons forges her own path into the tortured darkness of Violet’s drug-addled psyche.

She is a naturally more grandmotherly presence, with her incongruously warm smile and slightly dowdy frame. If Ms. Dunagan was a rattlesnake, Ms. Parsons is more of a snapping turtle. In the Parsons interpretation, Violet takes an almost childlike delight in drawing blood. Glints of pure pleasure dance in her eyes when she sees that a revelation or an insult has hit its target. And yet she almost seems to gape in wonder and surprise at the toads that keep leaping from her mouth. Golly, did I just say that?

In the brief oasis of calm that arrives in the play’s third act, when Violet has emerged from her drug-fueled reign of terror, Ms. Parsons shows us glimpses of the casually affectionate mother overtaken by the vengeful shrew. But when she relates to her three daughters a story that provides a grim portrait of her own savage mother, the utter lack of feeling in her account sends a chill down your spine.

Ms. Parsons has had a long career as an actress in film (“Bonnie and Clyde”) and theater, and has worked frequently as a director too (the semi-staged “Salome” with Al Pacino, seen on Broadway in 2003). She has also taught at the Actors Studio, of which she was the artistic director for five years.

But she has not been seen on Broadway much in recent years — a role in the 2002 revival of “Morning’s at Seven” was her most recent appearance — so her return in this lengthy part in an emotionally draining play is both exciting and almost unexpected. Ms. Parsons is, after all, 80. (Ms. Dunagan cited exhaustion in explaining her decision to take a breather before traveling to London with the show in the fall.)

But just as Violet’s endless reserves of bitterness seem to keep her young, the role’s demands must be inspiring for an actress of any age. The challenge of embodying this complicated, terrifying woman seems to burn away the years; if I didn’t know Ms. Parsons was 80, I would never believe it. I hope she’s having the time of her life. She is certainly giving a performance to remember, one that may prove to be a crowning moment in an illustrious career.

Ms. Parsons is just one of several additions to the cast of “August,” and it is a tribute to the attentive direction of Anna D. Shapiro that the production still has the taut intensity it displayed when it opened in December. The new performers — some imported from the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, where the play had its premiere — have been integrated seamlessly into what remains the most accomplished ensemble cast on Broadway.

As Mattie Fae, Violet’s bulldozer of a sister, Molly Regan turns down the volume a notch or two compared with the Tony winner Rondi Reed. But she locates all the wicked humor in Mattie Fae’s tactless needling of her son, Little Charles, now played with affecting simplicity by Jim True-Frost. (Both actors are Steppenwolf members.)

Robert Foxworth exudes a convincing sense of ancient resignation as Mattie Fae’s henpecked husband. His seething rebellion against her brutality is among the punchiest audience-rousing moments. Frank Wood (“Side Man”) slides comfortably into the role of another milquetoasty husband, the philandering spouse of Violet’s oldest daughter, Barbara. And Michael McGuire, who took over the role of Beverly Weston, the doomed patriarch, when the playwright’s father, Dennis Letts, became ill (sadly, he subsequently died), delivers the play’s opening monologue with a fine, weary lyricism.

More good news: the actresses in the roles of the Weston daughters have stayed with the production, lending a sense of continuity. All have subtly improved in the roles. Sally Murphy’s Ivy is more movingly forlorn, but quietly determined too. Mariann Mayberry’s Karen, the youngest and most nakedly needy sister, remains a bright blast of comic relief, safely this side of caricature.

And Amy Morton is simply towering in the all-important role of Barbara, the family anchor whom we watch sinking into cynicism and bitterness under the weight of her father’s death and her family’s disintegration. The colors in the role are all more saturated now — the withering sarcasm, the sense of anguished confusion at her husband’s betrayal, the grim rise to the challenge of her mother’s antagonism. But they are blended so delicately that the resulting portrait is as fine an example of the stage actor’s art as you could ever hope to see.

“August: Osage County” continues at the Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200, augustonbroadway.com.

Violet Weston is Alive and Alone and Living in Pawhuska

For the heck of it, I decided to take in August: Osage County again (the Sunday matinee on 6.29), this time to see how the play holds up with replacement cast members. Five of the actors, including Tony-winners Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed, departed the company on Tony Sunday.

It’s sometimes hard to attend a play or musical after a favorite original cast member has left. The actor has worked specifically on the structure and personality of the character, often creating from the bare minimum. Estelle Parsons is now the matriarch Violet Weston, with Robert Foxworth (of TV’s Dynasty and Six Feet Under) as Uncle Charlie, Jim True-Frost as Little Charlie, Tony-winner Frank Wood as Bill and Steppenwolf member Molly Regan as Mattie Fae.

The replacements are all stellar; all fitting in seamlessly with the Weston family unit. The only disappointment lies in Regan’s Mattie Fae. There was something incredibly special in Reed’s characterization, her embodiment of certain lies that provided the audience with an incredibly likable vulgarity. Such lines as “The situation is fraught,” “I’m having a cocktail,” and “It’s my casserole” became special moments for theatregoers. In contrast to Reed’s short, stout physique, Regan is younger, taller, thinner and more of a harradin. She still manages to nail the character in points where it counts, particularly in her revealing final scene in the third act. I’m not saying that she isn’t giving a good performance, but it is in this character, I missed the original performance the most. Foxworth lends his laidback gravitas to Charlie. Wood has a field day with Bill, proving a volatile replacement for Jeff Perry and scene partner for Amy Morton (who is still giving the performance of a career here). True-Frost provided an endearing Little Charles.

Now onto the star turn. Estelle Parsons is a perfect embodiment of Violet Weston. Comparisons to Dunagan’s performance are inevitable; however, Parsons’ characterization is steeped in the text and she is never unfaithful to playwright Letts or director Shapiro. She was the actor I really watched the most throughout the play. With an Oscar and an impressive resume, it’s the first time she’s been on Broadway since the 2002 revival of Mornings at Seven. I’ve got to say, I enjoyed her from start to finish. With a physicality and appearance that defy her 80 years, Parsons dives in head-first into this mammoth part. Though less acerbic than Dunagan, Parsons manages to go on her truth-telling crusade with a headstrong vindictiveness that is ultimately tragic. Where Dunagan was pointedly sardonic and chilly, Parsons is a bit calmer; presenting a deceptively docile exterior, with a treacly sweet smile more venomous than a sprig of holly. She hasn’t quite nailed the second act dinner sequence – she appeared to lose her place during the claw-hammer monologue (with Morton, always the ultimate pro, prompting her back into the scene in a seamless manner, making it all appear as part of the action. Brava, Morton!), but trust me, she’ll get there. Parsons made an interesting choice – she constantly stole glances at Barbara in order to gauge a reaction. She also managed to bring down the house twice with the lines “It speaks” and “Scintillating,” involving Little Charles burst of courage during same sequence. (Let me also say from an acting perspective how spectacularly Parsons listens onstage).

Parsons’ has turned the final five minutes of the play into such a sobering denouement that it hasn’t been before (for me). “Listen, you smug little ingrate,” which was delivered with a viciousness and manic frenzy that was chilling. The audience was numbed most of all by her acting in the final moments, an almost apologetic and soothing calling out of names, during which panic starts to build, and explodes as she realizes no one is left. For the first time, I welled up during “And then you’re gone, and then you’re gone…” – one other thing that happened, and I think it was an accident, but after the blackout, there was one last mournful “and then you’re gone” in the total darkness that just resonated so perfectly, I wish the play always ended like that.

The audience continues to hinge on every word. Their response was nothing short of cacophonous. If you haven’t yet seen this play, get your tickets and go. The play is as strong as ever, and in more than capable hands. I myself can’t wait to see Parsons do it again, to see how she grows into the role.

Violet Weston is still here. And I hope she never invites me for dinner.