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).

‘Cabaret’ – A Tale of Two Sallys

Cabaret Minnelli

Last night I had the great fortune to attend TCM‘s 40th anniversary screening of the film version of Cabaret at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 54th Street. After waiting for what seemed an eternity outside in the frigid temperatures, we were among the last to be let into the theatre for the screening. Several hundred people behind us were sent away (with a Howard Keel DVD set as a sort of consolation prize).

I hadn’t intended on going. I do enjoy screenings, but I know how these TCM sponsored events, which are free, are a hot ticket and admittance isn’t guaranteed. I figured on sitting this one out. As it turned out, someone who was going asked me if I wanted to come. And in that instant I changed my mind. I figured, why not? I sat with Patty and Emily and my web designer Chris Van Patten. They had released some VIP seating and ushers told us to fill in, thus we found ourselves in the same row as Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters. (Other sightings at the event included Arlene Dahl, Phyllis Newman, Tony Danza and Alan Cumming).

Prior to the screening, there was a Q&A led by TCM host Robert Osborne, talking with the film’s stars Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Marisa Berenson and Michael York, mostly rehashing the same stories they’ve shared on TV and radio this week. All this was to celebrate the (year-late) 40th anniversary of the film’s debut. Warner Bros. has undertaken a meticulous restoration and repair and such for a big Blu-ray release (it comes out February 5). The audience was in the mood to cheer, with most names in the opening credits receiving huge ovations (including the stars, Fosse, Kander and Ebb, and even stage director Harold Prince), as well as ample applause after most musical numbers.

This marked the first time in maybe ten years I had watched the film. It’s a fascinating study in adapting a stage musical to the screen, and probably the last truly great film musical to date. The credit is due mostly to director Bob Fosse, who took an unusual stage musical and turned it into an unusual dramatic film with songs. Fosse’s singular vision served to create something purely cinematic, using the medium to its best advantage and pushing boundaries with the film’s sexual and political content. (Props also to David Bretherton’s brilliant Oscar-winning film editing, which only heightens the experience). Major characters were dropped, and new ones were added.  The character songs were discarded, leaving only the diegetic cabaret songs (and adding a couple of others). The only song not sung in the Kit-Kat-Klub is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a beer garden waltz that builds into a chilling Nazi anthem – one of the most unsettling moments in the film.

Sally Bowles was meagerly talented and British in Christopher Isherwood’s original book, John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera and the stage musical (a major reason Minnelli didn’t get the role on Broadway), but for the film she became an American. While the character makes much more sense as a British expatriate, Minnelli gives the performance of her career here. There is nothing she holds back, singing or acting-wise, in this portrait of the ultimate solipsist. Perhaps her being American only adds to how pathetic her delusions are. I think for those in the audience who might be only be familiar with Liza from the tabloid marriages and over the top interview persona, it’s eye-opening to recall how tremendous an actress she is. A captivating performance from beginning to end. Joel Grey recreated his Tony-winning role as the ultimate show-biz creep, the Emcee, to Oscar winning effect. In fact, the cast is universally good, and I think that York’s performance as bisexual British observer Brian is especially underrated.

Cabaret Dench

Meanwhile, I have also been paying attention to another Sally Bowles. On record, the film soundtrack, the original Broadway and 1998 Broadway revival cast recordings have always been available, but there is one essential recording of the score that has lingered out of print for two decades: the original London cast album. The 1968 West End production, which played for 336 performances at the Palace Theatre, was noted for its star, a young whipper-snapper by the name of Judi Dench. Thanks to Masterworks Broadway, this album is once again available and a must-hear.

The production also starred Oscar-winner (and future Tony winner) Lila Kedrova as Fraulein Schneider, Barry Dennen as the Emcee and Kevin Colson as Cliff. It’s a wonderful album, and if these performers are not as distinctive as their predecessors, they are all up to snuff.  The London album follows the Broadway album closely, but includes extra snippets of dialogue (especially in the finale), music and Fraulein Kost’s reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The show’s entire finale is included, with Cliff reading the introduction to his book, followed by pieces of the character dialogue and songs and it is particularly devastating. This was also the first time that Fred Ebb’s biting original ending “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all” was restored to “If You Could See Her” (that line ruffled enough feathers on the way to opening night on Broadway that it was changed to “She isn’t a meeskite at all”).

As for Judi Dench, she’s utterly sensational and my favorite Sally Bowles on record. Though far better singers have played the part, she inhabits the character in a way that made me fully understand who she was for the first time. She is dripping with sensuality and cheek through “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Perfectly Marvelous” and her delivery of the “Cabaret” is one of the most gut-wrenching, visceral interpretations I’ve ever heard, with the song becoming its own devastating three act play. It’s hands down my favorite rendition of the song and worth the price of the entire album.

Judi Dench sings "Send in the Clowns"

With the first-ever Broadway revival of A Little Night Music approaching its opening date, I’ve felt like revisiting all my various recordings and texts and video of previous productions. This one is a favorite. Dame Judi Dench won an Olivier Award for her triumphant performance as Desiree in the 1995 Royal National Theatre revival of A Little Night Music. The production, directed by Sean Mathias, ran for 11 months and co-starred Sian Philips as Madame Armfeldt and Laurence Guittard (the original Broadway Carl Magnus) as Fredrik. A cast album of this production was made, but it has been long out of print and goes for extraordinary amounts on Amazon and E-Bay. However, if you do get the chance to hear it, you will not be disappointed. Especially in Dench’s sublime portrayal, my second favorite next to originator Glynis Johns.

Here Dench appears on a British talkshow to promote the show and talks a little bit about the play and her character and the moments leading into “Send in the Clowns,” followed by a heartbreaking rendition of the song by the star. Enjoy:

Variety take a glimpse at "Nine"

There was an interesting article on the upcoming film adaptation of Maury Yeston & Arthur Kopit’s Nine in this week’s Variety. The 1982 musical, which won several Tony Awards including Best Musical, was itself a loose adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2. Included in the article were some tidbits about casting, Daniel Day-Lewis’ singing and his on-set Method existence, director Rob Marshall’s concept (which isn’t far removed from what he did in Chicago) and the new songs Yeston wrote for the film. Here is the information on the three new songs as reported by the trade (with my thoughts in post-script).

“Guarda la Luna” (Look at the Moon), sung by [Sophia] Loren. “We were lucky enough to have someone who was part of that great period of Italian cinema, who knew Fellini, who knew Marcello Mastroianni (Guido in the Fellini film),” Yeston says. So he tailored a lullaby specifically for Loren’s voice (but based the melody on the song “Nine” from the Broadway score).

— Having seen Man of La Mancha, I am aware of Loren’s vocal limitations. The title song of Nine is sung by Guido’s mother, and is a showcase for a mature soprano. Taina Elg introduced the song in the original cast, and it was sung by Mary Beth Peil and Marni Nixon in the Broadway revival with Antonio Banderas. I’m curious to see how this new song works within the context of the musical, and am glad to see at least some element of the original song will remain.

“Cinema Italiano,” for Hudson as a Vogue writer in Rome to interview the director. “Italian movies also communicated lifestyle and fashion for the world,” Yeston says, so [Kate] Hudson sings and dances to a number with “a retro feel, elements of ’60s pop” that is designed to illustrate to younger audiences how important Italian cinema was in that era.

— Nothing like trying to pander to that coveted youth bracket, which seems to be the only reason this song exists. Stephanie Necrophorus is a rather small part in the stage show, so this would seem like an opportunity to give Hudson more to do, especially since Liliane La Fleur (played by Judi Dench) is no longer a producer, but Contini’s costume designer. However, if the message boards on IMDb are to be trusted, most people who have been to screenings feel this song is out of place. My curiosity is piqued. (Speaking of Nine screenings, Roxie and I were approached prior to Mary Stuart to see if we’d like to go to one, but unfortunately we both had prior engagements).

“Take It All,” originally written as a trio for [Nicole] Kidman, [Penelope] Cruz and [Marion] Cotillard but, just before shooting, rearranged as a solo for Cotillard, according to music supervisor Matt Sullivan. “Heart-wrenching” is how Yeston describes the performance by Cotillard (who won an Oscar playing Edith Piaf).

— This one better be good. “Simple” and “Be On Your Own” were cut to make way for this new song, probably a ploy to garner some Oscar attention in the Best Song category. As much as I enjoy Maury Yeston and Marion Cotillard, I cannot imagine Luisa having a more effective song than “Be On Your Own.”

I’ve also been told that “The Bells of St. Sebastian” and the entire “Grand Canal” sequence have been cut, so it should be interesting to see what director Rob Marshall has come up with. Word is that Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson delivers a dynamite performance of “Be Italian.” Regardless, I love Nine and I look forward to seeing it (all those Oscar winners!). My real curiosity is seeing if the stage show translates well to the screen.

Judi Dench – "Don’t Tell Mama"

When people think of Cabaret they don’t necessarily think of Dame Judi Dench. One might be more inclined to think Liza Minnelli, or perhaps Natasha Richardson. But Judi originated the part of Sally Bowles in the original London production in 1968. (And in my humble opinion, gives the definitive rendition of the title song on the cast album).

Here she is with the original company, I am not sure if this was taken live in performance, on a television special or an awards show, but here is “Don’t Tell Mama.” With that black wig, does anyone else think she looks a little like Vivien Leigh? (The sound goes on a couple of occasions, but that shouldn’t hinder the viewing pleasure).

Special thanks to my friend Russ Dembin for finding this clip.

Okay so this gets me excited…

There is almost too much sexy in this picture for me to handle. Principal filming on the upcoming film adaptation of Maury Yeston’s Nine is underway. Rob Marshall who made an impressive motion picture debut with the 2002 Best Picture winner Chicago is directing a cast including Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman; Oscar nominees Penelope Cruz and Kate Hudson. Oh, and Fergie.

I wasn’t sure what I thought about a film adaptation of Nine, as it is an rather abstract concept musical that takes place in the mind of Guido Contini, a film director facing a mid-life crisis, an inspirational nadir and divorce from his frustrated wife. Through the course of the show he interacts with all the women of his life, both past and present, including his wife, mistress, muse, mother, a prostitute from his childhood, his French film producer, among others. In a brilliant move, Contini is the only major male role in the musical (a flashback to the encounter with Saraghina, the prostitute, incorporates 1-3 young boys) and the great deal of the show allows diva after diva to have a turn.
Producer Liliane LaFleur has “Folies Bergere,” Mistress Carla sings “A Call from the Vatican,” Muse Claudia gets to sing the haunting ballad “Unusual Way” and Mrs. Luisa Contini sings the devastating “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be on Your Own.” The score is, for my money, the strongest Yeston has ever written. The “Overture delle Donne” is sung through by the ladies of the cast and the entire ensemble pulls out all the stops in the second act mini opera “The Grand Canal,” an elaborate fifteen minute piece detailing his idea for a film about Casanova, based on elements from his own life.

Seeing this picture, however, I am more than excited to see how this turns out. Thoughts?