‘Can-Can’ at Paper Mill Playhouse


It’s only taken 31 years, but I finally saw a show at the Paper Mill Playhouse. When Kate Baldwin announced at 54 Below that she was starring in their production of Can-Can, I knew I had to go see it. Fortunately, I was able to attend the opening night performance with my pals Patty and Emily, and it was a magnificent experience. The gorgeous venue in Millburn, NJ was warm and inviting, and I hope to make many more visits there from now on. This was also the first time I have ever seen any sort of an out-of-town tryout in a regional setting.

Can-Can, a hit in its original Broadway production, features a score by Cole Porter and a revision of Abe Burrows’ book by Joel Fields and David Lee. The plot is wafer-thin, cheeky nonsense about a Fin de Siècle-era romance between an empowered music hall proprietress and the staid, law-obsessed judge trying to shut down her establishment. The original production ran 2 1/2 years thanks to a star-making performance by Gwen Verdon (who stopped the show twice on opening night) and acclaimed choreography by Michael Kidd, both of whom were awarded Tonys. The 1960 film version and various revivals haven’t done as well. (The only Broadway revival to date closed after a weekend run of 5 performances).

This new revival, which has been in the works for many years, is being labeled as “Broadway bound” and I’m all for it. There is a lot of fun to be had with Can-Can, which abounds in wit and style, and there is much I loved about it. However, there is work that needs to be done before it transfers to Broadway. Director David Lee sets an appropriate tone, while Patti Columbo gives us some spectacular, eye-popping choreography. However there is still book trouble, even in this revision (which makes a gallant attempt to be as faithful to the original as possible). I speculated afterward that perhaps Can-Can can never recover from second act trouble, but after some thought, I believe there are a couple things that might be able to fix that. Steve Orich’s arrangements and orchestrations are excellent, though I hope the producers consider shelling out for about 5 or 6 more pieces.

I have no qualms with the casting. Jason Danieley, with his matinee idol looks and golden voice, makes the uptight judge surprisingly irresistible. Kate Baldwin, luminescent, sings like a dream and is a fetching wonder in Ann Hould-Ward’s period costumes. The delectable Megan Sikora is playing the Gwen Verdon role, yet somehow feels underutilized. As for her character, I wish she made the choice to remain single as neither love interest is worthy of her. It’s been years since I’ve seen Michael Berresse onstage and it’s a joy to see him dancing in a musical again (this time as a lothario/critic). The featured players are all wonderful, especially Michael Kostroff, Mark Price and Justin Robertson. Greg Hildreth is a comic wonder as Boris, but the book writers need to rethink their approach to his character.

The apex of Paper Mill’s Can-Can is its title song. The seven minute production number, led by Baldwin and Sikora, features the men and women of the ensemble kicking up a ferocious storm, and builds to a jaw-droppingly sensational climax. (The number stopped the show cold on opening night and I can’t stop thinking about it). However, the song’s placement inadvertently damages the show. While the original version uses the number as a grand finale, this revision puts the song in the middle of the first act. As a result, the show climaxes far too early. Given that the dance itself is a major plot point and the bane of the conflict between the leads, the entire musical needs to build to this song. Other dance numbers, which are quite delightful, are less exciting merely because they are forced to follow it. Putting “Can-Can” back at the end of the show, or better still, as the eleven o’clock number, would elevate the entire production.

That said, the powers that be should keep the abortive “Can-Can Supreme” reprise where it is to give the audience a first act tease before the Judge sends everyone to jail. A new number or a restoration of one of the Verdon specialties could be created for this spot; something thrilling to spotlight Sikora’s rise from seamstress to dancer. As for the “Can-Can” mad libs, those are cute but totally unnecessarily. The second act runs about 20 minutes too long and an established group encore of the title song would be a much more exciting way to send the audience out of the theater. (Speaking of the second act, the swashbuckling sword fight also goes on far too long).

If the rest of the production can be brought up to the level of its title song, then I can see Can-Can being a potential Broadway hit. Nevertheless, there is still much to be enjoyed at the Paper Mill Playhouse through October 26.

Show Round-Up

Annie – I caught an early preview of the classic Strouse-Charnin musical at the Palace. I have a dubious history with this one; the last time I saw it onstage was 21 years ago and while I don’t remember much, I wanted Hannigan to win. Fortunately that was not the case in this new production directed by James Lapine and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Katie Finneran holds nothing back as Miss Hannigan, but the performance hadn’t quite gelled when I saw the show, and it didn’t help that her Rooster and Lily are barely there (and what’s up with Lily’s accent? Not cool, kids). Lilla Crawford has great sincerity and a clarion voice that brought down the house repeatedly, but her accent gets in the way. Merwin Foard, a reliable standby in so many recent productions, is finally onstage and a total delight as FDR. The real standout, though, is Australian baritone Anthony Warlow, whose sumptuous baritone is the 8th wonder of the world. His “Something Was Missing” stopped the show cold in act two. I was mixed on the set, though I loved the chandelier/Christmas tree effect. The choreography is, to put it mildly, terrible. Only the final number really had cohesion, and it was still a hot mess. Quibbles aside, the show is a charmer, thanks to its score and the sharp libretto by Thomas Meehan.

The Performers – I caught a late preview of this fast flop, which was entertaining but tremendously slight. There was no real conflict, mostly a non-porn couple who inexplicably question their monogamy while visiting Las Vegas for an adult film industry awards show. The play is rife with enough raunchy dialogue to make your great-grandmother’s monocle pop, but ultimately feels…tame. That said I found much to enjoy, and much to laugh at. Props to the terrific ensemble led by Alicia Silverstone, Henry Winkler and Cheyenne Jackson. However, the real star of the evening was Ari Graynor as Peeps, a dim, defensive porn star with a heart of gold. Everything she said or did went over like fireworks on the 4th of July, and a performance I am glad I had the opportunity to see. The play’s closure after 7 performances was a bit of a shock, as I’ve seen far worse enterprises run longer. While I don’t think it’s much of a play, I think the script could make for a more enjoyable film.

Giant – Edna Ferber’s novel is now a musical, in a sprawling retelling of the story of a Texas cattle baron and his decades long marriage to a Virginia socialite. This bold, ambitious piece is currently playing the Public Theater  and while it could use some tinkering and fine-tuning, it’s a thrilling experience. Michael John LaChiusa’s music is haunting and often soars. The show has a cast of 22, and an orchestra of 16 – rare for an off-Broadway production. Brian D’Arcy James is excellent as Bick Benedict, a cattle baron whose unconditional love for Texas is challenged by a changing world. Kate Baldwin is giving the the performance of a career as his wife Leslie. John Dossett provides brilliant, sympathetic support as Uncle Bawley, while Michelle Pawk brings gruff pragmatism to Bick’s older sister Luz. Katie Thompson is a find as Vashti Hake, a ranch heiress jilted by Bick who becomes one of Leslie’s closest friends. Thompson can really sing, and deserves to be a leading lady herself. The character of Jett Rink lacks definition and as written barely registers as an antagonist (played by a game P.J. Griffith). For a show set in and about Texas, the musical feels somewhat cramped on the Newman stage. A show of this scope cries out for a venue like the Vivian Beaumont.

20 years of Encores! A Gala Celebration – This 90 minute program featuring many of Broadway’s finest talents performing under the music direction of both Rob Berman and original Encores! musical director Rob Fisher. Kelli O’Hara opened with “It’s a Perfect Relationship” from Bells Are Ringing, but her highlight was a sumptuous rendition of “Lover, Come Back to Me” from The New Moon. Raul Esparza revisited “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle and cut it up big time with the tongue twisting “Tchaikowsky” from Lady in the Dark. Rob McClure was charm squared leading “Once in Love with Amy” (and yes, the audience sang along!) from Where’s Charley? Joel Grey did “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago, Rebecca Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Debbie Gravitte revisited their glorious “Sing for Your Supper” from The Boys from Syracuse. Other numbers came from Finian’s Rainbow, Too Many Girls, Fanny, Anyone Can Whistle, Do Re MiJuno, Lady in the Dark, Carnival and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Of special note was a middle section of found items, including “Where Do I Go From Here?” cut from Fiorello!, thrillingly sung by Victoria Clark. The most esoteric item on the bill was the overture for Nowhere to Go But Up, a nine performance bomb from 1962. Jack Viertel had asked Jonathan Tunick about whereabouts of its “the long-lost overture” during Merrily orchestra rehearsals. Turns out Tunick had it in his apartment. The evening ended with ‘Til Tomorrow from Fiorello! (which was the very first Encores! and will be revived this January). All musical numbers used the original arrangements and orchestrations. If there was a complaint it was that the evening ended too soon.

“Give Our Regards to Broadway” – Manhattan School of Music

This past Monday marked my first trip to Morningside Heights. Admittedly, I rarely leave the Midtown/Upper West Side area when in town,  though I do occasionally shoot downtown for a Fringe or Off-Broadway show here and there. However, there was a special concert at the Manhattan School of Music that sounded like it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The school’s Chamber Sinfonia was presenting “Give Our Regards to Broadway,” an evening of Broadway music and overtures under the baton of Paul Gemignani, with special guest artists Kate Baldwin and Alexander Gemignani. The price of admission? $20. How could I resist?

So SarahB, Follies enthusiast Tyler Martins, and I ventured up to the school’s John C. Borden auditorium. General admission had us picking seats in the second row, three on the aisle. Much to my surprise, the program withheld the evening’s line-up; it seemed as though the artists wanted to surprise us and as both Sarah and Tyler can attest, I was pleasantly surprised all evening.

Mr. Gemignani got things started with the South Pacific overture, using the original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett. I knew instantly we were in for a whirlwind evening. The students are magnificent. I realize that might sound like an obvious statement as they are attending one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country, but really, these kids are aces. Bennett’s orchestration for South Pacific is among the finest ever created for a musical, and the arrangement of the overture is absolutely staggering. I found myself as overwhelmed by it as I was at the 2005 Carnegie Hall concert and the opening night of the 2008 Broadway revival.

The only verbal remarks of the evening were made by Mr. Gemignani, as he stressed the importance of introducing students to the music of classic Broadway. For 90 minutes, we were treated to a total of 23 pieces. Six of these were overtures, including Oklahoma!, Fiorello! (I practically fell out of my chair when I heard the siren at the beginning), Funny Girl, Gypsy and the special overture created by Mr. Gemignani and Jonathan Tunick for the famed Sondheim 80th Birthday concert.

Kate Baldwin took us on a journey through leading lady land: ingenue, soubrette, star. Ms. Baldwin used her lush soprano on such classics as “What’s the Use of Wond’rin'” from Carousel, “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello and “Will He Like Me?” from She Loves Me (the latter two can be found on her essential album “She Loves Him“).  She also sang “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods, which works better out of context than I would have thought. But the two most surprising moments came when she tore through “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Could I Leave You?” offering the audience a glimpse into two potential star turns in Ms. Baldwin’s future.

Alexander Gemignani made his entrance with the famous a cappella opening of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” from Oklahoma, while having a field day with “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from Kiss Me, Kate, “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story and “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods. His showstopper, though, was a specialty written by Frank Loesser for the Betty Hutton film The Perils of Pauline, called “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble.” The song is about an apartment tenant who needs to move because the neighbor is playing piano night and day. (Tedd Firth was the virtuoso on the piano).

Together, the stars shared a medley from The Pajama Game (he sang “A New Town is a Blue Town, she sang “Hey There”), “Together Wherever We Go” from Gypsy and a spirited “There Once Was a Man,” also from The Pajama Game. One of the more obscure numbers of the evening was “I Want to Be with You,” introduced by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Paula Wayne in Strouse and Adams’ Golden BoyFor an encore, and to the sheer delight of Tyler, they sang “Too Many Mornings,” from Follies.

The musicianship was superb all around. It was a pleasure for me to hear many of these pieces performed with their original orchestration. In many cases, I have only heard experienced the arrangements through the original cast albums. For a mere $20, the Manhattan School of Music gave me the sort of evening I wish I could have every time I see a Broadway musical.

At Large Elsewhere: Stage-Rush TV Edition

In the last post, I mentioned toward the end that I made an appearance on Jesse North’s Stage-Rush TV (my 2nd!) co-hosting the 70th episode of his weekly web series about the goings-on in New York theatre, especially Broadway. This time around we talked about what shows I was looking forward to, as well as Kate Baldwin’s album, Sister Act and some of the Broadway grosses. Be sure to stick around to the very end.


Random Thoughts on This and That

Thus endeth the sabbatical. After five weeks away from writing, I have returned with cool head and a keen eye and am looking forward to a new theater season and many adventures with friends old and new.

This year’s Tony Awards came and went with the requisite flash and bang. The telecast was the best I’d seen since I started watching ten years ago (and a far cry from last year’s bomb). I was glad the awards weren’t held at Radio City Music Hall. The Beacon is still a big house,  but it allowed more intimacy in the numbers, making it easier for the songs to sell to the audiences in house and at home. I also loved that each show was given about two extra minutes to perform. The breathing room made all the difference; and far better than those hackneyed and dull medleys. I had a good time and one of the main reasons was that I didn’t really care who won. I seriously didn’t; it was mostly predictable who was going home with what so it was fun just to sit back with the crew at SarahB‘s annual party. It made for a ridiculous fun night, with ample laughs and Madame Arcati’s Cucumber Sandwiches. I do hope that the American Theatre Wing and Broadway League continue to host the ceremony at the Beacon (if they refuse to use one of our own Broadway houses).

I’ve recently started using Netflix again – and my first time with the streaming option. My goodness, is this fun! A time killer, yes, but I’ve been able to catch up on some wonderful things I’ve missed along the way, like Pushing Daisies and Party Down (two woefully short-lived and wonderful series), and also catch up on some old favorites (I recently watched The Dick Van Dyke Show from pilot to series finale). The amount of titles that are streaming amaze me, particularly the older and more obscure films. It’s kinda fun to have Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Pajama Game at your finger tips. I also watched the brilliant Downton Abbey for the umpteenth time.  (And if you haven’t seen any of these, add them to your queue immediately).

We’ve got a plethora of musical revivals happening next season; and so many are tried and true classics. The biggest is the limited engagement of Follies coming in from the Kennedy Center, with most of its regional cast intact. Bernadette Peters is Sally and Jan Maxwell is Phyllis. Danny Burstein and Ron Raines will reprise their roles Buddy and Ben. West End legend Elaine Paige will be appearing on Broadway for the second time, and for the first time she is Tony eligible. Joining the cast for the Broadway run are Jayne Houdyshell (replacing Linda Lavin) and Mary Beth Peil (replacing Regine) as Hattie and Solange, respectively. I’m not entirely thrilled that the show is playing the Marriott (the theater itself is efficient, but its location and legacy are a major letdown).

Harry Connick Jr. will be playing Dr. Bruckner in the revised On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Other Broadway casting hasn’t been finalized, but David Turner – who has participated in the Vassar reading last summer – will be playing David Gamble at the Vineyard workshop this month. (I’m assuming he’ll be doing the honors at the St. James, but we’ll wait for final casting). Whether it’s David or not, I feel sorry for the man who has to fill Barbara Harris’ shoes. I’m curious to see how they’ve reconceived it, even if it eviscerates what was once a great leading lady star turn, by splitting the role in half and making one of those halves male. The show itself was something of a trippy mess, as there was a lot of LSD involved in its writing, but script aside the score is an absolute treasure.

Plus, Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier and Josh Henry will be coming to the Richard Rodgers for a revised Porgy and Bess, with a new script by Suzan-Lori Parks and direction by Diane Paulus. It will be seen first at the ART, where Ms. Paulus is artistic director, in Cambridge, MA. There’ll be duelling Jesus’ as Ken Davenport’s production of Godspell comes to the Circle in the Square, while there are talks to bring the highly acclaimed Stratford Festival’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar to Broadway in the spring.

On the play front, Tyne Daly is currently wowing audiences in Master Class at MTC (and boy do I want to see that!) The revival of the Terrence McNally play will close in August to make way for the darling of the day, Nina Arianda, to reprise her off-Broadway triumph in Venus in Fur on Broadway. (I will see either leading lady in a bus and truck of The Phonebook). Kim Cattrall is importing her London revival of Privates Lives to Toronto then Broadway, starring opposite the brilliant Paul Gross (who dominated Slings & Arrows). I’m also still curious to see how the starry revival of The Best Man will shape up.

This week I attended the CD release celebration for Kate Baldwin’s She Loves Him, her tribute to lyricist Sheldon Harnick which was recorded live at Feinstein’s at the Regency. I was so taken with the show back in March that I saw it twice (not bad for a seven show run). Over the course of four of those shows (one of which I attended), the show was recorded live and was released this week by PS Classics. Kate and Sheldon appeared for an abridged set of favorites before a champagne reception, where they happily signed CDs.  I had a chance to meet Mr. Harnick and talk to him for a couple moments about his shows, particularly She Loves Me (my favorite musical comedy) and his lyrics. The album is a pure joy from start to finish; a must-have for any serious musical theatre fan.

Finally, I was At Large Elsewhere this week as I made my second appearance as guest co-host on Stage Rush TV, which is hosted by my good friend and fellow blogger Jesse North. The ladies of The Craptacular were on last week to talk about the upcoming season and he asked if I would come on to talk about what I was looking forward to on Broadway this season, as well as Sister Act, Broadway in Bryant Park, among some other fun things. One of the life lessons learned in this week’s episode is never to bring up Sex and the City in my presence. Throughout the rest of the summer, Jess will be featuring other bloggers on his weekly episode (which is always fun to watch) so be sure to keep checking in for more hilarity and banter.

And I’ll be here, as always, to bring on the Weissman Girls.

Kate Baldwin: “She Loves Him”

Picking a favorite Sheldon Harnick song is nearly impossible for me. If I tell you “Ice Cream” or “If I Were a Rich Man” give me a few seconds and I’ll start rattling off practically every other song he’s written. When picking songs for a Broadway itunes playlist, I couldn’t just pick one song and found myself placing every original cast album of his material into mix. That said, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for the divine Kate Baldwin to make the selections for her utterly charming tribute to Mr. Harnick, simply titled She Loves Him, playing Feinstein’s at the Regency from March 8-12, with the 86 year old lyricist appearing as her special guest.

Out of the seventeen selections, all but four had music by the late, great Jerry Bock, Harnick’s long-time collaborator. Together they wrote some of Broadway’s best scores including Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof, The Apple Tree and my personal favorite She Loves Me, racking up a few Tony Awards and a Pulitzer. Mr. Harnick has also collaborated with Joe Raposo on the musical version of A Wonderful Life, Richard Rodgers on Rex and others. On top of all this, he contributed his own material (words and music) to many off-Broadway and Broadway revues of the 1950s. Harnick’s lyrics are among the best ever written: character specific, vibrant and literate, brimming with wit and panache.

Kate started off with a bit of a tease, making her way to the microphone with a pad and pencil. Suddenly from the piano came a familiar four note introduction to “Ice Cream.” However, instead of writing a letter to “Dear Friend,” she wrote a letter to “Dear Sheldon,” asking him to be a part of her show with a specialized “He Loves Me.” Other gems soared: “When Did I Fall in Love?” stopped this show of showstoppers,” Ilona took us on “A Trip to the Library” and “I Couldn’t Be with Anyone But You” from A Wonderful Life was just beautiful.

The Tony-nominated soprano also happens to be very pregnant with her first child and her impending motherhood informed many of the selections made throughout the evening, most affectingly in her rendition of She Loves Me’s “Will He Like Me?” With utmost subtlety and without changing a single word, the song — which is in context Amalia’s admitting her apprehensions before her first date with “Dear Friend” — was suddenly a new song entirely. I know it’s Kate’s favorite Harnick song and hers may well be the definitive rendition (all due respect to the delightful Barbara Cook, who was also in the house).

Charlotte Rae’s name came up several times throughout the evening. Like Baldwin and Harnick, Ms. Rae is also an alumnus of Northwestern University. While studying, Rae played Harnick the original cast album of Finian’s Rainbow and encouraged him to be a musical theatre writer. Two specialties he wrote for Rae were on the program, which were of particular interest as Harnick also wrote the music. The first was the clever “The Boston Beguine” from New Faces of 1952, about a sexless romp between a bachelor stenographer and a Harvard Man. (Rae opted to do Three Wishes for Jamie instead and the song put the brilliant Alice Ghostley on the map). The other is the madcap “The Ballad of the Shape of Things,” a devilishly subversive number that was the comic highlight – and a song I’ve been unable to get out of my head all day. (Incidentally, Harnick told the enraptured opening night crowd that it was one of the easiest songs he’d ever written).

Usually when I’m at a show where there is a special guest, the individual might make an appearance for a song or two. Kate brought Sheldon onstage halfway through her set to a tumultuous ovation and much to our delight incorporated him into the rest of the show, starting with a spirited “To Life!” from Fiddler. One of the great memories I’ll always treasure was the opportunity to see Sheldon bring down the house with his own “If I Were a Rich Man” (aside from being a terrific writer, he’s a terrific performer). Together, they also shared the lovely “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine,” a gentle waltz that was taken out of Fiddler during the pre-Broadway tryout. They finished with a stirring duet of “In My Own Lifetime,” a haunting anthem from The Rothschilds. For their encore they shared “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler.

The evening was directed by Diana Basmajian, Kate’s frequent collaborator who also did magnificent work on the star’s first appearance at Feinstein’s, helping to shape Kate’s vibrant patter and find the story in every song. They devised an amusing framing device with Kate finding (and in some cases facetiously stretching for) parallels between herself and Sheldon with an unbelievable combination of poise and self-effacing humor. Scott Cady served as musical director and pianist, Andrew Sherman was on woodwinds (apparently almost all of them) and John Beale was on bass; a perfect trio.

I simply cannot stress how magical this night this was; a joyous occasion that you secretly wished would never end. If anyone from PS Classics is paying attention, this must be Kate’s follow up recording to “Let’s See What Happens.” She Loves Him belongs on CD for everyone to hear. In the meanwhile, I have a ticket for the last show on Saturday night and I hope you’ve gotten your tickets as well. You don’t want to miss the best show in town.

And while I’m at it, Kate Baldwin needs to be Broadway’s next Amalia in She Loves Me. It’s been 18 years since the last revival — and we’re long overdue.

Coming Soon: Kate Baldwin & Sheldon Harnick at Feinstein’s!

Next week I’ll be making my first trip of the season to Feinstein’s at the Regency to see the delightful Kate Baldwin in a return engagement. I was there for her debut last December as she sang the songs associated with Burton Lane and Yip Harburg (also on her fabulous solo CD “Let’s See What Happens”). I last heard Kate sing at the NY Pops Sondheim Birthday Bash at Carnegie Hall back in November. Most recently, the expecting star sang as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.

For Feinstein’s, the Tony-nominated soprano will be performing She Loves Him, a celebration of lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s songs. Harnick is most famous for his indelible collaboration with the late Jerry Bock, writing Fiorello!, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof and The Apple Tree (winning Tonys, a Pulitzer and ardent fans along the way. It’s no secret that I am a major Bock and Harnick fan and also hope that someone will have the foresight to produce a Broadway revival of She Loves Me starring Kate. Mr. Harnick, whose lyrics are among the finest written in musical theatre, will be Kate’s special guest for the seven shows between March 8-12. Tickets are available via the Feinstein’s website or by calling 212-339-4095 ($50.08-71.86 with a food/beverage minimum of $25). I cannot wait!


My Favorite Performances, 2010

Kate Baldwin, I Do! I Do!  I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience at the esteemed Westport Country Playhouse. I had never seen the Schmidt and Jones musical of the Jan de Hartog’s The Fourposter, which offers an intimate portrait of a fifty-year marriage. Her performance was exquisite, with an earnest but achingly honest portrait of an early 20th century wife. Its sensibilities may be of another time, but through her performance she brought out elements of the play’s universality. It was not difficult to fall in love with her as she was flirting with, arguing with or encouraging her not-always-appreciative husband Michael (expertly played by Lewis Cleale).

Joshua Henry, The Scottsboro BoysI didn’t see the show at the Vineyard Theatre earlier in the year, and can only base my thoughts of Brandon Victor Dixon based on his stellar performance on the original cast album. But seeing Henry onstage at the Lyceum is something I will never forget. His performance was tough, grounded and always riveting and I find when I listen to the sublime cast album I miss some of his vocal flourishes and power. If there’s justice in the world (and the musical itself expertly showed there isn’t always), Henry will be adding a Tony nomination to his resume this spring.

Annette McLaughlin, Brief Encounter.  I was swept away by this adaptation of Noel Coward’s play Still Life and eponymous film adaptation, even though I wish I had seen it from the orchesta section or in its more intimate venue at St Ann’s. The entire cast is superlative, but as the tall, lithe cafe proprietress Beryl, McLaughlin grabbed my attention almost immediately. She is always on the periphery of the main relationship of the star-crossed lovers, but help add some levity and perspective with her timing, delivery (“sau-cay”) and musical abilities. I was so thoroughly charmed by the experience, but most especially with her exceptional supporting turn.

Jan Maxwell, Lend Me a Tenor.  It has yet to be proven that there is something that Jan Maxwell cannot do. I’ve seen her in a searing period melodrama, an elegant period comedy-drama and then her supporting all-out farce turn in Lend Me a Tenor, the funniest performance in this rather amusing revival of Ken Ludwig’s contemporary favorite. The play itself, admittedly, isn’t that funny. But Maxwell took the script and had a field day with it. Her character’s jealous mood swings and violent temper made for some of the play’s best moments. A mere hiss stopped the show dead in its tracks. Much of her time is spent off-stage and she was missed. She followed this farce with an acclaimed turn as a stroke victim in Wings at Second Stage. Again – this woman can do everything and I look forward to her Phyllis Rogers Stone in Follies at the Kennedy Center next spring.

Janet McTeer, God of Carnage.  I had seen and enjoyed the original Broadway cast with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden, but didn’t feel compelled to see the play again. It’s an amusing play, but it’s really an actor’s play and its enjoyment hinges on the performances on display. However, I dropped everything when I heard that Janet McTeer, who originated the role of Veronique in the original London cast, would be stepping into the Americanized Veronica for the Broadway production. She was utterly superb – and this was the first performance this company had given. I was fascinated by her from the moment she entered to her exit, every flourish and nuance compelling. Funny and fierce, she was better than her Tony-winning counterpart and as a whole made the play even more interesting to watch.

Donna Murphy, Anyone Can Whistle.  “Ooh I could think all night!” If Encores productions were eligible for Tony Awards, we wouldn’t have never had any of the post-Tony controversy regarding Catherine Zeta-Jones’ win for A Little Night Music. Donna Murphy would have (and dare I say, should have) walked away with every award in sight for her gut-busting performance as evil Mayoress Cora Hoover-Hooper in this concert version of Anyone Can Whistle (even the way she said her own name reduced the audience into laughter). Every gesture, every nuance, every note – everything she did on that stage was so fascinating and so damned funny. As a result of this performance, I am convinced that she should be our next Mame.

Bernadette Peters, A Little Night Music.  Replacing a Tony-winning star is one of the toughest gigs on Broadway. Sometimes the performer is an improvement on the original, but that’s a rarity. However, in this case, the replacement was not only an improvement but also somehow transformed the entire production into a must-see. A Little Night Music somehow fell into the hands of Trevor Nunn, who did his best to ruin it. While the sublime Angela Lansbury was the reason to see it when it opened, the rest of the ensemble lacked cohesiveness. Every actor seemed to be in a different production, some even seemed to be in another theatre entirely. Somehow Bernadette’s presence made them a unified presence and while the revival still has its considerable shortcomings (and length), she gave the production the credibility it needed from the beginning. And her near-definitive performance of “Send in the Clowns” is worth the price of admission. If the Tonys hadn’t botched the replacement category, Bernadette would win in a heartbeat.

Invited Dress: New York Pops’ Sondheim Birthday Bash

A week ago, I wasn’t even sure I was going to be attending the New York Pops‘ celebration of Stephen Sondheim‘s 80th birthday. There was a possibility that I might be attending with my blog/twitter friend Kelly Cameron, who was covering the show for Broadway World. Then as the week progressed, I received an invite to the dress rehearsal the afternoon of the performance, an opportunity on which I pounced. I figured, if I couldn’t see the actual concert, I could at least have a chance to hear the selections. Kate Baldwin and Christiane Noll, in my estimation the two best actresses in a musical last season, were singing as well as Alexander Gemignani and Aaron Lazar. Singing legend Marilyn Maye was a very special guest artist, on hand to sing “I’m Still Here.” The NY Pops musical director and conductor is Steven Reineke. Choral support was provided by Essential Voices USA (under the direction of Judith Clurman).

There are few performing spaces that I would consider “pure” and Carnegie Hall is one of them. Every time I enter Stern Auditorium my breath is taken away. It’s so pristine and majestic, yet intimate. The acoustics are stunning, some of the best I’ve ever heard (I could clearly hear every instruction Reineke gave the orchestra while facing the stage wall). Since I was a guest and not a patron of the hall, I entered through the stage door and checked in with security. I was then let into the hall by way of the side entrance. The first ten or twelve rows were taped off, but we were allowed to sit anywhere behind that.

Unlike most dress rehearsals, this was not a formal run-through but a working rehearsal in mufti. The singers and players were in jeans and comfortable clothes. Reineke took to the podium and got things off to a start with the Overture from Merrily We Roll Along. While the sound man and stage manager worked out kinks with microphones, placing and monitor issues, Reineke stayed at his podium and led the rehearsal with patience and poise. He ran a smooth rehearsal; there was time for the orchestra to review its parts as well as the singers to fine tune their lyrics and minimalist staging. Songs were stopped and started and refinements were made.

My friend Lauren and I sat in awe as the actors, seemingly stress free, polished their material. It was a lot of work and I’m sure a lot of pressure to pull it all together for the evening show. Lauren is an actress and told me that the experience was beneficial for her to witness, almost like a master class in performance preparation.The invited dress audience was made up of friends of the performers and Carnegie Hall and we were all quite taken with them. The work session was obvious longer than the actual concert, but I was enraptured hearing many of the original arrangements and a plethora of selections from Company, Follies, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and Into the Woods. It was also lovely hearing “I Remember” from Evening Primrose as well as selections from Saturday Night. I was a little bummed there was nothing from Assassins or my beloved Pacific Overtures (the latter has been painfully overlooked in every one of these birthday concerts).

For me, it was really a joy to hear the orchestrations. Many of the original arrangements were used (from Jonathan Tunick and Michael Starobin). There were some points where the orchestra ran through sections without the singer: I got to hear the final section of “Another Hundred People” and Reineke had the horn practice the final run for “A Weekend in the Country.” I got chills when when “Weekend” started. It was my first time hearing it live with those charts. It culminated gloriously when the Essential Voices stood in for the Liebslieders in the final section. I sat there in awe, silently screaming “Encore!” in my head. Another musical moment that has always stopped me in my tracks: the release toward the end of “Move On” – when I was in a production of Sunday, I made it a point to be backstage when that moment happened; it’s utterly thrilling every single time.

What I found out just before the rehearsal started was that I was also going to be at the sold out concert that evening (good thing I was well-dressed), so for me it was going to be interesting to see how it would turn out in actual performance. Kelly arranged it so that I would cover for her. Suddenly I was seated on the aisle in the parquet with lots of glorious Broadwayites and concertogers. In a matter of hours, here I was covering the event for Broadway World. There was a bit of deja vu, as I basically retraced my entire afternoon. It was theme and variation in the best tradition of Sondheim. It struck me as surreal and amusing at the same time. I also had a lovely chat with the woman next to me, whose son was singing with the Essential Voices and come down from Boston. (One of her fondest recollections was of the legendary Wall to Wall Sondheim Event in 2005; she and her son spent the entire day basking in Sondheim!) I’ll have more on the actual concert later…