Walking Among My Yesterdays: Sweeney Todd (2005)

Another revival of Sweeney Todd looms on the horizon, this time poised to start performances in the West End next month. I’ll be in London, and have plans to take in a preview of the production which stars Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball (and has sights set on Broadway). In the meanwhile, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to look back on my thoughts from the 2005 Broadway revival, itself a transfer of the previous London revival, directed by John Doyle.

A Day at the Asylum: The Revival of Sweeney Todd

One of my top three musicals, Sweeney Todd, is currently in revival at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The show has been re-conceived and economized for 10 actor-musician-singers in what may be the riskiest undertaking of a musical I’ve ever seen. The company never leaves the stage, except for the 15 minute intermission. They are a part of the staging at every given moment, always in character whether playing their instruments, singing/acting in their scenes or just being part of the general atmosphere. Starring Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, the show is an overwhelming theatrical event.

The show is told from Tobias’ perspective, with the events of his incarceration being retold by him and other members of the asylum. The show continues in a very abstract, eerie style playing up the intimacy of the story in a way that is entirely unsettling. The Victorian oppressiveness of the Industrial Revolution is not to be seen in the unit set or costumes, especially Mrs. Lovett’s riotous barmaid/slut getup. (God love her, but Patti could’ve been mistaken for Alan Cumming in Cabaret).

I definitely missed the full sweep of the Jonathan Tunick orchestrations, but admired the musicianship and the way the score has been adapted, though I don’t love that buttons have been dropped from the end of some songs (the first break for applause comes 40 minutes into the show). Patti LuPone, who played the role in the 2000 NY Philharmonic concert has gone back to the drawing boards and done a complete overhaul of the character from her broader, more lovable characterization (which can be seen on the DVD of the 2001 San Francisco Phil concert). This Lovett is dryer and not nearly as likable, with an almost catatonic line delivery in most of her scenes. Her costuming adds a great deal to the evening, with her leather miniskirt and torn fishnets. It didn’t happen nearly as much as I would have liked it, but everytime she started on the tuba, the audience went nuts. She also held back on a lot of music, not always brandishing that famous belt voice of hers, but singing in a low-key style that occasionally reached her stratospheric heights. Her acting in the final scene is absolutely breathtaking.

While I loved Patti’s Lovett immensely, I confess that Michael’s Sweeney had to grow on me, but I was singing his praises by the curtain call.  Though both actors clearly are carrying the evening, this particular production is played as an ensemble piece. Everyone is working toward the same goal, and two star turns are really just pronounced ensemble turns. The entire company is worthy of note, but in particular Manoel Felciano’s Tobias was just staggering, taking the character in a direction I never thought possible.

Another thing about the actors playing their own instruments, they had several musical gags during the dialogue. The musicianship was stellar, no one missed a beat or a note. (Props for memorizing that entire score). There is no conductor for the show, but the one actress playing accordion would occasionally guide the musicians along from time to time.

The actual throat slitting scenes created some of the most indelible images of the evening, with the stage lighting suddenly hitting a red glare as that famous factory whistle, a staple of this musical, blew. Each time a murder would take place, an actor (usually Mrs. Lovett) would pour a bucket of blood into another white bucket slowly, and the audience could hear the liquid building inside the buckets. Grotesque symbolic imagery, and it added so much to the experience.

Overall, I have to say I admired the production more than I loved it. I almost felt that the concept itself distracted me just a bit from the character development and exposition, particularly during act one. I found myself early on remarking during scenes and songs “Wow look at how that actor has memorized the lines, lyrics & the instrumental music.” as opposed to keeping focused on the story. However, by the second act I was completely mesmerized. I can easily see how someone unfamiliar with the show might have difficulty following the show (one of the complaints I have seen on the message boards lately).

It’s amazing to see this show work so well with only ten people and no orchestra or conductor (astounding for a work that is performed at opera houses around the world). It’s a tough ticket right now; it was an enthusiastic and sold out house tonight. They’ve recorded a cast album of this particular production, which makes me wonder if it will hold up well on disc as it does in the Eugene O’Neill. This is one not to be missed.

The Ides of March

“Beware the Ides of March.” Well, I’m sure glad I didn’t heed the soothsayer’s warning. March 15 is probably most famous as the day Julius Caesar was stabbed in the Senate by his little friends (including Brutus). The date also marks the anniversary of Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, Maine’s admittance into the United States and Constitution Day in Belarus. But it’s also the anniversary of the Broadway opening night of My Fair Lady, as well as my brother’s birthday. However this particular day is also very personal to me.

On this day ten years ago, I went to see my very first Broadway show. When I tell this story there are some who are surprised, assuming that I’d been going to the theatre since I could walk. But I’m not from a particularly theatrical family, so I had to wait. Years of asking to see things fell on the unwilling ear of my parents (who would finally get to Broadway themselves in 2008 for South Pacific). I had taken in local community, high school and regional shows but it appeared to my young mind that the allure of Broadway would forever elude me.

The opportunity finally manifested itself in high school. It was my junior year, and I had recently become involved in our theatre arts department. The advisor and director arranged for various theatrical trips during the year, and arranged to take a group of students to see a Wednesday matinee ofthe long-running hit Miss Saigon. I knew a couple months in advance that this was going on. It didn’t matter the show. All that mattered was that something I’d always wanted to do was finally within my grasp. I made it a mission that I just had to get to Broadway.

The usual information was involved: permission slips, money for the ticket and bus fare and the unwritten permission from the teachers whose classes I’d be missing that day. All of that cleared, and I was all set to go. Then much to my personal panic, an even greater obstacle struck – sickness. It was my father – who never gets sick – who brought this one home. By Tuesday, everyone in the house except for myself was sick. I knew it was inevitable that I was next.

Wednesday morning came, and I did not feel well. Deciding that there was no way in hell I was going to miss the production, I persevered to get to that show. It was a battle of wills that I won… or at least staved until after getting home. There might have been some rosaries and a little bit of zen meditation involved, but focus was where I was at. I was ably distracted on the ride from northern Westchester into Manhattan while we watched South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. (It was a fun ride, in spite of how I was feeling).

My teacher handed us our tickets outside the Broadway Theatre around 12:30ish. We then had some time to roam around the Times Square area with other students. I figured lunch was a bad idea, so I roamed down into Times Square where I discovered the Virgin Megastore for the first time. I made a mental note that I needed to come back this store; this time with more money. Keeping careful track of the time, we made sure to get back up to 52nd Street in time for the show.

I took in every part of the process: the mob of people lining up to get into the theatre, the organized chaos of finding our seats (we were seated in Row J & K right orchestra) and settling in for the show experience. Reading my first playbill as I placed my ripped ticket stub inside as a bookmark. (I have faithfully kept every playbill and ticket stub from every show I’ve seen). There I was, feeling somewhat feverish and unwell, absorbing everything I could about this experience. I was in a Broadway theatre. Hell, I was in the Broadway Theatre. There was an announcement about pagers (remember those?) and cell phones. And we were off.

I wish I could say I remembered every single detail of the show. I don’t. What I can recall:

– There are a lot of chorus girls in g-strings. That means they must be promiscuous
– Our heroine, Kim. A virgin, but not for long. Decent singer. (Deedee Lynn Magno).
– I know this song. (“The Last Night of the World”)
– That Will Chase sure is pretty good. (Chase was playing Chris).
– People are singing far too much. This first act is going on too long.
– Okay, first act finale. I’m curious for act two.
– The Engineer is such a fun role. How the hell was Jonathan Pryce cast in it?
– “Bui-Doi,”eh?
– The helicopter is interesting, but distracting. Good sound design, but not the best thing for a feverish teenager to experience.
– This show has a curiously structured sense of time.
– Oh, Ellen. You’re the reason Kim can’t have nice things…
– This isn’t going to end well.
– The second act is a bit tighter, but this is still too long.
– “The American Dream” is fun. (This was before I knew what an eleven o’clock number was)
– What an abrupt final curtain.

Well, I made it. I got through that entire Wednesday matinee without getting sick, and without getting anyone else sick too. Slept on the ride back to our high school and then proceeded to a choir practice. When I got home, that’s when I went to bed and stayed there. It was like a perfect storm illness as I found myself battling three separate infections simultaneously. I was out of school until the following Tuesday, when I made a feeble but grand return. I had never been that sick in my life before (or since). But, if I had to do it all over again, I would.

Ever since, I have tried to get to the theatre on or around March 15. Exactly a year after Miss Saigon, I was surprised by friends with a trip to see The Music Man revival. Others include Urinetown, Come Back Little Sheba and most recently last year’s opening night performance of Blithe Spirit.

For years, the idea going to Broadway continued to thrill me. For the first four years of my theatregoing, my trips to the Broadway were few and far between; I could count the annual trips on one hand. Now that I go to the theatre with considerable regularity, I no longer quite have that sense of being awestruck (though I take note if I’m entering a house for the first time), but still sometimes smile at the idea that I’m entering a Broadway house to see a Broadway show. There is no way to put it into words, but there is nothing like it in the world.

The Ides of March may have cursed Julius Caesar, but for me it will always mark the beginning of one of the more interesting chapters of my life.

Walking Among My Yesterdays… "Carousel"

I was first exposed to Carousel through its 1956 film adaptation back in middle school. I was on a major Rodgers and Hammerstein kick from having seen the special Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies, a two hour retrospective on A&E hosted by Shirley Jones. I liked the film well enough, but truth be told I’ve only seen it once in the last ten years since I did the show at my high school. Reading the stage libretto and hearing the entire stage score and orchestrations throughout the rehearsal and performance periods, I realized that the show was darker, more substantial and ultimately more effective in its stage incarnation.
We felt inordinately proud of our production. As a cast we were very much aware of the show’s legacy and the difficulties in performing the material (especially in a high school setting). It marked the second time I ever appeared onstage in a musical. I was a sailor in the first act and Enoch Snow, Jr in the second. Even though I had really wanted to be Enoch Sr. (I sang “Geraniums in the Winder” for my audition… anyone? anyone?), I took a great deal of pride in what I did onstage in this show. It was the one and only time I completely costumed my own character, without any assistance (borrowing heavily from my father’s wardrobe).
Even after performing the show, I had never seen Carousel from an audience perspective.  I pounced on the news that there would be a concert at Carnegie Hall starring Hugh Jackman in his New York musical theater debut. The concert was months and months away, almost a year if I recall it correctly, so I kept on the lookout for ticket information. When it came time for tickets to go on sale, I set my alarm and spent about an hour on the phone getting busy signals from the Carnegie Hall box office. Eventually I got through and got the seats. The concert was June 6, 2002 and it was my first time inside the legendary venue.
The day of the concert, I got up and the skies were cloudy and threatening. As soon as I left the house, a downpour like none other started to fall and didn’t let up until the next day. Two high school friends (also in the show, one was our Nettie, the other our Heavenly Friend) went with me and we enjoyed an adventurous – if wet – day in Manhattan. I stopped at the Virgin Megastore, as per my old custom, and picked up a few cast recordings. We then dined at the TGIFridays in Times Square before we made the trek up to Carnegie Hall.

Now if we had been functioning like real adults instead of fresh-faced college kids, we would have taken the subway and/or been fully prepared for the inclement weather. But no, so we walked and walked in the rain – and in what was a first, I walked directly into the side of a moving cab. Amazingly enough, I wasn’t hurt. But oh, did we laugh.

Settling into our seats, the house was buzz with excitement. Carousel was last seen in NY in the acclaimed Tony-winning 1994 revival at Lincoln Center. The cast they had gathered together with Jackman was nothing short of exceptional. Audra McDonald, who won her first Tony as Carrie in the previous revival, was moving into the role of Julie. Lauren Ward was Carrie, Jason Danieley was Enoch, Norbert Leo Butz was Jigger, Judy Kaye played Nettie. But it didn’t stop there: Blythe Danner was Mrs. Mullin, Philip Bosco was the Starkeeper and original Billy Bigelow John Raitt made a brief appearance to introduce the concert; his entrance brought down the house with a lengthy ovation.

Directed by Walter Bobbie, the conceit of the evening was to really showcase the music and lyrics of Richard Rodgers, as well as the orchestrations of Don Walker and dance arrangements of the brilliant Trude Rittmann. Bobbie and John Weidman adapted the book for concert, similar to Encores!, only it was even more spare than anything you find at City Center. There was absolutely no scenery, and very subtle but effective costume coordination by John Lee Beatty. Leonard Slatkin directed the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the principals were assisted by the Concert Chorale of New York.

I doubt you could ask for more perfect casting, particularly in the two leads. With McDonald and Jackman, the chemistry was palpable and the famed bench scene was not only superbly sung and acted, it was also incredibly sexy. When the two kissed at the end of it, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. McDonald’s crystalline soprano was perfect for Julie, with heavenly renditions of “If I Loved You” and “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.” The two leads were ably supported by the others, particularly Kaye, who was and is ideal casting as Cousin Nettie, who brought a great sense of fun to “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and a stirring warmth to “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The evening, though, belonged to Jackman. He was more than ideal, and was probably as close to perfection as one could get for the part. At the time, he was only starting to make a name for himself in Hollywood but had previously scored raves for his portrayal of Curly in Susan Stroman and Trevor Nunn’s West End reincarnation of Oklahoma!

His “Soliloquy” was so impassioned, so thrilling, it brought sporadic bursts of applause mid-song. A year and a half later he would carry The Boy From Oz in one of the great male star turns in recent memory. But his Tony-winning performance as Peter Allen pales in comparison. He sang the role with gusto, and delved deeply into Billy’s psychology, giving a performance that was ready for a Broadway opening. There was talk of him starring in a second film version of the property. I don’t know if that is still in the cards, but it would be wondrous to have the star revisit the property, especially for those who weren’t lucky enough to be there that night. It was one of the greatest musical theatre performances I’ve ever seen in my life.

The finale brought the sold out house at Carnegie Hall to its feet almost instantly, in a warm ovation. That ovation increased as Mr. Raitt returned to the stage where he proceeded to embrace Jackman, in a spontaneous display of mutual admiration. Though Mr. Raitt didn’t sing a note that evening, just his mere presence made the evening that more perfect. I don’t know for certain but I believe it was one of his last public appearances in NY.

My friends and I hoped that there would be a recording of the evening, and were so generous in starting applause that we wondered if we’d be able to hear ourselves if there was one. But unfortunately, the powers that be hadn’t the foresight to consider such an enterprise. Three years later when they presented South Pacific in concert, they made it available on CD and DVD and even aired the presentation on PBS. I’d like to think this was in part to missing the boat the first time around. For as much fun as that South Pacific concert was – it wasn’t nearly as special nor as memorable as Carousel.

Numerous albums of Carousel have been made throughout the years, but there is no complete recording of the score, in its original orchestration and with all of Trude Rittman’s brilliant dance arrangements intact. Even when we performed the show, the musical directors made some splices and edits within the dance music of the score: which includes a rarely performed “Hornpipe” for the sailors in the first act, as well as the famed twelve minute ballet in the second. There have been recordings of South Pacific, The King and I and even the recent studio recording of Allegro which give us the score in its entirety. I would like to think that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest score might be given its due sooner rather than later.

The rain was still coming down in torrents when we left Carnegie. We had even considered stagedooring it (with mostly soccer moms in attendance, a precursor to what was to come during his Broadway runs), but we were informed by one of the stage door attendants that the cast was going to be sitting down to dinner before emerging. We decided the show had already been enough and walked through the rain all the way down to Grand Central (why none us thought about taking the subway or a taxi, I’ll never know) but we maintain great memories of that experience, and I for one couldn’t get that score of my head for days, as I nursed my inevitable cold. But dammit, it was worth it!

What Play Changed My Life?

Is there a play that changed my life? The American Theatre Wing wants to know, and as I look through the contest entries, I figured I would chime in. However, there is a 350 word limit to the entries and I am long winded, so I will post it here in lieu of disqualification.

I honestly don’t know if I could look through the list and pick one in particular that stands out as the “one.” My experience with live theatre didn’t even start with theatre itself. It started with film musicals and branched outwards from there. As a child I wore out a VHS of Mary Poppins and recall the annual viewings of The Sound of Music on television (though I was always sent to bed, incrementally seeing more and more each year – I didn’t know there was a wedding until I was 10!) It was always striking to me seeing Julie Andrews as a stoic brunette Edwardian one day, and a blonde tomboyish novice the next. Plus, I was affected by the music in each property.

As a young child, it was these films and others (such as The Wizard of Oz, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Brigadoon) that first introduced me to music theatre and the idea of a song as an extension of the storytelling. This awareness was further promulgated with ample exposure to AMC, when it used to be the “American Movie Classics” channel with Bob Dorian and Nick Clooney (oh those were the days…) plus, there was also my father’s vested interest in the film adaptations of The Sound of Music and South Pacific.

Now, I’ve always been observant and curious. Ever since I can remember, when I became interested in something I went out of my way to learn and study about it, whether it was my fascination with tornados when I was 7, the Kennedy administration when I was 8, or the Tudor/Elizabethan era when I was 9. Watching The Sound of Movies on A&E back in 1995 triggered a similar reaction. I delved into the R&H movies, and read everything I could. There was a particularly incredibly coffee table book by Ethan Mordden simply titled Rodgers & Hammerstein that offered detailed history, analysis, photos, and was just a beautiful history of the composing team which is sadly out of print. It was through this book that I really started to understand that these films (with the exception of State Fair) had originally been created for Broadway. I guess you could say the rest is history…

Looking at the milestones in my theatregoing life there are several moments that come to mind: The first time I ever entered a theatre. I couldn’t even begin to tell you where it was, nor what I was there for. Concert? Play? Madrigal Pageant? But that is beside the point. Lingering in my mind is this indescribable feeling of entering the space. It was in the tradition of those late 19th/early 20th century palaces. There was this aura about the decor, the way the lights illuminated the space, that non-descript smell that is both simultaneously musty and clean. Add to that the anticipation that something was about to happen, plus the excitement that I was missing school to be there (I recall Sr. Benedict, my first grade teacher being there). There was something gothic and foreign about the space itself that resonated with me. I was awestruck – and it is a feeling I can recall every time I enter a theatre. For some reason it was especially vivid to me (and probably why I mention it) when I visited the Mark Hellinger Theatre last week.

And there are other moments: The first time I ever auditioned for a show – in the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts in Peekskill (dodged a bullet on that production of The Sound of Music, let me tell you…). The first cast album I ever owned – the lavish gatefold LP of original London cast of My Fair Lady. My first trip to see a Broadway show (Miss Saigon). My first ever onstage save in my high school production of My Fair Lady (one of these days, I’ll bring up those fond memories – maybe even some embarrassing video!) Also, my first time visiting the stage door of a major show (Noises Off!i). My first closing performance (Bernadette’s Gypsy; which also constituted my first backstage tour of a theatre). My first opening night (The Light in the Piazza). The 2006 Tony Awards dress rehearsal. When I see Love Loss and What I Wore on Sunday night, I will continue to add to this list.

You see, I would love to pick one and say “This is it!” But it is near impossible for me to choose “the play” as each and every live theatrical event I have seen has in one way or another informed my sensibility. I could pick some favorites, and highlight the extraordinary visceral reactions I’ve had, but if I name one I start finding myself listing everything. Even the extraordinary failures have educated me on how to be a discerning audience member. Every single time I enter a theatre it counts as a stop along the way. Live theatre for me provides a catharsis impossible to find elsewhere, and there is nothing more intimate and personal than feeling that communication between yourself and the story onstage. I’m grateful for what I’ve had, and look forward to what’s to come.

My First Time

Well, at least it was the first time I judged. My earliest show memory is a vague recollection of a local production of Peter Pan. However, my earliest memory of seeing theatre, processing it and making a discerning opinion about it was a local semi-professional production of Annie when I was eight years old. Or at least I think I was eight. Whenever it was, the details surrounding my seeing said production aren’t as important as the impact it had on me.

I spent nine years as a student in Catholic elementary school. I was a pretty good student who was especially taken with music, something not lost on the music teacher, this terrific nun named Sr. Rose Marie. Had she not been called to the convent, I think she would have been a major Broadway soubrette, standing by for Angela Lansbury in Mame, etc. (If I think of one, I usually think of the other – they both are altos with distinctive timbres). I later learned that she was also a big fan of musical theatre, having seen the original production of South Pacific, among others, and she gave me some of my first cast albums (yes, records). She encouraged me to learn about music, watched as I started to play piano by ear and challenged myself to sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” I also joined the school choir, which she directed. She has had an enormous impact on who I am as a person, and as a student of music and theatre.

Oh, and some fun trivia: Sr. Rose Marie was part of the chorus that sang for Richard Rodgers when the composer visited Manhattanville College to research liturgical music for The Sound of Music in 1959.

But I digress… Anyway, my first year in the choir we were treated to a Christmas field trip, as a sort of thank you for all the holiday singing we’d been doing (the perennial favorite: the nursing home & senior center circuit). In fact, where we were going and what we were doing was a well-hidden secret from all of us. We didn’t really care much, as you can expect – getting to skip class and leave school is always a joy.

Well, details surrounding the production are sketchy. I was familiar with “Tomorrow” (is anyone not?) and had heard of the comic strip. I’d never seen the movie and was never into the strip itself (those Annie characters creeped me out with those dead eyes…) and would still rather read Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. The musical also explained to me for the first time why Annie was living with Oliver Warbucks.

So, the show got underway. Nice overture – still a knock-out with those trumpets. There were orphans, and an earnest redhead girl who couldn’t have been much older than myself who came out to sing what I would later learn was “Maybe.” Almost immediately I felt this sense of disdain; there was something about this that didn’t strike the right chord. She was the heroine, but why didn’t I like her? My disdain started to grow to sheer dislike as the first act progressed. Perhaps she was too cloying, too sweet for this orphan (if you look at Andrea McArdle’s performance from the Tony telecast, she at least supplied some sass). I cannot explain with clarity what it was about her performance that I disliked so much, the most vivid recollection is the garish wig they shoved on her at the finale (I’ve seen fake clown wigs that were more effective).

However, I knew the show wasn’t a total loss when this slatternly middle-aged woman, clasping a flask, whistle around her neck, entered and started tearing things up. Suddenly I was paying attention. The impression this woman made on me – an actress of whom I have no recollection. (My ticket stub and program are long lost). But it was she who single-handedly saved the afternoon from being a total bore. She had the best lines, the comic delivery and in the battle of Annie vs. Hannigan, I wanted Hannigan to win. I don’t know if that speaks more about this production or myself, but c’est la vie.

When all was said and done, I didn’t have much to say about the score, the book, the performances – except for this actress. And since the show was a surprise and essentially a group Christmas gift, it would have been rude for me to speak up and say I didn’t like it. On the bus ride home, I have what is my earliest memory of experiencing a headache. Coincidence…?

So much did I dislike the musical, I didn’t bother with either film version nor have I seen the show live. However about ten years down the road, the Broadway’s Lost Treasures series started airing on PBS and one of the clips was the original Broadway cast performing on the Tony awards. That was when I first experienced the magic of the late, great Dorothy Loudon, and made it a point to familiarize myself with the score, which has grown on me. I’ve always been so impressed that she took what is a comic supporting role and made it a star turn (not to mention winning the Best Actress Tony over McArdle).

If it weren’t for Miss Hannigan (and the long-forgotten actress that played her), I may have given up on stage musicals all together. Well, perhaps that’s not quite correct… if it weren’t for Miss Hannigan and Sr. Rose Marie.

Walking Among My Yesterdays – "Doubt" (1/8/06)

I’ve decided that I’m going to start a new series discussing the shows and musicals I’ve seen and/or worked on prior to starting the blog in late 2007. Some of the writing will be reprinted from essays, defunct blogs, etc. The rest I will be writing about for the first time in any forum. Some is critical, some is academic. The new series I am going to call “Walking Among My Yesterdays,” in line with my favorite song from The Happy Time and my show call at the right side of the page. First up, I offer my thoughts on Doubt, originally written on January 9, 2006 (after seeing the last performance of the entire original cast of the play):

Doubt, a Parable. What can I say? The play is brilliant. John Patrick Shanley delivers a credible, thought-provoking and intriguing story, and although it takes place in 1964, it (sadly) has relevance today. Cherry Jones’ performance as Sister Aloysius is a remarkable tour-de-force. It was hard to recognize her, she was so easily consumed in the habit and the demeanor of a strict pre-Vatican 2 nun. Her stiff physicality and sharp vocal inflection only added to her characterization.

For a show running 90 minutes, not a moment is lost: every word counts and it’s taut and gripping. With the traditional ways of the mother superior clashing with the liberal tendencies of the younger priest, it’s really hard to delineate the truth on the whole matter. Basically, with nothing more than a suspicion, Sister Aloysius suspects that Father O’Flynn, who is also the phys ed. and religion teacher, is making inappropriate advances on the school’s (first and) only black child. The battle of wills is fierce, as both are strong characters with a great deal of resolve. The priest is at an advantage, as Roman Catholic priests have patriarchal authority in the church, which he subtly uses as a fear tactic against Sister Aloysius, but she is firm in her handling of the situation. The problem on her part is that there is no tangible evidence to prove her suspicions correct and refuses to accept what he says. Their confrontation scene towards the end of the play is the stuff rave reviews were made for. It got to the point where they were yelling in each other’s faces, neither choosing to stand down – and the audience ate it up. Several keys lines people tried to start applause, but the heat of the moment onstage didn’t allow for any breaks and the actors continued pressing forward with such conviction. Finally when the scene did end, it stopped the show. Lengthy explosion of applause from the house.

Jones’ Aloysius is a tough nut, but even though dead set in her ways and occasionally off the mark, she is fascinating, intriguing and sometimes funny. Her accomplice, so to speak, is a weak-willed, naive nun named Sister James, whom Aloysius is trying to get to be like her, even though the young girl is more progressively minded. James has a monologue during which she lashes back at the mother superior in a brilliant explosion of pent up emotion. Cherry stopped the show cold with her sharp, cool and authoritative reply of “Sit down.” Stunning work on finding some levity in the piece, considering the starched quality of her character. A stunning moment came when Aloysius is tending to plants in the courtyard while conversing with Sister James. James mentions that she thinks the priest has done what Aloysius expects. Cherry is kneeling, facing upstage right. You can’t see her face, but you see the comment hit her like a ton of bricks. Her response was a stunned “What…?”. What a moment, especially with her back to the audience. The characterization is remarkable, playing off her strengths as equally as her flaws. Her stolid quality was notable in her body language, how she carried herself, walked, every detail she was living the part. I noted the minor point that she was standing up to the second class citizenry nuns found themselves in the Church years ago, as she is not allowed to be in a room alone with him – a rule he breaks during their final battle, as well as not being able to enter the rectory or walk up to a priest, etc. I was intrigued by that, and by the fact that regardless, she had no power outside her principal’s office in the parish.

Adriane Lenox plays the mother of the young boy in question and in another brilliant (and brief) scene, interacts with Cherry over the interests of her son. The role is stunning, because in all her 7 or 8 minutes onstage, you know everything about this character and Lenox makes daring choices (the character’s reaction is rather shocking to the audience, and out of left field, especially in such a matter).

I cannot praise Shanley enough for writing this play. It deserved all of its awards last spring. The “parable”, as the play is referred to, offers no concrete evidence for either side of the argument. The ambiguous ending is perfection – he’s crafted it so that the evidence presented puts doubt into the audience as well as the characters onstage. There is no clear-cut truth to the matter and end is startling and effective in its polarizing of the audience. I’m still not sure who to believe, I leaned towards Aloysius at first, but then bounced back when the priest presented his case, but at the end I was completely uncertain. Talk about a success on the part of the author’s intent.

The only flaw, I thought, was Heather Goldenhersh, as the younger nun Sister James. I felt that she wasn’t even acting (not in the amazing Cherry Jones way, but in the someone handed an unprofessional a script and told her to act-deer in headlights way). Her character was mannered, the acting wasn’t sophomoric, it wasn’t realistic and had no energy. However, I was impressed with Cherry as a scene partner. She worked magically off of all the actors and even had a good stage rapport with the younger actress (even if I thought she was lacking, the Tony people didn’t. Oh well, it’s just my opinion).

Between this and The Pillowman, it’s been a good year for drama. Doubt, especially, with its purposeful lack of a clear-cut ending, is leaving audience members thinking, talking and debating as they leave the Walter Kerr Theatre. I also think this play would expand well onscreen too. (There is sadly, such relevance in the fears of priests molesting children and in that regard, I sympathized with Aloysius’ fear for the safety of her students, even if her character lacked grace in handling the situation. It was also fascinating as a product of parochial elementary education to see it presented on Broadway).

I feel privileged and honored to have seen Cherry Jones act live onstage. I am in a state of awe after having witnessed such genius in the acting and in the writing (and in directing, Doug Hughes, unsung in my comments, has done stellar staging of the text, keeping the pacing tight and always intriguing).

After thinking about it, I think I tended more toward Aloysius’ suspicion. I don’t necessarily think she did the right thing. But I was fearful for the student’s well-being and in this day and age, its a zero-tolerance policy. But evidence is key, we can’t just go on gut impulses all the time, even if it feels 100% certain to be the right path.

In retrospect 2004-05 proved to be a stellar theatre season for me: The Light in the Piazza (7 times), Doubt, The Pillowman, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (twice), Purlie & The Apple Tree at Encores!, South Pacific at Carnegie Hall, La Cage Aux Folles (twice) and Spamalot.

And before I stop, I just wanted to include John Patrick Shanley’s Playbill bio:

John Patrick Shanley (Playwright) is from the Bronx. He was thrown out of St. Helena’s kindergarten. He was banned from St. Anthony’s hot lunch program for life. He was expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School. He was placed on academic probation by New York University and instructed to appear before a tribunal if he wished to return. When asked why he had been treated in this way by all these institutions, he burst into tears and said he had no idea. Then he went in the United States Marine Corps. He did fine. He’s still doing okay. Mr. Shanley is interested in your reactions. He can be contacted at shanleysmoney@aol.com.

Walking Among My Yesterdays: ‘Gypsy’ (2004)

When I was a senior in high school, we had a new principal who used to sign off from her daily morning address with a clinical admonition of “The choices you make today, shape your world tomorrow.” Given that she was new and ingratiating (imagine a cross between Hillary Clinton and Miss America), we were reluctant to take anything she said seriously. However, I sit here this evening and I realize just how right she was.

You see, it was five years ago today that the revival of Gypsy starring Bernadette Peters closed on Broadway, and to this date that sole theatre experience has had a greater impact on my life than any other.

When it was announced for the second time that Gypsy would definitely close at the end of May, I decided it was time for me to get my rear in gear and see the show. I had never seen Gypsy, one of the best shows ever written, live. While browsing online at Telecharge, I noticed that tickets were available for the very last performance and I decided I would jump at the opportunity. I had never attended a closing before. On a whim I bought two tickets.

Then came the problem: no one wanted to go with me. “Some people can’t even give it away” rang true as I counted down to the big event. The day of the show I managed to get in contact with a friend from high school, who dropped everything and rushed to meet me at the train station. Sam is a writer and was just beginning studying to be a playwright at SUNY Purchase, so she was interested to look at it from that perspective, since she had only heard selections of the score and was almost wholly unfamiliar with the work.

That day, Bernadette and co. blew the roof off of the Shubert Theatre. The announcement of Marvin Laird as the musical conductor brought cheers from many regulars. That overture. That titanic overture brought the crowd to a standing ovation (something I’ve never seen before or since). In a few short minutes, the words “Sing out, Louise” rang out and the audience once again flew out of their seats to cheer Bernadette as she made her way from the back of the house to the stage. In spite of any critical misgivings certain people (Riedel) might have had, Ms. Peters delivered nothing short of a powerhouse performance as Madame Rose, with absolutely no vocal trouble and passionately intense acting. The energy was palpable, the book was ripe and Bernadette’s Rose finagled, seduced, charmed and ultimately horrified when she brought the house down on itself with “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

At intermission, Sam and I became engrossed in conversation with the woman to our left, who was there with her young son, who couldn’t have been more than seven, looking dapper in his suit. Turning to each other, we discussed the show from a written perspective. Sam had never heard “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in its context before, so she floored at the underlying subtext. A younger gentleman making his way back to his seat in our aisle passed by as I was discussing the definitive nature of Ethel Merman with the role of Rose. Sam alerted me that someone behind me was disagreeing with me. I turned and had a congenial debate with the young, passionate theatregoer, who admired the theatre and in particular this production. We discussed all the actresses who have inhabited the part of Rose, having as big a conversation in about 6 or 7 minutes than many people have in an hour.

Then came the second act. Every song brought great applause; half the house even stood for the three strippers. Tammy Blanchard had to work hard on “The Strip,” though she didn’t quite pull off the transition from Louise to Gypsy Rose Lee. Then came that moment to end all moments. A dead, palpable silence filled the theatre as an embittered Rose emerged from the dressing room where she had just thrown down with her daughter. Rejected, vilified, humiliated yet defiant, she once again stood her ground by defiantly shouting to the empty stage that she could have been better than everyone else. This embittered cloud exploded into the storm that is the eleven o’clock number to end all eleven o’clock numbers: “Rose’s Turn.”

Bernadette Peter’s Turn was as devastating and cathartic as you could imagine; an emotional breakdown as you watched her seams come apart. On the final “For me!” The audience stood and cheered and cheered and then cheered some more. Bernadette bowed. And bowed. And bowed. Then she froze in character to wait for the applause to end, only to continue bowing as Tammy Blanchard entered clapping. This Gypsy still played to the more positive (and superior) ending, with both leaving arm in arm, the audience emotionally drained yet exhilarated.

I had hoped to say goodbye to the young man, but missed him as we exited the theatre. Someone else from my high school happened to be there and had grabbed my attention and focus. Such is the case with so many of the theatregoing acquaintances you meet, or as I like to call them: show friends. You share two to three hours with one another; if you’re lucky they are vibrant and intelligent conversationalists. But for the most part you never see them again.

The day also marked the first time I went backstage at the Shubert. Sam and I have a mutual friend from high school whose father was subbing in the pit that final week, and he arranged for us to get a brief impromptu tour of the wings and backstage area. We got to venture down into the pit and look up at the Shubert from the most unusual vantage point, the three tiers towering above us. It was a surreal and wonderful experience, especially as we emerged from the stage door and the crowd, expecting the stage stars, exhaled dismissively.

The next day, I posted something incredibly specific about the production on All That Chat and lo and behold, my theatregoing friend and I reconnected. We took our conversation to instant messenger, and I made a fast friend named Noah Himmelstein, who shared an exuberant passion for theatre, and in particular, musical theatre. Unbeknowst to me, he also met someone at the performance who also loves the live theatre experience and is always in the endless pursuit of entertainment. I would meet Our Sarah only briefly a year later at the Theatre World Awards. Within the next two years we developed a sturdy friendship that involved theatrical excursions and outings. It was due mostly to Noah and Sarah’s encouragement that I started writing anonymously as the Theatre Aficionado at Large back in October ’07.

Life has a funny way of leading you into unexpected territory. Though I wrote some theatrical criticism in college, I never loved it. In fact I rather hate it. When forced to turn a critical eye to everything, there is the risk of missing out on enjoying the experience and being in the moment. It was due mostly to Noah and Sarah’s encouragement that I started writing anonymously as the Theatre Aficionado at Large back in October 2007. The very first thing I wrote was “I refuse to be a critic.” This blog is my compromise, and I still don’t consider myself critic. At first I didn’t take it seriously, only occasionally posting and not thinking I would stick to it and frankly not sure anyone was reading what I was writing. However, I kept at it. As a result, I’ve made some wonderful friends; people I would never have met otherwise. I look forward to seeing them on a daily basis via their websites and twitter feeds, and also on their woefully infrequent trips to the New York City, where we gather for food, drinks, endless banter and of course, theatre. Whenever any of us get together, it is unquestionably an epic win.

Five years removed, I look back nostalgically on the friendships I treasure and look excitedly toward the next five. So to celebrate this anniversary, I raise a toast to all those good and crazy people, my theatre friends. Thanks for the laughs, the memories and the good times. My world is a better place because you are all a part of it.

And here’s to Bernadette Peters, for starting it all.