March 2009 Archives

This week I'm macking on: Rock of Ages, the Off-Broadway to Broadway musical opening April 7 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Rock of Ages stars American Idol reject Constantine Maroulis, is directed by Kristin Hanggi, the woman responsible for The Pussycat Dolls Live at the Roxy, and features some of the worst couples-skate-ready, parachute-pants-wearing, flaming-kamikaze-drinking music to come out of the '80s. The cheese is so pungent in this jukebox musical (which somehow doesn't include Foreigner's "Jukebox Hero," but makes amends with the inclusion of their "Waiting for a Girl Like You" and "I Want to Know What Love Is") you can probably smell it all the way down the block--that is, if it hasn't been set aflame by all the commingled hair mousse and Aqua Net fumes.

But that's not why I'm macking on it. In fact, I still have some lingering PTSD from that whole era. Once upon a time, I begged a friend to see The Cure with me and she agreed on the condition that I attend a Motley Crue/Whitesnake concert with her. Suffice it to say it wasn't exactly a fair trade, since Ticketmaster never mentioned that my innocence was included in the ticket price.

Anyway, where I'm going with this is that it's not so much Rock of Ages' retro content that rocks my world, or that it was choreographed by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson choreographer Kelly Devine, or even that before the curtain rose on a single Broadway preview--nay, while it was still in its Off-Broadway infancy--RoA was picked up by New Line Cinema for a film adaptation. No, I'm macking on the way whomever runs the @RockofAges Twitter handle just plain gets how to do it. Sure, they throw in the occasional promotional plug, but it's hidden among trivia ("Who sang, 'she goes down slow like a shot of gin/she's got an angel's face and a devil's grin?'" If you know the answer withut clicking, this is definitely the show for you), related links (SNL's Bon Jovi opposite tribute band), metalhead news ("Guns N' Roses is proud to announce that DJ Ashba has joined the band for an upcoming tour"), contests, and daily interaction with their thousand or so followers. On the show's website there's even an integrated Rock of Ages Twitter feed featuring fan tweets alongside the official ones. They've nailed the right tone, and are carefully, gently cultivating their audience. Every theater company that limits their public internet engagement to posting monthly two-for-one ticket offers and opening-week links to reviews (not that there's anything wrong with that) should start re-evaluating their approach, like, yesterday.  

This week I'm hating on: blizzards. I was going to go see some theater around Denver Wednesday and Thursday nights, but am instead stuck a mile above the mile high city, with an icy mountain pass between myself and that big city's bright lights. Apparently, due to the whiteout, even Curious Theatre Company cancelled tonight's performance of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, so you know I'm not just slacking. I'll be back in August though, and barring any late-summer snowstorms (Not even kidding; it's cold up here!) promise to make up for the miss.

And hey, happy World Theatre Day. Tell everyone you know that in the spirit of international cooperation, it's their duty to go see a play or two tonight. You, of course, already knew that, and if you did anything special to commemorate the event, let's hear about it.  

March 26, 2009 11:30 PM | | Comments (5)

For an event ambitiously titled "World Theatre Day," much of the globe is suspiciously silent on this UNESCO-backed, International Theatre Institute-founded event first launched in 1961. March 27 marks the date when theaters around the world are invited to

"promote international exchange of knowledge and practice in theatre arts (drama, dance, music theatre) in order to consolidate peace and solidarity between peoples, to deepen mutual understanding and increase creative co-operation between all people in the theatre arts"

If those lofty goals seem slightly out of reach for a one-day, once-a-year event, well, look at it this way: at least someone's trying and they're trying through theater.

The League of Chicago Theatres seems to have taken the most organized lead on this year's WTD, but there are stirrings in Vancouver, London, and a few other spots as well. Check out  Theatre Communications Group's interactive WTD map, to see who's doing what and where (and, ahem, Philadelphia is conspicuously absent). There's also a WTD blog, Facebook page, and Twitter ID, to help you stay informed.

So what's the point of calling attention to WTD two days before it occurs (although the UNESCO event happens tonight in Paris--can I catch a ride with you?), when there's no time to plan for it? Glad you asked. Turns out the WTD09 folks have compiled a whole bunch of last minute stuff tailor-made for what are apparently legions of theater slackers out there. For one, you can inspire audiences by reading this year's statement--by Augusto Boal--before all March 27 performances or include it as an insert in that day's program. You can upload videos of your WTD celebration, or just promote the productions that will occur on that date on the WTD09 Tumblr site. At the very least, let the good folks at the WTD09 blog know how you commemorated the date, even if it was just by consolidating peace and solidarity with a raised pint after curtain, and a promise to do a better job of getting it together in plenty of time for WTD10.

And if you happen to be an audience member, I expect to see you, butt in seat, at some theater, somewhere on Friday night.

 

March 25, 2009 10:37 AM | | Comments (0)

Sorry to have missed Friday's Mack Attack, but I'm out of town until April, so regular postings will resume then.

In the meantime, while I'm out in Colorado, the Denver Post is my local source for all things arts related. Yesterday's paper featured this interview with American theater's very own canary, Mike Daisey, whose warning of theater's dependence on the newspaper industry and subsequently, the dangers it faces without the support (or existence) of that industry, comes from the mouth of a very dark coal mine.

Proving how right he is, after reading that interview, I'm now considering making the three-hour drive from my base camp up in the mountains to go see his show "Monopoly" down in Colorado Springs next week. And on the strength of Denver Post critic John Moore's  review of Reyna Von Vett's family-friendly burlesque revue (no, that's not a typo) "Leadville or Bust", I might also hike the family two hours down to Denver for the evening. Yes, I'm a pretty motivated theatergoer, but even forgetting my professional interest in the topic, there's just no substitute for being in a new town, picking up the paper and reading a local, respected critic's perspective on the area's performance scene. It generates excitement, offers a sense of legitimacy, corrals all the information into one consistent, reliable, quality spot, and of course, inspires ticket sales.

It's pretty rare for an artist to openly express appreciation for the spot on the creative food chain occupied by arts critics. However, as we become even more of an endangered species, I suspect Mr. Daisey may find himself among a growing number of like-minded conservationists, and hopefully, they will emerge before we have reached extinction.

March 21, 2009 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
This week I'm macking on: Colorado. Because I'm headed there tomorrow, March 14, until March 28. Thanks to everyone who sent me their recommendations for theaters in the Denver/Boulder area. I plan to take in as much as possible and report back here. And if you know of a can't-miss pick or an up-and-coming house anywhere between Denver and Aspen (Really! I'm getting a rental car!), send it along.

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This week I'm hating on: The death of Leonore Annenberg--widow of former Philadelphia Inquirer publisher Walter Annenberg--and today's subsequent announcement that the Annenberg Foundation headquarters will move from Radnor, Pa. (a suburb on Philadelphia's Main Line) to Los Angeles. Things don't look good for the foundation to continue in its role as a major funder of all things nonprofit in Philadelphia, as its current trustees--Annenberg's stepdaughter Wallis and her three children--are based in L.A. and Paris and have little connection to Philly. To be sure, Annenberg watchers have seen this coming for a while, but that doesn't make it any less painful.

Even ignoring the $500 million the Annenbergs have donated to the University of Pennsylvania over the last half-century, their impact on the area has been a game-changer, with $70 million doled out to area organizations in 2007 alone. The arts in Philadelphia will suffer mightily without them. A regular and large-scale donor to the beleaguered Philadelphia Orchestra, the foundation was also a booster for the city's other arts institutions, and last year awarded a $10 million grant to the Kimmel Center "for a month-long festival to be held in April 2011 that will showcase the Philadelphia region and more than 100 of its arts and cultural organizations." Well, at least we've got that to look forward to. Hopefully, by 2011, some of them will still be around to participate.
March 13, 2009 9:38 AM | | Comments (0)
pattiandmandynew.jpgI reviewed An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin for today's Philadelphia Inquirer, which normally wouldn't be so remarkable, except for three things: 

1.) Inquirer critic Toby Zinman and I both managed to shoehorn the word "schmaltz" into reviews on the same day.

2.) Apparently, Mr. Patinkin is a fairly close cousin through marriage, which means relatives keep asking me to say hi to "Cousin Mandy," which I might, if he had any idea who I--or they--were.
  
3.) I reviewed Patinkin and LuPone when they performed together at Philly's Prince Music Theatre last season. 

A few folks have asked about the difference between the two shows, but I can't seem to locate the printed version of that review in the Inquirer's online archives. So in the interest of giving the people what they want, here is a link to today's review, and below is the unedited version I turned in to my editor last season. But just FYI, one difference that didn't make it into print is the addition of a heck of a lot of vintage microphone stands dotting the stage, all wired and fitted with colored lightbulbs. Not sure about the purpose for this design adjustment, but its result was, unfortunately, a far more restrained version of their rolling-office-chair pas de deux.

Our weather finally has an autumn snap in the air, and there is hardly a better way to get cozy than to spend time with old friends. And we literally get "Old Friends," via Sondheim, and a host of other songs by Broadway's boldest-faced composers in the Prince's production of An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. LuPone and Patinkin made their names (and garnered Tonys) as Eva and Che in Webber's original Broadway production of Evita, and they seem to have a true affection for one another. The pair radiates their warmth all the way to the theater's back rows, bringing a bit of Lincoln Center to Chestnut Street, as they tear through medley after lovesick medley. From South Pacific, to Merrily We Roll Along, Carousel and more, the duo stops only for a line or two of dialogue from the musicals and a brief intermission. 

Directed by Patinkin, the performance is suffused with a sense of ease, but also of rebellion. LuPone once famously sued Andrew Lloyd Webber (and won), while Patinkin recently walked away from his day job on the television show Criminal Minds, citing "creative differences." And both still have an air of the scrappy independent about them. The show feels intimate, as though they simply decided together that they'd rather be doing nothing else, invited longtime Patinkin collaborator and pianist Paul Ford to come along, and grabbed bassist John Beal on their way out the door. There are no fancy sets or big dance numbers, only the singers, their songs, a pair of chairs and the musicians' unobtrusive accompaniment. Still, it seems a waste to have the great Ann Reinking as your choreographer and then to under-utilize her talents. There is a bit too much sitting while singing, perhaps a concession to the performers' age. But when they get moving, particularly during an April in Paris/April in Fairbanks medley, they channel the Fringe Fest and swing each other around the stage perched atop a pair of rolling office chairs, and we enjoy it as much as they seem to. There is little concession to age regarding the choice of tunes, however, with an abundance of ingenues dotting the song list, and both reprising their signature Evita roles (and LuPone's signature song, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina") without a care for the intervening years. They may croon "Baby, It's Cold Outside," but inside the Prince, Patinkin and LuPone keep the house nice and comfy.

There you have it. Feel free to compare and contrast, and let me know if your reviews differ/agree. Also, I've been remiss about posting my recent reviews here, so if you've got a little extra time and any interest in a snapshot of Philly's early spring theater season, here's what I've reviewed in the last two weeks, and what I thought about it: Honor and the River at the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 3; the national touring company of Cats at the Merriam Theatre; Arms and the Man at Hedgerow Theatre. 

March 12, 2009 10:40 AM | | Comments (0)
this_is_my_purim_costume_t_shirt-p235238275820830339tr91_210.jpgI know I've been working the Jewish angle pretty hard lately, but really, with Purim starting tomorrow and all, this time I just couldn't resist. Why? Because it's totally relevant. Purim is a drama-filled holiday, the Jewish Halloween, really, where everyone dresses up like their favorite character, gets really drunk (actually, the rule is, you're supposed to get so drunk you don't know the difference between Mordecai--good guy--and Haman--bad guy), and performs a dramatic reading of the whole story. And you thought the Irish owned that sort of thing.

Tonight there's a whole lot of top-shelf Purim happening in New York, and by top-shelf, I don't mean Manischewitz. 

There's the Fifth Annual Broadway Purimshpiel, in which actors from just about every major production come together to nosh a little, raise some money and tell a little story 'bout a man named Mordecai.

There's also the 92nd St. Y's Purim Party with The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac and John Oliver, Jewish sketch comedians The Shushan Channel, and what are being billed as gourmet hamantaschen, which will probably draw more audience members than all the entertainment combined.

Of course, if you're like me and there's no chance you'll be anywhere near Manhattan (Or synagogue, sorry.) tonight, here's an article on making your shpiel shparkle.

(Below: The Shushan Channel, feat. Amy Sedaris, takes on Mad Men--thanks to Philip Graitcer for passing it along)

March 9, 2009 12:41 PM | | Comments (1)
WT200810005724713V2.jpgJust back from Chicago and here I go again, hitting the road for more theater. This time I'm headed to Denver and environs, March 14-28, and being woefully ignorant of the theater scene out there (although its reputation is that it's building, if not cresting right now) I could use some recommendations. 

Is there a company or show I shouldn't miss in Denver, Boulder, Aspen, or somewhere in between? It's a big area, yes, but as long as I-70 stays open--which, of course, is never a guaranteee--I'm game. Let me know your favorites as well as the general strengths or weaknesses of theater out there. Are there particular growing pains that accompany a rising drama town such as Denver? How deep is the talent pool--are shows filled with locals or imports? Let me know; I'd love to blog about it. Also, I'll be back again in August during Boulder's Fringe Fest, so any advance notice on those can't-miss shows is much appreciated.

The last Colorado production I attended was a selection of highlights from Douglas Moore's and John LaTouche's classic American opera The Ballad of Baby Doe--a Colorado show if ever there was one--which, in its New York premiere, featured Beverly Sills in the title role. It's one of my favorites, and I had the privilege of watching this particular performance last summer at Leadville's Tabor Opera House, named after Baby Doe's husband, the silver king Horace Tabor, from the very box seats where the couple faced off against Horace's ex-wife, Augusta, across the street from Baby Doe's luxurious former apartments, and down the road from the decrepit mining cabin where she froze to death, alone and mad. Intrigued? Hers was an operatic tale, for sure, and its libretto is a thrilling ride through the western silver boom and bust years.

March 9, 2009 11:44 AM | | Comments (0)
This week I'm macking on: The output of feature articles on new play producing organizations in Philadelphia. A couple of weeks back, I wrote this piece on PlayPenn for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now, the Philadelphia Weekly's J. Cooper Robb is covering 1812 Productions' embrace of new work by local playwrights, and the Philadelphia City Paper's Mark Kofta is covering the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop's PlayShop Festival, also a showcase for Philly dramatists. And that's not even the whole picture. I've said before, this is a pretty exciting time to be working in and around Philadelphia theaters; it's even more exciting that now a whole lot of other folks are saying it too.

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This week I'm hating on: All the the calls for a boycott of the Israeli Batsheva Dance Company's performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which opened March 4 (review here). The protest is called "Dancing on the Graves of Gaza," with a tagline that reads, 

"1,300 dead, 5,000 wounded, and 50,000 left homeless, this is no time for dancing."

Of course, if you've arrived here through ArtsJournal's portal, you're probably already convinced that there's probably no better time for dancing in Israel and the Palestinian territories than now. You have to be either a complete fundamentalist or a complete fool not to recognize the importance of the arts during a time of national strife--whether they are used for healing, protesting, exploring, or simply uplifting the spirits of the dispirited. Even more frustrating than the Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel's (PACBI) enthusiasm for this wrongheaded action is news that Batsheva Artistic Director Ohad Naharin has said publicly that he "opposes the violence in Israel." In recent performances, along with examining Middle East politics through movement, the company used music by Israeli Arab composer Habib Allah Jamil. Talk about a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, Michelle J. Kinnucan, in a widely circulated article on the topic, calls Batsheva "an Israeli apartheid dance troupe," condemns Naharin for having served in the Israeli army (military service is compulsory for all citizens in Israel), and proceeds to make the inflammatory assertion that punishment for resisting service is far more lenient in Israel than, "in Germany in the 1930s, say." Yeah, I guess it would be.

Reaction to Batsheva's performance isn't an exact parallel to reaction over Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, since that play takes an obvious anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian stance. But they do have this much in common: both suffer from attacks by the ignorant and implacable, and foes on both sides would do well to ruminate over Naharin's idealistic, yet inspiring statement:

"We do what we do out of love, out of passion, because we are crazy, not because we have a role or because we are supposed to lead anyone, but through dance and art, we can show people that new solutions and new ideas can be better than old ideas and old solutions."

March 5, 2009 9:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Last Friday, the LA Times posted a blog entry that did everything a news organization's blog entry should. It was simple, informative, interactive, controversial, featured exclusive content and was fun besides. Best of all, it didn't come out of the sports or business section. The post, which asked 30 comedians, personalities, artists and blowhards to tell them how it would be "If I ran the NEA," was posted on the paper's arts blog, Culture Monster.

kareem_abdul_jabbar_skyhook.jpgSome--the blowhards, naturally--want to shut the beleaguered organization down, period. The comedians are mostly cavalier. Kareem Abdul Jabbar calls for a resumption of WPA-style programs. Tim Miller, Edward Albee, and Bill Pullman are a few of those who want a resumption of funding to individual artists. Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen want it to shore up arts education in public schools. Rachel Maddow wants to take the NEA one step farther and ensure the arts light the corners of our most profitable government institutions--prisons. And Harvey Weinstein? Well, he just wants a New York-based Cinema Hall of Fame. 

Me? I'd cut back on the Shakespeare and ramp up educational programs highlighting American playwrights. I love me some Will, but I also love me some Williams, not to mention Wilson, and I'm betting students would too, if they were ever fed anything besides a steady diet of Elizabethan-style government cheese. I'd also make sure those critic training programs (the most recent of which just announced its 2009 fellows in theater and musical theater) maintain or increase their funding, because better critics mean better public advocates for the arts, and I probably don't have to tell you what that means to us all, especially now.

Check out what they have to say over at Culture Monster (In a handy coincidence, they currently have the latest NEA news posted) then come on back and tell me: If you ran the NEA, what would you do?
March 4, 2009 12:44 PM | | Comments (1)
sleepless.jpgWoke up this morning to a press release confirming the development of a new musical for Broadway based on the somehow grunge-free 1990s film Sleepless in Seattle, a film that was as out of touch with its era then (HELLO! Filmed in Seattle in the '90s, with a soundtrack consisting of not a single Seattle band. WTF?), as it will be when it's a musical now. I say this not just because I'm hopelessly unromantic (I am) or because I find news about any replication of the cloying romantic comedy genre akin to discovery of a new STD (I do), but really, I think Broadway needs a Sleepless in Seattle musical about as much as it needs... Well, a new STD.

Sure, you can just imagine the orgasm-faking song--oh, it's not that one? Surely, the AOL guy would have his moment--it's not that one either? Never mind, the point is, you can understand the motivation behind producer David Shor's effort, but the timing? I mean, if Guys and Dolls is stumbling now, and even Patti LuPone can't keep Mama Rose in clover, what will work? I'll tell you what, plays with something new to say, like West Side Story's current refurbished incarnation, which is already cleaning up, and--as the same Variety piece notes--Will Ferrell's comic lullabye to George Bush's tragically long goodnight. There's a time and a place for inconsequential fluff, but right now's not it. When money's tight, a night out means you're going for mutton, not an amuse bouche.

The production team includes director Joel Zwick, composer/lyricist Leslie Bricusse and orchestrator Ian Fraser. Nora Ephron, who co-wrote the screenplay, is conspicuously absent (maybe she's still feeling bad about her neck). However, Jeff Arch, the film's co-writer, will handle the book. It also turns out Arch is busy at work on a side project--a jukebox musical based on songs by the lite-rock band Chicago--which, come to think of it, just might be the show Broadway needs even less than a Sleepless in Seattle musical.

Update: Sleepless in Seattle, the horror movie, courtesy of The Stranger's Brendan Kiley

(Below, no denying Ian Fraser's classic contribution to popular culture: the Crosby/Bowie duet. Bowie: "Sir Percival lets me use his piano when he's not around." Crosby: "Um, and you know him how?")
March 3, 2009 11:11 AM | | Comments (3)
This Chicago Tribune story about President Obama's pattern of personal involvement with the arts is enough to warm the hearts of every economically-stressed, museum-going, dance-loving, theater-attending American. I don't know if it means Quincy Jones will finally get his cabinet-level Secretary for the Arts, but at the very least our fearless leader seems like someone who just might consider the idea.

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So maybe Mr. Jones should also consider getting Gamble and Huff on board--after all, if you read about two-thirds of the way down the Tribune's article, you'll notice that our president went far out of his way to see a play that had its world premiere in Philadelphia, was written by a Philadelphian, and is all about Philadelphia issues:

"In 2005, Michelle and Barack Obama journeyed to the Chicago suburb of Skokie for the Northlight Theatre production of the Thomas Gibbons drama "Permanent Collection." The play, based on the real-life, art-and-race controversy at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia starred the actor Harry J. Lennix, a friend of the Obamas."

The Lennix connection is purely incidental, I'm sure.

(At left: Tim Moyer and Frank X in InterAct Theatre's original production of Permanent Collection.)
March 1, 2009 4:36 PM | | Comments (0)

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