Friday, April 16, 2010

Lend Me A Tenor: REVIEWED

I wish Tony, Brooke, and Jan had better things to do. Such lovely people.

Even if you’ve never seen Lend Me A Tenor, you’ve probably heard the name- the play first bowed on Broadway (after a West End run) in 1989, ran an impressive 476 performances, and is now a staple at community and regional theaters, and an archetypal example of farce. Was this play brought back to Broadway at the Music Box Theater on the strength of its good reputation? Well, probably not- the play’s return most likely has to do with the man running the show this time around: Hollywood heavyweight Stanley Tucci, who’s serving as director of the production. Tucci has a reputation for doing excellent work as an actor, and from his connections in the performing arts, he has assembled an elite cadre of stars from screen and stage. The ones who pop out from the crowded poster and marquee are Anthony LaPaglia, Justin Bartha (“The Hangover”) and married couple Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams. Clearly, these well-known actors, a well-known piece that offers accessible broad comedy, and a “name” director have all been carefully placed to ensure that the show is a success- straight plays are much harder to draw a crowd to on The Great White Way, and often lose vast amounts of money. However, while I have to admit that this show has a can’t-miss cast, that’s the only thing Lend Me A Tenor has going for it.
Tucci is obviously familiar with this piece and the conventions of a madcap stage farce- his directing is tight and moves things quickly. He makes sure the actors fling their lines (or each other) out at just the right moment to get a laugh, and then moves on to setting up the next element of the “falling dominoes” plot. The story (such as it is) concerns the glamorous world of the Cleveland, Ohio Grand Opera Company, where the 1934 season’s fundraiser is a performance of Otello starring a famed Italian tenor, Tito Merelli. In Merelli’s hotel suite, the plans for him to go unstage go horribly awry as his wife leaves him, he passes out and is presumed dead by the General Manager of the Opera, and the manager’s assistant Max takes his place as Othello (blackface and all). Merelli wakes up and once both men are in costume, more chaos ensues are the two are mistaken for each other by everyone, including some amorous women and an autograph-seeking bellhop. This certainly seems like a setup for some sure-fire laughs, yet I am not sure how such a clich├ęd play became a comedy classic. Some of the situations are very amusing, but the jokes go on too long and are often very predictable. We know about ten minutes into the play that two women want to get intimate with Merelli and that he is a notorious philanderer, so when there are suddenly two of him, we can see the scene where both pairs of men and women make love at the same time coming at us like a speeding truck. An extremely long joke has one of these women, who played Desdemona at the performance Merelli wasn’t actually in, ask him(thinking he was her leading man) how her “performance” was, having just slept with him. “I’m a professional,” she says confidently. Of course, Merelli does not know her real identity and assumes she means something very different. The misunderstanding continues for about five minutes, and you wish author Ken Ludwig had made some cuts. Every line and situation seems contrived to make you laugh or else, as if Ludwig and Tucci were choking me the way Shalhoub chokes LaPaglia onstage when he thinks the latter is dead, and screaming “Don’t you think this is the funniest play you’ve ever seen? Well, DO YOU? LAUGH!”
The cast is without a doubt, the best thing about this show. Tucci has picked actors who are known for being subtle and dedicated, and not only has he picked some big names who can carry a star part in a play, for the minor roles he also managed to find some talented stage actors with impressive credentials. In terms of lines and role in the plot, the leading role in the show is technically Justin Bartha’s, though he’s not truly a “name” yet and thus isn’t billed first. For someone who starred the raunchy comedy The Hangover, you’d think he’d be out of his element playing a mild-mannered character in a Broadway show that mostly deals in innuendo. However, he makes his plucky character, Max, someone audiences will root for. When Max(who yearns to be an opera star but sings like a creaking door) gets a chance to step into Merelli’s shoes, Bartha makes it a sort of Clark Kent-to-Superman transformation, and both character and actor seem to be having the time of their lives. Anthony LaPaglia, as Merelli, is billed first, but out of the three men with top billing, he has the least to do-and he’s the title character! If his bio in the playbill is any indication, he did the play to work with his friend Tucci, and while he’s no slouch onstage, it’s the kind of part any able actor could have played. Most of all, even with identical outfits all the blackface in the world, it’s impossible to mistake portly LaPaglia for lanky Justin Bartha. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but how can we believe that Max’s girlfriend can’t tell the difference? The curtain call, which starts with a sped-up re-enactment of the play, is cute but too long.
Tony Shalhoub may be indelibly burned into our minds as TV’s “Monk”, but now that his series is over, he seems to be having giddy fun doing a 180 degree turn as Manager Saunders: he’s playing a blustering impresario who deals in verbal abuse and chokeholds, as opposed to a man who is afraid of things like milk. Much scenery is chewed whenever’s he’s onstage, but that’s the approach needed for this type of piece. More importantly, he manages to wrestle your focus away from any other actor when he steps into the action. His wife, veteran actress Brooke Adams, does what she can with a disappointingly small role. She is meant to be the “eccentric older woman of society” you see so often in comedies, but the subtlety she uses compared to the rest of the cast, or how another actress might do it, is refreshing. An example of this is that her character, Julia, is dressed in a garish chrome-colored gown and is meant to look ridiculous (as when she flirts with Merelli, who’s extremely uninterested), but she’s not ridiculous at all- for a 62 year old, Ms. Adams is very attractive and fit, and even in her over-the-top outfit, she carries herself like the Princess of Wales. Again, I think in this case it was a relationship that determined casting- Adams is obviously in the play to be with her husband.
The rest of the cast is made up of actors who are no strangers to Broadway- all try gamely but two stood out. Mary Catherine Garrison, as Max’s ditzy girlfriend Maggie, tries a little too hard to be cute; finally, another veteran, lauded actress who is in a role far too small for her is in this show. I’m referring to Jan Maxwell, who plays Merelli’s wife Maria. Maxwell highly impressed me in her Tony-nominated turn in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and as the lead in this past fall’s “The Royal Family”- but here, she only appears in the beginning and end of the play. However, much as she did in “Chitty”, she remains burned into your mind due to her ability to initially come off as very cool and elegant, only to explode like an atomic bomb and have you fall out of your seat with laughter- such as when she screams at LaPaglia for philandering and jumps on a bed while sarcastically suggesting she’ll get herself to a nunnery. If Lend Me A Tenor scattered moments like this instead of shooting to make every moment a belly laugh, it would be a more successful play- especially in the hands of such a great cast.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Addams Family the musical: REVIEWED by a fan

When a new musical premieres and it’s based on one of the most beloved fictional families of all time, there’s a lot of pressure to do the characters justice- yes, this is a family that dumps boiling oil on Christmas carolers and encourages the children to torture each other, but it’s a family whose uniqueness makes them so beloved. You might even say they’re “altogether ooky”: that’s right, the Addams Family is back. Their journey to Broadway was long and plagued with problems, but they’ve finally arrived after rewrites, new directors, and a host of other changes. Was the effort worth it? In terms of the show as a whole, I would say yes. In terms of the characters as we know them, and the stellar cast that has been assembled, I would say that more work could have -and should have- been done.
First, let’s take a look at the source. This is a group of characters who have appeared in almost every conceivable type of media: they began life in a series of cartoons drawn by Charles Addams for the New Yorker, but soon crossed over into TV, film, animation, and many tie-in products with great success. Given their instant recognition among the public (just mention Cousin Itt or snap your fingers twice, see what happens), larger-than-life personalites, and New York background, this sounded like can’t-miss material for a show, especially combined with the cast of stars assembled. However, the show ran into numerous problems out of town: trying to accommodate the stars with enough material, going from an experimental director to a conventional musical comedy one (Jerry Zaks), and adding and dropping material constantly. The changes were meant to make the show run smoothly and become a megahit comedy in the style of The Producers. In the process, though, I feel that the new story has hurt the characters and changed them too much- using the cartoons as the main inspiration is fine, but almost no one alive today was first introduced to the characters this was, and the aspects of their personalities from the big and small screen that first endeared them to us should be preserved also. This is a work in which the characters intrinsically take precedent over the story- they are more than familiar, they are an institution. Many complaints from Chicago were in regards to the book’s treatment of Morticia, the mother and arguably the true head of the family. A cool but sensual character, Morticia is suddenly worried about growing old and being unattractive-this development, coming from a woman who could always drive her husband mad with desire, is frankly ridiculous. This aspect of the character has thankfully been pulled back since the tryout, after derision from reviewers and the public- a song on the subject was dropped- but she still makes frequent remarks about her illogical worries. It may just be meant to give her something to do, but it doesn’t work in terms of how the audience has always known her. One character whose personality was strongly shaped the films was young daughter Wednesday Addams: when the move from TV to film came, she changed from a mischievous six year-old to a deadpan preteen with wisdom beyond her years and a sadistic streak a mile wide. Christina Ricci’s devastatingly funny portrayal in the two feature films is the one best remembered by fans, especially young ones- but there is little of that beloved character in the Broadway version: she has been aged to 18 years old and is in love for the first time. Instead of enjoying torture and sarcasm, here Wednesday is fixated on her boyfriend and sings of how love suddenly makes her fond of bunnies and Disney World. Not only is this another completely out-of-character development, we don’t even get to see the change take place- we’re thrust into it from Wednesday’s first line. A change in character this big should have been built up to gradually. What makes the change even worse is that Wednesday’s love affair provides the narrative thrust of the show- there is no getting away from the flawed characterization, and perhaps worst of all, her beau has little personality. Yet if one is able to move past these flaws in the book (though it may be difficult), many of the things we love about this family are intact: not only are most of the characterizations spot on, there are familiar sights like swordfighting , torture on the rack, man-eating plants, and the tango, as well as brief appearances by extended family members Thing and Cousin Itt. Though the treatment of the canon is important, equally important is how the show itself stands up when viewed on its own.
Taken as a musical alone, there are quite a few delightful things in “The Addams Family”, such as the cast, the gorgeous sets and costumes, some tuneful, witty songs (“Death is just around the corner”; “Let’s not talk about anything else but love”) and some truly outstanding puppetry, especially a tassel that comes to life and a friendly monster who lives under a bed. The story, which at times relies too much on pop culture jokes, seems to borrow heavily from classic comedies like You Can’t Take It With You- girl brings home boy to meet her eccentric family, who clash with his normal family- and took some heat in Chicago for focusing too much on the new characters. Rewrites were made, but the show still lacks balance in terms of the cast.
Much fanfare was made over casting the lead roles of Gomez and Morticia, who are played by Broadway superstars Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. Lane, always good for a laugh, does much of his usual shtick and makes it work for the character- he resembles the original cartoon a great deal, and has much of the zany enthusiasm John Astin gave the character on television. Neuwirth fits the look of her character perfectly and nails her grounded eccentricity. However, she needs more to do than make Morticia’s illogical complaints, and she only gets to show off her stellar dancing skills near the end of the piece- though this may be due to the fact that she is no longer physically able to dance as she once did. The ones who steal the show are Kevin Chamberlain as Uncle Fester and Jackie Hoffman as Grandmama: Chamberlain commands a Greek Chorus of ghosts and knocks the audience dead with zingers like “Was Napoleon right for Josephine?/Was Polio right for the Salk Vaccine?/(breaking fourth wall) Were you folks right for the Mezzanine?” His big Act II number, an ode to “The Moon and Me”, is undoubtedly the show’s highlight, resembling a musical sequence from an old Betty Boop Cartoon. Hoffman proves she has the market cornered on salty old women with some bawdily amusing improvs. Krysta Rodriguez, as Wednesday, also suffers from the way the book changes her character, and never makes us believe Wednesday was once a steely destroyer, though she has a nice voice. Lurch (Zachary James) and Pugsley (Adam Reigler) have their characters down and perform ably. Lucas(Wesley Taylor) fails to make any kind of impression- throughout the show, I had no idea what Wednesday could possibly see in this blank slate, especially during their jarringly poppy love duet. Lucas’s parents, Mal and Alice Beineke, are played by Broadway veterans Terrence Mann and Carolee Carmello, and their lot is perhaps the saddest of all. The Beineke family was a much larger part of the show in Chicago- the fact that their roles have been trimmed down is good for the show (well, is it called “The Beineke Family”?) but not so good for these fine, extremely underused actors. The function of these two characters in the show is to provide contrast, and to do that they have to be as “boring” as possible. It’s an uphill battle, but Mann and Carmello do manage to make terminal squareness endearing by the time the evening is over- particularly Carmello, who makes Alice battier than advertised, and sweetly wistful for happier times with Mal. She has one solo song, “Waiting”, and you can just see her squeeze every last drop from it as she sings: it’s brief, and Carmello must know that she’ll soon be shoved into the background again. Though it’s a far cry from her leading roles in “Mamma Mia” and the ill-fated “Lestat”, she makes her mark with what she’s got. Mann’s character is the straightest of straight men, and he barely has a thing to do onstage expect react to the craziness around him. This is, keep in mind, the original Beast in “Beauty and the Beast”, Javert from “Les Miserables” and Rum Tum Tugger in “Cats” when those shows premiered on Broadway. Those roles are by no means small or easy, and Mann must be bored out of his mind backing up Nathan Lane eight shows a week. When his character finally gets around to a breakthrough, he sings the 11’o clock number in his always thrilling voice, but one wonders why he and Carmello have stuck with the show. Still, when those lights go down and the overture begins, and you get a thrill as you hear those familiar strains, suddenly compelled to snap and clap along: Da-da-da dum. (snap snap) Da-da-da-dum. (snap snap)….you may have your money’s worth right there.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lately I've Been Considering Things That Begin With The Letter "M".

As a diehard Carrollian (one who studies the works of Lewis Carroll) I thought I'd get in on the "Alice" mania in my own way for these first couple of posts. So let's consider...the letter M.


Ok, now that I got your attention with that Lovecraftian-level nightmare (Thanks a lot, roomie. She mentioned that Hatter from the Tim Burton's movie would sing that song. I laughed. Then I cried. ) Let's get back to some of my favorite things that start with "M".

Michael Cerveris: Only the best actor to play Sweeney Todd ever. Equally poised whether encumbered onstage or screen by being totally naked, playing the guitar, pretending to kill people, pretending to be blind, deaf and dumb, wearing a fat suit, having no eyebrows, or being stalked by Patti "STOPTAKINGPICTURESRIGHTNOW" LuPone, Michael is a true artist and a rather nice gent to boot. Some of this best acting:
Something he would probably rather have us forget about:
Michael has also done straight plays, including a brilliant one called In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl, which a family friend of mine was also in. It's not on Broadway any more, but if you ever get a chance to see it or read it, go for it. It is a very funny and deeply moving play with a lot of interesting points about sexuality.

Miss Marple: In literary form she's wonderful. But Julia McKenzie makes a cracking Miss Marple, if I may say so.

Muffins: Delicious puffs of freshly baked joy, and worth a listen when their praises are sung by Mr. Frank Zappa.

Misanthropic, Meandering Mayors: Why is it that usually when "The Mayor of (insert town here)" is a character in something, he's always evil or an ineffectual idiot or both? Usually a he, too. This trope seems to crop up in a lot of works I happen to be a fan of: Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, Edgar and Ellen, Action League Now ("His dishonor...THE MAYOR"). Even friggin' Lazy Town has this issue.

May, Brian : Lead guitarist of Queen, one of my favorite bands! Brian is perhaps the world's only Rock Star/Astrophysicist and a damn great songwriter: he wrote "We Will Rock You", but also "Too Much Love Will Kill You", "Save Me", "All Dead, All Dead", "Who Wants to Live Forever", "'39" and about a million other awesome songs. His unique sound comes from using a coin as a pick and playing on a guitar he made himself, "The Red Special". Plus, Brian has mantained an extremely impressive head of hair. I could have listed Mercury, Freddie, but you guys know all about him, I'm sure. If you don't you should!

Monk: Tv series starring Tony Shalhoub as Adrian Monk, the Obsessive-Compulsive detective. This show is pretty damn addicting, reminds me of the way I used to tear through Encyclopedia Brown books when I was little. Monk is a truly compelling character- you love him, you sympathize with him, you identify with him. I recently met Mr. Shalhoub after seeing him perform on Broadway and he is as sweet as they come. So what if his show's over? This thing will be in reruns til Doomsday, so check it out.

MoMA: The Museum of Modern Art in New York City! Think you don't like modern art? You're bound to find at least one thing you like here. (You like Van Gogh, right? C'mon, everybody does!) Some things on display may be a bit avant-garde for you, but the sheer volume and variety of art on display will knock you out. They have a lot of my favorite artists here: Klimt, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Chagall, Dali. Be sure to stop in at the cafe and sample an Asian Noodle salad (with peanut and cilantro, quite delicious) and a cup of their hot chocolate, which is like drinking a melted Godiva bar. They serve it with home made marshmallows and a tiny brownie square and it is pure heaven. And anytime from now until April 26th, be sure to stop in (I reccommend during the week) and seeing the excellent Tim Burton exhibit. If you are a fan of the director, it is a MUST!

More Museums: I love museums in general so I'll name a few more: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Favorite room: sculpture garden) ; The Museum of Natural History (favorite thing: The whale) The Museum of the City of New York (Check out the Charles Addams Exhibit) The Museum of Television and Radio (may be becoming obsolete thanks to Youtube- help keep it alive!)

Malcolm McDowell: What's not to love about the poster boy for Ultra-Violence? This guy needs more and better movie roles, people. Some performances of his to check out: Time After Time, Cat People, Tank Girl; O Lucky Man; Royal Flash; If; Tales From the Crypt: "The Reluctant Vampire". Also relevant to this post's title is his work on "Metalocalypse" and as Teen Titans villain Mad Mod!

Monty Python: Selected sketches to check out for those of you who want to move beyond "Python 101" will be coming up in a later post

Maxwell, Jan: Theater actress often found trodding the boards in NYC. Just met her after I saw the show she's currently in, Lend Me a Tenor. What a sweet woman, considering she plays some wacked characters! Jan has done a lot of stage work and was nominated for a Tony for her role as The Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Jan's performance is brilliantly insane and must be seen to be believed. I also saw her earlier this season in The Royal Family and in a cast full of pros like Rosemary Harris, John Glover and Ana Gasteyer, Jan held her own!

Mystery Science Theater 3000: A list of essentials for this show will be dealt with in a future post!

Max Raabe: German singer/bandleader who does an authentic 30's style big band act. His songs of the era are great but when he covers a modern pop song, it's an experience you won't soon forget:

Mystery Men: So help me, I love this film. Why is everyone in it brilliant but Ben Stiller....oh yeah, it's BEN STILLER. Whoops.

Matt Berry: British actor/comedian musician. You may know him from The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, or Snuff Box. You may not know that he is a damn epic singer/songwriter:

Well, that's all for now, my lambs. If I think of anything more I will post it in a follow up.
Love from

Hi Everyone *waves awkwardly*

Yepppp, I have a blog now. Way to sell out. Nope, actually it's just because I thought it would be fun. I like to write and the focus of this blog will be Pop Culture and Movies, all things weird and strange and such. For those of you who know me, in my blog I will be going by the sobriquet "Ruby Slippers" (so no one catches onto my black market human organs trafficking scheme, natch) I have never written a blog without being forced to for some kind of class. This could get interesting. Well, hopefully.
Things you might read about on this blog: Zombies, giant squids, show tunes, robots, transvestites, Britcoms, penguins, Mad Science, soup. And so much more.
Hugs n' Squishes,