Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Farnsworth Invention (The Music Box)

BOTTOM LINE: See this Show! For my money, it's the best new play on Broadway and you can't go wrong with $26.50 student rush tickets.

I'm going to get right to the point. I absolutely loved this play. It is one of the best-written plays that I've seen or read in a very long time. The premise is simple: two men from very different political, religious, and economic backgrounds race to see who will be credited with the invention of the modern television, and therefore hold the patent and be able to make millions spreading information and entertainment to the masses. But what is really interesting is the way Aaron Sorkin crafts a story narrated by David Sarnoff, a big-time New York executive-played by Hank Azaria of The Simpsons and Mad About You fame, and Philo Farnsworth, a small-town farmer from Idaho, which flows seamlessly from the 1920s until Man's first walk on the Moon. The action switches back and forth between the two men's lives as they each comment not only on the action in their own story but chime in their two cents on what is going on in the world of their adversary's life as well. The result is quite interesting and adds a really interesting level to what otherwise could have been a pretty dull story.

Let's be honest. I've never been really impressed with the work that Aaron Sorkin did as the writer and creator of The West Wing, but I really dug his writing on the recently canceled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Charlie Wilson's War which is now in movie theatres. In my opinion, he is doing his best work right now as is evident with The Farnsworth Invention. It's great to see Mr. Sorkin getting back to his theatrical roots where he had previous success with his first Broadway play, A Few Good Men, made famous by the film version starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore.

The only negative things that I have heard or read about this play is that it felt a little like a High School history report, which I feel could not be further from the truth. Yes. It is a historical dramedy, but it's highly entertaining and is a story that I think anyone who has ever gotten any pleasure out of watching a television should be required to see. I actually felt bad that I'd never though about what went into the creation of a device that is such a huge part of all of our every day lives. As you can probably guess, I can't really say enough positive things about this play. You should run to see it right now. In Farnsworth, I found myself laughing out loud more times than I expected and truly moved by what both these men went through in search of their American Dream. At one moment, I was nearly moved to tears from a moment of pure joy on stage, so kudos to director Des McAnuff, who also directed the Tony Winning Jersey Boys, for a job well done. The cast is great and Hank Azaria is pretty amazing. For those of you not familiar with his dramatic work, I know you will be very impressed. There's been a lot of hype surrounding another drama also playing on 45th Street, but I think that Farnsworth is a much more fulfilling night at the theatre. You will laugh, you might cry, and with a running time of just about two hours including intermission, the time will really fly by.

(The Farnsworth Invention plays at The Music Box Theatre at 239 W 45th Street. Performances Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday - Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets available by calling 212-239-6200 or at the box office.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Next to Normal (Second Stage)

BOTTOM LINE: an uninspired story with mediocre music; a few decent moments and a talented cast keep it from being a total bust; only recommended for those who really like musical theatre and are jonesing for something new.

If I'm wrong, please tell me why, but I thought Next To Normal was a story that didn't need to be told...especially not through song. And trust me, there's a lot of song in this rock-opera for the Prozac generation. Luckily, the gifted cast of 5 graciously sing their faces off, giving the score some much needed depth and feeling. Brian d'Arcy James and Alice Ripley (they play the parents) have intensely good voices and Jennifer Damiano (she plays the daughter) really shines in this role.

The plot begins with a mother, father and their teenage daughter lamenting their craptacular lives. The mom is on pills, the daughter is angsty and the dad ignores it all (wait, you've heard this before?). It's kind of like American Beauty without the quirky characters and interesting story. But then the audience finds out the twist, the reason for the dysfunction...this was my favorite moment of the evening...I was glad I didn't see it coming so I'm not going to tell you what it was lest you choose to see Next to Normal yourself. Suffice it to say, things get worse for the fam and the mom ends up attempting suicide. She's admitted to the psych ward and given electro-shock therapy (cue Chief throwing drinking fountain through window). After the treatments she has totally lost her memory and has to try to piece everything together again (McMurphy didn't have that hard of a time...Cuckoo's Nest references end now). Really, the story is just sad and at the end it's still sad and no one has really grown.

Next to Normal is a hefty production with a seasoned creative team and it shows. The set is pretty's a three story structure that sort of resembles scaffolding...the band is perched on the sides of the second and third stories and the actors utilize all three levels easily, giving the space a cool movement and feeling of fullness. The set looks a lot like the set used for Rent and I'm not saying this has anything to do with the fact that Michael Greif (Rent director) directed this, and Anthony Rapp (original Mark in Rent) assisted him. The lighting and sound design are also spectacular.

I really want to like this musical. And giving everyone involved the benefit of the doubt, this is its first real production after being presented at the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival and then spending time in development in Seattle. And I did see it at the beginning of an off-Broadway run so if it happens to get a chance on Broadway, a lot could potentially change. See this show if you really dig musical theatre or if you're a rock opera buff.

(Next to Normal plays a limited run until March 9 at Second Stage Theatre on 43rd and 8th. Tickets start at $84. Student rush tickets are $15, available 30 minutes before show time and youth advance tickets are $26.50 for anyone 25 and under. for tickets and more info.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The 39 Steps (Helen Hayes Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: worth seeing because the production is so imaginative and unique, and also because the cast is incredible. It's a fun ride, but just know it's not about the story being told, it's about how the story is being told.

I can see why The 39 Steps won the Olivier Award for Best New Play...the execution is kind of genius. Seeing this play is a lesson in creative storytelling. The 39 Steps is a big, fat homage to Alfred Hitchcock's movies; it's essentially the Hitchcock movie The 39 Steps with some obvious references to other Hitchcock films. But the story is told with only 4 actors, and only a handful of set pieces that the actors move around the stage as the scene requires.

This is not an easy feat for a story of this magnitude. It's classic Hitchcock suspense with perhaps a little more action than usual (and no, you don't need to have prior knowledge of the Hitchcock movie to understand the play). To accurately tell this story, you need to show a moving train, a chase on the top of this moving train, airplanes flying and hovering just over the hero's head, a stage full of dancers, a parade, a speeding convertible, and a plethora of other things larger than a stage with 4 actors can allow. The 39 Steps manages to create these scenes with merely a few sets, brilliant lights and sound, and 4 incredible actors. And the really great thing is that I never questioned it; the minimalism is supported by the humor and the stellar character work.

Overall, I dug the play. It was quite entertaining and watching it unfold was a fun ride that I felt happy to be on. But the downfall for me was the plot. It seemed pretty clear that the intention of this theatrical endeavor was to tell Hitchcock's story using clever staging and cool techniques while keeping it all amusing with that dry British wit. The intention did not seem to be to actually tell the story and make it (even somewhat) real. Sure, there was action, there were characters, even relationships between them...and yea, there was a plot. But for me, I need the characters to form a relationship with the audience; I like to feel like I'm watching these people go through something real. The 39 Steps is much less about a mutual experience between cast and audience and I never thought these people actually existed outside the American Airlines Theatre. But that's a preference thing, and it doesn't take away from the caliber of talent or the brilliant staging of the play. If you enjoy a goofy farce, I doubt it will bother you at all.

(After a limited engagement with Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, The 39 Steps is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th. It plays Tues. at 7pm, Wed. through Sat. at 8pm, Wed. and Sat. at 2pm, and Sun. at 3pm. Tickets are available at Running time is 1 hr. 47 min. with one intermission.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

In The Heights (this is a pre-review)

BOTTOM LINE: previews begin in a couple of weeks...this new musical comes to Broadway from a successful off-Broadway run last year. It's kind of like Rent, but a lot less whiney.

I saw In The Heights twice during its off-Broadway run; it was that fabulous. First of all, it's a really good story about the struggle of non-white families living in Washington Heights. Sure, it covers some typical plot points: Romeo and Juliet love story; importance of family in the barrio; struggle to succeed when societal odds are against you; the usual. The story itself is not that unique, but the production completely exemplifies what modern musical theatre can (and should) be. It's not a throw-back to a simpler Fred Astaire time. Instead, In The Heights is laden with the music and dance of urban 2008, on top of an otherwise beautiful and theatrical score. Hip hop does have a place in a musical theatre.

AND if that wasn't enough, it's (are you ready for this?!) a TOTALLY ORIGINAL work! No shit. They didn't take a movie and turn it into a musical. They didn't rework a musical from yesteryear. No sir, they created it out of thin air. They didn't even steal from other musicals to beef up their repertoire (at least not that I noticed). It was beyond refreshing to see this brand-new story, with something to say and a unique way to say it.

I'll definitely check it out it on Broadway and I'm excited to compare the runs to see what they've changed for more commerical intentions. I've already seen commercials and though they're a bit cheesy, I'm hoping In The Heights maintains its artistic integrity despite Broadway producers hands on the show. Expect the review soon, but in the meantime get some cheap preview tickets and check it out for yourself.

(Previews begin Feb. 14th, opening night is March 9th. In The Heights will play at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street. For tickets, call 212-307-4100.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

August: Osage County (Imperial Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: it's as good as the hype...the story and characters are totally compelling. Highly recommended for anyone who likes smart comedy with a darker side. And you can go for $26.50.

I had heard a lot about Tracy Letts' new play, August: Osage County, before I got to see it myself and since everything I had heard was extremely positive, I wasn't so sure it would live up to the hype that had been built up. Probably not surprisingly, it managed to exceed every expectation I had. I'm not sure I'd say it's the best new work in decades, but it's pretty damn good and entirely worth seeing now with this cast.

August: Osage County
is the story of the quintessential dysfunctional family and the drama that ensues when they get together after hearing that their father has disappeared. In the midst of tragedy, the extended family (headed by their pill-popping matriarch) must try to reconnect and come to terms with the loss of their father while discovering dark and disturbing secrets about their kin. Although the subject matter is heavy, the writing is so funny that the story is, in every way, a comedy. I laughed out loud throughout the entire play.

The ensemble in August: Osage County is flawless. Each of the 13 characters experience change and each actor takes us through that journey with biting realism. Also notable is the direction by Anna D. Shapiro. There is only one set, a big three-story house into which we can see seven rooms as if we're spying through the wall from the outside. Action takes place in all of these rooms and sometimes overlaps with a scene playing somewhere else. With 13 actors and constant conversations (some of which occur simultaneously), the choreography of the movement is precise and carefully calculated...I always knew where to focus but I was always interested in the other things happening.

The script is funny and fascinating and could probably just stand alone as a good read, but add to it a phenomenal cast and brilliant direction and you've got a real theatrical experience. I felt grateful that I was invited in to see this story's delicious voyeurism. And when I went into the lobby at intermission, I looked at the other audience members and felt like I was sharing something special with them. The overall experience this play provides is the reason live theatre is so powerful. When all of the facets come together so perfectly, it's an experience unlike any other.

And even more good news: you can get a ticket for $26.50. Sure, it's in the rear balcony, but it's a small enough theatre that it really doesn't matter. I saw the show from the nose-bleeds and I didn't miss a thing. It still felt intimate. If you can afford a better seat, go for it, but if you're low on funds, the $26.50 ticket option is a gift.

(August: Osage County is playing at the Imperial Theatre at 249 W. 45th between 7th and 8th. Tickets are around $100 to around $25. Shows: Tues@7:30pm, Wed@2pm and 7:30pm, Thurs-Fri@7:30, Sat@2pm and 8pm, Sun@3pm. For tickets call 212.239.6200 or stop by the box office.)