Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Zak's End of Year Picks

The holidays are over, the year is winding down, but there is still a lot of great theatre to be seen. So, check these shows out before it's too late.

Best of Off-Broadway: Fuerzabruta
Go see this show!

Take Your Out of Town Guests: All My Sons
Tourists want to see stars, and you get a lot of bang for your buck with this solid revival of Arthur Miller’s classic. Who knows, you might even see a Scientology protest outside beforehand. Two shows for the price of one. You can’t go wrong.

Fun Night Out While It's Still Cheap: Rock of Ages
This bitchin' 80's musical is transferring to Broadway and the movie rights have been sold to a major studio. Go see this totally rad show while it's still at the intimate New World Stages. And be sure to go to Blockheads next door for $3 Margaritas before the show so you can rock even harder.

You'll Kick Yourself if You Miss It: Spring Awakening
It won a gaggle of Tonys and is closing soon. Go see this edgy musical while you still can, it closes January 18th. Don't be scared off by the subject matter–I took my mother to see it when she was in town. If you're not too uptight you'll find your self enjoying the intriguing story and infectious rock score by Duncan Sheik.

You're Kicking Yourself That You Missed It: The Seagull
What better time of year than New Year's for a little regret, right? While it's too late to see this wonderful revival of Chekhov’s classic, you truly missed out. It was great. Sucks to your asthmar that you missed it. Your loss. (Editor's note: Theatre Is Easy does not condone flagrant patronizing.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Molly's Holiday Picks

Now is a great time to see a Broadway show. Yes, you have to battle the Times Square holiday madness, but just think how all of those bright lights and extra people will keep you warm as you make your way to the theatre. Plus, a bunch of Broadway shows are closing in early January, so it's your last chance to see Spring Awakening, 13 the Musical, Young Frankenstein, Boeing Boeing, Gypsy, Spamalot, Grease, Hairspray, All My Sons and Forbidden Broadway (an off-B'way show, but still worth noting). Just be sure to check holiday schedules before you buy tickets, as most shows rearrange their performance dates for Christmas and New Years.

Molly's 2008 Broadway Holiday Picks
click on the show title to read the Theatre Is Easy review...

Take your parents (musical): Gypsy
Take your parents (play): All My Sons
Take the tweens in your life: 13 the Musical
Take a date (play): Boeing Boeing
For a laugh (play): The 39 Steps

Hope you have a really great holiday season!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Liza's at the Palace (Palace Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: Even if you’re not a fan of her music, go to see a living legend at the top of her game.

So, I’ll admit that I really had no interest in seeing Liza Minelli’s latest concert at the Palace Theatre. I figured it was one of those things that I should see, but wasn’t really motivated to get there. I loved her hysterical turn as a vertigo stricken socialite on the brilliant tv show Arrested Development, but I kind of figured she wouldn’t be falling down and coming on to anyone during her concert so I wasn’t really that pumped about it. I generally don’t enjoy going to a concert unless I really love the artist’s music, and I’m not Liza’s biggest fan when it comes to her singing. I think she is a great performer, but did I really want to listen to her sing for two hours? The answer: hell yeah. I was so pleasantly surprised. Ms. Minelli delivers a wallop of star power in her solo show. She sings non-stop for over two hours and is utterly compelling to watch.

You forget that Liza comes from an era when people where raised and bred to be stars. The anecdotes from her life are extremely touching and she leaves you wanting more at every turn. She is a consummate professional who had the entire audience eating out of the palm of her hand from the moment the red curtain lifted. She brings a depth to her renditions of “Maybe this Time,” “And the World Goes Round,” “Cabaret,” and many others that are far better than anything that is happening on Broadway at the moment.

It is rare that you get to see a living legend that truly lives up to her reputation. Her voice is still top notch, and while you might not be able to fully understand about 10% of what she is saying, it doesn't matter. Liza's at the Palace is a truly wonderful theatrical experience that should not be missed. Even if you are not a fan of her music, you will enjoy yourself. Her performance level is something that is really unmatched in the entertainment industry today. She lives to please and entertain an audience, and Liza does just that–she entertains. Go see it before it's too late.

(Liza at the Palace plays at The Palace Theatre, Broadway at 47th Street, through January 4th. Click here for the entire performance schedule. Tickets are $55-$125 with $250 premium seats available. Visit lizasatthepalace.com for more show info.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Improbable Frequency (59E59)

BOTTOM LINE: The thinking man's (or woman's) musical theatre.

During the intermission of Improbable Frequency the lady sitting in front of me turned to her companion and said, "You really have to concentrate on this one." That is somewhat of an understatement. Set in and around Dublin during WWII, the story weaves its way in and around the connections of a eclectic mix of characters, all of whom sing, mug, shimmy, dance, vogue, and speak in verse.

What I loved most about this play was the obvious craftwork that went into creating it. All the dialogue is in verse, the songs are catchy and are all quite distinctive, the set, lighting and costumes were all time and place perfect. There was not a detail left unattended to, and that includes the cast – a fantastic group of talented actors who play a range of characters with great aplomb. The entire enterprise felt like a finely tuned Cadillac purring at an auto show. It successfully merges many genres, often feeling more like a movie than a play. There is political tension mixed with farce, romanticism and a touch of film noir...something for everyone.

My only criticism is that the play may be too smart for its own good. At some point in the middle of Act II, I sort of got lost in the labyrinth and never really found my way out. At a two and a half hour running time, perhaps a few of the extraneous off shoots of the main plot could be sacrificed for time.

But that really is a minor quibble when compared to the amount of fun this play really is. And now that I think about it, maybe the woman in front of me was concentrating too hard. Maybe the whole point of the Improbable Frequency is that it is, in fact, improbable, and the harder you try to keep everything linear and wrap your brain around all the connections and interconnections, all the more improbable it becomes. Maybe the point is to just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

(Improbably Frequency plays through January 4th at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street between Park and Madison. Show times are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Holiday schedule: December 24th at 2pm, December 25th at 6pm only. Tickets are $60...to purchase visit ticketcentral.com. Visit 59E59.org for more info.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New House Under Construction (59E59)

BOTTOM LINE: If the actors are on, this play can be one heck of an emotional ride. If not (and if a few other things don't click), it might miss the punch.

After 15 years, 2 couples in their 40’s are reunited during the construction of a new house. Old rivalries, secrets and choices made long ago come to the surface and the audience is brought into a story about love, lust and the “what-ifs” in life.

After the first few scenes of New House Under Construction I thought this play was going to be about adults with sex issues – this can be a fine line between quality creative work and uninspiring indulgence. Fortunately the story turns away from just exploring sexual desires as the audience begins to discover more about the characters in an interesting way. The story then turns again in a completely unexpected way to share something I really appreciated in the end.

New House was written and directed by Alan Hruska, an accomplished lawyer turned writer-director. His writing offers a keen insight into human truths and character. The many scenes made for an interesting story, although a few scenes drop a bomb at the last possible moment, only to be edited too quickly. The theatrical experimentation with the space and storytelling was interesting and for the most part worked, although one scene that diverted from the structure of the staging and story didn’t thrill me too much and seemed too theatrical for my taste if not superfluous.

I caught an early preview of this show on a Saturday afternoon, so I can understand that this play is still getting its legs. In the performance I caught, the actors took a few scenes to get warmed up and I just wasn’t buying the stakes or the relationships that the material was demanding. The actors are obviously talented, although some moments weren’t quite there for me. Again, as the material sets in and the show officially opens, we’ll see how the piece comes together.

There were also a lot of little things that detracted from the enjoyment of the play and needed a bit more craft. Some were technical effects, some were written in the play itself and some were moments that are being ironed out. It took away from my engagement in the play at times. At this point, a lot falls on the actors to comfortably own the material and deliver truthful, emotionally invested scenes. There are a lot of aspects that are quite good, don’t get me wrong, it’s just going to have to click the whole way through for this to become the engaging and surprising piece of theater it can be.

(New House Under Construction plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park, through January 4th. Show times are Tuesday through Friday at 8:15pm, Saturday at 2:15pm and 8:15pm, and Sunday at 3:15pm. Tickets are $35...to purchase, visit ticketcentral.com or call 212.279.4200. Visit www.59E59.com for more info.)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

CALIGULA (Horizon Theater Rep)

BOTTOM LINE: With a strong message about the contradictions of both love and government, you don't have to be familiar with Camus nor Caligula to enjoy this production.

"By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more."
-Albert Camus

Albert Camus is often considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential existentialists, though he would not approve of this label. (Incidentally, he also happens to be among this reviewer’s favorite authors.) It seems that as the new millennium matures, existential questions return to the forefront. Caligula is a story of a disillusioned leader who abuses his power in vain. It is only appropriate that Horizon Theatre Rep should choose to present Caligula now.

Produced at the impressive, newly renovated Theatre Row Studios, Caligula welcomes its audience with an impressive set. Tall columns lend a Roman flavor, while an oversized banquet table surrounded by gold chairs can’t help but reflect a very well-known piece of art. Set designer, Peter R. Feuchtwanger, brings the symbolism home with an ever-present burning flame in the background. Lighting designer, Jeff Croiter, continues this timeless design with a hint of 1920s flavor by combining traditional warm lighting effects and romantic columns of light with the starkness of exposed light bulbs. The attention to detail with the costumes and hair by Jennifer Nweke furthers the concept of a timeless era that could just as easily be from the 1920s, as it could be today, as it could be tomorrow. Even though the two hour run time sans intermission is a little scary, don’t worry, it goes by surprisingly fast. Definitely don’t let it deter you from seeing the show. Caligula provides a pleasant evening of theatre.

I have mainly one problem with this production. I simply cannot allow myself to believe that fight choreographer Rick Sordelet could be responsible for the borderline laughable death scenes. Simply google his name and you will see that this man is a tremendous fight choreographer with massive Broadway and film credits (the film “Dan in Real Life” and Broadway’s The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aida, and 110 in the Shade to name only a few)! I have witnessed examples of his superb choreography in the past. Sitting in the audiences of American Buffalo (Broadway revival, 2008), The Homecoming (Broadway revival, 2007-2008), and Curtains (Broadway 2007-2008), Mr. Sordelet, on more than one occasion, has caused me to jump in my seat, clutch my pearls, and gasp for air with his convincing violence. Therefore, I suspect director Rafael De Mussa, is to credit for the unfortunate distractions. It appears that at the expense of believability, the director attempted to create an “artistic” stage picture. I’ve seen this happen before and I will never understand it.

Nonetheless, I implore any audience member to suspend their disbelief and forgive those brief moments of unbelievability. After all, the story itself already asks you to believe that one man is capable of murdering and raping whomever he wishes (including the moon) at random with little to no objection. Why not believe that a person can be dead while sitting completely upright in a banquet chair and maintaing almost perfect posture? Fortunately, Mr. Sordelet has the opportunity to show off his stuff with a massive group fight scene that is rather impressive. Multiple guns, punches, and all manors of violent acts are displayed in a moment of chaos that is like a brief waltz among madmen with all the grace of a dance but none of the beauty -- and that’s a good thing. Minus the glaring death scenes, Caligula is a solid production with several fine performances that are well worth seeing.

A solid ensemble overall, a few actors rise to the top. In particular, Ben Gougeon (Helicon) captivates with mesmerizing stealth. Mr. Gougeon transforms ever so subtly from a harmless, almost oafish teddy bear of a yes-man to a captivating, carnal conspirator. He creates a passionate villain that one loves to hate. Also noteworthy, is actor Miles Warner (Mucius). With heartbreaking eyes and a hauntingly expressive face, Mr. Warner creates a character whose soul disintegrates before one’s very eyes, a stunning performance. Chris Triana (Metellus) exhibits a flawless facility with language, which not only delivers a strong performance but is also a breath of fresh air. His clarity immediately dispels any confusion in the story-line. Moments of levity are unexpectedly delivered by Hungarian actor, Gustav Bodor (Octavius). A character that so easily could have been portrayed as obnoxious or whiney is nothing but charming and likable in Bodor’s hands. Bodor’s keen comic timing and sympathetic character is perfection. Special nod should also be given to De Mussa (Caligula). According to Caligula, an actor need only be devoid of emotion to play a god on stage. De Mussa follows his character’s advice and, in doing so, creates a powerful demon. Too often actors give performances laden with yelling, crying, pointing, slamming of fists and red-in-the-facing. This reviewer appreciates any actor who can achieve a dominating character without resorting to these lesser tactics, which De Mussa does. While I found some of De Mussa’s directorial choices to lack solidarity, I must applaud his acting performance.

Again, though I do not love all of De Mussa’s choices as director of the production, his hand in aiding his actors to create fully fleshed characters and relationships is apparent. The one-on-one moments between actors are delicious. If it were a film, I believe every tight shot would be amazing. On stage however, and sitting out in the 99-seat house, the effect is a little less wonderful. As a director his staging is a little weak but his ability to glean fire from his actors is apparent. If I am being a little picky it is only because Horizon Theatre Rep’s production of Caligula has put itself on a high enough bar that it should be measured as such.

Another thing that really makes De Mussa and Horizon Theatre Rep shine is their open-minded casting choices (not to mention the sheer size of the cast). Thank you for creating a world on stage that is reflective of the streets we walk. Foreign accents tickle the ears, different ethnicities grace the eyes, all creating a landscape that is lush and refreshing. This is what “open casting” really is at its best. No political agenda or “hit me over the head message.” No racial injustice to drive home. Simply a reflection of the real everyday world. Different accents, cultures, and ethnicities exist in this world simply because they do. People of minority don’t go walking around every minute of their lives thinking, “Hmm ... how can I make the way I look or sound be a political statement?” and Horizon Theatre Rep gets that. Kudos! Kudos to you, Horizon Rep, for actually doing what so many other theaters say they do, but don’t. I only hope to see more of it in the future.

Caligula is well worth the price of admission. The story is pertinent, several of the actors are exceptional. The quality of the production is excellent, to which beautiful and simple set, lights and costumes all contribute. Caligula is what off-Broadway should be.

(Caligula runs through December 30, Thursday - Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm, at The Kirk @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th & 10th Avenues). Tickets are $18, available through Ticket Central, www.ticketcentral.com. run time is approximately 2 hours with no intermission.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Only Tribe (3LD)

BOTTOM LINE: Masks and dance are an interesting combo in theory...

I think I've seen maybe two straight-up movement pieces in my life up til last week, and was when I was 12, so I figured it was about time I gave them another shot. The Only Tribe, Roland Gebhardt's performance piece, sounded right up my alley - identity, myth, masks, projected images, multi-media, fantasia - totally down with everything mentioned in the press release... So I go there... and I just couldn't get into it. And I'm pretty sure it was because of the masks.

The dancers came out wearing these gynormous geometric masks, which pretty much looked like cellphone bars or computer chips, gray and industrial, and at first it was sort of interesting in the "Oo what's this statement" sort of way. But then I found myself concentrating more on how the dancers were managing to move with these huge impediments than on the movements themselves.

Each of the tribe's generations had its own shaped mask, and Peter Kyle's choreography was interesting and specific to each, but I had difficulty in appreciating it when what I was looking at was so aesthetically displeasing. What I understood about the basic visual was a stripping of the personal identity of each cast member–they were all in gray unitards, which erased gender, race, etc–and the concept worked well. Unfortunately, I also lost any personal connection to the story–not because I couldn't see their faces, but because their bodies, the vessels of the story, were encumbered by these great artificial physical structures.

The projected images were pretty damn cool though. Reid Farrington's projected videos of both the dancers' performances, as well as iconic flashes of flags, corporate logos, stock tickers, portraits, and pretty much anything else you can think of, brings the show's finale to an impressive, visually pleasing chaos, while at the same time clarifying the journey the tribe took to get there. In this sense, it's an invaluable story-telling tool, not just cool new toy that fit into the budget.

All in all I'd say...if you like that type of modern art that not everyone seems to get–Mondrian, would probably be the best example–this might be the show for you. But, if you prefer something with a discernable face...maybe see what's up at Lincoln Center...

(The Only Tribe plays at 3LD Art & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street at Rector Street, through December 20th. Show times are Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $30 and $15 for students. For tickets call 212.352.3101 or visit 3LDNYC.org.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Broadway musicals to close soon

A lot of Broadway musicals are calling it quits near the first of the year. Some are citing a rough economy as the reason, although it seems like a handful have just reached the natural end of a long and successful run. The good news is that some exciting new shows will take their places this spring. Look forward to new revivals of West Side Story, Guys and Dolls and Hair. And check out these soon-to-close shows while you still can...*

13, a new musical (through January 4, 2009)
Young Frankenstein (through January 4, 2009)
Hairspray (through January 4, 2009)
Spring Awakening (through January 18, 2009)
Spamalot (through January 18, 2009)
Gypsy (through March 1, 2009)

*dates have been officially announced but are still subject to change