Richard Penniman, 1932-2020

May 9, 2020

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My boss at the ad agency and I had gone to Dallas to shoot a commercial, early Eighties. We were in the hotel lobby checking in, and he left the line to take a whiz. I overheard the guy in front of me give his name to the check-in lady. “Reverend Penniman.” Even from behind him I could tell. As he turned around, yep, exactly right. 

“Reverend,” I said, “I just want to say thank you for all the good rockin’ you gave me.” His face lit up as if it hadn’t been the five millionth time he’d heard that. “I tell you what, young man, it was MY PLEASURE.” I said, “I’m here with somebody, he’s in the john, could you wait a few seconds? I want to make his year.” He giggled and turned back toward the desk as my boss walked up.

Now came one of the top ten most delightful moments of my entire life. “John Broderick,” I said, “meet Little Richard.” The Reverend swung around, SHRIEKED, and hugged us both. He puffed up with energy. Joy exuded from him. We were just two normal guys, but he was a star. The whole encounter took less than a minute, but I’ve never forgotten it and I never will. 

Bye bye, Rev. I’d say, get them off their booties up there, but I’ll bet you already have.


My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2019

January 22, 2020

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THE DUBLIN TRILOGY. Probably the highlight of the (or damn near any) year. On the cozy Irish Repertory Theatre main stage — we’ve been thrilled there so repeatedly that we decided to start supporting them — we were treated to Sean O’Casey’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK as well as the lesser-performed THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS and THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN. O’Casey’s rare ability to weave warmth and humor into the direst of circumstances opens up these plays and makes us better able to face horror because we are among recognizable fellow human beings. The Irish Rep acting company is uniformly superb, always has been, even alongside visitors like Matthew Broderick and here, in PLOUGH, the wonderful Maryanne Plunkett of the O’Casey-cousin Richard Nelson plays down at the Public. 

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FERAL. Another norm-bending piece from Scotland, not as arresting as last year’s FLIGHT but swimming in a nearby loch. Three puppeteers, a sound effects artist and a video director concoct a story before your eyes: first using line drawings, then with three-D paper, cardboard cutouts and oddly poignant human figures with eyes but no mouths. You watch a live minicam feed on a video screen above their heads as they create an idyllic little town in charming detail and then destroy it as commercialization (in the form of a megastore called “Supercade”) comes in and infects the culture. The moral and physical rot is palpable and heartbreaking. All the fascinating, tightly coordinated “backstage” work takes place in plain view. The audience was stunned into awed silence at the close. 

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HADESTOWN. Musical retelling of the Orpheus & Eurydice story by Anais Mitchell. Rachel Chavkin’s inventive staging is dazzling: three independent concentric turntables are just a few of the surprises she has for you. Everybody is great, but two old pros really own the stage: Andre De Shields as Hermes and that human subwoofer Patrick Page as Hades. Most of the songs are really good too, and since there’s a cast album dating back to 2010, plenty of people came prepared. You don’t need a Greek mythology textbook to follow along (the first musical number hands all the relationships to you on a platter), but as a bonus you get a sensational seven-piece band that features two of the hottest trombone solos I’ve heard in quite a while. Although it’s only coincidental, the Act I closer, “Why We Build The Wall,” could have been written yesterday: it’s as if Trump met Hades and said, “Daddy like!” 

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THE MOTHER. Isabelle Huppert is as mesmerizing on stage as she is on film. You can’t take your eyes off her, not even in a show that’s deliberately staged in widescreen. It’s a tense, packed, tightly wound ninety minutes, but the best part was being about twenty feet from her the whole time. Chris Noth also did yeoman work, but the show is Ms. Huppert’s possession. It’s the kind of performance critics tend to call “brave,” as in, “I can’t believe what I just saw Isabelle Huppert do!”

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OKLAHOMA! I appeared in a production of this show in college; after about six weeks of memorization, rehearsal and performance, you can’t help getting to know a piece pretty well. So it was such a treat to see the thought that went into Daniel Fish’s brilliant restaging, using only twelve cast members and seven musicians. In the famous three-quarter-round room at Circle In The Square, the house lights were full nearly the whole time, drawing the audience into the setting (they’re invited onstage for chili and cornbread at intermish). But “Pore Jud Is Daid” was performed in pitch black dark, so dark that nobody dared to laugh at the song’s dryly comic lyrics (“He looks like he’s asleep / It’s a shame that he won’t keep / But it’s summer and we’re runnin out of ice”) because the “hero” is in fact cruelly urging a suicide. This production is stripped down but somehow even more authentic: we hear pedal steel, mandolin, banjo and accordion along with the bass, cello and violin. Yet they make enough noise that the audience head-bangers on the title song continue their devotion at its end-of-show reprise. Damon Daunno as Curly contests the stage with Ali Stroker, a wheelchair-bound actress who destroys as Ado Annie, but I particularly loved Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry. The staging requires actors to sit out others’ scenes, but Vaill’s spot was just opposite my seat and I never saw him break character unless he was joining a song’s male chorus (e.g., “Kansas City”), in which case he acted to the song instead. He looks like Caleb Landry Jones but sings like Hugh Jackman. Keep your eye on him. 

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THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. With such wattage — book by Lynn Nottage (SWEAT), music by Duncan Shiek (SPRING AWAKENING), lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (JELLY’S LAST JAM), and directed by Sam Gold (KING LEAR, FUN HOME, HAMLET) — one can’t possibly stay away. Fortunately, this show delivers. A kinetic thirteen-member ensemble makes great noise in a variety of styles: lots of gospel, show-tune belters, I even heard a samba beat in there. The musical numbers work for the story yet most of them can stand alone as independent songs. This adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of personal-level race relations in 1964 South Carolina works the illusion of being effortless, as if it had really been a musical all along. Gold’s bare-bones representational staging (the various appearances of the “bees” are beautiful) reminded me of the crepe-paper ocean waves of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. The nine-piece orchestra includes a bitchin horn section. The entire production is just wonderful and should conjure plenty of fans, especially those who loved the non-musical film adaptation.

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SOFT POWER. The best new musical I’ve seen since HAMILTON (whose DNA shows up a couple of times, if I’m not mistaken). Play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang, which alone is reason enough to be interested. It’s a meta-drama whose crucial subjects are China-America relations, Chinese American (like the author) relations, the 2016 elections and the real-life 2015 stabbing which nearly ended Hwang’s life and appeared to be a random hate crime. One of the characters is “Hillary Clinton,” and another is “DHH” — in other words, the playwright. It’s provocative and funny and serious and playful: the show-within-the-show is THE KING AND I from the Chinese perspective. Oh, yeah: the songs are great and they run the musical gamut, complete with a standing-still eleven-o-clock number. The ditty explaining the nutty U.S. elections system is funny because it’s true. The fourteen-member company can sing, dance and act — they’re all triple-threaters. China may not be getting more like us, this show posits: we may be getting more like China. You get something to think about while you’re simultaneously having a great time.

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TOOTSIE. Tons of fun, featuring an exceptionally sharp book by Robert Horn. They’ve traded the movie’s tv soap opera milieu for a Broadway show, an intentionally bad musical sequel to ROMEO AND JULIET. Santino Fontana is sensational in the Dustin Hoffman role: not only does he have to act two parts, he also has to sing two parts, and you really do buy him as a female alto. It’s an old-fashioned razzle-dazzler (complete with overture and entr’acte), only lots funnier than most others. It’s been a long time since there was a big hit at the Marquis, but I guarantee you: one has arrived.

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WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME. We saw the last preview before the Broadway transfer officially opened. At first it seems to be a memory monologue, but it transmutes into a fantasia on feminism (there will eventually be two other performers besides the main one). Powerfully planned and performed (Heidi Schreck is a seasoned playwright and you can tell from the careful construction of the piece), one of the most moving things I saw on a stage all year. It has a lot to do with our current times but approaches from an oblique angle. A theatrical treasure. 

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WHITE NOISE. The brilliant Suzan-Lori Parks’s new one is jam-packed with intelligence and outrage. It’s a four-hander (featuring Daveed Diggs and Thomas Sadoski and two excellent ladies who were new to me, Sheria Irving and Zoe Winters) with an outre premise — I’d rather leave it for you to discover — which peels away the layers that cover our posturing and privilege, even when we’re most sanctimoniously proud of ourselves. Plus each actor gets an absolutely stunning monologue. Oskar Eustis’s direction in the Public’s snug Anspacher space is clear as a bell. 

HONORABLE MENTION: ALL MY SONS, COLIN QUINN: RED STATE BLUE STATE, THE ENIGMATIST, INSTRUCTIONS FOR AMERICAN SERVICEMEN IN BRITAIN, THE MICHAELS, SEA WALL/A LIFE 

My Favorite Theatre In:

2017    2018


Slavery, Death, And The Beatles

December 8, 2019

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“Beneath the blue suburban skies” in Penny Lane.

We visited London over the long Thanksgiving weekend and took a “day tripper” pilgrimage to Liverpool, where neither of us had ever been. Of course it was for the Fabs. I was standing in Penny Lane when our tour guide said, “look up.” The weather gods had bestowed “blue suburban skies,” and I took the above photo. Delighted, I later posted it on Facebook, both to travel-brag and because the day happened to illustrate Paul McCartney’s lyric so ridiculously well.

Among the responses was one from my longtime friend Robert Harland, who reminded me that Penny Lane’s namesake, thought to be one James Penny, had been a Liverpool slave trader. And he wasn’t alone, for Liverpool was a major slaving port. Its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave market in the latter half of the 18th century. Probably three-quarters of all European slaving ships in this period left from Liverpool. It was Liverpool ships which transported fully half of the 3 million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers. 

Our tour guide had already told us all this. To its credit, Liverpool seems to be owning its sordid past and coming to terms with its historic role in a cultural atrocity. There’s no effort to whitewash the record; on the contrary, the International Slavery Museum which opened in 2007 provides a frank, visceral look at a time when buyers and sellers of human beings were men of respect, like James Penny — not just in Liverpool, but all over the world. (America is dutifully represented too.)

Robert suggested that were it not for the Beatles song, the street name would probably have been changed by now, but it’s not that simple. “Penny Lane” is a kaleidoscopic trip through McCartney’s memories; they’re “beneath the blue suburban skies,” yet it’s “pouring rain (very strange).” The barber, the banker, the fireman, the “shelter in the middle of the roundabout” — none of these are actually located on Penny Lane the street. Locals refer to the whole area as “Penny Lane.“ So even if the city fathers amended the street name, Liverpudlians would almost certainly continue to use “Penny Lane,” song or no song. After all, nobody calls Sixth Avenue “Avenue of the Americas” except for the postman. 

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Inside the International Slavery Museum, some Liverpool place names that found their way to Jamaica.

Once you understand Penny Lane’s etymology, it becomes harder to true up Paul’s joyous, carefree nostalgia, but the song is so redolent with play and innocence (there is one naughty bit) and humanity that it wins. We have the ability to overlook overt racism when it becomes so commonplace that it sounds correct: for example, the Washington Redskins. (Why don’t they just call themselves the Washington Rednecks and be done with it?) Liverpudlian place names — including Penny Lane — traveled across the Atlantic as well, some surviving in Jamaica, one of the trade’s major ports of call, where the sugar business was built on the backs of slaves.

Of course, slavery had long since been abolished when the four lads were traipsing around their hometown, and they were “woke” enough as The Beatles to refuse to play before segregated audiences in America. We visited their childhood homes and imagined them discovering each other, and followed their tracks in places of note all over town. And then we came upon the grave of Eleanor Rigby. 

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It was discovered in the Eighties in the small cemetery of St. Peter’s Parish Church, Woolton, Merseyside. Across the street is the church hall where John Lennon’s band the Quarrymen were playing on July 6, 1957, the day Paul McCartney walked in. Paul has often been coy about the origin of Eleanor Rigby’s name, but he and John almost certainly strolled through this graveyard more than once. Paul may even have genuinely forgotten where the name came from, but when shown this headstone, he conceded that the name might have lodged somewhere in “me subconscious.”

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The Beatles have probably been overthought more than any other pop music act, but here are some tantalizing details. It was the custom for a deceased wife to take her husband’s name for the memorial stone, and as you can see, Eleanor Rigby was Mrs. Woods. But almost uniquely in this setting, Eleanor was “buried along with her name” — her maiden name of Rigby. Also, a few stones down lies the body of John McKenzie, who died at 73 in 1915. Just under his name is that of his daughter Rachel, listed more traditionally. Could Paul have seen this stone too? Was the real-life inspiration for “Father McKenzie” not a priest at all, but a proud father in the familial sense? At any rate, however these snippets of real death did or did not inform the composer, what emerged was a melancholy McCartney masterpiece.

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How much emptier our lives would have been without the series of coincidences that flung these four lads together. That’s also the subtext of Danny Boyle’s very entertaining new movie, YESTERDAY, which I highly recommend. I want to remember them the way sculptor Andy Edwards does. His bronze statues were unveiled in 2015 at Pier Head on the Liverpool waterfront, where they stand surveying the Mersey today. 

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I Saw This In Liverpool (It’s Fab)

December 2, 2019

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Acting Residential

April 29, 2019

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I think I know the secret identities of the (probably only) four original Residents. In fact, I’m so confident that I’ll name them now: Jay Clem, Homer Flynn, Hardy Fox, and John Kennedy. Four monikers you and I have never heard of. So who cares? Well, that’s kind of the whole point.

That reveal is germane because when these (probably all) boys set out from Shreveport, Louisiana (one Resident may be from Texas) for the West Coast, to live the bohemian life among like minds that didn’t much exist in the Bayou State, they settled almost immediately on the Theory Of Obscurity. Only the art matters. Only the work. The cult of celebrity demeans and dilutes the end product by its very nature. Therefore we will forever remain anonymous, and go to great lengths to preserve that state. It’s as if Clark Kent were in reality a black hole: there they are, up there live on stage, but they steadfastly decline to acknowledge identity, and that’s why they always wear disguises in public. Sia is working the same street nowadays, but The Residents paved it a very long time ago. Their road work began about 1970.

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Devotees believe the soon-to-be Residents came from the visual arts, oriented toward images intended for the optic nerve. (More on eyeballs later.) Arriving in a Bay Area that had already upchucked the excesses of the Summer of Love, they noticed that popular music was reorienting itself from the anything-goes era of Hendrix and Zappa toward a Laurel Canyon-lite soft sound. Icky! They found some instruments and a place to record them and produced avant-garde (actually more like en garde!) tracks that deconstructed the barriers between the givers and receivers of music, as the Fugs had done in New York years earlier. Legend has it that a major label declining their anonymously submitted demo tape sent it back addressed to “Residents.” Aha. A band name!

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The original Residents — I say that because there’s no telling just how many different people of either gender have performed or created with or as The Residents over the years — were conceptual artists; they have never professed to be accomplished musicians. Heavily influenced by such mavericks as Captain Beefheart and the Sun Ra Arkestra, they produced freewheeling audio tracks that were energetic, dissonant, thought-provoking, offputting, funny, freaky, fascinating, difficult, and utterly unique in American culture. But although they have released dozens of albums and performed these compositions in live shows, it’s not quite accurate to think of The Residents as a “band.” Again, they are primarily visual artists, and their media are multi.

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They were true pioneers of music video (some of their work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, where The Residents have been represented in five exhibitions) and digital media (they did two acclaimed discs for Voyager back when CD-ROM was the Hot New Thing). Yet if you leaf through The Residents’ audio catalog, you will nevertheless find among the outre screeching some interesting slices of Americana: covers of songs by Elvis, Hank Williams (they perform “Kaw-Liga” under a sample of the opening beats from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”), even John Philip Sousa. And rising from the gleeful cacophony, their remarkable 2002 album DEMONS DANCE ALONE is one of the most sensitive reactions to 9/11 that I’ve ever heard. So their sonic creations are not without meaning. In fact, an indicator I once employed to quickly evaluate the savvy of any newly visited record store, back when there was such a thing, was to head straight to the Rs. (The Virgin Megastore that opened in the Times Square building which also housed my employer, Bantam Books, was outstanding in this regard.)

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But The Residents are, above all, provocateurs. Their most famous stage costume features formal top hat and tails, white tie, elegant cane — and a giant veined eyeball mask covering each Resident’s head. They want you to stare back at them just as hard.

The most amazing thing about The Residents is that, without the slightest care for fashion, they have been making a living producing art on their terms for almost fifty years now. How long can one swim upstream? Yet here they still are.

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But we may have arrived at an inflection point. Sadly, last November, Hardy Fox, longtime president of The Residents’ business entity, the Cryptic Corporation, passed away at 73. The other three gentlemen named above have also been Cryptic officers. You can see them all interviewed in the wonderful Residents documentary THEORY OF OBSCURITY. They “work for” The Residents, to whom they always refer in the third person. Who knows who’s up on stage these days? (It’s probably not septuagenarians.) And who knows how the collective’s creative output has been derived? Maybe Hardy’s death will finally break up the group, or maybe Obscurity Theory will allow it to continue as long as it wants. I so admire how these stalwarts have carved themselves a place in the culture despite all odds, despite all evens, despite everything. I’d tip my hat, but the eyeballs below it are far too small.

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P.S. To hear a curated sample of The Residents’ music, check out the 2017 compilation 80 ACHING ORPHANS, with extensive liner notes by Homer Flynn. To see their amazing and sometimes disturbing music videos, get ahold of the compilation DVD, ICKY FLIX.  

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My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2018

January 2, 2019

FLIGHT. One of the damndest things I ever saw in my life. You sit alone in a dark individual cubicle with headphones on. For the next 45 minutes, a series of tiny dioramas passes by inches from your face, illustrating the harrowing years-long journey of two young Afghan refugees as they try to make their way through the Mideast and Europe to London. The scenes are sequentially lit in sync with a pulse-pounding audio track voice-acted to perfection. Twenty-two others ring the giant turntable in their own cubicles. They’re all watching at other points in the story as the mechanism wheels around in its near-hour clockwise circuit. It’s amazing technically: the miniature model work is astonishing, and brilliant lighting effects and forced perspective add to the drama. It’s also amazing theatrically, because nothing — nothing — gets between you and the wrenching story (an adaptation of the novel HINTERLAND). It was produced by Vox Motus, a group of Glaswegian geniuses who killed with this piece at the Edinburgh Festival. Wow.

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY. Bob Dylan + Conor McPherson = Sublime. It’s set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace, but during the Great Depression, long before the bard was born; we’re in deep Woody Guthrie territory. Dylan’s songs, most but not all chosen from the Seventies and Eighties, are made to sound prettier than ever without sacrificing one ounce of grit. The tunes serve the story rather than vice versa. Sometimes the dramatic arc creates a wrenching change: “Like A Rolling Stone” is here performed as more of an elegy than Dylan’s own acerbic revenge fantasy. Other times you’re just happy to relax into the lilt of a song, as with a gorgeous “Sweetheart Like You.” (INFIDELS, well represented here, is my favorite unsung Dylan album.) It’s hard to describe. I need a cast recording to fully explain it to you. But I knew this was one of my top moments while I was sitting there

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD PARTS I AND II. We couldn’t beg decent tix here in New York, so we decided to go to London over Thanksgiving to see it. (We discovered that Jimi Hendrix and G. F. Handel were next-door neighbors on that same trip!) We read the script when it was first published, but our aging brains had forgotten everything except the BIG REVEAL. (“Keep The Secrets” is the production’s mantra.) All we’d retained was the feeling that if they can reproduce this stuff on stage, we are so there. (They can, and we were.) Either you’ve bought in to Harry Potter or you haven’t. Let’s just say that there’s a generational twist which pretty much tracks the lives of the franchise’s original fans, and finally they are justifiably able to use the word “awesome!” correctly. No more details. It’s the spectacle that SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK wanted to be, and then some.

HELLO, DOLLY! It’s a rare treat to see a live musical artist who can suck the oxygen out of a room just by walking on. For me, Elvis, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Springsteen. Now I have to add Bette Midler. This is far from my favorite musical, but Midler absolutely controlled the crowd every single second. They worship her not just for her body of work, but because this happens to be the perfect vehicle for her unique brand of showmanship. David Hyde Pierce struggled with a cold the night I saw it and was probably really good when he was at 100%, but face it, you don’t buy a ticket to see Horace Vandergelder. I wouldn’t have gone at all had some friends not goaded me into it (repeat; I’m not a big fan of the show). I would have thus let a huge opportunity get away from me. They’ll be talking about this for a long time. Jiminy crickets: what a Broadway baby.

JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART. Sometimes the most powerful moments are the simplest — in fact, that’s precisely what makes them resonate. This is a one-man show in which the accomplished theatrical craftsman talks a little bit about his life, but mainly he tells us two stories: Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” and P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” The first is a masterpiece of verbal sound effects and atmosphere; Lithgow makes us hear the barber’s razor against his strop and the snip-snip of his profession as his monologue gradually tells us more about him than we really wanted to know. The second piece is one of the funniest things in the English language, and upper-class British drollery rolls off Lithgow’s tongue delightfully, to what we hope is also the delight of his father. For this is how the senior Lithgow entertained his son early in life — and during his final days the roles were reversed, using the very short-story volume which the actor brandishes on stage. So it’s an entertainment, but also deeply personal. The combination is electric.

ON BECKETT. Bill Irwin, that great actor and clown (he wears the latter description as an honor sash), leads us on a 90-minute tour through the minds of both Samuel Beckett and himself. Quoting liberally from TEXTS FOR NOTHING, WATT, THE UNNAMEABLE, and the “booger” of a masterpiece, WAITING FOR GODOT, Irwin opens his own heart and presents a difficult artist’s genius before us in a way that anyone can understand and appreciate. Plus there is the physical clowning, which in Irwin’s self-directed hands is the throughput of the show. The highly informed earnestness reminded me of how deeply my friend John Maxwell was affected by the work of William Faulkner, so much so that he felt compelled to tell others about it, and so we came to write a theatrical monologue together that wound up changing the course of his life. I sense that same inner gravitas here. I am dying to see the next production of GODOT that comes my way, because Irwin has opened up so much depth to me. He also gave me an inkling into what it’s like to choose acting as a passion and profession, undressing simple technique and then injecting real artistry, with Beckett’s newly fraught words as a backdrop. The prose is sometimes so impenetrable that you just have to zone out and enjoy sheer musicality without parsing for meaning, but your interest never wanes. Tiny theater (the Irish Rep), big concepts. We left stunned, grateful, and happy.

SAKINA’S RESTAURANT. I saw this only two days after the Bill Irwin, so, with Lithgow, I have to say this year one-man shows frickin ruled. Aasif Mandvi (you may recognize him from THE DAILY SHOW) first mounted this beauty twenty years ago, and it hasn’t aged a day. He appears as Azgi, an Indian who has the chance to move to New York and work at a family restaurant. Then, one by one, he morphs into the restaurant’s owner, his wife, the place’s namesake daughter, her fiancé, etc. It’s the immigrant experience from deep inside an “America” (presciently, never “United States”) that most can never apprehend. Like most improv artists, Mandvi is first and foremost an actor, able to clothe a completely new character with nothing more than a scarf and precise body language. This production is part of Audible’s solo theatrical series, so if you dig down deep into the internets, you will find a way to hear it. I wish you could have been there to see it.

THREE TALL WOMEN. Great work by three terrific actors in this revival of a Pulitzer winner, but the revelation is that Glenda Jackson has become a grande dame! She owned this show; she was utterly magnificent as the eldest incarnation of the same person. Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, as her earlier selves, are aces too. We were in the front row and Ms. Pill expectorated upon us with a plosive P, but we didn’t mind. Joe Mantello’s wonderful staging cleverly collapsed the play’s two acts into one. I took this picture of Paul Gallo’s lovely set afterwards. 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I knew this was going to be easy for critics to pick apart, and the day after opening the New York Times’s Jesse Green (the raver) and the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout (the grouch) published diametrically opposed reviews, even down to their views of a more slavish 1991 staging that Teachout preferred to this one. Aaron Sorkin has fooled around a bit with Harper Lee’s immortal source novel, going straight to the trial and cutting away periodically, and he’s made some background characters firmer in their resolve. But the heart of the book and its moral tutelage remain pure in his fine adaptation. The three children at the story’s center are played by adults, but the conceit works. Jeff Daniels, who used to spit out Sorkinisms as a broadcaster on HBO’S THE NEWSROOM, brings a James-Stewart everyman quality to Atticus Finch, a Southerner who tries to see the good inside even his tormentors. I think it was time for this play to appear; I heard gasps from audience members who clearly were not familiar with the story. I’ll bet some of them are later moved to pick up the book.

TWELFTH NIGHT. A joyous populist adaptation with clever, tuneful music and lyrics by Shaina Taub (center), who also plays Feste, the clown. There were a dozen or so pros in the main roles, and then an ensemble of about 100 (kids, vets, caregivers, ex-cons, deaf actors, and more) culled from arts & educational organizations all over the five boroughs — split into two groups which played on alternate nights during the show’s five-week run. The 23 songs are original but feel confident and alive. Each Labor Day a similar production is mounted by the Public Theater’s Public Works project, but this year they got the whole theater as the second featured slot in the summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park program. ASL is gorgeously treated as choreography throughout; the feeling of joy and empowerment washes off the stage and into the audience, which has already spent the pre-show minutes up on stage at an “Illyrian street fair” with cast members. There will certainly be snobs who object to the 100-minute brevity and the songs, which help audience members keep up with the plot. But this is a visual demonstration of what the Public is all about, and it’s nothing short of thrilling. Shaina Taub will one day be a household name in the theatre: she’s that good. But these insistent tableaux of affirmation and achievement constantly erupt. They couldn’t possibly happen anywhere else than right before your eyes. And all of this took place outdoors on a fine summer night in Central Park. Magfrickinificent.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE DEAD, 1904 (you go inside James Joyce’s famous dinner party as a guest!); THE FERRYMAN (a stout Irish family drama which will seduce you and then impale you); THE HARD PROBLEM (Tom Stoppard is an international treasure); KING KONG (ape scenes only, but ALL the ape scenes, especially the one in which Kong shambles WAY downstage to violate the audience’s space); NETWORK (for Bryan Cranston and some hip video effects, otherwise I preferred the movie in almost every way); THE WAVERLY GALLERY (I usually avoid “senile dementia“ stories b/c they cut too close to home, but Kenneth Lonergan nailed both the humor and the horror, and that was Elaine Frickin May up there!)

 

My Favorite Theatre In:

2017    2019


H & H UK

November 28, 2018

My Number One takeaway from my most recent trip to London was an amazing one I’d never known before: George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix were next-door neighbors.

Oh, sure, two centuries separated them. But G. F. Handel spent 36 years at No. 25 Brook St. in Westminster, composing, rehearsing, performing and teaching. When Jimi moved into an adjoining flat at No. 23 in 1968, there was a plaque outside celebrating the famous Handel House. “God’s honest truth,” he said, “I haven’t heard much of the fella’s stuff. But I dig a bit of Bach now and again.” 

Now they’ve joined the two and turned it into a tourable destination called “Handel & Hendrix in London.” The feeling of cosmic confluence was, for me, a source of unending joy. I loved being there.

Mind, the Handel House is far more authentic, with relics which were actually in the maestro’s possession. Jimi’s flat — particularly his bedroom — has been basically restored and replicated from contemporary photo shoots and the memories of his then-girlfriend and de facto hostess, Kathy Etchingham. But seeing them together makes you sense the presence of a real euphonic muse, as when you consider the gifts of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, who barely knew each other but definitely shared something mysterious and ineffable. 

Jimi went out and bought a couple of Handel albums after he moved in — you can take away a list of his entire record collection — and is it really inconceivable that if the situation had been reversed, G. F. might have done the same? I don’t know, but that’s the kind of idle thought this place provokes. I didn’t expect to be surprised by London. But she has a wealth of tricks up her sleeve, and this one is a real gobsmacker.


Christ Goes To Brooklyn

April 13, 2018

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NBC’s live broadcast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on Easter Sunday was terrific, my favorite one of these network musicals that have been popping up lately. (For me, it supplants as #1 Fox’s live production of GREASE two years ago. I loved the way they used the whole Warner Bros. lot, not just the soundstages, to keep the momentum pumped up.) NBC’s huge ratings success also underlines the fact that JCS is now part of the musical canon, safe enough to show on Christians’ holiest day. So it’s hard to get your mind around how transgressive this piece was when it first appeared.

It began as a “concept album” in 1970 (a single had been released in late 1969). The concept was right there in the title, smacking you in the face. When Andy Warhol popularized the word “superstar,” he gave us his most lasting legacy: the cult of celebrity for its own sake. But to place pop culture sequins upon holy scripture? As the kids say, Oh. My. God.

Not that it hadn’t been done. The composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had already produced JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, brushing a similar contemporary glaze onto another biblical story. And soon to come would be Stephen Schwartz’s GODSPELL, which gave us a happy, hippie Pied Piper of a Jesus. But nothing else had the thunderous sonic power or sheer cheeky courage of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

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Just those three words and a little iconic symbol on the dark brown cover of the double-Lp set. No clue as to what was inside. But the first people who played it kept dragging others to a pair of speakers, and it wasn’t long before this record-album “musical” had basically become the new HAIR — without appearing on an actual stage. This British audio production had gathered vocalists from the theater and rock music (Murray Head and Ian Gillan, who sang the two leading roles, were an actual veteran of HAIR and the new lead singer of Deep Purple, respectively), and arranged the orchestration squarely in the pop idiom (the key players were from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band). No offense to The Who, whose TOMMY is thoughtful and inventive, but this was a real “rock” opera, a sung-through story with musical motifs clearly stated by an overture and recapitulated in ways new and wondrous to the FM-and-doobie crowd.

But of course, it wasn’t the music that caused JCS to be banned by the BBC and made it a generational flashpoint in God-fearing America. It was the subject matter.

Presuming to set the final days of Jesus to a pop score is only JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s initial salvo. If you’re a full-throated tenor and a director offers you any JCS part you want, you probably wouldn’t choose the title role. Because the real superstar of the musical is the Biblical Betrayer, the villain Christians love to hate, Judas H. Iscariot. The story is largely told from his perspective, and not without empathy. He believes in Christ’s teachings, has been an enthusiastic apostle. What worries him is the blind adoration of a mob attracted only by celebrity: “You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.” Judas also doubts Jesus’s divinity: “You have set them all on fire / They think they’ve found the new Messiah / And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” This is fairly provocative stuff for a culture whose idea of biblical drama has been formed by the reverent movie spectaculars of the Fifties — but Judas indeed has the showiest part and most of the best numbers, culminating in a rousing climax that he performs as a glitter-garbed ghost.

Jesus gets some good stuff too — his high point is probably the power ballad “Gethsemane,” in which he addresses God with his agonizing doubts (“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die / You’re far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why”) — but in much of the rest of the show he’s basically just reacting. Though you don’t pay any attention to Jesus at all when Herod taunts him with a snarky music-hall tune that comes out of nowhere (“Prove to me that you’re no fool / Walk across my swimming pool”). My main disappointment with the NBC show was Alice Cooper’s performance of “King Herod’s Song.” It was nice to see “Coop” again, but the boisterous incongruence of the piece — what Broadway pros call “the noise” — demands tons of over-the-top movement, evidently more than the seventyish star could muster. Josh Mostel did a better job in Norman Jewison’s 1973 movie. 

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Josh Mostel as Herod in the movie.

Everything else about the NBC production was just great. This time “live” really meant something more than tiny flaws like the intruding shadow of a cameraman or the “Superstar” glitter girls visibly moving to their marks during a shot that was supposed to be pitch dark. Choosing to perform the show before a crowd of 1,500 at the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn was a masterstroke. It was stage-bound (unlike GREASE), but what a huge honking stage. Audience members were close enough to touch John Legend’s extended hand as Jesus made his entrance, but more importantly, you could hear and feel their presence, roaring for a beloved song and palpably revving up the actors throughout. There were two directors: one for the theatrical action onstage, and another for the army of fleet-footed techies following it around. About fifteen minutes in, I found myself thinking, if they can keep this up, they’ve got something special here.

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By now, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is considered as tame as anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it wasn’t always so. I expect some people take that as evidence that we’ve coarsened as a culture. But maybe the music is compelling enough to not only do justice to its gutsy premise, but also become classic on its own merits. This broadcast said, amen to that.


Yacht ‘n’ Roll

March 16, 2018

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The Yacht Rock Revue.

Been listening to a good bit of yacht rock lately. No, I hadn’t heard the term either until I stumbled upon it in a magazine. But it turns out yacht rock is indeed a thing, it has fans and its own subculture, and it’s ready to make you feel better in these troubled times.

The term may have been used as far back as the late Eighties, but it got its 21st-century rev with a podcast created by four guys who were sending up those oddball radio formats: “the Quiet Storm,” “the Wave,” etc. Then something even odder happened. The snark began to recede, the tongues pulled back a tad from the cheeks, and people began rediscovering “yacht rock” music for real — and rediscovering that they loved it. There’s an entertaining oral history of the genre that I gulped down in two hours. Jimmy Fallon does regular TONIGHT SHOW segments on yacht rock. There’s a compilation album (I object to some of the selections, but that’s what music pigeonholes are for). Yacht rock has its own Sirius XM channel. There’s a band from Atlanta, the Yacht Rock Revue, that does enthusiastically received live tribute shows. The genre has already been parodied by Bill Hader and Fred Armisen (who wrote the intro to the book) in their beautiful series DOCUMENTARY NOW! It started as a goof, but when more and more people play along…

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Judd Apatow and Jimmy Fallon dig some yacht rock.

Let me see if I can pin down the concept. Yacht rock is that smooth, silky, lavishly produced, harmony-driven stuff that ruled the radio in its Seventies and Eighties heyday. We used to call it “soft listening,” “mellow rock,” “the California sound.” By coincidence many songs have nautical themes, inspiring the term, but yacht rock doesn’t have to take place on the water. (It all ipso facto sounds great when it’s blasting on the deck of an actual yacht, but it also works anywhere else.) Many songs are soft, but some have big dynamic range. Many of them are ballads but some are uptempo pounders. They get you still, chill, make you feel nice for a few moments.

The great pyramids of yacht rock were erected in the Sixties by the Beach Boys. But the post-hippie flowering included Toto, Loggins & Messina, America, Bread, Hall & Oates, Poco, Boz Scaggs, Linda Ronstadt, Little River Band, Air Supply, Seals & Crofts, Christopher Cross (his record “Sailing” is yacht rock supremo). Get the idea now? Then there are the “one-hit wonders” (they’re not really; more later) of yacht rock. “Baby Come Back” by Player. “Brandy” by Looking Glass. “So In To You” by Atlanta Rhythm Section. “You Are the Woman” by Firefall. “Break My Stride” by Matthew Wilder. And the giants, the Fab Four of the genre: the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers, the post-Peter Green Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, and Steely Dan. Damn near everything they have is yacht rock.

There are other contemporary acts which don’t quite rise to the yachtific level, but they’re close. David Clayton-Thomas-era Blood, Sweat & Tears. Chicago. Dave Mason. Jim Croce. Three Dog Night. Don McLean. And the paragon of what they call “nyacht rock,” Mr. Billy Joel.

You may well disagree with some of the membership of these categories, just as I have several beeves with the compilation record. That’s the whole point; it’s something else to debate about. You even may dislike “soft rock” altogether: if so, keep moving, nothing to see here. But as any charted music act well knows, you don’t pick your hit records, the fans do. You can rock as hard as you like in your live shows and it still might not matter. For example, in the book Ronn Moss of Player recalls opening for Eric Clapton on his Slowhand tour. They’d added lots of more rocky (in other words, nyachty) stuff to their stage show to fit in better with the headliner. They were getting over so well one night that a sloshed Clapton ordered the plug pulled during their set! Yet what we remember from Player is still “Baby Come Back.” If you hit huge with a ballad, then that’s you.

An amazing amount of yacht rock was played by the same musicians, studio cats who migrated from session to session. This was the generation that succeeded the legendary Wrecking Crew of Sixties pop non-fame (by now sidemen were getting album credit; did you know that Toni Tennille was a singer on Pink Floyd’s THE WALL?). A bunch of session players even formed a band that worked out pretty well: they called it Toto.

The oral history wastes too much space on a discussion of rock fashion and a report on the political career of Orleans’s John Hall, who served two terms in Congress — they don’t have anything to do with the subject. But it’s crammed full of tidbits like Rupert Holmes’s recollection of recording what author Greg Prato calls “The Yacht Rock National Anthem.” He’d written a story song called “Escape,” which had the line, “If you like Humphrey Bogart.” On the spot, over the mike, Holmes decided that “escape” meant getting to an island paradise, and the color the lyric needed was “pina colada,” a drink you would only ever order on a relaxing vacation. The public chose “Escape” as a huge hit, and that’s what it said on the first pressing. But store clerks reported that they had trouble finding this record the kids were asking for: “the pina colada song.” So now the official title is “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” He didn’t realize it then, but with that instant decision Rupert Holmes set sail for the mystic land of yacht rock.

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My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2017

December 19, 2017

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DEAR EVAN HANSEN. A Broadway musical with real dramatic substance. It has a lot to say about adolescent peer pressure, bullying, deceit, and situational ethics — much too heavy for a musical, it would seem — but it preaches redemption from the heart, not the head. Gorgeous songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a star-making turn for Ben Platt in the title role. This show will kill on national tour.

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DERREN BROWN: SECRET. The British star of “psychological magic” made his American debut, and did it ever rock. It’s more than just magic; Brown is a performance artist too. For example, he can and does draw a very credible easel portrait upside down, and it’s not the same famous face every night. Brown controls every second of this magnificent piece: as he revealed in the jaw-dropping finale, even when he makes you think he’s improvising, he’s not. A cool, crafty master, but warm, open and delightful in the out-of-character “talkback” after the performance I saw. In a simultaneous piece of magic, after a halftime bladder break I noticed stage-lighting legend Jules Fisher in the milling crowd and sidled up to re-introduce myself, having met him once at the Ricky Jay weekend in Rhinebeck. The always gracious Mr. Fisher and I had a quick two-minute chat and I was bidding him goodbye just as his theatregoing companion walked up after his own restroom visit. It was none other than Stephen frickin Sondheim. I just smiled and nodded; if I had immediately gushed over the maestro too it would have been disrespectful to the now-undoubtedly-amused Jules Fisher. But I’ll happily imagine a post-show cocktail chat: “Hey, Steve, suck it: tonight some fan walked up to ME!” That makes the second offstage wonderment that Ricky conjured for me.

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EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE. A new play by Wallace Shawn, who loves to push buttons that subtly unnerve his audience. A group of television executives and performers, part of some society at an unknown diagonal from ours, gather at their favorite bistro for what begins as amusingly vapid chitchat. But the proceedings turn ominous with such ferocity that at first you wonder if you heard that last line correctly. (You did.) The satire is now deadly but darkly funny, an odd fantasia with elements that are disturbingly recognizable in our own culture. I went mainly to see a rare non-drag appearance by my old friend John Epperson, but he and the rest of the fine company gave me much more than I’d expected. I kept thinking about the simple but outre premise for weeks.

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GROUNDHOG DAY. Sue me, but it’s great, and just the endorphin jolt we needed in this grueling, debilitating year. Of course this is a musical version of the hit movie; along with the “jukebox musical,” movie adaptations have become a Broadway subgenre as producers relentlessly search for new ways to pre-sell tickets. But the songs are bright and clever and the redemptive emotional heart of the Bill Murray picture is perfectly preserved (Murray stopped by and loved it to the point of tears). We saw Andy Karl — the well-deserved toast of London in the earlier West End engagement of this show — at a preview just before he sustained a minor injury during his athletic performance. (The methods of misdirection are delightful as he starts his day over and over again faster than humanly possible, but he has to work strenuously hard to achieve them.) This is another one that should have a long life on the road: it’s much better than several current long-running hits I could name.

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HAMLET. Sam Gold’s intimate production in the snug Anspacher space at the Public Theater just might be the best HAMLET I’ve ever seen. The nine-member cast, led by the riveting Oscar Isaac, did some doubling and tripling — for example, the natural comedian Keegan-Michael Key was a fine Horatio but also performed with the players, receiving an ovation for their overwrought death scene — but its collective energy filled up a sparse, mostly bare-bones setting in casual contemporary dress to eliminate any distractions. The 3:30 running time didn’t feel labored at all. In fact, Gold cut out the Fortinbras character and subplot altogether: that’s how tightly packed this play is. Being so physically close to superb actors interpreting some of the most sublime words ever written for the theatre was an experience I won’t soon forget.

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IN AND OF ITSELF. Another magic show that defies description, because “magic show” is far too facile a term for this masterpiece. I saw Derek DelGaudio three years ago in NOTHING TO HIDE, the Neil Patrick Harris-directed two-man show he performed with Helder Guimarães (I’ve never seen better card handling in my life), but this bears little resemblance. It’s a very personal journey, for both performer and audience, that is illuminated by magic in a tiny off-Broadway theater. Deeply considered monologues guide the evening, interspersed with some of the most gaspingly creative illusions I’ve seen. I happened to learn the method for one mind-boggling trick and, as with most great ones, the how’d-he-do-it is tame and prosaic. But DelGaudio’s quiet showmanship is off the scale. The final few seconds left the audience stunned in amazement and unable to move until they could process what they had just seen.

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JUNK. The investor culture that invented “junk bonds” in the Eighties, the heyday of Michael Milken and pals, would seem a difficult atmosphere for a play. But Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar keeps the focus on human beings: specifically, those who were responsible for turning “industrialization” into “financialization.” JUNK’s dramatic core is this: is the main purpose of a corporation to serve its customers or its shareholders? This sprawling piece uses individuals to represent trends and presents the stakes so clearly that even we laymen can understand. It’s about nothing less than the soul of business and its vital relationship to the national welfare.

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THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. My current #1 recommendation for prospective NYC visitors. I caught this in London a few years ago but it was great to see the original West End cast, including the three authors, on Broadway. (Yanks have since replaced them.) The premise is that a company of British amateurs has managed to book a real theater for its old-fashioned locked-door murder mystery, but to their chagrin Murphy’s Law intervenes again and again and again; adorably, there’s nothing else to do but soldier on. The timing and stagecraft necessary to make sure everything goes wrong right, if you get me here, is superb: the show won a Tony for Best Scenic Design and when you see it you’ll understand why. Gut-bustingly funny for two solid hours. If you do get tickets, arrive :15 early, because the pre-show routine is also a scream. EDIT: because of the words of mouths like mine, this show looks likely to not only recoup its investment but also send a bus-and-truck troupe across America. Congrats, mates! EDIT, 1/9/19: New York won’t let it leave! This hilarity moves off-Broadway, as AVENUE Q once did, for what should be a long, happy run. Meanwhile the bus-and-truck company is coming to a theater near you…

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THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART. A folk tale with music from the National Theatre of Scotland. It was performed in the “Heath” Scottish-styled pub at the McKittrick Hotel, the inventive venue which also houses the immersive presentation SLEEP NO MORE. The five cast members were all around us at various points, telling and singing a spooky story but with big grins on their faces and mischief in their minds. Included in the ticket price was a flight of Scots whisky to get us in the mood. The charming nature of the staging also made it easy to get to know our tablemates. A great night out, and hurrah for Scotland.

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THE WOLVES. I missed Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer finalist last year when it galvanized people in an off-Broadway production by The Playwrights Realm, so it was great to have a chance to catch up with a new staging. What happens is that nine members of a girls’ high-school soccer team — identified only by their uniform numbers — talk to each other while they go through their warmups (a soccer mom appears briefly). But their giddy teenage conversation carries a powerful current of serious subtext that engages the audience organically; you get jostled without even noticing it. The actors are pitch-perfectly plausible; I’ve never been a teenage girl but everybody assures me that’s what they really sound like. Such a simple setup and profound dramatic arc, performed by a true ensemble (most of them vets of the original production). And it’s the author’s first play.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE ANTIPODES (from one of my favorite young playwrights, Annie Baker), JULIUS CAESAR (we were there the night two right-wing trolls interrupted the performance), LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS (John Leguizamo teaches and learns), MEASURE FOR MEASURE (deconstructed by Elevator Repair Service, the brilliant experimental troupe), PRIDE & PREJUDICE (a madcap music-hally romp through Austen, but made with love)

12/20/2017: Add to the notables AT THE ILLUSIONIST’S TABLE at the selfsame Heath of PRUDENCIA HART. There’s a tad too much Derren Brown in Scott Silven’s bravura evening, but he freaks the folks just as powerfully — and here the audience is only two dozen or so, all sharing a lovely dinner and some fine whisky at the earnest Scot’s candlelit table. Wow on all fronts. (OK, now I’m positive I’m done for the year. My 2018 will actually begin with HELLO, DOLLY!)

My Favorite Theatre In:

2018    2019


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