The 2009 Tony Awards are Sunday, June 7, and while I’ve barely made a dent in seeing all of the nominated shows and performances, I won’t let that stop me from making winner predictions. I would love to have seen more of the nominees, but Broadway theater is just so damned expensive. Obstructed view tickets to God of Carnage are going for $90 at the TKTS booth. Yes, $90 for an obstructed view of James Gandolfini. So until I make my millions, I’m stuck scraping together my dollars for a few select shows each year and then making guesses on who will be the Tony winners based on what I’ve read and heard about various performances, and good old-fashioned spite (Constantine Maroulis as a potential Tony winner? Not in my predictions list.).
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, Stacy Ferguson
My Review:Nine is one of the few musicals in existence that I know very little about. It was revived on Broadway a few years ago, starring Antonio Banderas, and is based on the 1963 Fellini film 8½. It’s the story of Italian movie director Guido Contini and his relationship with the various women in his life, including his wife, his mistress, his creative muse, and his mother. And therein lies the extent of my knowledge of Nine.
But I do know that it’s directed by Rob Marshall, who also directed the movie version of Chicago, which is one of the best modern movie musicals. And it stars Daniel Day-Lewis, who is pretty much cinematic perfection in everything he does (and I may or may not have a hugely inappropriate crush on him). With the exception of Nicole Kidman, who proved her musical chops in Moulin Rouge!, it’s unclear whether the rest of the cast can actually carry a tune. But I wondered the same thing about Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago, and my concerns turned out to be completely unfounded. So I have complete faith that director Marshall knows what he is doing.
The trailer for Nine doesn’t reveal too much; it’s essentially a collection of clips set to one of the tunes from the show, sung by costar Stacy Ferguson (aka Fergie; yes, that Fergie). But I don’t need to see too much to know I’m already sold on the movie. All I had to hear was “musical”, “Rob Marshall”, and “Daniel Day-Lewis”, and I knew that stuffing my face with turkey won’t be the only thing I’ll be doing Thanksgiving weekend.
My Review: As my first venture into the bizarrely acrobatic world of Cirque du Soleil, I think LOVE was a good choice. With acts performed to an all-Beatles soundtrack, you have something that is familiar, and with the artistic vision and interpretation of Cirque du Soleil, you have something completely new and original.
It took me awhile to adjust to the fact that I wasn’t seeing a play or a musical, but that I was a part of a theatrical experience. Once I stopped looking for the linear story and trying to keep track of specific characters, I was able to relax and simply enjoy the ride. Each Beatles’ tune is presented with a different act that represents the creators’ interpretation of the song. Some of the highlights include amazing roller-blading acrobatics set to “Help!”, a soaring trapeze number for “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, a tap-dancing routine done in yellow rubber galoshes to “Lady Madonna”, and a frantic trampoline performance to “Revolution” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.”
Each act is completely different and offers fantastic feats that defy what the human body should be capable of, from springboarding across the stage to being a human yo-yo falling from the ceiling attached to a giant rubber band, and all without any safety nets. The one complaint I have is that at times there was actually too much going on onstage. I would find myself mesmerized by one particular performer, then realize that I was missing what the other several dozen acrobats and contortionists were doing. And with how quickly Cirque du Soleil moves, missing a single trick was not something I wanted to do.
Bottom Line: To try to explain a Cirque du Soleil experience is nearly impossible, and does a great disservice to the show. The reason it’s described as an experience is because, well, it needs to be experienced. If you find yourself in Las Vegas, are a Beatles fan, and want to see something completely unique, then stop by the Mirage to check out LOVE. It’s definitely more entertaining than losing next month’s rent at the poker table.
Starring: Sean Mahon, Francesca Faridany, Arnie Burton, Jeffrey Kuhn
My Review: The play The 39 Steps is based on a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name that I’ve never seen. Luckily, viewing the movie is not a prerequisite for enjoying the madcap farce on stage. The stage production takes the espionage thriller and turns it into a comedy, a salute to vaudeville, and a circus, as a company of only four actors take on over 150 different characters, and you spend a breathless two hours trying to keep up with them.
Richard Hannay is a bored Londoner, and the only character whose actor only has to play one part, who finds himself on a perilous journey to Scotland to figure out what the 39 Steps are after a mysterious German spy is murdered in his home. Along the way he encounters a series of characters played by two very energetic and versatile actors. He also finds himself handcuffed to a beautiful woman he meets on a train, pursued by the police, and threatened by a Nazi missing the tip of his pinky finger. But somehow all of these perils play out as side-splitting comedy. Once the play is over, you wonder if the question, “What are the 39 Steps?” has ever really been answered. But it doesn’t really matter, since the search for the 39 Steps is just a device to initiate Hannay’s wild adventure. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.
While Richard Hannay may be the main character, the production rests on the shoulders of the two playing Man #1 and Man #2 (Arnie Burton and Jeffrey Kuhn). With a series of lightening-fast costume changes, a switching of wigs, and affecting different accents, the two men each play dozens of different characters, and have to be nimble enough to easily transition from role to role in a nanosecond. Watching them is like watching a circus act of highly trained clowns and acrobats, but with professional theater training. With less capable actors in these roles, the entire production would fall apart.
In addition to minimal actors, The 39 Steps also uses minimal scenery, with a stark stage and a few props that regularly rotate between scenes. Rather than relying on elaborate props and scenery, the actors deftly pantomime everything from riding a crowded train, to crossing a Scottish loch, to a police chase through a forest. And while being a Hitchcock fan is not required to enjoy the show, there are occasional mimed callouts to other Hitchcock works to entertain those in the know.
Bottom Line: I actually saw The 39 Steps for the first time over a year ago, but didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to see it again. It’s one of the funniest and most clever plays I’ve seen in a long time. It’s amazing that one production with only four actors and minimal scenery can do what other productions with a cast of one hundred and revolutionary special effects struggle to achieve.
Atmosphere: Each Crumbs location is a bit different, with some offering tables for immediate snacking, and some being strictly grab ‘n go. The feel is traditional bakery, with glass cases that display their parade of colorful and unique treats.
My Review: There isn’t much to say about Crumbs’ cupcakes since they fall firmly in the “not bad, but not remarkable” category. The major difference between them and other cupcakes on offer in the city are the fact that they’re at least double the size, making sharing them with someone else easy. And since you’re sharing, you can sample more flavors, and there is certainly no shortage of flavors to try.
Other than generous sizes, Crumbs offers over two dozen varieties of cupcakes, from traditional Chocolate and Vanilla, to the inventive Caramel Apple and Oreo, to the “does that even taste good?” Cotton Candy and Fluffernutter. There are even seasonal flavors, like the Key Lime and Chocolate Covered Strawberry currently available for the spring. With the myriad of unique flavors, you’ll want to buy a six-pack to divide up and create a cupcake sampling party. Then you’ll probably deem them “not bad” and continue getting cupcakes from your regular go-to place.
The major disappointment in Crumbs’ cupcakes is the frosting. Most of the frostings are advertised as flavored variations of their traditional cream cheese frosting, but they taste nothing like cream cheese. The Peanut Butter Cup is chocolate cake with peanut butter cream cheese frosting, which tastes more like vanilla frosting with just a hint of PB. The Vanilla/Chocolate is vanilla cake with chocolate cream cheese frosting, that tastes just like the chocolate frosting you get from a jar, bringing back memories of elementary school birthday party cupcakes. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but why go to a bakery for something you can (and probably have) so easily make yourself at home? The biggest disappointment was their Red Velvet, which should be topped with a cream cheese frosting that has a bit of a bite to it. But like the others, it just tastes like basic vanilla and left me wanting to go to any of the other bakeries in the city for a “real” red velvet cupcake.
Bottom Line: If it’s variety, unique flavors, and generous portions you’re looking for, then Crumbs is a good place to check out. Then once you’ve done that, you’ll wonder what makes their cupcakes special, realize the answer is “nothing”, and continue to seek better cupcakes elsewhere.
My Review: It’s really hard to review a show like Hair since it has such a polarizing effect on people. There are those who love the songs, feed off the energy of the hyperactive cast, and relish the chaotic representation of a time they lived through or wish they hadn’t been born too late to experience. Then there are those who see Hair as a show about a bunch of dirty hippies and wonder where the linear story is. If you fall into the first group, you’ll love the revival of Hair currently on Broadway. If you fall into the second group, Mary Poppins is playing over at the New Amsterdam.
I absolutely loved Hair, end of story. I’m a part of the crowd who was born too late to experience the turbulent late 1960s, but that has absolutely no effect on my ability to love the show. The themes in Hair are just as relevant today as they were in 1967: A younger generation who resents the older generation? Check. Some people rage against a war they want no part of while others cling to their blind patriotism? Check. The youth of America worries about the future and attempts to numb themselves about their fear of the unknown? Check and check. Remove the bohemian clothes and update the slang, and the tribal community of Hair isn’t that different from the angry, scared, apprehensive society that exists right now.
The cast of Hair couldn’t be more spot on if we had time traveling capabilities and could go back to the ‘60s and get actual hippies. Their energy is infectious, as they leap and writhe about the stage, then dash through the audience, handing out daisies, imploring us to join their cause, and even sexually soliciting a lucky few (having an aisle seat, I was treated to one of the cast members thrusting his crotch in my face). How they keep this vigor going for the two and half hour run time, six days a week (twice a day on Saturdays and Sundays), is beyond me, but they somehow pull it off.
Gavin Creel as Claude, who is more or less the main character, shines as the heart and soul of the tribe. Not quite as manic as his friends, he still condemns his parents and his government for attempting to send him to Vietnam, but can’t quite bring himself to ceremoniously burn his draft card. Your heart can’t help but break a little when he questions “why I live and die.” Will Swenson is his best friend and fellow tribe member Berger, and the ultimate stand out in the cast. Berger is egotistical, inconsiderate, and a complete attention whore, yet he’s endearing in his earnestness to piss everyone off and stick it to the man. Swenson manages to present Berger as annoying, vulnerable, hilarious, and sexy all at once. It’s no surprise that both of these actors received Tony nominations for their performances.
This revival of Hair was first produced last summer as part of The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park offering, and I was devastated to have missed it. But having seen it in the more confined space of the Hirschfeld, as opposed to a vast outdoor theater, I think I’m glad I saw it where the energy was contained within a smaller space, where I couldn’t miss a thing and there were no outside distractions. Well, besides the occasional hippie crotch in my face, that is.
Bottom Line:Hair is a must-see for anyone who loves great theater or is in need of a jolt of energy. If you don’t leave the theater wanting to go thrift store shopping, smell of patchouli, and start smoking pot regularly, you may want to get your vital signs checked.
Price: Various cheesecakes run between $8-10 per slice
Atmosphere: Maxie’s is a large, airy diner-like place more than an actual delicatessen (it even has an upper level with additional seating) set in the middle of Times Square. But you can get any of their menu items, cheesecake included, to go, which is what I would recommend, unless you like dining in Times Square with a bunch of tourists.
My Review: Along with gridlock and public urination, New York City is famous for its cheesecake. And nearly everyone has a different opinion on who offers the best cheesecake in the city. Lindy’s is a popular choice. Then there’s Junior’s, a Brooklyn institution (with locations also in Manhattan). But after several years of living in NYC and sampling cheesecakes from various eateries, famous and not, I have to say that Maxie’s in Times Square has the best cheesecake in New York.
The main reason Maxie’s is my favorite is because they actually get the crust right. Cheesecake needs to have a graham cracker crust, end of story. So many places try to get away with having a sponge cake crust, which tends to just get soggy, or no crust at all, which is beyond blasphemous in the world of cheesecake. A graham cracker crust gives a slight crispness to the naturally soft cheesecake and adds another flavor. Maxie’s also gets the flavor right in that it’s pure cheesecake. Too many places add lemon to their cheesecake, which tends to overpower the natural flavors already there. If I wanted lemon cheesecake, I would order lemon cheesecake. But I hate lemon cheesecake, so keep your damn lemon flavoring out of my regular cheesecake! Maxie’s gets everything right, from the crust to the natural flavor to the creamy, not runny, consistency.
One of the primary complaints about Maxie’s is that it’s an overpriced tourist trap, which is pretty much true. They offer huge portions of food that is basically typical diner fare, charge an arm and leg for the hefty portions, and the Times Square location makes it an obvious spot for tourists. Even their cheesecake is a bit overprices at $8-10 per slice (depending on whether you’re a cheesecake purist or want one of their more exotic flavors), but the slices are huge and can easily be divided in half or thirds to share with someone else (if you’re nice) or to save to enjoy later (if you’re me).
Bottom Line: Edging out some pretty fierce competition, Maxie’s has the best New York cheesecake I’ve had so far. Skip having dinner there (unless you like paying $15 for a sandwich) and get a slice of their cheesecake to go, so you can enjoy it at home without the prying eyes of lost Midwesterners staring at you through the windowed walls. I prefer the plain cheesecake, but there are plenty of flavor options on display for you to drool and debate over.
My Review: When I saw Angela Lansbury in Deucea couple of years ago, I assumed that would be her final performance on Broadway, which would have been a shame since it was such a snoozer of a play. Luckily, she has a chance to strut her theatrical stuff in Blithe Spirit, a delightful Noël Coward comedy, where the 80-something year old Lansbury bounds around the stage with more energy than most young Broadway actors exude.
Set in a British manor in what I assume is the 1940s, novelist Charles (Everett) invites Madame Arcati (Lansbury), a dotty medium with contacts on the Other Side, to perform a séance in his home for both the entertainment of his wife and their friends, and to conduct research for his next great work. Never once believing any of her hocus-pocus is real, Charles gets the shock of his life when his deceased first wife (Ebersole) appears, is only visible and audible to him, and has no intention of leaving anytime soon. Naturally, this causes some irritation with his current wife (Atkinson), who wonders if Charles is going insane (bad) or still harboring feelings for his first wife (even worse). So she invites Madame Arcati back in order to get rid of Charles’ paranormal paramour, which is of course easier said than done.
As no great surprise to anyone, Lansbury steals the show whenever she’s onstage. Dressed in bohemian garb that looks like it was borrowed from the production of Hair playing a few blocks away, she babbles on about her mystic connections, shimmies about the stage before falling into deep trances, and reacts with childlike glee when she actually brings back Wife #1. As the actual main character, Rupert Everett handles the role of Charles excellently. His changes from flippant skeptic to panicked husband with two wives to accepting his new living arrangement are seamless, hilarious, and believable (no small feat given the bizarre circumstances). Ebersole seems to be delighted in her role as the ghostly wife, and happily flits about the stage, picks on Charles current wife, and gives a clear idea of the mischievous woman she was when still alive.
The one possible weak link in the production is Charles’ current wife, whose reluctance to believe that Charles can see and hear his first wife slows down the momentum of the show. Whether this is the fault of playwright Coward or Jayne Atkinson’s performance, I’m not sure, but more than once I wanted to shout, “Just accept that there’s a ghost there so we can get on with it!”
Bottom Line:Blithe Spirit is entertaining and enjoyable, though unlikely to stick with you months (or years) later, the way truly sublime theater can. But it’s a fizzy, funny show that features one of Broadway’s legendary leading ladies having a ball, which is far from a bad way to spend two hours of your life.
Starring: Kelsey Grammar, Bebe Neuwirth, Megan Mullally, Debbie Allen, a bunch of young unknowns
My Review: I love the original 1980 movie Fame, which should come as a great surprise to absolutely no one. It’s the quintessential movie about how tough making it in the performing arts is and a bluntly realistic portrait of what young performers are willing to put themselves through to achieve their dreams. It’s also become something of a period piece in that it allows you to observe a New York City that doesn’t exist anymore; the city is dark and gritty, Times Square has yet to be owned by Disney, and the residents had to have a toughness to survive living there (tough New Yorkers now have nothing on tough New Yorkers of the 1980s).
And best of all, it’s all so totally ‘80s: The big hair, the spandex, the kid with his electric keyboard, the roller skates, the satin shorty shorts, and the leg warmers. Dear god, the leg warmers! Like most movies, it’s not without its flaws (the lack of a conclusive ending still annoys me), but the fact that it’s become such a classic (even spawning a 1980s TV series) makes me very skeptical of this new version.
On the plus side, this Fame of 2009 is an update, not a remake, so they at least have the sense to not try to recreate the original. On the minus side, I’m not thrilled with anything I’m seeing in this trailer. Hip-hop dancing? A jazzed up version of the title song? No leg warmers? None of that is what Fame is all about. Granted, this is just a teaser trailer, so I may feel differently once the full trailer is released, but for now, Fame 2.0 is not lighting the sky like a flame for me.
Would I Pay For It?: Unless I see something that really piques my interest between now and September, I’ll probably wait to rent this. Like most updates, reimaginings, and retellings, this Fame didn’t really need to be created when the original was, and still is, so good. But I’m curious enough to eventually see what this new version has to offer. And if there’s no dancing on top of taxi cabs, I will be thoroughly disappointed.
Starring: Stephen Mangan, Jessica Hynes, Amelia Bullmore, Ben Miles, Amanda Root, Paul Ritter
My Review: After being subjected to a season of theatrical crap courtesy of my Roundabout Theatre subscription, it was unbelievably refreshing to see something as engaging, clever, and entertaining as The Norman Conquests. Hell, it was refreshing to just realize that theater can still be entertaining, seeing as most of what’s been on offer lately has been heavy-handed bore-fests, where you feel like a philistine if you don’t like it, or cheesy jukebox musicals who hope their fun songs will distract from their lack of plot, where you feel like an imbecile if you do like it. The Norman Conquests manages to offer the best of both worlds: A play that is clever and cunning, yet laugh-out-loud funny, that you never have to feel embarrassed about enjoying.
The Norman Conquests is actually a trilogy of plays, but each one works as a self-contained performance, so it’s not required to see all three to enjoy the show. Though truth be told, after seeing only one of the three, I’m desperately hoping to be able to see the remaining two before the show’s run ends. Set in a home in the English country, the play tells the twisted tale of Norman, who arrives to whisk his wife’s sister, Annie, away for a weekend of debauchery, only to be thwarted by the arrival of his brother-in-law and his uptight wife. Then there’s Tom, the hopelessly awkward veterinarian who’s been smitten with Annie for years and finds every excuse to hang about her house, and the eventual arrival of Norman’s wife, Ruth, to also throw a wrench in Norman’s plans. Each play within the trilogy takes place in a different location of the house, and each one is fraught with comical misunderstandings and bizarre pairings.
Written in 1973, The Norman Conquests is a sex farce not entirely unlike some episodes of Three’s Company, but since it’s a British play, the comedy somehow manages to achieve an elevated level. The interweaving of the three separate plays, the mistaken interpretations, and the character’s hidden agendas echo elements of Shakespeare comedies, like Much Ado About Nothing. Yet there are moments of hilarious physical humor that seem to be pulled directly from The Benny Hill Show. It all blends together flawlessly and creates a fantastic theatrical experience. It’s quite delightful, and oh so very British.
Bottom Line:The Norman Conquests is running throughout July, so grab tickets while you can (on Saturdays and Sundays you can see the entire trilogy, if you can handle a full day in the theater). Originally a production at the Old Vic in London, The Norman Conquests is so entertaining that I hope we continue to receive British transplants in the New York theater district. They could certainly teach a thing or two to some of the New York productions.