Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Theater Review: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Location: The Players Theatre, 115 Macdougal Street, New York, NY

Website: Official Brooklyn Theatre Arts Project site

Starring: Miguel Sierra, Nadiene Jacques, Elizabeth Flanagan, Patrick Marran, Paul Campione

My Review: There were two things that I kept reminding myself of before attending the Brooklyn Theatre Arts Project production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat:

  • Small theater groups like this operate on a tight budget, so don’t expect the same kind of production values you’d see at a Broadway show.
  • Joseph is a very silly show.

And all of this was true about the BTAP production. But luckily, Joseph is low-tech enough that elaborate costumes, fancy lighting, and expensive staging effects aren’t needed. However, when putting on such a low-tech, low-budget show, you really need to make sure your cast shines, which is where the BTAP productions falls short.

If you’re not already familiar with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and can’t put two and two together based on the title, it tells the infamous Bible tale of Joseph, his coat, and his jealous brothers. It’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber show, which of course means it’s a musical, and that the quality of the music is up for much debate. (I admit that I enjoy most of Webber’s musicals, and no, I don’t care that the key theme from The Phantom of the Opera is just chromatic scales.) Joseph is one of his earlier works and is written like a parable being told to children. Through a variety of musical styles, including country-western, power ballad, calypso, and disco, the story of Joseph unfolds. He was his father’s favorite and an interpreter of dreams, which annoyed his eleven brothers, who sell him into slavery and tell dad that he’s dead. Joseph then finds himself on a journey that includes being a slave, landing in jail, assisting Pharaoh with a puzzling problem, and eventually become Pharaoh’s right-hand man. And as the title says, there’s also a crazy multi-colored coat involved.

With a show that relies so heavily on one character, you better make sure the actor playing that role is a strong player. But Miguel Sierra as Joseph is just not strong enough to pull it off. With his weak singing voice and lack of a commanding presence, it’s nearly impossible to truly feel bad for his plight and then later rejoice when he triumphs over it all. Rather than coming across as an innocent dreamer, oblivious to how his father’s favoritism makes his brothers feel, Sierra’s Joseph seems to relish in the attention and seems more like a whiny brat than anything else, so you can hardly blame his brothers for finally having enough of him. It also doesn’t help his cause that several of the actors in the chorus of brothers are stronger players and singers, and more charismatic, which made me like them more than Joseph. Tear his coat and fling him in a pit! Go, go, go Brothers!

After Joseph, the most prominently featured role is the female narrator, a role that is shared by two women in this production. Since it’s not much of an acting part, all that’s needed is someone with a nice voice to clearly sing the story to the audience. One of the narrators got this right, while the other chose to perform in an overreaching, shrill operatic soprano voice. Not only was it nearly impossible to understand most of what she sang, it was occasionally painful to hear. Luckily I was already familiar with the Joseph soundtrack, and could mentally fill in the holes where her lyrics were indecipherable.

As I mentioned before, Joseph’s eleven brothers were the highlight of this show. They appear in a fair number of song and dance numbers, each of which was high energy, ably performed, and just downright fun to watch. Some of the featured soloists would have made a much stronger Joseph, which makes me wonder how the casting decisions were made. Did Sierra just look better shirtless—which is how Joseph spends most of the show? I would have much preferred a slightly flabbier Joseph that had a great voice than a skinny Joseph with no conviction. It’s much easier to suspend your disbelief on body type than on a musical lead with questionable musical abilities.

Bottom Line: The BTAP production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has already ended its run, which I suppose makes this review relatively pointless. But nonetheless, I found the show to be lacking in too many key areas to be truly enjoyable. I can always look past a shoestring production with paper backdrops and shoddy costumes if the talent is there to emotionally connect you with the story. But when the biggest connection you have is with the jealous second bananas of the show, you know something has gone awry.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quest for the Best: My Homemade Apple Crisp

Anyone who actually reads this blog regularly knows that I'm constantly on the look for tasty treats in NYC to satisfy my insatiable sweet tooth. But I'm afraid nothing will every compare to my own homemade apple crisp. And there is really no point to this post other than to say I'm so glad it's apple season once again.

And yes, I do serve it with homemade whipped cream. Because anything worth doing, is worth doing right.

Monday, September 21, 2009

2009 Emmy Awards Post-Mortem

Well, as predicted, I didn’t do very well on my Emmy winner picks. But that’s OK, because for the first time in a LONG time, the Emmys didn’t suck! After successfully hosting the Tony Awards and now killing at the Emmys, everyone is talking about how Neil Patrick Harris should host every entertainment awards show. And they’re right. He’s funny, energetic, smart, cute as a button, and a true rarity in Hollywood, genuinely talented. And after losing the Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy award to Jon Cryer (SERIOUSLY??!!) he proved that he can roll with the punches and make fun of himself. An actor who can host the bejesus out of a show AND not pout like a little bitch when he loses an award (I’m looking at you Kevin Dillon)? Hell, let the guy host anything he’s willing to take on; Oscars, Grammys, Independent Spirit Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, Nobel Peace Prize, etc.

Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights) that struck me:

* The Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy nominees all wearing goofy glasses. I guess it was supposed to be cute, but it just came off as stupid and cheesy. And apparently it was all Amy Poehler’s idea. Um, Amy? I think most people who watch the Emmys are over the age of six, so you may want to dial the maturity level of your comedy up a bit.

* Random trivia. Throughout the night, announcer John Hodgman would offer interesting/quirky trivia bits about each of the winners as they walked to the stage. And when NPH would announce the next award presenter, he’d highlight the most obscure acting cred on their resume (often citing roles as crowd extras or appearances in after-school specials). I’m pretty sure he just went on their IMDB pages and picked the first listed role, and it was a hilarious way of reminding everyone (both us and them) that even if you find yourself presenting at the Emmys, there’s no forgetting that you got your start as “Angry Patron #2.”

* Jon Cryer wins Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy. Yes, I mentioned it before, but it’s so appalling, I’m mentioning it again. Jon Cryer seems like a cool guy, and his acceptance speech was nice, and yes, I was rooting for NPH, but COME ON! Two and Half Men is…well…not good is the diplomatic way of saying it. Even if Harris wasn’t going to win, any of the other nominees would have been more deserving. You had two guys from 30 Rock, a guy from The Office, and…OK, Cryer, you’re probably more deserving than Kevin Dillon. But that still leaves four other guys! Ah well, I can’t stay upset with Duckie for too long. And Harris’s theatrical bitterness over losing did lead to some of the night’s funniest moments. Moving on…

* Jeff Probst admitting in his acceptance speech that he sucked as part of last year’s “let’s have reality show hosts do the Emmys” debacle. Because it did suck. Hard.

* Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Darth Vader impression. I don’t even remember what award she won since I was so distracted by her wheezing. I hope someone backstage had a tank of oxygen waiting for her.

* The introduction of the Writing for a Variety, Music, or Comedy Series nominees. Every year it’s the same late-night shows that get nominated, and every year each show comes up with a clever and hilarious way of introducing their list of writers (each show has around a dozen). My favorite this year—no surprise—was Conan O’Brien individually ignoring Facebook friend requests from his team of writers. What made it even funnier is if you watch him on The Tonight Show, you know he really has no idea what Facebook is all about or how it works.

* Dr. Horrible! I was late to the Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Blog party, and didn’t actually see it until it was out on DVD and I rented it from Netflix. (Yes, I watched the blog on TV—who says the Internet is killing the industry?) I was thrilled to see NPH and Nathan Fillion reprise their roles and it was far more entertaining than actually hearing about how the Emmy ballot process works (buffering…buffering…).

* Sarah McLachlan sings for the death montage. Now, I’m actually a fan of the death montage, and like to remember some of the talented people who are no longer around (and there’s always at least one instance of “I didn’t know so-and-so died!”). But having Sarah McLachlan singing “I Will Remember You” while it played was beyond cliché. Dear Sarah: I enjoyed your song. Back in 1999. When it was relevant and I was a whiny college student. But it is now played at every graduation, reunion, and memorial service, and I’m sick of it. Please retire this tune. Sincerely, Rachel. P.S. It also makes me think of all those battered puppies and kitties that I don’t have the time, space, or money to care for. So thanks for making me feel shitty. Asshole.

* In defense of Mad Men. Mad Men’s head writer/creator Matthew Weiner has been criticized as being a bit pompous during his acceptance speeches when the show won for best writing and best drama. Well, if I ever create anything that is even half as consistently awesome as Mad Men, I fully intend to become a total dick. So Matthew Weiner can be as arrogant as he wants as far as I’m concerned; he’s sure as hell earned it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

I Bet You Can Pick More Emmy Winners Than Me

While I admittedly go a little hyper-fan girl for the Oscars and the Tonys, I’m just not that into the Emmys. Mainly because I don’t watch enough TV shows to really have an invested interest in who wins. There are the select handful of shows I insist on watching, but after spending so much of my free time at the movies or at the theater, there’s just not enough left to devote an equal portion of my entertainment-addled schedule to TV. Plus I have a full time job, people! There’s only so much I can give!

Nevertheless, I’ll most likely tune into the Emmys this Sunday, mainly because I love me some Neil Patrick Harris. And I’ll make mental notes of shows that I should start watching, and then never follow through. So for what precious little it’s worth, here are my uneducated predictions for this year’s Emmy winners:

Family Guy
Flight of the Conchords
How I Met Your Mother
The Office
30 Rock


Hey, I actually watch these shows! Well, not Flight of the Conchords, but six out of seven ain’t bad. I’d guess one of the Thursday night darlings gets it. Personally, I still prefer The Office to 30 Rock, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Emmy voters. So 30 Rock for the win, because I want to go to there, and take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant (or insert your catchphrase of choice here).

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Tony Shalhoub, Monk
Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men

Hm…30 Rock and The Office are the only ones I watch, but I’ve heard that The Big Bang Theory is actually very funny. I’ll guess Alec Baldwin will win, but I’ll also guess that I’ll be wrong.

Christina Applegate, Samantha Who?
Toni Collette, United States of Tara
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old Christine
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds
Sarah Silverman, The Sarah Silverman Program

Tina Fey, all the way.

Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
Kevin Dillon, Entourage
Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock
Tracy Morgan, 30 Rock
Rainn Wilson, The Office

The 30 Rock boys are always consistently funny, but I’ll bet that having two nominees from the same show will cancel each other out. So I’ll go with NPH for the well-deserved win.

Kristin Chenoweth, Pushing Daisies
Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock
Elizabeth Perkins, Weeds
Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live
Kristin Wiig, Saturday Night Live
Vanessa Williams, Ugly Betty

Hm…Pushing Daisies couldn’t get any lovin’ no matter how hard it tried, so no. Jane Krakowski is the weakest link in the otherwise strong 30 Rock chain (sorry, but it’s true), so no. Weeds hasn’t been funny since they left the ‘burbs, so no. I like Amy Poehler and Kristin Wiig fine, but SNL has sucked to bad and hard for too many years, so no. Which I guess leaves Vanessa Williams. Sure, why not?

Big Love
Breaking Bad
Mad Men

I only watch three of these, and both Breaking Bad and Mad Men are PHENOMENAL shows. I’d give Breaking Bad a slight edge for an overly amazing season, but won’t be surprised and will be delighted when either of them wins.

Simon Baker, The Mentalist
Gabriel Byrne, In Treatment
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House

The Mentalist, seriously? Anyway…Breaking Bad and Mad Men are the only two shows in this group I watch, but I still find it hard to believe anyone can top the performances of Cranston and Hamm. Though I’ve heard that House was especially good last season. I’d give it to Bryan Cranston, but while imagining Jon Hamm with his shirt off.

Glenn Close, Damages
Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU
Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

Oh I have no idea. I watch Brothers & Sisters and kind of hate Sally Field’s character, so I’d rather not see her win again (or was it the Golden Globe she won? Regardless, she still shouldn’t win). Elisabeth Moss is fantastic in Mad Men, but I fear she’s still seen as too small a character to warrant an award. So I’ll have to pick from a show I’ve never seen. I’ve heard Damages is good, so let’s go with Glenn Close.

Christian Clemenson, Boston Legal
Michael Emerson, Lost
William Hurt, Damages
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
William Shatner, Boston Legal
John Slattery, Mad Men

Boston Legal doesn’t even look like it belongs grouped in with these other shows. My guess is Aaron Paul. It can’t be easy playing a sympathetic junkie/drug-dealer. Playing one convincingly is damn near impossible.

Rose Byrne, Damages
Hope Davis, In Treatment
Cherry Jones, 24
Sandra Oh, Grey’s Anatomy
Dianne Wiest, In Treatment
Chandra Wilson, Grey’s Anatomy

Of this group I only watch Grey’s Anatomy, and it really sucks right now (I said I watched it, I didn’t say I was happy about it). So how about…Dianne Wiest? She’s a classy lady, and from the couple of season 1 episodes of In Treatment I saw, that show is ALL about the drama.

The Amazing Race
American Idol
Dancing With The Stars
Project Runway
Top Chef

Reality TV is the scourge of the television world. What I predict will happen: The Amazing Race will win. What I’d like to see happen: The stage opens into a black hole and sucks them all into an alternate universe.

So there are my winner predictions. I also predict that NPH will be a far superior host than the five non-hosts they had last year, there will be at least one out of place musical number, and there will be no fewer than half a dozen Kanye jokes made. Yo, Bryan Cranston, I’m really happy for you and I’m gonna let you finish, but NO ONE wears a suit like my man Don Draper!

Can you predict more winners than me? Probably! So prove it!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Movie Review: Bright Star

Rated: PG

Website: Official Bright Star site

Starring: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider

My Review: I know I’ve said it before, but it warrants repeating: I’m a sucker for period dramas. I’ll find something charming in the stuffiest and most boring movies if you dress them up in an empire-waist gown and beplumed bonnet. That being said, while there are some truly lovely elements to Bright Star, there was an emotional disconnect that kept me from falling for it like I have for so many period pieces that came before it.

Bright Star tells the based-on-a-true-story tale of the ill-fated love between poet John Keats and the girl next door, Fanny Brawne. They meet in 1818, when Keats is staying with his friend Charles Brown, who lives next door to the Brawne family, and worrying over the failing health of his brother. Fanny is youthful, energetic, flirtatious, and a bit materialistic. Keats is morose, thoughtful, introverted, and one step away from being a pauper. So naturally they’re drawn to each other, despite both knowing that he cannot afford to marry. But since young love will forever be all-consuming and illogical, they pursue their mutual attraction, leading to longing glances, hysterical outbursts, jealous accusations, stolen kisses, and multiple heartbreaks. And while I won’t spoil the ending, I will say that Keats died at the tragically young age of 25, so you can probably predict how things turn out in the end.

While Bright Star is telling a love story about people who actually existed, it’s presented like nearly every teenage love affair you see today. Which may be the entire point of the film—young love was, and will always be, a time of madness—but that didn’t stop me from amusing myself by paralleling Keats and Fanny’s relationship to those that take place via Facebook today. She would post whiny status updates about how “my mom totally needs to STFU about how John needs a better job.” He would post emo poetry and photos of himself in black eyeliner. And the little pink hearts that mark their relationship status would constantly go from broken, to whole, to broken again. Something about being able to so easily equate the movie with the immature nonsense on Facebook took a lot away from the emotional wallop it was hoping to deliver.

Where Bright Star really shines (pun partially intended) is in the performances. The casting was very well done, especially for a movie that features mostly minimally-known actors (at least here in the U.S.). Abbie Cornish play Fanny as the plain, simple girl she apparently really was, but uses her talents as a skilled seamstress and notorious flirt to make herself stand out from the crowd. But once she find herself falling for Keats, Cornish’s portrayal of obsessive infatuation and the resulting heartbreaks are uncomfortably true. Ben Whishaw’s Keats is both incredibly handsome and the perfect sensitive poet that it’s no wonder that women find themselves drawn to him (he even manages to charm both Fanny’s mother and younger sister).

I found the standout performance to be Paul Schneider as Keats’s friend and roommate, Charles Brown. A struggling writer himself, but one with money, he’s very protective of his friend and has a fascinating love/hate relationship with Fanny. One moment he flirts with her like mad, then gets upset that she’s always hanging about But what he’s truly upset about is up for debate. Is it that Fanny prefers Keats to him? Or jealously that she’s taking his best friend away from him? Or jealously that Keats is a better poet? Or is it really just concern for his friend, like he says? It’s probably a combination of all of the above, but when delivered as snarky comments and angry outbursts, it’s often hard to tell what exactly Brown means by what he says, which makes him the most interesting character on the screen.

On the whole, Bright Star feels aimless and fails to pluck the heartstrings it so desperately wants to manipulate. The movie lacks conviction and tends to simply drift along, like a boat someone forgot to tether to the dock. And while the drifting trip passes some lovely spots from time to time, it’s hard to be excited about the destination since there really isn’t one. But oh, the bonnets are truly magnificent.

Bottom Line: Bright Star is a lovely-looking film, with admirable performances and a very authentic feel to it. But the wandering storyline and all-too familiar core plot keep it from being the sort of classic period drama that will withstand time. Fans of period pieces and poetry will likely enjoy it, but in a few months have already forgotten about it after watching the BBC miniseries Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Schmap: These People Like My Photos?

The fine people at Schmap—a publisher of digital travel guides—have decided to use some of my photos to illustrate their guides, which I find kind of cool and totally hilarious. Cool because I love free publicity. Hilarious because I’m an incredibly shitty photographer. But my Flickr photos are available for use under the Creative Commons license, so Schmap is free to use my mediocre work to illustrate all the guides they want:

Las Vegas Bellagio

Las Vegas Manhattan Express Roller Coaster

Bath Abbey UK

So Schmap, if you’re looking for more photos for your guides, feel free to use my images of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and the glamorous world of Hoboken, NJ. I also have an abundance of photos of cats in boxes if that would be of any use to you.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Peggy Olson is My Hero

Yes, I am indeed one of “those” people; a dedicated viewer and fan of AMC’s series Mad Men who will quietly judge those who don’t watch it. If you tell me it’s “boring,” I reserve the right to think you’re “stupid.” Which is probably not a fair assessment, but this is my blog, so I can make all the snap judgments I want.

As its third season is just starting to rev up, it’s becoming more and more clear that while the show may be called Mad Men, the real heart and soul lies in the women (as many entertainment writers more astute and talented than myself have already noted). I admit that the trials of dissatisfied housewife Betty Draper fail to fully capture me; someone just needs to give her a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and let her grow into an actual woman, rather than just being Barbie taking care of Don’s Dreamhouse. But Joan and Peggy are where it’s at. Joan is a walking example of every man’s sexual desire, yet she’s smart, shrewd, and capable of so much more than she lets on. I long for the day she escapes her marriage to Dr. McRapeface and truly comes into her own.

So while I’m waiting for Betty and Joan to get up to speed, there’s Peggy to focus on. The girl went through a lot in the first two seasons, with working her way up from secretary to copywriter, and then that whole “unknown” pregnancy thing. But it’s in this current season that Ms. Olson is truly kicking ass and taking names and paving the way for women to shake off the antiquated 1950s way of life and prepare for the sexual revolution. Here are just a few reasons why Peggy Olson is my hero:

* Her speech to Campbell at the end of last season. Yes, everyone’s been marveling at it for the past year, but it warrants repeating. While he’s lamenting his marital woes to Peggy and wondering if she’s the girl he should have chosen, she calmly—but not cruelly—finally tells him that she had his baby and gave it away, because she wanted more from life. I can only imagine the emotional turmoil that whole situation must have put her through, but she manages to remain cool and collected when finally admitting it out loud. And it just makes us all wonder when and if that storyline will make a reappearance and where it will go.

* She’s unflappable. In a time when it was socially acceptable to refer to women as “doll” and having a woman climb the corporate ladder was unheard of, Peggy just goes ahead and does her thing anyway. While the men at Sterling Cooper were loathe to take her seriously initially, none of them can deny that she’s talented and sharp as a tack, with Don himself telling her to “never apologize for being good at your job.” Her high ambitions have also caused some run-ins with the women of the office, to which Peggy simply smiles and offers a cool reply with the subtle subtext of, “don’t hate on me because I’m accomplishing what you never had the guts to do.”

* She doesn’t allow her family to bully her. Anyone who is close to their family knows how hard it is to go against their wishes. And in Peggy’s time, those wishes are “stay at home until you get married and have babies.” But as the long commute from Brooklyn gets to be too much, she decides it’s time to move to Manhattan, even if it means having to get a roommate to afford it. Her mother takes the news less than well, telling Peggy, “you’re going to get raped, you know.” Well, my mother may not like every decision I’ve ever made, but at least she never told me that! And Peggy just sighs and forges ahead with what she knows she needs to do.

* She’s socially awkward. Even with all her ambition, Peggy is far from perfect, as evidenced in her very real (and often hilarious) social awkwardness. Once she sees that her career path is on track, she decides to make an effort to embrace the social aspects of life in NYC, and often comes across as an alien visitor observing and mimicking human interactions. She borrows a corny line she overheard Joan use in the office to break the ice with some guys at a bar, picks up a decent (if uninspiring) college student for a one-night stand, and when being left out of a boys-only smokefest during a Saturday in the office, she walks in declaring, “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana.” And of course there’s the hilariously stilted roommate ad she posted on the company bulletin board, which led to a creative rewrite by Joan, which then led to an even funnier exchange with her future (and possibly psychotic) roomie. Don’t worry, Peggy, I would love to live with you and your nice furnishings and small TV. And I, too, like to have…fun…?

* That look. My current favorite Peggy Olson moment occurred in the most recent episode where she gives Don the world’s most perfect “I told you so” look after the disastrous meeting with the Patio people. Charged with marketing a new diet cola, Patio, the makers of Pepsi wanted an ad inspired by Ann-Margret’s opening number from the movie musical Bye Bye Birdie (truly one of the worst musicals ever). And from day one Peggy knew it was a terrible idea and failed to see how it would appeal to women—a.k.a. Patio’s key demographic. But when she voiced her opinion, the Sterling Cooper boys were too preoccupied with looking forward to the Ann-Margret look-alike casting session to pay her any heed. So the commercial was made, it was awful, and the Patio people said that, while it was their fault for coming up with the concept, the ad was unusable. And as everyone filed out of the conference room, Peggy turned to deliver the best, and most deserved, smug look of satisfaction in TV history. Oh well…at least they were all in agreement that the product name sucked.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Love Letter to Tempura Ice Cream

Dear Tempura Ice Cream:

I don't know how it's possible that I lived for nearly 30 years before finally discovering your spectacular awesomeness. Given my passionate (some may say manic) love of both ice cream and fried foods, you encompass all that is right in my world. While I'm somewhat saddened that it took me this long to find you, perhaps it was meant to be this way. I probably wouldn't have appreciated you in my naive youth before I adopted the philosophy of "I don't care if it's bad for me, I'm only planning on living once!" So now that I've found you, dear tempura ice cream, I'm looking forward to spending lots of time with you post-meals. Thank you for showing me that there truly is some goodness left in this world.

My love and appreciation,

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Theater Review: Our Town

Location: Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., NY, NY

Website: Official Our Town site

Starring: Jason Butler Harner, James McMenamin, Jennifer Grace, Lori Myers, Armand Schultz, Kati Brazda, Ken Marks

My Review: I may be one of the few Americans out there who never had to read or attend a production of Our Town while in school. But I didn’t wander into the production at the Barrow Street Theatre completely blind; I knew the basic premise was a play about small-town America at the turn of the century (I had seen the episodes of The Wonder Years and My So-Called Life where they put on high school productions of it, after all). I had also heard Our Town billed as both “one of the greatest American works in existence” and “mind-numbingly boring” from various critics (some reputable, others…less so). So I was eager to attend this production with as close to no preconceived notions as I’ll ever have when attending theater, and to form my own opinion of this theatrical classic.

It’s not easy to summarize the plot of Our Town, since it’s about nearly everything that life is about: Childhood, love, marriage, fear, daily life, growing old, death, etc. The premise is deceptively simple: Three distinct acts follow life in the quiet, simple town of Grover’s Corner, NH, in the early 1900s. The action centers primarily on two of the town’s families, the Webbs and the Gibbs, who are friends and neighbors. Act I is about daily life, where the women prepare meals, the men go to work, and the kids go to school. Act II is about marriage and growing up, where childhood sweethearts George and Emily from Act I are a bit older and nervously take the next step in their lives. Act III is about death, and pays a visit to the town cemetery where ghosts of deceased characters converse, reflect on what they left behind, and look towards what’s coming next. And in this simple tale you choose to see as much or as little as you want, and I’m willing to bet that attending this play is a vastly different experience for every audience member.

Neither the play itself nor this particular production are perfect, but perfection isn’t necessary when it still manages to pack an emotional punch that has you leaving the theater feeling a bizarre mixture of sadness, hopefulness, and determination to make the little things in life count. The Barrow Street production can’t help but make you feel something before you leave because it takes place literally in your face. The theater is tiny (around 150 seats, I believe) and the stage is actually the floor where there are audience seats assembled. The main floor space acts as the location for the indoor action, while walkways between rows of seats act as streets and paths the characters take to get to where they’re going, stopping to converse with each other along the way. Depending on where you’re seated, there are moments when you’re so close to the action you could reach out and tie the actor’s shoe (but don’t worry, this isn’t Hair; audience participation is not requested). This sort of theatrical intimacy really helps to drive home the point that “this is life, you are witnessing life, and you are a part of this life.” I can see how some might find a production of Our Town done on a traditional stage would find it dull and outdated, but this production brings you too far into the thick of it all to feel that removed from what’s going on.

All of the performances are handled well, and while none are really stand-outs (this isn’t a stand-out sort of show), some are superior to others. Jason Butler Harner as the Stage Manager is probably the best performance in the play (good thing, too, since he has the most stage time). He acts as a narrator for the audience, then changes tactics to interact with the other characters, even taking on the role of a minor character in the few scenes that require one. He smoothly dances in and out of the play throughout all three acts and manages to make the audience truly see and feel what the characters are going through. Lori Myer as Mrs. Gibbs also stood out for me, as a woman who loves her family and the role she plays in taking care of them, but still longs for some time away with a husband who has no interest in even discussing the possibility. I was a bit ambivalent to Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb in the first act, but she sold me in Act II as she played the heart-breaking role of a bride petrified of growing up, being disappointed, and learning how to cope with everything to come (I can’t even get into what she puts you through in Act III without giving away the entire heart and soul of the production). The only minor detractor in the cast was James McMenamin as George Gibbs, and my only real complaint is that his surfer-dude-esque accent was distracting. I thought it was something he was affecting in Act I to sound like the teenager his character was, but in subsequent acts I saw that it’s just how he talks. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise great ensemble, but I couldn’t shake the image of “Keanu Reeves does Our Town.”

Bottom Line: If you’ve never seen a production of Our Town and wonder why so many schools make it required reading (or if you’ve only seen bad productions of it and are jaded to the entire show), the Barrow Street Theatre production is a must-see. Its study in simple living can relate to even the most cosmopolitan of New Yorkers, because at the end of it all, it’s the simple things in life that everyone remembers and clings to—and they have a habit of sneaking up on you while you’re overly occupied painting the big picture, so it’s helpful to have the occasional reminder to take pause for those moments.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Theater Review: The Tin Pan Alley Rag

Location: Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Roundabout Theatre site

Starring: Michael Therriault, Michael Boatman

My Review: With The Tin Pan Alley Rag, the Roundabout Theatre closes an unbelievably lackluster season with not exactly a whimper, but definitely not a bang. And as a testament to how lackluster the season truly was, I couldn’t care less.

The Tin Pan Alley Rag tells the story of a fictitious meeting between two of music’s greatest artists; Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin. Some time around the turn of the century, a late-20-something Berlin is working as a music publisher and allowing would-be musicians to pitch him their new songs for possible purchase. A middle-aged Joplin arrives at his office with a new opera he’s desperate to see performed, but no one is interested in an opera by the “King of Ragtime.” The story switches between this meeting and flashbacks to vignettes from each man’s past, highlighting the parallels in their lives (such as lowbrow beginnings in seedy music halls and falling in love with ill-fated young women). Interspersed with these scenes are performances of each man’s popular tunes, like “Maple Leaf Rag” and “I Love a Piano,” which are the only moments that keep this play with music afloat.

Michael Therriault handles the role of Irving Berlin ably, though at times seems to overdo the “nervous Jew” shtick, and it feels like you’re watching someone impersonating Woody Allen impersonating Berlin. Michael Boatman is more consistent with his cool, proud portrayal of Scott Joplin. The rest of the cast take on multiple roles of various people in Berlin and Joplin’s pasts—mentors, performers, lovers—and each part is done well. But while the performances were good enough to not warrant any specific criticisms, the play still felt…well, too much like a play.

One of the main reasons I enjoy live theater so much is because at a really good production, you eventually get sucked into it and it no longer feels like you’re watching people on a stage; it either feels like you’re observing real life unfolding, or like you’re actually a part of the action. But that moment never came at The Tin Pan Alley Rag. I never once lost myself in a moment and always felt like I was watching actors putting on a show. Every movement seems too labored, every syllable over-enunciated, every flashback and song too orchestrated. I wouldn’t call it a bad play, but it felt like a good college production, where you want to congratulate the cast and crew afterward for putting forth such an eager effort. And while this is acceptable for college productions, it’s not what I’m looking for in professional theater.

Bottom Line: The Tin Pan Alley Rag is as mediocre as mediocre theater can get, with the few highlights being in the performance of Berlin and Joplin’s music. And so closes the current Roundabout Theatre season, and I can rest easy in my decision not to renew my subscription.