I recently returned from a two week trip to New York. Ten of those days were spent in Manhattan and being a starved theatre enthusiast from Los Angeles, I took every opportunity I could to see a show. What follows are my thoughts on the seven I was able to attend.
SOUTH PACIFIC is one of those musicals I grew up with. A sweeping tale about love, passion, tolerance and duty filled with beautiful visuals, memorable music and great characters. Watching it unfold live in such a sumptuous and extravagant manner… what an absolute delight.
Set on a Polynesian island during World War II, SOUTH PACIFIC tells of US Navy nurse Nellie Forbush who falls in love with reclusive French-born islander Emile de Becque. Devoted marine Joseph Cable who lusts after the daughter of local ‘entrepreneur’, Bloody Mary. And scrappy sailor Luther Billis, who’s just trying to get by and have a good time while he’s at it. It’s a precarious balancing act, but the characters and their stories are all given due presence, and they spin together to create a truly marvelous epic.
Like most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, there is a sharp equivalent of both humor and drama that give the show a respective level of levity and depth. Funny and poignant, you’ll definitely laugh here and quite possibly tear up a little.
It’s also terribly romantic. One of those enveloping, heart-tugging stories that is just imperfect enough not to feel like a complete fantasy. It could happen. That could be me… if it was 1941… and I was on some random South Pacific island… and was a chick… so damn romantic.
The music is thoroughly sublime. This show has so many catchy, tuneful numbers. You’ll likely be won over just by the melodies played in the overture, which is one of the show’s most gorgeous orchestrations. The vocals in this show are powerful and deliver like nothing else I have seen in some time.
The show’s staging is ambitious. The set is built around the unique setting of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre which features a stage that extends out beyond its proscenium into the audience creating a sort of ‘in the round’ setting. The set pieces and props are modest by design but large and numerous. The majority of the show is set against the backdrop of a beach and mural of the Pacific Ocean so expertly lit it appears to be moving. Visually, the show is a feast for the eyes.
The extension of the stage retracts itself to reveal the orchestra.
SOUTH PACIFIC is one of the most enchanting pieces of live theatre I have ever seen. It is just so wonderfully rounded and satisfying, I defy you not to walk away smiling.
I am no fan of the 2000 film that inspired this musical. It is a film that received an unbelievable amount of praise despite its hokey plotting, unlikable two-dimensional characters, overacting and patronizing homophobia. When Elton John and company announced they were bringing the story of this would be working-class, dancing ingénue to the stage I rolled my eyes and wrote it off, to be forgotten.
This was not to last as a friend and fellow theatre enthusiast attended the show not long after its premier in London and has been singing its praises ever since. So on his word, and with a good amount of skepticism, I found myself at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway… and sure enough, he was right.
BILLY ELLIOT is set in a Northern England and is surrounded by events of the 1984 UK coal miners' strike. Billy lives in one of the small communities whose livelihood depends on the coal mining industry and is threatened by the proposed closures by the government. His family is a father, an older brother, both coal miners entrenched in the strike, and a grandmother slowly drifting into dementia. All are broken not only by the strike but also by the death of their matriarch.
We find Billy a lost soul, haunted by the death of his mother and struggling to cope with his family’s ills. He unwittingly finds sanctuary in a ballet class led by a wry, jaded instructor. Though initially wary of his talent, she comes to take a vested interest in Billy's gift. They find inspiration and comfort in each other. It is a well written and performed relationship that is truly moving without being saccharine.
Billy also draws much from other figures in his life. This is where the musical succeeds and the film failed. Previously vapid characters, here serve as a genuine influence on Billy to pursue his unlikely dream.
Billy’s grandmother, in one of the show’s best numbers, reflects on her life and how she would do things differently; abandoning the status quo and living life to her heart’s content. His father, who vehemently objects to Billy’s newfound passion, takes time in understanding his son's gifts through a series of thoughtful scenes that begin with a lament of his own boyhood dreams.
The show’s most surprising turn is Billy’s best friend, Michael. The film’s most aggravating character, who served little more than being a litmus as to what is ‘gay’ and what is not, here encourages Billy to **** the archetype and embrace diversity in another of the show’s best numbers.
The only exception is Billy’s older brother who never really evolves beyond his frustrated, violent nature. The character is a near echo to the father without the thoughtful development. Instead, he carries his rage and then, like flicking a switch, comes around in the end. It's a disposable part that does not necessitate the presence it is given.
Great acting and marvelous choreography abound on this stage. The cast as a whole, especially the younger actors, gives a great deal to their performances. However, four are most notable. Carole Shelley plays Billy’s grandmother with a lot of humor. Haydn Gwynne, who plays the rode-hard instructor Ms. Wilkinson, gives the character a hard edge while retaining a great deal of compassion. The part of Michael, rotated due to the actor’s youth, was for me was played with an infectious gusto by Keenan Johnson. Lastly Billy; also rotated and for me portrayed by Trent Kowalik, plays the demanding role with great energy and confidence.
Elton John's music is memorable without being flashy. It is understated but plays with great effect within the context of the show. There are no real pop-darlings as you might expect, no vocal powerhouses and that's just fine. Instead, the music serves to enrich the story and its characters and the performers take several numbers to show-stopping levels.
Staging is impressive without being overwhelming. The centerpiece is a tall, spinning cylindrical staircase, which rises from a trap in the stage floor. It is flanked by the family’s kitchen and topped by Billy’s bedroom. The bedroom is capable of detaching itself from the larger piece and standing on its own. It’s a subtle but remarkable effect. Lighting is modest but powerful where it counts; ELECTRICTY being a great example.
The musical BILLY ELLIOT truly is an exciting, heartfelt show and for me an especially joyous surprise. It’s not flawless but pretty damn close.
HAIR is an audacious product of the counterculture that was born in the 60’s in response to the rigged values of society at large as well as contentions over the Vietnam War. It celebrates sexuality, drugs and civil rebellion in a group of youths who seek refuge in a hippie ‘tribe’.
HAIR gives most of its love to its characters and music and is much more rock concert than it is theatre. Where is deserves the most abundant praise is in its ability to provoke the audience through the infectious enthusiasm of its thoroughly extraordinary and confident cast.
Gavin Creel and Steel Burkhardt
The two central actors were for me Gavin Creel, playing the show’s most emotional character (Claude) with expressive design, and amazing understudy Steel Burkhardt, who portrays the impetuous Berger with great vivacity, humor and frustration. The music is subversive and a bit unconventional but mostly catchy and a whole lot of fun. There are perhaps a few too many which embellish the characters and the social commentary more than its story but that doesn't wholly detract from the show.
HAIR does falter in its narrative, which tends to lose focus and get a bit unclear. This isn’t so much a negative as it doesn’t hurt the overall atmosphere and energy but it may turn off someone expecting deep plotting. However, that is not at all to say what is going on here isn’t profound… it’s just not thoroughly projected.
The central figures in HAIR are Berger and Claude; the first rooted in his childish, rebellious nature, the latter beginning to flirt with maturity. It’s a coming of age story. A tale of the awkward and confusing period most people experience where, while wanting so much to hold tight to their youth, they slowly begin to realize they are facing adulthood. Claude has been drafted into the Army, along with several other members of the tribe, and while Berger leads them in a march of defiance, Claude struggles with a decision to follow Berger or duty.
The relationship between Berger and Claude is another plot point. Both boys separately profess their love for a girl by the name Sheila, a seemingly important character that never really gets fleshed out, but you get the impression that their desire lies much more in each other. Ultimately, I couldn’t tell whether this was intentional or a result of the muddled storytelling. The show does seem to acknowledge it in a moment of observation where one of its characters explains ‘Sheila's hung up on Berger. Berger is hung up everywhere. Claude is hung up on a cross over Sheila and Berger.’ Their relationship is intriguing but lacks resolution... though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Staging is simple. The show doesn’t call for anything complex and this allows the performers to stay in the forefront. The stage is open all the way to its outmost brick wall, which is lined with catwalks and platforms primarily for the band. Props are minimal and costumes are bright, playful and just what you would expect. Lighting is the exception; the design is vivid and appropriately trippy.
Likely the most fascinating aspect of HAIR is it history, which was steeped in all kinds of controversy forty years ago. This revival is a reminder that the more things have changed the more they have stayed the same. While some of the taboos it confronts are not quite as provocative by contemporary standards, it doesn’t make it any less bold and the show's further themes are very much still relevant. HAIR is not a show that will appeal to the masses. Some will love it and some might hate it. Regardless, the show has an undeniable exuberance that will have the audience dancing on stage right along with the cast, literally.
BLITHE SPIRIT is a confection. A fluffy piece of entertainment that wants nothing more than to put a smile on your face. It’s a subtle, droll and amusing farce highlighted by a scene stealing performance by the amazing Angela Lansbury.
A revival of the 1941 Noel Coward play, BLITHE SPIRIT takes place in the home of an upper class British couple throwing a dinner party whose main attraction is a séance. The hosts are Charles, a shallow and seemingly poised writer and Ruth, his second wife, a slightly acerbic and sensitive woman. The medium is Madam Arcati, a character who is the very definition of eccentric and highly self-serious when it comes to the supernatural. The participants are skeptics and the sole purpose for the evening is an ulterior motive on the part of Charles who is only looking to gather material for his upcoming book. However, things go terribly awry when they inadvertently conjure up the ghost of Charles’ first wife, Elvira, who is an initially charming figure but grows increasingly mocking and wicked.
The show is driven by the solid performances of its actors. Rupert Everett and Christine Ebersole both give lively portrayals of their characters but I found Jayne Atkinson (recently most recognizable for her role on ‘24’ as Karen Hayes) particularly noteworthy as she plays the comically tortured Ruth with stoic wit.
But, of course, the show belongs to Angela Lansbury. Despite being one of the show’s smallest parts, Ms. Lansbury embellishes her role with a great deal of enthusiasm, bringing the show its most memorable moments. She has a sharp sense of delivery and timing with her dialog that gives her character that genuinely kooky punch. She’s also very comically animated. This includes a hysterical and absolutely absurd little dance she performs as she goes into her ritualistic séance trance.
BLITHE SPIRIT is a humble little show. A gentle reminder that sometimes theatre can simply be just a bit of pleasant fun as opposed to thunderously compelling and lavish.
Note: this show is now closed with no plans to reemerge any time soon.
If you were never lucky enough to experience DE LA GUARDA, you may have at least heard of it. It was that show infamous for bungee performers that pulled people up and out of its audience. FUERZABRUTA is the next generation of that show and though it doesn’t have the novel excitement of its predecessor, it’s still a whole hell of a lot of fun.
FUERZABRUTA is performance art meets rave; a series of scenes that take place within, around and above a standing audience who become a part of the frenzy. Wind blows, styrofoam crashes, rains falls. It’s a messy, raucous, and sensuous experience.
The highlight of the show is a huge, lucite pool which the performers crash and roll around in. It hovers above the audience and lowers itself close enough to push your hands up against. It’s an odd and stimulating sensation as you can feel the pressure and warmth of the performer’s writhing bodies through the thin plastic sheet.
FUERZABRUTA is an anomaly. It doesn’t fit into any genre, it just is what it is; a visual, audio, sensory trip. It’s great entertainment as long as you are willing to submit to its chaos.
If you've ever found yourself in a late night state of insomnia, flicking through channels, you've no doubt stumbled on that Christian pop/rock album infomercial. It’s one of those things just begging for mockery… ALTAR BOYZ steps up to the task.
ALTAR BOYZ is the name of the group that headlines this faux concert of Catholic pop/rock. The group is lead by Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham (the Jewish boy there because he’s the only one who can actually write music). It doesn’t have much of a story to speak of, it’s more a series of vignettes that play out as the concert plugs along. Pasts are uncovered, secrets revealed, souls are saved; it’s all very silly, good fun. But the show’s best moments are its musical numbers, which, just like any good boy band, are over-produced, over-choreographed and rife with absurd lyrics, double entendre and innuendo.
These songs would fit right into the aforementioned infomercial’s canon of songs. It’s all written and delivered with such consistent affect that it mimics the genre very well. Take moments like when obvious closet case Mark belts out the lyric ‘put it in me’… referring to ‘the rhythm’ and ‘God’. Or in the ballad ‘Something About You’, where Matthew sings about love and chastity, ending the song singing ‘girl you make me want to wait, at least until our wedding date. So until then I’ll just master… … my own fate’.
ALTAR BOYZ is a simple, clever little show. It’s not trying to be introspective on matters of religion but is simply rolling its eyes at the attempt to infiltrate this part of pop culture.
The most important thing you should know about MARY POPPINS the stage musical is that is it nothing like the film musical. Got that? Good, because if you are, like me, a fan of the film musical you will be reminded of that at every turn of this spectacle. The stage musical bases itself much more in the world originally created by author P.L. Travers, a contrast to the film musical which diverted from the books quite liberally. This wouldn’t be objectionable except that despite all its efforts to be novel, the show’s ‘better’ moments are inspired by the film.
The main characters are the show's biggest stumbling block. With one exception, and it’s not the title character, they are not all that likeable. Mary Poppins herself is the most confusing character. I’m supposed to like this person? Really? Because she’s kind of a bitch, a little creepy and somehow more robotic than the TERMINATOR. Try not to wince at the scene in which she takes the children out to the park seemingly as an excuse to reconnect with an old fling, Bert. It’s an odd moment and one of several in the show that make you question this person as someone who should be tending to children. She does make everything better in the end, somehow. By magic I guess. She is obviously a witch… or something.
Mary comes to the rescue of a fractured family. A family that is so unendearing I didn’t much care that she helped right things in their household. The children are an obnoxious pair; spoiled, bratty and loud. Their mother, Winifred, is a browbeaten, whinny wretch whose sole obsession is pleasing her husband. Mr. Banks is equally browbeaten but by his job, depressive and somewhat cruel.
There is an array of ancillary characters that don’t bring any gravity to the show. They are just there because they need to be in order to plod things along and fill out the enormous stage space.
MARY POPPINS’ one saving grace is Bert. This is a role written and played with the charisma you might expect and then some. This is the sole character that radiates and brings spirit to an otherwise lifeless entourage.
The story itself lacks structure and focus. Cobbled together from bits and pieces of the P.L. Travers books as well as the film, there is a lot going on in this show but none of it flows, comes together or is all that compelling. Most of what you might know from the film is shoehorned into an overstuffed first act. The second act feel vacuous in comparison and introduces a silly, superfluous villain and several reprises of songs that were not that great the first time around.
The music is not catchy or memorable and that sadly goes for the pieces taken from the film, all of which have been grievously reworked (just because you found a way to make halitosis rhyme with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious doesn’t mean you should). Still, the vocals are very nice, consistent and deliver the songs well.
What the show lacks in substance it tries valiantly to make up for in stagecraft. Lavish is an understatement in describing MARY POPPINS’ sets, costumes, lighting, effects and general trickery (pulling a bouquet a flowers out of a painting, easily my favorite).
The main set piece is a gargantuan three-story house, meticulously dressed from top to bottom. The third story, which serves as the children’s nursery, is covered by a shingled, pitched roof, which lifts off when the action moves inside. Further, the nursery detaches itself from the rest of the house and lowers to the stage floor for any scene in which it serves as the backdrop. There are also several scrims, murals and a kitchen which is capable of blowing itself apart and putting itself back together. None of these stay idle long; the amount of automation throughout this show is impressive though just a tad overindulgent.
Costumes are vibrant, thoroughly lovely and deliberate. They compliment each other and their surroundings. This is most evident during Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in which the forefront performers are dressed in bright, primary colors while those behind them fade into shades of brown that have hints of the colors before them.
Special effects are copious and run the gamut from simple to complex. The big ‘wow’ moment (this shouldn’t be a spoiler as it has been talked up since before the show even opened) is when Mary flies out over the audience. It’s not quite what I expected but no less wondrous as she very much flies over the orchestra section and up, right along the mezzanine and balcony. For this moment alone, I highly recommend sitting in the upper sections, as it must be breathtaking as Mary hovers ‘magically’ towards you.
I also give much credit to Matthew Bourne who infuses MARY POPPINS with a lot of fantastic choreography. The sort of pantomime dance that drives the number Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is easily the highlight of the show.
P.L. Travers infamously despised Disney’s vision of her work. Yet, the film struck a cord with audiences and went on to become a pop-culture phenomenon. There’s a whole SIMPSONS episode that mocks the film (funny enough, that very episode features the title song from the musical HAIR which I attended just days before POPPINS). The stage musical may be more faithful to Travers’ original work, but it hardly exudes the same wit and charm. For all its pomp and circumstance, in the end the whole experience falls flat; anchored by an odd, acerbic character that is a far cry from the iconic figure immortalized by Julie Andrews.