Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (What’s Not to Love)?

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

What do a struggling, 21st century single mom musician/composer and a long-dead early 20th century explorer have in common? In a word: courage. Courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity is the message of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a hugely entertaining and powerfully uplifting 90-minute “epic musical adventure” now playing at the Tony Kiser Theatre.

The musician is Kat (energetically and winningly played by electric violinist extraordinaire Val Vigoda, who also penned the show’s lyrics), who has been awake and multi-tasking for 36 hours in her freezing apartment: working on her music while trying to attend to her off-stage crying baby. The explorer is Ernest Shackleton (portrayed with irrepressibly engaging charm by Wade McCollum), who led three treacherous expeditions to the Antarctic—most famously in 1914-17, when he traveled over 800 miles in an open boat seeking help that would lead to the nearly miraculous rescue of 22 stranded crewmen.

When we first meet Kat, she is surviving as best as she can, despite her rather bleak situation. Her baby daddy (McCollum again) has left her to tour with a Journey cover band. She’s making ends meet thanks to a gig writing a soundtrack for a video game called “Star Blasters,” until she’s unceremoniously replaced by a high school senior. Things start looking up when she receives a very long distance phone call—a response to her profile on a pessimistic-sounding dating site called “Cupid’s Leftover’s.com”. Who’s calling? It’s Ernest S., who heroically travels through time and space (fittingly arriving from the Antarctic via Kat’s rime-enveloped fridge), just to meet her. Shackleton was a true swashbuckler, a “full-fledged optimist” who brought a banjo along on his expeditions to keep his crew entertained. His message to Kat, who is hovering on the brink of despair, is “Optimism is a form of true moral courage.” He declares that Kat is his muse—flattering, flirting, and encouraging her through an irresistible mix of confidence and charm. McCollum’s portrayal is so incredibly winning that it would seem impossible not to be swept away by Shackleton’s positivity and can-do enthusiasm.

As Kat works with Shackleton to accomplish the daring rescue, she and Ernest form a bond that drifts between friendship and love. Together, they save all 22 of Shackleton’s men, along with Kat’s faith in her art, herself, and the prospect of a brighter future. The action is heightened by accompanying video projections showing actual footage of Shackleton’s expedition and rescue operation. Kat is deeply inspired by her time spent with her intrepid visitor, a man who “Always came through and never gave up, never gave in.” She promises her infant son that she’ll always be there for him, singing, “I’ll be your Ernest.” When her boyfriend returns from his Journey journey, expecting that Kat will welcome him back and allow him to pick up where they left off, she finds the courage to stand up to him, embracing Shackleton’s advice to “Be your own beacon of hope.”

Overall, Vigoda’s lyrics are more interesting than the music (composed by Brendan Milburn), which tends to be somewhat repetitive. The individual songs aren’t listed in the Playbill, so it’s difficult to identify individual tunes. However, one song that stands out as both an emotional and musical highlight is “In the Eye of the Storm,” a sweet lullaby that Shackleton sings to calm Kat’s fussy baby: “Don’t regret what has been. Be the calm in the eye of the storm—sound advice for anyone. Vigoda’s electric violin is nothing short of amazing; it’s even further enhanced through the creative use of electronic playback, allowing to layer her virtuosity.

The show’s dazzling and innovative high-tech imagery and sound (production design is by Alexander V. Nichols; music direction, orchestrations, and additional music by Ryan O’Connell; sound design by Robert Kaplowitz (Tony winner for Fela!) and Ahren Buhmann), plays such a key role in the performance that it almost becomes a third character. The designers have turned the stage into a fake snow-filled polar expanse, incongruously backed by Kat’s array of computers and digital imaging equipment. Tied together by Joe DiPietro’s (Tony Award winner for Memphis) witty book and Obie and Lortel Award-winner Lisa Peterson’s laser-sharp direction, the divergent worlds of modern day musician/mom and early 20th century polar explorer somehow believably and seamlessly mesh together—including that whacky refrigerator entrance.

Did the monumental meeting between Kat and Shackleton really take place? Well, as Shackleton says, “Strange things happen when you haven’t slept in 36 hours.” No matter. The show leaves Kat and the audience much richer for the experience.

The moral can be summed up in a song lyric: “We might hit some really rough seas now and then, but we’ve braved them before and we’ll brave them again.” With so much of Off Broadway focusing on the darker side of life, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me’s message of optimism, hope, and self reliance is a most welcome one, adding up to an original and delightful 90-minute theatrical adventure.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me plays at the Tony Kiser Theatre (305 W. 43rd St.) through June 11. For ticket information: http://ernestshackletonlovesme.com/

The Last Five Years

Last 5 Years

The Last Five Years: Pioneer Productions Company at the Art House, Jersey City

Some Background

The Last Five Years is the most famous Broadway musical never to appear on Broadway. Written by 3-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas), the show had its premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001, then played Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002 and at Second Stage (with Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe) in 2013. The 2015 film adaptation starred Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick. Although it is performed often in venues around the world (as a two-hander, it’s a natural for regional theatre companies looking to keep budgets low), it has yet to make its way to the Main Stem.

 The Story

The story line is a classic he said/she said tale of love found and lost. But there’s a twist: the two characters, Jamie Wellerstein, an up-and-coming writer (Daniel Peter Vissers) and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Shanna Levine-Phelps) relate their tale through alternating songs, with Cathy starting in the present, when the marriage ends, and Jamie beginning in the past, when he and Cathy first meet. We witness the joy, uncertainty, and heartbreak, from their two perspectives, backwards and forward through time. Because of the play’s unique structure, Cathy and Jamie sing together only once, at the close of Act 1, when their stories cross paths on their wedding day (“The Next 10 Minutes”).

The show is sung through, with very little dialogue. The opening tune, “Still Hurting,” introduces Cathy at the moment she realizes her marriage is over. She sings, “I’m still hurting…I’m covered with scars I did nothing to earn,” then she slips off her wedding ring and places it on the table where Jamie has already left his. In contrast, Jamie’s first song, “Shiksa Goddess” (one of the show’s best as well as best-known) is an exuberant, hysterical ode to the Irish Catholic lass Jamie has just met and instantly fallen for. Cathy is the polar opposite of a suitable match for a nice Jewish boy—and that’s exactly what makes her so completely irresistible. Jamie imagines the havoc his unorthodox choice in a mate will provoke:

“I’m breaking my mother’s heart;

The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking and crumbling to the ground.

And my grandfather’s rolling in his grave.”

So enamored of her total goyishness is he that nothing about Cathy can dampen his ardor. Among the clever and uproarious characteristics that Jamie vows he would accept of his Shiksa Goddess:

“If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.

If you once were in jail or you once were a man,

If your mother and your brother had ‘relations’ with each other,

And your father was connected to the Gotti clan,

I’d say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’

It’s tragic but it’s true:

I’d say, “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!

I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

The Production

Both Shanna Levine-Phelps and Daniel Peter Vissers are strong, confident performers and trained, capable singers. Vissers, like any actor playing Jamie, has the advantage in The Last Five Years, as his character is the more sympathetic of the two. After all, Brown based the show on his own life, drawing heavily from his failed marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill. So it’s not surprising that Jamie’s character is more relatable (and gets the best songs). Because the character of Cathy starts out weepy and spends most of the show in a funk, the lion’s share of the fun and laughs go to Jamie. Other than Cathy’s breezy “A Summer in Ohio,” where she laments the life of an actress paying her dues Off, Off, Off, Off Broadway (where she is “Slowly going batty, 40 miles east of Cincinnati”), and her final number, where she sings the sunny counterpart to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” most of the tunes in her repertoire are weepy and angst-ridden. Any actress playing Cathy has a tough assignment, as Brown has stacked the deck in favor of his alter ego, Jamie. And it’s difficult not to notice that, while Ms. Levine-Phelps is a lovely young actress, she doesn’t look much like a “Shiksa Goddess” (although artistically, she is more than up to the role’s demands).

Vissers makes the most of his character’s most favored status. He equally conveys the humor in “Shiksa Goddess,” the youthful enthusiasm of “Moving Too Fast,” and the touching pathos of “Nobody Needs to Know” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” He is a gifted, winning performer who truly shines in the role.

The Pioneer production includes a spare but effective set: a bed, a chair, and a clock on the wall flanked by two candles—one looking back, and the other looking forward, mimicking the structure of the show. The incredibly talented (and incredibly young) 5-piece band, under the direction of pianist Sean Cameron, does a superb job backing up the actors, serving as a valuable third performer in the production. Lighting design by John Latona, Jr. and technical direction by Lance A. Michel add to the production’s effectiveness.

The Last Five Years is at Art House, 136 Magnolia Avenue in Jersey City.

Performance schedule: Fridays & Saturdays, July 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, & 23 @8pm;

Sundays, July 10, 17, & 24 @3pm

For ticket information visit http://www.pioneerproductionscompany.org

 

 

Broadway Musical Recommendations Tailored Just for YOU

Broadway Musicals 2015

Wondering what show you should see tonight (or next week)? Here’s Shari on the Aisle’s guide to help you decide which Broadway musical(s) to see right now, based on your personal preferences. Read the “YOU” descriptions below, choose the one that best represents you, then go see a show!

Keep in mind: this list is far from exhaustive. With the Broadway Spring season well under way, there are abundant choices for both the occasional and frequent theatregoer. The following suggestions are culled from some of the newest shows. You should also consider productions that have been around for a while—those oldies but goodies like “Matilda,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Aladdin,” and “Kinky Boots.” (Also keep in mind that Shari on the Aisle hasn’t yet seen all of the new shows, including “Finding Neverland” and “An American in Paris.”

(Stay tuned: I will provide personalized play recommendations in my next post).

YOU: “I want to see a show that has me whistling a happy tune when I leave the theatre.”
GO SEE: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” (Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont). Nobody does musicals better than Rodgers & Hammerstein—or Lincoln Center Theatre. Under the sure direction of Bartlett Sher, LCT knows how to put on a classy, glossy, top notch show. While “The King and I” isn’t on a par with say, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” (Lincoln Center presented that show, also directed by Mr. Sher and also starring the ebullient Kelli O’Hara, a few years ago and it was sheer perfection), you’ll happily hum along with “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance.” This production is big and gorgeous. Sure, the book is a bit weak and Ken Watanabe’s accent renders some of the dialogue and lyrics indecipherable. But Ms. O’Hara’s glorious voice and radiant presence, along with the sumptuous costumes and stunning sets, more than make up for these shortcomings. And yes, you will leave the theatre whistling a happy tune and with a song in your heart.

King and I

YOU: I’d rather see a dark, thought-provoking show than a cute piece of fluff. (And I’d make a mad dash to see anything starring the legendary Chita Rivera).
GO SEE: “The Visit” (Lyceum Theatre). A musical that explores the darkness of men’s souls? Yes, and it’s terrific. “The Visit” is a work created by theatre royalty. It’s the last collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical geniuses behind “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and many other award-winning shows. The book is by Theater Hall of Famer Terrence McNally. And Chita? She’s a national treasure. The plot centers on Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, and her return to the small town where she spent a miserable childhood. The town has fallen on hard times, and the villagers who once taunted and reviled her believe she has come back to save them. Claire offers to do just that, but with a chilling twist. At 90 minutes with no intermission, “The Visit” is riveting, intelligent theatre. Some of the songs are reminiscent of “Cabaret,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. And Chita’s haunting performance of “Love and Love Alone,” sung while performing a pas de deux with her younger self (Michelle Veintimilla) is well worth the price of admission. You won’t leave this show humming a happy tune, but rather with the satisfying feeling of having experienced brilliance live on stage.
Watch a video from the show.

YOU: “I want to see something that will tickle my funny bone—the sillier the better.”
GO SEE: “Something Rotten” (St. James Theatre, in previews; opening April 22). Did you love “The Book of Mormon” and “Spamalot?” This original new show, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (“Book of Mormon”) stars Brian d’Arcy James (“Next to Normal,” “Shrek the Musical”) and Christian Borle (Tony-award winner, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” TV’s “Smash”) as rival playwrights Nick Bottom and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the 1590’s equivalent of a rock star, and Nick and his younger brother Nigel are desperate to come up with a strategy to compete. They turn to soothsayer Nostradamus (a show-stopping Brad Oscar) who encourages them to create the very first musical: “Oohs, aahs, big applause, and a standing ovation. The future is bright, if you can just write a musical!” The first three musical numbers in the show—“Welcome to the Renaissance,” “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” and “A Musical”—are absolutely hysterical, brilliant crowd pleasers. While nothing in Act 2 equals the perfection of those first few songs—and the preview performance I saw went on a bit too long—this show is tons of fun and will be a huge hit. So go back in time around 400 years or so to the Renaissance, “Where everything is new.” You’re guaranteed to have a great time.
Watch a video from the show.

YOU: “I want to see an old-fashioned, beautiful, romantic show.” OR: “I have a tweenage daughter who geeks out over “High School Musical.’”
GO SEE: “Gigi” (Neil Simon Theatre). You’re probably familiar with the Oscar-winning1958 film version of “Gigi” starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jordan. This “re-launched” (according to the Playbill) Broadway version stars Vanessa Hudgens, the talented young star of Disney’s “High School Musical” films, along with an excellent cast of Broadway veterans (Tony-award winner Victoria Clark, Tony nominees Dee Hoty and Howard McGillin). The new “Gigi” has been sanitized to make it more “G-rated” than the film. For example, the famous song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung by the Chevalier’s aging roué character in the film, is now sung by two women, Gigi’s grandmother and her aunt. And the fact that 15-year-old Gigi (now 18 in the Broadway musical) is being groomed to be a courtesan is never discussed. So no worries, parents: you can feel at ease taking your impressionable tweens and teens to this charming show. Musical highlights include the exuberant Act 1 closing number, “The Night They Invented Champagne” and the tender title song, wistfully sung by Corey Cott, the former “Newsies” star. The costumes and sets are lovely and Hudgens, who has been a performer since the age of 8, is delightful. At the preview performance I attended, teenage girls in the audience repeatedly shrieked with joy (and not just over Hudgens). Adults who like their musicals squeaky clean and romantic will also enjoy this 2-1/2 hour escape to a somewhat mythical La Belle Epoque, where Ms. Hudgens sparkles like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Gigi

For ticket information, see the shows’ websites as listed above, or visit:
Playbill.com

TDF Discount Theatre Booths

Broadway Helper

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS

Honeymoon in Vegas

Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.

The Honeymoon has just begun, in this big, brash, winning new musical starring Tony Danza and Rob McClure.

Lead Cast: Rob McClure (Jack Singer), Tony Danza (Tommy Korman), Brynn O’Malley (Betsy Nolan), David Josefsberg (Buddy Rocky/Roy Bacon, Nancy Opel (Bea Singer), Catherine Ricafort (Mahi)

Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown

Book: Andrew Bergman

Director: Gary Griffin

Choreography: Denis Jones

Hooray for Rob McClure

When I chatted with Rob McClure after an early preview performance of Honeymoon in Vegas, I told him, “I’m so happy that you’re going to be in a hit!” Now that the show has finally opened (after nearly 2 months of previews), that prediction has become a reality.

The brilliantly talented 32-year-old actor has appeared on Broadway before, most notably in the title role in Chaplin: the Musical in 2012. He received raves for his performance, along with Tony, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle nominations. Unfortunately, the show itself wasn’t so well received, and despite McClure’s wonderful turn as Chaplin, it closed after only 4 months. Now, 3 years later, his time has arrived.

Shari & Rob McClure

The Plot

The Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas is based on the 1992 film directed by Andrew Bergman (who wrote the musical’s book) that starred Nicolas Cage, James Caan, and Sarah Jessica Parker. The plot involves a love triangle between Jack Singer (McClure), his long-time fiancée Betsy Nolan (O’Malley), and a Vegas high roller, Tommy Korman (Danza). Jack has delayed marriage to his beloved Betsy because his mother, Bea (a hilarious Nancy Opel), cursed him from her deathbed, decreeing that he must never marry. When Betsy finally puts her foot down, the couple heads to Vegas to defy the curse. Here’s the twist: it turns out that the lovely Betsy is a dead ringer for Korman’s dearly departed wife Donna, who died of skin cancer after a lifetime of basking in the Vegas sun. A tough guy who is used to getting what he wants, Tommy sets out to make Betsy his own.

Singer embarks on a hero’s journey, traveling from New York to Las Vegas and Hawaii to conquer his demons (i.e., his mother and Tommy Korman), claim his manhood, and win his lady love. Along the way he receives help from a diverse group of characters, including Mahi (Ricafort) a Hawaiian temptress who takes him to the “Garden of Disappointed Mothers” to face his fears, and the performance troupe the Flying Elvises, who take him back to Vegas to reclaim his bride.

Will Jack and Betsy ever have that honeymoon in Vegas? What do you think? (This is a Broadway musical, not King Lear)!

The Performances

Honeymoon in Vegas is a big, colorful show that is engaging and fun from beginning to end. It will win you over from the first moment, when McClure takes the stage to sing “I Love Betsy.” His performance is charming and effortless, bringing to mind Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Sure, Jack is a bit of a wuss, but as portrayed by McClure, he’s so appealing and sincere that root for him to succeed.

Tony Danza is perhaps the show’s biggest surprise. Best known to television viewers for his roles in “Taxi” and “Who’s the Boss?” the 63-year-old actor is in incredible shape, trim and light on his feet, evidenced by Danza’s impressive soft shoe styling in the show. While no natural singer (other cast members usually join in to help provide a bigger finish for many of his songs), what he lacks in vocal power he more than makes up for in easy charm. For example, he totally sells the touching/funny elegy to his sun worshipping wife, “Out of the Sun:” I never knew, I never guessed, that what could kill you is the thing you love the best. I should have gotten her out of the sun.” Danza shows us that even a bad guy has a heart and deserves another shot at love.

O’Malley is a Broadway pro with a gorgeous voice who has appeared in Annie, Wicked, Sunday in the Park with George, and Hairspray. She is a winning Betsy, although the role is really secondary to the male leads. Two supporting characters are standouts: Nancy Opel, as Jack’s dead gorgon of a mother, and David Josefsberg as the ultra smooth, Sinatra-like Vegas crooner Buddy Rocky (and a second role as Roy Bacon, leader of the Singing Elvises). Opel’s show-stealing number “Never Get Married” should win her a Tony nomination for best Supporting Actress in a Musical.

A Note on the Score

The music and lyrics, by critical darling and 3-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (Bridges of Madison County, The Last Five Years, Parade) are a huge part of the show’s appeal. The tunes are upbeat and original and the lyrics advance the story line in clever ways, from the romantic ballad “You Made the Wait Worthwhile” (A thousand dreams that never came true and pipers I had to pay, and all at once I’m standing with you and everything fades away) to the big production number “When You Say Vegas” (London’s too old and Cleveland ain’t pretty, and we got nicer hookers than Jersey City) and the heartfelt “Isn’t That Enough?” when Jack lists Betsy’s many fine attributes in an effort to convince his mother to lift the curse: She went to Vassar, she’s got a cat and no tattoos. She’s not a smoker, she’s not a snob. She loves her family and her job. Isn’t that enough?

Having seen the recent production of the somewhat disappointing and overly somber Bridges of Madison County, I found it hard to believe that Honeymoon’s tunes flowed from the same pen.

Trivia

The Paper Mill connection: New Jersey native Rob McClure won Paper Mill Playhouse’s (in Millburn, NJ) “Rising Star Scholarship” when he was a senior at New Milford High School. Soon after graduating, he played his first professional role at Paper Mill in Carousel. Honeymoon in Vegas had its pre-Broadway run at Paper Mill in 2013.

Should You Go? Absolutely. Honeymoon is a guaranteed good time. It’s silly and fun (while surprisingly touching at times), and has a terrific score, gorgeous sets, (and gorgeous showgirls), and top notch performances. The sets create a retro feeling that is more reminiscent of Vegas’s Rat Pack days than the present, but that just adds to the fun. According to the show’s Website, Honeymoon in Vegas is suitable for all ages, but I doubt any child under the age of 8 would find it very interesting. Run time is 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Ticket Info: Because of its long preview period, discounted tickets for Honeymoon in Vegas have been readily available on TKTS and TDF. However, now that the show has opened to rave reviews, discounts may be scarce. Additionally, because many Broadway shows have closed or will close in January (Pippin, Cinderella, Side Show, Once, The Last Ship, Motown, among others), theatre goers don’t have much to choose from, so competition for Honeymoon tickets could heat up (at least until the Spring season gets under way). There is no current offer for the show listed on Playbill.com

You can find additional ticket info about Honeymoon in Vegas and other Broadway shows on Broadway Helper.

Show Website

A LOOK BACK AT SOME FAVORITE 2014 BROADWAY SHOWS

Shari HedwigHedwig and the Angry Inch: This show has become a cult favorite, with many fans returning to see the show time after time, despite (or perhaps because of) the rotating cast of Hedwigs. I admit that I am somewhat obsessed with the show, a condition precipitated by Neil Patrick Harris’s memorably heart-breaking performance as the original Broadway Hedwig. (I called it “the performance of a lifetime”). I saw the show a second time, with the talented Andrew Rannells (Tony nominated for The Book of Mormon) who created an angrier, less vulnerable, Hedwig. And yes, I have my ticket for an upcoming third performance, when John Cameron Mitchell (who starred in the original off-Broadway and film versions of Hedwig and wrote the show’s book), will once again don gold platform boots and step into the role. (Stay tuned). Lena Hall, a Tony winner for her role as Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak, remains in the show.

Disgraced: This is probably the best new play I saw in 2014, and fortunately for theatre-goers, it still graces the stage of the Lyceum Theatre. Ayad Ahktar’s tale of an upwardly mobile Pakistani/American attorney’s rapid fall deservedly won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The 5-person cast that includes Hari Dhillon, Gretchen Mol, and “How I Met Your Mother’s” Josh Radnor, does a splendid job, but here, “the play’s the thing.” Ahktar’s daring and insightful writing creates moments that both illuminate and shock, providing much food for thought and post-performance discussion.

Side Show PlaybillSide Show: Critics adored this revamped production of the 1997 original. Yet somehow it just never found its audience (or enough of an audience to satisfy the Jujamcyn organization). Like its predecessor, Side Show closed too soon, giving its final performance on January 4, just 7 weeks after opening night. I thought it was brilliant, touching, and riveting, with amazing performances by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett as the Hilton sisters. I called it “the best show you’ve never seen,” and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see it.

A Raisin in the Sun: The 2014 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s much-reprised and greatly admired play was as fine a staging as we’ll ever see. Although the cast member with the most star power was Denzel Washington (as Walter Lee Younger), it was the women (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo, and Anika Noni Rose) who shined the brightest. All three were nominated for Tonys, and when I saw the play, my feeling was, “Give LaTanya the Tony right now!” (But who can compete with the genius Audra McDonald? (See below).

Lady DayLady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill: While Lanie Robertson’s play depicts jazz legend Billie Holiday at a low point in her career, Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day shows us a great talent at the height of her powers. McDonald won a record-setting sixth Tony Award (for Best Actress in a Play) for her unforgettable performance in this show, where, in contrast to the performance she reenacts, she played to sold-out audiences night after night. It was painful to witness the portrayal of decline and despair of a singular talent like the Billie Holiday at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, but at the same time it was uplifting to witness the brilliance of the gifted performer Audra McDonald in remembering and honoring the late great Lady Day.

Also Memorable: All the Way, Casa Valentina, Cabaret, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Love Letters, Rocky, Honeymoon in Vegas (Opens January 15)

Worst Shows of the Year: The Realistic Joneses, Bullets Over Broadway, Somewhere Fun (Off-Broadway)

See you on the Aisle in 2015!

Erin Davie

SIDE SHOW

Side Show

St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

Unless you act soon—and by soon, I mean within the next 2 weeks, Side Show will be the best show you’ve never seen. And that’s just sad. I had the privilege of seeing this excellent production several days ago, and its poignant spell is still with me.

Lead Cast: Erin Davie (Violet Hilton), Emily Padgett (Daisy Hilton), David St. Louis (Jake), Ryan Silverman (Terry Connor), Matthew Hydzik (Buddy Foster), Robert Joy (Sir)

Director: Bill Condon

Music: Henry Krieger

Book and Lyrics: Bill Russell

Additional Book Material: Bill Condon

Background:  The current Broadway production of Side Show is a revamped version of the original, which opened 17 years ago, on October 16, 1997. The show is based on a true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who rose from exploitation as freaks in a seamy side show to become Vaudeville stars. Although the original show received many positive reviews (New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it a “daring, enthralling production”), it closed on January 3, 1998, after only 31 previews and 91 regular performances. Sadly, history will repeat itself when the new Side Show closes on January 4, 2015, just 7 weeks after opening night.

I didn’t see the 1997 Broadway production, but I’m told by people who did that the new version adds several new songs and cuts others, and that the book has been reworked to include more exposition about the Hilton twins’ childhood in England.

The Production

I found this show absolutely riveting from beginning to end. The opening number “Come Look at the Freaks,” sets the mood: the sets (by David Rockwell) are spare, often only suggesting the actual physical surroundings. The lighting (Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer) effortlessly guides your eye to focus on what’s important in any given scene. There are some special effects—as when a costume change appears to happen by magic—that are amazing.

But it is the performances take your breath away. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, actresses who offstage don’t really look alike, convince us that they are physically identical—literally joined at the hip. In addition to the physical transformation, they also convey the twins’ very different personalities. Daisy (Ms. Padgett) is brash and flirtatious and dreams of stardom. Violet is more reserved. Their contrasting personas are illustrated in the song “Like Everyone Else:”

Violet sings, “I want to be like everybody else; to walk down the street not attracting attention.” Daisy yearns for fame: “I want to be like everyone else, but richer and more acclaimed. Worshiped and celebrated.” The stunning costume designs (by Paul Tazewell) underscore the idea of sameness vs. difference: Daisy and Violet dress alike, but in dresses that are mirror images of each other.

Because a “normal” life is impossible for the sisters, who have always been made to feel they are “freaks of nature,” only Daisy will get her wish. Once rescued from the exploitation of the side show by the handsome, smooth-talking Terry O’Connor, the girls achieve fame and fortune as Vaudeville stars. (Of course they are still being exploited, but with a higher standard of living).

I want to give a shout out to David St. Louis, who as Jake, the girls’ protector and champion (and who suffers unrequited love for Violet), is simply stunning in every scene he plays and every song he sings. I’m hoping that he’ll be recognized, along with Davie and Padgett, with a Tony nomination

Heartbreaking Moments

Side Show is ultimately a love story. Despite an often cruel and exploitive world, Daisy and Violet know that they will always have each other. While they do consider separation surgery, they are told that it is risky—that one or both might not survive. They realize that it is their connectedness that truly defines them and makes them special; that in a world where they are viewed as freaks, they are never alone. They are bound together in body and soul, by love.

Two emotional duets underscore the touching and profound love between Daisy and Violet: the first act closer, “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” and the last song in Act 2 (before a reprise of “Come Look at the Freaks”), “I Will Never Leave You.” If these plaintive songs don’t bring a tear to your eye, you have no heart.

From “Who Will Love Me as I Am?”:

Who will ever call to say I love you? Send me flowers or a telegram?

Who could proudly stand beside me? Who will love me as I am?

From “I Will Never Leave You”:

I will never leave you; I will never go away

We were meant to share each moment; Beside you is where I will stay

Evermore and always; We’ll be one though we’re two

For I will never leave you

Why the Side Show Must End

Why can’t this thrilling and touching show make it on Broadway? Part of the problem stems from the subject matter. When people hear the words “Siamese twins” and “freaks” they may mistakenly assume the show is somehow distasteful or upsetting. Other reasons are more mundane, having to do with the “business” part of show business. While the orchestra section was full for the matinee I attended, theatre staff they told me that ticket sales for the mezzanine were generally poor. When St. James Theatre owner Jujamcyn saw an opportunity to book a potential blockbuster new musical, Something Rotten (directed by Book of Mormon’s Casey Nicholaw), it turned its back on Side Show. As Side Show producer Darren Bagert told The New York Times: “We were persuaded to post a notice prematurely, in the middle of a holiday season ticket upswing. If there weren’t another show clawing at the door, I think we’d still be at the theater.”

When I spoke to several cast members after the performance, they were understandably disappointed that this high-quality, audience-pleasing production was ending too soon. Like Daisy and Violet, both the 1997 and 2014 productions of Side Show beseech us: “Who will love me as I am?”

So, in the words of Side Show’s opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks”:

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! Right this way!

See the freaks! They are here! They are real!

They are all alive! Inside!

(But only until January 4).

Trivia: January 4, the date the current Broadway production will close, is the same date the Hilton sisters died (in 1969, at age 60).

Ticket Info: Discounted tickets are available on Playbill.com and at TKTS in Times Square. You can find detailed information about Side Show and other Broadway shows at BroadwayHelper.com

I urge you to see this amazing show before it’s too late. While the show’s website doesn’t specify any age recommendation, due to the mature subject matter, I would say leave the kids under 15 at home.

Show Website.

With Erin Davie.

Erin Davie

THE LAST SHIP

Last Ship Cropped

Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.

Music & Lyrics: Sting

Book: John Logan & Brian Yorkey

Director: Joe Mantello

Choreography: Steven Hoggett

Lead Cast: Rachel Tucker (Meg Dawson), Michael Esper (Gideon Fletcher), Jimmy Nail (Jackie White, through 12-7), Sting (Jackie White, 12-9 through 1-10-15), Fred Applegate (Father O’Brien), Aaron Lazar (Arthur Millburn), Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Young Gideon/Tom Dawson)

In a Nutshell: The Last Ship has an impressive pedigree, coming to Broadway via a multi-award winning group of creatives. Sting, who wrote the score, is a 16-time Grammy winner who based the story on his childhood growing up in a small English ship-building town. John Logan (book) is an Oscar-nominated, Tony and Golden Globe winner. Brian Yorkey (book) has won a Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and more. The director, choreographer, and scenic/costumer designer are among Broadway’s finest. And the cast is a fine mixture of American and British pros. So why is this show struggling to stay alive?

The Plot: The Last Ship tells the tale of a young man, Gideon Fletcher, who abandons his home town, his loving girlfriend, and his bitter, dying father to explore a larger world and follow his dreams. When he returns 15 years later, on the occasion of his father’s death, he finds the town in peril, as the shipyard is about to close, and the girl he left behind engaged to marry a man involved in ending the town’s livelihood.

In the title song, the shipbuilders lament their impending fate: “For what are we men without a ship to complete?” It’s decided that they will band together to build one last ship to convince the shipyard’s owners to reverse course.

The Performances: Individually, many of the songs are hauntingly beautiful, especially “The Last Ship” and “Island of Souls”. Others are foot-stompingly rousing (“We’ve Got Now’t Else,” “Show Some Respect”). The talented cast, especially Jimmy Nail (a tough, craggy actor/singer who is quite well known in England) Rachel Tucker (another Brit, with a fiery presence and a gorgeous voice), and Broadway veteran Fred Applegate as the sassy, hard-drinking priest Father O’Brien, give it their all. And Shawna M. Hamic has a nice moment in Mrs. Dees’ Rant, the Act 2 opener. Some of the songs evoke a definite Kurt Weill feeling; others are more of an Irish jig. And the scenic design, with the hull of a ship in the background and lots of fog effects, enhances the troubled mood.

However, even with all of this going for it, as I exited the Neil Simon Theatre, the first word that came to mind was “ponderous.” Others have called the show “somber.” While there’s plenty of life in The Last Ship, there is also a good deal of death—of two characters, a love affair, and a town’s lifeblood. And there’s no happily ever after ending. At over 2 and a half hours, perhaps the show is just too much of a sad thing; it adds up to less than its individual parts.

The Sting Factor: According to The New York Times, this $15 million musical (a true labor of love for Sting) has been losing $75,000 a week since performances began Sept. 29. In a last ditch effort to “save a sinking ship,” Sting will play his rock star trump card, replacing his friend, veteran Brit actor Jimmy Nail, for 4 weeks at the Neil Simon. Sting’s presence, coupled with the usual Holiday season bump in Broadway attendance, will no doubt keep The Last Ship sailing through 2014. But once the show enters the annual doldrums of January and February, it will no doubt once again struggle to stay afloat.

You’ve got to give Sting a lot of credit: he’ll do almost anything to keep his baby alive. He gamely performed “Show Some Respect” with the show’s cast in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and soon he’ll be singing and dancing on the Broadway stage 8 times a week. (He has stated that he’d “show his rear end in Macy’s” if it would help the show, so that’s something to look forward to).

Sting

Trivia: Sting last appeared on Broadway in a revival of The Threepenny Opera in 1989. According to the NY Daily News, Sting is waiving his royalty payments (an estimated $10,000 per week) to help the show save money.

George Harrison contributed to Jimmy Nail’s 1992 album “Growing Up in Public.”

Should You Go? Are you a diehard Sting fan? Can you sing the complete lyrics of “If You Love Someone Set Them Free?” If so, hurry over to the Neil Simon while your idol is treading the boards. Even if you’re a moderate fan of his music, you’ll enjoy the show. (Or you could save yourself some serious money and just wait until the cast album comes out). If you really have your heart set on sailing on The Last Ship, best not to tarry; once Sting jumps ship on January 10, there’s a good chance the show will end up permanently moored at the dock.

Note: The show is recommended for audience members 13+.

Ticket Info:

Ticket Lottery: A limited number of $30 tickets (cash only) are sold for each performance, beginning 2-1/2 hours before curtain. Winners are drawn 2 hours before curtain. Limit one entry per person, two tickets max per winner.

The Neil Simon is a fairly large theatre (1,445 seats) and so is difficult to fill. The show is currently available on TDF (if you are a member) and TKTS, but this may change once Sting joins the cast. I just checked the Ticketmaster website and found many seats still available for dates when Sting will be performing. For example, during the popular Christmas week (December 23), seats in the center of the front mezzanine are available for $166.75. Seats further back in the mezzanine run $89.25 and $68.75. Orchestra seats for that date run $166.75 or a whopping $267 for “premium” seats. Playbill.com currently offers discounts through December 21, so it’s worth a try to print out the offer and take it to the box office.

You can visit Broadway Helper for a complete list of discount offers for The Last Ship and other shows.

Show Website.