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

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LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL

Lady Day

Circle in the Square (50th St. between Broadway/8th Ave.)

Lead Cast: Audra McDonald (Billie Holiday), Shelton Becton (Jimmy Powers, her pianist)

Written By: Lanie Robertson; Directed By: Lonny Price

Background: According to the Playbill, the play is based on an actual performance by Billie Holiday in a dive bar in Philadelphia witnessed by a boyfriend of the playwright: “She stumbled in obviously ‘quite high,’ carrying her little Chihuahua Pepi, whom she introduced to her audience. A water glass was kept filled with booze atop the piano for her. She and a piano player performed 10 or 12 of her songs for an audience of seven patrons. Then, she staggered out.”

The Plot:  The place is Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a small bar in South Philadelphia. The time is March, 1959, around midnight. Jazz great Billie Holiday—drinking throughout her performance—becomes progressively more inebriated and sloppy as her set goes on. Four months later, she would be dead of cirrhosis and heart failure, at the age of 44.

In a Nutshell: Just as the play depicts 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 brilliant performance in this show, where, in contrast to the performance she reenacts, she has been playing to sold-out audiences night after night.

The Performance: For fans of Ms. McDonald, Ms. Holiday, or both, the performance is a complex, multi-layered experience. On the one hand, we see Ms. McDonald, ravishing in a white gown trimmed with sequins. On other, we simultaneously see Ms. Holiday, a tragic figure who is desperately trying to keep it together while performing. Ms. McDonald does an uncanny impression of Billie Holiday’s unique vocal style. If you close your eyes, you truly can imagine yourself back in 1959, as one of those 7 audience members at Emerson’s, where even near the end of her life, Holiday’s brilliance shines through her obvious pain. But when you open your eyes, you can’t stop thinking that you’re watching Audra McDonald, one of the most talented and accomplished Broadway stars of her generation. Are you watching Audra or Billie? They’re both up there on the stage, simultaneously.

While McDonald’s performance is extraordinary throughout the 95-minute show, the musical highlight is her achingly beautiful rendition of Billie’s dark song “Strange Fruit,” a poem set to music about the lynching of a black man in the South:

“Southern trees bear strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”

It is painful to witness the decline and despair of a singular talent like the Billie Holiday at Emerson’s, but it is at the same time uplifting to witness the brilliance of the gifted Audra McDonald in remembering and honoring the late Lady Day.

A Bit More About Billie: Billie Holiday’s life was tough and tragic from the start. Born in 1915 to a young, unwed mother, she was raped as a young child, worked as a prostitute, abused drugs and alcohol, had relationships with abusive men, and served prison time. In fact, as she lay dying in New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital, her room was under police guard because of an arrest for drug possession. She did experience popular success: she played to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall in 1948 and her recording of “God Bless the Child” (which she wrote) sold over a million records. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was published in 1956, along with an album of the same name. Diana Ross was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying Billie in the 1972 film version. Billie got her nickname, “Lady Day,” from her friend, saxophonist Lester Young.

Should You Go? Yes! There’s no way you won’t enjoy this production, I promise. What’s not to like? Broadway great Audra McDonald, 15 classic songs accompanied by a flawless trio of musicians, and a tribute to a jazz legend, all packed into an intermissionless 95 minutes. But don’t delay: although the show has been extended several times, like Billie Holiday’s career, it won’t last forever. The show is currently extended through October 5.

Trivia: As previously mentioned, Audra McDonald has won a record-breaking 6 Tony Awards (3 of them by age 28): Lady DayCarouselMaster ClassRagtimeA Raisin in the SunThe Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. The Julliard-trained soprano is also a two-time Grammy Award-winner and played “Mother Abbess” in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! She is married to actor Will Swenson, Broadway star of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair, the recent revival of Les Miserables, and the upcoming Bull Durham.

Ticket Info: Discounted tickets are available at Playbill.com and frequently at the Times Square TKTS booth. I printed out the Playbill.com offer and took it to the box office to purchase very good seats at $85. If money is no object, you can purchase Circle Club seats ($200), tables close to the stage where you can sip cocktails (included). Ms. McDonald occasionally walks among the tables and interacts with those lucky audience members. (Note: children under 12 are not permitted at Circle Club tables).

Show Website

2014 TONY PREDICTIONS

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Well, the Tony Awards are tomorrow evening, so if I don’t get my picks down on virtual paper right now, it’ll be too late!

It’s been a really terrific theatre season, with many memorable performances. For the most part, the 2014 nominations are spot on, with just a couple of oversights on the part of the nominating committee. For example, as I wrote in a previous post, I feel that nominating 3 of the 4 performers in The Glass Menagerie (as deserving as they are), while omitting the amazing Zachary Quinto, is just wrong. And many theatre people feel that Bridges of Madison County should have been nominated for Best Musical, especially since the committee chose only 4 shows instead of a maximum of 5. Although Bridges (which closed early) was mostly underwhelming, despite some lovely tunes, both Kelli and her co-star Steven Pasquale (also overlooked) gave touching, vocally gorgeous performances.

I have seen all 5 nominated plays and many of the 7 nominated musicals/musical revivals. (I’ll be seeing If/Then 2 days after the Tonys, so I’ll report back on that one).

So let’s get to my picks for the top categories:

Best Play:  All the Way

The critics loved it, it’s a well-crafted (albeit too long) play covering an important event in American history (the passage of the Civil Rights Act), with an all-pro cast led by a TV star. Bam, done.

Best Play Revival: Twelfth Night

This Globe Theatre production (done in repertory with Richard III) was a groundbreaker and received lots of critical acclaim. Although The Glass Menagerie was a brilliant production all around (and it has never won the Tony), I don’t see its standing up against Twelfth Night.

Best Actor in a Play: Bryan Cranston (All the Way)

Best Featured Actor in a Play: Mark Rylance (Twelfth Night)

I’m bundling these together, as critics’ darling Mark Rylance is nominated in both categories. I predict Tony voters will honor him with the Best Featured Actor Tony for his celebrated drag performance in Twelfth Night instead of his star turn in Richard III. Cranston won the Drama Critics Award for Best Actor and I think he’ll take home the Tony as well.

Best Actress in a Play: Audra McDonald (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill)

I haven’t yet seen Ms. Audra’s performance. And I think it’s odd that a performance that includes a dozen songs is considered a play instead of musical. Personally, I wanted to give LaTanya Richardson Jackson the Tony for Best Actress when the curtain came down on A Raisin in the Sun—she deserves it. But my Ouija board tells me that Audra, who already has 5 Tonys (also well-deserved) will soon need additional space on her mantle.

Best Featured Actress in a Play: Celia Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie)

All of the nominated actresses gave very strong, critically acclaimed performances. Both Sophie Okonedo and Anika Noni Rose were really fine in A Raisin in the Sun, but how to choose one over the other? They will cancel each other out. I’m going with another critics’ darling, Celia Keenan-Bolger. Who doesn’t just love her?

Best Musical: A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder

GGLAM leads with 10 nominations and it’s going to win a few, including the big one. It’s a clever, delightful, entirely unique show which is also a critics’ favorite.

Best Musical Revival: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

No contest. Take this one to the bank. (If we want to nitpick, which of course we do, we should mention that 2 of the 3 musicals nominated in this category, Hedwig and Violet, are not technically revivals, as they have never been staged on Broadway). So, GGLAM, say thank you to the Tony nominating committee.

Best Actor in a Musical: Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)

The performance of the season. Maybe the performance of NPH’s lifetime, in its astonishing divineness. No contest, even in this especially outstanding group of actors. Sorry, Jefferson Mays; bad luck that your show opened in the same season as Hedwig, because otherwise the Tony would be yours! (Unless there’s a tie. That would be lovely!).

Best Featured Actor in a Musical: James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin)

Another sure thing. Iglehart stops the show 8 times a week with his high energy performance of “A Friend Like Me.”

Best Actress in a Musical: Jessie Mueller (Beautiful—The Carole King Musical)

I’ve only seen a couple of numbers from this show, but word is that although the show isn’t fabulous, Mueller is. However, many Tony voters feel that although Bridges didn’t live up to its potential given the talent involved, Kelli O’Hara was, as always, just breathtaking to listen to and watch. (And I agree). This could be the one big upset (and there is always one) of this year’s Awards. And although the angelic-voiced Ms. O’Hara has been nominated 5 times, she hasn’t won, yet.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman’s Guide)

I’m not 100% sure about this one. I’d love Lena Hall to win, but there’s only so much Hedwig love to go around. So I’m betting on the delightful Lauren Worsham in A Gentleman’s Guide.

And finally, the Tonys for Best Director:

Best Direction of a Play: Tim Carroll (Twelfth Night)

Best Direction of a Musical: Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder)

Both of these productions presented unique theatrical visions, in the case of Twelfth Night, a creative take on Shakespeare, and for GGLAM, a brilliant staging of a new complicated work.

Congratulations to all the nominees (and everyone who brought so much pleasure to the theatre-going public this year)! We can’t wait to see what you do next.