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

LOVE LETTERS

love letters

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.

Lead Cast: Candice Bergen (Melissa Gardner), Alan Alda (Andrew Makepeace Ladd III)

Playwright: A. R. Gurney

Director: Gregory Mosher

In a Nutshell: This 1988 play by A.R. Gurney was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Often revived with rotating pairs of stars, it was first performed at the New York Public Library, starring the playwright and Holland Taylor. The action unfolds as the two actors sit next to each other at a table and read a lifetime of letters written to each other, beginning in second grade and spanning 50 years, as the lifelong friends share their secrets, dreams, frustrations, joys, and heartbreak.

They say, “write what you know.” Gurney, who prepped at St. Paul’s and attended Williams College and the Yale School of Drama, knows about WASPs—their schools, social obligations, and parental expectations. Love Letters, one of his best known and most successful plays, is perhaps the best example of his understanding of this rarified world. It is also a popular play among veteran performers, since, in the words of A.R. Gurney, it “needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance.”

The Plot: Melissa and Andrew both come from wealthy New York families, but Melissa’s family ranks at the very top of the 1%. Their correspondence begins in the second grade, when the well-bred Melissa pens a thank-you note to young Andy. She writes: “Dear Andy: Thank you for the birthday present. I have a lot of Oz books, but not ‘The Lost Princess of Oz.’ What made you give me that one? Sincerely yours, Melissa.”

Andy’s response: “I’m answering your letter about the book. When you came into second grade with that stuck-up nurse, you looked like a lost princess.”

We learn that Melissa is an artistic, somewhat rebellious “bad girl” whose socialite mother drinks too much and marries too often. Andy is an ambitious, socially conscious good boy who feels obliged to please his father.

Melissa often complains about the writing process, imploring her young pen pal, “Now let’s stop writing letters.” For Andy, however, writing the letters fulfills a deep emotional need. The adult Andy explains: “I have to keep writing letters. If I can’t write them to you, I have to write them to someone else. I don’t think I could ever stop writing completely.”

So, through elementary and prep school, college, law school, summer vacations, World War II, marriage, parenthood, success and disappointment, Melissa and Andy keep on writing, sharing their lives through letters. When one of them inevitably hurts or angers the other, the slighted actor simply stops reading, leaving the other to plead in a vacuum, waiting for a response.

While Melissa and Andy never settle down with each other in the conventional sense, they do maintain a love affair of sorts, sharing a life together through a lifetime of letters.

The Performances: The bare bones description of Love Letters—two actors sitting at a table reading letters for 90 minutes—belies how completely engaging and moving the play is, especially as performed by Candice Bergen and Alan Alda. While many excellent actors have had successful runs in the play, I can’t imagine a better pair than these two. Bergen, still blond and beautiful at 68, has Melissa’s natural patrician good looks. And her timing and reactions to Andrew’s words are perfect. She subtly but effectively changes her delivery and demeanor as the play progresses, accurately mirroring Melissa’s transformation from a sarcastic 7-year-old school girl to a shattered, disappointed adult. And I have to say, she just broke my heart.

Alan Alda, always a naturalistic and believable actor, has the right native New York accent and somewhat nebishy manner that are well suited to Andrew’s upright, needy persona. Amazingly, at 78, he still retains a boyish charm that works well in Love Letters.

Trivia: Candice Bergen made her Broadway debut in Hurlyburly, directed by Mike Nichols. She was last seen on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. In 1958, at age 11, she appeared with her father (ventriloquist Edgar Bergen) on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Life. Bergen was married to French film director Louis Malle from 1980 until his death in 1995.

Alan Alda has been nominated for the Tony twice: for Jake’s Women and The Apple Tree. Previous to Love Letters, he twice portrayed a U.S. senator: Arnold Vinick on TV’s The West Wing from 2004-6 and Ralph Owen Brewster in Martin Scorcese’s 2004 film The Aviator (Oscar nomination). Alda was born Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo, the son of actor Robert Alda (Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo). Their adopted surname, “Alda,” is a portmanteau of ALphonso and D’Abruzzo.

Both actors are members of the Television Hall of Fame.

Should You Go? Yes! This Love Letters is a thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience. If you’ve never seen the play, here’s an opportunity to enjoy a top-notch production. If you have seen it, you won’t want to miss Bergen’s and Alda’s pitch perfect performances. (Hey, when else can you see Hawkeye Pierce and Murphy Brown together on stage?).

Ticket Info: Discount tickets are available at Playbill.com, TKTS, and TDF (if you are a member). You can find discount codes for this and other Broadway shows at Broadway Helper.

Note: Sadly, this show just posted an early closing (December 14) notice. Originally, Bergen and Alda appear were to appear through December 18, with other actors to rotate into the cast into 2015.

Show Website

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.

DISGRACED

Disgraced

Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

Aspiration, Assimilation, and the American Dream

Lead Cast: Hari Dhillon (Amir), Gretchen Mol (Emily), Danny Ashok (Abe), Josh Radnor (Isaac), Karen Pittman (Jory)

Playwright: Ayad Akhtar

Director: Kimberly Senior

In a nutshell: Ever since the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, a steady wave of immigrants have left the familiar surroundings of their homelands for a better life in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Some are determined to forget their lives in the old country and to assimilate as quickly as possible to their adopted American homeland. Others cling fiercely to their traditions.

Disgraced is about Amir, a young, ambitious Pakistani-American attorney (Hari Dhillon) who embodies the American Dream. Amir appears to have it all: he is handsome, married to a successful and beautiful American artist (Gretchen Mol), and on the partnership track at a prestigious law firm. He drinks the finest whiskey and wears $600 Charvet shirts. Yet, despite his best efforts, over the taut 90 minutes of this riveting play, everything somehow goes wrong, and Amir loses everything. The perfect world he has so carefully constructed crumbles to dust.

Background: Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play premiered in Chicago in 2012 (by American Theatre Company). It was produced Off Broadway by LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater in 2013 and Off West End in London earlier this year (also featuring Hari Dhillon and Danny Ashok). Kimberly Senior directed both productions, as well as the current Broadway production. The playwright, Ayad Akhtar, is also a novelist (“American Dervish”) and an actor. He co-wrote and starred in the film “The War Within” and starred as Neel Kashkari in HBO’s adaptation of “Too Big to Fail.”

The Plot: In an attempt to hide his Pakistani/Muslim roots, hot shot attorney Amir has created a new identity for himself. He has adopted the Indian surname Kapoor and, unbeknownst to his wife, he has even managed to change his social security number. However, as in a Shakespearian tragedy or Greek myth, once the die is cast, nothing can halt Amir’s rapid descent into chaos and loss.

In Disgraced, the precipitating event to Amir’s downfall is his decision, against his better judgment, to acquiesce to pleas from his liberal wife Emily and his idealistic nephew Abe (real name, Hussein) to help an imprisoned Muslim cleric whom they claim has been falsely accused of funding terrorism. Although Amir does nothing more than visit the Imam in jail, The New York Times mentions his name and law firm in an article about the Imam, making it appear that Amir is acting as his defense attorney. The firm (whose partners are Jewish) then discovers Amir’s true ethnic and religious background—and he becomes disgraced in their eyes.

The mise en scene in Disgraced is a familiar one: the dinner party. Amir and Emily are hosts to Emily’s art dealer, Isaac, and his wife Jory, a colleague at Amir’s law firm. They are of diverse ethnic backgrounds: Amir is a lapsed (some might say, self-loathing) Muslim, Isaac is Jewish, and Jory is African American. Liberal Emily glorifies the Islamic culture and incorporates its images into her art. She hopes to convince Isaac to launch a show of her work.

What’s Really Going On: It’s been said that to keep the peace at social gatherings, two potential powder keg topics should be avoided: politics and religion. Unfortunately for Amir (but fortunately for the dramatic tension of the play), none of Akhtar’s characters follow that advice. And no one emerges unscathed.

Although Amir denounces Islam’s ancient tenets as irrelevant in today’s modern world, in the play’s most shocking moment, he admits that, because of his upbringing, he felt a sense of pride for his people on 9-11. The audience, as well as the other characters on stage, let out a collective gasp at this revelation.

A lot more transpires in this intelligent, artfully acted play. But to divulge every plot turn would spoil the theatre-going experience.

Furthermore: As I left the theatre, I had three thoughts:

  1. You can change your name, you can deny your roots, but you can never escape who you really are.
  2. Racism exists all around us—sometimes in the most unexpected places.
  3. Civilization is a very thin veneer that can erode very quickly once things go wrong.

(Discuss amongst yourselves).

Should you go? Absolutely. This is a thought-provoking, engaging evening at the theatre. Plus, at only 90 minutes, you have the option of having dinner after the performance. That way, you and your dinner companions can launch your own discussion of the thorny topics Akhtar raises in Disgraced.

Keep in mind: Disgraced is a show for adults, covering provocative, complex themes. Leave the kids (under 16) at home.

Trivia: Like his Disgraced character Amir, playwright Akhtar is a first generation Pakistani-American. He has said that to write Disgraced he “had to turn and look over my shoulder at what I was running away from.”

TV fans will recognize Josh Radnor from his nine-season run as Ted Mosby on the hit show “How I Met Your Mother” and Gretchen Mol from her role as Gillian Darmody in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Broadway fans may have seen Karen Pittman in Good People at MTC or in Stew’s Passing Strange. Radnor previously appeared on Broadway in The Graduate, opposite Kathleen Turner, in 2002.

Ticket Tips: Although the play is a critical success, discounted tickets are readily available. You can visit Playbill.com, print out the offer, and take it to the Lyceum box office to choose your seats, or you can visit the TKTS ticket booth in Times Square, where I purchased my orchestra seat. The show is scheduled to run through January 18, 2015.

Show Website

THIS IS OUR YOUTH

This is Our  Youth

Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St.

Sex, Drugs, and ’80s Teenage Angst

Lead Cast: Michael Cera (Warren Straub), Kieran Culkin (Dennis Ziegler), Tavi Gevinson (Jessica Goldman).

Writer:           Kenneth Lonergan

Director:        Anna D. Shapiro

Background:  Although Kenneth Lonergan’s play was first produced in 1996, this Steppenwolf production marks its Broadway debut. The original Off Broadway production, by The New Group, starred Josh Hamilton, Mark Ruffalo, and Missy Yager.

The Plot: The action occurs in 1982 over 48 hours in Dennis Ziegler’s (Culkin) apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The characters are three “poor rich kid” New Yorkers struggling to find their way in the world and into adulthood. The catalyst for the action is the arrival of the socially inept Warren Straub (Cera), who has just been kicked out by his rich, abusive father, from whom, as a parting gesture, Warren has stolen $15,000 in cash. There are indications that his father may be involved with gangsters and that the cash may have been illegally obtained. Warren seeks refuge at the apartment of his frenemy Dennis, a cocky and somewhat bullying wheeler-dealer. Dennis sees Warren’s predicament as an opportunity. He convinces Dennis to invest the money in a big drug deal. (No surprise: that idea doesn’t turn out well). He also volunteers to help sell Warren’s valuable vintage toy and memorabilia collection. The third character is Jessica, an attractive young fashion student who is the object of Warren’s affections.

Although the play is billed as a comedy, there’s plenty of tragedy surrounding the characters. Warren and his father are dealing with the death of his sister, who was murdered by her boyfriend some years earlier. And late in the play, Dennis has an existential meltdown when a drug dealing friend dies of an overdose.

What’s Really Going On: The road from adolescence to adulthood is rarely smooth. While the three characters in This is Our Youth are on the brink of adulthood, they have a way to go: Dennis has his own apartment, but daddy pays his rent. Warren has been living (uneasily) with his father, and Jessica still lives with her mother. It’s also important to note that the play takes place during the age of Reaganomics. The three young people are conflicted about their place in society. They have grown up enjoying the fruits of privilege and they continue to depend on their parents’ largess, yet they (especially the two young men) have contempt for the older generation and its values.

The Performances: These actors have worked together on Lonergan’s play for a long time, and it shows in their easy, honest rapport. They all appeared in the recent Steppenwolf production in Chicago. All three turn in credible performances, but I was especially struck by what a good actor Kieran Culkin is. He remains offstage throughout much of Act 2, and his absence created a vacuum. I missed his amazing, visceral energy. Cera seems typecast as a bumbling, socially awkward loser. He does a fine job portraying Warren’s unease, but we never forget we’re watching the Michael Cera we’ve seen in Juno or Superbad. Gevinson, whose character is described in the script as “a cheerful but nervous girl,” has perhaps the least to work with. However, as the actor who is nearest in age to the character she plays (she is 18; Culkin is 31; Cera is 26), Gevinson does bring a fresh verisimilitude to the role. She seem somewhat flat and unemotional at times, but it’s in keeping with the confused young women she plays.

Trivia: This is Our Youth is an expanded version of Lonergan’s 1993 one-act play, Betrayal by Everyone. The characters and events may be based on Lonergan’s experiences as a student at the progressive Walden School in Manhattan.

Cera and Culkin appeared together in the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Cera became interested in acting after viewing Ghostbusters repeatedly when sick with chicken pox at age three. He memorized all the dialogue. (According to Wikipedia).

Tavi Gevinson is editor-in-chief and founder of Rookie, a website for teenage girls.

Should You Go? This play is not a must-see. However, if you’re a fan of any of the three young actors, it’s worth a go—especially for Culkin’s fine performance. But no need to pay full price.

Ticket Info:   Discounted tickets are available at Playbill.com and at the Times Square TKTS ticket booth. As of this writing, the play’s run will end January 4, 2015.

Show Website

 

 

 

 

 

SEX WITH STRANGERS

Billy MagnussenSecond Stage, Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.

How far would you go to achieve success?

Lead Cast: Anna Gunn (Olivia), Billy Magnussen (Ethan)

In a Nutshell: Can anyone truly know another person? That’s the key issue in this excellent two-hander by playwright Laura Eason. In fact, the play’s first line is, “Who are you?” While the characters’ initial encounter does lead to the activity described in the play’s title, even after they develop a relationship, they essentially remain strangers.

What’s It All About? Olivia and Ethan are both writers. She is a serious author who is still nursing the wounds from her failed novel years before. As she nears 40, Olivia continues to write, but remains paralyzed by her fear of rejection. She shows her work to no one and has taken a job teaching. In contrast, Ethan, around 10 years her junior, is a confident, charming Internet/social media savvy guy whose crass “Sex with Strangers” series of books (based on his true life exploits of bedding a different woman every day for a year) are wildly successful. He has thousands of Twitter followers and has signed a lucrative movie deal based on his work.

The two strangers meet at a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan where she has holed up to write. He arrives, also to write, during a snowstorm. Conveniently, the owner is away and there are no other guests. Although Ethan’s character is a self-described “a-hole,” it soon becomes evident that there is a lot more to this handsome dude-type guy than either Olivia or the audience suspects. It turns out they have a friend in common, a Pulitzer-winning author who has sent Ethan to the inn so that he can finish his screenplay. We discover that Ethan is a lot smarter than his “Sex with Strangers” persona. He has read Olivia’s book and encourages her not to give up. He also shares that he has ambitions to move beyond his pop culture success and to be accepted as a legitimate author.

Food for Thought: In addition to the theme of the basic unknowability of another person, Sex with Strangers explores the often blurry line between accepting another person’s help and exploiting that person for one’s own benefit. Because of his contacts and knowledge of social media, Ethan has the ability to expose Olivia’s work to a huge new audience. He convinces her to put her failed novel on the Internet under a pseudonym. He also reads her new work (defying her wishes) and sets her up with his agent. Much to her surprise, Olivia finds herself, at 40, winning the critical acclaim and success that has eluded her in the past. Ethan asks her to turn down a book deal with a venerable publishing house and to instead let him digitally publish her work on his new website to help him establish a reputation apart from his bad boy success. After all, doesn’t she owe him? If not for him, she would still be toiling away in obscurity.

The situation reminds me of the Jack White song “Icky Thump,” which asks: “Who’s using who? What should we do? Well you can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too.” Just who is using who? I won’t give away more of the plot. Let’s just say that the characters are complex and do not act in stock, expected ways. You and your theatre-going companion(s) can ponder the question over an after theatre cocktail.

The Performances: Both actors are excellent and do a terrific job portraying the complexities of their characters and landing the playwright’s comic and dramatic scenes. Fans of the hit TV show “Breaking Bad” will recognize Anna Gunn from her Emmy-winning role as Walter White’s wife Skyler. Theatre fans know Billy Magnussen from his hilarious, Tony-nominated turn as the boy toy Spike in 2013’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Magnussen turns in an especially fine performance here, masterfully showing us the sensitive, intelligent man underneath the swagger and 6-pack abs. And Gunn, so downtrodden and guarded when we initially meet her character, skillfully shows Olivia’s evolution into the ambitious, confident writer she always dreamed of becoming.

Should You Go? Yes, but don’t wait too long: as of this writing, the show runs only through August 31. Also keep in mind, this show is strictly for adults. (After all, the word “sex” is in the title). If you are at all prudish about watching simulated (though not explicit) sex on stage, choose another show.

More About the Cast and Director: Look for Gunn this coming fall starring as Ellie Miller in the series “Gracepoint” on Fox. Magnussen just wrapped the film version of “Into the Woods,” starring as Rapunzel’s Prince, due out this Christmas. TV watchers will recognize director David Schwimmer’s name: although he is best known for his Emmy-nominated turn as Ross on the hit show “Friends,” he also boasts an impressive résumé as a theatre actor and director.

Ticket Info: Theatre lovers under 30 can take advantage of 2nd Stage’s “30 Under 30” program by purchasing $30 tix at the theatre. ID is required. For the rest of us, discount tickets (50% off) are available at the TKTS Times Square ticket booth.

IF/THEN

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Richard Rodgers Theatre

226 W. 46th St. (Broadway/8th Ave.)

Lead Cast:  Idina Menzel (Elizabeth), LaChanze (Kate), Anthony Rapp (Lucas), James Snyder (Josh), Jenn Colella (Anne), Jason Tam (David)

In a Nutshell: Neither the critics nor the Tony nominating committee were kind to If/Then. Variety called it a “smaller-than-life show” with “flaccid” music. The NY Daily News deemed it a “platitude- and cliché-clogged work.” And the show was nominated for only 2 Tonys (Best Actress in a Musical and Best Original Score; it didn’t win either. It was overlooked for Best Musical). The only aspect of the show that was universally praised was Broadway powerhouse Idina Menzel’s performance.

So, when I settled into my seat at the Richard Rodgers Theatre I wasn’t expecting much. I figured the show would be mediocre at best, but that the price of my discounted TDF ticket would be worth the opportunity to hear the magnificent Ms. Menzel. Imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying the show from the very beginning!

From the moment Idina Menzel takes the stage, until almost the end, the show is engaging and beautifully staged. Menzel’s first line, spoken on the telephone, but seemingly directed at her many fans in the audience) is, “Hi, it’s me.” While the show is overly long at 2 hours, 35 minutes, and while the plot is sometimes confusing, the bottom line is that If/Then is a very enjoyable, original, interesting modern musical with excellent performances by the entire cast (not just Idina; LaChanze, a former Tony winner, is exuberant as Elizabeth’s lesbian friend Kate).

The Plot: OK, this isn’t easy to explain. Basically, it’s the idea of “the road not taken.” If you’ve seen the film Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow, you’ll have an easier time figuring it out. (That film explores the 2 possible life paths determined by whether Gwyneth’s character gets on a train or misses it).  Elizabeth (Ms. Menzel) is a newly divorced urban planner who has left her unfulfilling life in Phoenix behind to explore her next chapter in New York City. But what will that new life be? Will it be as Liz, a down to earth woman who marries and has 2 children with a handsome Army doctor named Josh? Or will she become Beth, a single, ambitious career woman who becomes pregnant by her best friend Lucas (who is gay), and has an abortion?

As the play progresses, we see both potential lives played out, side by side, with Liz/Beth surrounded by the same group of friends in both scenarios. To help us differentiate between the two sides of Elizabeth, Liz wears glasses. Sometimes it’s not clear who is who. But really, it doesn’t matter. I just sat back and enjoyed the music, lyrics, performances, and interesting set design. If you overthink If/Then you’ll wear yourself out.

In the prologue, Elizabeth sings “What If?” which outlines the idea of the multiple possibilities. Other musical standouts are the touching “You Learn to Live Without” and Menzel’s 11:00 belter, “Always Starting Over.”

Should You Go? Yes! We don’t have many really original musicals on Broadway, and I think this show has been underappreciated. I believed all of the bad news about it and may skipped it had I not been able to snag a discounted ticket (thank you, TDF). The show is frequently available at the Times Square TKTS booth.

Idina Menzel is a sensational, one-of-a-kind Broadway star. I have seen all of the Tony-nominated Best Actress performances this season, except for Jessie Mueller’s (she won for her performance in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, beating out Menzel). So, I can’t judge, but I have a feeling Menzel was robbed. The Rodgers is a large theatre (with over 1300 seats) and nearly every one was filled at the Tuesday evening performance I attended. If/Then is definitely a hit with the public, if not the critics.

Trivia: If/Then reunites Menzel with her director (Michael Greif) and co-star (Anthony Rapp) from the original 1996 Broadway production of Rent.

Menzel already has a Tony for her performance as the green, misunderstood Elphaba in Wicked.

Parents of young children have probably heard Menzel’s stunning rendition of “Let It Go” from the Disney movie Frozen more times than they can comfortably admit.

Menzel received worldwide publicity when John Travolta hysterically mangled her name on the Oscar telecast, famously introducing her as “Adele Dazeem.”

If/Then music, lyrics, and book are by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team from Next to Normal, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey.

If/Then Show Website

 

A Raisin in the Sun

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Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St.

In a Nutshell: If you grew up in the United States, chances are you read this play in school. The current Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s much-reprised and greatly admired play is as fine a staging as you’re going to see. So don’t delay: the show closes on June 15.

5 Tony Nominations: Best Play Revival, Best Actress in a Play (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Sophie Okonedo, Anika Noni Rose), Best Director (Kenny Leon)

Lead Cast: Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Lena Younger), Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger), Anika Noni Rose (Beneatha Younger).

Background: A Raisin in the Sun is an “important” American play. It was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. At 29, Hansberry was also the youngest American playwright, the first black playwright, and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

The Production: Before the curtain goes up, we see the following text projected on a scrim:

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Those lines, from the poem Harlem (Dream Deferred) by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, serve as a wonderful introduction to the play. They give us a framework in which to place the action that will unfold over the next 2 and 3/4 hours. Hughes wrote the poem in 1951, 8 years before A Raisin in the Sun first opened on Broadway. Reading the poem before the actors take the stage helps us understand why Hansberry used one of its lines as the title of her play, because A Raisin in the Sun is all about dreams (mostly unfilled)—along with family ties and the enduring, redemptive power of love.

The Plot: Three generations of the Younger family live in cramped conditions in a South Chicago apartment, “sometime between World War II and 1960.” The youngest member of the family, Travis, sleeps on a pullout couch in the living room. The action revolves around the imminent arrival of a large insurance check payable to the family matriarch, Lena Younger. Her son Walter Lee has big plans for the money. Tired of working as a chauffeur for a rich white man, he dreams of investing the money in a liquor store and becoming rich. His younger sister Beneatha dreams of attending medical school. His wife Ruth, who discovers she is pregnant with their second child, just wants Walter to drink less and become a better husband and father. It’s up to Mama Lena to decide how to use the money in a way that will best serve her family. At the end of the play, Walter, whom Lena has entrusted with most of the money, loses it to a swindler. Mama takes what’s left and buys a home for the family in a white neighborhood. So some dreams are fulfilled, others are not.

The Performances: In addition to its grand pedigree, Raisin is a very fine and enjoyable theatrical experience. (These two characteristics don’t always come together in a single work).

Each member of the cast turns in a fine performance. Although Denzel Washington comes to the play with the most star power, it’s the women who shine the brightest. All three of the female leads are nominated for Tonys, while Mr. Washington, who gives a good ensemble performance devoid of “star” showboating, was overlooked.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson does an especially terrific job. When I saw the production my feeling was, “Give LaTanya the Tony right now!” (We’ll find out if the Tony voters agree on June 8). She commanded the stage and touched my heart with her moving portrayal of a strong woman who has survived injustice and the death of her husband and who is determined to give the next generations a shot at a better life. British actress Sophie Okonedo and Tony winner Anika Noni Rose (Caroline, or Change) also give affecting performances as Ruth and Beneatha Younger, respectively. You can feel the weariness in Okonedo’s movements, as she tends to housekeeping chores and tries to just get through another hard day. And Rose brings Beneatha’s youthful exuberance, ambition, and self-centeredness to life.

However, Mr. Washington, 59 years old, is a bit long in the tooth to play Walter (who is supposed to be in his mid-30’s). And at 41, Anika Noni Rose (18 years younger than Washington) is also a bit old for her role of a young student, although she pulls it off pretty credibly. I sometimes found myself thinking that she was Walter’s daughter instead of his younger sister. But theatre is above all, a suspension of disbelief: Keep in mind that Ms. Richardson Jackson (aged 64) is in real life only 5 years older than her theatrical “son!”

Trivia:

  • The original production of A Raisin in the Sun opened 55 years ago at the Barrymore, the same theatre as the current production.
  • Although Lorraine Hansberry did not win a Pulitzer Prize for her groundbreaking play, a 2010 play by Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park, did. That play imagines events before and 50 years after the Younger family’s move to the predominately white neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
  • A musical version of the play, Raisin, premiered on Broadway in 1973. The production won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Virginia Capers).
  • LaTanya Richardson Jackson is married to actor Samuel L. Jackson. She stepped into the role of Lena Younger when Tony Award-winning actress Diahann Carroll withdrew from the production.

Ticket Info: You probably won’t find discount tickets for this show. According to the TKTS website, the show “never” appears at its discount ticket booth. There is no current offer listed at Playbill.com and there is no rush policy for this show. I would suggest going to the Barrymore box office and seeing what’s available.  A Raisin in the Sun

 

 

Rocky

Shari Rocky

Winter Garden Theatre, March 7, 2014

Shari on the Aisle Rating: ****

Director:  Alex Timbers

Book: Thomas Meehan & Sylvester Stallone

Music & Lyrics: Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens

Lead Cast:  Andy Karl (Rocky), Terence Archie (Apollo Creed), Margo Seibert (Adrian), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Paulie), Dakin Matthews (Mickey), Jennifer Mudge (Gloria)

Background: The Place: Philadelphia. The Time: 1975. You already know the story. Rocky Balboa is a big-hearted, two-bit fighter who can’t quite be described as over the hill—because he’s never made it up the hill. Rocky can’t get no respect: the other fighters at the gym mock him, the gym owner gives his locker to a younger, more promising fighter, and the girl of his dreams, Adrian, won’t give him a tumble. The only good news? As Rocky sings at the beginning of Act 1: “My Nose Ain’t Broken.” (This will no longer be true by the final curtain, but better to have your nose broken than your spirit). Then, fate hands him an opportunity to take on the heavy weight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.

Rocky the musical is of course based on Sylvester Stallone’s multiple Academy Award-winning (including Best Picture) 1976 film. The entire production team is made up of top notch theatre folk. 35-year-old Alex Timbers is a two-time Tony-nominated director and writer best known for the critically acclaimed Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty won every top award for Ragtime. Their other credits include Once on This Island, My Favorite Year, and the animated film Anastasia (Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations). And let’s not forget Stallone himself, the original Rocky, who against all odds, convinced Hollywood to take a chance on an unknown writer and actor. By getting the film made he personified the movie’s tagline: “His whole life was a million-to-one shot.” (The musical’s tag line is “Love Wins”).

In a Nutshell: The last line of the show is “I love you, Rocky.” That’s exactly what audiences are going to say about this talent-filled, well produced spectacle of a musical. I predict it’s going to be HUGE. I hope Andy Karl is ready for his close up.

Why Rocky Will Be a Hit: Because the show is based on such a popular film (albeit it one made nearly 40 years ago), Rocky the musical has a built-in fan base—people who love the film, love Stallone, and/or love boxing. The thinking was probably, if you produce it, they will come. But as we’ve seen recently with the struggling Broadway musical Bridges of Madison County, that’s not enough to fill a theatre. What does Rocky have in addition to the popularity of its source material? One word: spectacle. Sure, the show has some touching songs delivered by a talented, winning cast. But the final 30 minutes—the epic fight between Apollo Creed, the heavy weight champion of the world, and local boy Rocky—is so brilliantly staged, so exciting, so audience involving, that it’s impossible not to be entirely captivated, moved, and swept away by it.

The Spectacle: Just before the fight begins, everyone seated in the first seven rows of the center orchestra section (the “Golden Circle” seats) gets up, climbs some stairs to the stage, and sits on upstage bleachers. Once they’re settled, the entire boxing ring set moves outward, into the audience, covering those vacated rows of seats. A circular set piece of monitors comes down from the ceiling over the ring. Other giant monitors display the announcers’ play-by-play. Rocky runs down the aisle of the Winter Garden and into the ring, followed by Apollo and his 70’s flash-tacular entourage. For 20 minutes you feel as though you are actually at the Philadelphia Spectrum, sitting ringside, watching the fight of the century. It is thrilling, brilliant theatre.

In Addition: I realize I haven’t said much about the cast or the individual songs. There are some lovely moments—Rocky and Adrian, finally together, decorate a Christmas tree and sing a beautiful duet, “Happiness.” Adrian finally stands up to her bullying brother Paulie in the strong “I’m Done.” There’s Rocky’s inspirational “Keep on Standing.” All of the leads are fine. The fight choreography by Steven Hoggett is amazing. But it’s Alex Timbers’ creative staging of the final showdown that everyone will be talking about.

Ticket Tips: As of this writing (I saw a preview a week before opening night), discounted tickets are available on both TDF, the Times Sq. TKTS booth, and other outlets including Playbill.com. There is a lottery for each performance (beginning 2 hours before curtain and ending 1.5 hours before curtain) for 20 tickets in the first two rows of the orchestra (in the Golden Circle section). If you’re buying full price tickets I would recommend choosing the center orchestra section behind the Golden Circle section (so, beyond Row F). I was in Row K and I felt like I had the best seat in the house for the fight. Be aware that people in the first rows in the side sections of the orchestra have to stand during the fight sequence, as the action is taking place to their left or right. I’ve heard that the Golden Circle ticket holders can’t see that well once they’re seated on the stage.

If you want to meet & greet the cast, the stage door is behind the theatre, over on 7th Avenue.

Show website

All the Way

Neil Simon TheatreAll the Way cropped

Shari on the Aisle Rating: **1/2

Director:  Bill Rauch

Playwright: Robert Schenkkan

Lead Cast: Bryan Cranston (President Lyndon Baines Johnson), Robert Petkoff (Sen. Hubert Humphrey), John McMartin (Sen. Richard Russell), Michael McKean (J. Edgar Hoover), Brandon J. Dirden (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.), Rob Campbell (Gov. George Wallace and others), Betsy Aidem (Lady Bird Johnson and others).

In a Nutshell: The time is November, 1963-November, 1964. LBJ, a self-described “accidental president,” is trying to convince Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill while planning his strategy for the upcoming presidential election. Political deals are struck. Threats are made. Tempers flare. Although this is a pivotal time in American history, and the play is a laudable effort to educate those too young to remember the events that took place, obviously we know how things are going to turn out. The bill becomes law (minus the voting rights component) and Johnson wins the 1964 election against Republican Barry Goldwater. Certainly, as evidenced by the film Lincoln, which All the Way parallels in many ways, we know how gripping the back story of passing an important piece of legislation can be. However, although the events depicted in the play—both in the South and in Washington—are quite dramatic and well expressed, at just shy of three hours, All the Way is way too long.

Let’s Talk about Bryan Cranston: Although Cranston is no stranger to the theatre, All the Way marks his Broadway debut. He is of course best known for his performance as Walter White in the hit television series Breaking Bad. Cranston won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series three consecutive times for his work on the show—the first person to do so since Bill Cosby in the 1960s. Here’s the good news: Cranston is a hell of an actor. He is on stage for nearly the entire performance, and he does a terrific job capturing LBJ’s cantankerous brand of Texan bravado. Supposedly, he wears heel lifts to appear taller than he really is, but he’s so thin that when Lady Bird refuses him gravy for his pork chops because he needs to diet, it momentarily breaks the suspension of disbelief.

In Addition: The large cast is made up of many seasoned Broadway veterans, including: Michael McKean (The Best Man, Superior Donuts, Pajama Game, etc.), John McMartin (Into the Woods, High Society, Sweet Charity, Don Juan, etc)., and Brandon J. Dirden (Clybourne Park, Enron, Prelude to a Kiss). Everyone does a fine job. The single set, by Christopher Acebo, is creatively used to form spaces depicting the houses of Congress as well as various meeting venues for civil rights leaders and politicians. Projections designed by Shaw Sagady help shed light on various historical events of the time, heightening their sense of immediacy.

About the Title: Until late in the play the title held no meaning for me. Then, during the heated presidential election, Johnson’s supporters shouted his campaign slogan, “All the Way with LBJ!” Ah-ha!

Trivia: From 1994 to 1997, Bryan Cranston appeared on Seinfeld as Dr. Tim Whatley, Jerry’s dentist. Playwright Robert Schenkkan is also an actor. He portrayed Lieutenant Commander Dexter Remmick in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The Bottom Line: All the Way is an intelligent play with excellent production values that highlights a pivotal time in U.S. history, although it can seem a bit pedantic at times. No doubt many non-theatre goers will buy a ticket to see Walter White in person, and that’s a good thing. However, both the play and Cranston’s fans would be better served if the production team would shave 20-30 minutes off of the play’s run time. Politics is dramatic, but only to a point.

Discount tickets for All the Way are frequently available at TKTS.