Category Archives: Theater

Theater criticism, news and views at Sketchy Details

Richard III Review (Broadway)

Richard III BroadwayThe Royal Shakespeare Company has restaged its critically acclaimed repertory run of Twelfth Night and Richard III on Broadway. Each show features the same unit set–oak walls and hallways, two sets of boxed seating onstage, six massive candelabras hung over the stage as the main lighting–and many of the same actors.

Richard III is only being performed twice a week (compared to Twelfth Night‘s six performances a week), which is a genuine shame. The Mark Rylance-led cast of Shakespeare’s wildest History play is doing phenomenal work with a radically new interpretation of the text. Richard III is played not as a ghoulish tragedy but an almost-slapstick sitcom about the rise and fall of one of the most conniving rulers England ever had.

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NBC’s Next Live Musical: Peter Pan

NBC's Peter PanNBC announced its next live musical production recently. That show is Peter Pan. Though the Disney version is better know, we’re dealing with the 1954 musical written by Moose Charlap, Jule Styne, Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green. It really is a crowd-pleasing show. The musical was so popular that NBC already did three live broadcasts of it (two starring Tony-Award winner Mary Martin, one with Mia Farrow in the title role) over 50 years ago. The show has toured all over the world and arrived on Broadway four separate times.

The problem, dear friends, is the role of the native Neverlanders in the musical. The racism is not as pronounced as Walt Disney’s literal redskins in “What Makes the Red Man Red?,” but it is problematic all the same. The big number that introduces Tiger Lily and her tribe is “Ugg-A-Wugg” and it’s a doozy. It’s mock-tribal chants and war whoops set over drums. The characters are typically dressed in stereotypical garb: doeskin leather, body paint, and war bonnets. A peace pipe and teepees are usually involved.

The song is so questionable that the arrangement is constantly revisited to eliminate as many of the lyrics and chanting as possible; the long-running worldwide tour uses it mostly as a dance number now. But those rights aren’t readily available. This is the version that NBC has broadcast before and probably attained the rights to.

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Cheek to Cheek

Today, my students I’ve been working with since the end of September start their one weekend run of The Philadelphia Story. The singers and a student piano player are performing my original arrangements of 1930s/40s standards as varied as Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low,” George/Ira Gershwin’s “Nice Work (If You Can Get It),” and Louis Atler/Sidney D. Mitchell’s “You Turned the Tables on Me.” It’s a strong group of young female singers, so I coached them to pull inspiration from Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald. The director wanted Frank Sinatra and I spun that to the abilities of the young performers.

Sadly, their prerecord of “Cheek to Cheek” for the curtain call didn’t work out, so we’re stuck with using one of the big inspirations for the program instead.


Hedwig and the Angry Inch Broadway

Hedwig and the Angry Inch Finally Comes to Broadway

John Cameron Mitchell’s masterful rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has had a long arc to a Broadway mounting. Since premiering in 1998 in a converted theater space off-Broadway, the show has been performed all over the world. Mitchell adapted, directed, and starred in the feature film adaptation in 2001 that received a Golden Globe nomination and critical acclaim. It helped launch Mitchell as a director capable of getting difficult projects to the screen–Shortbus and Academy Award-nominated Rabbit Hole included–and created demand for a Broadway mounting.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch BroadwaySoon, in 2014, we’re finally going to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. John Cameron Mitchell has been working on changes to the book for years to account for the different space and societal changes since the show debuted.

It’s not surprising that, 16 years later, Mitchell himself will not be playing the title role. That honor goes to Neil Patrick Harris. Harris has previously starred in the Broadway debut of Assassins in an excellent turn as the Balladeer, which is one of the trickier parts in the show. His Bobby in the NY Philharmonic production of Company was strong, as well. I love his work on the recording of the lesser-known Evening Primrose by Stephen Sondheim (TV musical special).

What Harris has is legitimate theater chops. He has a great stage presence. He moves well. And, most importantly, Hedwig is easily in his vocal range. I’m curious to see what Neil Patrick Harris brings to this role.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch Film

Elaborate costumes and raw rock recount a sad story of abandonment

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, undoubtedly, a strange show. It’s a musical about a young man so desperate to escape the oppression of the USSR’s stranglehold over East Berlin that he has an irreversible medical procedure to pose as a woman and flee as a war bride. As soon as he lands in America, the Berlin Wall falls. His lover leaves him for another man and he starts a rock band. It only gets stranger from there.

Part of the reason Hedwig and the Angry Inch has taken so long to get to Broadway is the rewrite. The current version of Hedwig is an immersive show. It’s a rock concert at a restaurant across the street from a much larger rock arena. Hedwig interacts with the audience, including the infamous car wash gag. There’s a set script with audience and band banter, but Hedwig has to sell it like it’s a brand new experience every night.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch Off-Broadway

The original off-Broadway production of Hedwig was raw in the best way possible.

John Cameron Mitchell needed to find a way to translate this raw energy into the more formal setting of Broadway. Conceivably, the show could take a page from Roundabout’s Studio 54 and have cabaret style seating rather than a traditional orchestra. They could borrow from Murder Ballad or Spring Awakening (to name two) and have audience members sitting onstage or surrounding the actors, as well.

But I think Mitchell is more creative than that. I imagine the changes to the show make it a period piece rather than a contemporary story as it’s traditionally done. If he shifts the setting, they won’t need onstage seating or even direct interaction. With the right monologues, the spirit of Hedwig will live on Broadway.

That makes the first show I have to see next season. We’re only a few weeks out from the Tony Awards and I’m already looking forward to Spring 2014 shows.

Thoughts on Hedwig and the Angry Inch? Share them.

The Last Five Years and Structural Suspense

Coming Soon: The Last Five Years Film

The Last Five Years Set Photos

Set photos are running rampant

With all the set photos being released this week, it appears the producers of The Last Five Years film adaptation really want a big return on their investment. I suspected that when Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and Jeremy Jordan (Smash) were cast as Cathy and Jamie.

Or should I say Tony Award nominee Anna Kendrick (High Society) and Tony Award nominee Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) starring as Cathy and Jamie? That theater pedigree helps in a show that has such a theatrical conceit.

A quick refresher on The Last Five Years: Cathy and Jamie recount their five year relationship from opposite perspectives. Cathy starts at the end and goes back to the beginning, while Jamie starts at the beginning and works his way to the end. They only meet up once onstage to sing together–not counter melodies, but actual interaction.

The film is foregoing that conceit and it makes me so nervous. Cathy and Jamie are going to sing to each other. They’re planning on using all the songs and keeping the time jumps, but with the couple interacting I fear a muddy mess.

The score is confessional in nature. When Jamie sings about meeting a “Shiksa Goddess,” he would never dream of telling Cathy she’s some kind of conquest on his rise to the top. Likewise, when Cathy sings about “A Summer in Ohio,” she would never have complained that much about doing summer stock if Jamie was there in person.

The Last Five Years Waterfornt

Are Cathy and Jamie meeting at the pier?

Sure, there are songs that hinge on interaction. “See I’m Smiling” is all about Cathy’s surprise that Jamie has arrived after their relationship became strained. She sings about all the things she wants him to do and how hard she’s trying to save the relationship. She even references how they’re sitting, how he laughs, how he smiles, and how they’re interacting. I can see the scene on film: a lovely walk on the waterfront after meeting at the docks, perhaps a montage of Cathy’s memories to foreshadow some of the upcoming scenes.

It’s so early to try to put a judgment on the film. The talent is there. The music is there. My excitement level is far higher than I anticipated.

Yet I have to mention a personal bias here. This is an adaptation of a show about mid/late 20-somethings falling in and out of love. Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick hit that perfectly–28 and 27, respectively. With the way they’re being dressed in the show and the subject matter, they’ll read the right age onscreen.

But I prefer actors aging down for the role. The Last Five Years has a really complex score filled with a lot of intricate character shifts. It has a very strong voice about relationships and love. Typically, onstage, the actors are a few years older than the characters in the script. It’s not an uncommon casting choice–how many twenty-somethings play teenagers?–but in this show it adds a level of nuance and maturity that only comes with more life experience. Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz were only a few years older than the characters when the show premiered in 2001 and their performances are why the show is so fondly remembered.

That bias is why I’m so drawn to a recently released video of Lea Salonga in rehearsal for a concert. Salonga (Tony Award winner for Miss Saigon and the singing voice of Jasmine and Mulan in the Disney pantheon) brings this beautifully nuanced sense of understanding and acceptance that I doubt a younger performer could pull off. With the right Jamie, Lea Salonga could easily pull off a production of The Last Five Years. It’s a total piece of fantasy anyway; if the actors read young, you’ll accept the reality of the show.

Just watch this performance of “I’m Still Hurting,” the opening song in The Last Five Years. I’ve watched it at least 20 times since it was uploaded last Friday and it brings me to tears every time. Bonus points duly awarded for doing the rhythms as written in the actual score (ahem).

Can Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan match that level of intensity or wisdom that sells the (let’s be frank) self-centered story of The Last Five Years? You need the audience to immediately understand from the first pair of songs that the show is all about diagnosing what went wrong over a big chunk of a shared lifetime. This isn’t the free-wheeling spirit of 500 Days of Summer that has the opportunity to wallow in self-indulgence and too clever scene juxtapositions to be a crowd-pleaser. This is a very low-key narrative that rests on a simple conceit and a fantastic score.

I want The Last Five Years to be a rousing success because I want musicals to be bankable again. If they earn money, studios will invest the time and energy needed to make more that don’t hinge on ridiculous close-ups of A-list actors shooting snot out of their noses for extra sincerity*. And if musicals are profitable again, maybe A-list actors won’t be required for EVERY leading role in a movie musical anymore.

We’ll see how The Last Five Years turns out eventually. At the very least, more people will learn about this wonderful little show. That’s a victory.

*Salonga played Eponine and Fantine professionally on Broadway and in anniversary concerts. She didn’t need blacked out teeth and 15 seconds pauses between words to sell “I Dreamed a Dream.” She didn’t even need the costume. She just needed a stage. Just saying.

Patti LuPone Sings Sunset Boulevard in London for First Time Since 1994

The title says it all. Patti LuPone, who originated the role of Norma Desmond in the world premiere production, sings “With One Look” in London for the first time in 20 years. The role was promised to her on Broadway and was shockingly given to Glenn Close instead without warning or negotiation. The score fits LuPone like a glove and the song sounds stunning. A true artist makes moments like this while using the sheet music.

And let me take the chance to thank Patti LuPone for allowing this video to go online for the world to see. It was made private early last week with the promise it would return after her last show in London today. It’s a wonderful record of a brilliant performing doing what she does best. People can learn from what LuPone does in this performance.