Saturday, June 09, 2012

"Nice Work If You Can Get It"

Though street smarts help in this world, being rich and good-looking is usually more than enough to get by.  So says (in so many words) Matthew Broderick's character, Jimmy Winter, in the new musical at the Imperial, "Nice Work If You Can Get It."

That wisdom could also apply to Broadway musicals.   "Nice Work..," was, in a way, born with a silver spoon in its mouth:  when you start with the songs of Ira and George Gershwin as the foundation of a new production, it's hard to go too far wrong.  Add a clever book by Joe diPietro (based on some earlier work by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton) and creative contributions from the team that gave us the wonderful revival of "Anything Goes" and you've got a good chance at a pretty good-looking (and plain old good) show.

In fact, if you loved "Anything Goes" (and I did), you're probably going to at least like "Nice Work..."  Both are old-fashioned Broadway musicals: great songs, broad, silly plots, witty dialogue, handsome boys, beautiful girls, a couple of tap numbers...  It's escapist theater at its zenith.

The story of "Nice Work..." is a pretty simple one:  Jimmy Winter is an heir to some very old money, and about to be married for the fourth time.  Until, that is, the sparkling bootlegger Billy Bendix (the radiant Kelli O'Hara) enters his life.  But before they can be united, there will be misunderstandings, mischief, mistaken identities and shocking (sort of) revelations.

I won't say "Nice Work..." is a perfect show, but it's sort of like one of those memory foam mattresses - it cradles you in comfort until you're ready to start a new day.  And maybe even leave you filling a little richer and a little better-looking.

Friday, June 08, 2012

"The Columnist"

If you're a fan of "Mad Men" there's a better than even chance that you will also enjoy "The Columnist," a new play by David Auburn ("Proof"), currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a Manhattan Theatre Club production helmed by Daniel Sullivan.  Like the adventures of Don Draper airing Sunday nights on AMC, "The Columnist" takes place (primarily) in the early 60s and chronicles a world in the midst of a rather epic transition.  (Not unlike another recent favorite of mine, "War Horse.")

The columnist of the title is Joseph Alsop, the mega-powerful Washington insider whose clout is suddenly diminishing as his syndicated column is finding fewer and fewer readers.  The world is changing and Alsop is having trouble keeping up.  A staunch defender of the war in Vietnam, Alsop finds himself on the wrong side of history and his desperate attempts to claw his way back to the top are the fodder for Auburn's slick drama.

In John Lee Beatty's brilliant sets, we see Alsop at his most vulnerable - pleading on the phone for favors with other Washington power brokers, trying to convince his brother Stewart (also a writer, delicately played by Boyd Gaines) to partner with him and, most important, trying to keep his closet door firmly shut.  For, as we learn in the very first scene, in a Moscow hotel room in 1954, Alsop is gay, and the impossibility of his ever coming out - balanced against the very real threat of his being outed, thanks to the existence of some surreptitiously-acquired explicit photos - keeps the tension up throughout the evening.

In addition to Auburn's excellent play and Sullivan's confident direction, "The Columnist" benefits greatly from another bravura performance by John Lithgow, who once again proves why he's one of Broadway's best.  If you're used to Lithgow's comedic roles (primarily TV's "Third Rock from the Sun"), you owe it to yourself to see him dig into a great dramatic turn such as this.  It would be hard to play Alsop without the level of bristling intelligence Lithgow brings to the role.  But it's more than his bravura and brilliance that make Lithgow great, it's also his ability to show vulnerability and doubt - not always easy for a 6'4" man to do.  It's the soft center that makes the bristly exterior interesting.

"The Columnist" occasionally feels "out of tune" - but thanks to the great team MTC put together for this production, not to mention the fascinating historical tale it weaves, "The Columnist" is a winner.

"One Man, Two Guvnors"

There are times you go to the theater to be inspired or moved, or to see a bit of the human condition revealed and made clear.

Then there is "One Man, Two Guvnors."  While I'm sure there is some satire about class and oppression buried beneath the clowning and the puns and the pratfalls, that's not the point of this adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte farce "The Servant of Two Masters," reset in 60s-era Brighton.  The point is to make you laugh.  And it does.  As long as you can laugh at silliness and exaggeration and the misfortune of others.

Primarily you will be laughing at the misfortune and antics of Francis Henshall, the harlequin played (nearly to perfection) by James Corden.  Though he looks quite well-fed, Henshall is ravenous when the play begins, seeking something - anything - to eat.  His guvnor (cockney slang for employer) hasn't paid him, so when a second job falls in his lap, he snatches it.  Now he has two bosses to please, neither of which knows about the other.

That's about it for plot.  But plot's not the point.  The plot's just there to provide excuses for Corden to perform a series of hysterical physical bits, some as old as the commedia form itself.  You might find it hard to believe that someone can make the moving of a trunk funny for 10 minutes, but Corden pulls it off - with a little help from a couple of audience members.

To be honest, of shows that pay tribute to the British pantos, I prefer "The 39 Steps," a show that played Broadway and toured the nation over the past couple of years.  It featured more theatrical invention,  a real plot and just as much inspired silliness.  Unfortunately, it's closed.  But if you're in the mood for top-notch physical comedy, "One Man, Two Guvnors" fits the bill to a T.  Or should that be "tea"?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

"War Horse"

Some things never change: the value of loyalty, the power of love, the horrors of war.  But some things change dramatically.  The conflict between these eternal concepts set against the backdrop of a world that is being transformed by technology is at the heart of what makes "War Horse" such a powerful theatrical experience.

World War I was called "the war to end all wars."  It could be more accurately described as the "war that changed all wars."  Prior to the invention of the machine gun, the airplane, the telephone - and other innovations that were first put to use in the interest of martial ends in WWI - a cavalry rider was among the most feared weapons of war.  But once a single soldier could fire hundreds of rounds a minute, and Sopwith Camels could rain death from above, the horse and rider on the field of battle were suddenly vulnerable.

"War Horse" tells the story of Joey, plucked from his home in England, where he is much loved by young Albert, and taken to France as a cavalry horse.

I won't go deeper into the story than that, because I'd rather not spoil the many twists and turns along the way.  "War Horse" is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, and one of the most satisfying aspects of this production is how well the richness of the novel comes through on stage.  I love a good story, and this is a terrific one, filled with obstacles, triumph, humor and pathos.

The most commented-upon aspect of "War Horse" (the play) is that the production uses complex puppets to portray the horses (and other animals) - and with good reason, the puppets are incredible.  Every aspect of the horses are articulated. Even the ears, so important to reading a horse's mood, turn and twitch and lie flat.  The horse puppets are controlled by multiple performers, but after the first 20 minutes or so, you stop  noticing the puppeteers and see only the horses.  They even have actual breath - which I assume comes from pressurized air canisters hidden in the heads.  The overall effect is stunning.

For my readers in the Bay Area, "War Horse" is coming to the Curran Theater this August.  Though it will be impossible to recreate the experience of the enormous stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, the magic of "War Horse" will still come through.  Like the cavalry horses of old, "War Horse" simply packs too much punch not to.


In my professional life, I spend a fair bit of time dealing with branding.  Not the scars burned into livestock to establish ownership - though that is the etymology of "branding" in the modern sense - but branding in the sense of establishing and maintaining an image for a product or service or organization.  Great brands reinforce themselves over time:  Coke is about refreshment, Apple about design and user experience, Honda is about reliability and efficiency.

Disney has long been one of the most respected brands in the world, building their reputation on their ability to deliver happiness.  Disney theme parks are branded as "The Happiest Places on Earth," and if you can find a Disney-produced movie with anything other than a happy ending, I'd like to hear about it.

In the 90s, Disney branched out into Broadway musicals, beginning with "Beauty and the Beast," then adding the wildly-successful 'The Lion King," "Mary Poppins," "Aida," "Tarzan" and others, winning multiple Tony awards along the way.

Disney's most recent Broadway effort is another Tony-nominated show, "Newsies," based on the 1992 film of the same name.  And it hews closely to the Disney brand, attempting to spread happiness at every possible turn.  The story is vintage Disney: scrappy kids fighting a great power, a love interest between a princess (in this case, the fetching daughter of famed publisher Joseph Pulitzer) and a commoner (the newsboy), evil henchmen, a wacky sidekick, life lessons and ultimately triumph by curtain time.

It's a proven formula - but as we all know, following formulas usually leads to results that are, well, formulaic. That's certainly the case here.  Though the production values are high (the set, in particular, was stunning), the sense of soul is non-existent.  The performers are talented and earnest, but there's no sense of sincerity behind what makes it to the stage.  There was never a moment where I heard a clever lyric, and really only one interesting turn in the story.  "Newsies" is loud (especially the dancing) and bright and cheerful, but ultimately empty.  Which, unfortunately, is right on brand for most of what Disney has produced in recent decades.  (Save for Pixar.  In fact, what "Newsies" needs is a heaping helping of Pixardust!)

The Night Ray Bradbury Kissed Me

Last night, Ray Bradbury died at his home in Los Angeles.  I remember as a boy reading "Farenheit 451," "Dandelion Wine," "R is for Rocket," "I Sing the Body Electric" and "The Illustrated Man," and adored getting lost inside his imagination.  But my most vivid memory of Bradbury is the evening I got to meet the man himself.

It was 1981 and I was living on Sutter Street in San Francisco, working at my first real job after college, the first where I was paid to be a writer.  Bradbury came to town to give a lecture as a fundraiser for the San Francisco Public Library.  A friend was a high-level volunteer at the library and invited me not only to the lecture, but to the reception afterward, which was to be held at Arion Press, a well-respected publisher of limited-edition books.  I can't say I remember much about the lecture itself, but what happened at the reception will stay with me forever.

Arion Press at that time occupied a smallish upstairs space on Commercial Street in San Francisco.  The room was filled with the tools of a fine press: the mechanical presses themselves, drying racks for the printed pages, plus bin after bin after bin of lead type.  The Arion Press was, and still is, one of the best publishers of limited editions.  At that time, they were celebrating the publication of their edition of "Flatland," a 19th century satirical novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott, about a two-dimensional world and what happens when a character from a land of three dimensions appears in Flatland.  The book was bound in an accordion fold so the entire book could be laid out flat.  Bradbury wrote the introduction, and signed each copy. (Only 275 were printed.)

While at the party, I was offered the opportunity to purchase a copy of "Flatland," as well as a copy of Arion Press's edition of "Moby Dick."  If I remember correctly, the price for "Flatland" was $400, and a copy of "Moby Dick" would have set me back $600.  Today, a copy of "Flatland" goes for more than $6000, and a copy of "Moby Dick" recently sold at auction for more than $25,000.  Missed opportunity; but at that point, $600 was probably close to my take-home pay for a month.

When Bradbury arrived at the party, two lines formed immediately.  The great man stood at the north end of the room, backed by a couple of presses.  The guests queued up to chat with him or shake his hand.  He would talk with one person in one line, then turn to the person at the head of the second line, chat with them, turn back to the first line...

I waited patiently until it was almost my turn.  I was first in my line, and Bradbury was talking to a woman at the front of the line to my left.  She gushed something like, "I've admired you for so long and always thought you were so attractive and that maybe one day you I and would..."  It was at this point that she extended the index finger of her right hand and formed a cylinder with her left hand, curling the fingers and resting them on the left thumb.  She then proceeded to insert the index finger into this cylinder, withdraw it, insert it, withdraw it, insert it...

Bradbury blinked, recoiled and instantly turned to me and said, "Well - how are you this evening?"  I gushed about how much I enjoyed his talk, how it had inspired me as a writer, blah blah blah.  The old man (though he was only 61 at the time, he seemed ancient to me) broke into a broad smile, reached out with both his hands, grabbed me by the back of the head, pulled me close and gave me a giant kiss right on the lips.

I think I said "thank you," and shortly thereafter stumbled out into the San Francisco night.