Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lansbury's Birthday Gift to Broadway

Instead of waiting for the world to give her a gift, she went and gave us one -- how classy can you get?

In my last blog, I innocently mused that if the upcoming revival of Blithe Spirit could come up with an exciting choice for the role of Madame Arcati, “the potential for theatrical magic will be damn near unbearable.” Little did I know that no less than Angela Lansbury would be taking on the role. Lansbury back on Broadway? Suddenly the word “magic” seems inadequate.

It is only just over a years since Lansbury appeared in Deuce, but I think I speak for most of her fans when I say how much we hoped that well-intentioned but unsatisfying play would not be her last Broadway hurrah. Lansbury is one of the most incandescent stars of my theatergoing lifetime. My sincere hope is that she has many years of excellent health ahead, but let’s be honest – few actors have held forth on Broadway through their eighth decade, and the divine Angela is now 83. Madame Acarti is precisely the kind of larger than life character that Lansbury excels at playing, and I can think of no one more suited to make every word of Noel Coward’s dialogue sparkle.

That Lansbury will be sharing the stage with Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett makes this the sort of exciting, power-packed theatrical event Broadway desperately needs. Sure, a part of me would be happier if that kind of excitement was provided by a new musical – but there are few sweeter prospects in any theatre-lover’s life than a stellar revival of a classic Coward comedy. And with Lansbury as Acarti – wow!

I have long since lost count of the times when I have taken part in an ovation welcoming Angela Lansbury to a stage. It is going to be a great joy to do so again. How nice of her to celebrate her 83rd birthday (Oct. 16th) by giving Broadway the newws that she's coming back -- how fascinational!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Nothing to Dance About

Those who would like to dismiss me as an impossible-to-please curmudgeon are going to love this post, but never let it be said I was afraid to state my honest opinion.

For most of my conscious life, each fall brought the fresh excitement of a new theatre season. But in recent years, that once-reliable excitement has been fading -- and I fear it has finally landed at point zero. I cannot pretend any real interest in the musicals heading to Broadway in the months ahead. The score to Billy Elliot is so tuneless and witless that I have no reason to waste two and a half hours of my life seeing the show attached to it. Every bit of 13 that I have heard so far has left me cringing, and as much as I love classic musical comedies, I see no compelling reason to drag out Guys and Dolls yet again. Oliver Platt as Nathan Detroit? Good grief -- if Nathan Lane were dead, he'd be spinning in his grave . . . as it is, he at least need not fear memories of his brilliant performance in that role being matched, let alone eclipsed. Much as I enjoy anything related to Harry Potter, I have no desire to see Daniel Radcliffe's genitals in a staging of Equus that drew universal critical shrugs. I'll admit that a musical version of 9 to 5 has some comic potential, but I can't help feeling that this project has come along a few decades too late to make much sense. The casting for Pal Joey does not entice me, the very idea of Shrek as a musical leaves me queasy, and I have to wonder at the wisdom of reviving West Side Story with (if rumors prove true) a 30 year old playing Tony.

And speaking of Bernstein musicals, I will attend the Encores production of On the Town with real trepidation. Thanks to the large Encores subscriber base, this concert staging will doubtless be well attended, but I suspect it will merely remind everyone why every New York revival of this show has been a resounding critical and financial failure. The original Jerome Robbins choreography is dazzling to see, but the creaky plot and cliche-ridden characters make for meager theatre.

The one bit of Broadway news that has tweaked my interest so far is the announcement that Noel Coward's sublime comedy Blithe Spirit is coming back with Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett, helmed by Michael Blakemore. Now THAT is a combination I can get excited about -- all three are perfect choices for this material. If they can come up with an equally interesting actor to play Madame Arcati, the potential for theatrical magic will be damn near unbearable. Bring it on!

I know there will almost certainly be a few surprises between here and next June. Perhaps someone fascinating will follow Lupone in Gypsy (a most unenviable task for whoever might dare it), and a new musical may take off in a non-profit venue and become Broadway's next Urinetown. In the meantime, this will be a great season to catch up on my reading and DVD collecting . . .

Does that make me a curmudgeon? Possibly. But I refuse to believe that it is curmudgeonly to wish for something exciting in a season that promises yawning mediocrity.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's Better With a Band

In the professional theatre, ticket buyers are voters. The way they spend their dollars has a genuine effect on what producers will bring to Broadway and the road in years to come. After several years where producers assured themselves that audiences didn't give a hoot about smaller orchestras, this past season saw audiences paying happily to see productions with full size orchestras -- and mind you, those musicians were placed in the spotlight for all to see as well as hear. Gypsy brought its full size orchestra straight from its run at the City Center Encores series, with the band on the St. James Theatre stage in all its glory. Uptown at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center actually peels the stage back so the audience can see the thirty pieces packing the expanded pit at South Pacific -- a dramatic gesture that wins cheers at every performance.

Synthesizers have their place, but it seems that musical theatre audiences really do want a full orchestra -- a reasonable desire at $120 a ticket. In recent years, the folks at Roundabout have subjected us to tiny orchestras for revivals of classic Sondheim musicals -- and the results were mediocre. Follies done with a 14 piece band sounded as cheap as it look -- and that was very cheap indeed. The recent revival of Sunday in the Park had much to admire, but with only a handful of musicians shove into a side box, the score simply did not sound right. I was shocked that Sondheim would allow such an embarrassment -- but he did, all in the name of economy.

Well, this past season proves that Broadway's economy requires a full size orchestra in the pit -- and thousands of people are lustily agreeing with me at every performance of Gypsy and South Pacific. Scores that aim for a more pop-based sound are welcome to their rock-sized bands, but real musicals deserve real orchestras, as do the audiences that pay to see them.
Return to