Thursday, July 31, 2008

This Season's Stars on Stage

Ran across this article in USA Today at lunchtime. Pretty interesting, though honestly, the only star appearance that gets me more than vaguely excited is Kristin Scott Thomas in "The Seagull." I'm sure Daniel Ratcliffe and Jude Law have their fans (and I like them both fine) but I'm not running up to NYC or flying over to London to see them. But maybe all of these star appearances will draw the crowds away from the show I want to see and I'll be able to get better tickets!

Casting Around for News

I’m sure there’s plenty to talk about on the local theater scene that I’ve missed lately because of being mired in my own little world. I could, for instance, berate myself further for not getting out to see SPARC’s “West Side Story,” which everyone has been telling me was just awesome. I could also comment on the summertime shows that are going to have cast substitutions soon – Harry the Horse in “Guys and Dolls” and a couple of folks in “There Goes the Bride” – and ponder how those kinds of changes alter the chemistry and timing in a show (does it tend to throw other cast members off or is everyone actually a little sharper? Discuss.)

But instead I find myself wondering how it is that Fergie got cast in “Nine?” Fergie? Maybe I shouldn’t judge; I mean, she did pull off a couple of great one-armed cartwheels during the American Idol finale. And I didn’t realize she had acted before. Perhaps I’ll rent “Grindhouse” and then judge the wisdom of that casting decision…

The Fergie announcement also had me thinking about stage-to-screen adaptations in the past and how they seem to always lead to some controversy over casting. Ever since the big “My Fair Lady” dust up more than forty years ago, second-guessing directors who look at star power versus vocal ability has been a national pastime. Rob Marshall definitely heard about it when he went with Renee Zellweger in “Chicago” and there were those who doubted both the leads in “Sweeney Todd” and I still don’t get the inspiration for John Travaolta in “Hairspray.” But, judging by the relative success of all of these adaptations mentioned, maybe directors actually know what they’re doing? Who’d’a thunk it?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Amen and Pass the Microphone

There ain't nothing new about theater in this week's Style, which gives me the opportunity to point out the wonderful remembrance of Liz Marks written by Irene Ziegler that was in last week's issue. I only knew Liz tangentially, but everything I read or hear reinforces the vision of her as just an incredible human being. Her passing is a great loss.

Just as tragic is the loss of someone who had as much potential as Reid Ashe. Reid had worked for the Barksdale and his passing is memorialized on their blog. Please hold Reid's parents in your hearts and prayers.

Even as hot as it is, it seems like a good day to hug the people you love.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Desire

U2’s “Rattle and Hum” album came out 20 freaking years ago and I still can’t read the word “desire” by itself without hearing it in my head as “De-si-I-I-I-I-ur.” But enough about my head…

You can’t talk about “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Sycamore Rouge without talking about Terry Menefee Gau. She does amazing things with a character seemingly tailor-made to showcase acting technique. It was my lovely wife who pointed out to me that even good actors think they have to “act drunk,” whereas an exceptional actress like Gau realizes that a real person who IS drunk generally is trying NOT to act drunk. This realization is clear in the many scenes where Blanche is getting drunk or is already there, and Gau shows both restraint and vigor in her performance. Gau does not condescend to Blanche, giving a finely attenuated portrayal of someone defensive but defiant, self-deluding but also self-aware, and all too thoroughly convinced in the forthrightness of her actions. The character of Blanche interacts with each other character entirely differently. Part of the power of Gau’s performance is that whether Blanche is with Stella, Stanley or Mitch, she is totally Blanche but also a different aspect of Blanche, unique in its mannerisms, tendencies and tone of voice.

Of course, if Gau didn’t have at least solid, and sometimes spectacular, support, her performance would get lost like a diamond on the beach. Equally as shiny as Gau was Angela Shipley as Stella. Stella spends a fair amount of time listening and reacting, but in some of the key scenes, Stella’s role is as vital as Blanche’s and Shipley nails these. A couple of my favorite Shipley moments were when Stella is first describing how she feels about Stanley and her desire is palpable and then later during the dinner scene when Stanley “clears the table.” In this scene, Shipley shows you Stella falling into the cadences and attitudes of Blanche, until she is abruptly brought back to reality.

I have to commend Bill Brock for taking on such a tough role, one so clearly identified with an acting icon. It would be almost impossible for an actor, any actor, not to suffer in comparison. Brock certainly does well and I was particularly impressed with the cleverness and the native intelligence he infuses Stanley with. The main thing I missed was the vulnerability that lies under Stanley’s gruff exterior, that soulful sensitive guy that really is lost without Stella. Capturing that in addition to everything else required of Stanley is a pretty tall order but its one of the things that kept Brock’s performance just a notch below that of the ladies, in my humble opinion.

I was sorry not to be able to mention Stafford Armstead as Mitch in my review. Casting an African-American in this role is an interesting choice and possibly distracting, particularly given Blanche’s apparent uneasiness around Dot and Eunice when she first comes onstage. Even so, Mr. Armstead does an excellent job, particularly given how much time he spends on stage just listening to Blanche. Armstead seemed just a wee bit awkward on stage, which either he was and it worked well for his character, or he wasn’t and it was an even better job of acting than I already gave him credit for.

It is always fun to see Shanea Taylor onstage and she and Dean Knight were entertaining as the upstairs neighbors. And it’s worth recognizing the thankless role of the Mexican woman played by Alison Haracznak. Actresses like her, who have to show up every night, say a couple of lines or fewer, and, in the case of Haracznak, spend their brief time on stage covered up and unrecognizable are among the real troupers of professional theater.

Finally, I couldn’t let this ramble go without mentioning the direction of Tommy Schoffler. Schoffler does a commendable job with an obviously challenging work. I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Full to Overflowing

As I watch the little gully that runs beside my house fill to a raging torrent thanks to this evening’s storm, I’m reflecting on how much entertainment I’ve stuffed myself with this weekend. Though I didn’t see him there, I joined Granville Scott (star of CAT’s “Harvey”) in watching the Lehigh Iron Pigs fall to “our” Richmond Braves on Saturday night. That was after an afternoon basketball game (my talented daughter was high scorer, though her team lost) and before sampling both a bad bad movie (“Domino”) and a good bad movie (“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”). Then today I followed Bruce Miller’s advice and brought all of the kids to see “Guys and Dolls,” which in some ways is a whole weekend’s worth of entertainment all by itself.

What’s fun about seeing a show like G&D a second time is to take in how its matured, how actors have gotten more comfortable with their characters (hopefully not to the point of boredom), and to catch things that went by too fast the first time. I laughed out loud during the final mission scene when Sky Masterson refers to the gamblers who have assembled, saying, “Sorry we didn’t have a chance to clean them up,” and amidst the hubbub that erupts Jason Marks as Nicely-Nicely Johnson said, “Hey, I flossed!” The great “Sue Me” duet between Adelaide and Nathan (Rachel Abrams and Scott Wichmann) seemed even funnier and more heart-felt the second time around. And the understated but affecting performance of Joel Grow as Arvide Abernathy – easy to overlook amidst everything else to take in on opening night – shone through more clearly.

A couple of other notes from the weekend:

- the almost criminally handsome and very personable Phillip Brown attended the same matinee of G&D as I did and set all of the T-line women’s hearts a-throbbing. If Richmond Shakespeare is selling advance tickets for next summer’s HV, I know at least three people interested.

- the Wichmann / Persinger pursuit of Sports Radio victory continues and no one seems to know when the voting is set to stop. As of Sunday at 7pm, they were 1% behind! Know any teenagers with extra time on their hands? Get them to vote!

- I ran into Terry Menefee Gau’s friendly and talented husband, David, for the second time in two weekends, which reminded me that I still haven’t weighed in with more in-depth-ish comments about “Streetcar” at Sycamore Rouge. That’ll have to wait until tomorrow. But until then, you can look over Susan Haubenstock’s review in today’s T-D that avoids the profusion of accolades that I showered upon the production and yet, is still very positive.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mamma Mia!

I was a little taken aback at the beginning of the week when I read that “Mamma Mia!” had the highest grossing opening weekend ever for a movie musical. “Mamma Mia!”?!!? That didn’t quite seem plausible. Even more amazing is, when you look at its total international receipts, the movie has already made more than $110 million.

I poked around a little and pulled up this chart that showed the movie already #14 on the all-time movie musical chart and also that the #1 movie musical was “Grease.” Where was “West Side Story” or “My Fair Lady,” I wondered? Then I noticed that they hadn’t split musicals out into their own category until 1974 (on Box Office Mojo, at least.)

So I pulled up this adjusted for inflation chart and saw the old favorites I was expecting: “Sound of Music” with a total gross of nearly $1 billion, “Mary Poppins” with more than $500 million, even “Rocky Horror” within shooting distance of $400 million (“Lady” is at #52 and “West Side” is at #64, in case you’re wondering).

Phew! I can rest easy now knowing that, as popular as “Mamma Mia!” is, it’s got a long way to go before it eclipses any of the classics. Personally, I’m hoping to sneak out to see “The Dark Knight” this weekend… “Mamma Mia!” well, maybe it’ll come to the Byrd in a month or two…

PS: While we're talking movies, I came across this list of the greatest screen adaptations of Shakespeare the other day. It's a little tiresome to work through all 30 of them, but I skipped to the end and it gave me a couple of movies to think about next time I'm wandering around Blockbuster wondering what would be good to watch. You might want to check it out!

Last Day?

After regaining a brief lead last night, Scott and Mark currently stand at 5% behind in the Sports Radio walk-on-week voting. If you delete you Internet Browser's cookies you can vote multiple times. I'm just saying...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Zoinks!

Just to keep you up-to-date on the Wichmann/Persinger SportCenter situation: Joe Thomas & Kellen Owings must have mounted some massive voting campaign because they now have greater than a 6% lead! Time to get friends and relatives, churches and schools involved!

Enthusical about Seussical

Our friend Lisa has kept true to her word and has reported back with her impressions of the Idina Menzel show the other night (hers is the last comment on this post). Sounds like a wonderful performance.

While it isn’t shaping up to be the week packed with theater that was advocated for me, I did manage to trudge through the rain last night and see a performance of SPARC’s “Seussical Jr.” and was happy to have done it. Just a few comments:

Tanner Pippert, who had a small role as one of the Lost Boys in Theatre IV’s “Peter Pan,” stepped up to the lead to play Horton and was remarkably good. He has an excellent voice – strong, unwavering, always on key – and he projected the sensitive and valiant elephant with professional polish. This is a young actor to watch.

There were many other standouts in the cast – Taylor Williamson as Gertrude McFuzz, Annie Hulcher as the Sour Kangaroo, and several more. Eric Pastore, who played Jojo, was having some trouble with his voice but also showed great professionalism by hanging in there and pushing through the rough spots.

One thing I feel I must mention is the excellent performance of an ensemble member of the cast, Allison Gilman, who played one of five “Bird Girls.” This young girl could give some grown-ups lessons in being an engaged and enthusiastic member of an ensemble. Particularly in children’s theater where the talent and attention of the supporting players can vary wildly, Ms. Gilman stood out as being consistently focused, fully committed in her participation in the main action, and a talented and animated dancer. Great job, Ms. Director, Deb Clinton, but next time, can you find a lead role for Allison?

PS: The show's running tonight (7pm) at Temple Beth El and tomorrow (11am) on the Ha'Penny Stage in Byrd Park. FYI!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Oh Henry

I find myself in a weird position regarding “Henry IV, Part 2.” In a way, I found fault with it for being too good in parts, something that seems inconsistent. Let me explain:

As I said in my review, I really enjoyed the prelude to the show. The dancing / tumbling / chanting rhythmic work of some of the show’s hottest actors – I already mentioned all of dreamy boys previously so let me just add that Suzanne Ankrum is every bit as dark, dashing and beautiful as her male compatriots – was highly entertaining, energizing, amusing, and overall just a great way to warm the crowd up in anticipation of the opening curtain.

In contrast to that bracing beginning, what comes after seems largely like rehash of the superior “Part 1.” There are some countrymen unhappy with Henry Bollingbrook but unlike the rebels of Part 1, the scattered opposition in Part 2 never coalesces into a true threat and eventually disbands, allowing the leaders to be easily captured by the king’s lieutenants. Part of the shame of this is that Brandon Crowder makes a dynamic Archbishop of York. If Shakespeare was still writing today, I’d petition him for a prequel about York just so Crowder could star in it.

Christopher Dunn is fine as Northumberland but I didn’t sense any great sorrow from him at hearing of the death of his son, and ultimately, his character is convinced to flee to Scotland. I can’t find fault with the pleadings of his wife and daughter-in-law but still, dramatically, the ultimate result makes the whole subplot kind of unnecessary, in my opinion. (Any Bard scholars who want to argue for its absolute necessity, have at it; I’m all ears.)

As far as Prince Hal and Falstaff go, neither seems to have been affected greatly by the events of “Part 1.” Hal is still a partier and womanizer and Falstaff is still an oaf and a scamp. Reading the text closely would reveal some small changes in degree for both characters but, as far as what comes across on stage, not much seemed different to me. As should be clear by now, most of my complaints are about the play itself. According to the small bit of research I did on the play, it is not nearly as frequently produced as “Part 1” or “Henry V” and my assumption would be that is because of these structural deficiencies. (Thanks, Andrew, for your bit of history on the play. I hadn’t read your comment until after I wrote this post.)

Another weird aspect of the play is that the misadventures of Falstaff and his gallery of commoners takes up so much time and energy in the play but not only is this action much more tangential to the main plotline than “Part 1” but, in the end, Falstaff and crew are brushed aside by Hal as he moves on to bigger and better things. I understand that the new King putting his boyish ways behind him is part of the point, but was it really necessary to spend so much time with these vagabonds if that’s where we were going to end up?

This all might be forgivable if the scenes with Falstaff were laugh-out-loud hilarious but, in my opinion, they were not. Part of the reason is the material. I have to give Director (Master of Play) James Bond credit for trying to goose up these scenes with directorial bits of fun. Crowder playing Shallow as a leering homosexual has its charms. But Bond making Joseph Anthony Carlson play with himself for 10 minutes on stage while alternately sticking his toes up his nose – certainly downright ground-breaking in rude humor -- in this context just highlighted how little substance there was in these scenes, if you ask me. (For the record: while not exactly a Ferrelly Bros fan or anything, I certainly enjoy the rude humor; “The Aristocrats” is one of my favorite movies, for instance. Just saying.)

The other part of why these scenes didn’t work for me was the performance of Daryl Clark Phillips. I don’t want to pick on Mr. Phillips as he does a fine job in many ways – he can certainly play the scamp and truly seems like he could talk himself out of any situation. His pointed speech praising the benefits of “sack” was well-delivered and a strong aspect of the production.

But I’ve always thought Falstaff should be a bit of a rogue – a fading womanizer, someone who Prince Hal could have become if he didn’t have the money and the connections. It is the devilish rogue that Mistress Quickly and Doll Highstreet still love even when Falstaff cheats them and insults them. I didn’t get a sense of the rogue in Phillip’s performance. Also, there was a cadence-of-speech thing in Phillips’s performance that distracted me, times when he hesitated over lines or interrupted the internal rhythms. I don’t know if he was directed to deliver them that way or if it was an acting choice or if he was still having trouble remembering all of his lines at the first preview performance I saw. But the effect on me was that I lost patience with Falstaff fairly quickly.

I should say that there were several folks who seemed to enjoy the highjinks in these scenes. But, as Randy on “American Idol” would say, they were just a’ight for me. However, when Henry IV shows up back on stage midway through the second act, I was very quickly wrapped up in the action again. To be honest, I was disappointed when I heard that Jack Parrish was not going to play Henry IV, having given such a ferocious performance last summer. But my disappointment was dispelled immediately when Bridgewater started digging into the role. And when Henry starts to falter late in the second act, Bridgewater’s acting is truly exquisite. I really could have watched a whole night of Phillip James Brown’s Prince Hal and Bridgewater’s Henry going at it. Add in the whole court of Henry’s sons – played by Crowder, Carson, and Jeff Cole – and you’ve got a killer play with just those five actors.

So the hard thing was that these last scenes, particularly the tete-a-tete between King and Prince, outshone everything that came before it so completely that the moderately entertaining scenes in the middle seemed downright mediocre in retrospect. One thing the production did for certain though, was whet my appetite for Henry V. With the focus so solidly on Brown as the new king – and perhaps with Bond directing again? – I expect spectacular things next summer.

Two for Henry P2 plus Streetcar

This week's Style has a nice little profile of the handsome Phillip James Brown (by Mary B) as well as my capsule review of "Henry IV, Part 2," included with my raving outflow of adjectives used to describe "Streetcar" at Sycamore Rouge.

I'll have supplementary thoughts about HIVP2 tomorrow (by which I mean later today). Feel free to bombard me with questions or comments in the meantime.\

(910 AM Update: As of 8AM this morning, Wichmann / Persinger have a healthy 4% lead. But don't get complacent! Get out the vote!)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rockin at the Rouge

I really meant to get out to Sycamore Rouge earlier. After all, it's just a couple of exits further down I-95 than Swift Creek Mill. Some of the shows they've been doing there have sounded interesting (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Nickel and Dimed, etc.). People had told me that the theater was really nice. Still, the months passed, shows opened and closed, and still I didn't make the trip.

Well, now I realize just how dumb that was. The theater is not just nice -- the couch and cafe table setup with an open bar and waitresses make it like no other theater around (you'd either have to merge the Firehouse and ComedySportz for something similar, or build a bigger stage in the cafe area of Barksdale's Willow Lawn location). The courtyard outside seems like a great place to hang out (when it's not 100 degrees) and the people there were quite warm and hospitable. The city street location gives it the ambiance of an urban enclave but the behind-the-venue parking makes it more accessible. And the production I saw, well, it was quite fantastic.

My outing to Sycamore Rouge last Friday taught me a valuable lesson: don't let new venues go unexplored. When the next new venue opens up in town (hmmm...maybe Stage 1 in a few months?), I'll be sure to get there, if not on opening night, at least shortly thereafter.

Guys (no Dolls)

I think the very first time I met Scott Wichmann, he talked about sports. He blogs about sports. He plays sports. He probably dreams about sports. He clearly has an abiding interest in sports.

Scott has found someone who shares his interests in castmate Mark Persinger (aka "Big Julie" in "Guys and Dolls") and the two of them make a great pair as guest talkers on Sports Radio 910. Besides both being great actors, they both have great radio voices, Scottie having more of that play-by-play polish and Mark having a hint of an accent that makes for a great color commentator. Check out a sample of them here and then vote the two of them as best walk-on guests. If they win, they'll do a full week stint next month. When I voted, they were 1% behind Chuck and Jimmy. You all can put them over the top!

(Update: as of 8:30am this morning, Scott and Mark had a .3% lead! That's pretty slim!)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stressing out

OK, so I'm having a hard enough time handling the fact that there are 5 professional mainstage productions running right now -- at the end of July when sane people are supposed to be off at the beach somewhere. I'm lucky in that I've seen three of them but I'm going to be scrambling to catch the other two.

Then today, I was reminded that the "Parade" benefit concert has its last performance tonight. Love the idea of the show, love the list of performers (Rita...sigh...), would love to see the show, but I just can't make it. Also, both of SPARC's summer productions, "Suessical, Jr." and "West Side Story," start performances this week and I really want to see them as well. What am I supposed to do? There are only so many nights in a week, people!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hank, Stanley and the Steingolds

Ms. Haubenstock ladled the accolades on “Henry IV, Part 2” in today’s T-D. I like the rollercoaster opening line, in particular, though my impressions of the goings-on were a little different than Susan's. More on that in a couple of days or so…

My wife and my best friend joined me at Sycamore Rouge's "Streetcar Named Desire" on Friday. It was pretty much the best company I could have asked for when taking in a play and so I was extra happy that the show didn't suck. I'll expound more on just how incredibly much it didn't suck in my opinion, also in a couple of days.

In the meantime, you may enjoy taking in this new blog by the Steingold sisters, two locals with some pretty impressive theater experience who have decided to share their often hilariously biting senses of humor via their perspectives on the theater scene. My favorite line of theirs that I’ve read so far is their impression of the Barksdale show, “The Clean House,” based on the audition announcement: “It's pretty much "Menopause: The Musical" but with Portuguese people. And without music. And with a man.”

I think I (and you too!) can look forward to many more laughs from these stage-oriented sisters in the months to come.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Boys

Last weekend, a friend of mine gave me some gentle ribbing about the public profession of my crushes in this space (by the way, Happy Birthday, Liz Blake!) As I think I’ve said before and will say again, one of the many reasons I enjoy theater is that I love great actresses, respect them, am in awe of them, find them fascinating, intriguing, uncommonly intelligent and incredibly attractive. And I write that with the hopefully understood follow-on statement that more than 16 years ago I was extremely lucky to convince the most beautiful actress I know to marry me, and so I’m not trolling around looking for a replacement (though I often tell the children I am…)

Anyway, while I love me some actresses, last night was all about the boys. If you are a fan of dark, dangerous and dashing young men, then “Henry IV, Part 2” should be a top-of-the-page addition to your must-see list. Normally, the fiery Tony Santiago (who was so good in last year’s “Spinning into Butter”) would satisfy the hunk quotient for any show but here he is just one of nearly a half dozen pieces of male eye-candy. There’s also Brandon Crowder who has something of a young Brad Pitt (remember him burning up “Thelma and Louise”?) about him and then the wild-eyed Joseph Anthony Carlson, who shows enough naked torso during the evening to set many a heart to racing.

And of course, there is the reprise of Phillip James Brown as Prince Henry, a bit shaggier than last summer but with every ounce of sex-appeal still intact. I’ll have more to say about the show itself in a few days, but Shakespeare notwithstanding, there are a lot of hot, talented men steaming up the Agecroft stage these days. If that floats your boat, I’d rush out and see the show before they catch fire and disappear.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Conversation Rejoined

Mr. Miller at the Barksdale Blog, once again showing his fabulous mensch-ness (?), has weighed in on some of the conversation that was going on here a few days back. For those who are late to the show, here's a link to some of the comments that were going back and forth.

The Non-Interview

It’s an ever-vexing journalistic conundrum: what do you do when the interview falls through? You’ve promised your editor a certain amount of words or a bunch of column inches and what you’ve got is bubkas, a bunch of research and old news and nothing straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

An intern at Style apparently had to deal with that in her recent attempts to sync schedules with Idina Menzel, the Broadway chanteuse most recently celebrated for her run in “Wicked.” I quite enjoy Katy Johnstone’s “what she could be doing instead of talking to me” take on the situation, just as I enjoyed her “online only” review of Richmond Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” last week.

I will always have a small chip on my shoulder when it comes to Chris Rock who proved to be a bit of a tool when it came to committing to an interview with me some 9 years back. I used a fair amount of borrowed material and duct tape to put an article about him together just the same, but still resent that he couldn’t spare 10 minutes to give me an original quote or two.

But Brent Baldwin did an epic job in recounting his challenges in trying to score a chat with rocker Lou Reed, who, if you’ll pardon the language, seems to be something of a shit. On the other extreme, I just talked yesterday with Michael Clem of “Eddie from Ohio” for a piece I’m doing for Playlist magazine and he was about the nicest guy I talked to all week. He even emailed me a picture of his bandmate Robbie Schaefer and his pals Barenaked Ladies (one of my favorite bands). It’s great experiences like this one that clears the slate after a bad interview, making you realize that “celebrities” are just like other folks -- some are jerks and some are the salt of the earth -- only more so.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

There Goes the Valentine

In the latest Style two-fer, both "There Goes the Bride" and "Shirley Valentine" are covered in a piece by Mary B in the latest issue. I'm gearing up for my own two-fer this weekend but am planning to get out to see both "Bride" and "Valentine" before the season slips away. Whatever happened to summer being a dead time for theater?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Stars on stage

I had some pretty exciting local news that I was asked very nicely to remove from this here site yesterday (I'll be sure and break it when I'm allowed...) so I’m turning to the national scene to fill the space. Yesterday, it was announced that Whoopi Goldberg is going to fill in for a stint at “Xanadu” later this month. Whoopi’s becoming a real Broadway advocate these days.

Also, in Hollywood casting news, Kate Hudson was added to the slate of top-notch actors working on the screen adaptation of “Nine.” Ms. Hudson doesn’t exactly thrill me but I do think it’s interesting that the role was created especially for her and that composer Maury Yeston wrote a new song just for her. Stage purists might get their backs up but given director Rob Marshall’s success with “Chicago,” I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that this will be a “value-add” kind of change. I guess we’ll see when the movie opens (presumably) next year…

Monday, July 14, 2008

Surely Shirley

Ms. Haubenstock has weighed in on "Shirley Valentine," which doesn't seem to have suffered quality-wise due to its delayed opening, at least in Ms. H's opinion. Given that it's anchored by Jill Bari Steinberg, I'm not really surprised. The last time I saw JB on stage was when she was moderating a panel of theater critics back in February and even in such a little, potentialy off-hand role, it was impressive the care she brought to the task and how she simply lights up on stage. If there's anyone I know who seems born to be an actress, it's Ms. Steinberg.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Life is Good

I’m wrapping up one of those rare weekends where I really feel in touch with all there is to appreciate about life (maybe it has something to do with finally getting my economic stimulus check…) In honor of that, this post is going to be all about good things.

First, my budding thespian son said tonight, “instead of commercials, I think the radio should just have tips about life.” “Like what?” I asked. “Like telling you to reuse your plastic water bottles and stuff.” Budding thespian, budding environmentalist, I could hardly be prouder.

I listened to a podcast interview with Laura Linney (sigh…) today in which she had this well-balanced thing to say about critics: “I'm one of those people who think theatrical criticism is very important. It's important for the historical record, it's important for the business, it's important. However, it's completely unfair to look to a critic to tell you how to feel about your own work. That's not their job. It's psychologically foolish. [But] we're all susceptible to it because we're all human.” Another reason for me to love Laura Linney.

I skipped right over this item in Style this past week about Rene Marie and the National Anthem. But then I heard about it from two different other media outlets and went back to read it again. How does this fit into the “good thing” paradigm? Because I think it’s a good thing to debate, particularly among performers. On one hand, when you are hired to do a job, it’s unprofessional really to do something that is not that job and because of that, I side with Obama on this one in the final analysis. However, I also love this kind of thing that shakes people up. So many aspects of our heritage, history and culture are just blandly or blindly accepted and only when someone does something unexpected do people really examine that aspect. For instance, isn’t it ironic that the line “land of the free” was written when slavery was very much in place and thriving in America?

One last good thing: I interviewed Rene Marie many years ago when she was about to appear in “Ella and Her Fella Frank” at the Barksdale and she’s really a sweet and amazing person.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Correction

As has been pointed out to me, the concert performance of "Parade" is next weekend (July 20-21), not this weekend. Duh. I'm fixin to get a handle on this whole calendar thing someday real soon.

Whether the Weather

Apparently because of weather-related power problems out at the Tavern, construction of the “Shirley Valentine” set has been interrupted over the past couple of weeks, leading to a postponement of opening night to Sunday afternoon. It’s the kind of schedule change that I imagine only gets made under extreme duress so I expect the folks at Barksdale are awash in reservation rescheduling madness. I’m still looking forward to the show, though it’ll probably be early-August before I can get out there.

If you were planning on going to “SV” tonight and now you’re looking for something to fill the space, there’s a very interesting sounding special event going on. Tonight down at Sycamore Rouge, bring your best Marlon Brando imitation to the “Stella!” Calling contest and fundraiser, held in anticipation of “Streetcar Named Desire” opening next week. Angie Shipley will be ensconced on the theater roof, waiting for the ultimate Stanley to call her down. Winner gets two tickets to opening night of the show. KB Saine says, “people are planning to rip off their shirts for Stella.” Doesn’t that sound like fun? If you want to warm up, there’s a link to the Brando original here (I think).

Another special event this weekend will be the concert version of “Parade,” produced by Hannah Zold and playing at the Barksdale at Willow Lawn on Sunday and Monday. More deets are here. You won’t see the impressive cast list on Barksdale’s site, which includes a large swath of the “Guys and Dolls” cast as well as many other Richmond faves. It should be an exciting event, and it’d be great if it whets people’s appetites for a full-blown production of what sounds like an amazing show.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Star struck

I'm a little hesitant to post anything because sometimes it seems like the longer I leave a topic alone, the more conversation it percolates. But I have to break away from the whole audition discussion to say that I had the occasion today to talk briefly with former Richmond resident Emily Skinner. Emily, who forevermore will have the moniker "Tony Award-nominated actress" attached to her name (at least until it changes into "Tony Award-winning" or "Grammy Award-winning" or some other such upgrade), is teaching a Master Class at SPARC today and tomorrow for the lucky cast of "West Side Story." Between Emily's visit and Caridad Svich working with New Voices I'd have to say that SPARC is really delivering the goods this summer. And that's not even mentioning their new building which is pretty awesome with scads of potential.

(Full disclosure: I didn't know who Svich was until I looked her up on her website. Then I remembered "Any Place But Here" and "Prodigal Kiss" and a couple other of her works.)

Anyway, I don't think I'd seen Emily since I was handing her props backstage during the original production of "Quilters" when she was about 16. And even though that was more than 20 years ago and there's been scads of water under the bridge since then, I was still a little star struck. I mean, I was a little star struck back when she was 16 and that was before the Tony nomination and the success in all sorts of productions since. I can report that Emily is still gorgeous and was very sweet and personable in our short chat. I think there are some very lucky SPARC kids who were probably a little star struck today as well.

And one final word on SPARC: as many of you have undoubtedly heard, one of SPARC's most valued employees, Ms. Erin Thomas-Foley, had her sweet little baby back on July 5th (for a cute picture, check out the muffinface blog). Congrats to Erin and Tony, Sophia looks like a little angel (and like a potential Tony Award nominee -- she's certainly got the genes!).

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Playbill

I’ve become more impressed with Playbill’s nose for news these days. You’ve probably heard about the “Ragtime” controversy in Chicago. Playbill was the first to report on it and it was picked up by several other media outlets, including the New York Times.

In the past week or so, Playbill is also where I saw the first report of an exciting piece of news: Spike Lee (one of my favorite directors) will be filming “Passing Strange” for broadcast on cable TV. This is particularly exciting given that I’m afraid that, for all its critical love, the show does not seem like it’ll be playing for an extended run, at least based on its box office numbers.

One additional, minor Playbill item that peaked my interest: Hunter Parrish from “Weeds” will be taking over one of the leads in “Spring Awakening.” Though I am a “Weeds” fan, Parrish has never been one of my favorite aspects of the show. But I have a little more respect for him knowing that he must have at least a half-way decent stage presence (and singing voice) to have landed that role.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Subjectivity

It has been pointed out to me that a recent anonymous comment in response to my “Semi-relevance” post is such a thinly disguised reference to a specific audition that it essentially ‘disses a specific director and calls into question the casting of a specific actor under the guise of anonymity. As such, I have two responses to the comment.

--> If you are going to go after someone specifically, I think you should have the guts to say who you are. I don’t know which director you are accusing of being disingenuous, Anon, but I’m sure someone does. To throw a potshot like this without standing behind it is cowardly. I continue to allow anonymous posting on this blog but it’s comments like these that make me reconsider that policy.

--> In your comment you say, “There was a woman from out of town who got up to read for one of the leads. She was without a doubt the person that captured the role.” “Without a doubt?” As I’m sure you are aware, Anon, a role is not like a high score in a video game or a prisoner of war. It cannot be “captured” in any objective sense. What a director is looking for is completely subjective and based on dozens of factors. What look is he/she going for? How does one actor interact with another? How well do they take direction? Etc. etc. etc.

For a director to make the kind of speech you refer to, Anon, seems like a fairly forthright and proactive thing to do. Just because the resulting choice did not meet with your approval, I don’t think you have any basis for criticizing the sincerity of the director who made the speech. You can certainly question the wisdom of the choice that was made – but that will be borne out with the success or failure of the resulting production, not in the announcement of the cast list.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Goodbye Liz. We'll miss you.

As many of you have heard, Liz Marks passed away this morning. Liz was a mainstay in the Richmond community for many years and she helped dozens and dozens of actors in their careers through her casting agency. Beyond being successful, respected and liked, she was also recognized for her excellent work with a Emmy nomination in 2004. She will be missed.

No funeral arrangements have been announced yet, but I would suggest keeping an eye on the Caring Bridge site set up in her name for further information.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Shakespeare Riots

I heard a great story on NPR this morning about frontier productions of Shakespeare in 19th century America and a New York riot that resulted from a production of "Hamlet." I highly recommend giving it a listen for a small window into the theater world of more than a hundred years ago. It also is the first of three shows that Morning Edition will be doing on Shakespeare. Tomorrow: the infamous authorship question!

This serves as a great lead-in to talking about the production of “The Taming of the Shrew” that I saw in South Carolina. I went to this show with very low expectations; my experiences with out-of-town not-major-market Shakespeare have not been good, with a particularly hideous Colorado Springs production of “Titus Andronicus” still assaulting my memory. Luckily for me, there ended up being many exceptional things about this production.

The venue was charming. The Warehouse Theatre is a very nice, unassuming black box theater just a block away from the main downtown park area of Greenville. It’s kind of stuck on the end of a bunch of other shops and such but it has a great glass fa├žade and the performance space is more than roomy enough.

This was at least the fourth, possibly the fifth, different production of “Shrew” that I’ve seen and yet it was the first I’ve seen that I remember including the Induction scenes with Christopher Sly. I expect these are usually cut to trim the show’s length. Including these scenes – and paying significant attention to them – is one of many interesting-though-not-entirely-successful choices made by the production’s director, Jayce Tromsness with the Distracted Globe Theatre Company. He also includes many bits of entr’act business involving the ensemble in clown garb. While the first couple of these are amusing, they diminish in impact in the second act and become nearly annoying by the end.

The main highlights of the production were an excellent Kate (Jennifer Goff) and an over-the-top hilarious Petruchio (Jason Shipman). Tromsness found many unexpected places in the script to cultivate for humor and Shipman maximized their impact fabulously. Shipman will be added to my list of itinerant folks to keep an eye out for. He is a gifted comic actor.

But to return to the Induction scenes: Tromsness uses the story of Sly to frame the Kate-Petruchio story in a way that sheds a different light on aspects of the plot that seem inherently sexist to the modern audience. It was hard for me to figure out if this different light was supposed to be ironic or just ridiculous. It’s a valiant effort to diffuse the problematic elements of the play but it causes problems of its own. The main one is that, if the framing device is supposed to be ironic, it undermines the sense of true affection that develops between Kate and Petruchio during the course of the play.

As thorny as the sexism is in “Shrew,” most productions I have seen deal with it by trying to communicate a sense of an authentic bond between the lead couple (in stark contrast to the more ephemeral or utilitarian couplings of the other characters). Tromsness tries a different and intriguing course of action. It’s great to be challenged by a different strategy and the result ended up being exceptionally entertaining.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Shooting for semi-relevance

I was going to talk about my South Carolina experience today but realized that there were much more relevant things to talk about. Specifically, Joe Pabst has been kind enough to share some of the ample contents of his mind in this space, in response to a post a couple of weeks ago and then again this past week.

Like Joe, I had some reactions to the anonymous poster who I think brings up many good points. So also like Joe, I’ll kick in my two cents in response to a couple of Anon’s assertions.

Anon said: “The same people work over and over at the same theaters, and there's a dearth of fresh blood to keep the heart of Richmond's theater vital.”

Believe me, Anon, there have been times that I have shared this exact sentiment, particularly at a time that I’m seeing a bunch of shows and I’m seeing a lot of the same people in all of them. I understand why it happens and Joe is right to point out that “People like working with people they like.” In any risky venture – and theater can certainly be risky – there’s a very good reason to go with what you know. There are enough variables to juggle already; wondering whether this new actor you’ve brought in has a hidden heroin addiction or will never be less than 30 minutes late for rehearsal are not things a director wants to worry about.

But here are two other elements to bring to that discussion. One is that some of the best surprises I’ve had at the theater involved an actor who I’d seen a dozen times before tackle something that was a true departure and totally nail it. The first distinct time I can remember experiencing this was when I saw Paul Deiss in “Greetings” years ago. More recently, I found Derek Phipps in the current “Guys and Dolls” a bit surprising. In fact, Mr. Phipps has been delightfully adept at avoiding typecasting. All I’m saying is that the same people working over and over again does not have to be boring or redundant if those people are given interesting material that might challenge them and surprise the audience.

Secondly, I have seen a fair amount of fresh young talent in the local scene in the past year or so. And younger and smaller companies like Henley Street, Sycamore Rouge, AART and CAT are pretty regularly giving actors new to the scene a chance to cut their teeth. You also have a young director like Jase Smith who has been able to bring new blood to RTP and the Firehouse. The bigger problem than a dearth of fresh blood in my opinion is the ability to keep the young and ambitious around long enough to fully exploit their talents. For a while there this spring I seemed to receive weekly reports of actors I had enjoyed watching leaving town. I guess it’s inevitable and I guess we’re lucky that U of R and VCU continue to bring new talent into the area. I just hope that enough students decide to hang on here so we continue to have a good supply of seasoned talent around.

Another comment from Anon that caught my attention was: “The average working New York actor will be stronger than the average Richmond actor, simply because of natural selection.” Hmmm… I can kind of see the logic of this statement if you are really talking about across-the-board averages but, in my opinion, I think the average working NYC actor will mostly be better at working the system (i.e., marketing themselves) and not necessarily a stronger performer. There’s really no way to come up with empirical definitive evidence to support either side of the argument on this one, though. It’s a mix of statistical ideas (averages) and completely subjective criteria (“stronger”).

I will offer this one anecdote that is contrary to Anon’s statement. I saw “Diary of Anne Frank” in Richmond with a cast of “average” Richmond actors and then just a couple years later, a Broadway production with a number of “average” NYC actors (including Natalie Portman as Anne). I can say that, in my opinion, across the board the Richmond cast was stronger than the Broadway cast.

OK, enough semi-relevant ramblings. Tomorrow: SC!