Porgy and Bess

When I was a little girl, my parents listened to records on the stereo.  And a lot of those records were soundtracks.  So I grew up knowing the words and music to a lot of musicals I hadn’t actually seen.   One of the greatest joys about moving to New York has been, not only being able to see so many Broadway plays and musicals, but also to have the opportunity to see revivals of some of the musicals I fell in love with simply through the score.

One of those musicals is Porgy and Bess and recently I had the opportunity to go to the Richard Rogers Theatre and see the new revival with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis.  If you read the papers you’re already familiar with the brouhaha that surrounded the premiere of the revival complete with words from Stephen Sondheim.   A lot of them not so good.

BUT, I’m here to tell you that I found the musical thoroughly entrancing.  I’d already fallen in love with Audra McDonald.  I hadn’t had the opportunity to see her on Broadway although she’s been in several productions since I’ve lived here, but I’ve heard her sing on various shows, and adored her character on Private Practice.  So I’ll admit it was a toss-up between seeing her and hearing the Gershwin’s music that drew me to the production.

And neither of them disappointed.  McDonald was sublime.  As many of the reviews have said, she is the soul of the show.   Her physicality, especially during the rape scene on the island is spell-binding.  We can actually feel Bess’s  dejection, hope, despair, and finally acceptance as she moves through the story.   Bess is one of the most finely wrought characters I’ve seen in musical theatre in a long time.  And here, in McDonald’s capable hands, she was beautifully portrayed.

But in my mind, the show belonged to Norm Lewis.  If McDonald is the soul, he is the heart.  His Porgy embodied what it is to find something in the middle of nothing and to realize the importance of the find. Not only in the fact that he comes to love Bess, but that in the aftermath of everything that happens, he has actually become a stronger man.  One who is now willing to fight for more than what he’s come to believe is his place in life.   And although the show ends on a note not exactly true to the original (as I understand) I thought it was lovely.  And Lewis’s portrayal was emotionally wrenching and uplifting all at the same time.   And like McDonald, his physicality was amazing.

David Alan Grier who I’ve watched on television for years, was great fun to watch on stage as well.  And his singing voice was excellent.  Ain’t Necessarily So, one of my favorite song was the high point of his performance.

Summertime, sung first by Nikki Renee Daniels and then in the second act by McDonald, was beautifully done both times.  And worth the ticket price just to hear both women sing the song.   And to hear it in the context of the story made it even more moving.   In addition to Daniels, the rest of the supporting cast was excellent. Particularly,  Natasha Yvette Williams as Mariah and Joshua Henry as Jake.

The set was simple but evoked a time and place and was well used as we moved from the town square to Porgy’s house, to the island and back again.  The storm was beautifully done with sound and lighting and the loss of both Jake and Clara was keenly felt through the choreography as well as the music.

All in all it was a magical night at the theatre and a chance to see and hear a great American classic, sung by an amazing cast led by McDonald and Lewis.

Porgy and Bess, Richard Rogers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street  (212) 221-1211


There is something magical about Stephen Sondheim’s musicals.  And Follies, playing a limited run at Marquis theatre was no exception.   I went because I am a huge fan of Bernadette Peters.   Having seen her in A Little Night Music, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to see her again.

But beyond just hearing Peters sing, I also experienced a wonderful production with a story centering on how our past affects not only our present but our future.  The stories of Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Benjamin serve as the center of a delicious confections that includes one of the best groups of supporting actors I’ve seen gathered for a single performance.  Every number was an absolute delight.

Peters frazzled Sally was the perfect foil to Kirsten Scott’s elegant (and repressed) Phyllis.  Peters first act number (a wild combination of truth and lies) In Buddy’s Eyes was flawlessly performed with her trademark ability to transcend the music and communicate instead the emotion at the heart of it.   Scott’s Could I leave You in Act 2 had similar power and in many ways was one of the strongest moments in the musical.

However, the showstopper, and I mean that in a literal sense, was Who’s that Woman, a company number lead by Terri White.   If you see this woman’s name in anything… GO.  She’s fantastic.  I’ve heard of showstoppers my entire life.  Can even reel off a number of the ones that were exactly that in their day.  But I’ve never been present for one.  And it was truly a treat.   Ms. White was amazing and held the audience in the palm of her hand.  Other members of the cast were equally delicious, including Elaine Paige, playing Carlotta and slaying the crowd, as well as Jayne Houdyshell and Mary Beth Peil.

Although the younger cast was also superb, the old gals had them in spades.  And I can’t remember a musical where I’ve so looked forward to the next number.

And beyond the music, the staging itself was truly magnificent.  The shades of the women as young girls (the play is set in the crumbling ruins of what was once a theatre housing the Follies—and the reunion on the eve of its destruction of many of the former performers, including Sally and Phyllis) that still haunt the theatre are beguiling and spellbinding and when they become shadows of their older selves as in Who’s that Woman, it is sheer magic.

All in all a wonderful night at the theatre.   Unfortunately, Follies closed its limited run on January 22, but if there’s a cast album…buy it!

Follies, Marquis Theatre

On A Clear Day

Recently went to see a preview of On A Clear Day at the St. James Theatre.  Starring Harry Connick, Jr., the revival is more of a redux, as the story has been reimagined slightly, with the focus now being more on Dr. Mark Bruckner than on Daisy Gamble.

Originally, a starring vehicle for Barbara Harris on Broadway and Barbra Streisand in the movie version, this time out, Connick is clearly at the center of the piece, although the ensemble cast is excellent and fills things out nicely.  In this version, Daisy is now David, played with breezy ditz by David Turner (who was absolutely marvelous).  And his long past self, Melinda Wells, now a singer from the 40’s, is played by Jessie Mueller.   In the original, both Harris and Streisand played both parts.  But in splitting David/Daisy and Melinda into two unique characters—who are able to occupy the stage at the same time, I found the story much more haunting.

By adding the gender issues involved with Mark falling in love with Melinda, through the

David Turner

physical presence of David, who in turn begins to fall in love with Mark, the show has added depth.  It’s an impossible triangle, and one which I think adds resonance to what was essentially a fluff piece before.  (Although, that said, I did watch the movie over and over as a kid.)  To add layers to Connick’s character, the story is framed around the loss of his wife, and the grief and loneliness that result from that loss.  I think it makes Mark’s somewhat callous use of David and his past more understandable.

Set in 1974, the costumes and set seemed to come more from the late sixties, but the colors were fun and provided as a provocative backdrop to the “modern” day parts of the story.   David’s magical touch with flowers remains along with his romance with Warren Smith, played by the charming Drew Gehling.  Added or at least not remembered by me, was a pining colleague of Mark’s, and a wonderful turn by Lori Wilner as Mark’s secretary.

Jessie Mueller

The music, some of it taken from other Lerner fare, is fabulous.  Particularly when Connick and/or Mueller sing.   Ms. Mueller’s voice is really strong, and the audience has no trouble at all buying her as an up and coming singer in the 1940’s; especially in her first number “Open Your Eyes.”  Connick, who seems more comfortable here than he did in the Pajama Game (which was wonderful on all counts by the way), blends into the cast with remarkable ease, and at times you even forget his star power.  But when he opens his mouth, particularly on the first act number, “She Isn’t for You”, and the title piece “On A Clear Day”, it is pure heaven.  His voice, although aging slightly, is still remarkable.  Smooth, easy and sensual all at the same time.

Turner’s “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” is delightful.  And his physicality throughout the musical is great fun to watch.  The transformation of David into Melinda is both humorous and heart-rending as we begin to see the pain in store for both David and Mark.  A moment in the middle of the play when Mark dances with Melinda (and by default also with David) brought tears to my eyes.  I wanted everyone to have their happy ending.   And yet I knew, it was impossible.

Overall, I thought it was a wonderful show.  And I’ll be honest, based on the changes, I

Harry Connick, Jr.

wasn’t sure I was going to like David as much as I did Daisy.  But the truth is, I liked him much more.  Turner kept David from dropping into stereotype, instead giving the character strength as well as ditz and a charming innocence that pulls the audience in and has them rooting for his happiness.  How I wish Turner could have been Jesus in Godspell, it would have been an entirely different revival.

All in all, it was a wonderful evening at the theatre.  And I highly recommend it.  Sometimes things change and they manage to lose their luster.  Sometimes though, the changes only make everything better.  On A Clear Day falls into the latter category.

On A Clear Day, St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street, (212) 239-6200,  www.telecharge.com

Off With Her Head!

As I said earlier, it’s a new season on Broadway, which means lots of new openings.   We recently went to see a preview of the musical, Wonderland.   Now I should state right up front that I’m an unabashed Alice fan.  I fell in love with Alice in Wonderland as a kid, and then even more so with Alice Through the Looking Glass when I was a bit older.  And I’ve never stopped loving the wildly nonsensical world of Lewis Carroll.

I adored Tim Burton’s vision of Alice.  The casting, the story, the special effects, all of it lived up to my vision of the book.  Carroll would have been honored.   So it was with much excitement that I sat down to see Wonderland, book by Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy and music and lyrics by Jack Murphy and Frank Wildhorn.

The opening montage, the original drawings coming to life against a scrim were fabulous.  And roving quotes from the book made it all that much more alluring.  Equally provocative was the overture.   The audience tittered (and probably twittered) and quieted.  The curtain pulled back to reveal, not a rabbit hole, but a New York Apartment.

The story, a modern day version of Alice’s descent into Wonderland complete with a faulty elevator, is simple.  Alice (Janet Dacal), a newly separated single mother, has just moved to a new apartment.  The stress of everything has left her exhausted and as she falls into a restless sleep, a white rabbit appears, and well, except for the elevator, you know this part of the story.

The bright colors and brilliant set pieces for Wonderland set the tone for a rousing first half where we meet many of our favorite characters, some of them old friends and some slightly reimagined.  The rabbit, although earless, is priceless as he rushes around avoiding the words “I’m late, I’m late”.  (Disney copyright, don’t you know).   And E. Clayton Cornelius is wonderful as the Caterpillar.   As is Jose llana as El Gato (a slightly altered version of the Cheshire Cat).

Photo: Michael Daniel

But the real star is costume designer Susan Hilferty (Wicked, Spring Awakening).  From the caterpillars back loaded pants and side-kick legs, to the Queen of Hearts fabulous dresses, the costumes steal the show.    And I found myself looking forward to the introduction of new characters, or new scenes with new outfits.  The March Hare’s dreadlocks, and the Mad-Hatter (again cleverly reimagined)with her bustier and boots were equally outstanding.

Even the introduction of Jack, the White Knight, was cleverly done with a “boy-band” accompaniment to the song One Knight.  The first act was full of the whimsy one expects of Wonderland.  And also true to the story somewhat short on plot.  Still, the music, costumes and sets carried the act, and made it truly enjoyable.

Photo: Michael Daniel

The second act, unfortunately, never found the same beat.  Without the turning point break-out song, like Wicked’s Defying Gravity, the audience was left waiting for the missing beat.  And the show never really found its footing again.  The tone was uneven and while the music was still good, the important moments often inexplicably happened off stage, leaving other characters to fill in the blanks for the audience.

Overall, I hope the production gets a much needed tweaking.  I think the potential for magic is there.  The story, though slight, is compelling.  The actors, particularly Janet Dacal (Alice) and Kate Shindle (The Mad-Hatter)– with hat’s off to Karen Mason as the Queen of Hearts–were wonderful.  And as I mentioned the music was delightful.  The sets and costumes were worthy of Carroll and his world (as was a brief cameo by the man himself).  But I was still left wanting more.

How about you?  How do you feel about Alice and Wonderland?

Catch Me If You Can

So it’s that time of year again.  Spring shows are previewing and we’ve been excitedly hitting the theatres again.    Our first stop this year was Terrence McNally’s Catch Me If You Can at the Neil Simon theatre.

The musical is based of course on the wonderful Tom Hanks/Leonardo DiCaprio movie of the same title.  And I’ll confess I was a little concerned about it being set to music as it were.  But Norbert Leo Butz (in the Tom Hanks role) is one of my most favorite Broadway actors and so I put my doubts aside and headed for the 5th Avenue Theatre.   And boy was I glad I did!   The show is really wonderful.  With the same spirit that made the movie so charming.  The story is basically the same, with only a shift in the way it’s framed to make it work as a musical. 

Aaron Tveit plays the part of Frank Abignale, Jr.   And does so with aplomb.  His charm is palpable and he makes the part his own, even as he’s channeling Leonardo DiCaprio.  And the aforementioned Butz playing Hanratty is sublime, almost Columboesque in his mannerisms and carriage.  Together, the two actors carry the show at breakneck comedic speed.  And watching the development of their somewhat peculiar yet heart-tugging relationship is every bit as wonderful here as it was in the movie.

Tom Wopat and Rachel de Benedet are fabulous as Frank’s parents.  As is Kerry Butler in the role of Brenda.  And the rest of the cast are equally talented.  I particularly enjoyed Brenda’s parents and their antics as Frank comes home with Brenda to meet them, and accidentally becomes a lawyer.  (As well as a pilot and a doctor).

Photo: Curt Doughty

But the real star of the show is the music.  Mark Shaiman and Scott Whitman (of Hairspray fame) grab the audience right from the top with the opening number Live, In Living Color.  And it only gets better from there.   Butz has several show-stopping numbers including  Don’t Break the Rules and the Man Inside the Clues.  And Tveit proves to be as talented as he is charming (even from the mezzanine you can feel Frank’s joy for life and unending need to please his father).  He has many numbers including Live, in Living Color and my favorite, Jet Set.  And Butler’s number Fly Away in the second act is beautifully sung as well.

The sets and costumes reflect the era and the use of the orchestra as a backdrop only adds to the fun.  All in all, Catch Me If You Can is a lovely way to spend an evening.  And I guarantee you’ll emerge from the theatre smiling!

What’s your favorite musical?