Blast From the Past: Pippin and Minsky’s

This blast from the past comes from 2009 Feb-18.  This had a lot of typos in it… it probably still has some, but I hope it is now readable.  Re-reading this, I’m disappointed that I haven’t heard anything else form “Minsky’s”  I really enjoyed the show, and while it needed some work, I wanted to see it go on and be a success.

Two Theatre Reviews
On Sunday, I had a day of major musical productions. SO, here are my long involved reviews.

Minsky’s, The New Musical Comedy
Minsky’s is still being worked on. The program included a revised song list, and a new cast member. The song stack (as it was on Sunday) was:

Workin Hot (Billy and the Girls)

Cleopatra (Girls)

Happy (Billy)

Someone (Mary, Billy, Doctors)

Keep It Clean (Girls)

Bananas (Girls)

You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down (Maisie, Ensemble)

Ees Like That (Billy, mary)

God Bless the USA (Maisie, Scratch, Ensemble)

Every Number Needs a Button (Buster, Maisie, Billy, Scratch, Ensemble)

Act II

Tap Happy (Buster, Mary, Ensemble)

Bananas (Girls)

I’ve Got Better Things to Do (Billy, Waiters)

Red Hot Lobsters (Girls)

Home (Maisie, Ensemble)

I Want a Live (Jason, Beula)

Workin Hot/Cleopatra/Bananas (Girls)

Nothing Lasts Forever (Billy, Company)

Home (Billy, Mary)

The basic plot is Billy Minskey, and his choreographer Maisie trying to save his burlesque theatre from the”clean up the city” ploys of politician Randolph Sumner. Meanwhile, Billy has met a beautiful girl on the street — who he later learns is Sumner’s daughter. Hilarity ensues.

The play has a script by Bob Martin, Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead with direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw. All these folks, and the cast are have done some really really good work. The show isn’t hit material yet — but it has many of the traits that could make it one. First off, the script is funny, full of corney jokes, romantic moments etc. The songs are catchy and funny. So, what is the problem with the script.

There are some minor structural problems. The first two songs are diagetic (meaning they are songs in which the characters in the real world would be singing). Because this is not one of the shows over all where people on sing when people in the world sing, they really shouldn’t have 2 numbers prior to someone “breaking out into song.” It would be really wonderful if the show could start with Billy, alone on stage, giving us a taste of “Happy,” perhaps while putting the Ghost light away. (the ghost light is a light left on on stage over night for safety and tradition reasons — and the show ends with Billy setting the light, but most audience members have no idea what it is.) Then launching into the the first seen (which otherwise is very good).

The next major scene is set in two shrink’s offices where Billy and Mary express their need for love (in a hilarious scene and number). Outside on the street Billy and Mary meet, and Billy discovers who daddy is. Back at the theatre Sumner threatens to close down the theatre, and Billy cons him into thinking that the stage hand is Billy Minskey, and the real Billy wants to help shut down the theatre.

The company retires to the Cafe to plot and plan. Billy has a great plan, but first he has to protect Mary, and prevent her from interfering. Back at the theatre, they shows Sumner their new “patriotic number,” which he loves. He poses for a picture with the girls, who quickly move their props revealing that they are topless. They send the photo off to the paper, do a great but misplaced number), Mary shows up, having figured out what happend and hits Billy.

OK, the emotional/plot high point of the act is the boob shot, and Mary hitting Billy. Separating them by a number (even as fantastic as “Every number Needs a Button”) kills the ending. They really ought to re-write, to make “Every Number” the second to last number as the group prepares to doop the Councilman. Then the patriotic number, boob shot, Mary hits Billy, short one line tag of “Every Number” and Curtain — this would be a far stronger act I ending.

Act II, opens with a ok number that has no business in the show. “Tap Happy” has no connection to the plot. At one point it is implied that it is a rehearsal number from the burlesque, yet the crew is dancing along. What this number should be is about the fall out from the photo being splashed over the press. Concretely getting the plot moving again from the first moment. Also, while the cast is wonderful singers and dancers, this tap number is not that impressive compared to the rest of the dancing in the show — and a weak Act II opener is killer.

Anyway, a great plot devise is entered into when Sumner and Mary decide to infiltrate the burlesque both dressed as chorus girls. Billy recognizes them, casts them and prepares to set up Sumner again. Billy heads back to the cafe where Mary tries to find out what illegal acts are going on, and Billy sings a song of sacrificing his chances of love to save the show and the jobs of all his employees. This scene is fine, but the fact that it is at the cafe smacks of “we built this expensive set for act I, and so we need to use it a second time.” There is no reason for this scene not to be backstage at the theatre. The scene change (which is fairly quick) kills the momentum at a moment where the show needs to move along — unless the writers can find a good reason to leave backstage, they shouldn’t go anywhere.

Back at the theatre more rehearsals are continuing. Here is a great scene where they work out a pie in the face scene with Sumner (in drag) keeps getting hit with a pie in the face. The cast slips fake information to the Sumners that a stripper will be appearing on stage (Stripping is illegal). Sumner passes the info to the cops. Billy’s show is saved. With rumors of a real stripper, he is sold out for the first time in months. Meanwhile, two minor characters have a brilliant number about hating theatre, with the world’s funniest dance break (which has to be seen to be believed)!

Back on stage Mary discovers that Billy recognized her, and that there is no stripper. Her dad is about to be humiliated again. Billy explains he has to take care of his people, even if that means giving up the woman he loves. Just as Mary begins to understand, she finds out that an illegel act is about to happen, and under age girl is about to perform (Billy doesn’t know his new dancer is under age). Mary attempts to save the day by knocking out the dancer and doing the number herself. But she doesn’t know the choreography and ends up becoming flustered and taking all of her cloths off.

Now an illegal act has been committed, and Billy is arrested. In a (not great) courtroom seen, their is an argument about if nudity is illegal, and Sumner ends up not pressing charges. Finale, short reprise, Billy and Mary set the ghost light end of show.

The court room scene is weak, as is Mary’s breakdown leading her to strip undermines her character. She needs to save both Billy and her father in one very clever move. Cut the court room scene (which is way to reminiscent of Hello Dolly) and move into the finale.

The other thing is that Mr. Nicholaw needs to bring in another pair of eyes. There is a bit too much (or unmotivated) dancing in a few numbers (Every Number needs a Button, Tap happy and Nothing Lasts Forever to name three– simplify and tighten!)

As to the cast, Christopher Ritzgerald, and Beth Leavel as Billy and Maise are knockouts! Also great is George Wendt as Sumner (although, I’d love it if he had a song, or part of a song or something — I mean it is a musical — but don’t try to musicalize the pie in the face scene because it is perfect as it is). Katherine Leonard as Mary is good, but they need to strengthen her character a bit to make it the stand out role the actress deserves. There were some mic/sound problems during the performance, especially with Gerry Vichi as the shows comic. He always sounded over miced and like he was speaking from in side a cave. Also as the two who want out of theatre, Rachel Dratch and John Cariani were hysterical. A last shout out to Paul Vogt, in the very funny role of Billy’s stagehand who “impersonates” Billy.

The show is funny, the score is good, if they can fix the structure, and strengthen the characters a bit it should be a good old fashioned heart warming dirty little musical

Pippin

Pippin (Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Roger O. Hirson) has gone through the script revisions since I’ve worked on the show a few years ago. The other cool thing with this, is as a co-production with Deaf -West was simultaneously spoken and signed.

First some comments on the revised script. Schwartz has replaced the lovely, but never quite successful “Welcome Home Son” with a better (for the show) number called “Back Home Again,” which has a vaguely calypso flavor (similar in style to “Generations” from Schwartz’s Children of Eden). “War is a Science” had some lyrical revisions (beyond those revisions heard in the William Katt touring production that was video-taped for television). This production cut a lot of the dance music (I especially missed the “Manson Trio” section of “Glory” and most of the “Orgy” music from “With You”) I hope these music cuts were production cuts and that they are left in the show for future productions. Also cut was “Extra-Ordinary.” Looking at the program, I understand that scene 7 is very very music heavy, and cutting the song gives it only slightly more music than the next longest scene but I feel that “Extra-Ordinary” is important to setting up Pippin’s transformation from jerk to actually ok guy. Lastly the one verse reprise of “Corner of the Sky” by Theo that ended East-West Player’s production. Brilliant, chilling, amazing, I’m so hopeful that it will be in the performance script!

This production used new orchestrations for 7 members were fine. My only major complaint is in “I Guess I’ll Miss The Man.” It started off accapella (beautiful), and gradually a guitar came in (although I would have liked it as a piano to tie in with the orchestrations in the finale). Then more instruments added in, and it would have been nice to keep it with only on instrument.

Production wise, Tobin Ost’s sets and costumes were nicely integrated (although perhaps not the direction I would have gone with it.) Donald Holder’s lights were great, however the calling of the cues during “On The Right Track” was terrible: ruining the choreography by completely distracting the audience.

The leading role of Pippin was (litterally) split between Michale Arden and Tyrone Giodano. The production used a very heavy Magic metaphore for the production. When the “cast” “discovered” that Pippin was deaf, the leading player “sawed him in half” and created a singing half that spoke Pippin’s lines. The two Pippins had similar, but slightly different objectives and goals through out the play, first revealed in scene 4, and brought to a head in the Finale! Amazing!

Anthony Natale was subbing for Troy Kotsur as the King. His voice was provided Dan Callaway. I want to give a toss out to Callaway. When Natale miss-spoke (miss-signed?) one of his lines, and Callaway delivered the line as signed instead of as written — it is wonderful to see an actor completely in the moment and not just doing the show by rote. (By the way, Natale was excellent and if I hadn’t done the show twice I probably wouldn’t have caught the missed line).

Ty Taylor as the Leading Player was great, supportive, evil, oozing sex. Sara Gettelfinger as Festrada and James Royce Edwards as Lewis were fine, but were costumed and directed without the usual (or in my opinion requisite) sex-appeal. In fact sex seemed to be largely lacking in this production, which I felt was a huge problem (more on that later). Catherine (Played by Melissa van der Schyff) was the best Catherine I have ever seen (and I thought the actress I saw last summer in the role was fabulous). She demonstrated a keen understanding of the complexities of the role, and has a great voice. (Her sexiness was also stripped from her role). Lastly, Harriet Harris as Berthe. I don’t know what is wrong with this role. It should be funny, cute, and sexy. It has been forever since I have seen it pulled off. She was fine, but I didn’t buy that she had had sex with her leather clad and harnessed boys that hung out under her skirt.

Director/Choreographer Jeff Calhoon (who did such a remarkable job on Big River) seems to have set out to make a family friendly Pippin and I ask “Why?” Taking the sex out of Pippin seems to make it, well empty. Pippin is about a young man exploring many of the vices of life, and then discovering that a simple family is more fulfilling than the sin. The war bit was silly, and without all the dancing, not as horrific as other productions. The sex was almost non-existent. Revolution/Politics fine I guess, but it didn’t have the scumminess of politics that is often presence. And without Extra-Ordinary, home life didn’t quite have the turn around that helps really drive the point home.

I don’t want to see a clean Pippin, nor do I want to see a Pippin that cuts most of the dance. Overall, I recomend seeing the production — especially for the cast. But this Pippin fails to have the depth of depravity to lift Pippin out of.

By the way, between shows I saw my friend Trevor who was on dinner break from teching LA Operas Ring Cycle, and my former co-worker Richard. Its great seeing friends when I go to the theatre.

Blast from the Past: Words to the Actor

This blog post is from 2009-July-07.  However, what it is about is from 2001, or so.  I had found a scrap of paper with some advice to the actor on it.  These notes are probably from Sabin Epstein.  If so, they are certainly guidance to actors in Tony Kushner’s “Illusion.”  Are there exceptions to these rules?  Of course.  (Honestly can one think of a good rule that doesn’t have some sort of exception some where?  Don’t answer that)   Anyway, I find these to be good for actors and designers of theatre, and probably directors too!

Advice to Actors
I was cleaning out some old theatre records and found a set of notes partially typed from the director, and partially notes I took (I’m sure from the directors speech). Anyway, as I thought the notes were particularly inspiring to those who work in theatre, so I’m reproducing them. I suspect (from other notes I’m not including here) that the director was Sabin Epstein

Typed Notes:
When Speaking on Stage:
1. Stress not the negative. “No” and “not” are almost never operative. The operative word is instead, the word that is being negated. “Go not till you hear from me.” “I love thee not; therefore pursue me not.”

2. Verbs of being are never operative. The operative words are the words that explain the kind of quality of being. “I am happy.” “He is my brother.”

3. Avoid stressing pronouns whenever it is possible to do so (“he” “she” “it” etc.). Whenever there is any alternative that makes sense use it. This includes possessive (“His” “Her” etc.)

4. Possessive nouns are never less important than the word the possess (“My father’s house.”)

5. Articles (“a” “an” and “the”) prepositions (“to” “from” “on” “in” etc.) and conjunctions (“and “but” and “or”) are never operative. They contain no images, but serve to show the relationships between images. Find the words with the images.

6. Adjectives and adverbs are treated as part of the noun or the verb they modify. The key operative word is the noun or verb, with the adjective or adverb incorporated in the images as a modifier.

7. An image that is repeated is not operative. What is operative is any new quality that is added in the repetition. This is called repetitive contrast. Stress the new information.

My hand written notes

Follow the text. Every choice made on the production must be based on the text.

Focus on nouns and action verbs.

Find the action

What is reality? What is illusion? That is the nature of the question of theatre.

Love is often both the sickness and the cure.

Pain is always more interesting anger.

Blast from the Past: Pippin

This post is from 2008- June -19.  It is in regaruds to a fabulous production of “Pippin” at east west players.   I wanted to include it for its (brief) discussions on projection as a design media and new adaptations of older plays.

Last night, I had the good fortune to see Pippin( by Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz) at East West players. This production was certainly a rethinking of the original play for a modern audience. A brief note: I’ve worked on 2 productions of Pippin and have seen several others.


Tim Dang directs this new production in an urban Manga/Hip-Hop style. Certain places this re-thinking works amazingly well (especially in the so-called “Manson Trio” dance during the song “Glory”, and all of the number “Right Track”). Some moments were actually hurt by the approach (I found the new version of “Extraordinary” to be very akward and just…. Loud).

Lets start by discussing the cast. Tim Dang’s cast of 13 is probably the hardest working cast I have seen on stage in a very long time. The ensemble of 6 only seemed to leave the stage for brief moments to do massive costume changes. Otherwise they were on stage singing, dancing, moving scenery and running follow spot. All of them were exceedingly talented (and on a side note very attractive).

Marcus Choi, as the leading player, was dark, mysterious, and always “on.” His strong presence was felt even when lurking in the shadows observing the action. Pippin, Ethan Le Phong, as Pippin was passionate and clueless carefully navigating his way between the empathy his character needs to create with the audience and the utter selfishness and irresponsibility of many of his actions. Mike Hagiwara, as Charles, was not the boldest biggest Charles I have ever seen, but he brought an interesting humanity to the struggle between what is best for his son, his family and his kingdom. The strong but stupid Lewis was played by Cesar Cipriano, who was amazingly the sexiest of a very sexy cast. On top of that, his martial arts moves and dancing were top notch. And unlike many other Lewis’s I’ve seen in my life, he was an excellent actor on top of it all. (The role of Lewis has to be in amazing physical shape, and a decent dancer — and most productions stop there in the casting process figuring that this is a very tall order in and of itself, and this is only the second skilled actor I have seen play the role). Fastrada, the devious queen, was performed with aplomb by Jenn Aedo who seemed to be channeling a slutty version of Carol Burnett all evening. She was both an wonderful singer and a quite capable dancer, but for some reason was never permitted to do both at once (I’ll have a longer discussion on this issue later).

Without a doubt the one actor whose performance stole every scene he was in (even if the audience didn’t recognize him in all his roles) was Gedde Watanabe. His main role was in drag as Pippin’s Grandmother Berthe, but I found his easy going acting style captivating in his ensemble moments as well. While I don’t know Dang pushed everyone far enough on the drag role nature of the part, his acting was fun. I know Watanabe to be a gifted performer of songs, but somehow this song didn’t live up the the scene around it (and it usually is a complete show stopper). I’m not sure where the problem was — but despite the wonderful performance, it is one of the weakest versions of this scene I have ever seen. (Boy do the last few sentences read like a contradiction!) In the role of Catherine, we saw the understudy Chloe Stewart, who was fine, but had some trouble finding her light and ended up delivering chunks of lines where the light stopped at her chin. William Jay, in the almost thankless role of Theo, managed to make something of it. The role is typically cast as a bratty 4-7 year old, and casting it as an early teenager did quite a lot to justify many of the lines of the character. Add to that Jay’s petulant sulkiness at his de-facto step-dad, and his heartbreak when his duck dies, and for the first time, the role really comes across as a winner.

The production design was ancient asia meets manga meets urban life. Much of it worked. Alan E. Muraoka’s scenery and projections were fun and functional and simple. The set was a basic unit set with some stairs on wheels. The only added scenery was the bed for parts of Act II. The projections both created scenery and commented on the action. They were a blast.

Dan Weingarten’s lighting was serviceable, but had some issues. His design was very unforgiving to actors who failed to place themselves correctly. Many tight specials, and odd-angled side light meant that if an actor was off his or her mark by a few inches they could be utterly in the dark. I also felt that many times the lights were coming up “late” for the actors — This may have been an actor, or stage manager issue, or maybe just how Weingarten programed the show (In addition, I know the light board they are using is not ideal for controlling all the intelligent lighting that was being used. My last criticism of the lighting has more to do with the scenery. Any show relying on projections to tell the story (as this one did) runs huge risks. Projection design is still a relatively young field and there is always a fear of it failing on shows. Weingarten’s design worked very hard to differentiate the movements of the story (possibly sacrificing enough lights for each lighting wash along the way). Because the projections were so successful, I wish had had given up some of the extras used to differentiate the movements of the story to use on getting more even washes over the stage. That said, I would err in the same way myself (and when designing projections, I often encourage the lighting designer in the same direction Weingarten went.)

Naomi Yoshida’s costumes were an irreverent smash up of many styles, and exceedingly fun, and smart, and very sexy. The shirtless Hakama(-esque) costume designed for Lewis was a perfect example of innocence and sex all rolled into one. Her work on the ensemble costumes showed a level of commitment to excellence not usually found on work for the ensemble — and it was well appreciated. I have but two complaints with the costumes (and one is more personal). While Yoshida was not afraid to show skin, it is a constant pet peeve of mine that the women’s sexy costumes are always more exposing then the mens (in this case not by much… but it is something I notice). The more real complaint were the shoes. The Geta Sandals worn by Bertha severely inhibited the actors ability to dance (part of what may have hurt that scene). Also the manga-esque boots worn by Faustrada may also have been the reason she could not dance and sing at the same time.

A last design mention should be made to Jacki Phillips Hair and Make up Design, which never let reality get in the way of style. The wigs were fabulous and fun, and the make up moody and evocative.

Marc Macalintal served as both the adaptor of the score and music director. I need to confess I am neither a big fan of Hip-Hop music or dance (though I have a good amount of experience working with both). Pippin‘s original orchestrations are hopelessly bound in the 1970s, when the show was written, and Dang wanted this to have a more modern feel. My biggest feeling through the show was somehow that the tempos were way to slow, and yet I question if it would have been possible for the cast to dance any faster. (I should note that this production had hands-down the best diction I have ever seen with this show, and that might be partially due to the slower tempos.) The songs I thought worked the best with the new arrangements were “Glory”, “On the Right Track,” and “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” which had an absolutely heart braking arrangement of largely solo guitar. While the rest of it was serviceable, I only found “Extraordinary” to be… well not right. This surprises me because I also don’t like the original arrangement at all… It is possible I just don’t like that song.

This production had permission to make some textual change, most of which I thought were minor but fine. The only odd choice for me was utilizing the scene with the “head” after the battle, but cutting “the headless man” later on. This is not the first time I have seen this, and I agree that the Headless man never quite works due to the costume issue (although I have an idea of how it could), one without the other seems like a set up with no pay off. The last change (that I have been told is now or soon will be a part of the script) was the ending. The ending of Pippin has always been a bit contentious. I have read that the original writers and the original directors argued over the ending (and it is noted that the original cast album featured a slightly different ending than the original stage production, which if memory serves are both slightly different than the scripts had on the productions I worked on). In this production (like normal), the cast turn on Pippin and Catherine and Theo when they refuse to go through with the “planned” finale. They strip our three heros of their costumes, scenery and colored lights. The cast pushes them off the stage, and the three stand in the first row. Catherine asks Pippin what he’s thinking, and he sings the final verse as heard on the original cast album. The family turns to walk up the aisle and out the theatre, when the Leading player resurrects the Duck. A delighted Theo brakes away from the adults and runs onto the stage, picking it up, and begins to sing an A Cappella “Corner of the Sky.” As he sings, the lights are restored and an excited cast begins to close in on him. –hauntingly powerful.

Overall a fantastic production. It closes saturday, but if you can get to East West Players in Los Angeles, it is more than worth your time and money.


Blast from the Past: Curtains

This is my review of the pre-broadway, out-of-town tryout of “Curtain” by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Rupert Holmes.   This was before it went to New York (and probably before the show was locked.)  It ended up running 15 months, so my prediction wasn’t far off.  The original review was posted 2006 – August –  02.

Last night (August 1, 2006) I saw “Curtains” at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The show is being presented in Los Angeles prior to a planed New York run, and as such it should be noted that changes may exist between the performance I saw and any subsequent performan ce.

For More …

First off, the play is a very enjoyable night at the theatre. I don’t remember having as much fun since I saw “Drowsy Chaperone” at the Ahmanson seven months ago. What is also evident from the performances is the cast is loving being on stage in the show. (Additionally as there was no traffic I made it to the theatre very early and several lof the cast were having dinner in the courtyard outside the theatre, they were discussing the usual issues of a show — missed costume changes, late entreneces etc. but they were so excited about the work they were doing. Having seen several shows recently where the cast was simply walking through the show, it is delightful to see one where they are truly excited.)

Most of the score is wonderful. There is a wonderful play between the songs of ‘Robbin Hood,’ the play within the play, and the book numbers from “Curtains.” My biggest concern that the act I closer (of both “Curtains” and ‘Robbin Hood’), a song called ‘Thataway!’ is a fairly weak song. The dance and staging save most of the audience from noticing, but as a song, it did not send me joyfully into intermission. My second worry is the opening number, “Wide Open Spaces,’ which is supposed to be the Finale of ‘Robbin Hood.’ Again, the staging is fun, and Eventually the audience figures out that it is supposed to be bad — but I worry that some audience members may be turned off at the very top of the show.

My theatre going partner had issues with the number “It’s a Business,” although much more on the staging than the song. (Debra Monk sings the song, and frankly I’d listen to her sing the phone book if John Kander scored it, so I may be a bit biased.)

The score includes some great numbers, “What Kind of Man”, “He Did It”, “The Woman’s Dead”, “Tough Act to Follow”, and “I miss the Music.” It also includes a song called “Show People” that I swear I’ve heard before with slightly altered lyrics, but I cannot for the life of me place where I have heard it — its been driving me mad since the melody first hit my ears last night (the altered lyrics are along the same lines, more like I’ve heard an earlier draft of the lyrics)

Rupert Holmes’ book is fast moving, intelligent and witty. My biggest concern with the book is that it is theatre about theatre. I worry that many audience members (especially as it attempts to maintain a long run in New York) will not inherently know what Equity is or what an Equity Deputy is or what much of the “stage lingo” is about. The script seems to explain understudy well before the understudy jokes, but several others (like Equity) are not explained. The teenagers behind me were asking questions about that to their chaperone, who also didn’t know the answer.

From a production stand point, William Ivey Long’s costumes are (as always) right on the money. The only exception to this is that Patty Goble (as the dead leading lady) looks more of a “star” than Karen Ziemba as her replacement. (I think it is the red wig that Goble wears — it makes her stand out in the ‘Robbin Hood’ bits visually that Ziemba does not). Ana Louizos’ set makes a nice distintion between “back stage” and “Robbin Hood.” Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting was effective (especially the first entrence of David Hyde Pierce — what a cue, what staging, what moment!). My only suggestion to Louizos and Kaczorowski (and frankly director Scott Ellis) is to take a performance and sit in the upper levels (Our seats were mid lower balcony, and there were some moments in staging, and design that might want to be reconsidered — nothing outrageously awful, but some moments that show cracks in an otherwise carefully constructed evening). William David Brohn’s orchestrations are fine, but nothing special. His work is best during the ‘Robbin Hood’ numbers and merely serviceable otherwise. Rob Ashford’s choreography is great both in ‘Robbin Hood’ and in the book songs. In the book songs, he allows the individual characters to color the choreography, where as in ‘Robbin Hood’ the dancing is tight and together, like a classic Broadway chorus. Scott Ellis’s direction plays up the “romance set during a murder mystery back stage at a theatre” side of the show. I worry that future productions will forget that and emphasize the back stage aspects much to the detriment of the play. (And if I have any suggestions to the Holmes, it would be to play up the characters and the romance a bit more in the script, and allow backstage to be the backdrop and not the focus of the story — and what needs to be included due to plot, have it explained to the audience a bit clearer)

Now to talk about the cast. In a word, Wonderful. Everyone on that stage from the leads to the ensemble are fully developed characters fully commited to the show, and having lots of fun. Their excitement certainly translates across the footlights to those of us in the dark. Patty Goble is delectably horrid as (soon to be dead) star Jessica Cranshaw. Megan Sikora stands out as the producers daughter who wants to be a star more than anything else. Jason Danieley’s big voice and big heart make a big impression. Edward Hibbert steals almost every scene he is in as a conceited egotistical director (By the way, how is Drowsy doing without him — he was a stand out there as well). Jill Paice, as Niki (Pierce’s love interest), is charming and daffy and lovely with a great voice. Our three stars: David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba sparkle the entire night. (Pierce forgot his Boston accent in a few moments during the show — but I didn’t notice until it suddenly “came back”).

With some minor book revisions, and possibly some song revisions the song should do very well in NYC (probably not the record breaking run of Phantom, but a healthy 18 months or so — more if it can snag a few Tonys (especially for Ms. Monk), and keep (or replace well) the talented and excited cast — there is no room for slackers anywhere in the show).

One final note — David Loud, the music director, has a charming “cameo” as Sasha, ‘Robin Hood’ s musical director — and a delightful solo.


Blast from the Past: Ritchie

This blast from the past comes from 2006 – May – 08.  At the time of me writing this italicized bit, it has been more than five years since Ritchie’s passing.  I got the news as I was waiting to enter a theatre to see a student’s work — a student that I was going to have to sit and offer criticism to.  Ritchie was the master of criticism.  Every time I grade or evaluate a student’s work, I hear Ritchie’s voice in my head.  I still aspire to have the kind of impact on my students as he had on me.

To any of you have had any associations with the USC School of Theatre (or division of Drama) since 1980 or so, I have bad news. I received a phone call this evening that Ritchie M. Spencer, head of production, costume designer, teacher, colleague and friend passed away due to complications related to cancer.

Ritchie was a mentor to me. He also terrorized me through my senior year of undergrad. I used to leave costume design, head back to my apartment, thank God that my room mate was never around, and cry. I couldn’t draw a blob that looked like a person, much less a person wearing exquisite costumes that someone would want to build. He glared, he belittled, he insulted, and then he taught me. I never understood until I went back to grad school how much I had learned. And it wasn’t until I became a teacher I truly understood. I cannot be the superior professor who looks down his nose at everyone’s work — but he could, and did, and believe me I learned. I learned to research. I learned to master my craft. I learned how to communicate ideas in simple, effective lines. I learned that every line drawn, every stroke of the brush must be considered, and if it is unimportant should be, no, must be eliminated. I learned that drawing and designing is not about merely communicating construction concepts to talented artisans, it is telling a story. The better you tell the story of the design, the better the artisans can build it. Today, am I a costume designer? … no. But I am a designer. And so much of that design skill came from those tearful afternoons.

When i returned to Grad School, it was because I was an employee of U.S.C., and at that time employees could get grad degrees cheaply. I saw another side of Ritchie Spencer. He was a supportive colleague. He did not look down on my position or on me. He made me feel like a professional (many of the faculty did not adjust quickly — or in some cases at all– to me being a professional at the school and not a student). In grad school, he was no easier on my work (and it didn’t help that there were only 2 of us in his class — and my class mate was already a working costume designer), but by then I could take the comments and learn from them. I had grown as a person, and my skin was tougher. One of the hardest things about being in the arts is that we put so much of ourselves into the work, and everyone has an opinion. Those opinions hurt designers until they develop a means of dealing with it. He also used to make us criticize our own work and our classmates — he would make us “be vicious” (his words). Learning to be your own harshest critic helps designers develop better designs. I would do renderings for him over and over and over again. When I would finally hand them in, I would get them back with notes, telling me to do them over, and get them in soon — so that night, I would be on the floor in the middle of the apartment rendering all the costumes for an opera over again.

The worst thing is I never got to say thank you. I don’t know if he knew what effect he had on my work. I don’t know that he ever saw my work outside of U.S.C. I designed one show that he thought my work was “excellent” on, and told me so. That compliment meant more to me that any of the other compliments I got on that show (and in fact is one of my proudest moments as a designer– the Times may like my work, but once — just once — I got Ritchie Spencer’s approval)

So Ritchie, if you are logged on, and reading this. Thank you. I hope that one day, I succeed in imparting as many important lessons to my students as you did to me. And this is the only time you’ve made me cry, that I’m not ashamed of it.


Blast from the Past: Lestat

From 2007 -Jan-07.  I had seen two shows in San Francisco.  These were my thoughts — I have not edited my bad spelling — I had had a long drive to the city, and then two shows — I was tired.

For my flex day, I had a long day of theatrical performances. First I saw Corteo, the current Cirque Do Soleil show in San Francisco. This is the fourth piece of theirs I have seen live (the others being Quidam, Dralion, and Mystere). I can say that this is my second favorite. Like Quidam, Corteo has a strong unifying story — that of a man dreaming of his own funeral. The music was fun, and the band spent much of the show interacting with the cast. They were on-stage, in the spotlight towers, dancing and singing. It was a joy. Unlike the other Cirque shows I have seen this was presented in the round, and for the most part this worked well. The show seemed to loose some steam in the second act when doing a Comedia rendition of Romeo and Juliet as a clown piece. It really didn’t work, at least from my vantage point. Otherwise the show was a great success.
Design elements in the show were especially challenging as the show was presented in the round. In an attempt to keep lighting glare from the audiences eye, and to deal with the exceedingly small lighting rig available, the show was lit by mostly top light. Front light was achieved via four spotlights that surrounded the stage. Additionally on the central corridor of the set, which included vomitoria to allow performers and scenery to enter, had four sets of exceedingly bright low angle PAR washes. This allowed acts center stage to be illuminated without follow spots. There were additional up light washes to illuminate the aerial acts.
The show had a complex motorized rigging system that included three arched motorized tracks that could move a performer or scenery across the central corridor. They also allowed the height of the flown objects to be raised or lowered as desired. This was used to strong effect in creating the illusion of an actor “walking” on the bottom of a tight wire. His movement appeared to be smooth and perfectly straight across the bottom, even though it was completely controlled by the rigging system and not by the performer.
The main scenery was several sets of scrims allowing the shape of the central corridor to change while still allowing the audience to see the action. There were two tableau curtains and to olio style drops. The central disc of the show was devided into 4 concetric circles each with the ability to roated independently of the others. A central trap door at the center was used to great effect by the clowns in a scene.
The other show I saw was Lestat, in a pre-opeing/pre-Broadway engagement at the Curran theatre. The shows troubling structural elements in the script and lyrics pointed to a show that, in its present state, will not be well received by the critics and probably the New York theatre going public.
Before I discuss flaws, and possible solutions, I want to mention some of the truly strong points about the show (even though for the good of the whole show, several of them should, in my opinion, be cut). Let me start by mentioning a very hard working cast that seems to handle what they were given with style, grace and great enthusiasm. Hugh Panaro is more than up to the role (blonde wig and all), and by the second act manages to make us feel some sympathy for the title character (the fact that he can’t do this sooner is largely a book/structure problem, but more on that later). Jim Stanek was woefully underused as Louis, and had a lovely voice and an engaging manner. Drew Sarich, filling in for the dismissed Jack Noseworthy, as Armand played the almost one dimensional villain with relish, and brought us to understand the pain that Lestat causes him. I have saved the two mind blowing stand outs for last — Carolee Carmello blows the audience away in the role of Gabrielle, her voice, acting, and sheer stage power could almost make one overlook the shows problems as long as she is on stage (and my notes below about what could be done to help the show practically necessitate her character being cut — this is not in any way a reflection on her performance but rather a need to bring a focus to the meandering story). I know Ms. Carmello’s work and expected her to be amazing, and she managed to exceed my expectations. Allison Fischer as the eternally 10 years old Claudia, the child vampire, brought much needed humor, warmth, and horror to the proceedings. Her two songs showed us both extreme joy and extreme pain, and she is to be commended. Also on the plus side are some lovely melodies by Elton John, and (at least in the second act) some very adequate lyrics by Bernie Taupin — unfortunately, many of the lyrics (*especially in the first act*) fail to live up to some of his great songs with Elton John in the past like Candle in the Wind and Yellow Brick Road. Also, as always, Kenneth Posner’s lighting was beautiful, illuminating, and helped progress the story.
I need to mention what didn’t work. Derek McLane’s set seemed to be searching for a style — it often had this “ripped water color paper” look, but then it got big and vaguely realistic and then it got……. Well inconsistent. Howard Werner’s projections were nice but exceedingly distracting, and by the mid point of act I had really outstayed their welcome. There seemed to be nothing new, just the same old images over and over again. The projections were used to show a montage of lives of the vampire’s victims as their lives were drained way. As these victims exist only to die, and their stories are unimportant to the one we are viewing. Additional, this convention is too flashy and obscure to tell someone who hasn’t read the books what is happening. (In disclosure I have read most of the books, my theatre mates had not — I understood, but thought it was odd, they were just confused). In the first act most of the lyrics are very predictable (“Far from Dead”, “Nothing”, “Here, In Paris”, and “Origin of the Species” were especially guilty — although you could argue that the bad lyrics of “Origin” were intentional). This improves in the second act (and in fact unlike almost every other show I’ve seen, the second act of Lestat is far stronger than the first)
Linda Woolverton’s book tries to encompass the entire Vampire chronicles into a single show, leaving the audience confused and lacking sympathy for many characters — we don’t get to know them well enough. The plot is conceived as Lestat writes his memoirs on a lap top. Flash back structures are rarely successful in theatre. Lestat has broken his life in to 8 movements as follows:
1: His mortal life (His dad hates him, his mother dotes)
2: The dark gift (becoming a vampire, making his mother into a vampire0
3: Theatre of Vampires: (A history lesson so that the finale will make sense, and where he unsuccessfully tries to make his best friend a vampire)
4: Devil’s Road, where Lestat seeks answers to his origin and his mother leaves him for her own path.
(INTERMISSION)
5. The New World (where he finds a very old vampire, and moves to New Orleans, makes Louis )
6. Eden (where he makes Claudia a vampire so that Louis, Lestat and Claudia can live as a family — Cluaida revolts and tries to Kill Lestat)
7. Reunion (Lestat returns to Paris, and discovers Louis and Claudia working at the theater, and Armand kills Claudia for her attempt of Lestats life)
8. Revelation (Marius reveals the most ancient vampires to Lestat and Lestat finds a moral)

The problem with this long story is it goes nowhere, and takes 2 hours and 40 minutes to do so. I would recommend restructuring the story as follows (and yes I know it eliminated Carolee Carmello’s role, and that is a shame because she is truly fabulous). It seems like the team is going for the moral of “The family you make is stronger than the family you’re given,” and with that interpretation of the finale, I’m going to recommend a restructuring — certain areas will have to be expanded, new lyrics will have to be written to sum up exposition faster, and a few marvelous actor’s would have their roles written out.
We don’t need his mortal life — he hates his father, so what. The play should start with him being made a vampire, with some retooling of this scene and it’s songs we can get what we need to know to understand. Fast forward to the Lestat discovering Armand’s vampires living in the sewers. (Yes this means skipping Gabriele, Lestat’s mother, entirely). Have Lestat free them, thus incurring Armand’s wrath. (This sequence might even be slightly expandable). If Armand curses/chastises/challenges Lestat to live one mortal life time before he judges others, we could also skip the first appearance of Marius, and eliminate the “Origin of the Species” sequence — possibly in favor of a funny, frivolous “Theatre of Vampires” sequences, much like what appears in the second act. The above could cover the plot of the current first act in about 20 minutes, which would allow the audience to get to the heart-wrenching morsal of the story which currently is the first half of act II. Once Lestat is challenged to live a mortal life, he can head to New Orlenes. This sequence contains some of the best songs of the play (“Welcome to the New World”, “Embrace It”, “I want More”, “I’ll Never Have That Chance”), and the scenes that have the most heart. (this section is essentially the film of Interview with a Vampire) This sequence should be expanded (possibly give “The Crimison Kiss”, currently Gabrielle’s show stopper, to Luis, to whom it also applies, with only minor lyric changes). Several new numbers should be written for this sequence — especially since “I want More” and “I’ll never have that chance”, are both Claudia numbers and are back to back. Once they set fire to Lestat, it might be nice to see Louis and Claudia join the theatre of vampires, or see their voyage across the sea to Paris. Lestat’s voyage, performed in “Sail Me Away”, is an effective haunting number, but seems to lack any parallels anywhere else in the current production. More should be made of the reunion with Lestat, Armand, Louis, and Claudia before Armand puts Claudia to death. (And good grief, if there ever was a missed song cue, Claudia being bound to a chair waiting for the dawn which will kill her is one! It should be an epically operatic moment of unbound emotions, and instead it is coved by a four second light cue and another video projection. This number should probably a trio for her, the weakened Lestat and the trapped Louis). A shorter roof top confrontation between Lestat and Armand should follow with Louis (rather than Marius) saving Lestat, A modified version of Finale featuring Lestat, Louis and Armand should follow.
As it currently stands only Lestat has any concrete journey, the above outline would at least give Louis a journey, and a more beefed up role. Also, depending on her impending doom song, Claudia could also have a nice journey, leaving only our villain Armand without a journey. This concept also reduces the principal characters from 7 to 4, which would hopefully help with the lack of focus in the show.
The truth is, there is a show and a good one underneath the travesty that was on stage. It isn’t great, but it could be very good. Even as it currently stands it needs very little in the way of special effects (it has a ton, but doesn’t really need them). This is a story about Vampires, and it has no heart. The Louis/Claudia/Lestat family gives it what little heart it currently has, and could (if built upon) give the show all the heart it needs and then some. (And dump the special effects, let the audience focus on the story — on a family — which is something we can all relate to). Again I want to reiterate that my recommendation of cutting Gabrielle, Nicolas, and Marius has nothing to do with Carolee Carmello, Roderick Hill or Michael Genet’s performances which were first rate, and has everything to do with reigning in an overly ambitious, complicated and meandering story.

Again, as usual, everything is my opinion and I’m sure many people will disagree with me.