Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Sondheim on Sondheim" Is Simply Sublime

There’s something about story and characters that suck me in. That’s why I generally prefer book musicals to revues, so that the songs spring from character and further the plot. Well, in a good show, anyway.

Stephen Sondheim is known for being really, really good at that, so that his songs don’t just pop up out of nowhere, but are positioned at those moments when characters are moving from A to B, when they tell us (and figure out for themselves) by way of the song how they’re making that emotional journey.

Given the cast (including Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Norm Lewis), I was pretty sure I would enjoy “Sondheim on Sondheim,” a new revue combining Sondheim songs with interviews and images of the man himself, conceived and directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine. But I expected it to be the usual pleasant Sondheim revue experience, where I hope to hear my favorites and enjoy the performances, and come away making mental cast lists for the absolute perfect fantasy productions of “Follies” or “Merrily We Roll Along.”

That’s why “Sondheim on Sondheim” is so astonishing. Because it doesn’t really have a book, but it feels like it does. Because the one character – Stephen Sondheim – and his filmed recollections and musings about his life and his songs and his process – not chronological or neat, sometimes silly, sometimes off-topic completely – are ultimately moving and profound. I felt this show in my heart. Two weeks later, I’m still feeling it.

Set designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting designer Ken Billington and video/projection designer Peter Flaherty have created a simple playing space that somehow manages to look spiffy and cool as it showcases the singers in various combinations and permutations. Flaherty’s contribution – the interviews and images – are especially significant, projected on a scattering of plasma screens in different sizes, cocked at different angles around the stage. We see Sondheim at home, slouching on his sofa, writing, not writing, fixing himself a drink, puttering around. All of that is fascinating, as is the oft-repeated information about Oscar Hammerstein as his mentor and surrogate father and his difficult relationship with his mother. Still, it doesn’t sound on paper like it would add up to much. And yet it does.

After a series of sublime performances (there’s sublime again – it keeps coming to mind with regard to this show) and the emotional punch of the interviews, I felt moved, affected, enraptured. I wanted to see it again and take notes this time, yet not take notes, because then I would have to take my eyes off the stage and how could I possibly do that? During the show, there were moments when I didn’t even want to applaud because I was afraid I might miss a syllable at the beginning of the next video.

By the end, I felt I knew the elusive Sondheim better, that I had experienced the gold standard when it came to interpretations of some of my favorite songs, and that I was damn lucky to get to see this kind of once-in-a-lifetime performance. What future production of this revue can possibly compare with Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Norm Lewis and Tom Wopat? Or find younger performers like Leslie Kritzer, Euan Morton, Erin Mackey and Matthew Scott? Or even make the video work on that scale?

According to the program, there are about 40 songs performed at least partially in this show, with some unfamiliar choices offered among them. Some of the most interesting sequences are those where Sondheim talks about songs that didn’t work, and then we see, for example, “Invocation/Forget War” and “Love Is in the Air,” the songs he wrote to open “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” but abandoned in favor of “Comedy Tonight.” Back-to-back-to-back, we understand exactly why “Comedy Tonight” ended up opening the show, while the others were discarded.

The other sequence like that, where we see the various songs he wrote to try to end “Company,” is even more powerful, with “Multitudes of Amys” giving way to “Happily Ever After,” and then Norm Lewis bringing down the house with an absolutely blazing, brilliant performance of “Being Alive.” Wow. I thought I’d seen good “Being Alives” before – it’s such a powerhouse of a song, anyway – but Norm Lewis took it to new heights. Just... Wow.

I enjoyed getting another chance to hear “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” a swoony, romantic song for a straight couple when the show was called “Bounce,” switched to the gay couple by the time it was “Road Show.” We see both couples on that, with even more pairings (and I believe one threesome) delivering “Happiness” from “Passion.” “Best Thing” and “Happiness” may be the most romantic pieces Sondheim has ever written, and both of them get excellent performances here from the entire company. Cheeky and a tad cynical, yes, given all the changing partners on “Happiness,” but that fits Sondheim, too.

I absolutely adored the Act I closer, uniting three of Sondheim’s best Act I finales, “Ever After” from “Into the Woods,” “A Weekend in the Country” from “A Little Night Music,” and finally, “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park with George,” to stunning effect. The video trees and their bright leaves send us into the woods, change color in the country and then fall away on Sunday, as the voices swell on that gorgeous music... Amazing.

All by herself, just sitting there and singing without histrionics, Barbara Cook contributes versions of “Send in the Clowns” and “In Buddy’s Eyes” that will break your heart. Her phrasing and interpretation are simply beautiful.

But my favorite moment is the Cook-and-Williams duet on “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By.” Again, they didn’t go for vocal gymnastics or showboating. They just sang. Two singers with fabulous voices and interpretive skills, sharing their talent and their hearts with us. And it is sublime.

The Roundabout Theatre’s production of “Sondheim on Sondheim” has been extended till June 27th at Studio 54. If you have to hop a plane specifically to see this show, I think you'd better do it. Theatrical experiences like “Sondheim on Sondheim” don’t come along very often.

For more information or to order tickets, visit the Roundabout Theatre website. Do it!

Interested in Writing a Childen's Play?

Do you have a children's play full of magic, fairies, vampires or pumpkins? There's a competition out there for you! Prick of the Spindle, an online literary journal, has announced it is partnering with the Pensacola Little Theatre for a Youth Drama Competition on Halloween themes.

The competition is looking for plays written by adults, but intended for an audience of children. "Grown-ups write it; kids see it," say the guidelines, available here.

There are three categories, divided by the age of the target audience (4-8 years, 8-12 year and 12 years and up) with slightly different length and theme requirements for those categories. One winning play from each category will be selected for production by the Pensacola Little Theatre in their Beyond Boundaries program in the fall of 2010, and those plays, as well as some of those cited as Honorable Mention, will be published in a Kindle edition available on

For all three categories, you'll need minimal sets, no more than four actors, and a Halloween theme. Submission deadline is August 15, 2010.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"A Little Night Music": Could I Get Mine More Swirly, Please?

"A Little Night Music," the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical, is based on an Ingmar Bergman movie called "Smiles of a Summer Night," or "Sommarnattens Leende" to Mr. Bergman. Bergman’s title is reflected in Wheeler’s script, when a wise old woman tells her granddaughter that, if she knows where to look, she may see three smiles appearing in the summer night sky. “The first smile smiles at the young, who know nothing. The second, at the fools who know too little. And the third at the old who know too much.”

Those “smiles” are part of what makes “A Little Night Music” linger in the memory. It is, at its heart, about life and death and love and regret and being foolish, but also about seeing smiles in the summer night. How cool is that?

When Wheeler and Sondheim adapted “Smiles of a Summer Night,” they kept the same cast of characters and the same basic story, about a group of mismatched lovers caught under the spell of Sweden’s strange Midsummer night, when the sun never quite sets, when everything shimmers with the glow of endless twilight, when the wrong people keep chasing you no matter how hard you run after someone else, when the one you want seems within reach for a moment, but then isn’t quite.

I love the film, but this is definitely a case where musicalizing the material added something special. Sondheim's score, including "Send in the Clowns," his most popular stand-alone song, is simply magical. It's swirly and mysterious, funny and sad, romantic and cynical, all at once. The waltz-time used in most of the score helps keep the magical mood spinning, and some productions, like the London one directed by Sean Mathias, with Dame Judi Dench as leading lady Desirée Armfeldt, extend the swirly feeling into the staging. That one made liberal use of the gigantic drum revolve in the National’s Olivier Theatre, which meant that much of the cast entered already revolving, and they kept on whirling and twirling throughout. It was lovely.

The current Broadway production directed by Trevor Nunn is remarkably swirl-free. More’s the pity. There is dancing, choreographed by Lynne Page, and that helps, but it’s not really enough. This “Night Music” is set on a pretty straightforward set, designed by David Farley, that gives us drawing room walls bounding the action in Act I and some birch trees clustered at the back in Act II. It feels a little claustrophobic, to be perfectly honest, although there are some fetching stage pictures when the performers are hazily reflected in murky mirrored panels.

Mostly, Nunn’s staging inside the Walter Kerr Theatre makes the production seem pared-down and spartan, and that extends to the tiny orchestra. Musical director Tom Murray makes the most of what he has, but it still seems stingy of Nunn to use so few musicians for this particular show.

I wouldn’t call Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance stingy, however. Her Desirée is very pretty – I kept thinking she looked like Vivien Leigh – but also a little cheap and coarse. She punches her lines into submission with a pesky energy and muscular rhythm that makes the character move but doesn’t give her any substance. It’s also very much at odds with the portrayal of her mother, the formidable Madame Armfeldt, turned in by the legendary Angela Lansbury, who takes each line, each bon mot, each flicker of an eyelash, and makes it live and breathe. Like the music in “A Little Night Music,” Lansbury is simply magical.

Dressed and made-up as a painted lady of days gone by, Lansbury manages to soften her gorgon patina into something much more real, making her “Liaisons” quite affecting and showing exactly why she is a legend.

Lansbury also shows excellent chemistry with Keaton Whittaker, the young actress playing Desirée’s daughter Fredrika in the performance I saw. Whittaker definitely fell on Lansbury’s side of the divide running down the middle of this production, with some on the skinny side (Zeta-Jones; Alexander Hanson as a handsome but unsubstantial Fredrik, Desirée’s once and future love; Aaron Lazar not really going anywhere with ridiculous Carl-Magnus, a puffed-up military man who won’t take no for an answer; and Ramona Mallory making Anne, Fredrik’s teenage wife, always a bit of a ninny, into a full-fledged fool with no hint of a there there) and some offering genuine, fully-rounded, compelling characters who really sold the delicious material (Lansbury and Whittaker; Hunter Ryan Herdlicka’s coltish take on moody Henrik, Fredrick’s son who yearns for his stepmother; and Leigh Ann Larkin, who makes Petra, the maid, a lot more interesting than she usually is.)

They all sing well, so there is that, although Zeta-Jones’ big number, “Send in the Clowns,” came off a little more yippy and twitchy than it needed to be. Not sure what was going on there, but she never seemed to relax into the song or fully explore what is really going on there. (I saw this show on the first night I was in New York, while Barbara Cook’s take on “Send in Clowns” came on my last night. Night and day. Night and day. But I didn’t have Cook’s version to compare Zeta-Jones’ to when I first saw it, and I still thought it was uneasy and weird the way she kept flicking her head around after every line, as if she were distracted by something over our heads. Very strange. So rest assured that the fact that I didn’t like Zeta-Jones’ “Send in the Clowns” had nothing to do with Cook’s master class a few days later.)

“Now/Later/Soon,” the trio sung by Fredrik, Henrik and Anne to express the different places they’re in, was a highlight of the production, and I also enjoyed Larkin’s performance of “The Miller’s Son,” wherein Petra ruminates on her romantic future. It was both more fun and more sympathetic than that song usually is.

And in the end, it’s still “A Little Night Music.” The music is gorgeous, the story is irresistible, and Angela Lansbury alone is worth the price of admission.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Footlight Parade and Top Hat at the Normal Theater

There's only one night left of one of my favorite musical films from the 1930s! If you want to see Jimmy Cagney hoofing it up as he looks high and low for his "Shanghai Lil," you'd better get to the Normal Theater tonight at 7. "Footlight Parade" is one of the classic Warner Brothers backstage musicals, as Jimmy, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell try to put on an impossibly grand Broadway show, complete with on-stage waterfall and a million dancing girls in a big, goofy Busby Berkely-stravaganza.

And then there's Fred Astaire... Okay, Ginger Rogers, too. Fred and Ginger will be dancing "Cheek to Cheek" after Fred puts on his top hat, ties up his white tie and dusts off his tails. "Top Hat" is on the big screen at the Normal Theater Saturday and Sunday nights, again at 7 pm.

Have a New Play with Literary or Historical Themes?

The Orlando Shakespeare Theater, in partnership with the University of Central Florida, is now accepting submissions for its 2011 Harriett Lake Festival of New Plays.

They are specifically looking for new full-length plays and musicals based on or inspired by works of classic literature or historic events and/or persons and profound advancements in science. These need not be limited to events or themes prior to the 21st Century, nor need they be completely based in reality. Their guidelines note that they prefer plays that require six actors or less, and they are happy to see one-person shows. However, even in the case of one-person shows, they are not looking for history lectures or museum piece adaptations that are faithful to a fault, but rather dynamic new theatrical versions of classic stories that speak to the contemporary mindset.

They also welcome new musicals and musical adaptations. For musicals, the cast size isn't as important, but the above requirements for mission and theme still apply.

They are actively soliciting works by Hispanic authors (or works with Hispanic subject matter) for their Hispanic Initiative, although works submitted must be written in English. These works, too, should be inspired by works of classic literature and/or historic events and persons. Past Hispanic Initiative participants include Elaine Romero, Ricky J. Martinez, and Miami's New Theatre.

Patrick Flick, Director of New Play Development for the festival, describes it as "a ten-day theater event in Orlando, Florida packed with dynamic new plays and new play programming for anyone who loves great theater. It's an interactive theatrical maelstrom of readings, workshops, world premieres, seminars, master classes and more."

The festival's mission is to celebrate, cultivate, and present new plays, nurture new playwrights, attract local and national audiences, introduce the Orlando community to new theatrical voices, and provide a marketplace for local and national theater professionals.

PlayFest 2010 was headlined by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who participated in an "Inside the Actors Studio" style Q&A with Artistic Director Jim Helsinger.

Attendees at PlayFest 2010 included theatre respresentatives from across America including Chicago Dramatists and Atlanta's Horizon Theatre. A full production of John Biguenet's "Shotgun" was the centerpiece of the 2010 PlayFest and was presented as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World premiere in partnership with Southern Repertory Theatre and Florida Studio Theatre.

Next season, they will be presenting Kathleen Cahill's "Charm" as a full production during PlayFest. "Charm" was previously read and work-shopped at PlayFest.

The deadline to submit is August 31, 2010. Go here for a printable pdf of their submission guidelines.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"God of Carnage" Takes a Bite Out of Broadway

When Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" opened on Broadway last season, it was a hot ticket with a hot cast. Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden – or in other words, the entire cast – were nominated for Tony Awards. Marcia Gay Harden won as Best Actress, the play won Best Play, and director Matthew Warchus, who had also directed the play in its London premier, won Best Director.

Daniels, Davis, Gandolfini and Harden stayed in their roles until November 15th, after which Christine Lahti, Annie Potts, Jimmy Smits and Ken Stott (who had originated the role of Michael, a locks, doorknobs and saucepan magnate, in the British production) took over. After three months, Jeff Daniels came back, but as Michael instead of slimy lawyer Alan this time, and he was joined by Dylan Baker, Lucy Liu and Janet McTeer, another star from the London show, which won an Olivier Award. McTeer had played Veronica, the ferociously maternal role Marcia Gay Harden won her Tony for.

So far, it seems to be a cast-proof play, since every one of them has received excellent reviews, with some critics calling the current cast the best one yet. Although I’d have liked to see Harden’s take on Veronica, I have to say, this is one play that comes off much better and much funnier on stage than it does on the page. I have a feeling it will be booked at every possible regional venue, just because four middle-aged actors and one set is a pretty attractive proposition all by itself. Add a feisty, funny script about marriage, child-rearing and whether we have evolved at all since our cave days, and it’s irresistible.

Reza’s script is both outrageous and affecting as it takes on interpersonal relationships in the modern world, not with a scalpel but with a sledgehammer. In Reza’s world, we may pretend to be civilized and mature, to care about our lovely books, our pretty floral arrangements and our recipes for pear-and-apple clafouti, but when push comes to shove, we’re just kids on the playground, pushing and shoving and bashing each other over the head when tempers flare.

The conflict between these two couples – Alan, the lawyer, and Annette, his wealth-manager wife, versus Michael, the households goods wholesaler, and his wife Veronica, who has written a book about Darfur and works part-time in an art history bookstore – stems from exactly that sort of playground battle. As the play opens, we discover that there was an altercation between Benjamin, Alan and Annette’s eleven-year-old son, and Henry, Michael and Veronica’s son of the same age. In fact, Benjamin smacked Henry with a stick, and Henry ended up with a swollen lip and two broken teeth.

As the two couples discuss how best to deal with this situation, things become increasingly less civilized. Alan keeps yammering on his cell phone, Annette is feeling decidedly unwell, Veronica can’t stop talking about her daughter’s missing hamster, and Michael starts to chafe under the collar, both literally and figuratively. Before long, everybody is mad at everybody, both inside and outside the marriages, and chaos reigns.

It’s to Reza’s credit – and also to Christopher Hampton’s, who translated from the original French – that these four flawed people are always funnier than they are annoying, and that they’re frequently recognizable as people we know, even in our own households. That recognition may also make us uneasy, and I think that’s the point. Our thin veneer of civilization is so easy to abandon, even when we’re well-off family folks, sitting in a beautiful New York apartment, surrounded by the finer things. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are; the god of carnage, who has “ruled uninterruptedly since the dawn of time,” is lurking there, waiting to throw us at each other.

“God of Carnage” closes at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre on June 6. If you’re in the vicinity before then, for goodness sake, get there and get a ticket. All four actors are amazing – yes, even Lucy Liu in her Broadway debut – and all those regional productions on the horizon may tamp down the fire and the fury.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Promises, Promises" = Mad Men + How To Succeed + Burt Bacharach - Robert Morse

"Mad Men" viewers have long wondered why Peggy Olson – a nice Roman Catholic girl from Brooklyn – has that name. Is she named after Ann-Margret, whose real name was Ann Margret Olsson? Or Mrs. Olson, the coffee queen in all those old Folgers commercials?

After seeing "Promises, Promises" on Broadway, I think I have an answer. Yep. There's a Peggy Olson in "Promises, Promises." The Miss Olsen (with an "e") in "The Apartment," the Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond movie "Promises, Promises" is based on, is the secretary and former girlfriend of big bad boss Jeff Sheldrake. Played by the lovely Edie Adams in pointy white cat glasses, Miss Olsen is both a plot device (she's the one who clues in Fran Kubelik that their boss is a serial cheater and a heel) and a symbol of how poorly women are treated in this 60s Gray Flannel World (where all the execs are cheating dogs and all the women either put up with it or lose their jobs.) In "Promises, Promises," she is not just Miss Olsen, but Peggy Olson, sharing her name with the Peggy Olson in "Mad Men" who started out a secretary for the dashing, cheating boss, but turned out to be a smart girl with a talent for advertising.

Edie Adams is adorable in the movie, it stinks that we don’t find out if she gets another job or moves on, and I think I'm going to imagine Peggy in "Mad Men" as Edie Adams' revenge.

Like "Mad Men," "The Apartment" is very cynical about life in the 60s and the accompanying sexual and corporate politics, what with the basic plotline about an everyman office drone named C.C. Baxter (nicknamed Bud in the movie, but Chuck on stage in the musical version) who aspires to rise through the ranks at Consolidated Insurance. The only way for him to do that is to let a fleet of higher-ups use his apartment for their extra-marital trysts. Yes, C.C. is complicit in their dirty deeds, but he's not exactly happy about it. And he also spends a lot of time on park benches in the snow while other people enjoy his apartment, plus the girl he yearns for, an elevator operator named Fran Kubelik (turned into an executive dining room hostess in "Promises, Promises") keeps ignoring his affections.

By turning "The Apartment" into a musical, Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach and Hal David replaced a lot of the black-and-white cynicism with color and fizz, so your line-up of cheating execs now sing and dance about their need to find a place to take their girlfriends for after-work quickies. (If the Peggy Olson/Olsen connection is piece of trivia #1, then piece of trivia #2 is that the creepy execs in "The Apartment" include "My Favorite Martian" Ray Walston, David Lewis, AKA the original Edward Quartermaine on "General Hospital," and David White, who played Larry Tate, Darren's advertising agency boss on "Bewitched.")

"Promises, Promises" tries to keep a close connection to C.C. Baxter through narration spoken directly to the audience, although there's really no way to compete with the close-ups on Jack Lemmon, who was so sympathetic and appealing as C.C. in "The Apartment." Plus some of the movie's best bits, like C.C. straining spaghetti through a tennis racket while singing opera to himself, aren't even attempted on stage. In fact, the lack of apartment time is one of the biggest failings in Neil Simon’s book for "Promises, Promises." We don't get inside the all-important apartment till well into the show, and then it's a fairly skimpy set that doesn't have any of the cozy charm of the one Jack Lemmon made his own on screen.

In general, the mood of "Promises, Promises" is more like "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" than "The Apartment." And there's nothing wrong with that. Burt Bacharach's music is breezy and bright, in a very 60s fashion, with standouts like the title song and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" keeping you humming long after you leave the theater. I have a particular fondness for "Knowing When to Leave," as well; it appears on a Broadway album released by Liz Callaway, one of my favorite voices.

Simon’s book is fine, if not at the same level as the brilliant Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond version, and the Bacharach/David score is a delight. In general, I don't see any reason why "Promises, Promises" hasn't been revived more often. Maybe because it hit Broadway in 1968, but it has more in common with older shows instead of the "Hairs" and "Oh, Calcuttas" of the late 60s?

But the new "Promises, Promises" has its attractions, not the least of which is Sean Hayes as C.C. Baxter. It's tough to compete with the memory of Jack Lemmon in the role, but Hayes' take on C.C. is different enough to make its mark. This C.C. is as cute and sweet as he needs to be, Hayes sounds fine with the tricky Bacharach songs, and he has a knack for physical comedy that really works, especially in one interaction with a slippery chair and during an extended scene where he runs into Katie Finneran’s woman on the prowl. That last scene deservedly brings down the house. If I lived in New York, I'd go back to see this "Promises, Promises" a few more times just for his winning performance.

Kristin Chenoweth isn't as successful as Fran, but mostly because she seems miscast from the get-go. Chenoweth has a great voice, but not the right voice for this role, even though they’ve added two Bacharach classics (“I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home”), apparently to give her more to do. The new songs sound good, but don’t fit the book, especially “Prayer.” Chenoweth is also 1) too mature (Trivia bit #3: Shirley MacLaine was 26 when she played Fran; Cheno is 42), 2) too blonde, too orange and too skinny, making Fran look like she ought to be clubbing in Hollywood in 2010, not toiling in the executive dining room at Consolidated Life in 1962 and 3) too self-possessed. There is no way it's believable that this confident, hard-edged Fran would be so despondent after a break-up that she would try to off herself.

I believe it was I.A.L. Diamond, co-writer of “The Apartment” with Billy Wilder, who described Fran as sexy, funny and sad. Kristin Chenoweth can do funny, but the jury is still out on sexy and sad, at least in this production. Shirley MacLaine gave Fran a gamine vulnerability that Chenoweth just can't touch.

She also doesn’t show much chemistry with either Hayes or Tony Goldwyn, who plays Meldrake, her other leading man. I have to say, Goldwyn strikes me as an odd choice for the role, when there are so many other Broadway stars of a certain age who are a closer fit. (Paging Marc Kudisch.) Goldwyn is handsome, but kind of remote, and his singing voice is only okay. (Paging Brian Stokes Mitchell.) All in all, he comes off as a bit of a cold fish and a weasel, instead of the charismatic heel we get from Fred MacMurray in the film. (Paging Gregory Harrison.) Some seductive power and a great deal more warmth would be welcome. (Paging Tom Wopat.)

I’m willing to concede that the lack of spark with Goldwyn isn’t Chenoweth’s fault, but the lack of heat with Hayes surely is, since he and Katie Finneran almost set the stage on fire when they start their crazy second-act tango.

I don’t know any solution to the problem, unless Chenoweth leaves the role and gets replaced by somebody who can project more emotional fragility, something different and quirky enough to appeal to a singular guy like C.C. Baxter. Maybe Katie Finneran can take over the role. Or Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olson on “Mad Men.”

Some other notes – “Turkey Lurkey Time” is funny, but not exactly a showstopper without Donna McKechnie dancing in the front line; Dick Latessa is wonderful as C.C.’s neighbor, a doctor, and that role adds a lot to the general feel of the show; and Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Benson, Sean Martin Hingston and Ken Land are pretty darn good at making lecherous businessmen entertaining.

The original “Promises, Promises” played for four years, and it would be nice if this one lasted a while, too. Four years seems impossible on today’s Broadway, so maybe a year or two. I think I’d move it to a different house (the Broadway Theatre is kind of a barn) and replace Chenoweth and Goldwyn, and see if that didn’t warm up the temperature and the box office.

“Promises, Promises” is directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Scenic design is by Scott Pask, with costumes by Bruce Pask. It plays at the Broadway Theatre and tickets are available at

Friday, May 7, 2010


Heartland Theatre will hold auditions for their annual 10-Minute Play Festival on Monday and Tuesday, May 10 & 11, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

This year's theme is the Hotel Lobby: Inns & Outs, and there are lots of roles for lots of different ages. Auditions will be held at Heartland Theatre, Lincoln & Beech Streets, in the Normal Community Activity Center.

Wondering about the winning plays? Here they are:

Civil Disobedience, by Bara Swain (NY)
How far would you go to make your son listen to you? Goldalee Schneider may be forced to resort to a sit-in strike in the Holiday Inn Express NYC.
1 M, 1 F

Ursula Fernhouse Checks Out, by Michael R. McGuire (CT)
Night clerk Rita isn’t sure what to make of an unlikely hit man with a fear of heights gunning for a guest who's been there since 1962. But, hey, at least it’s different.
1 M, 2 F

Not in My Lobby, You Don't, by Corey Case (IL)
An uptight clerk has issues with a member of a punk-rock group trying to check out. Wild party, naked groupies, sofa in the pool... That’s rock and roll, baby!
3 M, 1 F

Almost There, by Philip Kaplan (NY)
Stuart has a vivid virtual life, visiting a baptism, a bachelor party and a funeral without leaving the lobby. Cynthia wants to sit in peace to wait for her date. Whose lobby is it, anyway?
1 M, 1 F

Going Nowhere, by R.D. Wakeman (CA)
A jaded front desk clerk and a new maid ponder moving up from their jobs, while on the other side of the lobby, a couple tries to decide whether their affair is going anywhere.
1 M, 3 F

If Only, by Dave Krostal (IL)
When a down-on-his-luck man takes refuge from the rain, he offers a game or two of Go Fish and a gift of a snow globe to the desk clerk, someone he thinks he knows from long ago.
2 M

Coffee and a Cruller, by Rachel Stanford (IL)
Mmmm... Free breakfast at a small-town motel. It's worth getting up at 4 a.m. for two gossipy ladies trying to be helpful to anybody crazy enough to actually pay for their own doughnut.
1 M, 3 F

Driving Through the Fog, by Elena Naskova (WA)
Low-rent Motel 90 isn't exactly where Helen sees herself hanging out. But she's stuck there when heavy fog sets in, negotiating with a desk clerk whose life is even foggier than hers.
1 M, 1 F

For more information, see Heartland's website, linked at left.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It’s pretty unusual for any European book to take America by storm and become an international mega-selling sensation. When it’s a trilogy in Swedish, of all things, it’s downright shocking.

Shocking is the right word for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, beginning with the book originally called “Män Som Hatar Kvinnor” (Men Who Hate Women) and sold in English as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The books are billed as thrillers, and that’s the right description, too, given the kick-ass (and then some) heroine, the grisly subject matter, and Larsson’s take-no-prisoners attitude to sex, sexual politics, violence, serial killers, political corruption and the general unwillingness of those in charge to do anything about the terrible wrongs in the world.

I gave my husband all three books in Swedish, as well as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in English. He’s not much of a fiction reader (okay, he doesn’t normally read fiction at all) but I thought he would enjoy the chance to see a different kind of language than what’s used in the Swedish newspapers or classics he’s used to. I honestly didn’t know much about the books, other than seeing ads all over the internet and what I’d read on my friend Kathleen’s blog. Kathleen talks about what her friends are reading (it’s a fascinating blog for readers or writers, since readers like to see what’s current and writers need to know what does and doesn’t appeal to potential audiences) and the Millennium trilogy has come up a few times, I believe, even though the third book won’t be out in English until May 25th. (And, no, my husband has not read the third book yet, so he can’t help those dying for spoilers.)

This week, my friend Steve over in Champaign-Urbana told me that the movie version of the first book, also called “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” was playing at the Art Theater in Champaign. The Art is a terrific little theater in downtown Champaign, locally owned and operated, just one theater instead of ten or fifteen, with unusual and different choices of films.

So my husband and I took the drive over to C-U to catch “The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo,” for me to see what all the fuss was about and for him to get to hear Swedish on the big screen.

I think, given the general descriptions I’d heard before I went, I was expecting more of a “DaVinci Code” and less “Silence of the Lambs,” but then, I can be a bit squeamish when it comes to the scary stuff, so it’s probably best I wasn’t forewarned. And “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is definitely scary.

It opens with the more mundane – investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist is being tried on libel charges for articles he wrote about a wealthy businessman – but quickly devolves into murkier waters when Blomkvist is pulled out of his libel nightmare by another rich and powerful man named Henrik Vanger.

Vanger asks Blomkvist to look into the disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet, some 40 years ago, and to do that, he requests that Blomkvist come to the island where what’s left of the family, an unpleasant bunch at best, lives and works. Harriet disappeared from the island on a day when all traffic on or off was blocked, so Vanger feels certain that all of the evidence – and all of the suspects – will be right there.

As Blomkvist begins to work, his path crosses that of another investigator. This one is Lisbeth Salander, a goth/punk 24-year-old whose past is strewn with violence and dysfunction. But Lisbeth, with her amazing computer skills and photographic memory, can be a major asset to Mikael Blomkvist. If he can trust her, if she can trust him, and if they can get to the bottom of Harriet’s disappearance before the wrong people figure out what they’re doing.

Director Niels Arden Oplev does a fantastic job racheting up the tension, no easy feat when you consider he is relying on research, blow-ups of photos and computer searches for most of his plot. There are a few minor action scenes involving fights or car chases and two or three horrific scenes involving Lisbeth and the state guardian appointed to handle her finances, but most of it is paperwork, something tough to pull off on film.

This is not a short film at 2 hours 26 minutes, and there’s a lot of plot to unload and different puzzles to solve. Still, it all manages to come together within the allotted time without dragging at all.

I’m still not sure how Larsson and Oplev managed to make Lisbeth, who is beyond dark in terms of her look, her actions and her motivations, so sympathetic and compelling. A lot of that is due to the actress, Noomi Rapace, who looks and feels heartbreakingly real as a wounded, haunted, hard-as-nails survivor of God-knows-what. We find out a little bit of that, although not all, and I’m assuming more will come in the next two movies.

Michael Nyqvist who plays Mikael, is also real. He’s not particularly handsome or flashy, more of a regular blob of a guy, and yet he has integrity and substance. His Blomkvist is someone you could trust.

Larsson’s world is dark and evil, with corruption and filth hiding behind every polished façade, and it’s Lisbeth, especially in Noomi Rapace’s performance, that reflects the human cost of all that. Pretty devastating stuff. There are supposedly plans afoot to make a Hollywood version, with Carey Mulligan as Lisbeth and Brad Pitt as Mikael, and all I can say is... See the real version now before Hollywood wrecks it.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is showing at the Art Theater in Champaign through May 6th.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

May Days!

Yes, it's true. It's already May, the students are beginning to pack up and leave for the summer, and fans of the arts have begun to plot out their summer schedules.

Not so fast! There's plenty to do in May, too.

First off, Heartland Theatre opens New Plays from the Heartland* this week, where three one-acts chosen from submissions from all over the Midwest are performed as staged readings on Heartland's stage. This year, playwright Phil Olsen, whose play "A Small Family Gathering" was performed at Heartland last fall, chose the winners on the theme Anniversaries. The three winning plays are:

• “A Good Man,” by Robert Lynn of Dubuque, Iowa, about a mother and her daughters confronting their conflicting memories of the husband and father they lost 30 years ago.
• “Night Time Illumination,” by John Lordan of Evanston, IL, which deals with a young man about to set off into the world and the connection he’s shared with his neighbor.
• “La Cueca Sola,” by Jessica Wisniewski of Romeoville, Illinois, about an army wife longing to share just one anniversary with her faraway husband.

Staged readings of the New Plays from the Heartland, directed by Heartland’s Managing Artistic Director Mike Dobbins, will take place May 7 and 8 at 7:30 pm. Heartland Theatre requests a $5 donation for the event. Playwright/judge Phil Olsen is offering a lecture open to the public and the winning playwrights at the theater on May 6th, also at 7:30.

*Full disclosure: I am appearing in two of the plays.

Community Players pulls out the big guns for its May offering, with “The Producers,” the hugely successful musical based on Mel Brooks’ movie about a shady producer and a schlemiel of an accountant who cook the books to put on a Broadway show. Brooks collaborated on the book and wrote the music and lyrics for this version, too, and you will recognize “Springtime for Hitler” among other hilarious songs. “The Producers” plays at Community Players May 7-9, 13-16 and 20-23, with evening performances at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2:30. Brian Artman and Sean Stevens play Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, the roles made famous by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in 1968 and Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in 2000, and the lovely and charming Joel Shoemaker and Rosemary Luitjens also appear (as "common law assistant" Carmen Ghia and "Hold Me, Touch Me," a source of cash for Mr. Bialystock, respectively), making "The Producers" a don't-miss.

Illinois Wesleyan closes out its season with “Freakshow,” by Carson Kreitzer, a provocative piece about a strange carnival where the Dog Faced Woman, The Pinhead, Aquaboy, a jaded Ringmaster and a Woman With No Arms and No Legs try to find their way in a new world.. Directed by Britnee Ruscitti, “Freakshow” plays in the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Labratory Theatre May 21 and 22 at 8 pm and May 23 at 2 pm.

One of my favorite old musicals, “Footlight Parade,” with Jimmy Cagney hoofing it up on Broadway, hits the Normal Theater May 20th and 21st, and then – mark your calendars – Fred Astaire comes to town in “Top Hat,” one of the best of the Fred-and-Ginger La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romances, on the 22nd and 23rd.

Over in Urbana, “Always Patsy Cline” continues at the Station Theater through May 8, and Krannert Center at U of I features a full roster of musical events, like Krannert Uncorked on May 6, 13 and 21.

I’m also intrigued by Student Playwrights Outreach Theatre, called SPOT for short, a collaborative effort between the University of Illinois Department of Theatre and Booker T. Washington Elementary School. Each year, fourth- and fifth-grade students write stories that the SPOT team adapts into short plays. In its Krannert Center debut, the show features stories about superheroes, family pets, and the occasional new pair of boots. SPOT plays at Krannert’s Studio Theatre for one performance only, at 7 pm on May 13.