Theatrically speaking…

January 1, 2010

Browsing my usual theatre-related websites, I find they have all fallen into the same end-of-year trap. Each presents two features: one to commemorate the lives of the dead of 2009 and another to ask users to submit their favorite theatrical moments of 2009 (or, in the case of the New York Times, all time). Though I think the former morbid and the latter banal and useless, I thought it right that I (being neither morbid nor banal) use this space to comment on both these items as they apply to me. Don’t worry, I will limit myself to three in each case.

Let’s get the deaths out of the way first.

Bea Arthur. Words cannot approach description of the woman. 5 feet 9 inches “in her stocking feet” with a voice as “deep as a pothole.” Her comic timing was incomparable. The titular character of Maude, Dorthy Zbornak of the Golden Girls, the original Vera in Broadway’s Mame (opposite Angela Lansbury), the original Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof. She is an icon. And, as it happens, the reason this blog is named as such. In 2002, at the age of 80, she performed a one woman show, touring the country with a collection of songs she’d acquired (& adored) throughout her career. I wish I could attach the version of “Where Do You Start” that so inspired me, but sadly I am not technically savvy. Instead, enjoy this odd video.

Natasha Richardson. If you only know her from movies like Maid in Manhattan, you really need to educate yourself with some vintage Cabaret videos. Performing as Sally Bowles in the Sam Mendes production, she completely reinvented the role and changed the way the musical will be played forever. She also performed in the mega hit Closer and met her future husband, Liam Neeson, while doing O’Neill’s Anna Christie. Her passing was a tragic one and made the performance of her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, in Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking all the more heart-breaking. The beautiful Natasha in her Tony-winning role.

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Horton Foote. A Pulitzer-prize winner for drama (for his work The Young Man from Atlanta), this playwright lived a long and healthy life. His final work, Dividing the Estate, continues to tour after its Broadway run with the help of his daughters (one of whom was in the Broadway production). He was also an Academy-Award winning writer of screenplays. His notable works include To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. What I love best about his work is how very close to home they feel. He writes mostly about his hometown in Texas, and every piece has a truly personal touch.

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Now to the works I have appreciated this year.

Mary Stuart. No other production this year provided such a magnificent star vehicle for a female performer. And this one had two such roles. Janet McTeer as Mary, Queen of Scots, and Harriet Walter as Queen Elizabeth I amazed me in every possible way. Phyllida Lloyd, the director and woman responsible for the show’s transfer from the Donmar in London, creates such powerful tension (both internally and externally) for these characters in such a fantastically sparse and terrifying set. And the down pouring rain in Act Two? Not trite in the slightest. Sexual, disheartening, furious: it is all those things and more, but never just an effect. I am not leaving myself enough space to comment fully on this wondrous play, but thank god I saw it.

August: Osage County. Winning the Pulitzer and taking home several Tony Awards in 2008, August tells the story of a family’s struggles with the apparent suicide of the patriarch, including incest, prescription pain killer addiction and marital disharmony. But that makes it sound boring, which it is DEFINITELY not. As Audrey said to me after Act Three ended, “It’s better than a soap opera.” And since the original cast was there and gone off to London by the time I saw it, I was privileged to see the outstanding Estelle Parsons treading (climbing, clawing) the boards at 80+ years old. It was astonishing to watch her throughout the show. For such a successful career, it is monumental to describe this as it is, the performance of a lifetime. Favorite line of the show: “Eat the catfish, bitch!”

La Cage aux Folles. Intimate. Colorful. (Maybe) controversial. And so very entertaining. I was surprised to find how much I loved this show. Relying on the Lane & Williams movie as my background for the piece and the little knowledge I had of the stage production’s music, I went in expecting a three hour farce. And I was wrong. The piece is absolutely gorgeous. Visually stunning, lyrically powerful, and hilarious. The Jerry Herman score tickles the bombastic in the same way his Hello Dolly did, but manages to remain built into the show, a perfect replication of what the book musical should be. Graham Norton (sick though he may have been) provided a sufficient amount of depth (and loads of camp) to his character to make the Act One Finale “I Am What I Am” really moving and inspiring. I guarantee every person who saw the show that night was humming a showtune on the way home.

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Patrick Stewart in "Macbeth"

This list of British New Year Honours has been published, and Yorkshireman Patrick Stewart has been awarded for his services to drama. Perhaps best known for his (fantastic) work on television’s Star Trek: the Next Generation, the subsequent movies that utilized this cast, and the X-Men series, Stewart is also an accomplished stage and voiceover actor. More recently, Stewart rejoined the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform alongside David Tenant (and his understudy, Edward Bennett) in Hamlet, playing both Old Hamlet and Claudius to rave reviews and an Olivier Award. [Apparently, this production was filmed and aired on the BBC on December 26th.] Sir Patrick can also be heard in four episodes of Family Guy and (amazingly) in the Gargoyles series that I so enjoyed as a child.

I saw Stewart in Hamlet at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2008. Previous to this, I also attended his lauded performance in Macbeth at New York’s Lyceum Theatre earlier that year, which was Tony Award nominated. And, while I admit that he has a commanding stage presence and a lovely deep voice, Stewart failed both times to impress this audience member. For being a 16 year member of the RSC during his younger days, I expected much more. He certainly is a fan of the thoughtful pause a la Pinter, and you can see that he really dissects what he is about to say. But, by god, it’s dull to watch. You feel as though he is reading lines from his script, never erring from his original interpretation, relying entirely on the built-in excitement of the audience for a big screen actor. The slow speeches all sound like “I’m Patrick Stewart. Yes, I am that good. Watch me do Shakespeare to prove it.” Nothing is developed.

But he deserves it. He has done well for the realm. But more so, 69 years old and can still pull 31 year olds, defending it with I can’t meet people my own age. That defense itself deserves a knighthood.

I must also offer congratulations to the great Nicholas Hytner, the highly successful artistic director of the National Theatre. His efforts have changed (and very much improved) British theatre these past several years.

Also the Commanders of the British Empire must be paid respect: Phyllida Lloyd (of Mamma Mia! fame, but preferably a Mary Stuart reputation) and Margaret Tyzack (who survived Phedre better than many of the other actors in my own review).

Apparently, 2009’s Tony Awards saw a drastic spike in ratings, as reported by Playbill, well into double digit increases. I think the presence of Neil Patrick Harris, this year’s (dull) host, is to blame for these gains in viewership. He was all over day-time and late-night television, advertising the show in a way that Whoopi (presumably, by contract with The View) could not. Though I hardly know of him, the greater part of the country seems to idolize N.P.H. as some kind of all-American poster boy. If they only knew…

Neil Patrick Harris, host of 2009 Tonys
Neil Patrick Harris, host

But, it is EXCELLENT, I say. Any press theatre can obtain will certainly benefit the entire theatre-loving community. Particularly in a season full of critically-acclaimed and artistically diverse productions, the increased interest validates the claim that shows can be both smart and bankable. Plus, better ticket sales will generate more jobs and spending in New York- perhaps enough to stimulate some real growth the economy…well, maybe not. But it is telling that this year, when all feared the Great White Way’s death with 11 shows closing in January, tickets sales were the highest ever recorded by the Broadway League ($943.3 million, according to the NY Times) and 40+ new shows opened. That is quite encouraging news if this is really the Great Depression: Volume 2.

But ratings fail to reflect a program’s quality (See Arrested Development for details). So, what did I think, you may ask.

As you may have guessed, I was not completely bowled over by N.P.H.’s hosting abilities. He said, as a guest on The View, that he would attempt to replicate John Stewart’s Oscar-hosting technique, being witty and smart. In reality, this technique became lame and uninvolved. N.P.H. did very little throughout the evening until his 11 o’clock number sung through the credits. Whoopi flew, rollerskated, and dressed in so many ridiculous costumes as last year’s host. N.P.H. wore a shiny suit, walked down the aisles a few times, and made one good joke about Brett Michael’s “headbanging” incident. I like the guy, but he was a miserably dull host!

I did, however, enjoy the new format they utilized this year. Musical numbers seemed to bookend each award presentation, making the evening fast-paced and perfect for a theatre-loving couch potato. I cannot believe those three hours past so quickly! While their selection of random regional and touring productions (Legally Blonde, Jersey Boys, and Mamma Mia) was questionable, it provided them with more performance material to sell tickets.

The Winners: Much of the night went as predicted. Ok, ALL OF IT was as predicted. The big winner of the night was Billy Elliot, which picked up awards for Best Musical, Direction, Choreography, Sets, Featured Actor, and Leading Actor awards. As you’ll hear in the clip, all 3 actors playing Billy were nominated together for 1 award. And together, they had the most endearing acceptance speech of the night.

Billy Elliot the musical revolves around motherless Billy, who trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes. The story of his personal struggle and fulfillment are balanced against a counter-story of family and community strife caused by the eighties’ coal miners’ strike of Northern England. While the Billy performance offered nothing for people like my mother (who loves the singing and dancing of traditional shows), I suspect the dancers of the world found a piece to call their own.

The fiercest competitor (though, without claws) was Next to Normal, which provided the best performance of the night. Carrie Fisher offers a fun introduction to the scene (TRUST ME, listen to the whole thing…it gets really good).

Next to Normal tells the story of a mother struggling with worsening bipolar disorder and the illness’ effect on her family. Alice Ripley, the mother, easily took the award for Best Actress in a Musical (and what a crazy acceptance speech it was).

Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit

Angela Lansbury in "Blithe Spirit"

Thank god for Angela Lansbury. At 83 years old, she wins her 5th Tony Award! How fantastic. Apparently, her performance is Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit is outstanding and strangely similar to Geoffrey Rush’s in Exit the King in zany energy. I hope I can move like that at 83 (or even Estelle Parsons at 82 in August: Osage County).

God of Carnage took the Best New Play award, as expected. With stars like James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hope Davis involved, it was sure to be a hit with critics and audiences. With the Pulitzer Prize winner, Ruined, excluded from contention (because it never actually played Broadway), Carnage only faced competition from Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty. With the prize gone, reasons has (unfortunately) already announced its closing date. I saw the LaBute on opening night, as a friend was investing in it. While not thrilled by it, it grew on me day-by-day after as I thought more about it, and I am sad to see it go. I am sure more Tony losers will follow on reasons‘ heels.

Janet McTeer in Mary Stuart

Janet McTeer in Mary Stuart

The Losers: I was disappointed to see Janet McTeer of Mary Stuart lose the Best Leading Actress in a Play award to Marcia Gay Harden. I have yet to see Ms. Gay Harden’s performance, but I cannot describe how enthralling Ms. McTeer’s Mary Stuart was. And performing night after night in an onstage rain, drenched in period dress as the men go about in modern…wow! She was outstanding. That was sad to see, while still expected.

Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King

Geoffrey Rush - "Exit the King"

The Best Leading Actor in a Play category was rife with talent and celebrity names. Geoffrey Rush, whose hilarious performance as a 400 year old in Exit the King stole the award, faced stiff competition from Gandolfini, Daniels, Esparza, and Sadoski. Esparza (of Speed-the-Plow) and Sadoski (of reasons to be pretty) both gave outstanding performances. Many thought Mr. Esparza would grab the award merely for putting up with Jeremy Piven’s sushi antics (and the 2 replacements he had to accomodate in Piven’s absence). Mr. Sadoski was the essence of reasons and gave such a unique and heart-felt performance. I would argue that he was Mr. Rush’s main competition, though Rush was damn funny in an otherwise dull show.

Overall, an intriguing (and money-making) theatre season.