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The last time I watched the Tonys, I had just come back from a trip to New York. The nominations had actually come out while I was there. I had seen half a dozen shows, spent an evening at the Birdland, and was completely immersed in everything that was going on there.

It couldn’t be more opposite this year. I don’t even know what’s on down there, let alone know anything about the nominees. I really need to go back sometime soon. But, having spent the week soaking in theatre at Stratford, I’m in the mood for the Tonys. So this will be a complete ignorant’s view of proceedings. And it will be pretty much stream-of-consciousness. (more…)

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I’ve talked before about my love for Stephanie J Block. For those of you who don’t know the name, she is a Broadway musical theatre performer. She played Elphaba the first time I saw Wicked and I fell in love with her then and there. I took a trip down to New York to see her in The Pirate Queen (which I blogged about here at the time). I was desperate to see the stage musical 9 to 5 on Broadway, because not only was Stephanie Block in it, but Allison Janney was, too. Sadly, I never made it to that one.

So, once in a while I will troll youtube to see what’s out there. And among the various bootlegs of her singing songs from Wicked, I found this

(more…)

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I delayed this week’s post a little so I could include some talk about the Tony Awards. Amazingly, for a theatre geek like me, this is the first time I have ever seen them. A couple of friends, E and J, and I had a Tony party at E’s place, which mostly included lots of wine and snacks, kibitzing about wardrobe choices and the varying results of plastic surgery, and the blowing of raspberries in the general direction of Spring Awakening. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

As I’ve mentioned, I went down to New York in May, specifically to see as many musicals as humanly possible. I ended up seeing 6 in 5 days, which isn’t bad considering one of those days was a Monday. (All the Broadway theatres are dark on Mondays.) In addition to The Pirate Queen, about which I have already ranted at length, I made it to Grey Gardens, Drowsy Chaperone, Stairway to Paradise, Wicked and Curtains. Reviews as follows:

Grey Gardens was a complete unknown to me when I went to see it. I believe we decided to go see this one based on the recommendation of a lovely boy who worked at a theatre kitsch gift shop and the availability of rush tickets. It was really very good. It was based on a documentary about an aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy. They were socialites in the 40s, but by the 70s they were crazy recluses living in a run-down old house in the Hamptons (called Grey Gardens) with rats, fleas, raccoons and 52 cats. The place was a health hazard and it was quite the scandal. The first act was set in the 40s when everyone was young a beautiful. It felt very Broadway musical – funny and clever, with a love story and a domineering mother and quirky secondary characters. The second act was set in the 70s when they’re old and insane and it was… odd. Not bad, but very odd. It felt like an off-Broadway play more than a musical. There was still quite a lot of singing, but the whole tone of it was different. Christine Ebersole played the aunt in Act 1 and the cousin in Act 2, and she was fantastic. Her Tony win was well-deserved (and well-predicted). All the actors were excellent – there wasn’t a weak link in the cast. Even the two children (one was about 8 and the other – playing Jackie – about 12). Too often child stars either can’t sing well or are nauseatingly, terrifyingly precocious. Sometimes all of the above. But these girls sang well and were adorable and much more genuine than is usual. The sets were lovely and suited the production. It was, essentially, a big house, and the façade trucked in and out in various pieces, and parts of the interior revolved. Overall, I’m not sure I’d race back to see it again, but it was absolutely worth seeing.

Drowsy Chaperone was wonderful. Just wonderful. So much fun! It’s light and fluffy and entertaining and feel-good, and everything a musical is supposed to be. The music is good and it’s catchy – as the cliché goes, you will absolutely go out humming one of the songs. It’s all about loving musicals, and embracing the cheesiness, and it made me happy and I adored it. I have this underlying attachment to it because it came from Toronto, from many of the people who were involved in Slings and Arrows, which I also adore. It spent 10 years percolating through the festivals and the theatres in Canada, and I never heard of it. (Although granted, I was out of the country for over 5 of those years.) DanCap is bringing it back to Toronto, though, with Bob Martin back in it as Man in Chair (he had left to do Drowsy in London by the time I made it to Broadway), and I am absolutely going to see it again, and I’m dragging my friend S with me.

Stairway to Paradise (not Stairway to Heaven, which is what I kept mistakenly calling it) was not, actually, a musical. It was a musical revue of songs and skits from the first half of the 20th century. It starred Kristen Chenoweth, who is fabulous, and had featured performances by Ruthie Henshall, who I adore, so the fact that I didn’t know a single song they sang was completely irrelevant. It was a fun night of excellent singing. My favourite part was a silly little sketch – it was, in fact, a sketch within a sketch and the premise was, a stage hand had filled the stage with goldenrod instead of roses by mistake, so the gag was that everyone was sneezing too hard to deliver their lines. It might have been vaguely amusing, except for the fact that Kristen Chenoweth and her two co-stars kept trying to out-do each other and started laughing after every sneeze until the whole thing ground to a halt with Kristen sprawled over her very large co-star, literally on the floor laughing. It ended up being hysterically funny.

Wicked I had seen before, although never on Broadway. I loved it, as always, and would go back to see it again in a heartbeat.

Curtains was the other one that I knew nothing about going in. While we were in New York, though, it received 8 Tony nominations, and it was starring David Hyde Pierce, so I went to see the Wednesday matinee before I flew out. I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of Drowsy Chaperone and of Spamalot, for different reasons. The story is about a theatre troupe whose terrible leading lady is killed on opening night. David Hyde Pierce plays the cop who comes in to investigate. Like Drowsy Chaperone, it is a traditional sort of musical, feel-good with big musical numbers and dancing and a romance and it all turns out well in the end. It’s funny (although the humour is generally more obvious than it is clever) and it’s charming, and it’s very well acted. It’s not hugely deep, and some of the plot twists were more obvious than others, but it had heart, and I would see it again if I could. I will probably also get the soundtrack. And I caved while I was at the theatre and bought a mug, because every stage manager should have a mug that says ‘the show must go on’. Sometimes we need reminding.

And now, coming back to the Tonys. Of all the shows I saw, only two of those, Grey Gardens and Curtains, were up for Tonys this year, but I spent so much time wandering up and down Broadway surrounded by billboards, poring over listings, deciding what I wanted to see, what I could afford to see, that I really felt attached to a lot of the shows that were up for consideration.

I didn’t go to see Spring Awakening, (I told you I’d get back to this), mostly because E and J had seen it when they were in New York in January. They loved the music, but were not impressed with the show; they said they were put off by the sheer tonnage of teen angst. We’re all in our late twenties and we decided that it was just the wrong age for that kind of thing – too far away to identify with it, but not far enough away to feel nostalgic about it. That said, I don’t think any of us have anything specifically against Spring Awakening. The raspberries were coming mostly from the fact that it just kept winning against shows we had seen and enjoyed. That and the fact that the writer of the book and score was both boring and long-winded during his acceptance speeches. Note the plural. *thbbbtpt*

As I mentioned, though, Christine Ebersole won for Best Actress in a Musical, and we cheered for her. David Hyde Pierce won for best actor, which was also well deserved. Our favourite person of the evening, though, was Julie White, who won for Best Actress in a Play for The Little Dog Laughed. When she won and the camera panned to her, you could see her mouth saying ‘You have got to be kidding me’. Her acceptance speech was funny, too. Stand up comedians always give the best acceptance speeches. It took us a while to figure out where we knew her from, but E finally came up with the fact that she played Nadine on Grace Under Fire. Brownie points from the Tonys also went to Jennifer Ehle, who we already loved from the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, for thanking her stage managers.

They have recently announced that there will be a limited run of a workshop for a new musical based on the movie 9 to 5. You remember, the one with Dolly Parton? It’s going to star Stephanie J Block, Megan Hilty, Allison Janney and Bebe Neuwirth. If I can possibly get tickets to it, I will very likely be back in New York at the end of June to see that. And the Tonys conveniently provided me with another long list of things I’d like to see. I think 110 in the Shade, starring Audra McDonald will still be running. And if the Company revival is still playing, I’d like to see that. Ditto for The Little Dog Laughed. And Second Stage is putting on a production of Eurydice, by Sarah Ruhl. We did that show in drama school and I fell in love with the script, but the director absolutely butchered the production, and I’ve been dying to see it done well ever since. It opened three weeks after I last left New York, but should still be running if I make it back. Now I just have to scrape up the money…

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So, apparently I overestimated. The Pirate Queen will run for another couple of weeks (not months) and then close as an expensive flop. The last day will be June 17th.

The article can be found here: http://www.wtopnews.com/index.php?nid=114&sid=1159964

I read somewhere that there is the possibility of an English-language European production. Here’s to hoping they take the time to fix it and it eventually comes back as a great success. RIP Pirate Queen.

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The Pirate Queen

I am a great big theatre geek. It’s probably best to get that out of the way up front. I am a musical theatre geek, and I started young. When I was ten years old, my mum and I went to China for two weeks. Before we left, my mom took me to Sam the Record Man and we each bought a tape to listen to on the 18-hour flight. I bought Little Shop of Horrors, I can’t remember why, and my mom bought Les Miserables. By the time we were on the 18-hour flight home, I was bored to death of Little Shop of Horrors– bored to death of just about everything there was to do on a plane, really – so my mom sat next to me and explained the whole story of Les Mis and let me listen to her tape. I liked it – ‘Castle on a Cloud’ was my favourite and I pretty much had it memorised by the time we touched down – so when we got home, my mom took me to see the show.  

That was it for me. I fell completely in love with musical theatre and there has been no turning back. I must have seen Les Mis nearly ten times before it left Toronto, and I still know the whole entire thing by heart. I’ve seen many, many musicals since, and loved a number of them, but very few have made the same kind of impression. Rent was one. And, more recently, Wicked. 

I saw Wicked for the first time when it came through Toronto in 2005. I had been told I had to see it so many times, that by the time it got here I never wanted to hear about it again. My best friend dragged me down to try for the lottery, promising me that if we lost, that would be the end of it. My name was called for the very last pair of tickets, and only then because the people ahead of us had refused them. They were, literally, the two worst seats in the house. They were in the box closest to the stage on the auditorium left side. The view was parallel to the stage, as opposed to towards it, meaning I had an excellent view of the stage left wing. And only then if I leaned around the giant bank of speakers. I couldn’t see the back wall of the set at all, or the back 2/3 of the stage. But as soon as the show started, none of that mattered. I fell completely in love with the Wicked Witch of the West. Elphaba was played by Stephanie J Block, and she was amazing. The one good thing about the seats was that they were physically very close to the stage. I could see every emotion cross her face, and she broke my heart. Her singing was beautiful, but that was almost secondary. The music made very little impression on me that first time, ‘Defying Gravity’ (which is still the best end to a first act I have ever seen) being the one notable exception. It was the way Stephanie embodied the character completely… I was transported.  

All of which brings me around to the point of this post (finally!). When I heard that Stephanie J Block was going to be starring in a musical, The Pirate Queen, written by the men who wrote Les Miserables, I was determined I was going to see it. So many productions have come and gone before I’ve had a chance to see them, because going to New York is expensive and I work in the arts (‘nuff said). I missed Bernadette Peters doing Gypsy, I missed Nana Visitor doing Chicago. I wasn’t going to miss this. I had to go on tour with a production I was stage managing, but I booked my trip for literally the day after I got back. (It turned out to be more like 4 hours after I got back, but that’s a story for another time.) And The Pirate Queen was the very first show (of six) that I saw when I got there. So, clearly, my expectations were a little high.  

When I finally saw it, The Pirate Queen was… frustrating, mostly. It’s is about Grace O’Malley, an Irish pirate captain from the 16th century. She was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth, and the play is supposedly about the clash between these two women. Stephanie Block was amazing once again. Absolutely no disappointment there. She did very well with some very flawed material. And there were 20 breathtaking minutes at the top of Act 2 when everything just came together and she hit it out of the park. It was one of the most amazing moments in theatre I’ve seen in a long while. The power of it stuck with me, even a week later, trying to explain it to my friends. The staging and the sets and the costumes were also very strong, although sometimes the elaborateness of them got in the way of the acting to a certain extent.  

As for what they got wrong… well, where to start? The script, I suppose. It needs work. It should have gone through another round of workshopping before being staged, I think. It was so close, but it just wasn’t working. The secondary characters were underdeveloped and two-dimensional, as was the villain. Queen Elizabeth was a walking fashion plate and not much else. And the writers couldn’t seem to get a handle on where to start with Grace. A large part of the first act was back story, but it felt as though they were showing us the wrong parts of it. They tended to tell rather than show, particularly with regards to any actual pirating, and the theme of women’s equality frequently came with a rain of anvils. As I said, the top of the second act was fantastic, but they couldn’t quite sustain it. Once again I’m going to sing the praises of Stephanie Block, however. The very end of the show held some of the power of the top of Act 2, if only because of her. She had, without the help of any makeup, managed to age herself 20 years over the course of the show, simply by the way she held herself.  

The songs were not memorable, but, given that was my reaction to Wicked the first time as well, I want to listen to the soundtrack (when it comes out) before I pass judgment on them.

It was frustrating, not because it didn’t live up to my expectations, but because it nearly did. Songs aside, it wouldn’t take much to alter the story and give it more depth and resonance. The seeds of it are there already. It’s so close… But fixing the production would require going dark for a few months, re-writing the songs, re-staging the fights, restructuring the first act. I think it is absolutely worth doing, but it is never going to happen. It got not a single Tony nomination, and so will probably run a few more months and close as an expensive flop. Which makes me sad. I would love to see the show this could have been. It could have – should have – been the next Wicked and broken my heart all over again.

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