Review: The Belle of Amherst

October 20th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Contributor Samuel Leiter goes on a poet’s journey with The Belle of Amherst starring Joely Richardson.

Joely Richardson in 'The Belle of Amherst' (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Joely Richardson in ‘The Belle of Amherst’ (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The Emily Dickinson we see in William Luce’s one-woman biodrama, The Belle of Amherst, may not conform to any preconceived notions you have about the reclusive New England poetess. Aside from her immediate family, the real Dickinson (1830-1886) had barely any concourse with others except from behind a closed door from the late 1860s on. Luce, however, could not have written the play without taking liberties; his Emily is talkative, even gregarious. Despite announcing her fright at meeting strangers, she almost immediately warms to the task of hosting us on a two-hour ramble through her life.

amherst2Luce’s well-researched play, much of it based on Dickinson’s diaries and correspondence, premiered on Broadway in 1976, starring the great Julie Harris (whose Tony-winning performance can be viewed on YouTube); it is now receiving its first New York revival, at the Westside Theatre, with Emily in the elegantly capable hands of Joely Richardson, she of England’s fabled Redgrave lineage, under the smooth direction of Steve Cosson.

Emily, garbed in white, her auburn hair in a bun and parted severely down the middle, inhabits the Homestead, the family’s stately home, represented by designer Antje Ellerman’s sparsely furnished box set. Sometimes she behaves as if she’s chatting with an unseen family member or visitor; for the most part, though, she speaks directly to the audience. Her prose narrative frequently bleeds into a recitation of her poems, but there are plenty of opportunities for the poems to be isolated as specific examples of her writing, such as when she tries selecting one to submit for potential publication.

Joely Richardson in 'The Belle of Amherst' (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Joely Richardson in ‘The Belle of Amherst’ (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Displaying a warm conviviality, replete with wryly idiosyncratic commentary, she shares her recipe for black cake; talks of her beloved siblings, Austin and Lavinia (“Vinnie”); describes her stern but loving father, and emotionally distant mother; recalls her schooldays, during which she reveals her religious skepticism; chats about the considerably older men who courted her (she and Vinnie remained spinsters); grieves over the death of Austin’s son; explains her lengthy correspondence with the famous editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and of her disappointment when he chose not to publish her work; introduces significant friends and influences; reads from a newspaper the kind of sensational story her sister loved; expounds upon her love of words, saying that she “raises her hat to” the best ones, like “phosphorescent”; and otherwise touches on her relatively unexceptional Victorian life of quiet desperation, most of it lived within the same home in which she was born and where she died. Her anecdotal observations are underlined by David Weiner’s lighting, which seems driven by the need to heighten each alteration in the character’s emotional stakes.

The great tragedy of Dickinson’s life was her inability to find a publisher (only a handful of her 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime, and even those were revised by editors); at one point, she cites a literary contemporary who, despite his being constantly rejected, stuck to his guns and became a success. His name? Walt Whitman.

Although the piece begins in 1883, when Emily was fifty-three, the play moves freely around in time, ending in 1886, the year of her death. Emily’s attitudes are girlish, gossipy, naughty, sad, depressed, enthralled, hopeful, and even flirtatious (as a 17-year-old at a dance), as the circumstances warrant. There is definitely something rather modern about her, as when she confesses to having deliberately created her image as a local eccentric; her habit of dressing in white, for example, is a crucial part of her self-created persona.

The poems, lovingly and intelligently read, touch on themes of love, immortality, nature, and death. Richardson clarifies their ambiguities and syntactical difficulties to make them dramatically accessible. Tall and willowy, with razor-sharp features, she makes full use of her expressively graceful hands, neck, and body (she specifically requested that her costume—designed by William Ivey Long—leave her forearms and upper chest exposed for greater expressivity).

Perhaps because she was suffering from the sniffles at the preview I attended, and because she occasionally stumbled over her words (two hours of them, with a single intermission), Richardson’s performance resisted transcendence and, except for passing moments, remained earthbound. Nevertheless, she was always compelling, and for that I raise my hat to this latest belle of Amherst.

The Belle of Amherst
Westside Theatre
407 W. 43rd Street
Through January 25

Samuel L. Leiter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit www.slleiter.blogspot.com.

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Review: It’s Only a Play

October 18th, 2014 View Comment(s)
The cast of 'It's Only a Play' (photo: F. Scott Schafer via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: F. Scott Schafer via The Broadway Blog.)

Broadway is going meta and I wonder if producers are interested in plot lines that don’t involve a life in the theater. Earlier this month we saw the opening of The Country House by Donald Margulies, a new play about a family of actors ensconced in the Berkshires. This week Michael C. Hall stepped into the role of Hedwig, a star-turn performance about a gender-bending performance artist. And of course, we’ve still got Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams traipsing along in the revival of the revival of Cabaret. But none of them tackle the theme of a life on the boards with such biting humor as Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play. Dating back to 1978 and originally titled Broadway Broadway, the script has gotten a 21 century makeover with no additional writing credits, but I would guess that the playwright had some keen millennial eyes on the prize, as this latest version is peppered with references to Lady Gaga, One Direction and other chart-toppers.

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane in 'It's Only a Play' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane in ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

The play centers on the opening night of Peter Austin’s (Matthew Broderick) new play as he and others gather at the home of lead producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) to await the reviews. Along for the ride are his longtime friend, James Wiker (Nathan Lane), who has returned from L.A. and a long TV stint to see his best friend’s work; leading lady Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing); critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), who has another agenda on his mind; British Wunderkind director Frank Finger (Rupert Grint) and a fresh-of-the-bus coat attendee, Micah Stock.

Together, the cast rattles through McNally’s script, which is packed with one-liners and smart commentary about the business. The audience seemed revved up for a Lane-Broderick reunion, as the team appeared so famously together in The Producers. Mr. Broderick also appeared opposite Ms. Mullally in the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. There’s a lot of history on that stage and when Mr. Lane entered for the first time, the audience burst into applause as if he was theater royalty. By the final curtain call (yes, there’s an actual curtain, along with a lux set by Scott Pask), he’s earned every last clap.

The supporting cast for the most part keeps up. Mr. Stock makes a charming Broadway debut as a naïve actor who has stepped into the world he’s dreamt about. Ms. Channing captures both the humor and gravitas of an actress of a certain age who can no longer rely on “pretty.” But Mr. Grint’s stomping and hair-pulling turn as the director desperate for a bad review is somewhat of a self-prophecy. It is an unwieldy performance untamed by director Jack O’Brien’s otherwise deft hand.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted night at the theater—about the theater—then head to the Gerald Schoenfeld where this cast of Broadway vets and their up-and-coming counterparts offer laughs, perhaps a swelling tear or two, and a gentle reminder that a play (even though it’s only a play) is a beautiful thing.

It’s Only a Play
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
Through January 4

Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing in a scene from 'It's Only a Play' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing in a scene from ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

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Categories: To See or Not To See

Exclusive First Look: Side Show

October 17th, 2014 View Comment(s)
'Side Show' (photo by Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo by Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

Have you tired of those happy-go-lucky musicals packed with leggy chorus girls and perfectly coifed gents tapping their way through a perky Cole Porter dance break? Fear not, the dark, underbelly of show business is arriving on Broadway this fall and it’s called Side Show.

In an unprecedented move, the creative team and producers of Side Show invited press into the St. James Theatre for a first look at the much-anticipated musical revival by Bill Russell (Pageant) and Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls). The original production, which opened in 1997, ran for only 91 performances but has been a cult favorite ever since.

Based on the real-life story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who made a name for themselves on the Vaudeville circuit, the plot  is set against the backdrop of 1920s and ’30s show business, seamlessly blending the worlds of carnival, vaudeville and Hollywood glamour.

Speaking of Hollywood, notable film director Bill Condon is at Side Show’s helm. Condon is known for his screen adaptation of Dreamgirls, which won two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes. The stellar production team includes sets by David Rockwell, costumes by Paul Tazewell and special make-up effects designed by Dave and Lou Elsey.

Previews begin October 28 with an official opening scheduled for November 17.

'Side Show' (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

'Side Show' (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

'Side Show' (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

'Side Show' (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

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Categories: The Buzz

Hedwig Take 3: Michael C. Hall Takes Over

October 16th, 2014 View Comment(s)

HedwigThe Tony Award-winning revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch has a new (unconventional) leading man: Michael C. Hall. The Golden Globe and Drama Desk Award winner is no stranger to the stage. He recently starred in Will Eno’s Broadway production of The Realistic Jones, directed by Sam Gold and co-starring Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, and Marisa Tomei. He made his Broadway debut in 1999 as the Emcee in Sam Mendes’ revival of Cabaret and portrayed Billy Flynn in 2002 in the revival of Chicago. His television credits include Dexter (SAG, Golden Globe awards; five Emmy nominations) and Six Feet Under (two SAG ensemble awards, Emmy nomination). On film, Hall recently appeared in Cold in July and Kill Your Darlings.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the musical with book by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, directed by Michael Mayer won four Tony Awards including Best Musical Revival, Best Featured Actress (Lena Hall), and Best Lighting (Kevin Adams). In addition, the production has been honored with Best Musical Revival by the Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

Take a peek at past Hedwigs. Most recently in the role? Andrew Rannells…

And, of course, the one who kicked this revival into gear… Neil Patrick Harris.

 

 

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Categories: Show Folk, The Buzz

THEATER BUFF: Bobby Pestka of “Aladdin”

October 15th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Every third Wednesday of the month, a fabulous actor/singer/dancer fills out contributor Tom Mizer’s nosey little questionnaire and offers a glimpse of what he looks like from a bit closer than the mezzanine. For October, we’re using up one of our three wishes to meet…

Bobby Pestka.

Bobby Pestka. Image via Bobby Pestka.

Name: Bobby Pestka

Hometown: Born in the Philippines and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona

Current show/role: Aladdin / Ensemble

The best part of the show I’m working on now is: Being a working actor. Having a set schedule and going to work every day to a great group of people and doing what I love most. To catch a dream and live it.

The most challenging job in show business I ever had was: During my senior year in high school, I landed my first professional job as a “swing” in Legends In Concert, a Las Vegas show based in Waikiki, Hawaii. I was going to school half day and performing two shows each night. I remember squeezing in homework whenever I could… on the bus, between shows and even backstage at times. I couldn’t wait for Graduation Day to arrive, so then I could just focus on dancing.

If I wasn’t a performer, I would be: Renting kayaks to tourists or running my own beach bar on some beautiful island.

If I could be any Disney character for a day (other than Aladdin), I would want to be: Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Oh, to be a part of that (underwater) world! lol Yes, definitely, Ariel! Read more…

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Categories: The Buzz, Theater Buff

Review: This Is Our Youth

October 13th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Contributor Marcus Scott reviews the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth.

Kieran Culkin (l) and Michael Cera in 'This Is Our Youth.' (photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

Kieran Culkin (l) and Michael Cera in ‘This Is Our Youth.’ (photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

Playing at the Cort Theater, it has become apparent that Broadway finally has its first mumblecore chef-d’oeuvre with Kenneth Lonergan’s cult slacker play This Is Our Youth having crashed on the casting couch of the Great White Way. First produced off-Broadway by the New Group in 1996, the show featured a cast of then unknowns (Josh Hamilton, Mark Ruffalo and Missy Yager)—introducing the world to one of the seminal works about the dazed and confused.

YouthThe 2014 Broadway revival of Lonergan’s saga of piquant disenchantment may fashion thesis statements of Generation X kids having a talent for misery, but if reporters of said age group were to probe Millennials today, they probably wouldn’t be flabbergasted by the parallel camaraderie. Stuck in an internment camp of lost hope and frequent instability, with the successes (and failures) of their parents looming above their heads, many Millenials feel like they’ve been reduced to office drones and worker bees. Imagine the similar cynicisms soaking the dialogue of Lonergan’s brand of post-high school existential turmoil, especially in a piece such as This Is Our Youth, which follows three privileged, pessimistic and pseudo-intellectual pretty young things free falling without a parachute in sight. The black magic of adulthood has cursed them and watching it play out on stage is spellbinding.

Set in 1982, the characters in the Reagan-era This Is Our Youth may come off like a few enchanted burnouts that all want to be adored, but as their worlds collide over the course of 12 hours, we come to understand the underbelly of their souls. From the outskirts, the full-blooded, semi-charmed lives of Dennis Ziegler (played by a maverick Kieran Culkin), a bike messenger who wastes away making profits off cannabis in his posh studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and his personal punching bag Warren Straub (played by an excellent Michael Cera), seem to be affluent malingerers. Dennis’s father is an influential painter and his mother is a humanitarian social worker, while Warren’s father is a businessman. Only Dennis’s mother is too self-obsessed to bother and his father is going through a few changes of his own, and Warren seems unwanted by his parents.

When his dad kicks him out of his apartment and threatens violence, it’s no wonder why Warren rings dope-dealing Dennis’s buzzer around midnight with $15,000 in cash that he stole from his dad along with a collection of record albums, vintage toys and a one-of-a-kind toaster. From this point, the night goes on a perpetual rollercoaster ride as the revolting youths party the weekend away. Though a bit of a swaggering raging bull, Dennis understandably goes into panic mode and freaks out since he fears Warren’s dad will have his head. Ideas of jet-setting off to France or using the money to start a new life in Seattle are tossed to and fro before the two ultimately decide to invite Dennis’s unseen girlfriend and her gal pal Jessica and spend a small fortune on premium drugs and alcohol. (Though at times you get a sense that the two guys could have a same-sex experience, albeit at the hands of a bad trip.)

Tavi Gevinson in 'This Is Our Youth.' (photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

Tavi Gevinson in ‘This Is Our Youth.’ (photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

When 18-year-old student Jessica Goldman (played by fashion blogger cum indie princess Tavi Gevinson), the bottle blonde attending fashion school alongside a bunch of Jewish American Princesses finally shows up, it’s bound to spiral out of control.

“It’s like my instinct is just broken,” she says. Sounds like a running theme when juxtaposed against Dennis and Warren’s actions like throwing a football around the apartment (and trashing the place) or the impending heartbreak that the rapid-fire, conversation-switching ingénue has in store. Jessica, a vague character who is fleshed out by Gevinson, who falls for boys too fast, knows a thing or two about that.

Directed by Anna D. Shapiro (August Osage: County) with set design by Todd Rosenthal, which gives off a cramped and claustrophobic vibe in juxtaposition to the high-rises looming in the backdrop, This Is Our Youth feels fresh: like the angst-ridden pre-college brain could have written it. Sure, those jaded by tall tales of entitled young adults with zero prototypes for how the real world works and the lives one should lead, may call Lonergan’s play “White People’s Problems 101” starring Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. And to many an extent, they’re right. But in this play, where friends and foes bite the dust in the blink of an eye, self-preservation flies off into the wild blue yonder.

This Is Our Youth
Cort Theatre
138 West 48th Street
Through January 4

Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and EDGE Media Network.

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Categories: To See or Not To See

Review: The Country House

October 11th, 2014 View Comment(s)
(l to r) Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner in  'The Country House' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Sarah Steele, Eric Lange and Blythe Danner in ‘The Country House’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Ah, life in the theater. It can be so DRAMATIC.

So playwright Donald Margulies wants you to think in his latest effort, The Country House, which opened last week at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The co-production with L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse stars Blythe Danner as theatrical matriarch Anna Patterson. Set against the backdrop of a summer home in the Berkshires during the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the family (along with some unexpected guests) plunder along, each with his or her own bit of dramatic intent as they acknowledge the death of Anna’s adult daughter, who succumbed to lung cancer the previous year.

Blythe Danner in 'The Country House' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Blythe Danner in ‘The Country House’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

We first meet granddaughter and Ivy League student Susie (played with dark humor by Sarah Steele), the only non-actor in the family who seems to be the one with a voice of reason among the manufactured sweeping emotions of her relatives. Her widower father, Walter (played by David Rasche) has arrived with his new fiancée (and struggling actress) Nell (played by Kate Jennings Grant). Of course, the family tree wouldn’t be complete without requisite drunk and naysayer, Elliot (the aforementioned deceased daughter’s surviving brother, played with humor and gravitas by Eric Lange). And for good measure throw in Michael, a hunky, displaced actor with a disposition for flirting (played by Daniel Sunjata) and you’ve got a stacked deck of cards beckoning for dramatic tension.

Not much really happens in Margulies’ play. The Pulitzer Prize winner (Dinner With Friends) is a master of characterization, though, and imbues the family members and their guests with qualities and honesty that blister. Nell, who arrives as the odd woman out, having to face her future husband’s less than enthusiastic daughter as well as his rather daunting former mother-in-law, perhaps sums it up best, by saying at one point, “This business has done nasty things to me.”

Indeed. Her words ring true as family tensions continue to escalate between Anna and Elliot. Ms. Danner appropriately radiates leading lady charm, if not perhaps the most maternal nature. Sweeping throughout John Lee Beatty’s set with a slight air of Norma Desmond, it’s as if she’s always on the lookout for the best camera angle or crafted gesticulation. But underneath, Anna understands that her time in the limelight is fading. Repeated failed attempts to seduce her much younger houseguest Michael show a crack in Anna’s foundation, one that Ms. Danner is willing to pry open and explore with subtle vulnerability.

Eric Lange in 'The Country House' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Eric Lange in ‘The Country House’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

But the driving force behind The Country House is Eric Lange’s performance as Elliot. Riddles with self-effacing humor, disgust, anger and self-loathing, he sums it up best by saying at one point, “It’s exhausting being me.” It is, at times, exhausting for the audience, too—watching Elliot force the family to read his mediocre play or unsuccessfully (much like his mother) attempt to seduce his former brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Or worst yet, break down in rage at the feet of his mother only to be half-heartedly embraced as if he was a stray dog that had wandered in from the road.

Director Daniel Sullivan keeps things moving at a steady pace as the summer storm rolls through the Berkshires and rains down upon the family. But at the end of the day their incestuous rants feel like the dry leaves of fall. They are—at least to this reviewer—an unlikeable bunch of characters. The kind of people you might meet at a cocktail party and think, “That was a lot.” Great performances notwithstanding, The Country House is someplace you might want to visit, but perhaps not inhabit for an extended stay.

The Country House

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Through November 23

The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler is an internationally published journalist, whose work has appeared in Passport Magazine, Hamptons, Travel Weekly, and online for EDGE Media Network, Gothamist.com, and ShermansTravel, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.

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Categories: To See or Not To See

Remembering Broadway Legend Geoffrey Holder

October 9th, 2014 View Comment(s)
Geoffrey Holder (photo: Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Geoffrey Holder (photo: Erin Combs/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Broadway community mourns the loss of Geoffrey Holder, the 1975 Tony Award-winning director and costume designer of The Wiz who died on Sunday at the age of 84. The marquees of Broadway theaters in New York will be dimmed in his memory Friday, October 10th, at exactly 7:45pm for one minute.

Geoffrey Holder was a multi-talented stage and film artist who directed and designed the original Broadway production of The Wiz for which he won two 1975 Tony Awards  for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Costume Design. In 1978, Mr. Holder directed and choreographed the Broadway musical Timbuktu!, receiving a 1978 Tony Award nomination for Best Costume Design.

The-Wiz-Playbill-12-74“No one who saw The Wiz will ever forget the memorable experience, in large part thanks to the direction and design brought to the Broadway stage by Geoffrey Holder,” said Charlotte St. Martin, Executive Director of The Broadway League. “An incredibly talented artist seen in many mediums, his visual creativity and influence was unforgettable.”

Mr. Holder made his Broadway stage debut in House of Flowers, the 1954 musical by Harold Arlen and Truman Capote. 1957, he played Lucky in an all-black production of Waiting for Godot. In 1964 he supported Josephine Baker in a Broadway revue built around the legendary performer.

In the 1950’s, Holder was a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York.  As a choreographer, Holder has created dance pieces for many companies, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Movie career highlights include: All Night LongDoctor DolittleEverything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, BoomerangLive and Let Die. In the 1982 film version of the musical AnnieHolder played the role of Punjab. He was also the voice of Ray in Bear in the Big Blue House and provided narration for Tim Burton‘s version of Roald Dahl‘s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Holder was a spokesman for the 1970’s 7Up soft drink “uncola” advertising campaign. He reprised his role as the 7Up spokesman in the 2011 season finale of The Celebrity Apprentice.

Holder was a prolific painter, art collector, book author and music composer. As a painter, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship in fine arts in 1956. In 1955, Holder married dancer Carmen de Lavallade, whom he met when both were in the cast of the musical House of Flowers. They had one son, Leo Anthony Lamont. Holder‘s brother was artist Boscoe Holder.

He is survived by his wife, Carmen de Lavallade, and their son, Léo.

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Categories: Show Folk, The Buzz

Recap: ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ Soars at Lincoln Center

October 8th, 2014 View Comment(s)
Kristin Chenoweth, Andrew Lippa, and Noah Marlowe in 'I Am Harvey Milk' (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Kristin Chenoweth, Andrew Lippa, and Noah Marlowe in ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

The ACLU reported on Monday “The Supreme Court of the United States today denied review in all of the marriage equality cases pending before it. As a result of the Court’s action, same-sex couples in Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana, Oklahoma and Utah will now be able to marry the partners they love.” It was a momentous day and one that would have made politician Harvey Milk proud.

It seemed fitting that I Am Harvey Milk, a benefit concert of Andrew Lippa’s sweeping oratorio was the same evening at Lincoln Center. Directed by Noah Himmelstein and conducted/musical directed by Joel Fram, the evening featured Mr. Lippa as Harvey Milk, soprano soloist Kristin Chenoweth and Noah Marlowe as Young Harvey Milk. And shaking Avery Fisher Hall’s rafters was a specially assembled All-Star Broadway Men’s Chorus (120 singers strong).

Mr. Lippa’s score beautifully integrates a musical theater sensibility to the oratorio, with contemporary influences and musical nods to Harvey Milk’s time in San Francisco during the 1970s. But it was the palpable energy of both audience as well as performers that resonated throughout the evening, including opening remarks from Whoopi Goldberg and human rights activist Cleve Jones.

Harvey Milk’s mantra was to “come out” as a means of empowering the LGBT community. That energy was in full force and with good cause. The evening’s beneficiary was the newly established Arts Fund at Hetrick-Martin Institute. Founded in 1979 by Dr. Emery Hetrick and Dr. Damien Martin, it is the oldest and largest organization helping gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth to reach their full potential. Learn more at www.hmi.org.

Kristin Chenoweth, Noah Marlowe and the All-Star Broadway Men's Chorus in 'I Am Harvey Milk' (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Kristin Chenoweth, Noah Marlowe and the All-Star Broadway Men’s Chorus in ‘I Am Harvey Milk’ (photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

 

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Categories: The Buzz

Review: Stalking the Bogeyman

October 6th, 2014 View Comment(s)

by Samuel Leiter

'Stalking the Bogeyman' (photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Stalking the Bogeyman’ (photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

Markus Potter’s gripping drama of revenge and absolution, Stalking the Bogeyman, a cross between conventional theater and docudrama, is based on an autobiographical story by award-winning journalist David Holthouse. It first appeared as a published essay and was later featured on NPR’s “This American Life” in 2011, where Potter first learned of it while driving in his car.

Holthouse, the victim of a childhood rape by a teenage boy, kept the horrific experience secret for twenty-five years, only his therapist knowing of it. Unable to shake his abhorrence of the perpetrator, he carefully planned his murder. Ironically, the long-held secret of the rape (which he insists should not be called “molestation”), replete with its dark recesses of a simmering desire for bloody vengeance, is now being publicly enacted in an Off-Broadway theater. (The play premiered at the North Carolina Stage Company last year.) The successful dramatization (which includes additional writing by Shane Zeigler, Shane Stokes, and Santino Fontana), owes as much to Potter’s effective narrative structure as to its thoughtful staging, design and excellent ensemble.

Roderick Hill in 'Stalking the Bogeyman' (photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

Roderick Hill in ‘Stalking the Bogeyman’ (photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

The outlines are simple. In 1978, when Holthouse was seven, he and his parents, Robert (Murphy Guyer) and Nancy (Kate Levy), move to Anchorage, where they are befriended by neighbors, Russ (John Herrera) and Carol Crawford (Roxanne Hart), names I’m assuming are fictional. The Crawfords’ son, referred to only as the Bogeyman (Erik Heger), is a seventeen-year-old high school athletic star. One night, while their parents are playing cribbage, David and his new friend repair to the basement to hang out. The Bogeyman, whose playfulness borders on the pathological, soon asserts a half-serious, half-kidding sadistic dominance over the bewildered and frightened child; then, impulsively, he initiates a sexual attack. The action freezes as David recites the painful details.

David narrates the story, with flashbacks to particular moments along the way. It is not hard to imagine the play being written entirely as a monologue, with a versatile actor playing all the parts. The action moves through the years as the characters grow older; the true relationship between David and the Bogeyman, alienated as it becomes, remains invisible to everyone else.

Life moves on, the Bogeyman becomes a cheap suit salesman and David winds up as a journalist in Denver, where he sees a shrink, Dr. Leavitt (Hart), as he struggles to deal with the psychological fallout from his boyhood tragedy, fearing he may himself develop pedophiliac desires. Despite Dr. Leavitt’s advice, he cannot bring himself to tell his parents about what happened. Meanwhile, having learned that the Bogeyman has moved to Denver and convinced he must be victimizing other kids, David begins methodically to plot his killing, visiting a gun seller/ballistics expert (Guyer) and a Latino gangster (Herrera); the latter, whom he met as a Gonzo reporter, sells him a firearm and silencer. Eventually, in 2004, the gun-toting 33-year-old David and the 43-year-old Bogeyman have their fated encounter, and one of the more emotionally powerful and sensitively acted scenes now on any New York stage ensues.

Stalking the Bogeyman is performed in David Goldstein’s expansive set of high walls covered with a disparate array of shelves, overflowing with domestic and personal gatherings of multiple locales, and with a steep staircase at one side suggesting multiple levels. Cory Pattak’s deftly imaginative lighting illuminates its nooks and crannies while superbly isolating and shadowing the actors as they move about under Potter’s consistently precise blocking. Tristan Raines’s costumes look just right, and Erik T. Lawson provides an exceptionally creative sound design.

Each performance is authentic. Guyer moves with ease between the good dad and the cautious gun seller, while Levy is every inch the loving mom. Herrera’s three roles as the bluff neighbor, a pedophiliac Little League coach and an Arizona gangbanger are notable, and Hart is convincing as both the Bogeyman’s mother and David’s analyst. Hill accomplishes the difficult task of being both an innocent child and a determined adult, and Heger perfectly makes the transition from a teenager with arrested development to a middle-aged man burdened by the weight of something he once did but cannot himself comprehend.

There are few weak spots in this expertly charted trip through the waters of recollection, retribution and remorse. One flaw might be the play’s recourse to the artificial device of staging a scene that soon is revealed as what might have—but did not—happen; once is acceptable, twice is not. Another is casting the Bogeyman with an actor who, even when his antagonist matures and fills out, remains considerably more imposing despite dialogue suggesting their disparity in size is no longer an issue. These are niggling concerns, however. Stalking the Bogeyman deserves to be seen.

Stalking the Bogeyman
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street
Open-ended run.

(l-r) Roderick Hill and Erik Heger in 'Stalking the Bogeyman' (photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

(l-r) Roderick Hill and Erik Heger in ‘Stalking the Bogeyman’ (photo: Jeremy Daniel via The Broadway Blog.)

Samuel L. Leiter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit http://slleiter.blogspot.com.

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