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Review: The New York Pops Holiday Concert at Carnegie Hall

December 23rd, 2015 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

The New York Pops at Carnegie Hall (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

I’m prefacing this review by stating that my barometer of holiday cheer is quite high this year. I’ve strung Christmas lights in my work cubicle and my playlist has been tuned to seasonal favorites. I’ve even managed to maintain a spirit of goodwill by resisting the urge to trample tourists on the crowded, decked out streets. So it is with some trepidation to report that the New York Pops Holiday Concert on Friday Dec. 18 and Saturday Dec 19 was, overall, as fizzy as flat champagne.

Broadway stars Stephanie J. Block and Brian d’Arcy James headlined the two-hour affair, along with Judith Clurman’s Essential Voices USA (who sang with usual precision). Block opened the evening with James Kessler’s arrangement of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” a selection that was repeated from last year’s concert (albeit a different arrangement). She was later joined by James in a pleasant arrangement of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” James, who currently headlines the hit musical, Something Rotten!, took a break from his usual stint in the Broadway show to join the Pops. The usually charming actor delivered two holiday favorites, “The Christmas Song” and “Jingle Bells” with sufficiency, but without much elan.

The New York Pops with Brian d'Arcy James and Stephanie J. Block (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

The New York Pops with Brian d’Arcy James and Stephanie J. Block (Photo: Richard Termine via The Broadway Blog.)

Essential Voices USA reversed the ennui of the evening with a lovely rendition of the beloved Vince Guaraldi classic, “Christmas Time Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas. Then, turning to a more reverent theme, they performed the stunningly beautiful carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High” by well-known arranger David Chase. The latter can be heard on the choir’s gorgeous album, “Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas.”

The Pops continued to add verve to the line-up with a fun mash-up of “Little Drummer Boy” and Ravel’s “Balero” in the orchestra only “Little Bolero Boy.” Act I ended with a toe-tapping “Holiday Hits Medley” with Block, James, and Essential Voices USA.

Aside from a poignant, autobiographical selection entitled “Michigan Christmas” written and performed by Saginaw native James, there was little fanfare in Act II. Re-hashed songs including “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (haven’t we heard enough versions of this song, which basically suggests date rape?). Even “O Holy Night” failed to induce any goosebumps by Block. Last year, Kelli O’Hara’s performance of it had audiences leaping to their feet. Perhaps Block was under the weather as her vocal capabilities are typically solid and sensational. With the Pops, however, she didn’t seem to deliver the goods.

It didn’t help that the sound was usually imbalanced either. Most of the time, the orchestra overpowered the vocalists, making it nearly impossible to comprehend lyrics. At first, I thought it was just my ears. But at intermission, my guest mentioned it as did the two strangers seated in front of us. Perhaps at a school Christmas pageant this would be acceptable, but not at the one of the world’s most respected concert halls. The Pops rightfully prides itself on engaging programming, and usually, they succeed. This concert, however, was mostly a repeat of last year’s selections and while there is no need to re-invent the wheel, there’s also no reason to replicate what has already been done.

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

Review: Something Rotten!

May 8th, 2015 Comments off

SomethingRottenlogo

It’s 1595 and something rotten is happening on the streets of London. A gent by the name of William Shakespeare is taking all the theatrical glory, while the lowly Bottom brothers are struggling to write a hit. Such is the premise for Something Rotten!, a “very new musical” with a book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, and music and lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. “Very new” might be stretching it, for the show is a virtual encyclopedia of musical theater references drawn from the Internet Broadway Database.

Director/choregrapher Casey Nicholaw (Aladdin, The Book of Mormon) is a master of style and has assembled a top-notch cast that revels in the campy fun. Brian d’Arcy James (Macbeth, Next to Normal, Shrek the Musical) plays the conniving Nick Bottom, who steals the family savings unbeknownst to his wife Bea (Heidi Blickenstaff). He then pays Thomas Nostradamus (nephew of the famed seer hilariously interpreted by Brad Oscar) to predict what the next great hit will be. The revelation is a new form of entertainment… the musical!

(l to r) Ryan VanDenBom, Eric Sciotto, Christian Borle, Bud Weber, Aleks Pevek in "Something Rotten!" (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Ryan VanDenBom, Eric Sciotto, Christian Borle, Bud Weber, Aleks Pevek in “Something Rotten!” (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Nick enlists the help of his younger brother and writing partner Nigel (John Cariani) to bring to life Nostradamus’s predictions, which are just off-kilter enough to set the stage for disaster. Meanwhile, the Bard himself (Christian Borle) goes undercover to find out what the dramatists are up to and the shenanigans escalate to Shakespearean proportions.

Filled with catchy lyrics and the occasionally hummable show tune, Something Rotten! delivers the same running gag time and time again, which is to reference past musical hits. In the Act I extravaganza, “A Musical,” Nostradamus and the hardworking ensemble unveil a tribute to Broadway production numbers, referencing everything from Evita and Annie to Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar. There is no jazz hand left unfurled or tap shoe left untied. As the Bottom brothers conceive of their own musical, Omelette, Act II reveals a similar number, “Make an Omelette,” — this time with references to Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls, and so on.

Brad Oscar (l) and Brian d'Arcy James in "Something Rotten!" (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Brad Oscar (l) and Brian d’Arcy James in “Something Rotten!” (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

True, Something Rotten! is damn funny. Mr. James plays the straight man (with a few antics of his own) to hilarious performances by Mr. Cariani as his younger brother, who could easily be a slump-shouldered hipster who just caught the L train from Williamsburg to London. Mr. Borle is mischieviously magnetic as the famed playwright William Shakespeare, but it is Brad Oscar’s scene stealing turns that channel Dock Brown from Back to the Future and Tangina from Poltergeist into a mash-up that has the audience on its feet.

Don’t think too hard about Something Rotten! — the more you do you’ll realize it’s a bit like The Emperor’s New Clothes. While it touts originality, it’s really more of a glossy tribute to the musical theater tradition. Special mention should be given to illustrator Peter de Sève (New Yorker), whose whimsical illustrations for the show have been used in one of the most innovative marketing and ad campaigns in recent history.

Something Rotten!
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
Open ended run.

Hanks, Breakfast at Tiffany’s & More Hollywood on the Hudson

October 22nd, 2012 Comments off

It’s no surprise anymore when Broadway attempts to add some extra pizazz to the marquee by sprinkling some Hollywood stardust, whether through film star casting or name brand titles. But four recent news tidbits caught my eye as particularly covered in tinsel (town):

  • Emilia Clarke. Image via O+M.

    It’s official: two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is coming to Broadway April 2013 in Lucky Guy, a play by the late, beloved Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle). A tale of New York journalism during the 1970’s, this play adds additional cache with its director George C. Wolfe (The Normal Heart). I imagine tickets are already sold out before they go on sale but…a boy can dream.

  • If that’s not “old hollywood” enough for you, how about a new adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Truman Capote’s classic is getting a fresh (and supposedly more faithful than the Hepburn film) adaptation by Tony-winner Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out). Those who are more fantasy geek than Tiffany’s chic will also have reason to check it out; the February 2013 bow will star Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke.
  • Multiple Emmy-nominee Sarah Paulson (Game Change, American Horror Story) may not have above the title multiplex stardom, but to me she’s A-list. And now comes news that she is coming back to the stage to star in Roundabout’s revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly. Paulson will be joined in the sweet love story by recent Broadway everyman Danny Burstein (Follies…perhaps he should do La Cage aux Folles next and continue the pattern?).
  • Don’t count out true Broadway glitter, though. The bigger than life new musical Giant, based on the Liz Taylor – Rock Hudson – James Dean classic, is heading to the Public starring Blog favorites Brian d’Arcy James (Smash) and Kate Baldwin (Finian’s Rainbow). Watch the video from their recent promo shoot (after the jump below) and tell me the Great White Way can’t be just as glamorous.

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WAY OFF BROADWAY: New Musicals in Development This Summer

May 30th, 2012 Comments off

When there’s a month with a fifth Wednesday, I’ll be heading Way-Off-Broadway for a look at theatrical happenings outside New York City. This summer, it’s not just flowers blooming all over the country; it’s musicals…

Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Image via theoneill.org.

Keep your sun screen and your pitch pipe handy because it’s time for summer theater development festivals. All across the country,writing teams are converging on bucolic locations to test out new musicals and pretend they’re at summer camp with cute actors. And the great thing is, you can join in (on the musicals and the cute actors). In fact, audience feedback is an essential component (for the musicals and the cute actors).

So let’s take a look (and listen) to some of the best prospects getting workshops this summer…

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“Smash” Star Brian d’Arcy James Serenades Letterman

May 14th, 2012 Comments off

Brian d'Arcy James, Debra Messing & Emory Cohen on "Smash". Photo by Will Hart/NBC.

Tonight marks the season finale of the Broadway-themed TV show Smash. I’ll admit it; I’m a few episodes behind at the moment so I can’t comment on what will or won’t happen when Bombshell, the Marilyn Monroe show within the show, opens. However, my overall opinion hasn’t changed much since my premiere post: kicky production numbers, fairly accurate backstage fun, juicy Megan Hilty & Christian Borle, some frustrating storytelling and an often vanilla take on a wildly colorful world. I’ll keep watching, particularly to see what new show runner (Gossip Girl‘s Joshua Safran) will bring to the mix in Season Two.

One unequivocal bummer is that one of the best voices on Broadway (and “nicest man in Show Business”) Brian d’Arcy James has only gotten to sing on the show for a total of 10 seconds…and once with a guitar hero game. But fear not, those d’Arcy d’addicts who want to hear him sing on TV, I’m here to give you d’all you’ve been d’asking for. This has to be one of my favorite TV clips featuring Brian; meet The Late Show with David Letterman‘s “singing cop”…

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VIP ACCESS: Broadway Gets Cool with 54 Below

March 28th, 2012 Comments off

Every fourth Wednesday of the month, the “VIP Access” column will serve up advice on how to make your theater-going experiences cheaper, easier and more fulfilling with inside scoop from the experts. This month, we’re introducing you to the coolest new kid on the block…

54 Below Cabaret. Sketch by John Lee Beatty.

You know the scene. It’s a black and white film set in New York City. The impossibly urbane leading couple finds their way to the swankiest club in town for some delicious banter–all to the latest Broadway chanteuse singing from the stage. Heaven. Too bad a place like that doesn’t exist today, right?

Well, the glamor and pizzazz of a real Manhattan night club might be back–with a hip, young Broadway twist–at the June opening of 54 Below. Designed by Tony-winner John Lee Beatty and architect Richard Lewis, lit by Tony-winner Ken Billington, and with sound by Tony-nominee Peter Hylenski, the new lounge (tucked under the legendary Studio 54) promises to combine fine dining with a star-studded selection of performers.

54 Below Booths. Sketch by John Lee Beatty.

They’re kicking things off with the one and only Patti LuPone, and the rest of their current bookings are a who’s who of music theater and cabaret ranging from class acts like Liz Callawy, Jenifer Lewis and Rebecca Luker; to a sprinkling of Smash with Megan Hilty and Brian d’Arcy James; and on to artistically adventurous types the old fashioned supper clubs wouldn’t normally feature like songwriter Joe Iconis, downtown icon Mx Justin Bond and Lea DeLaria.

The Bottom Line: I know what you’re saying; cover charge and drink minimums make these places a money pit. I won’t lie, if you want to see Patti, you’re going to be paying upwards of $100 a person, however the cover/food charges for other artists come down significantly to a respectable special night out at $55 a seat for top-line entertainment. If you want to sample the atmosphere without breaking your budget, “The Green Room” offers after hours seating and live music with no cover or minimum.

Pick Hits: Glancing through the schedule, you can’t go wrong with almost any night you’re in town. But, if I had to create a package, I’d make a tour of next generation Broadway divas and catch:

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Big Names, Ahoy!

April 8th, 2011 Comments off

Photo by Joan Marcus.

  • Two big openings last night: a revival of Anything Goes headlined by the sparkling and (if you’ve seen the show, you know what I mean) indefatigable Sutton Foster; and the star-studded—heck, more like star-swamped—limited engagement concert version of Company. The Sondheim classic features so many one-named (Lupone, Colbert), two-named (Jon Cryer, Katie Finneran) and even three-named (Neil Patrick Harris, New York Philharmonic) megastars that, according to this fascinating piece in the New York Times, they had to rehearse via Skype. It gives new meaning to going online and asking “what are you wearing?”
  • Photo by Joan Marcus.

    The dresses are going back in the closet for two recent theatrical hits. The Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles announced it is shuttering May 1 (giving Chris Sieber his much deserved rest after all) and, on the same day, my Off-Broadway favorite, The Divine Sister, hangs up her habit.  Time to find some sensible shoes for pounding the pavement, gals.

  • Two of the best singer-actors in the business, Kelli O’Hara (South Pacific) and Brian d’Arcy James (Time Stands Still) headline a tribute to music theater power couple Jason Robert Brown and Georgia Stitt on Monday, April 11. The concert benefits CAP21, an amazing organization devoted to developing new work and training the next generation of performers. Full disclosure: they’re workshopping one of my pieces so your ticket dollars help keep me and other music theater ruffians off the streets and out of singing-dancing gangs.
  • The cast is in place for the revival of Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking A Normal Heart which means that Lee Pace is now breathing the same New York air as I am. Seriously folks, was there ever a more perfect Broadway-loving show on TV than the late, lamented Pushing Daisies?
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