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SYTYCD’s Ricky Ubeda Joins “On the Town”

February 21st, 2015 Comments off
Ricky Ubeda (photo provided by Matt Ross PR.)

Ricky Ubeda (photo provided by Matt Ross PR.)

The new Broadway revival of On The Town will welcome So You Think You Can Dance winner and “America’s Favorite Dancer” Ricky Ubeda to the cast beginning February 27, 2015 for a limited engagement through April 26, 2015. Ubeda received the opportunity to join the cast as part of his prize for winning SYTYCD in September 2014. Directed by John Rando (Tony Award® for Urinetown) and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (Emmy Award winner for “Smash”) On The Town began previews on Saturday, September 20, 2014 and officially opened on Thursday, October 16, 2014 at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre (213 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036). Tickets for the new Broadway revival of On The Town are available at Ticketmaster.com.

Ricky Ubeda is originally from Miami, Florida where he began dancing at a young age. The majority of his dance training was done at Stars Dance Studio under the direction of Victor Smalley and Angel Armas. While attending Coral Reef Senior High School in 2014, Ricky auditioned for Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance and was eventually crowned the winner as “America’s Favorite Dancer.” Immediately following SYTYCD, Ricky participated in a 77-city nation wide tour. His accomplishments have been featured in Dance Spirit Magazine and he has been a live guest on LIVE! with Kelly and Michael and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, to name a few. Ricky is also an emerging choreographer who brings his passionate and inspiring classes to young dancers across the nation.

On The Town is on more Top 10 lists than any other musical this year.  It’s an “explosion of pure joy” (David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter) with “the best dancing on Broadway” (Ben Brantley of The New York Times on NPR). Featuring eye popping sets and gorgeous costumes, On The Town has “a rapturous and red blooded score” (Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News) by Leonard Bernstein, one of America’s greatest composers, brilliantly played by a 28 piece orchestra – the biggest on Broadway.  This hit musical comedy is “everything a great show should be!” (Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal).  Join three sailors with only 24-hour shore leave in New York as three beautiful New York women sweep them off their feet for one amazing night On The Town!

'On The Town' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘On The Town’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Review: Honeymoon in Vegas

January 15th, 2015 Comments off

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 Honeymoonartwork

Will you fall in love with Honeymoon in Vegas, the latest Broadway movie adaptation that hopes to capitalize on a (semi) familiar title to lure audience goers into spending upwards of $199 for premium tickets? Well… that depends on your type. With a book by Andrew Bergman (who also wrote the screenplay) and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County, The Last Five Years), Honeymoon in Vegas is love at first site—or rather, first listen. Brown’s dynamic score is his most accessible to date, pumped with a big band sound led by music director and conductor Tom Murray. It sets the bar high and Honeymoon mostly delivers.

The cast of "Honeymoon in Vegas" (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of “Honeymoon in Vegas” (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The story follows commitment-shy Jack Singer (Rob McClure) and his fiancée of five years, Betsy Nolan (Brynn O’Malley), as they jet set to Las Vegas in hopes of dismissing the looming curse of Jack’s deceased mother Bea (Nancy Opel) and finally tie the knot. In one of the show’s most inventive numbers, Bea appears to Jack as a hallucination thanks to some clever stagecraft courtesy of scenic and projection designer Anna Louizos.

Once in Vegas, the couple crosses paths with con artist Tommy Korman (Tony Danza), who immediately falls for Betsy from afar as she brings back memories of his deceased wife. This sets in motion a scheme to blackmail Jack, seduce her, and apparently live the rest of his life is deceptive marital bliss. The trio eventually find themselves in Hawaii for more antics as Jack chases down his fleeting bride-to-be, and as you might imagine, it’s all resolved with obligatory Elvises in tow.

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Review: ROCKY

March 21st, 2014 Comments off

Yo, Rocky. You done good, kid.

Andy Karl in "ROCKY" (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

Andy Karl in “ROCKY” (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

It takes a lot for a down-on-his-luck guy from Philly to pull off a $16.5 million musical but you got heart, and that goes a long way. But then I was wonderin’… why are you singing “My Nose Ain’t Broken” in the first place?

I get it. You’ve got more on your mind than seven years of hard luck and your best buddy’s sister blowing you off. You wanna be a champ. You’ve got heart. But that Adrian, she’s caught your eye and you can’t shake it.

An odd one, that Adrian. Tough life. Parents dead, alcoholic brother—no wonder she shuts down any time you get close to her. But you’re a softy, Rocky, and who can resist a guy with a goofy grin and two pet turtles who’s built like a brick shithouse? She can’t.

Margo Seibert and Andy Karl in "ROCKY" (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

Margo Seibert and Andy Karl in “ROCKY” (photo: Matthew Murphy) via The Broadway Blog.

You two make a nice couple. Real nice. Too bad her brother Paulie messes things up. I guess that’s what the bottle will to ya if you’re not careful. Nothing like a guy throwing a turkey out the window or trampling a Christmas tree to let everyone know who’s in charge.

But you respect your brawn, Rocky, and I appreciate that. Even as a henchman for the local bookie you manage to keep things civil. You save it for the ring… but only if you had one good fight in you.

Ding! Apollo Creed shows up and you’ve got the chance of a lifetime. Fight for the Heavyweight World Championship and you pocket $150K win or lose? What a deal. But nobody makes Rocky the fool and who wants to hop in the ring only to have their ass whooped on national television? Not you.

You train hard and your old coach, Mickey, who gave away your locker to give you some tough love says, “You gotta have a little respect for yourself. It’s a waste of a life, kid. A waste of a goddam life.” He’s good for ya, though. Not so much when he’s singin’—but still.

Training is tough, when those dozen or so sides of beef fly in from the rafters I know you mean business. But I’m thinkin that maybe I’ve taken too many hits to the head myself cuz all the sudden there’s two of you, then three… then the whole place is filled with dudes in gray hoodies running in place while video projections of Philly whiz by. But where is the real Rocky? I’m gettin’ lost. And why are you singin’ again?

Time for the big fight and you’re looking good. It’s like we’ve all died and gone to heaven—or is it Vegas? I can’t tell the difference. And what year is it? 1975? With all the TV coverage and video graphics I could swear I was watching ESPN, but you put up a good fight. Even if you lose in the ring, you win over the crowd. They even give you a standing ovation. Some of them have to stand because their seats were removed, but still.

I know what you’re gonna say, Mr. Italian Stallion. Love wins. And you’re right. No matter that you’ve taken a shiner and probably got your nose broken. You got the girl and a bunch of fans rooting for you.

ROCKY
The Winter Garden Theatre
1634 Broadway
Open ended run.

Wondering what the critics think of ROCKY? Take the leap!
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Three to See: January

January 2nd, 2014 Comments off

New for 2014, The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler offers three picks at the beginning of each month: what’s opening on Broadway and beyond and why you shouldn’t miss them.

The cast of "Beautiful - the Carole King Musical." (photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast of “Beautiful – the Carole King Musical.” (photo: Joan Marcus)

BROADWAY
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical

“You make me feel like a natural woman.” — at least that’s what Tony Award-nominee Jessie Mueller hopes as she takes on the iconic singer/songwriter in this latest attempt at a musical memoire. If anyone has the chops, it’s Mueller, who was the saving grace in a recent revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever as well as standout performances in Into the Woods in Central Park and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Our prediction is another Tony nomination for Mueller and if Douglas McGrath’s book holds up to the Carole King songbook, a win.

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical
Opening night: January 12

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theatre. (photo: Paul Stewart)

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theatre. (photo: Paul Stewart)

LONDON
King Lear

For those of us stateside with a penchant for iambic pentameter, Frank Langella takes on the title role in King Lear at BAM beginning January 7, but it is the National Theatre’s production in London that has us screaming “come not between the dragon and his wrath.” The production, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Simon Russell Beale, is so hotly anticipated that you can’t even get a ticket until March. If you’re not heading across the pond this spring, mark your calendar for May 1, when the production will be broadcast live throughout the world as part of National Theatre Live.

King Lear
Opening night: January 14

 venus

BOSTON
Venus in Fur

If you didn’t catch the Broadway production of this sexually charged play by David Ives, head to Beantown where Huntington Theatre Company’s (winner of the 2013 Tony Award for best regional theater) production opens on January 8. “This savage, sexy, smart, and funny new play took my breath away. Director Daniel Goldstein set our stage on fire with God of Carnage, and I know he will make our new production the hottest date night in Boston,” says artistic director Peter Dubois. Hear what he has to say…

Venus in Fur
Opening night: January 8

 

Big Lies in Murky Waters

November 26th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler reviews Big Fish and Lies My Father Told Me.

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in "Big Fish." (photo: Paul Kolnik)

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in “Big Fish.” (photo: Paul Kolnik)

An unusual theme appears on the New York stage this fall as two musicals, each in its own way, tackles the subjects of fatherhood and deception. Big Fish, a new musical based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and subsequent film, is a splashy hodgepodge of forgettable music by Andrew Lippa set against the backdrop of a fantastical world created by scenic designer Julian Crouch and costume designer William Ivey Long (with some blurry projections by 59 Productions). The story brings to life the bigger-than-life tales of Edward Bloom as recounted to his son. Downtown, you can catch Lies My Father Told Me (based on the works of Ted Allan and film by the same name), a memory play with music that follows the musings of lead character David as he recalls his tender relationship with his grandfather and the volatile verbal abuses of his father. Neither show manages to find its emotional core, despite moments of honest theatricality that occasionally bubble to the surface.

There were big expectations for Big Fish, which opened in early October and has already posted its closing notice. (Its last performance is scheduled for December 29.) With Tony winners Susan Stroman as director/choreographer and Norbert Leo Butz taking on the lead role, it seemed like a sure-fire hit. But Broadway overflows with rough waters and Big Fish never found its audience. As Edward Bloom, Butz pulls out all the stops and may well be one of the hardest working men on Broadway right now as he attempts to carry the show along. I rooted for Bloom as he tackled the mammoth tales of a life fully lived, trying time and again to impart his wide-eyed enthusiasm on his son before it’s too late.

But Andrew Lippa’s uninspired score doesn’t do him any favors. Co-stars Kate Baldwin as his dedicated wife, Sandra, and Bobby Steggert as his beleaguered son, Will, create a compelling and conflicted family unit, but the show’s ensemble appears to be floating in the nether regions of someone’s imagination and none are tethered to the same reality.  During the particular performance that I saw, they appeared vacant and detached (with the exception of cameos from the ever boisterous Brad Oscar and Broadway newcomer Ciara Renée).

Stroman, who achieved astronomical commercial success with The Producers and critical acclaim with The Scottsboro Boys, is overshadowed by the production’s “wow factor.” I knew I was in trouble when the visually engineered trees blowing in the upper reaches of the set enraptured me. The subtlety and intelligence of Stroman’s choreography is lost in The Neil Simon Theatre and a sea of yellow daffodils. Big Fish is a big disappointment and a harrowing reminder that a Broadway hit is a tough fish to catch.

Jonathan Hadley, Russel Arden Koplin and Jonathan Raviv  in "Lies My Father Told Me." (photo: Michael Priest)

Jonathan Hadley, Russel Arden Koplin and Jonathan Raviv in “Lies My Father Told Me.” (photo: Michael Priest)

Unlike Big Fish, the National Yiddish Theatre’s production of Lies My Father Told Me relies on more traditional storytelling and fares marginally better than its uptown counterpart. The story follows the memories of David as he recounts his childhood in an immigrant community in early 20th century Montreal. As older David, Joe Paparella is tasked with the nearly impossible task of narrating a series of scenes that individually resonate but cumulatively doesn’t offer much dramatic arc.

At the center of the conflict is David’s father Harry (Jonathan Raviv), an angry wannabe inventor who is constantly borrowing money and making empty promises. Young David finds solace in his relationship with his grandfather Zaida (Chuck Karel). This is “Tevye-light” and Karel exhibits the mannerisms and anecdotes you’d expect to see in a production of Fiddler on the Roof but without the fire in his belly. Add the grumpy neighbor Mrs. Tanner (overzealously played by Renée Bang Allen), young David’s beaten down mother Annie (Russel Arden Koplin) and uncle (Jonathan Hadley) and a handful of locals and you’ve got yourself a Canadian Street Scene.

Elan Kunin’s score has moments of great theatricality, from the opening “Rags, Clothes, Bottles” to Harry’s rage-filled “What’s With The Knees” and Annie’s wistful 11 o’clock ballad “Maybe Someday,” but the larger company numbers are undermined by choreographer Merete Muenter’s staging. Muenter seems wholly determined to have the cast of actor/singers turn, shuffle and knee-slap their way around John C. Dinning’s towering set. Their movements are often without purpose or motivation—nor do they feel inspired by the era. Director Bryna Wasserman (who also adapted the piece) is unable to take the reigns and ultimately delivers a production filled only with glimmers of truth.

Big Fish
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Through December 29

Lies My Father Told Me
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Avenue
Through December 15

Reviews: “After Midnight” and “Lady Day” Bring the Sounds of Harlem to the NY Stage

November 11th, 2013 Comments off

Guest contributor Lindsay B. Davis takes a time trip back to Harlem and discovers the joy and blues of a bygone era.

New York City is alive with the sounds of Harlem: the Duke Ellington-inspired song and dance revue, After Midnight, and the Billie Holiday concert musical Lady Day, have hit the boards as part of New York’s fall theater season. While both shows honor the artistry of legendary jazz giants, the two are vastly different theatrical vehicles, each their own meditation on singing the blues away.

The cast of "After Midnight." (photo: Matthew Murphy)

The cast of “After Midnight.” (photo: Matthew Murphy)

After Midnight is an evocation and celebration of the love, connection and liberation that jazz fostered in the era considered to be Harlem’s Golden Age (1920s-1930s). I felt rocketed to the heavens by this show, 26 songs by Duke Ellington and Jazz Age greats such as Cab Calloway, Dorothy Fields, Ted Koehler and others, performed by a brilliant cast of more than 20 triple-threat performers and a stunning 16-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars band (conducted by Daryl Waters). Add to that a singing, tap dancing, Langston Hughes-spouting Dulé Hill (Psych, The West Wing) and glamorous Fantasia Barrino (American Idol, The Color Purple), who handles her vocal selections with authenticity and passionate command, and you have a show that does justice to the musical geniuses of the era. Every single moment of the show’s 90 minutes tingles with boundless joy and bright revelry.

Fantasia in "After Midnight." (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Fantasia in “After Midnight.” (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Barrino’s interpretations of “Stormy Weather,” “Zaz Zuh Zaz” and “Sunny Side of the Street” are at once raw and polished while stage and film veteran Adriane Lenox (Caroline or Change and Doubt, for which she won a Tony) flexes her musical comedy muscles in “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.” Another vocalist standout is Carmen Ruby Floyd (Porgy and Bess, Avenue Q, and The Lion King) whose captivating “Creole Love Call” could put an end to any debate over whether females are the more powerful sex.

Choreographer Warren Berger, who also directs, draws inspiration from the period without being bound by it and the result is downright innovative. Dancer Karine Plantadit (Tony-nominated for Come Fly Away) leaves lasting, powerful visual and emotional imprints, particularly in Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.”  Contemporary dancers Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgin “Lil’O” Gadson, who can do everything from break dance to ballroom, bridge the gap between the old and the new. After Midnight uses dance as if to say the boundaries between eras can be softened but let us not forget it all began in Harlem.

After Midnight’s design team accentuates the production’s lush feel. Costumer Isabel Toledo creates a dapper display of formal wear, but also takes liberties by adding neon and contemporary accents to the more casual outfits for “The Skrontch.” John Lee Beatty’s scenic design creates the perfect atmosphere to fall in love and escape whatever problems you may have, just like those days at The Cotton Club when performers went on at midnight and 2 a.m.

After Midnight is full of surprises and moves gracefully like a perfect suitor courting his new beloved, encouraging us all to leave the darkness and blues behind to spend what precious time we have “on the sunny side of the street.”

After Midnight
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street

TAKE THE JUMP FOR OUR REVIEW OF LADY DAY…

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A Voice Lost Too Soon Returns in a Psychedelic Rainbow: “A Night with Janis Joplin”

October 11th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler gets trippy at the powerhouse production of A Night with Janis Joplin.

Mary Bridget Davies (center) and the cast of "A Night with Janis Joplin." (photo: Joan Marcus)

Mary Bridget Davies (center) and the cast of “A Night with Janis Joplin.” (photo: Joan Marcus)

There are voices, then there are voices that define a generation. Janis Joplin was the latter, bulldozing into the late 60s music scene with her raspy through-the-rafters rock vocals. Her death on October 4, 1970 (less than a month after Jimi Hendrix) cut short a prolific career that left us with such soul-wrenching recordings including “Piece of My Heart,” “My Baby,” and “Kozmic Blue,” among others. Much of A Night with Janis Joplin, which opened last night at the Lyceum Theatre, explores Joplin’s relationship with the blues.

Early influences from Odetta and Bessie Smith to Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin in later years, helped define Joplin’s signature style. And what a style that was. Mary Bridget Davies, who tackles a marathon of the Joplin songbook, shakes the theater to its core with visceral vocals that bleed raw emotion.

joplinposterThe chronological script by Randy Johnson (who also directs) follows Joplin’s influences from her early days in Port Arthur, Texas to her 1969 studio album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Sprinkled with ramblings about family, men and music, Joplin sums it up best when she says, “It is the want of something that gives you the blues.”

Davies portrays that “want” with rapturous abandonment when singing, though the aforementioned monologues feel like a small leak in a bucket overflowing with love juice. But when Davies opens her mouth (and heart) to not only interpret, but embody Joplin’s music, it is nothing short of transformative.

It would take a miracle to assemble a supporting cast to hold their own, but that is exactly what casting director Laura Stanczyk manages to do. Taprena Michelle Augustine, De’ Adre Aziza, Allison Blackwell and Nikki Kimbrough each have their moments in the spotlight as the aforementioned African American singers who had such poignant influence on Joplin’s style. They also know when to pull in the reigns as the Joplinaires and allow Davies to shine center stage while tightly executing Patricia Wilcox’s spot-on choreography, which gratefully serves the material without overpowering it.

As A Night with Janis Joplin comes to an end, Davies sings “I’m Gonna Rock My Way to Heaven.” One can only hope that Joplin herself is looking down from above, perched on a psychedelic cloud and gleefully smirking at the party down below.

A Night with Janis Joplin
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street

Fresh Catch: Bobby Steggert from Broadway’s “Big Fish”

September 13th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler chats with Bobby Steggert, co-star of the new Broadway musical, Big Fish.

Bobby Steggert (l) and the cast of "Big Fish." (photo: Paul Kolnik)

Bobby Steggert (l) and the cast of “Big Fish.” (photo: Paul Kolnik)

It has all of the ingredients to be this season’s big Broadway hit: Five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman (The Producers, The Scottsboro Boys) at the helm as director and choreographer; Andrew Lippa providing music and lyrics, two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsCatch Me If You Can) and a fantastical story based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and subsequent film directed by Tim Burton. We’re talking Big Fish

Broadway’s latest heartthrob, Bobby Steggert (RagtimeGiant) stars opposite Norbert Leo Butz as a son determined to discover the truth about his father’s fantastical stories. Steggert offers the Broadway Blog an insider’s perspective as to how this bigger-than-life show has come to fruition, what makes it stand apart from the original novel and subsequent film, and what audiences can expect from this heartfelt tale.

Bobby Steggert in "Big Fish." (photo: Paul Kolnik)

Bobby Steggert in “Big Fish.” (photo: Paul Kolnik)

BB: There is big anticipation for Big Fish —how would you describe Andrew Lippa’s adaptation compared to the 2003 film?
BS: Andrew’s score expands upon the soul and romance of an already magical story, and the surprising range covers everything from Edward Bloom’s most outsized theatrical tales to a heart’s quietest moments. And while Tim Burton’s vision was often odd and mysterious, ours uses the classic conventions of theater to spark the imagination. The show somehow feels both much bigger and much more intimate than the film.

BB: Did you read the original 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace in preparation for the role of  Will? If so, what were your impressions of the character as described in the original source material?
BS: Daniel Wallace’s novel was a great source of inspiration to me, especially in his really thorough examination of the ambiguity of death. To lose someone you love is messy, confusing, and bewildering, to say the least. We never know how to handle or confront it until it appears in front of us. It is also an unexpected opportunity for change. Will wants to understand a man he regards as a stranger, and ends up learning the enormous value in his father’s ways. It’s the emotional connective tissue that the book provided and allowed me to make the bigger leaps that are inherent in musicals.

BB: Producer Bill Taylor describes the production as “a fantastic blend of humanity and imagination” — What does this mean to you and where does your character fit into the mix?
BS: Will has the human part down. He is very much of this world, very grounded. He is an investigator, a reporter by trade. He deals in facts and realities. Edward, on the other hand, is made entirely of imagination. What’s wonderful about the interplay between these two men, though, is that Edward’s stories were the ways through which Will, as a young child, grew to be curious in the first place. Edward would conjure up a mermaid or witch, and Will would want to know every detail about their plausibility in the real world. Could a mermaid actually exist? What spells could this witch cast? Will eventually realizes that it was imagination that allowed him to become the man he is today.

bigfishBB: Can you describe the audition process for the role?
BS: I have never worked harder or been more prepared for any audition in my life. I knew that Susan Stroman very much values preparation and full-on commitment. After a couple preliminary auditions, I had to wait almost two months to test out the material with Norbert Leo Butz, who was already cast to play Edward. The waiting was torturous. When we did finally meet, it was quickly clear that we made a good team, and I really credit Norbert for putting me at ease. He is always present, and his example reminded me to do the same. We fell instantly into an exciting chemistry, and I was cast the very next day.

BB: While Edward is this big storyteller, some might consider Will to be the naysayer or the voice of reason. Have you worried about the character being likable (or relatable?) to audiences?
BS: Much of our work during the out of town tryout in Chicago was focused on just that. We learned very quickly that we had to give Will a perspective that was not simply a rejection of his father, but quite the opposite – a desire to understand. The story we are telling here in New York is much more focused around two men who speak different languages, but who love each other dearly. And this allows the audience to relate to us both. It also doesn’t hurt that Andrew Lippa wrote an incredible song for my character in the first act that gives the audience a true insight into Will’s heart.

BB: What is the “biggest fish” story you’ve ever told?
BS: When I was an elementary school, I dreamed of being a writer, and told my friends that I had already published some very successful novels under a secret pseudonym. I’m not sure if I passed it off, but it did allow me to envision the possibilities ahead, and I guess those dreams led me here.

Review: “Soul Doctor” Opens on Broadway

August 16th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler takes a visit to the Soul Doctor and fills a prescription for a heartwarming good time at one of the first new musicals to open this season on Broadway.

Eric Anderson (center) and the cast of "Soul Doctor." (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Eric Anderson (center) and the cast of “Soul Doctor.” (photo: Carol Rosegg)

I grew up in the Reform Judaism movement of the 70s, where (supposedly) historical traditions and practices converged with modern interpretation and insights. I mostly slept through Sunday School and woke up only for the requisite grape juice and challah snack. Perhaps if Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach had been present, infusing his spirit of love and acceptance among the bored and assimilated, I would have also packed my bags and migrated to San Francisco to partake in the House of Love and Prayer. (Yeah, man.)

Carlebach (portrayed with magnetic and loving charm by Eric Anderson) is the subject for Soul Doctor, a new Broadway musical. Soul, it has—but this sweeping story of artistic expression born out of the horrors of the Holocaust, also could use a brain surgeon to rework the material in a way that more aptly gets to the essence of the story.

Eric Anderson and Amber Iman in "Soul Doctor." (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Eric Anderson and Amber Iman in “Soul Doctor.” (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Soul Doctor’s linear storytelling churns far too long in Shlomo’s childhood. The son of a Rabbi, he and his family were forced to vacate Austria in response to the Nazi invasion. Settled in New York City, he and his brother Eli (played by Ryan Strand) discover the Hasidic Judaism movement as well as the multiculturalism of a new land. Wandering downtown, Shlomo stumbles into a Greenwich Village bar and meets none other than Nina Simone (played by Amber Iman). It is in this scene that Soul Doctor transcends from musical biography to something wholly unique. Anderson and Iman’s chemistry is both subtle yet palpable as these two characters born into entirely different circumstances find commonality through music.

This relationship gets muddled as the plot thickens (or thins depending on how you look at it.) Ruth (Zarah Mahler), a thinly constructed love interest, arrives on the scene near the end of Act I and follows Shlomo west as he establishes the House of Love and Prayer. Shlomo’s cardinal desires seem to haunt him as his theological teachings and music evolve over the years. As the play concludes, Shlomo returns to Vienna for a powerhouse concert that reconciles his traumatic past.

Much can be forgiven in Soul Doctor, due to Anderson and Iman’s beautifully grounded and compassionate performances. Ron Orbach, who portrays stilted Rabbi Pinchas among other characters, adds additional gravitas and Broadway-caliber acting chops to the mix.

But there are a few elements that almost derail this heartwarming production. It looks cheap. At $135/ticket, half the audience will find themselves staring across the theater at each other in the poorly configured space. And when they do crank their necks, they’ll be looking at a set design by Neil Patel that serves utilitarian purpose but lacks innovation and originality.

The small ensemble is forced into roles and characterizations that don’t suit them at all, including a catastrophic Chassidim scene where the females are dressed like they’re attending a Yentl Halloween party. The choreography by Benoit-Swan Pouffer is achingly overwrought—a mash-up of Alvin Ailey- and Martha Graham-inspired movement with a bit of Fiddler on the Roof thrown in for (not so) good measure. The story itself has movement and life and would be better served by “staging” rather than show-off miniature pas de deuxs.

That being said, Soul Doctor not only has soul, but a very big, warm and welcoming heart. For those interested in the music of Shlomo Carlebach, it is an unusual Broadway treat and tells a compelling story of how music can change the world.

Soul Doctor
Circle in the Square
www.souldoctorbroadway.com

 

Inside the Casting of Broadway’s “Pippin”

June 6th, 2013 Comments off

Duncan Stewart (l) and Benton Whitley (r).

A handful of very fortunate (and talented) theater artisans are going to walk away with Tony Awards on Sunday night. But one category that does not receive nominations is that of Casting Director. With a keen eye for talent and social skills on par with a highly trained psychologist (have you ever been around theater people?), casting directors are responsible for helping to create the artistic vision for a show.

From A-list celebrities to chorus kids plucked right out of school, casting directors are a critical — and often overlooked — part of the creative process. The Broadway Blog sat down for an exclusive interview with Benton Whitley, Casting Director (CSA) and Partner at Duncan Stewart and Company. Known for their connections with high profile agents and managers, Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley have been responsible for putting numerous stars, celebrities and international pop stars into theatrical productions including: Mary-Louise Parker, Kelsey Grammer, Christie Brinkley, Sofia Vergara, Harvey Fierstein and Liev Schreiber to name a few.

Their latest project is Pippin, the most nominated show of the year, including 10 Tony Award nominations, 11 Outer Critics nominations, 3 Drama League Nominations and 6 Drama Desk Nominations. We asked Whitley to share the company’s thoughts about casting its three nominated actors and here’s what he had to say:

The Broadway Blog:

Patina Miller as The Leading Player. (photo: Joan Marcus)

Patina Miller
Nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.
Patina Miller as the Leading Player is, hands down, spectacular. Was it your concept from the beginning to cast a female or were you looking at all different types? She also has a captivating way of engaging the audience – almost as if they are another character in the show. Was this something you were specifically looking for?

Duncan Stewart and Company:
It was a huge priority in the casting of the role that the actor could break through that fourth wall and engage with the audience. Director Diane Paulus said, “I’m looking for an actor to ingratiate with the audience.”

Somehow this ringleader has the ability to reel you in, from a five-year-old to an 80-year-old man — and not be scared! We saw many actors that had a dominating presence, but didn’t have the heart. It was pivotal in our search.

[Diane] was open to the idea of a female. It was written for a male, the keys, the script, everything was geared toward a man. In auditions we saw men and women, ranging in age from 20- to 60-years-old. It’s our understanding that they’re not sold that Leading Players in the future needs to be an African American female.

By casting Patina, the role has become a showcase for her skill set. She had the edge over people. She’s sexy. She’s young. She’s gorgeous. And (which most people didn’t know) she’s a phenomenal dancer. If she had said no, the dancing would have been a lot more minimal. When it’s time to recast, it’s the bar that we’ll be try reach for, but we believe directors should not try to have actors fit into cookie cutter molds of the originating actors.

The Broadway Blog:

Andrea Martin at Berthe and Matthew James Thomas as Pippin. (photo: Joan Marcus)

Andrea Martin, nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical.

Andrea Martin as Berthe — come on! She received a standing ovation in the middle of the show the night that I saw it. Without giving too much away to readers who haven’t see it yet, how did you know that she would be able to ‘rise to the occasion’?

Duncan Stewart and Company:
It’s the beauty of creating an original cast and the time in the rehearsal room. Andrea was hired “offer only,” which means she didn’t have to audition. We knew that she was the right type and fit for the role and this production. She did have one stipulation. She said, “I’m only going to do this if you’re not going to make me the old granny that sits on the stool where everybody dances around me. I want to be shot out of a cannon.” Well, we got pretty damn close.

Now it’s a huge challenge for us moving forward. She’s contracted for a year but we’re already thinking about who could do what she does. There are few women in that age bracket who can do that, but the number has been shaped and we’ll do our best to maintain it.

The Broadway Blog:

Terrence Mann as Charles and Charlotte d'Amboise as Fastrada. (photo: Joan Marcus)

Terrence Mann, nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical.
As King Charles, Terrence brings both gravitas and humor (along with his real-life wife, Charlotte d’Amboise, who recently one an Astaire Award for her performance) to the production. How did that all come about?

Duncan Stewart and Company:
He tackles it like Shakespeare. Terry is a classically trained actor and it shows onstage. He also understands the comedy of the show. So many guys came in and played it like a puppet, but he also instilled a sense of realness. When we were pulling the lists together the lightbulb came on. Charlotte was on the list for Fastrada (King Charles’ wife) and we thought the two of them together onstage would be a great combination. They have different representation and were clear that they were both interested in the project independent of one another.

Diane said — and we agree — that Pippin is the definition of musical theater: glorious music, glorious acting and glorious dancing.