Steven Pasquale and Kelli O'Hara in The Bridges of Madison County
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
If Our Town were to be crossed with Oklahoma! and infused with a dose of opera, the resulting hybrid might look and feel something like the new musical, The Bridges of Madison County, which opened last night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, a simple and grand affair that wants to be both intimate and soaring. It's a show that inspires an immense amount of admiration for its aspirations and various achievements, but it proves almost steadfastly unmoving.
With a score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsha Norman, the show is based, of course, on Robert James Wallers' phenomenally successful novel of the same name. The book, in turn, produced an acclaimed film, and most likely, theatergoers familiar with either (or both) will come to the theater prepared for a three-handkerchief experience as they relive the torrid and ill-fated affair that blossoms between bored Iowan housewife Francesca (Kelli O'Hara) and the National Geographic photographer Robert (Steven Pasquale), who shows up on her porch one August day.
For this tale set in middle America in 1965, Barlett Sher and scenic designer Michael Yeargan appear to have taken a cue from Wilder's classic and kept the look of the show simple. There's a gorgeous backdrop that makes the flat expansiveness of the Midwest come to life. To shift the action between houses, and other locations, the ensemble shifts furniture, bits of fence and windows and other items to shift the action from location to location. It's a terrific conceit for a big Broadway musical, and one that underscores the sense of the tightness of the community in which Francesca, a war bride from Italy, has endured during her loving, but unexciting, marriage to Bud (Hunter Foster).
The show's handsome visual modestness also mirrors the simplicity of the basic story. Francesca is alone on the farm because Bud and the couple's two teenage children, Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena) have headed off to the Indiana State Fair, where the kids are competing for a national title in a 4H competition. Robert shows up looking for directions to one of the titular bridges, and in short order, his free spirit (the locals think he's a hippy) awakens the passions that Francesca thought were worn down and eventually extinguished by the dreary life she's led since leaving her native Napoli.
If the musical were to center on just the love affair, "Bridges" might prove to be an extremely taut and moving little tuner, but Norman's book and Brown's score digress far too often to other places. We learn far more about the marriage between a neighboring farm couple's life than we need to, and the cutaways to events unfolding two states away, though showing the family's dependence on Francesca's strong love and sure sight, just distract.
Similarly, Brown's score often feels overcrammed as numbers like "Another Life" (performed by Whitney Bashor as Robert's ex-wife), the big-band sounding "Get Closer" (performed by Cass Morgan as neighbor Marge), and "State Road 21" (the act two hoedown-like opener, where the sense of the show's reflection of Oklahoma! becomes most keenly felt) merely stall the action. It's not that there's anything wrong with the songs---they're concurrently tuneful and provide color and comment on the main action---they just seem to be in the way. Further, it should be noted that Brown, while working in country-western and pop idioms that are familiar from his other shows like The Last Five Years and Parade, stretches to new heights in "Bridges," writing a couple of striking almost arias for Francesca that O'Hara delivers exquisitely.
Her vocals and intensity are matched note for note by Pasquale, and perhaps that might be some of the production's problem. The chemistry and sheer magnetism that they share and have is utterly and completely engrossing. The world disappears for the characters, and perhaps given the luminous turns these two are giving, one simply wants everything else to vanish as well.
That's not to say that there's anything wrong with other principal turns. Foster's work as Bud impresses as he finds nuance what good become a stock good ole boy character and Morgan's work as the big-hearted, busybody neighbor Marge never becomes a caricature.
The balance of the show's visuals, too, from Catherine Zuber's period costumes to Donald Holder's lush lighting design are remarkable, and it should be noted that Jon Weston has provided one of the most sensitive sound designs of recent memory. To hear a piano sound as if it were coming out of the pit unamplified is a treat beyond compare.
And yet, despite all of this excellence and intelligence, "Bridges" never reaches the moment when it transports audiences. To be sure, it's a welcome adult musical, and one that earns admiration on many levels. I just couldn't help but wish that my heart were as utterly engaged in the show as my mind was as the show unfolded.
---- Andy Propst
The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: bridgesofmadisoncountymusical.com.
Let's face it - theater folk know that their talents have the ability to help people heal. And when artists like Nicky Blonsky, Phillip Boykin, Michael Cerveris, Robin De Jesus, Micky Dolenz, Christine Ebersole, Linda Eder, Capathia Jenkins, Richard Kind, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Julia Murney, Stephen Schwartz, Marc Shaiman, Mary Testa, and Frank Wildhorn converge, you end up with a pretty powerful evening.
All of these artists and more gathered for a concert at the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, CT on January 28 , 2013 for From Broadway With Love: A Benefit Concert for Sandy Hook, an event created to help uplift a community in the wake of the Newtown tragedy of December 14, 2012.
The concert was recorded and videotaped, and, now, it is available as a two CD set and on DVD from Broadway Records. A Blu-Ray edition will be available on February 18. And Broadway Records will donate 100% of its profits from sales of all of these items will go to support the Newtown-Sandy Hook community via the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation,
Joining the exceptional array of artists who gathered for the event were over 300 students from several Newtown dance groups, the Sandy Hook Elementary School 3rd and 4th grades (2012/2013 school year) and the Newtown High School Chamber Choir (2012/2013 school year). Together they create a joyful noise, and whether its Tony winner Mitchell delivering a knockout rendition of "The Impossible Dream" or two-time Tony winner Ebersole having a terrific time with the always delightful "On The Atchison, Topeka and The Santa Fe," the energy and emotion that was present for the event simply pulses through to listeners or viewers.
The breadth of warmth, comedy and drama that lies between these two numbers can also be found as Testa brings her usual smoldering sauciness to "When You're Good to Mama" from Chicago; Cerveris offers a deeply emotional "Finishing the Hat" from Sunday in the Park With George; and Dolenz, who jokes that he got to his song before Shrek, sings out a lively "I'm a Believer."
So drop by iTunes, Amazon, or your whatever your favorite retailer might be. You'll get some great music and be supporting a very worthy cause and - like the performers and volunteers who donated their time - helping a healing process as it continues.
---- Andy Propst
For more information, visit: broadwayrecords.com.
Austin Cauldwell and Déa Julien in Intimacy
(Photo: Monique Carboni)
There's a lot of sex in Thomas Bradshaw's new play Intimay, which opened last night at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row in a production from The New Group. There are also pretty keen ideas enmeshed in the simulated masturbation (with money shots), rimming, and anal intercourse. The trouble is that Bradshaw's notions about what constitutes closeness in the 21st century get all twisted up and overshadowed by the show's more unexpected and yes, shocking, moments, sort of like sheets during particularly steamy night of passion. And though it's possible to parse everything apart, the experience frustrates.
Interestingly, there's a pretty conventional story here about the hidden lives and desires of folks living in an affluent suburb. A sense of the play being a kind of modern-day Peyton Place is only heightened by the fact that scenic designer Derek McLane enfolds the stage with lavender walls that are quilted into a diamond pattern like you might see on some the headboard of a bed in a Doris Day flick. The three ranch houses in which the action unfolds are even indicated by a water color painting that looks like it might have been pulled from a back issue of Good Housekeeping during the Eisenhower era.
During the first half of the play, which is all performed with a certain, deliberate flatness in director Scott Elliott staging, theatergoers meet three families, and are taken on a tour of both their most common routines as well as many of their less public activities. James, grieving for his late wife and attempting to find sense in his loss through religion, and his aspiring filmmaker son Matthew squabble over whether the boy is going to go to college.
Jerry and Pat, latter-day hippy academics in the fields of queer and women's studies, fret about their daughter Janet as she finds her way in the world. Fred, a local contractor, and his daughter Sarah, try to content themselves with being the neighborhood's sole Latin family, while also coping with the fact that his wife and her mother has to spend countless double-shifts at Wal-Mart just so the family can make ends meet.
While audiences learn these basics and more, they also find out that Janet has been posing for a skin magazine, Barely Legal, and has moved on to being an up-and-coming porn star, and her mom has been giving her pointers on how to not be exploited in the pursuit of her dream. Matthew's addicted to wanking while he spies on Janet from his bedroom and he's also engaging in a hot-and-heavy semi-sexual relationship with Sarah. James has developed an addiction to porn, and Fred has mastered the art of answering his wife's phone calls while he's got the gay porn he enjoys on mute.
All of this interest in sex comes together quite conveniently during the second act of Intimacy when Matthew, who's been given a video camera to pursue his dream of becoming the next Steven Spielberg, decides to do an all-frottage art film, using the folks he knows. His filming, which includes couplings between his dad and Janet, Jerry and Pat, and even Matthew and Fred unfolds in a bed that's center stage. And while it's all being "filmed" with a hand-held camera, theatergoers get a view of the final product on a TV just to one side of the bed.
Throughout both acts, a cast of seasoned stage veterans (Daniel Gerroll, Laura Esterman, Keith Randolph Smith, and David Anzuello play the adults), and some talented newcomers (Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz, and Déa Julien as the young people) deliver performances that charm and amuse, and more important, spark with a firm commitment to the outrageousness of Bradshaw's world.
Just under the surface, Bradshaw's play seems to be asking some pretty interesting questions about relationships in a world in which people broadcast the tiniest details of their lives in the social media worlds of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram; and in some instances, even share their sex lives via video on adult sites like xTube. The extended question would seem to be: given this, what constitutes real intimacy in the world today?
Bradshaw doesn't provide any definitive answers to such questions, and oddly, the ambiguity of the show's curiously cute happy ending could indicate that he himself doesn't quite know where his answers might land. And while all of this, over the course of nearly 2 1/2 hours does prove to be arduous, one can't help but feel gratitude for the playwright's ability to delve into such realms and contemplate such questions.
---- Andy Propst
Intimacy continues through March 8 at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row. For more information and tickets, visit: www.thenewgroup.org.
Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Machinal
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
For anyone who's ever felt trapped by their job, their relationships, or just life in general, there's always a good possibility that Sophie Treadwell's Machinal will strike some sort of chord. Now, this landmark 1928 Expressionistic drama has an even greater chance of moving theatergoers (or making them squirm), thanks to director Lyndsey Turner's electrifying new staging, that opened last night at Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre.
Based on the true story of Ruth Snyder, a woman accused and convicted of murdering her husband, and subsequently executed in the electric chair for her crime, Treadwell's play takes an frighteningly abstract look at a young woman, in New York whose life charts the same arc.
The one-act play unfolds in a series of nine staccato scenes which take theatergoers into the life of a character known only as Young Woman (Rebecca Hall), whose benumbing Wall Street office job and her unhappy life at home with her demanding mother (Suzanne Bertish) propel her into a loveless marriage with her well-meaning, but dully solipsistic boss (Michael Cumpsty), who insists on her having a child.
It's not until she has a night out with one of her former co-workers that she finds happiness, in the form of a guy (Morgan Spector) whose life is the antithesis of everything she has endured in hers. He's traveled, lived on the desert, and even claims to have murdered a group of bandits who were holding him captive in Mexico.
The affair that Young Woman has with this man, known only as Lover, allows her to have an awakening of self. She's been a daughter, employee, wife, and mother, but never just a person in her own right. Unfortunately, her newly found identity cannot happily co-exist with assigned societal roles, and after one particularly dreary evening at home with her husband, she snaps.
In director Turner's splendidly conceived production, theatergoers are placed squarely inside of the central character's colorless, claustrophobic, and repetitive existence. All of the designers - Es Devlin (sets), Michael Krass (costumes),and Jane Cox (lighting) - work in almost a strictly monochromatic palette of grays, blacks, and whites.
The confining nature of the Young Woman's world is palpable throughout thanks to the restrictions that Devlin's scenic design put on the action; often it feels as if he has taken a Broadway stage and made it not much bigger than a basement theater downtown. The fact that his set rotates to shift from tiny room to tiny room only makes the sense of Young Woman living on some sort of a hamster wheel all the more real.
And when Devlin's and his colleagues' excellent work is combined with Max Tierney's harshly industrial soundscape and Matthew Herbert's creepy music, it can seem as if some sort of 1920s movie-inspired nightmare has come to life.
Turner's Machinal is not merely a stunning physical production, it's also a terrific realization of Treadwell's script, capturing both the works bluntness and its curiously lyrical nature, featuring a quartet of superlative performances.
Hall makes the central character's desperation both hauntingly pitiable while Cumpsty brings just the right level of dryness to his performance that makes the boss/husband character overbearing but never unlikable. Spector's turn has an ease to it, making the lover naturally seductive and not at all sleazy, and Bertish's work as the young woman's mother combines neediness and stridency to exquisitely manipulative effect.
Machinal will never be an easy play to encounter, but thanks to this bracing production, it's one that theatergoers might find themselves remembering and contemplating for some time to come.
---- Andy Propst
Machincal plays at Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street). For additional information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.
Last year, there was a lapse in a tradition, I'd grown really fond of. A "12 CDs of Christmas" column. I'm so happy to bring it back this year. Below you'll find a dozen discs - all released for holiday season 2013 - that have just about something for everyone this holiday season. I hope you enjoy some of these as much as I do.
---- Andy Propst
If you're looking for something that's simultaneously traditional, unconventional, and theatrical this holiday season, look no further than Broadway's Carols for a Cure, Volume 15 (Rock-It Science Records). It's the annual compilation that benefits Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids (BroadwayCares.org), and as always, this two disc set features the casts of Broadway shows, along with other theater groups or personalities, offering up everything from the regal "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" (the entry from The Phantom of the Opera) to Adam Sandler's comedic "The Chanukkah Song" (performed by members of the cast from the show, Soul Doctor). This year, there's even a long-forgotten Rodgers and Hammerstein number in the mix, "Happy Christmas, Little Friend," performed, not surprisingly, by the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella.
Beyond just having a swell mix of material, these albums "pop" as something special because of the way in which many Broadway companies work to infuse the spirit and style of their shows on seasonal favorites. This year, some personal favorites include the version of "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" from the company of Chicago, which imagines a late night encounter between Roxie Hart and Santa himself; "Bad Girls Need Christmas Too," a rockin' offering from the Jersey Boys performers, and the set's opener, "Bring a Little Joy into the World," a genuinely uplifting number from Matilda cast members. Remember, you don't only get two terrific discs when you buy a copy of "Carols" for yourself or loved ones, you also are helping a terrific charity.
It's taken a while for the stage version of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (Masterworks Broadway) to get a cast recording. The show - which uses all of the tunes so familiar from the animated television special and has a host of new tunes - was a staple at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre for many years before it hit Broadway in 2006, with Patrick Page in the title role and John Cullum as the show's narrator (an older version of the Grinch's dog, Max). Both men, along with other members of that cast, are featured on the album, and they are both sounding terrific. Page is appropriately dour and malevolent, and Cullum's warmth radiates from the recording as it plays. Listeners will, most likely, gravitate toward the standards from the cartoon ("You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Welcome Christmas," but there are some other tunes worth noticing, particularly "It's the Thought That Counts," which is not only an invigorating choral number, but also a number with a terrific message for us all.
With Merry and Bright (LizTunes.com), Tony Award nominee Liz Callaway offers up a quintet of songs so richly conceived and so exquisitely performed that one can't help but thinking "Wow, couldn't there be more?" But this isn't a season for being greedy but grateful, so, instead take each track as the wonderful present it is, from the stirring "Grown-Up Christmas List" to the sultry take on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (cleverly arranged by Callaway's son, Nicholas Callaway Foster) to the deeply moving medley of "Silent Night" and "Mary Did You Know?," which features her along with her sister Ann Hampton Callaway. This one will be getting lots of repeat playing this year and beyond.
Few people in New York know how to throw a party like Jim Caruso, and as proof of this, simply look at the fact that his ongoing "Cast Party" at Birdland Jazz club now travels around the country. As a kind of extension of this, he started hosting a holiday fete at the club, and A Swinging Birdland Christmas (Birdland Records) gives you a ringside seat for the 2012 celebration. Caruso's joined by his frequent collaborator in the events, pianist Billy Stritch, and the inimitable Klea Blackhurst, and together, the three offer up a host of standards with elan, and just to make sure things don't get too predictable (who wants that at a party?), there are tunes like John Pizzarelli's nifty "Santa Claus Is Near" and a cameo from virtuso violinist Aaron Weinstein for "A Child Is Born."
Should you be looking for a semi-private performance this holiday season, take a listen to Home for the Holidays (Brannock Productions), a delicate, intimate recording featuring cabaret favorite Kevin Dozier with Alex Rybeck on piano. The sense of these two artists entering your home is unmistakable from the moment the first track starts: a somber rendition of "Silent NIght." The moods shift on the disc to the sparkling ("Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!") to the sweetly romantic "Together This Christmas." Perhaps most delightful is a smartly-conceived medley of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with Stephen Sondheim's "Goodbye for Now" (a song written for the movie Reds.
With a deliciously Celtic interpretation of "Baby It's Cold Outside," in which howling winds become gorgeously palpable, and a medley of the classically liturgical "Ave Maria" and "O Holy Night," Natalie Toro's Just in Time For Christmas (NatalieToro.com) proves to be a diverse, satisfying Yule time listen. The Broadway vet doesn't stick to the tried and true, she's also got a couple of great, not-so-often heard modern tunes, including David Friedman and David Zippel's swell "Just in Time for Christmas," and Phil Coulter's "Our First Christmas Together." And for the last track, you'll find she's joined by Jon Secada, for "I'll Be Home for Christmas" that's been infused with a gentle Latin vibe.
Two years ago David Ian musically injected a bit of freshness into the holiday season with Vintage Christmas, bringing a hip 1950s jazz sound to some well-worn standards. He's at it again with Vintage Christmas Wonderland (Prescott Records), a five track CD that is as smooth as a dry martini, which would be the perfect drink to imbibe while listening to this by a roaring fire. You'll know all the tunes on here, and each one's a winner. If I had to pick a fave, it'd be "Winter Wonderland," which features sensuously smoky vocals by Andre Miguel Mayo.
Chicago-based singer David Edelfelt's mellifluous baritone vocals on Love Is Born At Christmas (CDBaby.com) invoke memories of crooners like Bing Crosby and Perry Como, even as he gives familiar tunes distinct, contemporary stylings. For instance, his rendition of the standard "Go Tell It on the Mountain" gets a grand jazz treatment and when he offers up "Mary, Did You Know?," it surges with an acoustic folk intensity. More traditional, yet no less pleasing are his jaunty "Winter Wonderland" and "White Christmas." This disc, I bet, will be a fave for listeners for years to come.
Should you be looking for more traditional jazz during the holidays, turn to Have a Merry Christmas with Anita O'Day (MegaForce Records), which culls together seven tracks from a session the legendary singer had in the early 1970s along with one archival track from 1942. It's close to impossible to not start snapping your fingers to her jaggedly syncopated "Jingle Bells" and her sultry interpretation of "One More Christmas" makes the heartbreak of the blues tune all the more bittersweet. And, well, her vocals on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are simply sublime.
The utterly adorable six track Glee: The Music The Christmas Album Volume 4 (Columbia Records) wins hearts with its retro sounding "The Chipmunk Song" and "Here Comes Santa Claus." These secular tunes are balanced by a graceful rendition of "Away in the Manager" and the reggae-laced "Mary's Little Boy Child." The EP also contains one unexpected, but entirely appropriate once you've thought about it, number, a soulful version of the Supremes' hit "Love Child."
What a terrific assemblage of singing greats have gathered together for 12-track disc. Sending You a Little Christmas (Columbia) features the silky-voiced Johnny Mathis soloing on songs like "Count Your Blessings," "This Christmas," and a particularly dreamy "Merry Christmas Darling" in addition to duets with the likes of Billy Joel ("The Christmas Song"), Natalie Cole ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), Gloria Estefan ("Mary's Boy Child"), and The Jordanires, who offer up some particularly blithesome, twangy harmonies with Mathis in "Home for the Holidays."
While it's a bit disconcerting getting a duet between British reality television star Susan Boyle and the late Elvis Presley as Home for Christmas (Syco Music/Columbia) starts, the recording soon settles into a lovely groove, showcasing her crystalline vocals. Along the way there are, indeed, pleasant surprises, particularly her renditions of "The Christmas Song" and "The Christmas Waltz," in which she channels her inner "girl band singer" to splendid effect. Also notworthy is "I Believe in Father Christmas," a lilting folk ballad that sounds as if it might be wafting into your home from the hills of Scotland.
And, as an added "treat" for the column, here's a Christmas song/video that's got my attention, "I Keep Christmas in My Pocket." It's one of the songs from Perfect Picture, the musical about Norman Rockwell that's just come out on CD. The CD's producer Joshua Sherman is also creating individual music videos for his new webseries, Charmers, using some of the music. This one features the fabulous Tony Award winner Lillias White.
If you like what you see, you can learn more by clicking here.