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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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ATW Review - Cornbury: The Queen's Governor - History Served Unevenly

The ignominious fate of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, who served as the English governor of New York & New Jersey from 1702 to 1709 is presented as a metaphor for intolerance and religious persecution of gays in Cornbury: The Queen's Governor, written by late playwright Anthony Holland and William M. Hoffman. At the same time, they see Cornbury's extravagance, penchant for cross-dressing and exuberant spirit as ingredients for a latter-day, bawdy Restoration comedy. Unfortunately, neither the script nor Tim Cusack's staging manage to satisfyingly meld two diametrically opposed views of the Cornbury tale.

The play and the production are certainly graced by a number of gifted actors who give first-rate performances. As Cornbury, David Greenspan delivers a deliciously mercurial performance that's a mix of drag queen camp and well-observed naturalism. His ability to wed such distinct styles into his performance is what gives the piece genuine heft. Theatergoers are not only able to laugh at the man who lavishness has nearly bankrupted the colonies under his control, but also care about him as Pastor Cornelius Van Dam (an under-used Everett Quinton), pastor of St. Marks, and Margareta De Peyster (a flamboyantly malicious Bianca Leigh), a Dutch lady with a taste for power, plot his ouster.

These three performers deftly deliver the play's high comedy (an argument between Cornbury and Margareta borders on a catfight), and on many levels that would be enough, but unfortunately, sermonizing creeps in, as Cornbury's persecution and eventual imprisonment is condemned as being both politically, and more dangerously, philosophically, motivated. Cornbury's support of Jews, and his advisor Spinoza Dacosta (played with a mixture of sage augustness and comic flair by Ken Kliban) in particular, is referenced. Also, his rivals dismiss the respect that Cornbury extends to slaves and Native Americans, in particular, his African attendant (a shrewd performance form Ashley Bryant) and Munsee, a Native American (Eugene the Poogene), whom Spinoza trusts.

The more serious aspects of the script might not seem so obtrusive were it not for other moments in the play when broad zaniness, amateurishly performed, comes to the fore. A scene early on between two lesbian barmaids is a perfect example. One assumes the sexual cavorting of the women (Nomi Tichman and Tara Bast) is meant to be bawdy fun, but in "Cornbury" it lands with a thud. Similarly, the existential spiral that the Pastor's hunky son, Rip (played with deer-in-the-headlights sweetness by Christian Pedersen), experiences after meeting Cornbury is never fully developed; instead, it's played as both a kind of joke about gay men's effect on straight ones, and as a serious dilemma for the young man about what in life is most important, which includes a fiancé (played with coy forcefulness by Jenne Vath).

Just as the play and performances experience a curious sort of disconnect, so too do the visual elements of the production. Scenic designer Mark Beard has provided some handsome, yet appropriately worn, painted drops, and the two buff, six-pack abbed caryatids of a Native American and Caucasian explorer that support the painted proscenium induce smiles well before any performer has taken to the stage. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Wallach's costumes, which aim for a similar sort of comic tackiness, only look haphazardly executed, and while there's much to enjoy in this show, including one choice visual joke in Wallach's costume scheme for Cornbury's kleptomaniac wife Marie (played with marvelous faux-French flair by Julia Campanelli), its tonal fluctuations leave theatergoers reeling.

---- Andy Propst


Cornbury plays at Hudson Guild Theatre (441 West 26th Street). Performances are Monday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 and 8 PM, and Sunday at 5 PM. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or by visiting www.TheaterMania.com. Further information is available online at www.theatreaskew.com

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Books: Four Titles for Reference, General Enjoyment

Not sure why, but I've been fascinated by the two reviews of D.J. Taylor's new book "Bright Young People" in The New York Times'. Both articles have invariably quoted Evelyn Waugh, but I've finished both thinking about Noel Coward. I finally pulled out the complete lyrics and figured I'd share:

"Bright Young People" from Cochran's 1931 Revue:

Verse:

Look at us three,
Representative we
Of a nation renowned for virility
We've formed a cult of puerility
Just for fun.
You may deplore
The effects of war
Which are causing the world to decay a bit.
We've found our place and will play a bit
In the sun.
Though Waterloo was won upon the playing fields of Eton,
The next war will be photographed, and lost, by Cecil Beaton.

Refrain 1

Bright young people,
Ready to do and to dare
We casually strive
To keep London alive
Form Chelsea to Bloomsbury Square.
We fondly imagine we're cynical elves,
IN charity tableaux we pose upon shelves.
It's just an excuse to exhibit ourselves.
What could be duller than that?

I could continue with the lyric, but that's not the real reason for this post. Rather, it's to offer up some mini book reviews of my own; thoughts on a quartet of releases from Applause Theatre and Cinema Books and Limelight Editions.

These two imprints of Hal Leonard are amazing for the sheer volume and diversity of titles that they release every year. There are four titles that I've gotten recently that I really want to highlight, starting with Denny Martin Flinn's "The Great American Book Musical: A Manifesto, A Monologue, A Manual", from Limelight. Flinn is really a traditionalist when it comes to musical theater and the book musical in particular. In this very opinionated, and often insightful treatise (which does in fact carry traits of all of the subtitles), he discusses first the evolution of the book musical and then, moves on to analyze its various components, by deftly dissecting classics like My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and Fiorello!. Readers may not always agree with what Flinn has to say, but there's little doubting his passion for the subject, and that's probably most important, because his zeal makes "Great American" a terrific read for practitioners and fans alike.

Also on the musicals front, and from Applause, is the Sixth Edition of "Broadway Musicals: Show by Show" – an updated edition of Stanley Green's invaluable reference on musical theater. This new volume has been updated by Green's widow, Kay Green, and now, "Show By Show" takes readers through the 2007 calendar year, with descriptions, cast lists, and song titles for shows like Curtains, The Drowsy Chaperone, Spring Awakening and Avenue Q. Throughout my life, whether as a musical theater aficionado or as a journalist, I've found myself referring to "Show by Show" for both factual reference and sometimes more subjective reference. I'm truly grateful that the publishers and Green continue to update this one.

From Limelight comes another reference/critical study, "The Pulitzer Prize Plays: The First Fifty Years, 1917-1967" by Paul A. Firestone. This new book chronicles the plays and musicals that have won this prestigious award, grouping them works by theme. The book begins by looking at plays chronicling "Family Life," and then, moves on topics like "Social Protest" and "Political Heroes." For each script that Firestone discusses, he details the plots in lucid detail and includes salient historical information about the pieces' first productions (cast list, opening date, and venue).

There are times when Firestone's prose sounds as if it comes from the period he's covering. When describing the plays Long Day's Journey Into Night, Look Homeward Angel and The Subject Was Roses, he writers that "in these plays, there is a great quantity of liquor consumed, bordering on alcohol addiction…Booze is the approved drug used as an escape…" And, in this style lies part of the book's charm. As readers go through descriptions of plays like Maxwell Anderson's Both Your Houses and Robert E. Sherwood's There Shall Be No Light, it almost feels as if one is reading a piece that comes from the period in which these plays were written. The book is rounded out by a fascinating appendix that lists the jurors for the Pulitzer season-by-season and a handy bibliography. It will be interesting to see if Firestone or another author can develop a similar book to take readers through the subsequent years of the Pulitzer.

Finally, let me mention one critical assessment of a single playwright that comes form Limelight: it's William W. Demastes' "Spalding Gray's America", which offers a thoughtful overview of the late monologist's life and work. Demastes' exceptionally readable prose makes "America" a title fit for both academics and the casual reader interested in Gray.

---- Andy Propst

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ATW Digest - Speed-the-Plow Re-Reviews - William H. Macy Joins the Cast [updated 1/28/09]

UPDATES ON JANUARY 29

New York Daily News

Macy a seamless follow to Piven in 'Plow'
William H. Macy was bad luck personified in "The Cooler," but on Broadway he's "The Booster" and has given "Speed-the-Plow" a lift.

Associated Press

A Piven-less 'Speed-the-Plow' gets even better

AmericanTheaterWeb

Review - Speed-the-Plow - A New Player Vibrantly Recharges Successful Revival

New York Times

With Piven Gone, ‘Plow’ Speeds Apace
Jeremy Piven’s departure from the Broadway revival of “Speed-the-Plow” has bestowed many blessings

amNY New York City Theater

Theater Re-Review of Speed-the-Plow
Exactly three months ago, Jeremy Piven received critical acclaim in the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s black comedy “Speed-the-Plow” as fast-talking Hollywood producer Bobby Gould (not to be confused with Hollywood agent Ari Gold, his television character on “Entourage”).

Variety

Review: Speed-the-Plow
...Macy's long experience as a David Mamet collaborator shows in his mastery of the playwright's ricochet dialogue. Equally significant is the actor's screen persona -- shaped by a string of humiliated losers in films like "Fargo," "Magnolia" and "The Cooler" -- which adds poignant ripples of fear and desperation to his easily manipulated character.

Hollywood Reporter

Theater Review: Speed-the-Plow
The term "emergency bailout" isn't often applied to the theater, but it well describes the arrival of William H. Macy in the current Broadway revival of David Mamet's scathing Hollywood satire "Speed-the-Plow."

TheaterMania

Review: William H. Macy in Speed-the-Plow
The veteran actor's world-weariness brings a new and welcome dimension to David Mamet's tale of wheeling and dealing in Hollywood.

Talkin' Broadway

Re-Review: Speed-the-Plow
Sometimes fish stories do have happy endings. Howling was heard up and down Broadway when it was announced in December that Jeremy Piven was withdrawing from the hit revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow at the Barrymore, citing elevated mercury levels as a result of eating too much sushi. ....

 

CDs: Wildcat, Take Me Along and To Broadway With Love from DRG

DRG Records has started off 2009 with a bang in terms of releasing recordings of older shows on compact disc, including one, To Broadway With Love, which has never been on CD before.

Before getting to "With Love," let me talk about the two shows that are making a return to disc thanks to DRG, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's Wildcat and Bob Merrill's Take Me Along. Both original cast recordings of these shows have been long-out-of-print, and available really only to folks who've scrounged eBay and who've been willing to pay dearly for them. Listening to the shows anew in these releases – which sound absolutely pristine – it's kind of apparent why cost seems to have been no object. They're both true delights.

Wildcat, of course, is the show that starred Lucille Ball and gave us what's turned into a standard, "Hey, Look Me Over!" While I have to admit that Ball's singing of this and some of the other tunes here has never been among my favorites, I can't quibble with Coleman's melodies or Leigh's lyrics, and when I hear something like the lushly romantic and yet somehow colloquially lyrical "You've Come Home" (sung with bittersweet earnestness by Keith Andes) I'm hooked.

Take Me Along, based on Eugene O'Neill's sole comedy Ah, Wilderness!, has always been a favorite from start to finish, though. Whether it's Robert Morse and Susan Luckey, as the two teens in the show, pledging their unconquerable love for one another in ""I Would Die," Walter Pidgeon's melancholy-infused "Staying Young," or Jackie Gleason and Eileen Herlie comically making love to one another in "I Get Embarrassed," I just sort of smile from ear-to-ear when I put this one on. For those who've never experienced this recording, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Now for those folks who already have these two shows on disc, the question becomes do I need to get the new releases. Well, in terms of sound quality, I do find both of the DRG discs to be crisper than the original RCA Victor releases. So that's a certain asset. If you do opt to buy the new releases, do keep your old liner note booklets because DRG has omitted cast lists from both of the new booklets. Beyond this, with Wildcat, the new release has notes from bookwriter N. Richard Nash that were not found with the RCA release, and some pictures have been changed, and with Take Me Along, the notes, but not photos, remain the same. So, I'd have to say that, if one had to choose in these tight economic times, a duplicate purchase of Wildcat alone might be the way to go.

Less familiar a title, without a doubt, is the show that's getting its premiere release on CD: To Broadway with Love. This is a show that played at the New York World's Fair in the Musical Hall in the Texas Pavilion in 1964. It's a big, brash revue that features medleys of songs from the early 20th century some tunes that followed and also specialty material. It's the latter tunes and some of the rarities that are tucked in the medleys that make "With Love" truly interesting and a worthwhile addition to any musical theater lovers' collection. The title song is a bit half-baked, but it’s a little-known collaboration from Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, whose Fiddler on the Roof would hit Broadway a few months after the bow of "With Love." The team also contributes a hilarious trio of songs that come on the end of the disc, including the prescient "Mata Hari Mine," which, jokingly, imagines what a biographical musical about the spy might be like (three years later, such a creation, from Edward Thomas and Martin Charnin, would aim unsuccessfully at Broadway). Incidentally, Charnin also contributes to "With Love;" he, with composer Colin Romoff, provides a tune that's sandwiched in what begins as a Cohan medley.

DRG has put together a lovely booklet for this release that includes the titles and author credits for all of the tunes that are heard on the disc, and the singers, which came from two separate companies, are simply, but thankfully credited. A new essay from Peter Filichia and notes come from the original LP are flavorful and informative and one can get a sense of the epic quality of this spectacular from the black and white photos that run alongside the text.

---- Andy Propst

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ATW Digest - Pippin revival opens in CA - read the reviews

Los Angeles Times Culture Monster Blog

Review: "Pippin" at the Mark Taper Forum

Variety

Review: Pippin
...Tuner's broader emotional lines first need attending. The problem isn't two Pippins (one hearing, one deaf), but a dramatic spine that's been halved.

Hollywood Reporter

Theater Review: Pippin
Bottom Line: An occasionally extraordinary production but a mostly ordinary musical.

TheaterMania

Review: Pippin
Jeff Calhoun's production of the classic Stephen Schwartz musical -- using deaf and hearing actors -- is imaginative enough to amaze Harry Houdini.