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Towleroad's Top 10 Plays and Musicals of 2014

Hedwigtop10

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Theatre is risky business. Trusted safety precautions include movie adaptations (What’s your damage, Heather?), stars above the title (NPH, lick my glasses!) and proven classics with stars above the title (Swooning for Denzel? Get in line). Though some hedged their bets, the year’s best plays and musicals took big risks that paid off. Whether breathing new life into beloved stories or creating new ways of telling (with puppets!), the top of the crop never failed to thrill, entertain and enlighten. From highbrow to lowbrow and, well, Hedwig—read on for a list of my top 10 favorites.

10. Heathers: The Musical: Transforming the treasured and twisted 1988 teen flick into a stage musical was no easy feat, but writers Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy pulled it off with an intoxicating mix of verve and camp. Profane, over-the-top and, yes, ballsy—Heathers wins the award for this season’s guilty pleasure most likely to get stuck between your teeth. But the musical also toed a fine line with its carefully crafted tone, balancing its bubblegum cynicism with genuine sympathy for every social strata of high school hell.

TIOY9. This Is Our Youth: Director Anna Shapiro’s fine-tuned production of Kenneth Lonergan’s seminal Gen-X comedy about twenty-somethings stalling to come of age in NYC marks the play’s Broadway debut, and a high point in both its nearly 20-year history and the fall season. With dynamite performances from Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, Lonergan’s trio of hyper-articulate, aimless thrill-seekers buzzes with the hallmark frenetic energy of youth in any age.

8. The Bridges of Madison County: With a soaring, resonant score by Jason Robert Brown (sung to perfection by Kelli O’Hara and Stephen Pasquale) and book by Marsha Norman, Bartlett Sher’s Broadway production elevated its Harlequin romance-inspired material into a vividly intimate and deeply felt love story. Also based on James Waller’s best-selling novel, Sher’s production was as nuanced and graceful as Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film is sappy and melodramatic.

Bootycandy7. Bootycandy: Writer-director Robert O’Hara’s semi-autobiographical and provocative coming-of-age tale about growing up black and gay defied generic formula for a more daring, fractious kind of storytelling. From outrageously funny to touchingly intimate, O’Hara’s collage of colorful snap-shot scenes assembled into a refreshingly inventive and wholly effective big picture of life outside the margins.

Countdown continues AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Towleroad's Top 10 Plays and Musicals of 2014" »


Bradley Cooper Is ‘The Elephant Man’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Elephant

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Make no mistake: The main attraction at the Booth Theatre, where a prosaic revival of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 drama The Elephant Man opened last night, isn’t the freak-show headliner in the title, but the A-list name emblazoned above it in twinkling lights. They will flock from near and far, empty their wallets, step right up and see: Can the Hollywood hunk believably play a deformed half-man, half-beast? And deliver the high-octane performance required to mask the mediocrity of his chosen star vehicle? The answers are—well, sort of and no, not really.

Elephant1Bradley Cooper, last seen on Broadway opposite Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain, certainly brings an impressive physical dedication to his performance as John Merrick. The character and his story are based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a man who lived with extreme deformities in the late 19th century. Pomerance’s play follows the Elephant Man’s ascent from circus aberration to high society marvel under the protection and guidance of Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), a gifted and ambitious doctor.

We first encounter Merrick as a haunting outburst of grunts and gasps behind a freak-show curtain, before Cooper (notably shirtless for the first few scenes) appears next to a slideshow of real photographs of Joseph Merrick. As Mr. Nivola details Merrick’s physical deformities, Cooper contorts his face and body into the warped shapes he firmly maintains through the rest of the play (the role is historically played without makeup or prosthetics).

Elephant2Thanks to these early visual aides and Cooper’s bodily discipline, it’s possible to imagine the very handsome Cooper as the extremely hideous Merrick—though, it’s much easier not to. This is partly because the actor’s looks and his celebrity are stacked against him, and partly because his performance doesn't overpower them. As his position in society improves, Merrick becomes increasingly curious, bright and charming—like a neglected child receiving his first welcome attention. But, too often Cooper voices his character much like an animated one, with a palpable detachment between his vocal delivery and Merrick’s lurid personal history and singular circumstances.

As Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick and introduces him to London’s upper crust, Patricia Clarkson is radiant and the production’s indisputable highlight. With a riveting and sensitively rendered performance, Ms. Clarkson takes her character from a vain, preening bird to the play’s emotional center. Her signature ease and reserved grace stand in marked contrast to Cooper’s effortful portrayal and Nivola’s bland turn as the impassioned doctor.

Elephant3Pomerance’s play, which also concerns itself with the clash between Christianity and modern science, is grounded in British colonial ideologies (i.e. the beastly Other must be saved! Cured! Civilized!). Though an integral context for Merrick’s true story, the imperial entitlement on which the plot hangs is the real elephant in the room. Director Scott Ellis’ production, while efficient and finely dressed (with beautiful costumes by Clint Ramos), hangs its hat on its star rather than offering a fresh take on stodgy material. 

Recent theatre reviews...
Hugh Jackman Goes Fishing for Love in ‘The River’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon Open in ‘The Real Thing’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Straight Couples Adrift on Fire Island in Terrence McNally’s ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’: REVIEW
Josh Radnor, Gretchen Mol Open in Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘Disgraced’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing Open in ‘It’s Only a Play’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Theatre News: Sting Joins ‘The Last Ship,’ Morrison and Grammer Return to Broadway, ‘Rock of Ages’ Closing

Sting

> Producers announced that Sting will step into a role in The Last Ship, the new musical for which he wrote music and lyrics, beginning next week on December 9 through January 10. The move is an effort to boost lackluster ticket sales for the show, which opened to mixed reviews in October at the Neil Simon Theatre. Sting, who last appeared on Broadway in 3 Penny Opera in 1989, will take over for actor Jimmy Nail as the foreman of a struggling shipyard on the British coast. The big question is whether (and for how long) the music icon can stave off his own Broadway shipwreck; however successful his month-long stint, Sting goes back on tour at the end of January.

Matthew_morrison_photo9> Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer and Laura Michelle Kelly have been confirmed to star in the Broadway production of Finding Neverland arriving at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre in March. Directed by Diane Paulus (Hair, Pippin), the new musical with music by Gary Barlow and Elliot Kennedy and book by James Graham is based on both the 2004 Oscar-winning film starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, and on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. The show traces how J.M. Barrie conceived of the classic story that made him a legend.

> Jessie Mueller, who took home a Tony Award this year for her breakout performance in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, will next take on the leading role in a stage adaptation of the 2007 film Waitress, according to the New York Times. Diane Paulus is attached to direct the musical, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles (Brave). Though still in development, the show is tentatively set for American Repertory Theatre’s 2015-16 season, with producers Barry and Fran Weissler attached for a likely Broadway transfer (the team’s Tony-winning production of Pippin followed the same path). Keri Russell starred in the film.  

Rock-of-ages-poster> Producer David Mirvish will bring the The Heart of Robin Hood to Broadway’s Marquis Theatre in March for a limited run through August 23. Originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the play by David Farr is billed as an imaginative and acrobatic retelling of the classic Robin Hood story with original music performed by Parsonsfield. Director Gísli Örn Gardarsson’s production was previously staged at the American Repertory Theatre last season.

> Rock of Ages, the hair-band musical medley featuring music by Poison, Bon Jovi and Journey among others, has announced a closing date of January 18 at the Helen Hayes Theatre after nearly six years of wig-banging on Broadway. Directed by Kristin Hanggi with a book by Chris D'Arienzo, the show originated Off Broadway before transferring to Broadway in the same season and earning five Tony Award nominations. A film adaptation starring Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin was released in 2012.


John Cameron Mitchell on Returning to 'Hedwig': INTERVIEW

JCM2

As we revealed earlier today, John Cameron Mitchell will debut in the Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on January 21, returning to the role he created Off-Broadway 15 years ago and immortalized in the cult-hit 2001 film. I spoke to Mitchell about stepping back into the show he penned with Stephen Trask, reuniting with fans and the rock-and-roll influences that shaped everyone's favorite trans glam rocker.

Naveen Kumar: What made you decide to do go into the show?

John Cameron Mitchell: Well you know, come on! The production is sitting there and I’ve certainly been thinking about it. I didn’t want to open the show, because it was just way too much pressure and time, and I could barely imagine doing it as long as the superman called Neil Patrick Harris. So, this manageable run, at a time when box office usually dips in January and before my film starts shooting next year, it was sort of a perfect slot. Certainly, it’s been in my mind that’ I’d do once more before I collapse into old age. [Laughs]

NK: So, it’s something you’ve thought about since the planning stages?

John Cameron Mitchell jcm344BW(med) by Nick VogelsonJCM: Years ago when we were thinking about Broadway, I didn’t really want to do a full run and thought maybe I could share it with someone—as they did with Fela!, because it was just so much singing and dancing. We reduced it to seven performances a week—I think Andrew Rannells did one week of eight—but no Hedwig has ever done eight and lived to tell the tale, because it’s way too hard. So, it was the enormity of it that gave me pause.

To be honest, it’s a great excuse to get in shape! [Laughs]

NK: How do you think it will be different for you this time?

JCM: Physically it will be much harder. But, the show is about finding a wholeness, and after 15 years, moving into middle age—you think about wholeness in a different way. In some ways, you are more whole, in other ways you’re more realistic about romance. The myth of ‘The Origin of Love,’ of finding a way to complete yourself—the young version of that is, ‘One person is going to complete me forever and heal the primal rift.’

And then you become a little wiser, even at the end of Hedwig, she’s alone in one way but there’s a kind of wholeness implied, because she’s been through these experiences. She’s the sum of everyone she’s met. You understand that more when you’re older, for better or worse. And, hopefully you’ve made the right choices as to who those people are. Everyone makes mistakes, and they make loving mistakes, which is really the best you can do. You make decisions based on whether you love or hate yourself.

A lot of queer people grew up feeling inferior, hating themselves from a young age, and have to heal themselves. And queer people include straight people who didn’t fit in in terms of gender, trans people, anyone. Your butch mom: She’s queer too, even if she’s straight. So, that’s the Hedwig community and it’s been built up from nothing. Of course there are Rocky Horror fans and rock fans mixed in, but we’re really different.

The people who love Hedwig love it forever, so there’s a responsibility to doing this right and being honest on stage. I’m excited about reuniting with those people—the last 15 years of their lives will inform the show as much as the last 15 years of my own, which has been very peripatetic, exciting and tragic and full. It’s going to be wiser, it’s going to be frayed. It’s not going to be as nervous as when I was a kid. I’m actually nervous about it now—but that ‘s more about how strenuous it is and keeping it together vocally and physically. It’s exciting; I need a kick in the ass right now, and there’s no bigger kick in the ass than Hedwig.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "John Cameron Mitchell on Returning to 'Hedwig': INTERVIEW" »


John Cameron Mitchell to Play Broadway's 'Hedwig' in January

JCM

John Cameron Mitchell will take over as Hedwig in the Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch beginning January 21 at the Belasco Theatre, Towleroad can reveal.

Mitchell, who wrote the musical with Stephen Trask, created the role of the East German trans rocker in the show's Off-Broadway debut in 1998, and immortalized Hedwig on screen in the 2001 film he adapted, directed and starred in. His performance at the Jane Street Theatre made him into a downtown star, and the acclaimed film launched him into cult fame, earning him Best Director at Sundance and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. 

The show's creator will step in at a time when Broadway box office usually dips, giving the show a surge in sales over his eight-week run ending in March, but he said he's been considering returning to the stage since the production geared up last spring. "To be honest, it's a great excuse to get in shape," Mitchell says. "The people who love Hedwig love it forever, so there's a responsibility to doing this right and being honest on stage. I’m excited about reuniting with those people—the last 15 years of their lives will inform the show as much as the last 15 years of my own." We spoke to Mitchell about his experience writing the show, making the hit film and reentering the world of Hedwig next year.

Stay tuned for a revealing Q&A with Mitchell on Towleroad shortly....

The current Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) won Best Musical Revival at this year's Tony Awards, and took home awards for its original stars Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall. Mitchell will take over for Michael C. Hall, who's been performing the role since October 16 and will depart on January 4. 


Hugh Jackman Goes Fishing for Love in ‘The River’ on Broadway: REVIEW

River

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Watching a fisherman means a lot of waiting around for something to happen. If that fisherman happened to be a strapping, Tony Award-winning movie star like Hugh Jackman, you may be very pleased to do just that. Sitting perched around director Ian Rickson’s intimate production of The River, a poetic but uneventful new play by Jez Butterworth (2011's acclaimed Jerusalem) that opened at Circle in the Square last night, feels a lot like looking at the surface of a stream, knowing the best bits are underneath, just out of reach.

River1To be fair, events do actually take place in The River, but mostly offstage, outside the confines of this remote, rustic cabin (from the actors’ mix of Australian, Irish and British accents, where exactly is unclear), or at another time the audience doesn’t see. The Man, as Jackman’s character is called in the program, has made a habit of bringing his lovers here to share with them his ultimate true love: fly fishing.

Over the course of the drama’s 90 minutes, we witness two such women (played by Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly) making this pilgrimage (at different times, of course), their scenes interspersed though their storylines follow the same path. How many women there have been, when they came or which came first remain open questions. We do know that the same tends to happen with each (a moonless, nocturnal trip to the water, fumbling first declarations of love) and that his conversations with them are substantively the same (history repeating, uncannily and with subtly sinister undertones).

River3There is, naturally, much passionate talk about fishing, much of it made to sound very compelling, thanks to a vivid and sensitive performance by Mr. Jackman. If your mind paints pretty pictures, Butterworth’s language has no shortage of superfluous color and detail. The Man’s passion, though, so clearly coursing through his aquatic oratories, is curiously (and conspicuously) absent in his relationships with both women.

Much like the play’s fishing, intimate moments between its characters don’t happen on stage; rather, they are referred to and described in the past tense (“Yesterday in this room after we made love”). Onstage, the pairs hardly touch. (He's an island!) Were their desire electric, this could well be hotter than any show of physical affection, but it isn’t. This can hardly be blamed on the production’s comely actors; both Ms. Jumbo and Ms. Donnelly are fine performers.

If the simplest of the play’s many conceits is (spoiler alert!) the women are the fish—migrating past as the man tries to connect with them—watching as they slip through his fingers is actually less exciting than the rush he describes of hooking and then losing hold of a wild trout. 

Recent theatre reviews...
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon Open in ‘The Real Thing’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Straight Couples Adrift on Fire Island in Terrence McNally’s ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’: REVIEW
Josh Radnor, Gretchen Mol Open in Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘Disgraced’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing Open in ‘It’s Only a Play’ on Broadway: REVIEW
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ Opens on Broadway: REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: richard termine)


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