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New Musical ‘Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

Piece

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

No one can claim a shortage of Broadway musicals about Brill Building artists who became household names—between them, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) and Carole King (Beautiful) have the Baby Boomer market cornered—so it seems fitting that Piece of My Heart, an engaging and surprisingly sexy new musical about lesser-known chart-topping songwriter Bert Berns, opened on a more modest scale Off Broadway Monday, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Piece2Writer of ubiquitous ‘60s hits like “Twist and Shout” and “Cry Baby,” Berns didn’t attain the notoriety of some of his peers, perhaps due to his early death from a heart condition at age 38. With two of his children as lead producers, the new musical tells the story of Berns’ career and his surviving family’s conflict over promoting his legacy.

Berns’ daughter Jessie (Leslie Kritzer) is called to New York City by her dad’s old friend and manager Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), warning her that Berns’ catalogue is in danger of being sold off for a lump sum by her mother (Linda Hart). Predictably, in dad’s Brill Building office, Jessie discovers who her father really was, herself by extension, and finally confronts her mother.

Piece4While its underlying plot is only slightly more original than the E! True Hollywood Story blueprint of its Broadway predecessors, Daniel Goldfarb’s book steers the show, rather than taking a backseat to showcasing the songwriter's hits. Instead of a litany of studio sessions or live performances, Berns’ songs are, for the most part, integrated into the musical’s several love stories. And because much of his music is about different stages of love, the formula works quite well.

Playing a relatively unknown, behind-the-scenes artist is a different kind of challenge from playing an icon, and Zak Resnick’s pitch perfect performance proves he has the makings of a star himself. His voice is both sweet and strong, and he manages to bring a modern sort of sex appeal to Berns that’s rare and refreshing to see in a jukebox musical.

Piece3Director-choreographer Denis Jones hints toward the decade of sexual excitement the songs portend, rather than their author’s achy-breaky heart—to fine affect. While dance numbers pay homage to the decade’s musical mix of styles, Jones forgoes nostalgia for originality and brings a carnal energy to songs otherwise known for being saccharine, if not exactly chaste.

Unlike most artists who die young, Berns knows his heart condition will lead to an early death, fueling his drive to succeed. His story (despite being true) is a potential minefield of clichés that the production for the most part successfully avoids. Maybe because its producers have their father’s legacy as their primary concern, Piece of My Heart stays focused on telling Berns’ story and making his songs sound their best, rather than pleasing the crowd—though it does that, too.  

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:jenny anderson)


Tupac Musical ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ Opens on Broadway: REVIEW

Holler

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

When you imagine what the words ‘Tupac musical’ could mean, you might think back on the colorful verve of ‘90s music videos, the rags-to-riches stories that dominate their soundtracks and find yourself hoping for a big-ticket nostalgic trip down the mean streets of L.A. You’ll find precious few of your (modest) hopes realized in Holler If Ya Hear Me, the surprisingly stagnant and flimsily strung together musical that opened on Broadway last week at the Palace Theatre.

Holler2Rather than trace the iconic rapper’s rise to fame and tragic early death, the show’s creators choose to tell an original story (that’s anything but) about a thinly sketched ensemble of characters struggling against poverty, violence and racial tensions in their unspecified Midwestern city.

In the tradition of jukebox musicals like campy Mamma Mia!, the primary objective of Holler’s watery plot is to string together as many Tupac songs as possible in its two-and-a-half hour run time. But in place of the former show’s knowing wink (or any other gesture of the kind), the material is presented here with an earnestness that only amplifies its abundant clichés.

Holler1Shakur’s songs have a singular sort of gritty, poetic eloquence, many of them broaching the same theme from different angles: man vs. the system—the struggle, its cyclical nature, the impossibility of escape and inevitability of violence. While they add up to a thrilling body of work, combining them into a dynamic story proves difficult. Not only do many of the show’s numbers feel like the same sentiments repeated multiple times over, their quick-spinning rhymes do little to move the meandering plot forward, such as it is.

That story, by book writer Todd Kreidler, concerns John (skillful vocal stylist Saul Williams), who has just been released from prison (on what charges it’s unclear). His ex-best bud Vertus (a moderately hunky Christopher Jackson) seems to have moved in on John’s sometime girlfriend Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) while John was locked up. In an early scene, Vertus finds out his brother’s been shot and the rest of the story hinges on a vague desire for revenge shared by the whole neighborhood. Tonya Pinkins plays Vertus' mother, a character whose backstory is mined wholly from the song "Dear Mama."

While its music is filled with lyrics about drugs, sex and violence, Holler is remarkably sober and chaste—its characters hardly reach first base and there’s not  a drop of booze in sight until its final scenes—further accentuating how disjointed its songs are from the story they’re supposedly telling. Still, the talented cast does its best to create the world of those songs, and comes closest to doing so in dance.

Holler3Choreography by Broadway vet Wayne Cilento packs the sort of visceral, kinetic energy the show otherwise lacks, making a much-anticipated “California Love” the evening’s clear highlight. But its dance breaks are too sporadic to lift the show from its drudgery and most numbers peter out with little flourish.

Tony winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun) has a glittering track record of skillfully told narratives of black America, and Shakur’s pop poetry would seem like an exciting voice to share with Broadway audiences—and in many ways, it is. Perhaps it’s to his credit that Leon doesn’t offer an elaborate production, as Tupac’s lyrics carry powerful messages on their own. But their restless artistry is blunted here, and the larger story they come together to tell doesn’t resonate as the songs do on their own. 

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


Trans Rockers, English Gents and LBJ: 2014 Tony Awards Roundup

Hedwig

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Between Hugh Jackman’s dance belt (or lack thereof) and a performance by Neil Patrick Harris in drag teasing everyone from Sting to Samuel L. Jackson, it was a mighty gay time at the Tony Awards Sunday night, which saw downtown cult favorite Hedwig and the Angry Inch win big for Best Revival of a Musical and collect acting prizes for its stars Mr. Harris and Lena Hall.

GGLMBway0858rComedic romp A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was the evening’s other big musical winner, taking home both Best Musical and Best Director as well as awards for its book and costumes. Honors for the only nominated musical with an entirely original score proved affection among voters for well executed, traditional-leaning musical theatre.

Otherwise honors were mostly spread among a number of shows, with several big acting wins going to plays and musicals that were unrecognized in other categories. For her star-making turn as Carole King in Beautiful, Best Actress in a musical went to Jessie Mueller, who made history both by performing with Ms. King on stage and breaking into the running man with Mr. Jackman in the aisle. The Best Actress in a play award went to Audra McDonald, who also made history by becoming the first actress to win in all four acting categories, for her turn Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN cap 1431_BThis spring’s acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was another big winner, taking home the award for Best Revival of a Play, plus nods to director Kenny Leon and featured actress Sophie Okonedo (though Denzel Washington, not nominated for his work in the show, was nowhere in sight). Raisin’s strongest competitor in the revival category, Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, took home a featured actor award for Mark Rylance as Lady Olivia.

Best Actor in the play category was another made famous on the small screen, Bryan Cranston for his portrayal of LBJ in political drama All the Way, which also took home the award for Best Play. A new approach to presenting that award, with each of the nominated playwrights introducing his work, inadvertently served to highlight the lack of diversity in the category. While women were underrepresented in creative categories across the board (particularly compared to last season), African American artists were very well recognized, including James Monroe Iglehart for his athletic performance as Aladdin’s genie.

After_Midnight3Tony host Hugh Jackman showcased his song and dance skills throughout, hoofing with the cast of nominated musical After Midnight (a winner for Best Choreography by Warren Carlyle), and heading into the audience to serenade the Best Actress nominees. But maybe his most rousing (and certainly most bizarre) number of the night teamed Mr. Jackman with T.I. and LL Cool J in a rap rendition of a song from The Music Man (maybe there’s a revival on the horizon?).

It was one of several attempts to draw more viewers to the telecast and potential ticket buyers to Broadway and future Broadway, including shows still in the works like Sting’s The Last Ship and a musical adaptation of Finding Neverland (which won’t be on Broadway for two years, and is not very likely to star Jennifer Hudson). Multiple shout-outs to leading regional theatres and about the importance of teachers, mentors and arts education also struck an inviting chord—though perhaps no one was more inviting than Alan Cumming singing the opening number to Cabaret. Hugh Jackman was really gunning for that nipple glitter trend.

Check out a list of all the winners HERE.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:joan marcus, matthew murphy, brigitte lacombe)

 


Who Will Win? 2014 Tony Awards Predictions

NPH

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The 2014 Tony Awards will be handed out Sunday at Radio City Music Hall, in a televised ceremony hosted by Broadway’s favorite brawny man Hugh Jackman. With the six-week long race nearing its finish line, a number of this year's nominees have gained clear momentum while other categories are still anyone’s game, including some of the night’s top honors.

GGLMBway0858rFormer Tony host and A-list gay Neil Patrick Harris is very likely to win for his balls-to-the-wall performance as the titular gender-indeterminate rock goddess in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The show also has a solid chance of taking home Best Revival of a Musical, and director Michael Mayer (American Idiot, Spring Awakening) is a strong competitor in the directing race for his work transforming the downtown cult hit into a big-ticket Broadway smash.

The Best Musical race is still open, though, and Mayer faces stiff competition from director Darko Tresnjak of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, the season’s most nominated show and a strong competitor for the evening’s top prize. Though The Bridges of Madison County was edged out of a Best Musical nom and recently closed due to poor sales, Jason Robert Brown is a favorite to win for his soaring, operatic score.

Beautiful_2647Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is also a strong competitor for Best Musical, with the baby-boomer favorite likely to score big in other categories, including a top acting prize for star Jessie Mueller in the title role and a possible win for book writer Douglas McGrath. Cotton-Club style revue After Midnight has also been an audience favorite since opening early in the season, and helmer Warren Carlyle is a likely win for his fiery-footed choreography.

Featured actor races are tight across the board, but the awards may go toward musicals otherwise under recognized—like James Monroe Iglehart for Aladdin or Nick Cordero for Bullets Over Broadway and Linda Emond for Cabaret.

CranstonThe race for leading man in a play seems similarly in the bag for another celebrated TV star, Bryan Cranston for his robust portrayal of LBJ in All the Way. Robert Schenkkan’s presidential drama is also a likely win for Best Play, facing down competition from veteran playwrights Terrence McNally (Mothers and Sons), James Lapine (Act One), Harvey Fierstein (Casa Valentina), and John Patrick Shanley (Outside Mullingar).

Audra McDonald has been showered with acclaim for her sensitive performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (which landed her in the play category despite being mostly sung), and is a longtime favorite of Tony voters (this would mark her sixth, with one in each of the four acting categories). But her competitors for Best Actress have also been critic and audience favorites, including LaTanya Richardson Jackson for her galvanizing performance in A Raisin in the Sun, and previous winners Cherry Jones (The Glass Menagerie) and Tyne Daly (Mothers and Sons).

RylanceFeatured actors from this season’s crop of new and revived plays are in tight competition, including two favorites from A Raisin in the Sun, Anika Noni Rose and Sophie Okonedo. As for supporting men, it’s a case of ‘may the best woman win’ among frock-wearing front-runners Mark Rylance (nominated for his turn as Lady Olivia in the Globe’s all-male production of Twelfth Night) and Reed Birney (playing a straight transvestite in Casa Valentina).  

Best Revival of a Play is also one of the season’s tightest races, between refreshing reboots of American classics (The Glass Menagerie, A Raisin in the Sun) and British imports (Twelfth Night, The Cripple of Inishmaan). For a season unusually packed with Shakespeare on and off Broadway, the Bard may take one home for the 10th anniversary production of director Tim Carroll’s benchmark Globe Theatre production.

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


Hollywood Snubs and Men in Tights: Rounding Up the 2014 Tony Award Nominations

Hedwig

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Nominees for the 68th annual Tony Awards were announced on Tuesday in a lineup that favors familiar tunes, revitalized classics and breakout performances by new and famous faces.

GM 3Some of the season’s biggest Hollywood names were overlooked, most notably in two star-driven revivals of American classics: Denzel Washington (A Raisin in the Sun) and Zachary Quinto (The Glass Menagerie) were both conspicuously passed over in productions otherwise showered with nominations, including for other cast members and leading actresses LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Cherry Jones. Daniel Radcliffe was unrecognized yet again in his third appearance on Broadway, for his performance in The Cripple of Inishmaan.

Surprising total shut outs were highbrow double bill Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land, starring stage and screen faves Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and Will Eno’s off-center new play The Realistic Joneses. Though it boasts a full roster of stars, with Michael C. Hall, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts and Marissa Tomei all sharing the stage—it perhaps proved too inaccessible to appeal to voters.  

Cabaret - M. Williams Maybe This Time 0213Other, more expected A-list marquee snubs included Betrayal, starring Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz and Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom, both early season offerings that enjoyed big business but received lukewarm critical reception. Michelle Williams was also passed over for her turn as Sally Bowles, as was the Roundabout’s remounting of Cabaret in the Best Revival of a Musical category, which it won in 1998 (Alan Cumming was not eligible this time around, having won for his performance the same year).

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder received the most nods, and it’s the only nominee for Best Musical that features a fully original score. Others, including Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and After Midnight, are packed with popular hits from other eras.

Disney’s latest cartoon-inspired offering Aladdin swooped in for the final Best Musical spot, nabbing it from other contenders who might have benefitted from the critical cache and box office juice, including Bullets Over Broadway and The Bridges of Madison County (which today announced it will close May 18). Though Bullets snagged a nomination for Best Book, begging the question of whether Woody will show at the Tonys (not likely).

Shax 1Two of five Best Play nominees, written by preeminent LGBT playwrights Terrence McNally (Mothers and Sons) and Harvey Fierstein (Casa Valentina), tangle with issues of sexuality, while half a dozen men in the acting categories are nominated for performing in women’s clothing—including Samuel Barnett and Mark Rylance for the Globe Theatre’s all-male production of Twelfth Night, and last year’s Tony host Neil Patrick Harris as the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Leading stars in men’s clothing are easily recognized from their work on screen, including Bryan Cranston (All the Way), Tony Shalhoub (Act One) and Chris O’Dowd (Of Mice and Men). On the musical side, leading tough guys Andy Karl (Rocky) and Ramin Karimloo (Les Misérables) round out the pack with two gents from A Gentleman’s Guide, Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham.

Bridges247Women turned up underrepresented in creative categories, with just one of eight nominated directors (Leigh Silverman for Violet) and none among the writers of new plays and original scores. In the performance categories, the same week they received nominations, two Broadway favorites—Estelle Parsons in The Velocity of Autumn and Kelli O’Hara in The Bridges of Madison County— saw their shows post closing notices due to slow box office.

Other nominees for leading roles include previous winners Sutton Foster (Violet), Idina Menzel (If/Then) on the musical side and Tyne Daly (Mothers and Sons) and Audra McDonald, nominated in the play category for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (Ms. McDonald would become the first ever to win in all four acting categories). Two other leading ladies nominated for their performances as iconic musicians, Jessie Mueller (Beautiful) and Marie Bridget Davies (the shuttered A Night with Janis Joplin), were among the seasons biggest breakthroughs.

The Tony Awards, hosted by Hugh Jackman, will be broadcast on CBS from Radio City Musical Hall on Sunday, June 8.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:joan marcus, michael j. lutch)


Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams Open On Broadway in ‘Cabaret:’ REVIEW

Cabaret - Don't Tell Mama wWilliams, Cumming 0065

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

A decade after ending its six-year run on Broadway, directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s acclaimed revival of Cabaret returns to Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, where it opened on April 24. Stepping back into his Tony-Award-winning turn as the Emcee, Alan Cumming reigns over the evening with an unshakable carnal magnetism, while Michelle Williams makes a brave Broadway debut with a deeply felt, if less than iconic performance as Sally Bowles.

Cabaret - Willlkommen Cumming1464rAs it was then, the theatre is transformed into something closer to its nightlife roots, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting home for the seedy glam of Cabaret’s Kit Kat Klub than Studio 54. Based on stories by Christopher Isherwood and a play by John Van Druten, the musical by John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and Joe Masteroff (book) has been on Broadway four times since its debut in 1966. Though reviving a revival could easily seem like a lesson in unoriginality, it feels, in this case, like a welcome homecoming.

And who wouldn’t want to come home to an army of omnisexual pretty young things, writhing, dancing and playing an array of instruments in various states of undress? If not—well, you’ve come to the wrong place. 1930s Berlin is not for the unadventurous, and fortunately, Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Heck), an American writer searching for his novel abroad, is not. Just hours after his arriving in town, he’s already gotten chummy with Sally, an itinerant English club singer, and shared a passionate lip-lock with something of a former beau.

Cabaret - engagement party 0397Running parallel to Cliff and Sally’s tryst is the more modest courtship between Fräulein Schneider (Linda Emond), from whom Cliff lets his room, and Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein), owner of the local fruit shop. That the supporting romantic storyline is far more affecting than the first is a testament to both the supreme talents of Broadway vets Ms. Emond and Mr. Burstein (Tony-nominated this week for their performances), and the lukewarm chemistry between Heck and Ms. Williams.

As the pragmatic Schneider, Emond strikes a touching balance of world-weary warmth that’s especially powerful in her commanding performances of ‘So What’ and ‘What Would You Do?’ Burstein is perfectly matched, with his intuitive handling of Schultz’s vacillating pride and vulnerability. Heck’s Clifford seems a bit more inscrutable than hungry for experience, which may help explain his less than magnetic connection with Williams’ Sally.

Standing up to the memory of an indelible, Tony-winning performance by the late Natasha Richardson in the original version of this production is a daunting task, even—and maybe especially—for a young Hollywood star. Williams brings the sort of clever beauty and coy sensibility of a Marilyn Monroe to the role, and a well of readily available emotions to draw upon. She does fine work leading early club numbers like ‘Don’t Tell Mama,’ and passable renditions of more emblematic songs like ‘Maybe This Time’ and the title finale. But to her Sally, chasing pleasure seems more like a whim than an addiction, and most of the company (except for Nazi Erst Ludwig) look to be having more fun.

Cabaret - Williams Don't Tell Mama 0059Of course, pre-Nazi Germany is anything but all fun and games, and the air in the Kit Kat Klub is as thick with danger as it is sexual thrill. Brewing the show’s heady mix of hedonism and doom, carelessness and dread is Cumming’s dynamite Emcee—straddling a line between masculine and feminine and making near bedfellows of everyone in the room. With him at the mic, you have little to no choice but to do as he says and leave your troubles at the door.

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

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