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Harvey Fierstein On Straight Men In Stockings And His New Broadway Play 'Casa Valentina': INTERVIEW

Harvey Fierstein photo by Bruce Glikas

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Harvey Fierstein knows that a play about straight transvestites is bound to raise eyebrows, and he’s hoping it does more than that. Casa Valentina, which opened on Broadway last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, has already riled up some severe backlash. “I wrote a play that you’re either going to walk away from with all of your prejudices pushed aside or brought forward,” says Fierstein.

CV1After one preview, the Tony-winner explains, a woman waited at the stage door to tell every actor the play was “absolute garbage,” because no woman would ever marry a man who wears dresses.

But the play is in fact based on true stories, from men who frequented the Chevalier d’Eon Resort in the Catskills during the 50s and 60s. Think of it as summer camp for guys who prefer makeup kits to toolboxes and makeovers to car repairs. Most of the guests were family men, who escaped there to “express the girl within,” donning women’s clothes, sharing meals and performing sing-alongs.

Casa Valentina begins as what might have been a typical summer at the resort, but for the arrival of Charlotte (played by Reed Birney), a character based on Virginia Prince. An activist for transgendered men and the publisher of Transvestia magazine, Prince was also virulently anti-homosexual.

CS3In the play, Charlotte attempts to recruit the guests of Casa Valentina to her nationally recognized sorority of transvestite men—on the condition they agree to ban gays from their ranks. If a straight man in a dress is the first hard pill to swallow, a perfectly coiffed and intensely homophobic one is even more outrageous.

I spoke to Harvey about gay people’s responses to the play, if homophobia can ever be justified, and whether you should feel bad about saying ‘tranny.’

Naveen Kumar: What was your initial approach to writing this play?

Harvey Fierstein: I knew about the resort from my childhood, because my father grew up in the Catskills. Years later I saw the book of photographs, Casa Susanna [published in 2005 by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope, who discovered a wealth of snaps from the resort at a New York flea market]. [A group of producers] came to me and begged me to write a play. I thought, you know it’s cute—a bunch of straight guys go up and put on dresses, but really? A play?

CS1But there’s something about the photographs. There’s a certain calmness, a happiness and a freedom [to them]. It’s not like looking at pictures of drag queens. There’s a nervous energy to drag queens—they’re projecting forward, they’re pushing out at you, they’re trying to show you something. They’re not being. These people in these photographs, there’s a sort of relaxed happiness, which I didn’t understand.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Woody Allen’s ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ Musical Starring Zach Braff Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Of the many musicals to roll off Broadway’s assembly line of popular film adaptations, the arrival of Bullets Over Broadway at the St James Theatre on April 10 seems like a natural, if not exactly foregone conclusion. Written by Woody Allen with a buoyant musical score of standards from the 20s and 30s, the production helmed and choreographed by Susan Stroman spares no expense and radiates the sort of seductive visual glamour you’d expect from its creators. But the combo of Allen’s idiosyncratic style with musical theatre makes for a strange marriage.

Bullets2716Like the 1994 film, which Allen co-wrote with Douglas McGrath, the musical tells the story of hapless playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff), who gets his new play produced on Broadway by notorious mobster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) on the condition that Nick’s birdbrained girlfriend Olive (Heléne York) play a part in the show. The cast comes together to rehearse, including its vain star Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie), the cloying Eden Brent (Karen Ziemba) with her puppy in tow, and perpetually hungry Walter Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas). Olive’s bodyguard Cheech (Nick Cordero) pipes in with unsolicited changes to the script, eventually becoming David’s ghostwriter.

Allen’s comedy assembles a cast of classic New York archetypes (neurotic writer, tough guy, dimwitted blonde, aging diva, etc.), and the film’s stellar ensemble achieves a sublime sort of campy-chic, balancing over-the-top performances (theatre people are so dramatic) with enough vulnerability to ground their characters. The story would seem to lend itself well to a musical, where over-the-top is par for the course.

Bullets2712Stroman’s production fares best in its beautifully choreographed musical numbers, from Cotton Club-style showgirl acts and a back-alley gangster tap dance to a hilarious chorus of singing hot dogs (yes, really). In dance she captures the fun, frenetic energy of the era, while scenic design by Santo Loquasto and costumes by William Ivey Long create a remarkable feast for the eyes.

Yet the show resists the same level of camp in dialogue as it embraces in song, feeling more often like a straightforward Broadway musical rather than a satire of one. On screen Allen’s heady dialogue vacillates between subtle and bombastic, moving at the clipped pace for which his movies are known. While the book scenes are elevated enough here to make for typical musical theatre, they rarely reach the nuanced level of parody inherent to the story.

Bullets2708In his Broadway debut, Braff’s likability does him credit, though his presence remains somewhat subdued (in his rendition of “I’m Sitting on Top of the World” the refrain “I’m just rollin’ along” is maybe a bit too apt). Ms. Mazzie and Ms. York both shine in song, while Broadway vets Ashmanskas and Ziemba make the most of their roles, though they’re mostly confined to repeating one-note bits (gluttony and a frisky pup, respectively).

As the tough guy with a mind for playwriting, Cordero emerges as the show’s clear highlight. Just as Cheech takes over writing David’s play with an ear for what works on stage, Cordero creates the sort of grounded character here that works so well in the movie. Cheech might have done wonders were he tasked with setting the tone for this show, too.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:paul kolnik)


Denzel Washington Opens in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ On Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Just before the curtain rises on a beautifully acted production of A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway April 3 at the Barrymore Theatre, a recorded interview with Lorraine Hansberry pipes through the darkened house, the playwright advocating for broader audiences and greater accessibility in American theatre. The irony will be lost on no one who’s managed to snag a ticket to see the starry ensemble, led by Denzel Washington.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN 1960AcapHansberry’s 1959 drama, last on Broadway just ten years ago in a revival headlined by Sean Combs (aka P Diddy), is as much a chronicle of mid-century black experience in America as it is an uncluttered family portrait. Set on Chicago’s south side, the story looks in on the Younger family in their small, shabby apartment housing three generations under one roof. Grandfather Younger has recently passed, and a life insurance check is en route to his widow Lena (a sublime LaTanya Richardson Jackson).

Her son Walter Lee (Mr. Washington) has his mind set on using the cash to buy and run a liquor store. His sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose) could use some of the money to follow her dream of going to medical school. And Walter’s wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo) shares Lena’s wish to move the family to a larger house where Ruth and Walter’s son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) can have a room of his own.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN cap1052_A_cropThe play’s relatively straightforward plot functions as a vehicle for Hansberry’s revelatory account of pre-Civil Rights black experience in all its particulars. Some of her talking points feel more seamlessly integrated than others, but the uniformly stellar cast draws us into their story from its first moments. Like every family, this Younger clan has its own practiced rhythms and ways of relating, and together the company creates a captivating alchemy it’s hard to look away from.

A master of the wordless glance, Ms. Jackson’s Lena balances quiet wisdom with a glorious and equally commanding bluntness. Ms. Rose is wonderful as the young, ambitious Beneatha, the vulnerability beneath her character’s idealism always coursing close to the surface. Rounding out remarkable performances by the show’s leading women, Okonedo (Oscar nominated for Hotel Rwanda) dams up a precarious swell of feeling behind Ruth’s firm exterior.

Washington, a Tony winner for his performance in August Wilson’s Fences, has a star-powered stage presence that translates into palpable command of audience sympathy. His Walter Lee carries an easy charm that makes it difficult to resent his follies for long, so he’s likable even at his most despicable. Though he doesn’t tread a difficult path to redemption, Washington’s interpretation is no less believable and moving for it.  

Director Kenny Leon, who also helmed the 2004 revival, maintains focus on drawing out fine performances from the talented company and forging an engaging, accessible family dynamic. If the drama feels more peppered with casual humor even at its most serious, moments of levity keep the pacing brisk and make the play that much more enjoyable to watch.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:brigitte lacombe)


Idina Menzel Opens In ‘If/Then’ On Broadway: REVIEW

Idina Menzel in If Then photo by Joan Marcus 0299r

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

After a nearly ten-year absence, Idina Menzel returns to Broadway in If/Then, an original yet hackneyed musical from Next to Normal writing team Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) that opened March 30 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. While fans of the Wicked star’s sonorous belt may be delighted to learn that Ms. Menzel does double duty—playing two versions of the story’s heroine as her life fatefully unfolds down divergent paths—its generic rom com stakes rarely justify her volume.

Idina Menzel and IF THEN Cast Photo By Joan MarcusIt’s not exactly source material, but those familiar with Peter Howitt’s 1998 film Sliding Doors may be hip to the concept here. A single event (i.e. whether Gwyneth Paltrow makes the train) dramatically affects the path her life takes from there, so we follow her through a pair of ‘if/then’ scenarios. In Elizabeth’s case, it’s her decision whether to hang out with one friend or another on what, as one of them describes in the musical’s opening line, “feels like a fateful day.”

From her first number “What If?,” it’s clear Elizabeth is feeling particularly indecisive lately. She’s just returned to New York City after over a decade living in Phoenix, where her soured marriage to a grad school sweetheart has caused her to question her judgment. She’s already made fast friends with her free-spirited neighbor Kate (LaChanze, a clear highlight) and reconnected with her old Vassar chum Lucas (Anthony Rapp).

Idina Menzel and James Snyder in If Then photo by Joan Marcus  40rWhen she accompanies her new pal to a concert in Brooklyn, she goes by Kate’s preferred nickname of ‘Liz,’ meets her leading man Josh (a charming James Snyder), misses an important call, and quickly dons a new pair of black-framed glasses to differentiate herself. When she decides to attend a housing activists’ event with Lucas, she goes by ‘Beth,’ takes the important call from another former grad-school flame (who offers her a primo job with the city), and predictably falls into ill-advised romantic encounters with both.

Elizabeth’s vocation as an urban planner is just one of the plot’s overdetermined elements, which include Lucas being bisexual (and in pursuit of a different sex in each plot), and a dual incidence of the typical surprise in any story about a woman (hint: it happened to Gwyneth’s character too).

LaChanze and Anthony Rapp in IF THEN photo by Joan Marcus 801Director Michael Grief (Rent, Next to Normal) brings his usual geometry to bear on Mark Wendland’s spick-and-span set, which more readily resembles an expressively lit yoga studio than the streets of New York City (a giant suspended mirror with obvious symbolic significance also seems an attempt to add visual interest).

For all its questioning of fate, actions and reactions, If/Then neatly fills in the blanks implied by its title: If a woman wants to have a successful, fulfilling career, then she’ll be hapless in love and generally rather joyless. The opposite is also true: If she compromises her career goals, she can more readily dedicate herself to her family and friends. Fortunately, it need not be a conscious decision—fate (or the men in her life) can make the choice for her just as well.  

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Terrence McNally’s ‘Mothers and Sons’ Starring Tyne Daly Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

MS_Bobby_Steggert_and_Frederick_Weller_in_a_scene_from_Terrence_McNallys_MOTHERS_AND_SONS_on_Broadway_(Photo_by_Joan_Marcus)

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

In his new play Mothers and Sons, which opened on Broadway March 24 at the Golden Theatre, Terrence McNally offers a present snapshot of lives affected by the height of the AIDS crisis—a mother who lost her son in his prime, and the lover who survived him to eventually start his own family. While voicing a crucial chapter in LGBT history that bears repeating, the play feels more like a set of talking points about affluent gay male experience than a well-crafted drama.

MS_Frederick_Weller_and_Tyne_Daly_in_a_scene_from_Terrence_McNallys_MOTHERS_AND_SONS_on_Broadway_(Photo_by_Joan_Marcus)A wry, acerbic Tyne Daly is the play’s emotional center (and indisputable highlight) as Katharine Gerard, the stubbornly intolerant mother to Andre, who died 20 years before the show begins. She arrives unannounced on the doorstep of her son’s lover Cal (Frederick Weller), who cared for him until his death. Cal has a husband now, Will (Bobby Steggert), 15 years his junior, and a 6-year-old son Bud (Grayson Taylor).

Ensconced in a massive, tasteful apartment (designed by John Lee Beatty) with a sweeping view of Central Park, by all accounts the young family couldn’t be happier. Cal is a successful money manger, Will is a stay-at-home writer-cum-full-time father, and Bud is so utterly self-possessed he could be a poster child for This Gay American Life.

MS_Tyne_Daly_in_a_scene_from_Terrence_McNallys_MOTHERS_AND_SONS_on_Broadway._(Photo_by_Joan_Marcus)And so, of course, history comes knocking. Why Katharine stops by and what she wants remain something of a mystery throughout, but mostly it’s to drum up ghosts and open old wounds. Hers, it seems, have never healed, and she quickly resents Cal for moving on and starting a family with Will.

Ms. Daly is top notch, her dry wit and razor sharp delivery bringing to mind another Katharine — Hepburn, just past her prime fighting years. Her ability to draw out our sympathy for a prickly, somewhat bigoted and often bitter woman is impressive, especially given her role as the play’s antagonist in an argument for progress.

In all fairness to Katharine, that argument is mostly one-sided, as she becomes a sounding board with her stockings firmly planted on the wrong side of history. The evening’s bullet points fly at her from two directions—from Cal, who saw many of his peers die from AIDS, and Will, who grew up with a Millennial’s expectations of a gay life not much different from those of his straight peers.

MS_Bobby_Steggert,_Frederick_Weller,_Grayson_Taylor,_and_Tyne_Daly_in_a_scene_from_Terrence_McNallys_MOTHERS_AND_SONS_on_Broadway_(Photo_by_Joan_Marcus)Where Katharine’s arsenal is full of biting, amusing one-liners, Cal and Will speak as though life were a sort of elite cocktail party where being pedantic is part of the dress code. While we’re surely on board with most everything they say, it’s hard to really get behind them (except maybe to slip away and find someone less self-serious to mingle with).

For those, like Katharine, with a ways to go in opening their minds, McNally provides worthwhile, critical instruction. Though the play’s rallying cry for tolerance, and for respect to those we lost in our culture war’s most gruesome era would be that much more moving and persuasive were its gay characters a bit more flesh and blood. 

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New Production of ‘Les Misérables’ Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

17. Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean.  Photo by Matthew Murphy-Edit

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Yes, she’s back: that tri-colored sketch of a girl staring forlornly off into the distance, heralding the inexorable return of Les Misérables to Broadway. Before you roll your eyes or brace yourself for another dizzying go round of the mega-musical’s signature turntable, the latest incarnation, billed as a “new” production that arrived at the Imperial Theatre March 23, might surprise you.

1. A scene from LES MISERABLES.  Photo by Matthew MurphyFirstly, you can leave the Dramamine at home because the turntable’s been nixed. Co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, who toured their production internationally before bringing it to New York, have rejiggered the musical’s priorities to focus on making its epic story clear and to showcase the powerhouse vocal performances of a bracingly talented cast.

First staged on Broadway by Trevor Nunn and John Caird in 1987, the original Les Mis ran until 2003, followed by a premature and short-lived revival of the same production three years later. Under new direction, the sung-through behemoth’s latest return will surely capitalize on the success of last year’s up close and personal big screen adaptation.

18. Will Swenson as Javert and Ramin Karimloo as Valjean .  Photo by Michael Le Poer TrenchLed by a vigorously dashing Ramin Karimloo in the role of fugitive turned everyman hero Jean Valjean, the company delivers many of the musical’s best-loved solo show-stoppers with the power of a winter gust that catches in your throat and blows your hair back. Call it the American Idol effect at its most worthy, with mercilessly few of the showy pop stylings that have been creeping steadily onto Broadway vocals.

The story, based on Victor Hugo’s novel and written for the musical stage by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alan Boublil, remains unaltered—spanning nearly 20 years (and three hours in real time). Valjean, a petty thief with a tarnished heart of gold, is chased around early-nineteenth-century France by maniacally staunch policeman Javert (Will Swenson, in top form), a pursuit that reaches its climax behind the barricades of the June Rebellion of 1832. Everyone is profoundly unhappy and—spoiler alert!—most of them die.

10. Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle as The Thenardiers.  Photo by Michael Le Poer TrenchWhile the sprawling story requires a certain sized canvas, Conner and Powell’s production feels big but uncluttered, and more fluid than needlessly busy. Matt Kinley’s scenic design incorporates dynamic projections of Hugo’s own sketches, many with the same churning emotional vibrancy of paintings by J. M. W. Turner, Hugo’s British contemporary. Vivid, picturesque lighting by designer Paule Constabile adds both physical and psychological depth.

But it’s robust, sensitive vocal performances by the principal company that elevate this revival above the last, and enhance the thrill of seeing the well-worn tale return to the stage from the Cineplex. Mr. Karimloo, making his Broadway debut after lauded work on the West End, delivers a particularly stunning performance of “Bring Him Home” and Mr. Swenson is likewise remarkable in a commanding rendition of “Stars.”  

With few exceptions, the rest of the principal cast is strong as well, including a fine voiced Caissie Levy as Fantine, and Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle as a fantastically lewd and sinister Thenardier duo. The production’s more modest orchestrations (the electric piano’s also been nixed) put focus on the voices, so you can actually hear the people sing—which is fortunately the best part.  

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: matthew murphy, michael le poer trench)


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