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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)


Film Review: 'The Case Against 8'

8Court

BY JOSEPH EHRMAN-DUPRE

“This may be the most important case I’ve ever handled,” states Ted Olson, one of the two attorneys fighting Prop 8 in Ryan White and Ben Cotner’s intimate documentary, The Case Against 8. And after watching the film, you will feel as though you have won right alongside him.

As we know by now, the initial case against Prop 8, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, eventually wound its way to the United States Supreme Court. We also know that the outcome was favorable, and same-sex couples in California could marry once more. Still, White and Cotner’s documentary effectively builds suspense by successfully balancing its emotional and legal content, taking us beyond primetime news coverage for an in-depth and ultimately cathartic journey.

8AttorneysThe film takes a relatively direct approach. Though we start in March 2013, with a prologue involving the lead-up to the Supreme Court case, the film immediately flashes back to November 2008 where we are faced with an interesting coincidence: the election of President Obama--a harbinger of hope--and the ominous passage of Proposition 8 in California. What follows is an Avengers-style character introduction, as each new member of the legal super-team is picked up, unaware of the harrowing adventures they will take on together. 

The movie was screened at Film Society of Lincoln Center and included a talkback with our super-team, the directors (who won the documentary directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), the plaintiffs, and Chad Griffin, director of the American Foundation for Equal Rights. At the talkback, Ryan White admitted that he and Cotner initially intended to focus the film on the odd couple pairing of Ted Olson and David Boies (above right), memorable rivals in the Bush v. Gore case who, in this battle, proved that marriage equality is not an issue of liberals versus conservatives (check out Towleroad's 2010 interview with the attorneys here). The filmmakers adjusted their initial intention, however. Plaintiffs Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami (below left), and Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier (below right), take center stage, serving as the narrative’s emotional core. The couples are remarkably well-spoken individuals in their own right, and as much a part of the legal proceedings as the lawyers representing them.  

8JeffPaulWhere the film really stands apart is in its intimate, almost claustrophobic, prioritizing of jargon-heavy pre-trial vignettes in which a team of attorneys vet the plaintiffs and gather information in their San Francisco law office. The audience comes to understand the intricacies of the case and, more importantly, the personal investment that each of the people involved has in taking down Prop 8. Getting to know each individual helps forge a deeper stake in the case’s outcome, and makes the threat of failure in this battle far scarier.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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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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Daniel Radcliffe Opens on Broadway in ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan:’ REVIEW

Cripple

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Swapping profanities reaches the level of high art in the first Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s Tony-nominated 1996 black comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan, which opened April 20 at the Cort Theatre. The show features an admirable performance by above-the-title star Daniel Radcliffe and expert work from the cast and creative team behind the production’s acclaimed run on London’s West End.

Cripple1Set on a small group of islands off the western coast of Ireland, the story is based around the filming of an actual 1934 documentary Man of Aran, about daily life there. News of the film crew’s arrival on a neighboring isle shakes up the insular community of Inishmaan—none more so than the one they call ‘Cripple Billy’ (Radcliffe), who’s spent most of this life shuffling to and from the doctor (and, apparently, staring at cows).

Orphaned as a boy, Billy was raised by his biddy aunts Eileen (Gillian Hanna) and Kate (Ingrid Craige), who run a singularly modest general shop specializing in canned peas. They get their daily news from assiduous town gossip Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt) and their oft-broken eggs from the hot-tempered, acid-tongued young Helen (Sarah Greene). When Helen and her little brother Bartley (Connor MacNeill) arrange a boat passage with Babbybobby (Pádraic Delaney) to the film set, Billy hitches a ride with dreams of a Hollywood escape.

Cripple2Artfully directed by Michael Grandage with beautifully artless set and costume design by regular collaborator Christopher Oram, the production propels through McDonaugh’s rhythmic dialogue with precision timing, comedic and otherwise. Peppered with repetition and viciously creative insults, the play has a musicality that sings thanks to a gifted company.

Accepting Mr. Radcliffe as an ugly duckling may stretch your imagination, but his portrayal of Billy’s physical deformity goes far to convince. Despite being the title character, Radcliffe plays one of the quieter roles on a stage full of outsized personalities, and turns in a sensitive, engrossing performance. As his pair of hand-wringing, occasionally daffy caregivers, Ms. Hanna and Ms. Craige may be the most entertaining odd couple of the season. And Ms. Greene and Mr. MacNeill provide stiff competition as warring brother and sister.

For all its bitter humor, a certain bleakness and cruelty hover over Inishmaan like fog off the sea. The place feels a lot like the edge of the world, and there’s a looming temptation to peer right over and consider leaping off, for better or worse. Though it’s hardly clear which would come to pass.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:johan persson)


James Franco and Chris O’Dowd Open On Broadway In ‘Of Mice And Men:’ REVIEW

OF MICE AND MEN_ Photo by Richard Phibbs

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

James Franco’s quest for ubiquity now includes a starring role on Broadway, in the revival of John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 drama Of Mice and Men, which opened April 16 at the Longacre Theatre. Anyone hoping for a spectacular crash and burn may have to settle for a gentle sputter, as the pseudo art-star fades against the glare of stage lights and the formidable talents of co-star Chris O’Dowd.

OF MICE AND MEN_ Photo by Richard Phibbs1From the first moments of director Anna D. Shapiro’s imposingly designed production, the familiar story of two men versus the world is writ large. George (Franco) and his companion Lennie (O’Dowd) are migrant ranch hands in Great Depression California, working to survive equally harsh economic and natural hardship. Lennie is preternaturally strong but has the slow mentality of a child, and the dependency of one, too. The two are en route to a new job, having just fled their last on account of some seemingly innocent misbehavior involving Lennie and a woman in a pretty dress.

The pair encounters a host of characters at the new ranch, including old-timer Candy (a venerable Jim Norton), who soon joins in their dream of owning a plot of land; Curley (Alex Morf) the owner’s hot-headed son, who instantly spells trouble; and his flirty, restless wife (Leighton Meester), who likewise leaves behind the scent of trouble every time she leaves a room.

OF MICE AND MEN_ Photo by Richard Phibbs2Steinbeck’s story is full of visible landmines, and Shapiro’s production navigates them with a certain finesse, thanks in large part to a sensitive and engrossing performance by Mr. O’Dowd. Known best for his starring role in Bridesmaids, the Irish actor does an exceptional job crafting Lennie’s myopic world and inviting viewers inside with every gesture and look of wonder.

As is no surprise by now, Franco also inhabits his own unique world, which doesn’t quite do him the same credit on stage as it may off. George and Lennie have a shared dream—that one of them has control of his wits only makes him more determined to escape their bum fates. But Franco’s George often registers as little more than resentful. With a few notable exceptions, his harshness toward Lennie feels flat rather than mixed with the brotherly love on which the story hinges.

OF MICE AND MEN_ Photo by Richard Phibbs3Lacking a credible bond between the two marquee leads, the production struggles to take off, despite some fine performances from its supporting cast. Norton brings his usual level of ease and expertise to Candy, as does Ron Cephas Jones in the role of the isolated black workman Crooks. Ms. Meester (late of Gossip Girl), cuts a pretty figure and is admirably poised in her major theatre debut, but falters when called on for emotional depth.

Despite ending with a bang, stakes remain low in the escalation to this production’s climax. If Steinbeck’s play relies on our investment in the American dreams of his characters—for George to be a landowner, for Lennie to be a tender of bunny rabbits, for Candy and Crooks to live out their final years with dignity, for Curley’s wife to be a Hollywood star—believing in some, but not all, makes for a soft landing.  

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

Bullets2710

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)


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