April 29th, 2012


Theatre Binge - Part 1

One of the main things in my backlog of things to write about was my recent theatre binge. I do go to the theatre a lot, in general, but a lot of things collided to make for more than usual in the past few weeks.

1776: On the 18th I saw 1776 at Ford's Theatre. This is pretty much the best possible match of show and venue one can imagine. (Well, I can imagine doing Assassins there, but that would be in incredibly poor taste.) They did a good job with it, but it remains a show I have seriously mixed feelings about. The book is far superior to the score, with lots of political humor that is still relevant to this day. Take, for example, the very beginning in which John Adams says, "One useless man is a disgrace. Two useless men are a law firm. Three or more useless men are a Congress."

The acting was also fine. I was particularly impressed with Brooks Ashmanskas as John Adams, Steven Carpenter as Dr. Lyman Hall, and Floyd King as Stephen Hopkins. The one performer who I was disappointed in was Gregory Maheu as Edward Rutledge. But I suspect I would be disappointed in anybody as Rutledge who isn't a young John Cullum.

The problem with this musical is the music. There are several songs that have all the irritating catchiness of a commercial jingle. And it is, of course, the worst songs that tend to become uncurable earworms, to the extent that a week and a half later bits of "But Mr. Adams" pop into my head. I do find "Mama Look Sharp" to be moving and Sam Ludwig as the Courier did an excellent job with it. That song and "Molasses to Rum to Slaves" are the two strongest lyrically. Too many of the other songs are just embarrassingly amateurish when it comes to the lyrics. I especially hate "The Lees of Old Virginia," but there is a lot to loathe about "The Egg" as well.

Overall, the book probably makes up for the music. Most flawed musicals suffer from the opposite problem.

Come Fly Away: On the 20th, I saw Come Fly Away at The Kennedy Center. This was entirely a dance performance, not a true musical theatre production. Twyla Tharp's choreography to a number of Frank Sinatra's songs was completely lacking in a book - or much of a story at all. There are 4 couples who interact in a nightclub. There was a live band, combined with a recording of Sinatra's vocals, which is an interesting concept and worked fairly well. The dancing itself was very good, with some nice touches of humor. Overall, this was enjoyable, but I'd have preferred an actual narrative.

Noshtalgic New York

I went up to New York last weekend, largely due to one of the theatre events I will write about in another entry. Some of the folks on milepoint were planning a brunch and, since I was intending to go up anyway, it was just as easy to take an early train up. The weather on Saturday was lovely and I walked from Penn Station to the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village. We had a good meal with lots of the usual travel-related conversation (and some significant diversions into baseball).

After that, I meandered my way through the Village to my hotel. I was staying at The Jane, which is a very odd place at the edge of the Meatpacking District. It was built as a sailor's hostel and the rooms are, essentially, a land-based version of a cabin on a ship. They're tiny but functional and the bathroom is down the hall. The location is good and, at about a hundred bucks a night, it's quite reasonable for New York. (I will note that I often use hotel points for trips to New York, but I am saving up for something else.) On the way over, I walked through a street fair and succumbed to a moment of noshtalgia (i.e. the longing for the foods of one's youth) in the form of zeppoli. Fried dough, powdered sugar - all very charming while eaten hot right out of the bag and entirely unappealing moments later. I also bought a steampunk necklace I saw.

The lovely weather allowed me to walk to midtown, starting with the entire length of the High Line. I'm glad to see it being such a success, but the crowds were irritating. Once I was in midtown, I just did some browsing at Macys before getting a small bowl of soup for supper and Saturday night's theatre venture, which I will write about separately. After the show, I took the subway back downtown and collapsed with exhaustion.

That meant I was up decently early on Sunday. Rain was predicted, so I had both my rain jacket and an umbrella. It hadn't started yet, however, so I decided on a nice long morning cross-town walk to the Lower East Side, intentionally seeking out a particular food memory. Kossar's is alleged to bake the best bialy in New York. Even more significantly, they are one of the very few placea left on the planet to get pletzel. Even more significantly, they make miniature pletzels, of a size to make a perfect breakfast for one aging and noshtalgic displaced New York Jew. I was very happy, indeed. I will note that I then supplemented the damage by a trip next door to Doughnut Plant to have a creme brulee doughnut and a cup of coffee as a sort of dessert, if one is permitted to have dessert with breakfast.

It was starting to drizzle, but I continued walking some around the Lower East Side. Eventually, I went over to The Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. My schedule didn't match up with the available tours of the Tenement House, but I did look at a photo exhibit they had on hand. And I could not resist their bookstore, where I picked up a copy of The Baseball Talmud to feed my obsession about Jewish baseball players. I also bought a cute pin, in the shape of a pair of old-fashioned eyeglasses. (I wear pins all the time at work and it was only 12 dollars, so I couldn't resist.) By the way, there were lots of other books there I would have liked, but I had limited room in my backpack.

The rain was picking up and I needed to get uptown, so I walked towards the subway. On the way, I happened to walk by Yonah Schimmel's, home of some of the best remaining knishes on the planet. I stopped in and bought a kasha knish to eat later on. It was, indeed, delicious. (The best knishes of all time, by the way, came from a little stand called Jerry's, on the boardwalk in Far Rockaway. Lacking a time machine, these will have to do.)

I made my way up to 110th and Central Park North, which is a reasonably short walk from El Museo del Barrio, my destination for the afternoon. I was going to the theatre event that triggered the entire weekend. You shall, alas, have to wait for the next post to read all about that.

Theatre Binge - Part 2

Fat Camp: I had originally intended to spend my Saturday night in New York seeing the revival of Carrie, one of the most notoriously awful musicals of all time. It closed early, alas, so I was scrounging for something else to see. In browsing various options, I stumbled upon Fat Camp which had won some acclaim at the New York Musical Theatre Festival a few years ago.

The basic premise involves a number of teenagers at Camp Overton, a weight loss camp. One camper, Robert, proclaims that he is fine, just the way he is, and refuses to go along with the program. Things get more complicated when he falls for Taylor, who lets him in on the little secret that he has to follow the program if he's going to have the privilege of going to the big dance. There are further complications when three cheerleaders from a camp down the road show up.

This was very lively and funny. The score by Matthew roi Berger and lyrics by Randy Blair were enjoyable and enhanced the story. I'd mention individual songs, but there was no song list in the program. There is a cast list and I want to particularly note Molly Hager as Taylor and Carly Jibson as Daphne.

I'm not convinced this would transfer well to Broadway, but I can easily see it being done at various off-Broadway venues. Here in the D.C. area, it seems perfect for Landless Theatre Company. (And, they have in fact, done other shows by the same creative team.)

Utopia, Limited: The show which triggered the New York trip was the Blue Hill Troupe production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia, Limited. I'm trying to see all the G&S operettas and this one is very rarely performed, so I jumped at the opportunity to add it to my list.

I should note that Blue Hill Troupe is an amateur group, but their history goes back to the 1920's and a few of their members are equity actors. Their shows are all charity benefits. In this case, the money was going to the "I Have a Dream" Foundation. The charity aspect leads to them having the thickest program I have ever seen for any theatre production - 160 pages of articles and ads. Lots of ads, but that's okay with me since it's for a good cause.

The basic plot involves a South Pacific island nation that is modernizing by Anglifying. The Princess Zara has brought back advisors from England who turn the country into a limited liability corporation. This proves to have many advantages, but there are some problems as well, with the king's two wise men (who have secretly manipulated things for years) stirring up the population. Fortunately, Princess Zara remembers the importance of the two-party system, with its ability to create political gridlock, and that saves the day.

They did do some tweaking of the show but I looked at the libretto afterwards and the surgery was less extensive than I had originally thought. There were a few modern additions, but they were not significant distractions. For example, when the attendees are being introduced at the tea, they include "Lord and Lady Gaga," "Mr. Smith, Miss Klein and Miss Glaxo" and too many others for me to remember. The protests stirred up by the wise men have the people holding signs that say things like "Occupy Utopia."

There aren't any particularly familiar songs, but even the least of the Gilbert and Sullivan canon is still fun. The performers all did well. Oh, rapture! The objectives of the trip were well satisfied.