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19 November 2015 @ 03:19 pm
I went up to New York the weekend before last, almost entirely for theatre going, though I did also walk around to several of my usual midtown touchstones (and spent some time in the genealogical research rooms at the library, after petting Patience and Fortitude). Since I’ve gone to the theatre a couple of times down here since then, I figured that it made sense to focus on that, especially as I have some broader thoughts on musicals as a result of what I’ve seen recently.

Brief Travel Notes: The train up got delayed by a switch problem near Baltimore, followed by having to wait for other trains once we got off schedule. The train down was delayed by a medical emergency. Amtrak appears to be competing with the Metro to annoy me.

I cashed in a bunch of Marriott miles to stay at the Algonquin. This was a definite splurge, but well worth it. My room had a quote from Dorothy Parker on the door, which was a nice touch. The bed was comfortable and the room was quiet. The toiletries were Beekman 1802 – very luxurious. The included continental breakfast was excellent, offering a choice of a standard option (croissant, date nut bread, and English muffin, plus a small cup of fruit), a bagel with cream cheese or lox, or oatmeal. I’d still say my favorite New York place to stay is The Library Hotel, but I can’t get that with points, nor am I normally willing to pay for it.

Rothschild & Sons: This was the show I actually went up to New York for, having backed it on kickstarter. I know the original only from its cast recording, so I can’t speak to all of the changes for this version. The most obvious one is making it one act. That included increasing the role of Gutele – along with completely removing Nathan’s romance with Hannah. The song I know was added ("He Never Listens," with music as well as lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) was very effective on illuminating the relationship between Mayer and Nathan. A song for Gutele ("Just a Map") was restored from an early draft of the show and emphasized her fears for her sons. "In My Own Lifetime" remains the stand-out song of the show and is simply one of the most powerful musical theatre statements of all time, with particular relevance in these times (alas). The performances were uniformly excellent, with Robert Cuccioli as Mayer and Christopher M. Williams as Nathan particularly notable. My one complaint is that it was hard to follow how much time had elapsed between events. My understanding is that the original version had some sort of indicator (signs maybe) that told what year it was.

Something Rotten: When I was looking for something to see that evening, I had several options. A few friends had seen this show and said it was very funny, so it’s the one I chose. Well, it is funny, but it’s not very sophisticated humor. The show I’d compare it to is Spamalot. The premise is that brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom, are trying to compete with Shakespeare in the world of London’s Renaissance theatre scene. A seer explains musicals (with amusing references to a lot of well-known ones), but then has a near miss on what Shakespeare’s greatest hit will be. So they end up working on a musical called Omelette. The main thread isn’t bad, but I was annoyed by a few of the side plots. For example, Nick’s wife is an early feminist (and gets a reasonably good song, "Right Hand Man") but gets nothing but mockery for her views. Even worse is the treatment of Shylock, which relies entirely on Yiddish stereotypes. Overall, the show was diverting enough, but the annoyances suggest that there are better ways to spend your entertainment dollar.

Cake Off: This was the second new musical playing at Signature Theatre and was one I was excited about because Adam Gwon wrote the score. I should also note that it was part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, with a book by Sheri Wilner and Julia Jordan (based on a play by Wilner). Jordan also co-wrote the lyrics (with Gwon). The show involves the Millberry Sugar Cake Off of 1996, with men competing for the first time and the prize money raised to a million dollars. Rita Gaw and Paul Hubbard are competing face to face, with announcer Jack DeVault providing sexist commentary along the way. I’m pleased to say the show was a hoot. The songs advanced the plot and revealed character – exactly what songs within a musical should do. The humor was tempered with some poignant moments, e.g. the song "Less Like Me," in which Paul muses on what he wants for his son. The performances were outstanding. I always have high expectations for Sherri L. Edelen and she exceeded them in her performance as Rita, whose dreams of a science career were turned to the chemistry of cooking. Todd Buonopane was a sweet and somewhat lost Paul. But the performer who completely blew me away was Jamie Smithson, who played not only Jack, but two (female) minor characters. "You Can’t Have This (Round Three)" was one of the comic highlights of my theatre-going this year. This sort of show is exactly why I subscribe to Signature.

Kiss Me Kate: Finally, I saw this familiar Cole Porter musical at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. I’ve seen it before and I find it more and more problematic every time. There is some great music, but little of it has much to do with what’s going on. ("So in Love" is a notable exception.) The songs for the play within a play are better in that respect, but they are not, in general, the strongest pieces of the show. The most famous songs ("Too Darn Hot" and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare") are pretty much filler. And, of course, there is the whole sexism of the plot. There were fine performances all around – with particularly excellent dancing from Robyn Hurder as Lois Lane and Clyde Alves as Bill Calhoun, but I can’t get past the dated premise. My dislike of farce probably doesn’t help.

What I Want: The ideal show has: 1) a witty and non-sexist book, 2) a plot that makes some sort of sense, 3) songs that advance the plot and/or tell us something about the character. I wouldn't mind a few great dance numbers thrown in, but short of West Side Story there are few shows that can do that without having the gimmick of a character who is already a performer. I can be entertained with a lot less, but I am dreaming.