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New York City - Theatre

Tracy Letts' August Osage County
Open Run
The Music Box Theater

August Osage County won the Pulitzer Prize and the
New York Drama Critics Circle Awards

From Wendy R. Williams' March Theater Column

I saw only one play last month, The Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Tracy Letts' August Osage County. August was written by Tracy Letts (off Bug and Killer Joe fame) and directed by Anna D. Shapiro. August stars: Ian Barford as Little Charles Aiken (Cousin); Deanna Dunagan as Violet Weston; Kimberly Guerrero as Johnna Monevata (Housekeeper); Francis Guinan as Charlie Aiken (Uncle); Brian Kerwin as Steve Heidebrecht (Karen’s Fiancé); Dennis Letts as Beverly Weston; Madeline Martin as Jean Fordham (Granddaughter); Mariann Mayberry as Karen Weston (Youngest Daughter); Amy Morton as Barbara Fordham (Eldest Daughter); Sally Murphy as Ivy Weston (Middle Daughter); Jeff Perry as Bill Fordham (Barbara’s Husband); Rondi Reed as Mattie Fae Aiken (aunt).

I am a big fan of Tracy Letts. I reviewed Bug the play and Bug the movie. Both were excellent and were covered in my June 2007 Theater Column.

Bug was witty and eerie and had supernatural elements, so I was expecting something of the same genre with Lett’s new play. Well, I was certainly surprised. August Osage County may be set in heartland like Bug, but there the similarities end. August Osage County is one of the most brutally realistic plays I have ever seen. It is also one of the most brilliant.

August Osage County tells the story of the Weston family, a family headed by a paterfamilias, the (failed?) poet Beverly Weston. When the play opens we see Beverly, a talkative older man, interviewing a taciturn young American Indian woman, Johnna (played by Kimberly Guerrero) for the job of family housekeeper. He tells her that her main duty will be to care for his wife, Violet (played by Deanna Dugan), who has mouth cancer and needs to be driven to her doctor’s appointments. He also tells her that his wife does not believe in air conditioning (it is August in Oklahoma!!!) and that he and his wife have struck a bargain in life – he drinks and she takes pills.

In the next scene we find out that Beverly has disappeared and the extended family has been summoned to “help.” First to arrive is Violet’s sister, Mattie (the hysterically funny Rondi Reed). Mattie is talking to her husband Charlie (played by Francis Guinan) and she proceeds to give the audience some of the funniest exposition I have ever heard. She verbally dices and fillets all the expected family members and informs both Charlie and the audience just who is expected to arrive and when.

Already on the scene is the middle daughter Ivy (Sally Murphy). Ivy has never left town and is simply appalled that her father has left and now she will have to deal with her mother. But that is not all Ivy will have to deal with. Soon afterwards, the other two daughters, Barbara (played by Amy Morton) and Karen (played by Mariann Mayberry). And with the two daughters come additional baggage, Barbara’s husband Bill (played by Jeff Perry), Barbara’s precocious pot-smoking fourteen-year-old daughter Jean (played by Madeline Martin) and Jean’s new pedophile boyfriend, Steve (played by Brian Kerwin).

The program for August Osage County has a family tree of the Weston family, complete with photos of all the cast members (there are thirteen of them). But thirteen or not, it would take more than twelve additional cast members to handle Mamma Violet Weston.

When we first see Mamma Violet, she carefully creeps down the stairs of Todd Rosenthal’s excellent set. She actually appears harmless; an old woman suffering from cancer whose husband has gone missing. Well, when Beverly hired someone to “take care” of his wife, perhaps he should have considered hiring Britney’s body guards. Over the course of the next two and a half hours of the play (the play is over three hours long), Mamma proceeds to verbally destroy everyone who has come to “help” her. Anyone who has ever dreaded their own Thanksgiving dinner should see this play and its family dinner simply to get a little perspective.

The apple, however, has not fallen far from the tree and we quickly find out that Mamma’s oldest daughter, Barbara, would be perfectly capable of getting Hannibal’s elephants across the Alps, killing any and all who get in her way. And Barbara’s eerily precocious daughter Jean is no victim either. It may be hotter-than-hell and there may be pills, booze and a pedophile on-the-loose, but the Westons family produces warrior women. And Johnna, the housekeeper, delivers a few whacks too.

Tracy Letts wrote an astounding script for August Osage County. The characters in this play may have learned "to wit" before they learned to walk, but they are all rawly human. The play has been beautifully directed by Anna D. Shapiro. The show is also blessed with a fabulous set by Todd Rosenthal and an original music score by David Singer. But even with all of these advantages, the play could have easily floundered. It is over three hours long and has a cast of thirteen actors. If any one of these actors had not held their own, the show could have dragged. But every actor in this cast gave a wonderful performance and watching them duke it out on stage was a theatrical experience I hope to remember forever.

On a sad note, Michael McGuire has just taken over the role of Beverly Weston. The part had previously been played by Dennis Letts (Tracy Lett’s father), who died last week.

Tickets are $26.50-$99.50 and can be ordered by phone at 212-239-6200 & 800-432-7250. Tickets can also be ordered online at

For more information, log onto

The Music Box Theater |239 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036.


John Water's
Cry Baby
Monday 8:00pm
Tuesday 8:00pm
Wednesday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Now in Previews
Opens April 24, 2008
Open Run
Marquis Theatre

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

On March 17, 2008, I attended one of the first preview performances of the new Broadway musical, Cry Baby. I was amazed at how joyous the audience was in anticipation. They far outnumbered the theatre-community naysayers who attend preview performances in hopes of seeing a debacle. These vultures-of-culture come fully-armed with negative energy and a venomous killer-hope that what they’re about to see will suck to high heaven so they can be among the first to post blogs about the latest in theatre blunders. Most times they arrive with their minds made up. And no one is safe. At Mother Courage and Her Children, two years ago, I overheard two “major” critics discussing how bad they assumed the “Kushner polemic” was going to be. They even pre-dissed Meryl Streep. Three hours later, these two fools were standing with everyone else. Meryl and the polemic had won them over. But that rarely happens.

I deliberately digress…

At this performance of Cry Baby, the audience whooped and hollered and had a grand time from the rousing and funny opening segment, “The Anti-Polio Picnic” to the randy “Watch Your Ass,” to the dynamic “Screw Loose,” in Act One. By the end of Act Two, most of the patrons were on their feet applauding and cheering.

Over five weeks later, on April 25, 2008, the pre-performance climate was pretty chilly, with whispers and curious looks. Someone who may have been a producer was greeting people and being given condolences of sorts. “I’m so sorry. It’s such a shame.” As the music began, the lack of enthusiasm was palpable. After the first few musical numbers, applause seemed like a chore. Oh, and did I mention that this happened to be the first performance after the Ben Brantley review published in the New York Times?

Brantley had made it quite clear that you’d be a fool to like or appreciate Cry Baby on any level and, like sheep, the audience listened to that great sage of the Great White Way--Mr. all-knowing, that most-perspicacious oracle of the modern theatre. Now, I want to say up front that I do truly admire Brantley and I enjoy reading his reviews, but, of late, he is turning into exactly the kind of jaded, nasty and too-clever-for-his-own-good-with-his-own-poisonous-words type of critic that Frank Rich became in the late 80’s (Rich’s bizarre review of the brilliant Into the Woods proved he had become out of touch as far as I was concerned).

But I digress again…
Back to the post-mortem Cry Baby performance.

As the production proceeded, the audience seemed to fight their own desire to laugh and applaud but midway through Act Two, they began forgetting that they weren’t supposed to enjoy themselves and actually began having a good time. By the finale, they were ‘infected’ by the show in a most exuberant way. It was fascinating and a joy to watch the transformation.

Now, I will say up front that Cry Baby is far from perfect. The songs tend to be derivative, although many of the lyrics are quite cutting and clever (specifically the song “Misery, Agony, Helplessness, Hopelessness, Heartache and Woe”). The direction meanders and, too often, lacks focus. The female lead is an underwritten cipher. In addition, many of the jokes are done-to-death cold war relics and the creators insisted on a “You Can’t Stop the Beat” rip-off as an end song (“Nothing Bad’s Ever Gonna Happen Again”) Finally, Harriet Harris’ climactic explanation monologue, while better than it was a month ago, is still a mess.

All that said there is much to recommend the show.

First and foremost is the sexy and mesmerizing choreography by Rob Ashford. His work is dynamic and the dancers are amazingly agile and limber. Dance Captain Spencer Liff, in particular, is an extraordinary hyper-kinetic presence you cannot look away from. And “Jailyard Jubilee” is a terrific example of how good dancing can move along the plot as well as entertain.

The performances are all quite good and a few are better than good. James Snyder, as the title character, is no Johnny Depp, but then who is? And back when Depp did the film he was still trying to unload his 21 Jump Street image, so even he wasn’t Johnny Depp yet. Snyder is charismatic and does a more than capable job carrying the weight of the nonconformist world on his shoulders. Harriet Harris mugs and camps it up to hilarious heights. And Alli Mauzey delivers the show’s funniest performance as Cry Baby’s thundering loon of a stalker. Mauzey easily steals all her scenes.

Hairspray comparisons cannot be overlooked; yet I feel Cry Baby is grittier than Hairspray and it’s satiric elements are more biting. The music may not be as memorable but the lyrics have more to say. And the show is sexy; let no one tell you it isn’t (as a certain critic did in his pan…)

Perhaps the watering down of Waters is a bit distressing but for me there’s a good enough blend here of his nastier-side with his desire for the sweet and wholesome--as long as he’s also poking fun at it. Cry Baby does just that. It satirizes a time in this country when people were condemning anything and anyone who seemed un-American and different. To me the timeliness is pretty obvious as we are in grave danger of reliving that period all over again.

It’s a tough year for original musicals. Young Frankenstein is simply terrible. A Catered Affair gets points for ambition but falls short of any greatness. In the Heights is certainly spirited and enjoyable but also safe and saccharine. Only Xanadu works, in my opinion, for it achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve and it’s damn funny—but there is no new music.

Cry Baby has been unfairly maligned and should be recognized as one of the better Broadway musicals of the season.

Tickets $35.00-$120.00 $54.00 previews 212-307-4100

Marquis Theatre |1535 Broadway

Monday 8:00pm
Tuesday 8:00pm
Wednesday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Opens March 27, 2008
Open Run
St. James Theater

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

As an entertainment journalist and critic, I am hyper aware of the overuse of certain adjectives when describing a work you are taken with. Many of my colleagues, print and online, suffer from the same cyber-superlative-diarrhea- gushing I have been guilty of. Some shamelessly want to be quotable; others, like me, have pet words and phrases they love to reuse. I am promising right now that I will make a valiant effort to curb my “amazings” as well as my “astonishings” –but it will have to wait until after this particular review.

Every once in a decade or so, theatergoers are afforded the opportunity to witness a truly transcendent, instantly classic performance—the stuff legends are made of. The nature of live theatre and audience subjectivity is that often what is felt to be a great performance by one person is simply good or acceptable by another’s standards. Sometimes, though, tragedy smiles at comedy, and there can be no denying sheer magic has taken place before everyone’s eyes.

There aren’t enough praise-infused adjectives in all existing thesauruses to describe how right Patti LuPone gets it in the new revival of Gypsy. Fresh on the heels of the celebrated Encores! performance, LuPone completely commands the stage as she richly redefines a classic character who has been embodied by some of the best in the business (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Betty Buckley and Bernadette Peters, to name the best of the best).

I am a proud and true LuPoner, meaning I have seen everything the woman has done on Broadway since my parents brought me to the Broadway theatre in the early 80’s to experience Evita when I was a wee lad. I was bitten by the Patti bug and have been a fan and admirer ever since. Over the years I have seen her in: Anything Goes; Oliver; The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (lasted less than a week—but I loved it); The Old Neighborhood; Patti LuPone on Broadway; Noises Off; Master Class and last year’s revival of Sweeney Todd.

At Encores, a few months ago, I was blown away by LuPone’s Mama Rose. It was a tour de force from her barreling onto the stage and shouting: “Sing out, Louise!” to the closing moments, LuPone was a restless tornado for three solid hours. She was the personification of the old adage “give ‘em what they want.” She certainly did as each number proved a show stopper. Her energy seemed limitless.

The absolute genius of the Broadway performance, and how it differs from Encores, has everything to do with how carefully modulated her steps are now. There is an amazing and calculated build to her fury…to that ultimate tour de force (‘Rose’s Turn’). LuPone now shows us the character’s arc. She painstakingly develops Mama Rose from the unrelenting stage mother to the frustrated and angry star wannabe she actually is. By the end of act one, you may find yourself disappointed in her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” because she is not singing the shit out of the song. But be patient, because there’s an urgent reason for that. Mama’s on a journey. She’s not a Broadway belter blowing her wad, wad after wad, with each musical number. She is a real, hurting, breathing theatre person filled with idiosyncrasies and foibles. She is not just a stage mother, she is everyone who once had a dream and felt they, for whatever reason, could not pursue it.

By the time this Mama Rose is ready for her turn, she infuses that (literal) eleven o’clock number with all the angst and regret and desperation that’s been building all night long. She manages to strip away layers of the character throughout the show until she is rawness personified. And we are lucky enough to have been along for the ride. The final image of her reaching up at the footlights trying desperately to catch a moment for herself: “For me,” is a moment that I will never forget. Patti LuPone is diva Broadway personified, but she is also one of the best stage actresses of our generation. She has earned her place in the pantheon and deserves every type of accolade possible for her turn. Pun rightfully intended.

But let’s not forget she is also blessed with an amazing cast.

Boyd Gaines is the definitive Herbie. It’s a pleasure to see him as a virile and sensitive character as opposed to the sad schmo cartoons from the past Herbie canon. Gaines’ Herbie may be henpecked but he chooses to be out of devotion to his Rose, not because he’s a silly shlub everyone walks all over. And the sexual tension between LuPone and Gaines is palpable. (LuPone, it should be stated, is also the sexiest Mama Rose ever.)

The exquisite Laura Benanti perfectly underplays Louise so that when she finally finds herself and emerges as the notorious Gypsy Rose Lee in Act Two, we are thunderstruck and mesmerized. She has become a tigress before our eyes and
we believe the transformation wholeheartedly.

The dynamic Leigh Ann Larkin’s angry and resentful Dainty June is a perfect match for Benanti’s forgiving Louise and they both bring the house down with “If Mama Was Married.” It’s a moment that bonds the sibs in an extraordinary and poignant way.

Another non-LuPone showstopper is “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” with a hilarious Alison Fraser as Tessie Tura and the scene stealing Marily Caskey as Electra, the oldest woman in burlesque!

Gypsy, originally staged in 1959, features a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Style and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (one of the last times he would agree to writing lyrics only). At ninety years old, Mr. Laurents has directed this current production—quite masterfully.

I have always had my problems with Gypsy. I also know that admitting that will get me in trouble since it’s considered one of the great American musicals. And I have had a rocky journey believing that. The Sam Mendes version, five years ago, had me liking it more than I ever have. And Bernadette Peter’s revisionist Mama Rose was a joy to behold.

This production, however, inches me closer to understanding the power of the story. It’s a quintessentially American a story that defines a time and an art form (Vaudeville) that has long since vanished but has influenced every other art form that followed. It is also about the pursuit of the American dream—in this case: stardom. It almost has a Nathanial West quality about it. And Rose is the ultimate American monster mother who dreamed big…FOR her children, but really FOR herself.

Still, there are certain songs I felt never worked (“All I Need Now is the Girl,” “Little Lamb”) and one major fault I have always had with the book; the fact that June is never brought back in Act Two. I still feel this was a misstep in the original book and would have added so much. Regardless, there are no perfect musicals (except for Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George…), but this Gypsy comes quite close.

Last year, I boldly stated that Meryl Streep’s performance in Mother Courage was among the truly great stage performances of all time. Add Ms. LuPone’s Mama Rose to that very small but priceless list.

Laura Careless, Yeva Glover and Davon Rainey in
The Judgment of Paris
Photo Credit Steven Schreiber

The Judgment of Paris

Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
May 9 - 31, 2008
303 Bond Street

Reviewed by Katharine Heller

Click here for William S. Gooch's Interview with Comapny XIV's Artistic Director, Austin Mc Cormick

When I heard the words "erotically charged dance show", I knew what I was doing on my Friday night. Picturing either a theatrical train wreck or a glorious amalgam of sexy music and choreographed nudity, my interest was further piqued when I found out the production was at Company XIV's new theater space in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

The Judgment of Paris not only fulfilled, but exceeded my sexpectations (sorry- had to). Based on the Greek myth of the same name, the production weaves between the classic story and present day themes, including eclectic music from Vivaldi to Marlene Dietrich.

For those of you who fell asleep during Greek myth day in High School, I'll refresh your memory- Zeus asked Paris to choose who was the most beautiful goddess- Hera, Athena or Aphrodite. Each of the goddesses try to bribe him in their own way, Aphrodite being the most successful as she offered him the very lovely, and very married, Helen of Troy. This is what started the Trojan War. Choreographer Austin McCormick, who also performs with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet of New York, creates a world where this story becomes not only relevant, but dangerously sexy.

Gioia Marchese, Yeva Glover, Samantha Ernst, Laura Careless and
Davon Rainey in The Judgment of Paris
Photo Credit Steven Schreiber

Throughout the show we are introduced to the very able cast of six performers who take on multiple roles. They take full advantage of the dressing room that is the set and set the mood for the tragic love story with absurd can can numbers and song. The incredible and versatile Toby Burns plays all of the male roles with nothing but a costume piece or two to differentiate the character, yet is so convincing in his characterizations that a change isn't even necessary. As the show progresses past the meeting of the lovers the show becomes Helen's, played by the gorgeous Samantha Ernst. Her tragic story is compared to other tragic women of our time, as dancers Laura Careless, Yeva Glover and Davon Rainey evoke images of Marilyn Monroe and Bridget Bardot. Gioia Marchese is incredible as the powerful Aphrodite who assists in her downfall, playing her as a twisted and manipulative Madam running a bordello.

I don't want to reveal too much as I think this production needs to be experienced with a fresh and open mind. I will tell you I left a bit exhausted- not only from watching the frenetic yet controlled energy of the entire production, but because of the intensity of the story itself. Company XIV should be proud of this production that at times can seem choppy, but manages to pull itself together to create a world that is dangerous, at times funny, and yes, ridiculously sexy.

Performances run May 9 - 31, 2008 in a limited engagement at 303 Bond Street (between Union & Sackett) in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The show plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students and can be purchased online at or by calling 212-868-4444. For more information on Company XIV visit

303 Bond Street| Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
Between Union & Sackett


Legally Blonde - The Musical
Wednesday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00PM
Friday 8:00PM
Saturday 2:00PM & 8:00PM
Sunday 2:00PM, 7:00PM & 8:00PM
The Palace Theatre

Reviewed by Katharine Heller

To compare Legally Blonde the Musical to great theater would be like putting a Twinkie up against the Miso Black Cod at Nobu. But goddamn it, sometimes, nothing beats a good Twinkie.

Based on the box office hit of the same title, Legally Blonde rarely strays from the original script. For the five of you who are not familiar with the premise of the story, I'll sum it up. Beautiful Delta Nu sorority sister Elle Woods is crushed when her beau Warner dumps her before leaving for Harvard Law. Elle applies and gets
accepted to Harvard (even though I would assume the application deadline had passed- I never quite got that part, although the rest of the story is perfectly plausible) in hopes to win back her man. Long story short she realizes she doesn't need Warner, makes some new friends and solves a murder case in court along the way.

The stage translation is exactly what you would expect, complete with spunky dance numbers, an energetic young cast and tunes so catchy I might consider quarantine for a good few hours after the show. I still cannot get the opening number, aptly called "Omigod, You Guys!" out of my head. No, seriously, it's pretty frustrating.

The fresh faced and immensely talented Laura Bell Bundy as Elle carries the show with grace and confidence. Right behind her are Richard H. Blake as the arrogantly hilarious Warner and Christian Borle as her sweet love interest, Emmett. The obvious cast standouts however are Chico as her faithful Chihuahua, Bruiser, and Chloe the Bulldog as Rufus. (Rufus is the dog of Elle's friend Paulette played
by the singly named human, Orfeh.)

The amusing book, written by Heather Hach with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, includes other engaging numbers such as the infamous, "Bend and Snap!" and "Gay or European". With crisp direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, this family friendly show is a lot of fun. Just make sure those you see it with have a sweet tooth.

Tickets $40.00-$110.00 212-307-4747

Palace Theatre | 1554 Broadway

(Clockwise from right) John Dossett, Aaron Tveit,
Van Hughes and Curtis Holbrook
Photo Credit Joan Marcus

Tuesday 8:00pm
Wednesday 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 2:30pm & 8:00pm
Sunday 2:30pm & 7:30pm
June 3-22, 2008
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The 2004 motion picture, Saved!, wanted to be a scathing black comedy skewing the religious right. In actuality, the movie was a mildly diverting satire with some good performances, especially by Mandy Moore, Eva Amurri and, surprisingly, Macaulay Culkin.

Now, as is the current trend on and off Broadway, films---even the flimsiest of films like Legally Blonde, are being transformed into full-blown musicals and Playwrights Horizons, one of the most respected theatre groups in NYC, has taken on Saved!--and tossed away the exclamation point…

The good news is that, unlike Legally Blonde (and the horror that is Young Frankenstein), the creative team behind Saved improve on it’s original medium source, delving deeper than surface satire while respecting their bevy of zany characters.

The central character in the story, Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger), along with her uber-Christian BFF Hilary Faye (Mary Faber) and the morally-challenged Lana (Juliana Ashley Hansen) rule the American Eagle Christian High School. But matters prove complicated when Mary’s boyfriend, Dean (Aaron Tveit) reveals that he is gay. Mary goes to great lengths to help “save” her beau once Jesus appears to her (in two very effective moments) and, soon enough, all hell breaks loose.

Much joy can be found in Saved, spiritedly directed by Gary Griffin (The Color Purple), and as funny as it is, it is also quite poignant.

The book, by John Dempsey, retains the hilarity of the film dialogue but goes further in developing story as well as characterization.

The songs, by Dempsey and Michael Friedman are admirably introspective at times and infectiously rousing at other times. A few of the songs have a definite Spring Awakening feel to them; especially Patrick’s number, “Make It True.” The score highlight, “I’m Not the Man I Thought I’d Be,” finds the four leading male characters (Pastor Skip, Patrick, Roland and Dean) all wondering who they wanted to be versus who they’ve become.

It’s a far better original score than any show that opened on Broadway this past season.

Scott Pask’s scenic design is a bizarre blend of stained glass and psychedelia meets Laugh-In and it works magnificently.

The show’s buoyantly blessed with a sensational cast. So many standouts including: the great John Dosset; a divine Daniel Zaitchik and the energetic Van Hughes. But I will single out a handful of standouts from among the glorious ensemble.

Mary Faber is so effective as Hilary Faye it’s frightening, but she takes her way beyond the stereotype. Even when you want to kick her in the face, which is often, Faber forces you to feel sorry for her because she truly believes she’s doing the right thing. Her delusional number, “Heaven” is hilarious and heartbreaking.

Aaron Tveit gives a powerful performance (vocally and otherwise) as Dean. It would have been easy to play him defiantly or as a sad soul, but Tveit manages to show Dean’s vulnerability and confusion. I do wish that Dempsey had given Dean one real scene with Mitch before they show up at Prom together. It would have been much more potent.

Curtis Holbrook, fresh off of stealing scenes in the splendiferous Xanadu, brings his charm and exuberance to the wheelchair’d Roland. Holbrook is a dynamo, even when stuck in a chair for two and a half hours and his Roland is a delight, whether flirting and sparring with Cassandra (Morgan Weed), sitting awkwardly in a cowsuit (loved it!) or magically strutting out of his wheelchair for one brief, fantasy moment (in Hilary Faye’s head in “Heaven”).

The amazing Julia Murney is never onstage enough and I mean that in a broad context as well. Murney is a true musical theatre star and should be originating leading roles on and off-Broadway. This is not to take away from her extraordinary work in Saved or her choice to do it. I applaud that because good material, obviously, outweighs the size of the part for her. And she brings her terrific acting chops as well as her unbelievable vocal talents to the part of Lillian, Mary’s preoccupied mom.

The true revelation in Saved is newcomer Morgan Weed as the sassy and sarcastic Cassandra. Yes, she has the best, laugh out loud lines (“If Jesus really loved me, you’d have cancer!”) but Weed shows us an outcast who has no problem being an outcast, but can come to the rescue of other character’s without any judgment. Weed is an acting force to be reckoned with and I am predicting she will have a fabulous future in theatre, film and whatever medium she wants to work in.

Saved is not pointedly nasty towards Christianity, it’s simply intolerant of intolerance. And there’s no better message than that in these tremendously intolerant times.

Tickets $70.00 212-279-4200 or

Playwrights Horizons |416 West 42nd Street




Steve Sater & Duncan Sheik’s
Spring Awakening
Monday 8:00pm
Wednesday 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Sunday 2:00pm & 7:00pm
Eugene O'Neill Theatre

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

When I first heard that Spring Awakening was moving to Broadway, I was a bit concerned. Would such an intimate show lose all potency and urgency in a big Broadway house?

Well the answer, thank the theatre gods, is a resounding no!

I am elated to report that this exciting, enthralling and oddly-enchanting production thrives at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. And it’s improved greatly from the version I saw this past summer.

It’s still audacious and ambitious but it now has a wonderful sense of humor as well. The original production took itself a wee too seriously. But the gifted director Michael Mayer has found the perfect blend of comedy and pathos here. And it doesn’t hurt to have the extraordinary Christine Estabrook on board.

Based on Frank Wedekind’s highly controversial 1891 play The Awakening of Spring (not produced until 1906), and adapted by Steven Sater (book & lyrics) and rock star Duncan Sheik (music), the ‘play with songs’ (quoted by Sheik) focuses on adolescent schoolboys and girls at the age of sexual and spiritual awakening. The central figures being the good looking, wave-making Melchior (Jonathan Groff), his sweet, naive girlfriend Wendla (Lea Michele) and his troubled, oddball friend Moritz (John Gallagher, Jr.) as well as a slew of other angst-ridden, sexually-stirred, hormonally-bonkers characters.

Spring Awakening is mesmerizing to the eye--and ears. It’s a deliberately hard-edged visual and aural cacophony of the evils of repression--religious and societal (usually one begets the other).

The richly-rewarding anachronistic nature of the work adds to its originality and freshness. Although the piece is set at the turn of the last century, the actors whip out mikes and perform raw, intensely-modern rock songs. The device achieves a Brechtian break in the ‘period’ action. It’s as if the audience has warp-sped a century to a modern day rock concert. But the songs are the inner monologues and emotional mind states of Everykid. And that is why it works so well.

Sheik’s music is extraordinary, whether it be a heart-wrenching ballad (”The Song of Purple Summer”) or an angry rant (the fantastically fun “Totally Fucked”) and are matched by Sater’s intelligent lyrics and by the extraordinary ensemble’s vitality and conviction in song as well as performance. These guys were great last summer. They’re even better and seem more assured now.

“The Bitch of Living”, in particular, raises the levels through the rafters!

Melchior is that perfect blend of youth: a walking sack of sexual energy mixed with smarts and savvy and Jonathan Groff brilliantly brings him to life...and to despair as is necessary. Groff has a command now that is dazzling to behold.

Moritz is a tad more difficult since, as written he goes from frustration and confusion to doom very quickly, yet Gallagher, Jr. transcends the trappings and let’s us inside the loopy/scared mind of this tragic hero (especially in Act Two’s Don’t Do Sadness”).

Michele’s Wendla still feels too tentative as Wendla but she conveys naiveté much better and has an amazing voice. Lauren Pritchard’s Ilse still brims with sex appeal and evoked the perfect combo of tumult and rebellion. And king of smarm and charm, Jonathan B. Wright nails his role down perfectly as the gay survivor about to feast on his prey. His self-pleasure moment is a riotous combo of delight and embarrassment. Special mention to Gideon Glick as the adorable Ernst.

Newly added cast members Stephen Spinella, and especially, Christine Estabrook give the show a great lift as well.

Beyond the masterful score, near-perfect performances and deft direction, I had
a problem last time with feeling emotionally caught up in the lives of the characters. This, too, has changed. I DID feel passionately drawn into their worlds and I did care about their fates.

Spring Awakening is a triumph that should be seen by anyone who cares about the future of musical theatre.

Tickets $66.25-$111.25 at

Eugene O'Neill Theatre | 230 West 49th Street | New York, NY 10036

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

[title of show]
Monday 8:00pm
Tuesday 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sunday 3:00pm & 7:00pm
Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Self-reflexive. Self-indulgent. Self-aware. Self-referential. Self-reverential. [title of show] is all of the above. And that, dear theatergoers, is a very good thing.

[title of show] was masterminded by it’s two male leads, the bizarre but winning duo of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, both gay, both theatre aficionados, both struggling artists.

Jeff is the hunky, well-spoken, perfectly groomed, gay eye-candy. Hunter is the shlubby, ill-grammarred (that one is deliberate) Oscar to Jeff’s Felix. Hunter also happens to be the book writer for the long-awaited spoof Silence! The Musical, a lunatic satire on the Oscar-winning film Silence of the Lambs.

These two had the crazy idea of writing a show about writing a show. But that’s not the crazy part since it’s been done to death. The crazy part is that they would chronicle their journey as faithfully as possible, right down to the mundane minutiae-filled moments and allow themselves to break character as well as the fourth wall and comment on these moments. And, for the most part, the execution of this daring notion, works marvelously.

Bowen, in particular, has fantastic comic timing and his constantly correcting Bell is a hilarious running gag that never gets tired.

But the dynamic sho-mo duo aren’t alone onstage; they are joined by the uber-odd but hilarious Susan Blackwell and the more traditionally appealing Heidi Blickenstaff, who also happens to have a unique and astoundingly good voice.

The quartet have a wild time tearing apart the structure of musical-comedy and then putting it back together in it’s own unique way. At one point, Bell turns to his fellow actors and, with an understood wink to the audience, announces that the scene they are playing feels too long. In a second there’s an instant blackout. It’s difficult not to enjoy the style, although it does wear a tad thin after a while.

The book is sometimes clever for the sake of clever and the references are sometimes terribly obscure, but so what? Both those things make you feel closer to the characters because we feel just how much they are immersed in their craft, their art…the theatre. For the record, the Into the Woods references had me in stitches!

The songs erratically range from the forgettable (some of the earlier numbers, I forget which!) to the inspirational (“Die Vampire Die”) to the profound (“Nine People’s Favorite Thing”) to the sublime (“A Way Back to Then”). Not a bad collection, actually.

The show asks the key question: Will audience bother to shell out a hundred bucks for a musical with no real set, costumes or stars? And a song asks: “Is art a springboard for fame?” It will be interesting to see just how long [title of show] runs and whether it will be able to build the kind of audience Spring Awakening (an unlikely but bracing hit) has managed to.

What saves [title of show] from being a gimmicky, theatre-geek-appeal-only show is the last quarter of the play where everything turns quite serious and scarily real. The grit in these moments leading up to the finale bring the show home, so to speak, and give the audience a glimpse into how difficult it can be to follow your dream and persevere until you are lucky enough to be living that dream.

[title of show] stands as one of the most original musical to open along the Great White Way in years. And while it’s not as mesmerizing and tantalizing as the innovative and groundbreaking Passing Strange, it’s extraordinary and refreshing in it’s own way. And that is reason enough to celebrate!

Ticket $36.50-$101.50 $201.50 Premium - Phone 212-239-6200 or

Lyceum Theatre 149 West 45th Street

Larry Kunofsky's
What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends
Monday 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 8:00pm
Sunday 2:00pm
Closes on August 9, 2008
Lion Theatre

Reviewed by Allison Ford

Are all friendships and social circles just a form of mind control and cultism; meant to prevent dissention in the ranks while giving members the illusion of intimacy and support? Playwright Larry Kunofsky seems to think so. His new play What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends espouses the theory that all social relationships are based on a rigid system of unspoken rankings and obsessive score-keeping, flouted at your own risk.

In What To Do…, Matt, a proud loner, tries to hook up with Celia, the queen bee of a tightly-controlled cult of Friends, who have secret rituals and gatherings from which they exclude all but a privileged few. Is Matt a friend or a Friend? Is this a party or a Party? Can these two crazy kids work it out in this mixed-up technological world of ours? Even though their relationship is purported to be the central theme of the show, it’s rarely addressed, and only provides a few moments of dramatic tension when there’s nothing else going on. Despite what Kunofsky may have intended, the play is really about isolation and the inherent façade of togetherness in social groups. Matt joins up with the Friends, but their relationships are all built on a shaky foundation of rules and rankings, and not any real affection or intimacy. Many of the characters have the pretense of intimacy in public, only to shun it in private, such as James, who won’t even help change a tire unless there’s friendship points in it for him, or Celia, who despite being ranked as everyone’s “#1,” relies on anonymous Craigslist hookups. These people aren’t friends, they’re just using each other to soothe their own warped egos.

But isn’t that what all friendships are about, at heart? Kunofsky has hit on an interesting nugget of truth in the play, but it almost seems like an accident. Enid, the quirky narrator, is constantly ridiculed and ostracized by the other characters, even though she is the only one to offer any actions that qualify as “friendlike.” Was that on purpose? Her constant jockeying for admission into a club that, by the end, doesn’t seem so great to anyone, is at times painful and hilarious, and leaves the audience wondering “What’s the point of friendships, really?” Matt was happier when he had none, and Celia was happier before she realized that she had none. Everyone in the play was better off existing within the oppressive confines of the totalitarian regime of the Friends, rather than trying to forge actual relationships. Is this what Kunofsky intended the audience to think?
Do the characters even learn anything at the end? It’s hard to say, since they don’t go through any visible changes. The conclusion of the play feels like it was chopped off of a different show and tacked onto this one by mistake. Kunofsky ignores all of the questions he’s raised, and instead ends his play with a trite, blithely hopeful moment that renders the preceding two hours a moot point. He answers questions that were never explicitly asked, and ignores the ones he did ask.

The problem with What To Do… is that Kunofsky doesn’t know which questions he’s raised, so the overall effect is muddled. The actors are more than capable; funny, versatile, and well-cast. The script, however, doesn’t make enough use of their talent. Much of the dialogue is clever and snappy, but lines such as “emotional socialism leads to emotional despotism” are totally out-of-place, and it’s unclear whether the actors themselves even have any idea what they’re talking about. What To Do… suffers from the common theatrical ailment of being too wrapped up in its own concept to bother with things like the development of characters or plots. Who are these people, and why should the audience care about them? Are the Friends really a secret society, or is that just a badly-explained metaphor? And what about the secret hot tub parties…were those real, or just a figment of Enid’s imagination?

Director Jacob Krueger (The Matthew Shepard Story) and the talented cast have done an admirable job of transforming Kunofsky’s words into something watchable and engaging. The play, despite its technical flaws, is still funny and charming at times, and the use of direct narration is effective at minimizing the clunky exposition. The issues at the heart of the play (whether or not they are the issues that Kunofsky intended) are real and interesting, and the downfall of What To Do…is simply that it does give them the examination they warrant. Or is that another conscious choice by the playwright? As one character says, “Sometimes the things we never talk about are the truest things of all.”

Tickets $18.00 212-279-4200

Lion Theatre| 410 W. 42nd Street


Tuesday @ 8PM
Wednesday @ 2PM & 8PM
Thursday @ 8PM
Friday @ 8PM
Saturday @ 2PM & 8PM
Sunday @ 3PM
Opened July 10, 2007
Helen Hayes Theater

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Okay, how bloody tiresome has it become for the Broadway theatregoer to have to withstand yet another screen-to-stage translation? In recent years, we’ve had to suffer through the abysmally bad (Saturday Night Fever, Footloose) and the not-so-bad-but-why-the-frig-bother (The Wedding Singer, Legally Blonde). And then there’s Disney, in the ‘ you own the world so just stop it already’ category. All this appropriation has shown a complete lack of originality and proven producers have no faith in the audience.

Of course, no one has tackled the bad Hollywood movie musical adaptation yet. Then again, exactly how many bad Hollywood movie musicals can actually boast having a terrific score? Not that many. Certainly very few in the last thirty years. Actually one. A notorious debacle from 1980 known as Xanadu.

Now, I have to admit to having my own personal love/hate relationship with the screen mess known as Xanadu. Every time I watch it (and yes, I have watched it many times) I keep waiting for it to be different. I keep wanting the performances to improve and I keep praying someone will come along and actually DIRECT and CHOREOGRAPH those great songs (written by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar) in some way that isn’t catastrophically impossible to watch. Alas, I am always disappointed.

Yet I keep revisiting Xanadu. Why? I have never quite figured it out. It isn’t even a very campy film--the kind that’s so bad it’s good. But it does feature Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly...and a tiny spark of a good idea...and have I mentioned the fantastic score?

When I read about plans to bring it to Broadway, I thought: “well, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as the film.” Then I read that Douglas Carter Beane, thanks to the dogged persistence of producer Robert Ahrens, had been cajoled into writing the book. At that point, I knew it would have some merit. And I knew that if anyone could tap into the reason why so many folks are Xanadu-obsessed, it was Beane. After all he was responsible for the brilliantly biting and insightful play, The Little Dog Laughed, the funniest work to hit Broadway in the last few years. (and of course it closed prematurely!) My hopes were high.

Then casting problems followed as well as the leading male (James Carpinello, the only good thing in Saturday Night Fever) being injured while skating and having to be replaced. Was all this a sign?

I am elated to report that--Spring Awakening notwithstanding--Xanadu is the best musical currently running on Broadway! Actually, it’s the smartest and most entertaining musical to open in quite a long time!

How could this be, you ask?

It’s fairly simple. Assemble the best creative team possible. Cast actors who are working at the top of their game. Shake. Stir. Shimmy. Skate!

Part of the heavenly ‘magic’ on display at the Helen Hayes Theatre has everything to do with a keen awareness of the tongue-in-cheeky satire at play. But no one ever condescends to the audience. Quite the contrary, they invite the audience in on all the jokes (and they are legion).

Beane has written an intelligent, witty and clever script and manages to work several miracles in the process. Firsty, he remains faithful to the original film while drastically improving the story, making spendid script alterations and adding much-needed character dimensions. He creates a believable, old-fashioned love story where the audience roots for Kira and Sonny--even though she’s a Greek daughter-of-Zeus pretending to be an Australian and he’s a mere mortal AND struggling artist.

Beane also does justice to each and every one of his cast of characters, so rare in a musical, especially one that clocks in at ninety minutes! Finally, he has penned a ton of ovation-inspiring one-liners that will have you howling with laughter.

The tremendously talented director, Christopher Ashley (along with choreographer Dan Knechtges), ingeniously finds enormously entertaining ways to stage those wonderful ditties mentioned earlier (so poorly rendered onscreen). From the delightful opening number, “I’m Alive” to the sensational title tune at the end, Xanadu explodes with an exuberant and euphoric energy and life, most musicals would kill for.

A new Broadway star is born in Kerry Butler. She is absolutely remarkable as Kira/Clio. Having seen her shine in Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors and the devilishly delightful Bat Boy, I was still wholly unprepared for her performance here. She has perfect comic-timing and displays so much verve and charisma, you will truly have a tough time taking your eyes off of her. She also happens to be quite stunning. Her Kira is a rich parody of Newton-John infused with some daffy Nicole Kidman, yet she creates a loveable, complicated and quite memorable character that is ultimately her own. She also happens to have a powerhouse voice and is particularly divine singing “Magic” and “Suspended in Time.” Butler fascinates right up until the curtain call.

When you are able to look away from Butler, Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up) provides delicious eye-candy, but so much more than that. From his very first bit of dialogue, he seduces the audience and endears himself as a loveable lump of a hunk, wide-eyed and earnest. It’s a fabulous performance, filled with comedic gem moments. Jackson is also an excellent songman, tearing the roof off with the showstopping “Don’t Walk Away.” And, boy, does he look good in those denim shorts. Yikes!

Tearing through the production like two hungry tigresses are stage vets Mary Testa (as Melpomene, muse of Tragedy) and Jackie Hoffman (as Calliope, muse of Epics). These two scenery-chewing vamps have a bloody blast with their parts. The duo’s rendition of “Evil Woman” is rousing and ‘nasty’, in the best sense of that word. Testa’s turn is particularly Tony-courting.

The rest of the ensemble seem to be having the time of their lives as well with Curtis Holbrook providing a killer tap dance during “Whenever You’re Away from Me”. Veteran stage actor, Tony Roberts has his own fun in the Gene Kelly role and really impresses as Zeus. One of the oh-so-may highlights involves both the song “Have You Never Been Mellow” and the Harryhausen film Clash of the Titans. I can’t say more, lest I spoil a classic musical theatre moment.

So, what is it that Beane and the Xanadu team are able to do what the original filmmakers couldn’t? Because...they have found the magic in Xanadu as well as the irony and the joy. They tell a simple love story in a complex and interesting way. They comment on art and the creative gifts that are given to us. And they show us a damn good time while doing it. What more could we ask for? Okay, maybe just ninety minutes more, because once you see this show, you will want to see it again...

Xanadu Tickets $51.25-$111.25 Buy tickets online - Phone 212-239-6200 & 800-432-7250

Helen Hayes |240 W. 44th Street




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