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New York City - Theatre

Photo Credit: Gabe Evans

Edward Albee's
The American Dream and The Sandbox
Tuesday 7:00pm
Wednesday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Opened April 1, 2008
Closes May 19, 2008
The Cherry Lane Theatre

Starring: Judith Ivey; Lois Markle; and George Bartenieff.

Reviewed by Bryan Close

The last few years have been good for Edward Albee fans, a group which, if there were any justice, would include all theater lovers. New York stages have been crowded with revivals of the master's greatest hits, while Albee, now eighty, has continued to generate impressive new work (his newest play opens next month).

Now The Cherry Lane Theater, Albee's original artistic home, takes its turn with revivals of The American Dream and The Sandbox, directed by Albee himself.

The American Dream is a savage send-up of middleclass family values and mores. The ostensibly polite Mommy (the remarkable Judith Ivey) and Daddy, with the help of an inconvenient truth-telling Grandma (they sometimes forget whose mother she really is) and two mystery visitors, expose themselves as shockingly hollow people. The production is less than perfect, in part because the first play feels a bit dated, but even if it were far worse than it is, it would still be required viewing to see Albee stage two of his important early pieces.

See it soon, though, because rumor has it that Ivey is leaving the production before it closes. As the chipper, soulless Mommy, Ivey gives a master class on hypocrisy and insipidity. You've heard of the banality of evil? Ivey and Albee shine a bright light on the evil of banality. George Bartenieff (Daddy), Lois Markle (Grandma) and Kathleen Butler (Mrs. Barker) are all distinguished performers with lots of Albee on their resumes. But while each has his or her moments, none of them is in quite the same class as Ivey.

The American Dream, which helped establish Albee's reputation as an absurdist, may be the more complex of the two plays, and its themes of childlessness, adoption and the lies we tell ourselves to survive resonate throughout Albee's work. But in this production at least, The Sandbox is more fully realized. A companion piece to The American Dream featuring three of the same characters, The Sandbox is a surrealist depiction of Grandma's funeral and death.

Compared with Albee's greatest work, The Sandbox is fairly slight. But it packs a lot of laughter, wisdom and pathos into a very entertaining fifteen minutes that make up a perfect coda to the evening. Markle shines here as the likeable Grandma, whose uncommon sense helps us feel a little better about our species.

But Although Grandma has the last word, Ivey's wickedly smug Mommy gets the last laugh – she's the one who's likely to show up in our dreams. They won't be pleasant.

Tickets $51.00-$61.00 212-239-6200 800-432-7250 and

The Cherry Lane Theatre |38 Commerce Street


Hillary Bettis'
American Girls
Wednesday through Friday at 8 pm
Saturday at 2 and 8 pm
Sunday at 5 pm
Previews Start Thursday April 3rd
Opening Sunday April 6th
45th Street Theater

Starring: Hillary Bettis and Kira Sternbach

Reviewed by Bryan Close

With American Girls, now playing at the 45th Street Theater, a surprising and original new voice is making its debut. I have no idea how old Hilary Bettis is, but she is certainly young enough to impress as a 14-year-old in her new play, skillfully directed by Jeff Cohen for Dog Run Rep, a company known for developing new talent. Alongside Bettis, Kira Sternbach is just as impressive as the play’s only other cast member.

The story of American Girls is deceptively simple. Katie and Amanda, two Jesus-loving Iowa girls fresh out of middle school, are obsessed with becoming famous, mainly, it seems, so that the local boys will love them and the local mean girls will suffer from crippling envy. To this end, they take a bus to “the city” to enter an amateur dance contest…

Do you see where this is going? If so, you’re way ahead of Katie (Sternbach), the sadder and more naïve of the two. Amanda (Bettis) is more comfortable with her looming strip club debut: “Jesus would not have made us as hot as we are if He didn’t have a plan for us,” she cajoles her wavering friend. “Seriously, we would be like blaspheming Him if we didn’t do this.”

Amanda is also more comfortable with her hypocrisy, and with using her slightly pathetic – and thoroughly heartbreaking – friend. When Katie expresses genuine pain and regret (Sternbach is wonderful here), at what she did in the “audition tape” the two made after the show with a “Hollywood talent agent,” Amanda manipulates her ruthlessly, twisting her words until Katie is the one apologizing and begging Amanda’s forgiveness. It is a great scene, and the young actresses navigate it expertly. And Amanda is just warming up. This girl is wasting her gifts as an evangelical – she has what it takes to be a first class Jesuit.

As for the strip scene, Cohen’s staging is brilliant – both comfortingly tasteful and alarmingly… um… effective. Let’s just say that our girls, dancing in silhouette (lighting by Evan Purcell), no longer look 14. Moments later, as Katie squeezes her pink backpack like a doll and Amanda slips in her retainer, they don’t even look that old. The contrast is shocking and powerful, and is underscored by Gail Cooper-Hecht’s youthfully accessorized costumes.

The set (Ryan Kravetz) is simple and clever, featuring a large megachurch-type cross and four video monitors. The video segments, designed by Greg Winslow, include home movies, the opening moments of the “audition” video which inevitably hits the Internet, a triumphant/redemptive TV talk show, etc. These tend to go on too long, as they lack the tautness of Bettis’s and Sternbach’s live performances.

According to Dog Run Rep’s press release, young Miss Bettis “draws on her experience working in the adult entertainment industry.” Hopefully, she is a lot older than she looks. At any rate, one can only admire the sophistication she employs in fashioning such a morally ambiguous story out of personal experience. It would have been so easy to make this merely an issue-of-the-week-type play railing against the sexual exploitation of young girls – a pretty easy target. Instead, Bettis gives us something more interesting – a world where the lines between victimhood and single-minded striving for glory are blurred.
American girls – and boys – haven’t heard the last from this impressive young writer.

Please note: American Girls has mature themes and may not be suitable for audiences under 14 years of age.

Tickets for all performances will be $55 and can be purchased by calling SMARTTIX at (212) 868-4444 or online at

There also will be two types of RUSH tickets available 30 minutes before curtain: General Public RUSH tickets for $25 and Student RUSH tickets, for students 21 years and younger, for $10. All RUSH tickets are Day of Performance, cash sales only, subject to availability.

The 45th Street Theater| 354 W. 45th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues).

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


Photo Credit Diego Bresani

Charles Mee's
Multidimensional Beach Party Play
Fire Island
Thursday - Saturday @ 8pm.
(Note: doors open at 6pm for a pre-show barbecue).
April 10 - May 3
3LD Art & Technology Center

Reviewed by Bryan Close

In an effort to simulate the environment of a beach party (or maybe just to win the audience’s goodwill), 3-Legged Dog, the theater company producing Charles Mee’s Fire Island at the 3LD Arts Center in lower Manhattan, begins the night by giving away food and drink.

I’m not too proud to say, they had me at free beer and cheeseburgers.
But then something unpleasant happens that undoes all the substantial goodwill generated by free beer, wine, sodas, cheeseburgers and hotdogs, and that spoils an otherwise perfect evening: the play itself, which is not good. Fire Island is a multimedia mish-mash with no real story, only a theme: relationships are hard, and they go wrong in all sorts of ways. As one character says, “The only way I can keep you is by making you feel anxious/ keeping you on edge/ making you feel I'm about to drop you/ so the way to have you/ is to reject you/ and if I don't reject you/ then I don't have you.”

It isn’t that there is nothing in Fire Island to admire. Mee is a smart, provocative playwright (the Signature Theatre has devoted its current season to him, no small honor), and snippets of his dialogue, such as a throw-away exchange about whether quince is an herb or a fruit, are entertaining. The production itself is ambitious, with more than 100 artists and technicians attempting to present the fleeting images of a beach weekend through fractured bits of conversation, both live and on enormous projection screens, which surround the playing/viewing space. Director Kevin Cunningham mixes audience and actors together in a crowded-beach-like jumble of folding chairs and blankets. A small army of techies and ASMs also double as performers. There is also a great band (more on them later), a woman walking around with an 8-inch chef’s knife, a sexy trumpet player and a scary-faced clown. Plus all that free food.

The whole, though, is a lot less than the sum of the parts, and in the absence of strong acting or a compelling story (or, really, any story), the conceit of seeing live actors perform alongside filmed images of them is only interesting for so long. And whatever the virtue of such close proximity with the actors, it is undone by having them all wear microphones, so even when they’re standing right next to us, their voices come to us from far away. (NB – Letting the AV kids run amok in the theater department rarely makes for a better play. In the hands of experts – The Wooster Group, for example – going tech-crazy can be part of interesting deconstructions of classics, but it seldom results in improved storytelling. Whoever first decided it was a good idea to mike actors in a live performance did the theater a terrible disservice. End of rant.)

There is one exception to this ocean of disappointment – the live band, led by Tuvan throat singer Albert Kuvezin, is great. Listening to Kuvezin growl out witty covers of rock standards like “Play with Fire” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in his hypnotizing Siberian glottal fry is far and away the highlight of the show. (If you’ve never heard this guy sing, his presence might be reason enough to go.)
But Kuvezin and his merry band (some of whom also double as actors) – though excellent – can’t save the play. On the night I saw the show two members of the audience near me fell asleep. Another man had a conversation on his cell phone. Behind me a group of drunks spent fifteen minutes talking louder than the actors. There is so much ambient electronic noise built into the production and so little to focus our attention, that it took a while to realize they weren’t actually part of the show.

The piece is only 90 minutes, but it feels much, much longer. The best line of the night came from the audience member sitting near me who, about 75 minutes in said to his companion, “I feel like I’ve been trapped at Fire Island all summer, and I’m just waiting for September so I can go home.”

Tickets are $30, $15 for students available at 212-352-3101 or

3LD Art & Technology Center|80 Greenwich Street
At Rector Street -- accessible from the 1 train at Rector Street)


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

James Lindenberg’s
The Set Up
Wednesday to Saturday evenings at 8 pm
Matinees Sunday at 3pm
Performances begin April 25th
Opening Night April 30th
Closes May 22, 2008
ArcLight Theatre

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The set up of The Set Up involves, well, a “set up.” (I’ll stop now!)

Quarrelsome couple Bill (Scott Cunningham) and Doris (Jennifer Danielle) decide to set their two friends up. Bill is quite excited while Doris is more apprehensive. The two unsuspecting, thirtysomething pals are Carolyn (Tara Westwood), a rebounding power-attorney, and Robert (James Lindenberg), a sweet elementary school teacher tired of the dating scene who happens to be bald ( and way too much is made of his baldness in the play).

A calamitous dinner follows where: Bill and Doris become more estranged; a randy waitress, Nina (Tracy Weiler), shamelessly hits on Robert and alienates Carolyn in the process and Doris inexplicably kisses Robert (sadly this interesting plot development is never really explained or pursued further).

Unfortunately, the play then meanders from one short filmic moment to the next, without really developing it’s characters or furthering the plot along enough until somewhere in the middle when Carolyn goes on a date with a sexy egotist named Tony (Major Dodge) and bumps into Robert, who happens to be on a date with…the quirky waitress, Nina.

By the play’s climax, Bill and Doris have hit the skids but seem to respect one another more and Robert and Carolyn have come to an understanding of sorts.

The Set Up doesn’t really say anything new about dating or aging or lonliness (is there anything new to be said about these themes anyway) but it’s certainly entertaining. I just wish more had been done with the interesting characters that Lindenberg so thoughtfully created. By the last scene, I finally wanted to get to know the four main characters. It struck me that too much time was spent on unnecessary scenes which could have been radically condensed giving way to a potential third act that could transform the work from a fun night out into something more. Both relationship arcs end exactly where they should begin.

As writer, director, co-producer and lead actor, Lindenberg wears far too many hats. Another director would have been key to bringing forth a stronger thematic focus. And a retooling of the script could make this work truly soar.

The kick-ass ensemble is the main reason to see The Set Up. Good solid work is done by the stunning Westwood, Danielle (after a clunky first scene, she blossoms into a blonde Eva Longoria) and Lindenberg (quite charming and vulnerable). Cunningham has a number of stand-out moments and makes the most of an underwritten part. But it’s Weiler and Dodge who steal every scene they are in and shine brightest. Weiler is hilarious playing every waitperson’s dream waitress, It’s a triumphant turn. Dodge’s appearance as the smarmy yet irresistible Tony (the second and best of three character’s he portrays) proves a refreshing tonic and breathes much needed life into the evening. Dodge’s comic timing is impeccable. I wanted to follow Tony and Nina out of the club and zoom in on the rest of their evening which I am certain would have been refreshingly blunt, sexually-charged and, perhaps, would have given us some insight into the perils and pleasures of dating in 2008.

Tickets for all performances will be $35 and can be purchased at or by calling (212) 352-3101 or 866-811-4111(toll free).

ArcLight Theatre |152 West 71st 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

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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