Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Kimberly Akimbo Wins Tony Award for Best Musical; 4 other Tonys

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 15:17

The phenomenal musical Kimberly Akimbo took home Tony gold Sunday night at the 76th Annual Awards Ceremony for the American Theatre Wing. The show was crowned Best Musical and its star, Victoria Clark, took home her second Tony award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical while Bonnie Milligan took the prize for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical. David Lindsay-Abaire also won the Tony for Best Book for Kimberly Akimbo and shared the award for Best Original Score with Jeanine Tesori. As described by the American Theater Wing:

Kimberly Akimbo is the new musical from Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire and Tony Award-winner Jeanine Tesori that follows Kim, a bright and funny Jersey teen, who happens to look like a 72-year-old lady. And yet her aging disease may be the least of her problems. Forced to maneuver family secrets, borderline personalities, and possible felony charges, Kim is determined to find happiness in a world where not even time is on her side.

Check out the Tony Award show performance of, “Anagram” from Kimberly Akimbo below:


Monday, March 28, 2022

Theater Review: The Bridges of Madison County The Musical at Axelrod PAC

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 01:59

The story of how a musical based on the beloved novel, The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller, came to be is an interesting one. The show got its start in 2013 at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, MA. A creative team including the legendary composer Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years) and writer Marsha Norman brought to stage an absolutely gorgeous musical that contained the core elements of the novel (with some amazingly smart alterations) but stripped much of the klutzy components of the film to life. The show would eventually make its way to Broadway in 2014, where powerhouse Kelli O’Hara would star as the female lead (Francesca) and Steven Pasquale its male lead. While the show sadly lived a short run, luckily, it has found itself as a genuine addition to the repertoire of American musical theater and lived on. Brown went on to win the Tony Award for Best Score. While nominated, unfortunately O’Hara would be robbed of the Tony for Best Actress. The American Theater Wing voters would right that wrong the following year when O’Hara won for the 2015 revival of The King & I).

I saw the original Broadway show shortly after it opened. The phenomenal voices of the leads meshed with the lush all-string and percussion orchestral score grabbed ahold of me; and the story of how two humans with similar confinements of their realities found a lifelong love for one another really made an impact. So when the closing notice was posted, I quickly purchased a ticket and flew to NYC so I could be in attendance at the show’s final performance. I also traversed the country with the Equity tour the original production spawned shortly after; and that production came close to rivaling what was seen on Broadway. Needless to say, Bridges has gone on to become one of my all-time favorite musicals. So when I learned that actor/director Hunter Foster, who played Francesca’s husband Bud in the original Broadway cast, was mounting a production of the show at the Axelrod Theater in Deal Park, NJ, there was no way I could miss it. And I’m so glad I didn’t!

While it’s nearly impossible to supplant the voices and talent of O’Hara and Pasquale, Kate Baldwin (Francesca Johnson) and Aaron Lazar (Robert Kincaid), the two leads here, are DAMN close! Baldwin, a two-time Tony Award nominee, has a voice that absolutely soars! She has perfected the nuances of her character with complete mastery. And not only does she blow the roof off with her incredibly angelic singing, she can really act. She personifies the hurt, longing, and subtle desperation of a woman trapped in a life of mundane monotony so well that when her steamy affair with handsome and rugged photographer Robert begins, the audience quickly suspends any judgment. Lazar also brings a sense of vulnerability to his character that has the same equating effect. His voice is incredibly powerful; and he (like Baldwin) has a solid comprehension of the necessity of dynamics to inflect the emotional journey of the characters through song.

The supporting cast is also superb. Bud Johnson is played by Broadway veteran Bart Shatto. He gets the opportunity to display his vocal and acting abilities in several numbers, punctuated by, “Something From A Dream” in Act I. And while Emily Pellecchia’s interpretation of Bud and Francesca’s daughter Carolyn is spot-on, Thomas Cromer’s performance of their son Michael is a little subdued for a masculine teen that is looking to rebel against the confines of rural Iowan life. The Johnson’s neighbor Marge is vital to the portrayal of the bond rural farming communities can have; and while Nikki Yarnell plays the role with a little less empathy than I’ve seen in previous productions of the show, she and Mark Megill (who plays her husband Charlie), are great. Perhaps the real standout among those playing supporting roles is Giuliano Augello, who brings down the house in her portrayal of Robert’s ex-wife Marian. Her performance of, “Another Life” was shockingly brilliant! Her light shines bright; and she fits in perfectly with the Broadway actors that make up this cast.

The scenic designs by Anna Louizos are simple (not basic) and reminiscent of the original production with some smart, albeit subtle, differences. They’re also used in a highly effective manner as they’re manipulated on stage throughout the scenes by the cast. This was one of the first shows I ever saw on Broadway that employed that technique. And it adds to the ambiance of the scenes incredibly wel. Interestingly, I learned that because cast members were involved in setting props and moving set pieces manually, they had to becoming card-carrying members of the respective union for such stagehands. Director Hunter Foster, who I’m sure has some strong emotional ties to the show since he has been involved with it since its inception, has made some absolutely wonderful staging decisions that incredibly enhance the story. 

One of the more powerful numbers is, “Get Closer,” sung by neighbor Marge in a comedic fashion while the romance between Francesca and Robert are played out towards the end of Act I. In the original production, the character sings the number stage left, somewhat distracting from the main character development. Here, the number is sung off stage with a filter designed to alter Yarnell’s voice to mimic a radio broadcast. This allows the audience to focus solely on the fiery love and connection that’s occurring between Francesca and Robert. Other notable elemental changes include deletion of a brief reunion scene fantasized by Francesca when her family encounters Robert in town and a completely different conclusion to the final scene of the show. In the original production, Francesca and Robert embrace on the bridge where they first kindled their love. In this production, Francesca relives the moment where she posed for a photograph for Robert on the bridge, invoking an even more powerful emotional reaction from the audience that imparts a slightly different, yet equally impactful, impression. 

In conclusion, I just can’t say enough good things about this production of Bridges. I saw the show two days in a row and can conclude that it is one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. When I have amazing theatrical experiences such as this, I take a moment to thank God. I thank God for blessing the performers with their immeasurable talents and abilities; and I thank God for the skill and wisdom of the composers, musicians, writers, directors, and everyone else involved in bringing something as truly magical as this to life. There’s no doubt this production was truly blessed by the almighty. Thank you to everyone for making this production of The Bridges of Madison County one I will never forget!

While the run has ended, you can check out a behind the scenes video on the production below:

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Kelly Clarkson Knocks Waitress’ “She Used to Be Mine” Out of the Park

Filed under: Performing Arts,Popular Music — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:23

On January 7th, Kelly Clarkson paid tribute to the phenomenal musical Waitress by giving a knockout performance of the show’s anthem, “She Used to Be Mine.” Waitress closed on Broadway on January 5th after a 2-month post-COVID run. Check out Clarkson’s show stopping performance below. BRAVO Kelly!


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Take a Listen to the Absolutely Gorgeous, “Far Too Late” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Upcoming Musical, Cinderella

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:03

Follow the Playbill link below to watch Carrie Hope Fletcher perform the absolutely gorgeous, “Far Too Late” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s upcoming musical Cinderella. As reported by Playbill:

Get a taste of Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Zippel, and Emerald Fennell’s upcoming Cinderella musical in the new video above, with title star Carrie Hope Fletcher singing “Far Too Late.” Lloyd Webber accompanies her on the piano at Her Majesty’s Theatre (home of The Phantom of the Opera) in London’s West End.

Cinderella was initially slated to debut this fall, but was pushed back to spring 2021 due to the coronavirus. 

Joining Fletcher (HeathersLes Misérables) on stage will be Olivier nominee Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Murder Ballad) as the Stepmother. Laurence Connor (Miss Saigon) will direct.

Cinderella features an updated story and book by Fennell (Killing EvePromising Young Woman) with lyrics by Zippel (City of Angels). Also attached to the project is choreographer JoAnn Hunter (Disaster!School of Rock). 

Additional members of the cast and creative team will be announced at a later date.


Friday, July 19, 2019

First Theatrical Trailer for CATS Released

Filed under: Movie and Entertainment,Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 23:08

The first trailer for the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beloved classic musical CATS was released today from Universal Pictures. The star-studded movie, with the likes of Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Dame Judy Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Sir Ian McKellan, James Corden, and Rebel Wilson among the cast, releases at the end of the year. Academy Award-wing director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) helms the production, using a never-before used groundbreaking technology to simulate cat hair on the actors. Check out the trailer, below:

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Theater Review: RAGTIME at Serenbe

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 22:54

Just five weeks after the spectacular production of RAGTIME was staged at Theater Under the Stars in Houston, an entirely different and very unique production of the show has found its way to the Tony-winning Serenbe playhouse in Serenbe, GA. This theater, about 30 minutes outside of Atlanta, is known for its incredibly unique stagings and productions that are far from traditional. 

Last year, the theater mounted what I concluded was an overall weak production of TITANIC, one of my all-time favorite musicals. The main issue with TITANIC lied in the overall weaker performers casted, who frankly didn’t have the singing talent necessary to pull off the demanding numbers of the show. That is certainly not the case with Serenbe’s RAGTIME; the performers here are absolutely incredibly talented and beyond capable. The orchestra also performs Stephen Flaherty’s score magnificently. 

The main story hinges around three composites of a changing American face at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. One, a rich upper-class White family, another African Americans, punctuated by the show’s main characters Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah, and immigrants, portrayed through the eyes of Tateh and his “little girl.” The supporting characters of the show, which include showbiz harlet Evelyn Nesbit, Model T manufacturer Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Emma Goldman (among others) are also essential to ensuring the elaborate story unfolds competently. And unfortunately, the major criticism this staging of RAGTIME deserves concerns just how the story is conveyed.

The show is performed inside a giant circus tent in a Vaudeville style, with a very long center stage where the action occurs. That action occurs from one end of the tent to another, which makes following the scenes and scene transitions very difficult. Despite having VIP tickets, we were seated at one of end of the stage, which made it very challenging to see the various aspects of the crowded stage, with characters often flanking each other despite this having absolutely nothing to do with the plot. 

If you are unfamiliar with the show, you will find this claustrophobic approach to portraying the plot quite difficult to follow. One of the friends who saw the show with us on Saturday had never seen the show before; and he had absolutely no idea what it was about. At intermission, he was totally clueless as to what was going on. And by the show’s end, he remained entirely perplexed as to what the major elements of the plot were.

Now, if you know RAGTIME and are familiar with the show, you will LOVE this production, not because of its unique staging which is unfortunately much more of a distraction than enhancer, but because of the Broadway-worthy performers who blow every single number OUT OF THE PARK! Courtney Chappelle (Mother), Chase Davidson (Mother’s Younger Brother), Jacob S. Louchheim (Tateh), Marcus Terrell Smith (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), and Nicole Vanessa Ortiz (Sarah) are enormously talented and can really act and sing. Despite the awkward and inappropriate Vaudeville theme the show is framed through, these performers REALLY make this theater-going experience absolutely worthwhile. 

I applaud Serenbe for experimenting theatrically with traditional shows; but it’s essential to ensure the format in which a show is presented serves only to enhance it rather than significantly detract from it. Director Brian Clowdus made a heck of a blunder in thinking a Vaudeville-staging of RAGTIME, which deals with quite serious and nuanced thematic material, would be appropriate to the source material. The potential of what this show could’ve been is astronomical and limitless given its phenomenal cast.  But what’s here amounts to a silly, frenetic, and very questionable production that is chuck full of talent that this production simply doesn’t do justice. This doesn’t mean I don’t recommend the show—I DO! But, don’t expect to see RAGTIME how it should be presented. Instead, go for the incredible performances, hair-raising musical numbers performed by superbly capable performers, and a supporting orchestra that plays its lush and gorgeous Tony-winning musical score to absolute perfection. For ticket information, visit: http://www.serenbeplayhouse.com/ragtime.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Theater Review: TUTS’ Production of RAGTIME

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:37

The sweeping and phenomenally-scored, written, and moving Broadway musical RAGTIMEhas come alive in what can only be described as an absolutely phenomenal production by Theater Under the Stars at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston, TX. The show is helmed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Tony-nominated for her staging of the revival of the show that bowed at the Kennedy Center in 2011 and found its way to Broadway in 2013.

The show centers around three major social groups that are mixing, by force, in turn of the century United States. One is a rich white upper class family, the next a Black community experiencing the racial realities of a post-Civil War America, and the final the immigrants who are pouring into the country for a better life. The three groups eventually clash and meld with one another; the show highlights that by focusing on a handful of main players—Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a popular and accomplished pianist with a acute understanding of the realities of racism who has fallen in love and fathered a baby with a poor Black woman named Sarah, Father, Mother, Younger Brother and Mother’s son (Edgar) who are experiencing maturation of a familial unit that is being torn apart by the crushing change in a time when their racial privilege and class has afforded them major life advantages, and a Latvian immigrant father (Tateh) and his daughter, poor and incredibly strained by a move to a foreign land that wants little to do with them other than to exploit them for their work.

Told behind the backdrop of racial stress, the industrial revolution where workers are starting to fight against their oppressive enslavement, and the personal stories of these three groups, RAGTIME presents an elaborate story of American history by weaving a tapestry of incredibly moving story, soaring music, and phenomenal effect. I have personally seen many productions of the show, including the original Broadway production (which remains to this day one of the best theatrical experiences of my life), revival, and several regional productions. 

I can easily attest that the production of the show here is simply the BEST one I’ve ever seen outside of that original Broadway bow in 1997. We’ll get to the acting and singing—which are both superb—but let’s talk technical aspects first. Dodge has recreated much, if not most of the creative elements from her Tony-nominated RAGTIME, with erector set type elements with a posterior projection screen that serves as a backdrop for the settings. Two moving staircases serve as the centerpiece for many of the show’s sequences, utilized effectively throughout. There are some enhanced set pieces and accentuated props used sparsely. But the show largely retains the qualities of its predecessor while adding elements that only add to its quality. 

As for the acting and singing—WOW! The actors here are first-rate (many plucked right from the stages of Broadway) including Tony nominee Robert Petkoff, who figuratively “steals” the show. His turn as Tateh rightly earned him a Tony nomination. He would repeat that here if possible. Mother is played extraordinarily by Courtney Markowitz while Father is played by Drama Desk nominated Broadway veteran Ryan Silverman. Of all the times I’ve seen the show, I have never seen a performer with the voice and acting abilities of Ezekial Andrew. Andrew is operatically-trained, which I at first found to be a potential threat to his ability to play the character. Opera, after all, is a FAR different musical style than ragtime. But, he proves here that he is not only a versatile singer that knocks RAGTIME’s sweeping numbers out of the park, but an absolutely incredible and talented actor who brings a unique and refreshing portrayal of the show’s main character. Sarah is played by Danyel Fulton, who also blows the roof off of the theater! She brings the heartbreaking characteristics of Sarah to life. Fulton’s big solo number as well as that of Markowitz were standing-ovation worthy.

There’s just not enough praise I can give this show. Even the side characters of Evelyn Nesbit (Emma Degerstedt), Harry Houdini (Josh Walden, also the show’s associate director and choreographer), and all the other supporting roles are played to shocking perfection. I can only imagine the cost of bringing this show to Houston—from the HUGE cast of close to 40 and orchestra of the same size, a Broadway-caliber performers and creative team, and all the other professional elements at play here, TUTS has shown its abilities to stage productions as a regional theater are second to none. RAGTIME plays at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts through April 28th. Tickets can be purchased at: https://my.tuts.com/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=86. DO NOT MISS THIS SHOW!

Friday, August 3, 2018

Theater Review: LOVE NEVER DIES

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 01:44

Almost ten years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, his sequel to his beloved The Phantom of the Opera, premiered in London’s West End. While the original production was headlined by Broadway and West End megastars Ramin Karimloo (as the Phantom) and Sierra Boggess (as Christine), it was instantly panned by critics and failed to hold ground, earning the negative nickname “The Paint Never Dries.” But that wasn’t entirely Webber’s fault. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the same time the show began previews. Because he was battling cancer, he wasn’t able to devote the time necessary to make the changes the show needed to become a success. After the London production shuttered, Webber was determined to give Love Never Dies the justice it so desperately deserved.

He determined the next stop for the show would be Australia, where he brought in a new director and an entirely new production team of artists to redesign major elements of the musical, making it vastly different than the staging in London. The result was beyond efficacious. Critics and audiences lauded the Australian version of show. It become a huge success and ran for seven months at the Regent Theater in Melbourne. The Australian production gave breath to the show Webber absolutely loved. It had been resuscitated and given a new life as an absolute musical masterpiece that appropriately reflected Webber’s musical genius. He would even claim that Love Never Diesis the best score he’s ever composed, second only to EVITAand is something he is, “very, very proud of.”

With this new and well-received production settled, there were plans to bring it to Broadway. But brand new revivals of Sunset BoulevardandCATSjoined the long-running School of Rockandoriginal Phantomto give Webber a record-breaking 4 shows running at once. This resulted in shifting resources for Love Never Dies, that would instead, be toured around North America in a beautiful production that very closely mirrors the Australian version of the show.

I have been able to see this touring production four times now, twice early in its embarking in Orlando and most recently in Dallas. It was quickly evident from the start of the tour that this show was going to be something truly magical. And as the tour has progressed, the cast’s chemistry has meshed incredibly well, resulting in what should be a genuinely respected and admired piece of musical theater.

Love Never Diesis set ten years after the original. After his destruction of the opera house in Paris, the Phantom has escaped to the shores of Coney Island, where he has founded one of the world’s first carnivalistic amusement parks with the help of his long-time friend Meg Giry, and her daughter, Meg. Despite his new life in America, he is unable to forget his love for Christine Daaé, who is now an international operatic superstar. He concocts a scheme to get close to her by outbidding Oscar Hammerstein for her American debut performance, which would take place in his concert hall. Other major players in the show include Daaé’s now-husband (and drunken gambler) Raoul, son Gustave, and sideshow performers that provide a cohesive attachment to the carnival-like atmosphere that serves as the story’s backdrop.

All of the actors in this production are absolutely phenomenal. Not a single one is anything less than stellar. Bronson Norris Murphy brings the Phantom to life and possesses some of the strongest and best vocals I have ever heard in the theater. He is incredibly talented and has a solid grasp of the necessary dynamics of the role; and he is able to extend his vocal nuances to the gorgeous songs of Love Never Dieswith perfection. He brings down the house with the opening number Til I Hear You Singand is given an early opportunity to not only demonstrate his chops but also his expert breathing and spacing techniques.

He is matched by the equally talented Meghan Picerno, who meshes entirely with Murphy in strikingly beautiful and soaring numbers like Beneath a Moonless Skyand Once Upon Another Time.The performance by Karen Mason as Madame Giry is also incredibly strong. She articulates the duplicitous nature of her character exceedingly well, and brings the house down in the final number of Act I. Mary Michael Patterson plays Giry’s daughter Meg, who gets several numbers that allow her to showcase her immense talent and vocal abilities. Sean Thompson (fresh from the Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard) portrays a very unlikeable Raoul and fulfills the role exquisitely.

Due to his age, the actor playing Gustave varies. Jake Heston Miller played the role in both performances I saw in Dallas and was marvelous, although assisted with some backtracking in The Beauty Underneaththat largely escaped the audience’s notice. This number is his duet with the Phantom at the end of Act One, which has been reworked for the touring production. While the number is still outstanding, it is not as good as the version of the song as heard in the Australian and London productions. Fleck (Katrina Kemp), Richard Koons (Squelch), and Stephen Petrovich (Gangle) also give strong performances as the Phantom’s henchman. Their characters help interweave scenes and set changes while interjecting some comedic relief and adding to the mysterious air of the story.

The sets (supervised by Edward Pierce, the Broadway set designer of countless Broadway shows, including Wicked and Bright Star) work flawlessly, utilizing a turntable that centers and shifts much of the action. This is joined oftentimes with large left and right stage pieces that, along with some amazing lighting (by Nick Schlieper), create an ultimately dark and incredibly appropriate setting. The costumes (designed by Gabriella Tylesova, also responsible for the show’s scenic design) are also magnificent and couldn’t be any more (at times) beautiful, opulent, and seamless.

Spectacular performances punctuated with truly phenomenal singing combine with a gorgeously beautiful and lush score, perfectly implemented sets, costume, and lighting to produce what is simply put, one of the best pieces of musical theater to ever grace the stage. It will be truly a travesty if Love Never Diesis unable to make it to Broadway, where it rightly belongs. But of course, to make that happen, millions of dollars are needed. And in an ever-increasingly competitive landscape, getting a show to a Broadway stage takes an incredible amount of risk, even for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has probably the best track record of success of any Broadway composer in history.

So—don’t risk waiting for Love Never Diesto make its way to NYC. Find out where the tour is stopping near you and GO SEE IT!It far eclipses most of the current showson Broadway and achieves the rare feat of surpassing its predecessor. Andrew Lloyd Webber and his creative team have created a masterpiece that here, has been placed in the hands of performers who have ensured it is executed with absolute sheer perfection.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Ranking the 2018 Tony Nominated Musicals

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:12

With the 2018 Tony Awards just around the corner (the show airs next Sunday on CBS), it’s time to rank the nominees for the coveted prize for Best Musical:

#4: SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical

How exactly this musical made it as a nominee is a bit perplexing. The show itself isn’t very good. The book is overall thin; and the production is largely completely stripped of the veiled mature humor that makes the cartoon so incredibly loved by adults. What’s left is a mess of a score, which is reflected by the show’s myriad of composers and lyricists, embedded in what amounts to a tedious and unenjoyable theatrical experience. What makes this nomination even more puzzling is the fact that the show has really struggled at the box office, dipping as low as almost 50% capacity in its cavernous home at the Palace Theatre during multiple weeks of its run. The performances are quite good, especially Ethan Slater, who is rightly nominated for the Tony for his portrayal of the title character. But overall, the show is a sluggish and boring journey that is devoid of so many of the elements that makes its source material so incredibly fun and good. I’ll be scratching my head long and hard to determine what appeal this show has to critics (it received mostly positive reviews) and the nominating committee for the Tonys.

#3: Frozen

Like it not (mostly not), Disney has had a stranglehold on Broadway for quite some time now. And while some of their shows have truly broken ground in musical theater (the innovative puppetry in The Lion King, for example) and have been translated exquisitely from screen to stage (Beauty and the Beast, AIDA), others have been downright horrendous (Aladdin). Frozen falls somewhere in the middle. The production itself is at times breath-taking. It is laden with special effects and lighting designs that weave a wonderful and magical tapestry that bedazzle the audience with delight. And the lead (Cassie Levy as Elsa) is just as powerful in her role here as she was as Molly in GHOST. The first act is also strong and well developed. But as the show enters its second phase, it begins to turn to slush. The book unravels into a repetitious mess, with a handful of numbers added in simply as filler and fluff. Even still, unlike SpongeBobFrozen remains quite fun. And the costumes (I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Sven every time he was on stage), lighting, and special effects make it a respectable, albeit undeserving, nominee.

#2: The Band’s Visit

The Band’s Visit is more than likely the frontrunner for the Tony Award for Best Musical this year. It is incredibly unique, employing the whole “musicians as performing actors on the stage” made famous by Tony-winner Once. Based off a film of the same title, The Band’s Visit tells the true story of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra’s accidental stop in the wrong town and the ensuing connection the band members make with the town’s residents. The music is rich and unmistakably Arabic.  The main actors, who give downright incredible performances, are light in their non-singing musicianship, surrounded by lesser characters who make-up the show’s orchestra. Tony Shalhoub will undoubtedly take home the Tony for his Broadway debut (and rightly so) while Katrina Lenk is the favorite for Best Actress in a Musical (again, deservedly so). The story is spectacularly moving; and the show leaves the audience with a rather heavy impact. Unfortunately, that impact isn’t quite what it could’ve been. In what I believe was a major misstep, the creative team followed the trend of some recent productions (The Visit, Boys in the Band, for example) and narrowed the show’s incredibly thick, engaging, and gripping plot to a one act wonder. Expanding the show over a traditional Act I and Act II with a standard intermission would’ve justified the complex character development that was really necessary to bridge the gaps that limit the production.

#1: Mean Girls

Not since my initial viewing of The Book of Mormon (okay, Something Rotten! too) have I left a theater with such a sore face from laughing like I recently  did with Mean Girls. This fantastic new musical is based on the film that starred Tina Fey, who here, alongside with her composer husband, makes her first (and monumentally successful) stab at bringing a stage musical to life. Although I never saw the movie on which it is based, Mean Girls is filled from start to finish with hilarious quips, bitterness, and bitchiness intertwined with a pop score that soars and showcases the chops of its stars, several of which are also Tony nominated. Ultimately, the laughter culminates in to plot elements that are strongly relevant today and that teach the moral that bullying behaviors and reliance on superficiality rarely result in happiness. And the ride leading up to that point is so delicious and enjoyable. Every character, with his or her every flaw, is lovable and fabulous. The sets, which rely on changing digital projections (originated with Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark) are joined by traditional staging elements to create what feels like am immersive atmosphere that punctuates each setting. Mean Girls is by far the most deserving of all the Tony nominees. It will more than likely lose to The Band’s Visit. But if somehow, it’s able to pull off the impossible, you’ll hear a cry of joy all the way from Florida for this top-notch show that is so irresistible that even the most hardened theater critic will leave with a laugh-scarred face and a warm heart from the show’s sweeter and more familiar elements that leave an enduring impression.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Theater Review: Love Never Dies

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 03:13

The extraordinary musical Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to his phenomenon The Phantom of the Opera, opened Tuesday night at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The show has had a long and winding road to its current carnation, opening first in London to scathing reviews. In Webber’s defense, the musical genius was diagnosed with prostate cancer and started battling the disease early into the West End production’s previews and was unable to help improve it before its formal opening.  After shuttering in the UK, Webber spent a considerable amount of time reworking the show, bringing a new version to Australia, where it was met with raves and became a mega-hit. After its success Down Under, Webber vowed to take the show across the globe before hopefully finally bringing it to Broadway. And thus, the current tour, based on the Australian version directed by Broadway veteran Simon Phillips (Priscilla: Queen of the Desert), finds its way to Orlando.

So how exactly does the story from Phantom continue? Well, without giving too many plot elements away, the show takes place 10 years after its predecessor. Madame Giry and her daughter Meg have joined the Phantom in Coney Island, NY, where the trio have worked tirelessly in creating an amusement park that showcases the bizarre and musically-punctuated world one would expect from the Phantom. Meg is the park’s main talent and star attraction; but that changes when Christine Daae, her husband Raoul, and their son Gustave are lured to Coney Island, where Christine is set to perform an aria in Roger Hammerstein’s new theater.

There’s a LOT to love about Love Never Dies. While the actors Gardar Thor Cortes (The Phantom), Meghan Picerno (Christine), Karen Mason (Madame Giry), Sean Thompson (Raoul), and Mary Michael Patterson (Meg Giry) all give performances of their careers, the real star of the show is its music. Webber’s incredibly lush and melodic score, which is at times beautiful and soaring and then dark and foreboding, is perhaps one of the most beautiful scores he’s ever composed. The music is also, while reminiscent of some very occult threads from Phantom, fresh and unique for this show.

So don’t expect to hear that loud and familiar Phantom theme here. Its absence is as glaring as the crashing chandelier (although if you really want to hear that trademark theme from the original, stick around and take a listen to the exit music from the orchestra [which you should do anyway] as the theme appears there). The staging and costuming (both courtesy of an incredibly talented Aussie design team) are brilliantly dark and appropriate to the setting. The scene in Act II where Christine performs the title song (in show-stopping and breathtaking style by Picerno) is absolutely gorgeous. The performer is dressed in a jaw-dropping gown that seems to almost melts into the stage; and the pain, love, and tragedy conveyed in the song are palpable.

The only minor criticism the show deserves is in its blocking and choreographed sequences where the actors are forced to be somewhat over the top in their motions to convey their character. These characters are known to audiences; so histrionic movements and over-emphasized traits are both unnecessary and distracting. Orlando is only the second stop for the tour (it officially opened in Detroit on October 25th), so there’s plenty of time for the actors to smooth out these small kinks before winding down in Charolette, NC in September of 2018. Unfortunately, if you want to see Love Never Dies, you just may have to see it elsewhere. The ENTIRE Orlando run is sold out! Hopefully this translates to massive profits for the life of the touring show, which allows producers to not only recoup but also invest in a Broadway run in 2019. Some individual tickets remain and can be purchased through the Dr. Phillips Center Web Site (https://www.drphillipscenter.org/events/tickets/2017/love-never-dies/) . Check out  the trailer for Love Never Dies below:


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