Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Friday, June 9, 2017

Ranking the Tony Nominees: Best Musical

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:26

With the 71st 2017 Tony Awards just a few short days away, now would be a good time to rank the nominees for Best Musical from worst to first. I use that saying lightly because, really, all four of the nominees are great. But, there can ultimately be only one winner!  So, here we go:

#4: Groundhog Day

A new stage musical based on the hit 1993 film featuring music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and a book by the film’s original screenwriter, Danny Rubin. Groundhog Day was a pretty bad movie. It wasn’t particularly all that funny; and about halfway through, the serial monotony of the story becomes stale quick. But, the creative team for the stage show have done something very unique–they’ve turned a bad movie into a fun, lighthearted, and side-splittingly funny Broadway musical. The show stars Broadway star and prior Tony nominee Andy Karl (I say prior nominee because he is a nominee for his role here for Best Actor in a Musical) in a role he seems made for. The music, by Matilda composer Tim Minchin, is pop-centric and catchy. And the show, while touching on some themes that are serious in nature, never takes itself too seriously. The real highlight of the production is the incredible sets and staging, which use a great combination of special effects, miniature and distant-perspective props, and what I can only assume is some pretty talented use of body doubling. Groundhog Day is nominated for 7 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical (Andy Karl), Best Book of a Musical (Danny Rubin), Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre (Music & Lyrics: Tim Minchin), Best Scenic Design of a Musical (Rob Howell), Best Direction of a Musical (Matthew Warchus), and Best Choreography (Peter Darling and Ellen Kane).

#3 Dear Evan Hansen

 All his life, Evan Hansen has felt invisible. But when a tragedy thrusts him into the center of a rapidly evolving controversy, he is given the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to be somebody else. Dear Evan Hansen has an incredibly powerful lead performer in its main man Ben Platt, who is definitely the front-runner for the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Luckily for the show, the rest of the performers are also incredibly strong. The production team, including RENT director Michael Greif, uses a minimal staging technique that relies mostly on projections and small, compact sets to set the tone of the story. Greif copies his approach of putting the orchestra above the action as he did in his last Broadway outing If/Then. And the music to the show, although somewhat repetitive and with oftentimes simplistic lyrics, is very good. The main issue I had with Dear Evan Hansen was its somewhat thin plot. While the book gives us a true-to-life story that focuses on the major issues of suicide and an ever-increasing egocentric and self-centered society, the show never presents the complexities that come with the reality of these issues. The scenes tend to become repetitive and advance the plot only in minuscule bites; and the impact the show could’ve made with a sharper and deeper book, gets lost. But don’t let my criticisms fool you, Dear Evan Hansen is a mega-hit and is by far the front-runner for this year’s Tony Awards. The production is nominated for 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical (Ben Platt), Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical (Mike Faist), Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Rachel Bay Jones), Best Book of a Musical (Steven Levenson), Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre (Music & Lyrics: Benj Pasek & Justin Paul), Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Japhy Weideman), Best Direction of a Musical (Michael Greif), and Best Orchestrations  (Alex Lacamoire).

#2 Come From Away

 On September 11, 2001 the world stopped. On September 12, their stories moved us all. A new musical based on a true story. Come From Away is named after the terms used to describe out-of-towners in Gander, Newfoundland, the setting of where the true story takes place. The show uses even more minimalistic staging than Dear Evan Hansen; but its soaring score and moving plot pull at the heartstrings and provide an inspirational hope from a horrific tragedy. MEMPHIS director Christopher Ashley is surrounded by an amazing production team, highlighted by choreographer Kelly Devine (Tony nominated for her work here), who provides a beautiful order to a somewhat frenetic staging. The music, which is incredibly unique for a Broadway show, has a Nordic and folksy theme that incredibly emphasizes the setting and its beloved traditions. A knockout performance by Jen Colella (Tony nominated here and winner of the Drama Desk Award last week) unites the book’s overarching theme of overcoming what seems like an insurmountable tragedy with personal empowerment and  tenacity. Don’t be surprised is Colella takes home the prize on Sunday. Come From Away is nominated for 7 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Jenn Colella), Best Book of a Musical (Irene Sankoff and David Hein), Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre (Music & Lyrics: Irene Sankoff and David Hein), Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Howell Binkley), Best Direction of a Musical (Christopher Ashley), and Best Choreography (Kelly Devine).

#1 Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

 Josh Groban and Denée Benton star in a new musical inspired by a 70-page slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There are pieces of musical theater that push the boundaries of the art and expand it to places its never really been before. Hamilton, for example, broke the rigid ethnic lines of casting like-raced actors in like-raced roles. That show also showed that hip-hop and rap can translate into theatrical productions amazingly well. TITANIC pushed the envelope of elaborate set pieces and groundbreaking special effects the way MISS SAIGON‘s famous helicopter scene continues to dazzle audiences. And Spider-Man: Turn off The Dark introduced elaborate digital projection and aeronautical-centric choreography that has yet to be replicated. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 joins the list of those incredible productions that break ground in the performing arts. The show is housed in the Imperial Theatre. Or, I should say, the show houses the Imperial Theatre. That’s because the entire house was gutted and uniquely rebuilt and repurposed for this show. Stage pieces encompass major areas of the orchestra; and the audience is placed around the action, which occurs in a literally 360-degree fashion. The music, played by musician actors who play the score throughout the production in various locations throughout the theater, has a rock-operatic feel. And the lighting effects are used to blind the audience at all the right times. Of course, the main attraction for the show has been its leading man, recording artist Josh Groban (Tony Nominated here), whose incredibly powerful baritone voice sends chills up your spine. The final number, which ties the story together and finally addresses the title component of The Great Comet of 1812, is unbelievably spine-tingling punctuated by a breath-taking lighting effect that leaves the audience speechless. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is nominated for the most Tony Awards of any show this season, including Best Musical, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical (Josh Groban), Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical (Denée Benton), Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical (Lucas Steele), Best Book of a Musical (Dave Malloy), Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre (Music & Lyrics: Dave Malloy), Best Scenic Design of a Musical (Mimi Lien), Best Costume Design of a Musical (Paloma Young), Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Bradley King), Best Direction of a Musical (Rachel Chavkin), Best Choreography (Sam Pinkleton), and Best Orchestrations (Dave Malloy),

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Theater Review: Bandstand

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 16:00

Written by Guest Writer E. Fisher:

Bandstand follows Donny Novitski (Cott), from WW II battlefield, to NYC & Hollywood.  He’s a singer/song- writer who steam-roller collects a group of musicians, (veterans) determined to win the big NBC radio contest culminating in a Hollywood movie, fame, fortune the   USA’s next big band.  There’s recurring battle memories & PTSD, some tear jerking, lots of wonderful ’40s style dancing & music & a thread of plot that picks up steam as the show moves along.  (Lots of veterans in the audience were loudly supportive.)  As w/ a few other  recent Bway shows, many of the top people sing,    dance & play an instrument. Each band member is       an extremely good soloist on his instrument. Before I saw it, I was hard pressed to figure out how  they were going to make a Bway show out of the plot. It has the strong ’40s movie simplicity w/ exceptionally wonderful dancing.

The entire cast maintains a high level of energy & character.  (I was impressed that they were all so fresh & strong after finishing the matinee  today.)  Osnos’ mother, Beth Leavel, is a delightful  highlight as are many of the smaller parts, but as a whole, & individually, this feels much more like an adult Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney ’40s movie – simple, w/ a very uncomplicated plot.  I was surprised at how many Hamilton staging & choreographic elements were      used, updated & “modernized” — but solidly there.       The 1st act seemed unusually long & lots of the plot   telegraphed eons ahead of time.  The show was tried   out at the Paper Mill Playhouse last year & the Bway opening was postponed, needing further work.  It still   feels as if it needs further work — probably on the book, first.  Much of what’s there is marvelously good (dancing) with some particularly good musicians & talent — but overall, is insufficient & somewhat lacking overall.  I’d   say this would probably make a good play — if the book is reworked a bit, but, as is, the dancing & music over- whelm the too thin plot.

Main Cast:
Laura Osnos, Corey Cott, Beth Leavel, Joe Carroll, Brandon James Ellis, Nate Hopkins, Geoff Packard & Joey Pero

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Ben Platt and Cast of Dear Even Hansen Perform on Today Show

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 22:09

Sure to be Tony-nominee Ben Platt was joined by his cast mates from what will surely be a Best Musical Tony-nominee Dear Evan Hansen on the Today Show Tuesday. Check out video of the incredible performance below. Dear Evan Hansen plays at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. Tickets can be purchased here:http://dearevanhansen.com.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

2017 Blackwell-San Jose Oscar Party

Filed under: Film and Entertainment,Performing Arts,Popular Culture — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 13:47

It’s that time of year again! The 2017 Annual Academy Awards are here, which can only mean one thing! TIME TO PARTY!! The Oscar event of the year has been announced–The 2017 Annual Blackwell-San Jose Oscar Party celebrating the Academy Awards will be held starting at 6:00pm on February 26th! Official invites to the event were sent via FaceBook Events Invite or through personal Email. So check your FaceBook or Email and see you there!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Theater Review: TITANIC: The Musical @ Signature Theatre

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:49

As I mentioned during my review of the 2015 production of TITANIC in Toronto, sometimes, perhaps rarer than usual, theater grabs a hold of you and makes a truly indelible impression. For me, that occurrence came with the original 1997 Broadway production of TITANIC: A New Musical. As a young man of 19, it was the first show I had ever seen on the Great White Way; and it has forever lived in my heart as one of my absolute most favorite life experiences The show, which many believed was doomed from the start (after all, who would want to watch a musical about the famed ocean liner that’s fate is well, pretty well darned known?), became a surprise hit. Winning 5 Tony Awards, TITANIC proved it was the Unsinkable Molly Brown, taking home statues for Best Orchestrations, Best Score, Best Scenic Design, Best Book, and the coveted prize for Best Musical. The show ran for almost two years at the Lunt Fontanne Theater. And it was a juggernaut for actors who would go on to become major Broadway players. Victoria Clark, Michael Cerveris, and Brian D’Arcy James all had main roles.

But as the popularity of TITANIC the film started to dwindle, the musical shuttered on March 21, 1999. However, the show has been considered by many to be a major contribution to the repertoire of American musical theater. Rex Reed commented in his review of the original production that he believed he was watching, “A genuine addition to the American musical theater.” Reed was correct. The show has proven itself as an iconic work and lived on through numerous incarnations of the show–including a national tour, productions across the globe, and most recently at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, Canada in the Summer of 2015. The Toronto production, which opened May 19th, 2015 was based on an acclaimed chamber version of the show which ran in London’s Off-West End Southwark Playhouse in 2013. That show was so well received, there were plans to run it in Toronto in 2014 and bring it back to Broadway in 2015. Unfortunately, official word was producers were unable to find a house for the show; and plans were scrapped.

So, until TITANIC is able to rightly take its place back on the Broadway stage once again, it lives on in regional productions, including the scaled down, yet beautiful, production at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. The actors, many of whom play multiple roles, are spectacular. As an ensemble, they are spine-chillingly perfect. Some of the individual performers really stand out. Christopher Block portrays Captain EJ Smith perhaps even more convincingly than original Broadway cast member John Cunningham. He has the mannerisms of the famed Captain down exquisitely.

Bobby Smith, whose absolutely gorgeous and powerful voice fills the theater during each of his scenes, proves he is a veteran performer with the talent and ability to back it. Lawrence Redmond’s Ismay is just as effective. And Nick Lehan, playing wireless operator Harold Bride, displays an incredible range of dynamic vocal quality, that makes up for some of the shortcomings in the dynamic range of Sam Ludwig, who plays Barrett among other roles. Their duet, “The Night Was Alive” has always been my favorite number and scene from the show; and Lehan’s sweet and ranging style provides the perfect blend with Ludwig’s more direct and less dynamic voice during the song.

Florence Lacy, as Ida Strauss, is  complimented by the equally capable John Leslie Wolfe as husband Isidor, amazingly. Their duet “Still,” showcases the love the characters had for one another as they decided to die together rather than occupy a space in a lifeboat. Finally, Chris Sizemore and Iyona Blake, though strangely coupled as second class soon-to-be spouses Charles Clarke and Caroline Neville, amazingly make the audience forget their age and racial difference (which is only signifiant because it would more than likely not have existed during the early 1900’s). Neville has a beautiful operatic quality to her voice that is complimented incredibly well by Sizemore. Their number, “I Give You My Hand,” cut from the original Broadway production, is restored beautifully here. While I was originally skeptical of the duo; their performances quickly silenced any fear of anachronism I may have originally had.

Perhaps one aspect in which the show is lacking is its sets. The set is punctuated by several ramps  that transverse through several stories throughout the theater, reflecting various entry points to the ship. While this provides scale to the production, most of the action takes place on the main stage, which is often barren sans a very small number of props. So, scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III leaves a LOT to audiences’ imagination. That works to a certain extent in the theater; but leaving the audience with too much responsibility to fill in the scenic gaps can cheapen the effectiveness of a show. The original production was lauded for its incredible sets. Stewart Laing won the Tony Award for a set that did the unthinkable–SANK! Of course, with large set pieces, props, and costumes (designed by Frank Labovitz and which are somewhat basic in this production), comes enormous expense that regional theaters’ budgets simply don’t have as much space for.

However where the show lacks in sets and costumes, it more than makes up for where it counts–THE BEAUTIFUL MAURY YESTON SCORE!!! Unlike the Toronto production, which utilized a tiny 6-person orchestra, Signature has opted to use a full orchestra to provide the score. THAT ALONE MAKES THIS PRODUCTION WORTH SEEING MORE THAN ONCE! The richness of that amazing score is performed EXACTLY the way it should be! It was so incredibly nice to hear every musical nuance of the production, with an amazingly capable cast of musicians. The woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion are blended flawlessly in Yeston’s work; and it is so incredibly refreshing to hear it all here! Josh Clayton (orchestrations), James Moore (musical direction), and Ryan Hickey (sound design) demonstrate the addition of woodwinds and brass to the arrangement of heavy strings augments heavily the more nautical feel of the show.

There are also some very smart, subtle, and intelligent changes to the book that bolster the quality and flow of the musical. Some lines, delivered by different characters in this production compared to the original, provide a fresh take on the work. The final scene of the original show, which I truly believe was the best final scene ever written for the theater, is less effective with the staging employed here. The characters are moreso joined by the dead, spaced throughout the set, rather than reunited with them, as seen in the original and subsequent productions of the show. Yet the ensemble makes the audience quickly overlook that with their sweepingly powerful and beautiful vocals.

TITANIC truly deserves a life on Broadway. I am really hoping that somehow, that happens! The quality of what is on-stage in Arlington right now is truly amazing. And while Broadway is ever-increasingly cutthroat and ever so reliant on the rehashing of cartoon movies and movie musicals, TITANIC could be a real welcomed breath of fresh air.  TITANIC plays at the Signature Theatre through January 29th. For tickets, visit the show’s official Web site @: http://www.sigtheatre.org/events/2016-17/titanic/. Below, watch highlights of the show, courtesy of Signature Theatre:

Saturday, December 3, 2016

VIDEO: Signature Theatre in Rehearsals for TITANIC

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


The Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA is staging what is sure to be an epic mounting of Maury Yeston’s and Peter Stone’s Tony-Award winning Best Musical TITANIC. The production, which will be staged in an immersive format with the audience surrounding the stage in Signature’s MAX Theatre, begins performances on December 13th and runs through January 29th. Yesterday, Signature released a video of the cast and orchestra rehearsing the opening number, “The Launching: Godspeed TITANIC.” Take a look at the video below. Tickets for the production can be purchased here: http://www.sigtheatre.org/events/2016-17/titanic/.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Theater Review: Encore! Presents: RAGTIME The Musical In Concert

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:47


Encore! Cast Performing Arts has struck theatrical gold again. Their 2015 production of AIDA left me with my jaw agape and drooling. Now, they’ve brought an absolutely gorgeous and lush production of one of my all-time favorite Broadway musicals, RAGTIME, to the stage of the Doctor Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. And although, like AIDARAGTIME is being billed as “The Musical In Concert,” there’s no mistaking that this mounting of one of the best musicals to ever grace the Broadway stage, is so much more than that. The show is acted out, in costume, complete with elaborate props and moving set pieces and well thought out staging and choreography. And except for the 200 choral members flanking the action on stage right and left, there’s an entire musical production being presented here. And this production is lightyears beyond the touring production of RAGTIME that has encircled the US for the past 7 months. The story of the show is quite elaborate and based upon source material by E.L. Doctorow. Three main sets of characters–some from a privileged upper White class, some from a struggling Black class, and some from a very struggling immigrant class–are immersed in the US during the turn of the century. These characters are surrounded by true historic figures from American history that help shape their stories, all of which eventually become extremely interconnected.

The talent on display here is second to none. Practically every performer in this cast would fit in just perfectly on any show on Broadway. In fact, I would even venture to say that not only does this ensemble surpass that of RAGTIME‘s recent tour, but also the Tony-nominated revival of the production that lived a very short life on Broadway back in 2010. Probably the biggest standout of the show is Michael Swickard, who plays the lovable and iconic foreigner Tateh. Interestingly, in almost every production of RAGTIME I’ve ever seen, the show tends to be punctuated by an outstanding performance by the actor portraying this character. Swickard brings down the house in his numbers. Andrew Meidernbauer’s Father, Natale Pirrotta’s Younger Brother, and Meghan Moroney’s Emma Goldman are also incredibly well performed and are all three extremely impressive. As the leads, Darnell Abraham is a fine Coalhouse Walker, Jr. His vocals are great; but he did lend a little bit of a pop vibe to the role which is slightly off character. Faith Boles portrayal of Sarah is spot on; her strong vocals brings “Your Daddy’s Son” to life with electricity. Hannah Laird, as Mother, is simply perfect. The audience even began a standing ovation after her incredible second act showstopper “Back to Before.”

Practically EVERYTHING about Encore!’s production of RAGTIME is flawless. The chorus adds to the ensembles beautifully (although they could be slightly louder) and the orchestra brings the strong score to the forefront. The only complaint I have is that in a couple of sections in four numbers (“Goodbye, My Love,” Till We Reach That Day,” “Back to Before,” and “Make Them Hear You”), the percussion overpowers the orchestra, creating a momentary “waltzy” feel to the songs, which is not how composers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns wrote the music. However, these moments are brief and would probably go unnoticed to someone more unfamiliar with the music. Beyond the magnificent performers, musicians, choral members and everyone else behind this incredible production lies my biggest praise. Over the years, the original book of RAGTIME became increasingly truncated. Numbers were shortened, pieces of dialogue snipped, and plot elements hastened. It appears the production team here is well aware of that, because they have gone out of their way to ensure those elements of the show, which I found to be so crucial to the story, are reunited within this production. I grinned ear to ear when I heard those lines restored and brought back to the show! Even the Entre ‘Acte, shortened in many of the post-Broadway stagings of RAGTIME, is played in its entirety here. There are simply not enough words of praise I can give to this production of RAGTIME. Everything from the acting, to the staging, to the singing, to the incredibly intelligent artistic team’s choices, Encore!’s RAGTIME is simply nothing short of a theatrical triumph! It is sad the show couldn’t have a longer run. It is so good it deserves to be seen by theater lovers over a period of weeks rather than days. A very few seats are left to Sunday’s final performance. Curtain is at 7:30pm and tickets can be purchased here: https://www.drphillipscenter.org/shows-and-events/Shows-Events/theater/201256-ragtime-the-musical.stml. Below, watch the creative team behind the show describe some of its creation:

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Outer Critics Circle Award Winner for Best Musical and Tony Nominated Bright Star Closing

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 22:52


Producers for the Broadway musical Bright Star, with music and lyrics by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, announced Tuesday that the show is closing. Despite winning the Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical and Best Score, the musical undeservedly went home empty handed at the Tony Awards on Sunday, where it was nominated for 5 Awards, including Best Musical. Centered in two close time periods in the early-to-mid 1900’s, the show follows the story of parallel characters who are falling in love in the Deep South during a time when religion, proscribed morality, and family reputation trumped all else, including even life. The orchestra, who plays a prominent role in the staging of the show, is made of mostly strings and percussion. They bring a soaring score to life that is only made stronger by the incredible voices of the leads, Tony nominated Carmen Cusack (one of the finest actors and singers I’ve ever seen on stage) and Paul Alexander Nolan. The characters of Bright Star are totally loveable and relatable. And their story and struggles are real, heartbreaking, and at times, tragic. This coupled with the show’s incredible music brings their human experiences to life and truly solidifies the show as phenomenal! I selected the show for Best Musical of last season. But I knew it didn’t have a chance against Hamilton and would soon shutter after the Tonys. Bright Star plays its final performance at 3pm at the Cort Theater on June 26th. Below, watch the incredibly talented cast of Bright Star perform the opening number, “If You Knew My Story” on the Tony Awards:

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ranking the 2016 Tony Nominees for Best Musical

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 23:51


#5: Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed
tells the true story of Shuffle Along, the musical sensation of 1921 that was the first to feature an all-Black cast on Broadway. The show is chuck full of talent, punctuated by Tony winners and Broadway legends Audra MacDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, who have paired in many shows before, including Ragtime, one of the best shows to ever grace the stage. They are joined by Billy Porter, who shows a little too much Lola, his Kinky Boots drag queen persona that won him the 2014 Tony Award, here. His performance is so effeminate, he even has to jokingly explain to the audience at the show’s end that his character was actually married to a woman. While it got a chuckle from the audience, it resulted in me cringing a little in embarrassment for his lack of ability to downplay his flamboyance to bring this character to life.

And while McDonald and Stokes Mitchell are truly the masterful talent behind the show, the true beauty of Shuffle Along actually lies in its ensemble. Almost every scene of the show is stolen by the phenomenal dancers that tell the story of the musical’s incarnation in scenes from the story and the actual musical they were creating. Where the show struggles is in its book, written by George C. Wolfe. Always trying to maintain its cuteness, the show remains superficial, trading in the gritty details of how a show starring an all-Black cast during the 1920’s was brought to life, captured an audience, and changed history, with writing that keep the details slim and the dancing and song strong. The dialogue spoken at the end of the production detailing the fate of the characters does the history of the actual show more justice than what’s presented the prior 2 hours. That’s a serious problem for a show that deep down is telling the story of truly life events with real depth and significance. Still, it’s worthy of praise for its stars McDonald, Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, and incredibly skilled ensemble.

#4: School of Rock


Andrew Lloyd Webber, an adored (and sometimes criticized) composer of some of the most iconic musicals of Broadway (and beyond) shows in School of Rock that his musical genius extends beyond the classic chords of Phantom and EVITA into the realm of Rock ‘n Roll. And I mean real Rock ‘n Roll! A lot of the music in the show (with lyrics by Webber’s longtime collaborator, Glenn Slater) is metal-laden, straying away from some of the more poppy music Webber is typically associated with. The show relies on its two star leads, Tony-nominated Alex Brightman (Dewey Finn) and Sierra Boggess (Love Never Dies), to bring to life the heartwarming story of a teacher with a love for music who realizes the impact he can make extends way beyond the notes on the page, even to privileged children, who might otherwise be unexposed to the realities of the world.

As someone who credits a music teacher as playing a major role in my personal development, the story of the show reverberates within my spirit. The stage show is written by Jullian Fellows and it follows the source material of the movie, written by Mike White, closely. And Brightman’s portrayal of Dewey, while funny, enjoyable, and loveable, is a mirror image of Jack Black’s performance in the film. These elements give the show a slight feel of lack of originality. And most of Webber’s music is unfortunately, forgettable. But the show is still fun and incredibly sweet and touching. It does a great job of showing audiences that music can play an incredibly formative power in the lives of children, making it one of the best and important shows of the season.

#3: Waitress


Like School of Rock, Waitress is also based on a film that shares the same name as its Broadway counterpart. I’ve never seen that film, so I cannot comment on how closely the Broadway production follows it. But I can certainly tell you that I absolutely loved every minute of the show. Tony winner Jessie Mueller (Beautiful) plays Jenna, a waitress and pie chef extraordinaire who lives in a small rural town where everyone is in everyone else’s business and where dreams are easily made, but almost always, impossible to realize. She’s in a dead-end and abusive relationship when she becomes pregnant and simultaneously falls for her irresistible obstetrician, played by the handsome lead Drew Gehling. The two carry on an unlikely affair, and in the process, teach each other about life and just how difficult the ultimate pursuit of happiness, truly is. This is all happening while the supporting characters are defining their lives as well.

With an ensemble dripping with talent (including Tony nominee Keala Settle, playing Jenna’s best friend and colleague, Becky), Waitress is truly heartwarming and inspiring. The music, written by Grammy award winning superstar Sara Bareilles, is fun, poppy, and good! It’s made me excited for an OBC recording of the show! And the writing, by Jessie Nelson, is crisp, witty, and consistently excellent. The set design is great and accents the settings of the show perfectly. While I wouldn’t say Waitress is groundbreaking theater, it has enough ingenuity and heart that it could be a show loved by audiences for years to come. The question is, once Mueller moves on, will it have enough sustainability to realize its potential?



When it comes to theater history, there are only a handful of shows that have truly been groundbreaking works, ones that have made serious and unimaginable impacts and contributions to the craft. Shows with this distinction include Hair, one of the first-ever to bring a contemporary storyline of current political and social strife to the stage. Elaborate productions like Phantom of the Opera, TITANIC, and Wicked broke ground by dazzling audiences with spectacular special effects and unforgettable music. Les Miz remains timeless because of its unmatched orchestrations and humanistic story of forgiveness and redemption; and the modern Book of Mormon has shown that even shows that promote blasphemy with vulgarity and explicit language can make mad bank at the box office!

Now comes a show that will forever be included in the history books chronicling such shows that defined the theater, HAMILTON. Garnering an unprecedented 16 Tony nominations, including noms for practically every actor with a main role, HAMILTON tells one of the most important pieces of American history, using rap and hip-hop articulated from the mouths of an ethnically-diverse cast that looks nothing like the characters they are portraying. And yet this approach to the production is not only what makes it unique, but history changing, as well. Lin Manuel Miranda has created a show that is nothing short of a masterpiece. His performance is incredible as is those of his castmates, Christopher Jackson, Renee Elise Goldsbury, Daveed Digs, and Leslie Odom. The entire cast brings an insurmountable energy to a fresh and captivating production that layers one impressive scene after another.

HAMILTON breaks down the ethnic archetypes of traditional theater. And it shows that a culturally-diverse cast is more than capable of bringing non-culturally diverse characters and events, to life. HAMILTON is simply like nothing that has ever been staged before it. It will win essentially every Tony Award it is nominated for, and rightly so. Many might be reading this and thinking, “Geeze. If it’s worthy of so much praise and awards, is historic and groundbreaking theater in every way, why do you rank HAMILTON as #2 on the list rather than #1?” Keep reading and you’ll find out why.

#1: Bright Star


Okay, you can manually close your jaws and wipe up the saliva now. You read right. I ranked Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star higher than HAMILTON. No. It isn’t as good as HAMILTON. It isn’t historic and groundbreaking. It won’t be remembered in the history books as being a major contributor to musical theater. In fact, although I hope I’m wrong, the show will more than likely not win a single Tony Award and will be forced to shutter a week or two after the ceremony. But it has an absolutely gorgeous and lush score with orchestrations as beautiful as Jason Robert Brown’s Bridges of Madison County, a terrifically written book, incredible staging and choreography, and a story that will absolutely grab ahold of your heart and never let go.

The show was prized with the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and Best Score; and it garnered nominations in 5 other categories as well. Centered in two close time periods in the early-to-mid 1900’s, the show follows the story of parallel characters who are falling in love in the Deep South during a time when religion, proscribed morality, and family reputation trumped all else, including even life. The orchestra, who plays a prominent role in the staging of the show, is made of mostly strings and percussion. They bring a soaring score to life that is only made stronger by the incredible voices of the leads, Tony nominated Carmen Cusack (one of the finest actors and singers I’ve ever seen on stage) and Paul Alexander Nolan. The characters of Bright Star are totally loveable and relatable. And their story and struggles are real, heartbreaking, and at times, tragic. This coupled with the show’s incredible music brings their human experiences to life and truly solidifies the show as phenomenal!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Theater Review: The Brides of Madison County The Musical National Tour

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 02:36


Before I begin this review, let me preface it by revealing just how much I LOVED the original Broadway production of The Bridges of Madison County, the lush, lavish, and gorgeous musical that starred Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara that heartbreakingly failed to gather enough traction to become the mega-hit it should’ve become. Musical genius Jason Robert Brown won the Tony Award for his score for Bridges; and both of its lead stars were Tony nominated for their performances (O’Hara would later go on to win for The King & I). When I heard the show was closing in NY back in May of 2014, I booked a flight to the final performance and sat in the theater in complete disbelief that this amazingly crafted and truly touching show was closing after such a short run. Of course, material that good can’t stay on the shelf forever; and a national tour was launched in the end of 2015.

In a nutshell, this tour has A LOT to live up to in-terms of its original Broadway predecessor; and I don’t envy the tall order the touring leads, Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca Johnson) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert Kincaid), must follow. And while no, their performances don’t eclipse the originals, they come awfully darn close. In fact, this entire production of Bridges comes awfully close! Creative decisions were wisely placed in the hands of almost all of the original members of the Broadway creative team. Bartlett Sher’s fantastic direction is mimicked perfectly by Tyne Rafaeli. Thus, what translates to the tour is essentially a carbon copy of what graced the stage of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The set pieces, background scenery, and props are duplicated, as is the stage movement of the cast throughout the show.

Bridges isn’t Wicked; there aren’t elaborate set pieces and special effects to distract the audience from the core of the story. Instead, the production must rely an that absolutely gorgeous score and orchestrations and performances from the actors to succeed. Luckily, this production does so on every level. The leads knock it out of the park! And the supportive cast is so strong that the story (authored by novelist Robert James Waller) shines so brightly that the true beauty of this show comes through. Elizabeth Stanley’s unique portrayal of Francesca is punctuated by her remarkable vocals; and while Andrew Samonsky’s vocals aren’t quite as rich or deep as Pasquale’s, he more than nails the part and brings the true love his character has for Francesca to life.

The supporting leads, played by David Hess and Mary Callanan (the married neighbors who share a close bond with the Johnson family) and Cullen R. Titmas (Bud, Francesca’s lovable husband) are incredibly strong. “Get Closer” is Callanan’s solo in the first act and allows her talent to be put on display front and center (as does the equally incredible Katie Claus’ first act solo “Another Life”). The second act’s “When I’m Gone,” serving as a transition of time in the story, sung by Titmas and Hess, sent chills down my spine. The accent Hess puts on his execution of several of the lyrics conveys the emotion and strength of the number, and the power it has in helping to conclude the story.  “Before and After You/ One Second and a Million Miles” remains the showstopper number. Stanley and Samonsky perform the number beautifully with a perfect show of dynamics and tone control. The song is so incredibly moving. Its orchestrations feel almost immersive; the audience feels the same love and turmoil in their hearts as the characters on stage, thanks to the deeply lush combination of piano and strings Brown combined to chilling effect.

In conclusion, there are really not enough positive adjectives to describe this touring production of Bridges. The acting, singing, and entire production closely rivals the quality of the original Broadway production. The show had such a short life in NY, odds are you probably missed it. If you miss the show now, you’ve only got yourself to blame. The show is touring across the US. It’s worth taking the time needed to dedicate yourself to seeing this show. If the show isn’t making a stop in your town, then pop on its Web site and plan to a trip out of it! You’ll be very grateful you did! Tour dates and tickets are available here: http://bridgesmusical.com/tickets/. Below, take a look at footage from the recording of the Bridges soundtrack, featuring the original Broadway leads Kelly O’Hara and Steven Pasquale:

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