Sunday, March 29, 2009

Next to Normal

Another Friday night, another opportunity to see what the TKTS gods would bring my way. I was surprised to see Next to Normal on the board; I had assumed that the first preview would be sold-out. This was show I had wanted to see off-Broadway, but missed my chance. I was pleased when I heard it was moving on up, and had landed at the Booth.

So, it was a no-brainer to choose that show as my half-price adventure for Friday – especially when I landed a ticket on the center aisle in Row D! I was so pumped that I went home and ran five miles before showing up at the theater ten minutes before curtain.

The thing about attending a first preview is that very few people stumble in the way I did. There are two types of audience members – those that know (and adore) the show, and those that know (and are related to) the cast. As I entered the theater, I was surrounded by ecstatic teenagers who had been waiting for this day since the off-Broadway version closed (I was careful not to listen too closely to their chatter, in fear of learning too much about the story). Then when I got to my seat, I was the only person in my section that didn’t have some connection to a member of the cast.

Some of my juiciest Broadway gossip comes from listening to industry people when they forget they’re in public company. Tonight, I was seated next to a pair of actors (I heard them share that they’d toured together in Rent and All Shook Up). They are newly expecting a baby (anyone care to do the googling to find out the identity of this lucky couple?), and they were greeted by other members of the audience in a steady stream of hearty congratulations, as if this was their shower. I knew they were kind of a big deal when Michael Greif extracted himself from his own throngs of fans to come over to say hello. I was hoping this was where the hot gossip would come in – I was willing Michael to divulge some fancy detail that I could exclusively reveal to the BroadwayGirlNYC readership! – but it was then that the lights dimmed and the orchestra began to play.

Next to Normal starts off as a light and lovely family story. Yeah, the mom’s a little wacky; yeah, there are some off-color sex references early on. I was digging it, but not in a particularly “WOW” kind of way. I thought, “I like this – but you know, it doesn’t take a genius to rhyme ‘loner’ with ‘stoner’. It’s… cute.”

But not too far in, there’s a moment when the show turns dark. I didn’t expect it, because I hadn’t see it off-Broadway – yet again, I benefited from going to a show I knew nothing about. I was caught off-guard by the revelation (which I won’t disclose, so you can be caught off-guard too). And suddenly, I saw that Next to Normal isn’t just a cute, dysfunctional-family musical. This is a show that has something to say, and isn’t afraid to cut straight to the heart in order to say it.

The music seemed more layered, then. The lyrics revealed double-meanings. I could see the symbolism even in the staging (which before had seemed merely functional and pretty). And I also became immediately invested in the characters. I could tell why this was a story that needed to be told.

Because every family has its dysfunction. No matter how perfect the academic daughter seems, no matter how beautiful the beloved son. There are demons that run deep. And love that no one understands. And relationships that teeter on the edges of reason (or cross into the realm of madness) that are still the most important of our lives.

As a young adult, I’m not sure if I relate more to the teenage daughter character or her struggling mother. Interestingly, the mother character reminds me of the person I was as a teen. Watching the show, I ached as I witnessed her battle for herself.

Alice Ripley’s portrayal of the fragile, struggling Diana is gorgeous. She reveals such comprehensible confusion and panic in her eyes, such heartbreak, such resolution. I became involved with her journey. I felt like I knew her, in an emotional way. Her story is so well-told that I sort of forgot she was singing.

Playing her husband, Dan, is J. Robert Spencer (the original Nick Massi from Jersey Boys). Dan counters Diana’s emotion with calmness, which keeps the interaction seeming real; instead of escalating into a dramatic, over-the-top confrontation, they successfully display the subtle complexities of spousal rapport.

Also excellently cast are the couple’s two teenage children, played by Jennifer Damiano and Aaron Tveit. Tveit is a beautiful specimen of a 23-year-old (he’s that Zac Efron kind of pretty that causes me to so embarrassingly crush). At first his good looks distracted me, but it soon became clear that this was part of the casting. The actor has to really embody “the perfect son” – and Tveit does.

Jen Damiano as daughter Natalie is terrific. I was familiar with her from her role as an ensemble member in Spring Awakening (which I saw 14 times), and it was fabulous to see her step into a spotlight of her own. She has the voice of an actress much more seasoned, but the body and demeanor only a true 16-year-old can possess. Just like her character, she is awkwardly and beautifully straddling the child/woman line.

Like Spring Awakening, Next to Normal speaks to an audience that understands angst. Whether it’s the teenagers like those who have been waiting anxiously for this Broadway presence (so their own struggles are acknowledged through public art); or the parents going through their own challenges, as the character of Diana does; or people like me, who fall somewhere in between – this musical delivers a striking, raw and beautiful note in tribute to the battles we fight and witness, and those demons we have succeeded in defeating.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Irena's Vow

I happened into something remarkable on Broadway last night.

After spending the last two days at Jury Duty (and narrowly avoiding assignment on a 2-week-minimum sex-offender trial), I felt I deserved to celebrate. So, I did the expected and headed to TKTS. I felt the need to rock out a little bit, and earlier in the week I’d seen half-price tickets to Hair on the board. When I arrived, alas, no Hair; of course, it was 6:30pm on a Friday night in spring, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that a known title was all sold out.

Rather than get in line for something else, on a whim I walked over to the the Walter Kerr, where a new play is in previews, Irena’s Vow. I didn’t know anything about it, but I thought I'd check it out.

Skimming the show description and learning that the play is about a “heroine of World War II… during the German occupation of Poland,” I thought it sounded a little dark for my current mood. (I was considering seeing Rock of Ages since Hair was already out.) But I made myself a deal, as I waited my turn at the window: if I could score a student” ticket, I’d check out Irena’s Vow.

Sure enough, even an hour before showtime, there were still a few student tickets available. “What the hell?” I thought. “It’s only a 90 minute show.” (Hair and Rock of Ages aren’t going anywhere, after all.) I plunked down my 25 bucks.

Not knowing anything about the play other than what I had learned in the pamphlet, I had no expectations. This is actually my favorite way to see a new work – not knowing the story, the ending, or even whether the general public or reviewers tend to like it. I love the clean slate of knowing I’ll be 100% responsible for my own opinion. This was a unique case too, because despite star Tovah Feldshuh’s lengthy resume and past accolades (four Tony nominations!), I didn’t remember ever hearing of her before.

Feldshuh plays Irena, a Polish woman in WWII who, while serving as the housekeeper for a high-ranking German officer, manages to hide and care for twelve Jews inside his home.

The show opens with Irena as an old woman, speaking to an assembly of school children in 1988. She proceeds to narrate her own story, impressively embodying both selves – the agile, unfaltering 18-year-old in wartime and the shuffling, resolute senior who has dedicated her life to sharing the difficult, inspirational tale.

The show is well-crafted with simple sets, few props, and the unobtrusive use of a black-and-white screen to enhance location. The biggest strength, though, is in small cast of beautifully humanized characters. I found it impossible not to become emotionally involved.

My emotional involvement was not a surprise; I’m similar to most theatre-goers, in that the whole point is to get wrapped up in the story and experience the emotions that the characters do. I’m no stranger to shedding tears during the closing moments of a play. HOWEVER, the end of this performance of this play provided a whole new level of involvement, when Feldshuh cut the applause at curtain call to make a special announcement in honor of the REAL Irena Gut Opdyke.

Because of my pre-show lack of information, somehow I had missed that Irena was a real woman and that this was her real story. Suddenly, the gravity of her history – which I had assumed was historical fiction – had a new weight, was much more significant. I was mind-boggled to hear that this was not simply an envisioning of what might have happened during World War II – this had been Irena Gut Opdyke’s life.

I was grasping for a tissue to get my tears under control, when Feldshuh made an introduction. “Sadly, Irena Gut Opdyke passed on a few years ago. But we have a treat for you tonight – here to spend a few minutes with us is her daughter, Jeannie Opdyke Smith.” And out walked a tall, beautiful woman who brought a whole new level of realness to this unbelievably true story of her mother’s heroism.

As if Irena’s story (in the form of the play) wasn’t gift enough, the audience was given the chance to hear from her daughter directly. Jeannie was articulate and lovely, answering questions about the extended history of the characters that we had all grown to know over the past hour and a half. And as it turns out, the inspiration didn’t stop with Irena.

Not only did the twelve Jews that Irena hid all survive to start their own families; but one, while working as a guard in a camp in Poland, discovered Irena living there and smuggled her out to freedom. Even more incredible was Jeannie’s revelation that the German officer in whose home the twelve were hidden, after being disowned by his own family post-war and left to live on the street, was eventually taken in by the very Jews who had to hide from him. In Jeannie’s words, it was a remarkable circle of forgiveness.

Tovah Feldshuh will be nominated for a Tony in this role, I have no doubt. Irena’s Vow may win for Best Play. A movie is supposedly in the works, with talks of Scarlett Johansson playing Irena (I think she’d be fantastic). I am looking forward to all of that. The accolades will spread the story, which will spread the inspiration. And even the most valiant of us could serve to learn a little from Irena Gut Opdkye.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Blithe Spirit review

Earlier tonight I tweeted the bottom line on how I feel about Blithe Spirit. So, this review will be in bullet-point form, to cover the deets:

Rupert Everett is stunning. He’s simply a dashing man, and I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “dashing” before in my life. You know how most actors are shorter than they look on-screen? Not Rupert. He’s got a presence, man. A presence that I want to jump on!
• Confession: before I saw this play, I didn’t know the definition of the word “blithe” (joyous, merry, or gay in disposition; or: carefree, heedless). I had it confused with “lithe” (limber, supple, flexible). Well, BOTH words describe Christine Ebersole as Elvira (not to be confused with Elvira). She flowed across that stage, looking more gorgeous than I have ever seen her – and those in the know KNOW that she always looks amazing. (I saw her once waiting for a ride at JFK, and even just off a plane, she looked like a million bucks!)
Susan Louise O'Connor as Edith steals the show. For woman in her early 30’s, making her Broadway debut in a role that consists mostly of the lines “yes mum,” “no mum,” and “very well, mum,” she knocked it out of the park! At one point, her physical humor alone stopped the show. I felt like a proud mama, even though I hadn’t even heard of her before. I can only imagine how much a thrill this experience is for her. Yay ☺
• And of course there is Angela Lansbury. It’s hard to know where to start with her, because she is so culturally ubiquitous that seeing her in 3-D is a surprise in and of itself! But from the curtain’s rise, she is so endearingly daffy that I actually forgot she wasn’t Madame Arcati; some of the old-ladyisms were so right-on that I couldn’t tell whether they were the product of the character or the actor! At the core, it didn’t matter, because she was perfectly cast (this was not stunt casting, people! No one could have played the role more perfectly!). Highlight: her pre-trance dance-numbers. I won’t go into detail – you’ll want to see these for yourself.
• Noel Coward is a freaking genius. Every line in his show is simultaneously surprising and obvious (in a “why didn’t I think of that?” kind of way). I can’t believe I had never read Blithe Spirit (although the fact that I hadn’t made the show all the better), and I’m suddenly tempted to park myself at the 42nd Street library and read his entire life’s work. Then again, I so love to see a play who’s ending I don’t already know… so maybe I’ll just head up to the Shaw Festival this year instead.
• The costumes were remarkable, most notably Ebersole’s ghostly gown. Shout out, too, re: Jayne Atkinson’s purple dress with the orange sash. I’d wear that shiz, and I’m a good coupla decades younger than she is! And Rupert, man. Can he wear a tux, or what? I’ve decided that he must wear one all the time, even while going to the gym. What’s that? You’re reminding me that I saw him come out of the stage door wearing a blue hoody sweatshirt? I’m afraid I can’t hear you. I must be going through a tunnel. Goodbye!
• Speaking of the stage door, I MET ANGELA LANSBURY, y’all! She was just as lovely as I hoped she would be, pausing to sign my playbill and waving away the crowd’s chorus of compliments with a self-deprecating “I’m still learning my lines”. She stopped to pose for some pics with a couple of little kids (who hadn’t even seen the show! They’d gone with their mom to The Little Mermaid! Cheaters). I suppressed a belly laugh when Angela, just after posing in that chin-up, pursed smile, classy old-country-Lady way of hers, told the parents “get these little ones to bed, it’s way too late for them to be out here!”. The parents, oblivious to her criticism, took their leave while comparing digital photos, as the five-year-old markedly observed, “she looks older than in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
• Older she may be, but this lady is still the mold for what every actor wants to achieve on Broadway. She’s earned her legendary status. And I’m ecstatic that I got to see her on stage. You will be too. Go see Blithe Spirit.

Connor Paolo likes Mexican Food

Craving a burrito and having just (belatedly) discovered that Burritoville has gone bankrupt, I popped into the Blockheads at Worldwide Plaza at about 5pm today. I put in my to-go order and had crammed myself into the small space between the front door and the bathroom door, when a slight, beautiful boy with a shock of (dyed?) dark hair approached. It was Connor Paolo, aka Eric Van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl (he was also on Broadway in The Full Monty, so yayz, I get to talk about it on ma blog)! He smiled a pretty smile and said, "Are you waiting?" (as in for the bathroom). I told him "nope," and then when he tried the door, "but there's someone in there." I took off my ipod headphones in case he wanted to have more of a conversation than that. He didn't. We both stood there for 2 minutes or so while I debated whether to ask him if he had ever heard of The Ultimate Gossip Girl Summit, but then the door opened, the previous occupant departed, and Connor aka Eric VdW went in. He spent an unremarkable 90 seconds or so in the john. Shortly thereafter, I got my Super Chicken Burrito with Brown Rice in a Whole Wheat Tortilla, and went along my way.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Introducing BroadwayGirlNYC

As you've probably guessed from the name of my blog (to which I may hereafter refer as my blizzog, blizz, bliznatch or bleezy, depending on how gangster I'm feeling at the time), I go to a lot of Broadway shows. I was thinking tonight before the curtain went up that my pace has been rather slow lately, but then I realized this was my third show in three weeks... so yeah, I go to a lot of Broadway shows. I see as many as I can and I geek out about a few of them, by which I mean I'm a repeat attender and might be known to stalk a cast member or two (not really! ok maybe a little bit). However, I'm NOT super theatre-geek drama-camp kid. I don't know the complete Jerry Herman catalogue, I can't recite the names of every actress to ever play Fantine, and I only have one framed autographed Broadway poster up in my bedroom ([title of show]).

What I'm trying to say is that I am not a woman of encyclopedic theatre knowledge. I'm not a scholar or an academic, and I don't claim any actual expertise. I'm simply a chick who has lucked into a life near Broadway, and I'm taking advantage of it as much as I possibly can.

My blog -- er, mah bleezy -- will tell you what I've seen, what I thought of it, who was amazing, who sucked ass, general random observations, gleeful tirades, trains of thought, cast-member sightings (they hang in my hood), and whatever else is on my mind relating to Broadway.

Turn off the cell phones, unwrap your candies, grab a drink from the lobby bar and smuggle it back to your seat under your coat.

Welcome to my Bliznatch!