Sunday, June 24, 2012

God speed, Godspell

This blog started in April 2011 with "call me Maxine Bialystok" and the start of my adventure as a Broadway producer, investing $1,000 along with 700 other folks in the revival of Godspell. Today, a chapter closes as Godspell plays its last show - even as I write this - at the Circle in the Square Theatre on 50th Street, just west of Broadway.

For me, and I would venture to say for a goodly number of those 700, this has been a theater experience unlike any other. The opportunity to get so close to the creation and running of a Broadway musical for a relatively small amount of money, the community created by lead producer Ken Davenport and his staff, the sense of intimate involvement, the unique qualities of this show, the visionary ideas on marketing and investment ... not only do I find it hard to be objective about it, but I'm having a tough time even processing the whole thing.

On an important level in terms of an investment, Godspell has been a disappointment. The Broadway run will not repay its investors. I received $50 back from my original investment since the producers did not spend the entire amount raised (and clearly were not from the Max Bialystok school of producing), but it looks like I'm out $950. There has been a national tour announced and I'm not sure if us POGs (we were dubbed People of Godspell) get a piece of that, but this is the situation right now.

Director Danny Goldstein and Solange De Santis at intermission at Godspell

It played 30 previews and 264 performances since opening last November. Reviews were mixed. Some found the show's high-octane style joyful, others frenetic and childish.

Although I loved the cast for the most part, especially the supremely talented Telly Leung (of Glee), Wallace Smith and Uzo Aduba, I thought Miranda Hoffman's ragbag of costumes were a weak point. I like the staging in the round at Circle in the Square's lower level theater and thought the placement under the main theater where Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz's Wicked is running forever, was particularly apt.

However, I think there were a couple of reasons the show wasn't nominated for any Tony awards, a development from which it couldn't recover although Ken managed to get a number from the show on the awards telecast. No question the show was warm and embracing and word of mouth from those who did see it (some 154,000) was extraordinarily good. But it wasn't glamorous like our other Jesus across town, Jesus Christ Superstar.

I also felt it never really answered the question, "why Godspell now?" Ken's answer was "because our society and our politics is more divided than ever," and it's a great answer. Maybe the audiences on tour will find that answer. But Godspell is so familiar from the last four decades of school, church and community performances that it wasn't able to make a compelling case for itself given the intense competition of Broadway. Once people saw it, they were glad they went, but it wasn't at the top of enough theatergoers' lists.

I went to see the show twice, the preview before it opened on Nov. 7 and Hunter Parrish's second-to-last performance as Jesus on April 15. I hadn't intended to go a second time - had a "been there, done that" feeling - but my friend unexpectedly had an extra ticket. Although I was a little reluctant, Godspell worked its unique magic on me - and I was really glad I went (same reaction as the rest of the audiences, right?)! I was particularly interested to see how Hunter had deepened a character interpretation that seemed to me to be a little bland at the beginning.

Here is Hunter singing "Beautiful City" with all his soul:

So, the $64,000 (or $950) question - was it worth it? Well, you could put on one side of the ledger the "free" things I received - a glass of wine at the investors' gathering at Sardi's, a Godspell t-shirt for our Times Square flash mob, a poster with all the investors' names, food and drink at a holiday party and an "appreciation" party - and I suppose it would add up to another $75.

But how do you put a price on intangibles, on the things that the Master Card commercial says are "priceless?" What would it cost me to get a Broadway producer to listen to me and return my e-mails, as Ken does without fail? What would it take to be part of a "flash mob" rehearsing in a Broadway studio, then dancing in Times Square to "Day by Day?" Why are my eyes tearing up right now, thinking of the eager faces and intense conversations among the People of Godspell at our shareholders' meetings and gatherings?

Maybe the next to last word should go to my Toronto theater friends Scott White and Peter Fenton, who sent me a e-mail reading, in part: "A note of thanks for getting theatre onto the boards by being a producer of Godspell ... 90% of Broadway investors never make their money back, but they help put important work on stage that employs actors, directors, choreographers, stage managers, crews, theatre staff and ushers AND brings joy to thousands of people ... the theatre community at large thanks you."

No, I don't have $900 to throw around every day but the at the final reckoning - yes, priceless.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why "Once?" This is why ...

On a Tony Awards ceremony that seemed more entertaining than last year's, the musical Once cleaned up eight times: best musical, musical director, actor, scene, sound and lighting design, orchestrations and book.

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti
I saw the show in early April and was enchanted. From the first moment, director John Tiffany had created a complete and satisfying work of dramatic art where all the elements were consistent and true to a delicate and affecting story.

You don't want to slide into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre at 7:58 pm for this show; the pub set features real beer taps and the audience is invited to go on stage and buy a pint. Cast members are playing and singing, just like a Sunday night "session" in a Dublin pub.

The story unfolds gracefully after the house lights dim and the audience returns to its rightful place. Based on the 2006 film of the same name, Once is the story of a Dublin musician hurting over a girl that got away and a young Czech woman who inspires, goads and encourages him to play again.

Cristin Milioti (center, at piano) and Steve Kazee (r) in Once
Played by Steve Kazee (who gave a very affecting Tony Awards acceptance speech), the generically-identified Guy works in his dad's vacuum cleaner repair shop and is a bit stuck, emotionally. He dreams of making a record but is doing too much talking rather than doing; he pines for his girl but can't decide whether to go to New York after her.

Into his fog walks Girl (I'm not sure whether I like this dramatic convention; it always seems a bit precious), a small, thin, very intense young woman (Cristin Milioti) whose response to Guy's comment on her demeanor is - "I am always serious. I am Czech."

They seem like oil and water -- the laid-back Irishman and the emotional Eastern European -- but music links their souls. She plays piano, he guitar and they begin to connect. She brings a vacuum cleaner "that needs fixing" and of course it's not the only thing that needs fixing around there. But this love story, like life, isn't simple and he discovers that Girl lives with her daughter, and her mother, and that there is a husband back home.

Her unwavering commitment gives him the courage to seek a bank loan in order to make a recording of his music and the scene with the bank officer (Andy Taylor), also an amateur musician, is charmingly funny. David Patrick Kelly, as Guy's father, and Anne L. Nathan as Girl's mother, Baruska (how come other characters get names?) also make strong impressions. Playwright Enda Walsh's book makes a character like Girl endearing rather than annoying.

However, the reason Once won all those awards is that it expands the film's story into a brilliant piece of theater. All cast members play musical instruments and Steven Hoggett, the movement genius behind Black Watch and American Idiot, has choreographed stylized actions for scene changes and songs.

The songs by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, including the Academy Award-winning "Falling Slowly," forge a similar style, but these lyrical, soulful ballads explore depths of feeling without becoming tedious. Tony winner (and double nominee) Natasha Katz' lighting design casts a subtle atmosphere of gold and amber and Clive Goodwin's Tony-winning sound design strikes a balance between pub sound and theater sound.      

Despite all the awards, not everyone cares for the show. A friend said she was bored; others think it moves too slowly. But I think it creates an unusual magic.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bloody 'ell!

Wow! Who knew that the tousled-haired middle-aged guy on the $20 bill -- our seventh president, Andrew Jackson -- was a rootin' tootin' hottie in tight black jeans, kohl eyeliner, spiky haircut, muscle shirt and boots?

As conceived in the musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which I just caught at the end of its two-weekend run at Westchester Sandbox Theatre in Mamaroneck, N.Y., politics in the early 19th century featured a resentful populist movement, a tight group of East Coast politicians and a charismatic Western leader, all set to a bitchin' emo-rock score.

In other words, more than a few similarities to today, with echoes of the Bush years. OK, maybe they didn't have emo (emotional hardcore) rock punctuating the 1828 election, which resulted in Jackson's first term as president and the founding of the Democratic Party. But they sure did have emotion, as a young United States of America - just half a century old - was still struggling to find its feet after two wars with Britain.

Bloody Bloody was a sensation in 2010 at the Public Theater off-Broadway but didn't find its audience on Broadway, closing after four months. This was the first New York regional production of the show and a really fine affair it was.

The four-year-old Westchester Sandbox produces both mainstage adult shows and theatre for and with young people in a 100-seat storefront venue. Bloody Bloody was staged by the three-year-old Little Radical Theatrics company, whose mandate is to provide an outlet for 20-something theater artists who are out of high school, possibly in college and possibly heading for professional careers or community theater.

The cast, as directed by Michael J. Mirra, hit just the right note of intense deadpan attitude, as creators Alex Timbers (book and the original production's director) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) urge in their notes for licensed productions.

Jackson and his rag-tag followers - cast members play various politicians (Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, John Quincy Adams), Indians, citizens - defiantly stake their territory in the opening number, "Populism, Yea, Yea!" as they accuse the educated elite of Massachusetts and Virginia of ignoring the people of the expanding frontier.

The show's charm comes from its skillful layering of modern idioms and styles on a quite serious look at a young nation where a boy from rural Tennessee can rise to be a military hero and president - and a major slave owner and persecutor of the native population. It also skewers an eternally adolescent streak in American politics: deep down, we want our president to be a rock star.

Jackson's rough childhood, during which he was orphaned at 14, joined the military and was captured by the British, is summed up succinctly with the phrase, "Life sucks, and my life sucks in particular." Enraged by Indian attacks on his family and French, Spanish and British control of various territories, Jackson longs for a leader ("I'm Not That Guy") then realizes he will take action ("I'm So That Guy").

The "bloody" of the title was well earned as Jackson took on the British at the Battle of New Orleans, headed up a militia that drove Indian tribes out of the Southeast ("Ten Little Indians") and cleared Spanish and French forces from Florida.

But the minute you think you've got Jackson pegged as more Hitler than hero, the show illuminates his complex personality. The same man who signed the Indian Removal Act, forcibly relocating tribes west of the Mississippi, also adopted a native boy whose parents had been killed in battle. His relationship with his wife, Rachel, was passionately loving and her death - incredibly on the eve of his inauguration - devastated him.

The magnetic BJ Markus, with a fine singing voice, rivetingly played Jackson with more sexy snarl than the handsome Benjamin Walker in the original productions. The entire cast did great work, but particular mention should go to Dany Rousseau's portrait of the strong yet wistful Rachel.

Markus and Mirra are credited with the very effective scenic design - a stage framed with portraits and objects from what look like America's attic. Ricky Romano's five-piece band provided tight accompaniment. However, Mirra's lighting design occasionally left some performers in unfortunate shadows.

Jackson's legacy is controversial even today, but this show, and Green Day's American Idiot, are modern classics that use rock music to make profound comments on American politics and society. Little Radical Theatrics' production brilliantly conveyed the spirit of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.