New York Live Arts
219 West 19th St.
Last year, New York Live Arts presented its inaugural Live Ideas festival, honoring Dr. Oliver Sacks with a series of dance performances, special talks, and other programs. For the 2014 edition, as part of the citywide Year of James Baldwin celebration, NYLA is hosting “Live Ideas: James Baldwin, This Time!,” which runs April 23-27 at its home on West Nineteenth St. Every day at twelve o’clock, “Jimmy at High Noon” (free with advance RSVP) will feature actors, musicians, artists, and others reading from Baldwin’s works, which include Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, The Amen Corner, Another Country, and Jimmy’s Blues; among those scheduled to participate are Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Laurie Anderson, André DeShields, Kathleen Chalfant, Jesse L. Martin, Tonya Pinkins, Vijay Isher, and Toshi Reagon. In addition, Hank Willis Thomas’s free video installation, A person is more important than anything else…, will play continuously in the lobby, where the mural “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” incorporating the text of a piece Baldwin wrote for the November 17, 1962, issue of the New Yorker, will be on view. On April 23 at 2:30 ($15), Live Ideas curator Lawrence Weschler will moderate the discussion “Baldwin’s Capacious Imagination & Influence” with Roberta Uno and Margo Jefferson. That night the Opening Keynote Conversation ($40-$70, 8:00) brings together the impressive trio of choreographer and NYLA executive artistic director Bill T. Jones, photographer Carrie Mae Weems, and author Jamaica Kincaid. On April 23 at 5:00 and April 24 at 8:00 ($15-$40), director Patricia McGregor and actor Colman Domingo will premiere Nothing Personal, a stage adaptation of the collaboration between Baldwin and Richard Avedon, who went to high school together. The festival also includes “Baldwin & Delaney” (April 24, $10, 2:00), consisting of a reading by Rachel Cohen and a panel discussion about Baldwin’s encounter with painter Beauford Delaney; the multidisciplinary conversation “After Giovanni’s Room: Baldwin and Queer Futurity” (April 25, $10, 2:00) with Kyle Abraham, Rich Blint, Matthew Brim, Laura Flanders, and Jones; and “Jimmy’s Blues: Discussing the Poetry of James Baldwin,” comprising discussion and readings by poets Nikky Finney, Edward Hirsch, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ed Pavlić, Meghan O’Rourke, and Nathalie Handal.
Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 10, $97 - $252
Watching — nay, experiencing — the astonishing Audra MacDonald inhabit Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, one might think that the show was created specifically for the five-time Tony winner. In fact, it’s been around since 1986, and earlier off-Broadway and out-of-town versions have featured such stars as Lonette McKee, Eartha Kitt, S. Epatha Merkerson, Loretta Divine, and Jackée Harry. Inspired by one of Holiday’s final performances, at a small club in South Philadelphia a few months before her death in 1959 at the age of forty-four, Lanie Robertson’s (Nasty Little Secrets) ninety-minute show focuses on a brittle but still immensely talented Holiday as she performs classic songs while sharing tales from her difficult life, which was riddled with physical and sexual abuse, failed marriages, rape, prostitution, and drug and alcohol addiction. Backed by Shelton Becton as pianist Jimmy Powers, George Farmer on bass, and Clayton Craddock on drums (get there early, as the trio starts performing well before curtain time), McDonald nails Holiday’s unique phrasing and thrilling voice on such numbers as “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and “Easy Living” as well as “God Bless the Child,” which she cowrote, “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and “Strange Fruit,” giving them added emotional resonance in relation to Lady Day’s tragic downfall. The audience sits around the thrust stage on three sides, with a “Circle Club” section in the middle, where patrons sit at tables and drink during the show and Holiday occasionally stumbles through, slurring her words, needing help just to stay upright. Directed by Lonny Price, who previously worked with McDonald on 110 in the Shade, Lady Day is a poignant, passionate look at one of the greatest singers who ever lived, magnificently portrayed by one of Broadway’s very best.
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 28, $52 - $152
In 2001, director-choreographer Susan Stroman struck gold collaborating with Mel Brooks on the musical adaptation of his 1968 comedy, The Producers, about a pair of schlemiels looking to finance a Broadway flop. The show itself was no flop, running for six years at the St. James Theatre and winning twelve Tonys. Unfortunately, Stroman’s current collaboration with another comedy genius, Woody Allen, also at the St. James and also about trying to get a show produced, ends up shooting mostly blanks. Allen wrote the book and Stroman serves as director and choreographer for Bullets over Broadway, the musical version of Allen’s hit 1994 film, which earned him and cowriter Douglas McGrath an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. (The film earned seven Oscar nominations in all, with Dianne Weist winning for Best Supporting Actress.) The play is set in 1929, as serious playwright David Shayne (Zach Braff in his Broadway debut) is offered a chance to get his latest work produced on the Great White Way — but only if he casts mobster Nick Valenti’s (Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore) girlfriend, Olive Neal (Heléne Yorke), in a major role. Shayne’s agent, Julian Marx (Lenny Wolpe), convinces him to take the deal, but when they quickly discover how talentless, annoying, and just plain dumb Olive is, they have their work cut out for them, especially after building an otherwise impressive cast that includes the dapper but always hungry Warner Purcell (Brooks Ashmanskas), the dependable Eden Brent (Karen Ziemba), and fading diva Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie). Valenti has assigned one of his goons, Cheech (Nick Cordero), to watch after Olive, but soon he is spending most of his time rewriting Shayne’s play — and making it much better, which excites, confuses, and terrifies Shayne as opening night approaches.
Cordero is excellent as Cheech, a role played in the film by Chazz Palminteri, but the rest of the cast never quite reaches the levels necessary to make this story of art and ethics, love and money, and the business of show rise above the mundane. Allen’s jokes, so potent in the film, continually fall flat onstage, and the songs, which primarily consist of old-time classics adapted and with additional lyrics by Glen Kelly, are often repetitive (how many brief reprises can one take?), unnecessary, and unmemorable, with a few exceptions: Cheech’s “Up a Lazy River,” is fun, and Warner and Olive have a ball with “Let’s Misbehave,” which was the theme song of Allen’s ”Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask.” In addition, the Atta-Girls, who sing and dance at Nick’s club and play various background roles, are always welcome, as are William Ivey Long’s glamorous period costumes. Ultimately, Bullets over Broadway is about how far a person will go for their art; in the case of this musical, the answer is not far enough.
Union Square Theatre
100 East 17th St.
Thursday - Monday through June 1, $37.95 - $127.95
If you don’t like La Soirée, well, then you just don’t know how to have fun. The raunchy, risqué mixture of burlesque, cabaret, vaudeville, circus, and Coney Island sideshow that has been touring the world for the last several years — an earlier iteration called Absinthe ran in the Spiegeltent at the South Street Seaport back in 2006 — is playing at the misty Union Square Theatre, where the audience is seated in the round, centered by a small circular platform where most of the often mind-blowing action takes place. Hosted by emcee Aidan O’Shea (among others, depending on which night you go), the two-hour evening features a core group of performers along with special guests. Singer-comic Amy G gets intimate with audience members and uses an unusual part of her body to play an instrument. Rhythmic gymnastics champion Lea Hinz contorts her arms and legs while suspended in the air in a hoop. The self-deprecating Marcus Monroe juggles a home-made combination of dangerous items. Jeans-wearing Joren “Bath Boy” Dawson splashes plenty of water while engaging in acrobatics in and around a claw-footed tub.
Marawa the Amazing shimmies with a vast array of Hula hoops. Scrawny, wild-haired Ringling Bros. Clown College graduate Manchego offers a different take on the male striptease. The English Gents (the dapperly dressed — and undressed — Denis Lock and Hamish McCann) dazzle with breathtaking feats of skill and strength, balancing on each other’s bodies; the highlight of the night might just be McCann’s gravity-defying one-man “Singing in the Rain” pole dance. Burlesque star Julie Atlas Muz somehow gets inside a large balloon bubble. Other performers you might catch at La Soirée, which was first presented by Brett Haylock, Mark Rubinstein, and Mick Perrin in London in 2010, include Bret Pfister, Scotty Blue Bunny, Miss Ekaterina, Mooky Cornish, Le Gâteau Chocolat, Ursula Martinez, Cabaret Decadanse, Meow Meow, Jess Love, Miss Behave, and Mario, Queen of the Circus. There’s also free popcorn, a bar that remains open throughout the show, lots of audience participation, and surprises galore in this randy, very adult romp that isn’t afraid to go too low, or too high, to get a laugh, a smile, a gasp, or even a groan.
Winter Garden Theatre
1634 Broadway between 50th & 51st Sts.
Through November 23, $39-$143
The musical version of Rocky is certainly expected to go the distance, moving into Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, which was home to Cats from October 1982 to September 2000, then Mamma Mia! from October 2001 to October 2013 (before moving to the Broadhurst). And there’s no reason to think this champ won’t be around for a long time too, as the stage adaptation of John G. Avildsen’s Oscar-winning 1976 film, which spawned five sequels over thirty years is a rousing triumph. Rocky works primarily because Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the book with Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Hairspray), has stayed faithful to his story of a local boxer trying to get by in South Philadelphia. In many ways, Rocky is more a play with songs rather than an all-out musical, with lots of dialogue, much of it taken directly from the film’s screenplay, which earned Stallone an Oscar nomination. Andy Karl (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Legally Blonde) puts on the gloves as Rocky Balboa, who lives alone in a small, cramped apartment where he worships undefeated champion Rocky Marciano and hasn’t given up his dreams quite yet, despite his lack of success. He “Ain’t Down Yet,” the show’s first big number announces, after which he proudly declares, “My Nose Ain’t Broken.” He’s lost his locker at the gym and can’t get a date with the mousey Adrian (Margo Seibert), his best friend Paulie’s (Danny Mastrogiorgio) timid sister, but his life takes quite a turn when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Terence Archie) chooses Balboa to be his underdog challenger in a patriotic battle for the world title.
His trainer, Mickey (Dakin Matthews), comes crawling back to him, and off Rocky goes, running through the streets of Philadelphia (yes, including the steps of the art museum), pounding meat, and tenderly wooing Adrian, who is slowly breaking out of her shell, as the championship fight nears. And what a fight it is, highlighted by a moving stage that floats into the audience as set designer Christopher Barreca turns the Winter Garden into the Spectrum. Director Alex Timbers has shown he has a unique take on musical theater in such wildly hailed productions as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Here Lies Love, and he does so again with Rocky, bringing visual flair and tongue-in-cheek humor to this familiar tale, led by a strong performance by Karl as the Italian Stallion, balancing toughness with a tender charm. Stephen Flaherty’s music and Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics aren’t particularly memorable and Archie’s Creed doesn’t have the depth displayed by Carl Weathers in the films, but this underdog musical manages to get past a few dull rounds, ending up packing quite a wallop.
The Transport Group continues its 20th Century Project with a lovely revival of John Van Druten’s 1944 play, I Remember Mama. Inspired by Kathryn Forbes’s semiautobiographical collection of short stories, Mama’s Bank Account, the intimate tale is told in flashback by wannabe writer Katrin Hanson (Barbara Barrie), returning to 1910 as her close-knit immigrant family struggles to get by in San Francisco. All twenty-two roles, including men, women, and children, are played by a wonderful cast of ten older actresses who never change costumes as they roam around Dane Laffrey’s engaging set. The inventive production has no stage; instead, ten tables, each covered with a particular type of household item or memorabilia, from photographs and letters to books and glassware, are illuminated by R. Lee Kennedy’s design of five rows of nine low-hanging lights, which strategically spotlight the specific table where the next scene will take place. With all the lights on, the Gym at Judson audience is visible, seated on all four sides, as if they are part of the family as well. Barbara Andres is charming as Mama, a Norwegian-born woman trying to assimilate to the American way of life. She is generally cool and calm while dealing with the daily trials and tribulations of her clan, which includes her pipe-smoking husband (Dale Soules), her daughters, Katrin, Christine (Louise Sorel), and Dagmar (Phyllis Somerville), her son, Nels (Heather MacRae), her sisters, Jenny (Alice Cannon), Sigrid (Susan Lehman), and Trina (Rita Gardner), and family patriarch Uncle Chris (Lynn Cohen). Mama forgoes the winter coat she’s always wanted as she deals with Dagmar’s trip to the hospital; a boarder, Mr. Hyde (Cohen), who is not exactly up-to-date with his rent; Trina’s desire to wed the local funeral director, Mr. Thorkelson (MacRae); finding just the right gift for Katrin’s upcoming graduation; and saving enough money so the smart Nels can continue his education.
The smaller stories play out almost like individual episodes of a television series, and indeed Mama ran on CBS from 1949 to 1957 with Peggy Wood in the title role; the play made its Broadway debut in 1944 with Oscar Homolka as Uncle Chris and Marlon Brando as Nels and was turned into a Broadway musical in 1979 with Liv Ullmann and George Hearn. In 1948, George Stevens directed the film version with Irene Dunne as Mama, Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin, and Homolka as Uncle Chris (in addition to Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Ellen Corby, and Rudy Vallee). The play was written by English playwright John Van Druten, who also penned Bell, Book and Candle; I Am a Camera, which became Cabaret; and 1931’s London Wall, which can be seen in its American debut at the Mint through April 26. That’s quite a pedigree, but the Transport Group, under the direction of Jack Cummings III (The Audience, The Boys in the Band), has shed new light on this old warhorse, starting with the casting itself, in which each of the characters can be seen as a different aspect of Mama herself as well as a celebration of mothers and motherhood in general. The 20th Century Project began last year with Michael John LaChuisa’s award-winning Queen of the Mist, set in the first decade of the century; up next will be a revival set in the 1920s.
Inspired by the real-life story of desperate German war widows who turned to prostitution in the 1920s, David Grimm’s Tales from Red Vienna begins with a powerful scene: From behind a loose black curtain that evokes a widow’s veil, a gentleman enters a woman’s living room and promptly has sex with her against a table; he leaves money for her, but her distaste is clear. The curtain is then pulled back and we learn that she is Heléna (Nina Arianda), a formerly well-off married woman who has taken to extremes to earn money after her husband was killed in WWI. Instead of a mansion, she now lives in a small apartment but still manages to be served by her longtime housekeeper, the quick-witted and cynical Edda (Kathleen Chalfant). When Heléna’s best friend, society doyenne Mutzi von Fessendorf (Tina Benko), hatches a plan in which Heléna will join her on what is supposed to be a blind date but is really a way for the married Mutzi to meet with her potential lover, Heléna is shocked when the fix-up turns out to be her most recent customer. Hungarian journalist Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper) instantly takes a liking to Heléna, and her eventual reciprocation leads to major problems as the story takes an unexpected yet utterly clichéd and extremely disappointing turn.
Directed by Kate Whoriskey (Ruined, Magdalena) with procedural attention across three acts with two intermissions, the Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center is highlighted by John Lee Beatty’s (The Nance, Other Desert Cities) inventive sets, particularly the middle-section cemetery where Heléna and Bela have their secret rendezvous. But the promise of the first act slowly falls apart as predictable scenes mix with overacting (Benko, Hoyos) and underacting (Arianda, who was such a force in her Tony-winning role in Venus in Fur). Meanwhile, a subplot involving a Jewish grocer’s son (Michael Goldsmith) as a portent to the rise of Nazism essentially just fades away, emblematic of the play as a whole.