“Into the Woods” and out of the woods and home before dark

The blizzard-that-wasn’t messed up my week a little — but also gave me a work-from-home day, so I’m calling it even.  I was supposed to go to a concert on Monday night at Subculture, featuring Jason Robert Brown, Sierra Boggess, and (the real draw for my friend and me, since JRB is doing a whole series there and we can see him another time), the one and only Norbert Leo Butz. I saw him in “Big Fish” (he was great, the show wasn’t memorable), but otherwise haven’t seen him in anything – just fell in love with his voice as Fiyero in “Wicked” and Jamie in “The Last Five Years”. I’m bummed that it got canceled, especially since it’s unclear whether Norbert will be joining JRB in one of his other shows.

But I can’t really complain, because even without a Norbert sighting, this was a two show week for me. Wednesday night I went to see “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” (more on that soon, probably next week) and on Sunday, after that yummy brunch at Max Brenner, I went to see “Into the Woods”.*


I’ve talked about “Into the Woods” a little bit on this blog before, but not in any depth. It’s an interesting show. I’ve now seen four productions of it, meaning it’s tied with “Camelot” for the show I’ve seen the most times. I’m not sure that makes it my favorite show. In many ways, it should be. As I’ve said before on here, I love stories about story, and “Into the Woods” is certainly that. It’s also about fairy tales, which are some of my very favorite things. The music is sometimes catchy, sometimes beautiful. I haven’t listened to much else by Sondheim, so I can’t say how it compares, but the songs do run through my head after I’ve heard them. It has quirk and charm and hope, but no easy answers. All things I like. But it also has a ton of plotlines that can keep us from caring that much about any given character and a first act that can feel long while the second one can feel rushed. I like the show, but I have problems with it.

The Roundabout production is a unique one, put on by a company called Fiasco Theater. The show consists of a group of ten actors playing all the parts. There’s always doubling in “Into the Woods” – the narrator is sometimes played by the Mysterious Man, the Wolf is usually portrayed by one of the princes, and so forth. But with only ten actors, this production had to get creative. The princes, for instance, also were Cinderella’s stepsisters, and one of them played the Wolf while the other doubled as Milky White, the cow. The costumes were minimal, usually just a base with different props  or items of clothing added or subtracted to indicate character. Jack donned a coat to play the Steward, and the prince, when playing the Wolf, picked up a – well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise.


Those surprises were a huge part of the humor of the first act. At the talkback my friend and I attended after the show, one of the actors described a good set as being like a great playground, with lots of great toys. As the show progressed, we never knew exactly what an actor might pick up to convey a certain character or to represent an object or setting. The set is centered on the piano, which is present throughout the show and which is exploded out to become the set itself. Piano harps lined the wings of the stage where curtains usually hang; metal keys formed the proscenium framing the stage; and ropes representing piano strings crisscrossed the back of the stage. From the ceiling of the stage and extending out into the house hung a ton of chandeliers. My friend mentioned that she’d read a review that said the set looked like it had been ordered off Etsy – I’d amend that to say it came from Anthropologie, and I was fine with that!

The actors had great rapport, not surprising considering a core group of them make up the Fiasco Theater company. Most of them did their MFAs together at Brown and they’ve done a number of shows together. They weren’t a diverse bunch, and I’ve heard more polished singing before, but their acting was great and overall the music was as lovely as ever. They left out a few things, including the Midnight bits where fairy tale advice is offered, but the show was left more intact than it was in the recent movie.

For me the most interesting part of this version was the turn from first act to second. It’s always a shift, but in the first act the gimmick of the minimalist casting and staging was always at the center of the joke. In the second half, the doubling loosened a little (partly because several characters die!) but the gimmick was still there – it just didn’t matter as much. Maybe it’s because the second half is so serious compared to the first, but I felt myself get caught up in the story in the second half in a way that I didn’t in the first. Some of that is the story itself – the fairy tales are shallower as they wend their way toward the happily ever afters. But some of it was done through choices by the directors, choices that kept the focus on the action.

If you have an opportunity to see this production, either here before it closes on April 12 or elsewhere if it continues to travel, I recommend it. It has all that I already love about this show, and it’s put on by a creative and talented group of people. I’m interested to see what Fiasco Theater does next!

Have you seen this production, or another one? What do you think about “Into the Woods”?

*I know I’ve probably said it twelve times on this blog by now (and more in person – sorry, friends), but if you live in NYC and you’re under 35 (or have friends who are under 35, which, you all do) and you’re not taking advantage of HIPTIX and HIPTIX Gold already, you are missing out. To recap, HIPTIX is free, signing up to it gets you two $25 balcony tickets to each show put on by Roundabout Theatre Company. HIPTIX Gold involves a $75 that gets you access for a year to two $25 tickets per show – but this time on the floor. I’ve seen five different Roundabout shows since then (and I’ve seen “Cabaret” multiple times, because it stretched across two seasons), and all of them have been really well done.



Come to the Cabaret… again


I went to see Cabaret again this weekend – my friend who I went with last time had an extra ticket and so I got to go again! We had the same table as last time, except on the other side of the theater. Like I said when I went last time, I thought it was a fascinating show and I was really happy I got to go.

I still feel that way, so why am I writing another entry? Because it was a very different experience, starting from when we were waiting for a friend in the lobby. I looked over and saw a man who looked a little familiar, but didn’t think anything of it. My friend leaned in and said, “Is that Liam Neeson?”


It wasn’t. But her friend quickly realized it was Ralph Fiennes, who we all knew best as Lord Voldemort. We tried not to stare too much, then or the four or five other times we passed by him over the course of the night. Okay, I did crane my neck a little to figure out where he was sitting (same row as us), but that was it.

The celebrity sightings continued at intermission. While waiting in the bathroom line I thought I spotted Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted (not technically a celebrity, but definitely a hero to many women in their twenties whose lives were changed by that book). When I got back to the table, my companions told me that sitting in front of us, in the front section of tables, were two more movie stars: Woody Harrelson and Edward Norton. Sure enough, they took their seats right as the second act started. In one night I just about doubled the number of celebrity sightings I’ve had since moving to NYC.

The real celebrities of the night, though, were the stars of the show: Alan Cumming and newcomer Emma Stone. Emma just started last week and was the reason I was so keen to go see the show again. I saw the understudy last time, and she was good, but Emma took the part to a different place. She was funny and over-the-top and warm and heartbreaking.


She’s scheduled to perform through the beginning of February, so if you can, you should go! And Alan Cumming was as fantastic as last time – he is the show. We went to the stage door afterward and saw both of them, as well as Linda Emond as Fraulein Schneider (who was also fabulous), and got our play bills signed. They were all lovely and gracious, and totally worth waiting for in the cold!

So I said it already, but let me say it again: If you get a chance to go see Caberet, you should go!

As for me – I may go for a third time, adding Cabaret  to the short list of shows (A Christmas CarolInto the WoodsLes MisPeter and the Starcatcher, Camelot – okay, maybe not that short) I’ve seen three or more times. Because it was worth it! Tell me, what shows have you all seen an embarrassing number of times?


An afternoon at the “Cabaret”

After going to see a ton of shows in June and July, I didn’t see a single play or musical for all of August and September. It was a long, dry spell that I finally broke this weekend with a trip to Studio 54 to see “Cabaret” with my friend. Studio 54 is gorgeous — it’s a former nightclub and the home of the 1998 “Cabaret” revival, and the orchestra level seating is made up of small tables. As you might be able to tell from this photo (the only one we took inside, since it’s not really allowed), we had a great view — table was in the first row of tiered tables halfway back. There was a walkway in front of us and the actors often used it to go up onstage and off.

Our table at Studio 64, sneakily taken by my friend with her phone.

Our table at Studio 64, sneakily taken by my friend with her phone.

I’m not going to tell you the plot of “Cabaret”. You may already know it, or you can go look it up. Instead, I’ll tell you all that I knew going into it: It’s a cabaret, Alan Cumming plays the Master of Ceremonies, it takes place in Berlin, and it takes place either right before or soon after WWII. (The last one is important: it’s before.)

Usually going into a musical I’ve listened to the music. Going into a play, I may have read it, or googled a synopsis. At the very least I’ll read the summary in the program. But Studio 54 doesn’t give out the programs for “Cabaret” until the end of the show, so I didn’t know anything of the plot, I vaguely knew I’d heard the song “Cabaret” before but had no idea if I’d recognize any of the rest of the songs (I did know a few), and the only spoiler question I asked my friend before was if anyone dies. I don’t like sad surprises.

My friend loves “Cabaret”. She saw it for the first time at fifteen. This outing was her fourth time to see this production – and she lives in DC. At intermission and after the show she told me all about the show’s history, from the book it was based on to the first production in the 1960s to the first revival to this production. She talked about how Alan Cumming expanded the role of the Master of Ceremonies (or MC) and how his portrayal has changed from the first revival to this one. It was all fascinating information – I felt like I was sitting next to a theater historian.

So here’s my review of “Cabaret” – it’s strange, and dark, and sexy, and the music is all that too, but what struck me the most was all the history layered into it, the foreshadowing and the conflict that came just from when and where it was all taking place. It was a really thoughtful show, and a thoughtful production, and I just might have to go back and see Emma Stone in it, especially since Michelle Williams was out the day we went.

It doesn’t hurt that “Cabaret” is a Roundabout Theatre production, which means if you’re under 35 you can get two balcony tickets for $25 each through HIPTIX. Or you can do what we did and buy a HIPTIX Gold membership for $75, which gets you $25 floor seats to Roundabout Theatre shows for a year. I know I’ll use it later in the season (there are a ton of great shows ahead) but it was worth it just for this show.

If you’re looking for an interesting night or afternoon, check out “Cabaret” and let me know what you think!

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Violet, or, more theater-going

I went two whole weeks without posting about theater. I mean, I posted about a concert, but come on, I gave you the break you needed, right? So to make up for lost time, have a doubleheader post about two very different musicals.

First, Violet. It closes on August 10, so if this sounds interesting, get thee to the (virtual) box office, and if you’re between the ages of 18 and 35, sign up for HipTix and get the $25 tickets.
Violet is a revival, but this is the show’s first time on Broadway. It almost made it back in 1997, when it opened, but the reviews weren’t great and it didn’t transfer. At the Theater Talk my friend and I heard before the show, we learned that the composer of Violet, Jeanine Tesori, is now the artistic director for Encores Off-Center. I’ve never gone to an Off-Center show, but I’ve seen the regular Encores! shows, and really enjoyed their production of Tick, tick . . . BOOM! a few weeks ago, so I’ll have to check it out. Both programs involve putting on short-run staged readings of musicals which don’t get performed often.
Anyway, when Tesori became artistic director, people suggested that she stage Violet, but she felt that would be weird. They convinced her to do a one-off reading, though, and apparently the energy in the room was so fantastic that they knew there was something here. And then it came to Broadway, with star Sutton Foster in the title role.
Violet is a young woman traveling on a Greyhound bus in 1964. Facially disfigured in a childhood accident (though the scar is not shown), Violet is going to see a televangelist so she can be healed. Violet is the story of her travels, of the people she meets, of life on the cusp of the civil rights movement – and the story of the girl she was, and her relationship with her late father. The music is lovely, the staging was colorful and fun, the performances were stellar, and the story made me think. I had a few quibbles with how things wrapped up, which I’d be happy to discuss with anyone who wants to, but I’m so glad I went!
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a completely different show. Tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top, too-clever-for-its-own-good – all are apt descriptions. At the show’s opening, Monty, the Earl, is in jail for murder, and is writing his confession. He starts at the beginning, back when he was a poor boy whose mother has just died and a stranger comes to tell him that there are only about eight people between him and his relative, the earl.
And Monty starts thinking. So you can guess where things start to go. The relatives in the line of succession, men and women alike, are all played by Jefferson Mays. His quick costume changes and character changes are fascinating to watch, and each is distinctive – and usually, but not always, a terrible person. I rooted for Monty even as I was appalled at his actions. There’s love, and there’s murder, and there are funny lines and scenes and songs. There were even a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming. The set, which included a stage-upon-a-stage, was gorgeous, and while my friend and I had to lean forward a little from our seats in the front row of the balcony, we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.
Since Gentleman’s Guide won the Tony this year for Best Musical, it should run for a while yet. If you’re trying to decide between this and Violet, go see Violet, and then go see Monty murder some people later in the summer. You won’t regret either.
I have a few more tickets in my future – including Cabaret in September, and plans to see King Lear in Central Park in the next few weeks – but I’m always looking for suggestions. What shows have you seen lately that you’d recommend?

"Just Jim Dale", or, a life story in ninety minutes

Look, this blog has been a little theater-heavy lately, I know. And I’ve got tickets to… three more shows in the coming weeks, so I can’t promise there won’t be more show posts. But, all of the shows I’m writing about should be relatively easy to get tickets for (at least compared to “Macbeth”and “Much Ado About Nothing”).

The one I want to tell you about today is called “Just Jim Dale”, it’s put on at the Laura Pels Theater through the Roundabout Theater Company (which means if you’re under 35, sign up for HIPTIX and you can get two tickets for $25 each), and it’s a one-man show.
Who is Jim Dale? Well, he has had a long and varied career – and the show is a testament to that – but for me I knew him as the guy who did all the Harry Potter audio books (which I’ve yet to listen to, but want to!), and as the narrator on the short-lived but wonderful show “Pushing Daisies”.
He is seventy-eight years old and he has more energy than I ever have had.
You might think I’m kidding, but I promise you, Jim Dale dances and sings and jokes his way through a ninety minute show, assisted only by a pianist, and it’s just one fun moment to the next – even when he’s performing the closing monologue from a very serious play.
It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know his work outside of the two things I’ve mentioned – he takes you through his career and hits a lot of hysterical high points, sometimes singing songs he composed or performed, sometimes showing pictures of his younger self, and always, always tying it back to his roots in the British music hall tradition, which was fascinating.
HIPTIX only requires that the person who purchases (and picks up) the tickets be under 35 – your guest can be any age, so I took my dad, and we both really enjoyed it. We also enjoyed talking about it afterward. I’ve gone to the theater alone before, and it’s fine, but going with someone and talking through what worked and what didn’t, what you loved and what you’d already forgotten, is a total bonus.
“Just Jim Dale” runs through August 10 – if you’re looking for an inexpensive but really fun night out (and you or someone you know qualifies for HIPTIX), I highly recommend it! In the meantime, I’ve got an itch to rewatch some “Pushing Daisies”…