Friday, April 27, 2007

A Season Ends (sort of) With Strong Women

It's been over a week since I've posted here. Sorry for the silence. The Drama Desk nomination process is an arduous one that sort of overtook all of my time. But, it's done and I'll admit I'm quite proud of the slate – it's amazing how it gets done at all. Not including festival shows (Fringe, NYMF, etc.) I saw 287 shows in the 12 months since the last nominations were announced. Distilling that many shows, performances and design elements down to six per category is no easy feat. But, it's done, and so, now onto the 'new' season, even as the old winds down.

Speaking of which, there was a flurry of theatergoing for me during all of this, and in three instances, we're talking about, to paraphrase Cryer and Ford, women doing their "strong woman numbers." With these capsule reviews, along with a full review of Frost/Nixon that I'll post on ATW early next week, basically allow me to move forward into the "new" season (at least for Drama Desk purposes) with a relatively clean slate.

I'll start with The Pirate Queen – the new musical over at the Hilton from Les Miz creators Boublil and Schoenberg. Stephanie J. Block is doing some admirable work in this awfully heavy seagoing, almost swashbuckling, musical, but sadly, it never swings fully to life. To their credit, the creators have written some rather grand Elizabethan sounding arias for Queen Elizabeth (Drama Desk nominee Linda Balgord), and in act two when Elizabeth and Block's pirate queen Grace O'Malley square off, the show's rather grand. Also an asset to the show are choreographer Carol Leavy Joyce's Irish dances that are lovely variations of work seen in Riverdance. I'll admit to having had real hopes for this one, and perhaps my expectations were just too high. I left thinking that the writers, with Gary Griffin (director) and Graciela Daniele (musical staging) should have been able to fashion a truly thrilling adventure tale from this obscure piece of British history.

A similar level of female strength, albeit much more contemporary, and infinitely more cutting can be found at the Actors Temple Theatre on 47th Street where J.A.P – The Jewish American Princesses of Comedy is playing. Here Jackie Hoffman, Cory Kahaney, Jessica Kirson and Cathy Ladman each deliver 15 or 20 minutes of their standup routines all the while paying tribute to some of the women who paved the way for them in comedy field: comediennes like Jean Carroll, Betty Walker and Pearl Williams. Before the quartet of women performs, clips of these other women's routines (mostly from old television shows) are projected onto a pair of "Laugh-In"-esque flower mobiles that are a key element of Jo Winiarski's scenic design. It makes for an interesting contrast in what was and is cutting edge in women's humor. I found it hard not to want to see a more direct correlation between the old and new in J.A.P., and although, some of the Jewish flavor of "J.A.P." failed to land with this goy, the show, directed by Dan Fields, is ultimately an affable 90-minutes of standup comedy.

Finally, and in yet, another whiplash-inducing switch of styles and tones, I want to mention the subtle and often riveting performance that Vanessa Redgrave is giving in The Year of Magical Thinking at the Booth Theatre on 45th Street. As Redgrave performs Joan Didion's text – an adaptation of her memoir about her husband and daughter's deaths, Redgrave manages to be simultaneously coolly stoic and deeply emotional. For most of the evening, she sits centerstage in a wooden armchair and as the play progresses, scenic designer Bob Crowley punctuates the shifts in Didion's life with a series of scrims in mottled and muted grays and beiges, which plummet to the stage floor.

So, at least for the Drama Desks, 2006-2007 has ended…there will be second night reviews on ATW of the Broadway shows yet to open in the Tony Award realm of the past year, but for off and off-off-Broadway it's welcome to 2007-2008. (In fact, I've already been to the first show of the new season.)

Until next time,


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Mamet's Commercials - and Some Much Needed FL Cheer

As this is an incredible crunch time for me, I've been worrying about what to post here – not wanting the blog to go silent only a week after I launched. Yesterday's announcement that David Mamet would be directing television ads for Ford Motor Company got me to thinking about what the company's new tag line might be – something like "Have you driven a Ford lately, goddammit..'

Given events in Virginia, this seemed a little too glib, and I just went about my business. Would that I'd had the Blogger intuition of Betsey Maupin, who's the critic for the Orlando Sentinel. She managed to find a link on YouTube that beautifully captured my need – and I imagine the needs of others yesterday. Actually, there are two links – one that offers fabulous diversion and a brief moment of cheer and another that offer a bit of emotional inspiration.

Here's the link to Betsey's blog with a tip of my hat.

Until next time,


Friday, April 13, 2007

'Gardens' and 'Drowsy' Recordings

Last night I was listening to PS Classics' excellent new recording of Grey Gardens on in the iPod, switching back and forth between the off-Broadway recording and the new one. It was really a delight to have the ability to compare the two. While I imagine that most people have probably heard about the fact that, after the company has sold out of the first cast recording, it will go out-of-print, I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick reminder about the two recordings.

Normally, this would not be a big deal, but in the case of Grey Gardens, where the creatives (Doug Wright, book; Scott Frankel, music; and Michael Korie, lyrics) have done such a masterful job in reshaping their material from the off-Broadway incarnation of the musical to the Broadway version, it's sort of imperative, in my humble opinion, to have both discs. Even if you're not a diehard fan of the show, the changes really do give what I think should be a textbook case of how to revise a musical. To make the case even stronger, PS Classics is selling the older version of the Grey Gardens disc for a mere $4.95.

In a similar – but not quite - dual release, Ghostlight Records has done a second pressing of the vinyl recording of The Drowsy Chaperone and it's available through their website. I've not had a chance to play the LP, but have become very fond of the CD that comes with the vinyl disc. As great as it is to have the commentary from Bob Martin as "Man in Chair" on the original CD, I find just zipping between the "Chaperone" songs proper is a real treat. If this ease of listen factor isn't enough to convince you, let me also mention that there's some fun dialogue on here that's not on the original cast "Chaperone" disc, and the packaging for the album is a witty treat.

Until next time,

Andy Propst

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Some Thoughts on the Paper Mill Situation

I'm stepping out on a limb here, but I want to say I'm really rather peeved by the dangerous crossroad that the Paper Mill Playhouse has reached. Mind you, I don't want the theater to shutter – far from it. I've spent many enjoyable afternoons and evenings there taking in the institution's often lavish productions. (I call it an institution rather than an organization because after 69 years the theater is an institution).

So, if I'm not rooting for the theater's demise? Why am I peeved? Well the thing is that I spent 8 years of my life working as a fundraiser – for one major institution – The New York Shakespeare Festival and also for two smaller non-profits, and know that the process by which a theater arrives at an annual operating budget is a carefully orchestrated tango between artistic staff, management and an organization's board of directors, trustees, or whatever term has been used in a group's bylaws.

The staff, starting with the artistic director, announces what his or her dream season will be. Management – by which I mean financial departments, fundraising, and general management – then estimates how much the season will cost, and also projects what sort of revenues can be expected at the box office and from private contributions. Normally there's a rather big difference between the expenses and the income side. It's why artistic directors are who they are…they get to dream big.

So, now, this is where the dance comes in. It's been my experience that before going to the board, the staff will attempt to minimize the gap between income and expense, examining how more money for a season can be found, and by trying to trim as much as possible from the expenses of a new season of plays and ancillary activities (like an education program).

With a shortfall still in place, the staff normally meets with the board – that must approve the budget as they are ultimately the fiscal guardians of the company. Now then, in some situations, the board will demand that the staff revisit the figures and come up with a balanced budget. At other times, the boards, like those with which which I've worked, will approve a budget with a shortfall that they feel, given historical fundraising capabilities, can be balanced during the course of a fiscal year.

Making sense? Anyway, for whatever reason, the board at the Paper Mill approved a budget with a $2.5 million shortfall. That's not insignificant for an organization with an annual $17 million budget where, according to reports, only 20% (or approximately $3.4 million) has traditionally been raised. In spite of this, the board felt that they would be able to raise the additional money before a crisis, such as the one the theater now faces, arrived.

Now then, look at those numbers. The board said that somehow, someway, it would be able to almost double contributed income in less than 12 months. Now I know the economy is healthy. I'd not realized it was that healthy. Making this situation more troubling are the facts outlined in a recent article in The Star Ledger that reports that up until this year, the board members for the Paper Mill had given or raised just under $120,000.

Optimism is one thing, but this is something else. And the reason for the strange sense of anger and sadness that I feel about what's going on over in Millburn. While the board is to be commended for its increased giving this year, they must also be condemned for allowing the theater to proceed with such unhealthy financial expectations. Maybe a show should have been dropped from the season – yes that means less ticket revenue, but it also means reduced expenses, which seem to be outpacing the box office anyway.

This is not unheard of. It's not only fiscally responsible: it sends an early signal to theatergoers, funders and politicians that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Instead of sounding this alarm, the theater's staff and the board are scrambling to make sure the theater stays open on what amounts to a day-to-day basis. An unhealthy juncture both artistically and institutionally.

In all fairness, I should remember that board members are volunteers who donate not only their money, but also their time and varying levels of expertise to a non-profit. At the same time, they are, for all intents and purposes, the rather strict parents who must often have the unpleasant task of saying "no" to their offspring. It's not a pleasant thing to hear or say, but it's often necessary.

Similarly, the Paper Mill's staff should have looked beyond the Board's promises and exercised their own fiscal restraint, thus proving that sometimes it's necessary for children to raise themselves. Sadly, in theater, and in life, this should not be the case.

Until later next time,

Andy Propst


For those who want the direct URL to the story mentioned:

Paper Mill's fundraising performance falls short - The Star-Ledger

Monday, April 9, 2007

Welcome, Theme Parks, Where Would You Marry?

Well, I guess it was inevitable to add blogging to review writing. So welcome to my initial post on ATW-blog. To be quite honest, I'm not sure what I'm going to be posting here – I imagine that it will become an informal extension of all of my work – reviewing, culling through theater articles from around the country, and also the things that don't always end up on the site – information about what's happening at XM and some of the theater-related books and CDs that pass through my world.

The impetus for starting this week is not so much a lack of anything to write for the site, but rather a pair of articles that appeared in papers on Sunday (April 8). In The Observer, there was an article about a new theme park opening in England – one based on the works of Charles Dickens. Across the pond, The Orlando Sentinel heralded that Disneyland had announced that it would allow same-sex couples to have domestic partnership ceremonies performed in front of Cinderella's castle.

In my addled brain, the two fused together and I began thinking about what sort of theme park I'd want to proclaim my commitment to and love for another man. Somehow, Disney just doesn’t' seem right. Yeah, I grew up with all of those princesses and Prince Charmings, but I don't necessarily feel that they represent me (or for that matter any man that I might find myself spending the rest of my life with – although I'll be happy to be proven wrong.) That being said, I started thinking about folks considering the new U.K. theme park. That made me snicker. I particularly chuckled about the idea of a Miss Haversham-themed wedding chapel.

Okay, so if not either of these, then, what sort of theme park would I consider? Well, one where the attractions come from Shakespeare's works seems actually more sound than one based on Dickens' world. Imagine the 'Midsummer Night's Dream' Fairy ride or the horrific landscape that could be concocted from Richard III and Titus Andronicus alone. Given the amount of cross-dressing involved in the plays, certainly same-sex unions would be a perfect fit. Just imagine – you could duck into Friar Laurence's cell for a quick ceremony – and depending on your parents' generation – even have the feeling that you were being as illicit as Romeo and Juliet.

Equally amusing – at least to me – is the idea of getting married in Sondheim World. After a quick ride on one of the 'Four Black Dragons' – found, of course, in Admiral Perry's Japanese World, you could take a ride on the Company-marriage coaster before deciding whether to proclaim "Marry Me a Little" or "I'm Not Getting Married Today." And imagine the fun to be had at the reception at the Mrs. Lovett-inspired food court. Again, one suspects that the idea of ceremonies for same-sex couples would not be a problem for the operators of such a park – the only problem might be the fact that anyone was willing to concede they anticipated a "happily ever after."

So, with that I leave these ramblings open for question, comment, ridicule. Let me know what sort of art-infused theme park crosses your mind.

Until later in the week,

Andy Propst


For those who want the direct URLs to the stories mentioned:

Disney Opens Wedding Chapel to Gay Marriages - Orlando Sentinel,0,172563.story?coll=orl-home-headlines

Rich Pickings With Dickens - The Observer,,2052227,00.html