Showbiz by Ruby Preston: Dress Circle Publishing

5 02 2013

Showbiz: Book Review for Stage and Cinema


Follies: Ahmanson Theatre

15 05 2012

Follies: Review for L.A. Weekly

Creating N2N: A Conversation with the Creative Team

17 11 2010

Remember when I raved about Next to Normal after my last visit to NYC? (See my review here.) N2N‘s national tour opens at LA’s own Ahmanson Theatre soon, and UCLA students have an exciting opportunity to engage in a conversation with the creators tomorrow night.

Check out the flyer for more information: Next to Normal: 11/17/10

Thanks to CTG’s Michael Bulger for the update. Looking forward to the event, and hope to see many of you there!

[title of show]: A Personal Chronicle

4 09 2010

My long history of creative inspiration from [title of show] is really inseparable from any review I may write of its production. A delightfully self-referential musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical, [title of show] has made its way from the NY Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) to off-Broadway, to a popular blog and YouTube series, to Broadway – and now, to its LA premiere at Celebration Theatre. I suspect I am not the only one who has traced her creative path through the work of Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics), Hunter Bell (book), Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell.

I first saw this endearingly scrappy little musical at the Vineyard Theatre in fall 2006; I was participating in the Duke in NY Arts program at the time, interning at the NY Musical Theatre Festival and just beginning to navigate my way through the (admittedly intimidating, but thrilling) city and world of musical theater. As we waited to enter the Vineyard one night, my friend Julia Robertson and I decided to write a musical for our study away program’s open-ended final project. [title of show] was quirky, inspirational, and just the impetus we needed to start. The Duke in NY group met and chatted with the cast afterwards (Heidi is a fellow Blue Devil), and Julia and I left the Vineyard eager to write that original musical!

Flash forward to winter 2008: Intern the Musical premiered at Duke University as Julia’s and my senior distinction project. The thrill of putting up an original musical comedy was intoxicating. Our advisors John Clum and Anthony Kelley brought down Anthony Lyn, resident director of Broadway’s Mary Poppins, to see the show in the last week of rehearsal; he offered incredibly valuable feedback to the creative team and worked with our actors to polish the show for our premiere. Three days before opening, I penned a new finale: “A Hope That Lets You Soar,” which quickly became one of my favorite compositions and summed up the collaborative ensemble experience of Intern. Family and friends trekked to Duke for the opening, and my life mentor Manny Azenberg even flew in from NYC for our little show. Intern played to a packed house every night that weekend, and some friends came multiple times to see our work. If there was any doubt in my mind about whether I’d venture into a PhD program in English or Theater after graduation, Intern the Musical sealed the deal: I needed to keep up this creative and collaborative aspect of my life.

That summer after Julia and I graduated from Duke, Intern the Musical made it way to NYC for a little reading through NYMF’s Arts and Business Council internship program. (How fun to be a former NYMF intern myself, sharing a musical loosely inspired by Julia’s and my own theater internship experiences with a host of new interns!) Throughout college, I had kept up with [title of show] via the cast’s blog and YouTube series – and through the sheer force of imagination, talent, and drive to be part of it all, [tos] had just opened on Broadway. In a strange way, [title of show]‘s success felt like a personal success. Julia and I reunited at the Lyceum to see this little show that had been such a part of our personal inspiration to write Intern. And yes, we waited at the stage door to say hello afterwards and pass off a cast recording of our own musical. How could we not?

Since moving to LA to start a PhD in Theater, I have kept composing, and [tos] has remained an important touchstone for my work. The show – and its creators – keep popping into my life when I most need a little creative encouragement and inspiration. I ran into Hunter Bell at the Mark Taper’s production of Parade last fall, just as I was gearing up to compose a new family musical for the Morgan-Wixson in Santa Monica. Then last night, my friend Christopher Albrecht and I made our way to Celebration Theatre for the LA premiere of [title of show]. And who should we spot in the audience, but Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell? What a serendipitous encounter!

The LA production of [title of show] comes at the end of a whirlwind summer for me, which included summer dissertation research as well as premiering a 15-minute musical off-off-Broadway (Rat Poison Love in the West Village Musical Theatre Festival) and workshopping a new family musical (Thank You, Mr. Falker at the Morgan-Wixson). It also comes at a juncture in my life with an almost overwhelming number of scholarly and creative opportunities in store. Scary and exciting. (Die vampire, die.)

This “little musical that could” is at once like and unlike any other, continually interwoven with my personal creative journey these past four years – and yet I know that my story is not unique. I am not the only one who can trace her creative path through [title of show] – and this makes [tos] all the more special. I look forward to seeing how Jeff, Hunter, Heidi, Susan, and their creations continue to inspire my ongoing journey – and others – in the years to come.

Blogger-Critics, Artist-Critics, and Documentation: ATHE 2010

12 08 2010

As a PhD student, I attend a fair number of scholarly conferences. Last week, I attended and presented at ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education), whose 2010 conference was themed Theatre Alive: Theater, Media, and Survival. Taking place in the cultural hotbed of Los Angeles, the conference sought to tease out the ever-complicated relationship between theater and new media:

Theatre in higher education has never been at a more precarious point. Economic challenges face all of higher education and arts are often the first to suffer significant cuts and even elimination. While theatre educators take pride in the interdisciplinary nature of our discipline, theatre programs have often operated as reluctant partners of, or separate from, programs that teach media arts. In an era of dwindling resources, how do we keep our field vital and alive to our students, embrace our partners in related media and other fields, and strengthen the significance and impact of theatre across the academic landscape?

As an active part of the Music Theatre / Dance group, I attended several panels on – what else? – the shifting place of theater criticism in the age of the blogger-critic. I thought I would share a few notes and follow-up thoughts.

On the panel Broadway and the Critics, Thomas Connolly – a theater professor at Suffolk University – mourned the silencing of the Broadway critic in print publications. Connolly recalled the heyday of theater criticism, from Brooks Atkinson’s “relaxed, detached, authoritative but not assertive” reviews in the 1930s-60s to Walter Kerr and Clive Barnes in the 50s and 60s. Theater gossip, news, and reviews received extensive coverage in print during this era. Yet today, criticism has increasingly become an “adjunct” rather than an essential part of the newspaper. Writers are often expected to cover “the arts” in general and cannot specialize. (To play devil’s advocate, I want to point out the danger of too much specialization, particularly when reviewing interdisciplinary arts. Why are music critics sent to opera and theater critics sent to musicals? Why not theater critics at opera, music critics at musicals, or dance critics at either? Shouldn’t a critic of these interdisciplinary works have at least some working knowledge of all the arts involved?) Connolly is also frustrated with the increasing pressure on arts critics to write feature articles as well as criticism. He wonders if interviewing and mingling with the practitioners taints good, “objective” criticism. We will come back to this conflict-of-interest question in a bit.

While the extent of arts coverage in print is tragically declining, other ATHE participants find hope in the blogosphere. On the panel Broadcasting and Blogging Broadway: Talk Shows, Tony Awards and Cybercriticism, Playgoer Garrett Eisler – currently pursuing a PhD in Theatre at CUNY – pointed out at least five ways in which the Internet has transformed Broadway:

  1. Ticket sales
  2. Marketing (from individual show websites to social networking)
  3. Fan sites (run by independent fans)
  4. Chatrooms and message boards
  5. Bloggers

In contrast to critics who are employed by a media outlet, Eisler defines bloggers as unaffiliated or independent theater critics. (The NY TimesLA Times, and other major newspaper sites often include a “blog” for more casually-written, immediate arts news and reviews that may not be published in print – but this is distinguishable from Eisler’s concept of the independent blogger-critic.) Eisler is another testament to the increasing presence of theater scholars online: qualified to be critics, yet blogging instead of working for a traditional print publication. Quite simply, medium does not dictate the quality of the message.

Eisler is also interested in the possibility of “peers critiquing peers” through blogging: practitioners commenting on one another’s work, or artist-critics. Authors often review one another’s work in major print publications: why should theater practitioners be barred from doing the same? (Even more radically, why should we draw a line between the blogger-critic and the artist-critic?)

Connolly might consider peers critiquing peers a serious conflict of interest, since even mingling with practitioners seems to be a questionable practice in his idealistically “objective” world of theater criticism. The collaborative nature of theater versus the independent process of writing could be another argument against the artist-critic; the artist could easily end up collaborating with whomever he is critiquing on a future project, whereas an author is more traditionally a separate, individual artist. But if we are engaged in the art of constructive criticism (rather than intentionally malicious and destructive criticism), why shouldn’t a practitioner share a valuable and intelligent comment on a fellow practitioners’ work? Ideally, a constellation of critiques provokes discussion and allows us to work collectively towards an improvement of our art.

These two ATHE panels were valuable – but do you notice a trend? Broadway and the Critics. Blogging and Broadcasting Broadway. Living in and attending the conference in LA attuned me to this Broadway bias of many Music Theatre / Dance panels, particularly those on criticism. While print criticism may be declining, there is no great dearth of theater criticism for Broadway: even Charles McNulty travels to the Great White Way to cover new productions for the LA Times. Blogging about Broadway – whether as a critic, artist, or both – amplifies this consistent mainstream coverage; it offers an array of valuable alternative perspectives. But for me, the question of blogging and criticism becomes most interesting on the margins and in the voids: off- and off-off-Broadway, the 99-and-under theaters in LA, and in other cities and small venues throughout the world.

Returning to the theme of the conference – Theatre Alive: Theater, Media, and Survival – brings me to a question of documenting performance. Scholars traditionally delve through library archives of rehearsal scripts, drafts, production notes, playbills, videos, reviews, and more when tackling a new research project. Yet these documents only ever supplement the original performance; they point to the original, but can never fully capture it. I like the idea of constellations to describe documentation of performance: the documents form a pattern and outline, but never fill in all the gaps. As the archive goes digital, blogging helps to flesh out the “authorized” documentation with new and different perspectives, filling in a few more of those gaps in the constellation of any given performance. With arts criticism increasingly cut from print, blogging could even be the only documentary means of survival for many performances. So my fellow bloggers, keep writing!

American Idiot: St. James Theatre, 6/18/10

7 07 2010

I could easily reduce this review to a tweet: American Idiot was LOUD.

I struggled to process most of Michael Mayer’s new rock opera based on Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award-winning punk album. Overamplified both aurally and visually, American Idiot yells for the audience’s attention. This “love child of RENT and Spring Awakeningoffers a hyper-energetic and multi-talented cast raging around an eclectic, multimedia playground for a nonstop 90 minutes. The most political, memorable moments occur when the rock concert is pulled back to an intimate acoustic level; unfortunately, these moments of genuine engagement are few and far between.

With a mash of video projections and scattered TV screens projecting the world in channel-jumping political turmoil, designer Darrel Maloney washes the relatively spare set in this appropriately bombarding aesthetic. The musical’s characters don’t want to be American idiots, but find themselves assaulted by impenetrable politics in the era of George W. Bush. The fragmentary narrative strands – a bum dad stuck in the suburbs, a druggie who travels to the city and back, and a young soldier wounded in Iraq – are primarily progressed by Mayer’s vibrant images and Steven Hoggett’s innovative choreography, rather than connective dialogue.

While some critics have complained about the lack of fully developed characters and narrative throughlines, I found some of Mayer’s imagistic direction to be even more piercingly memorable and effective than a traditional story – particularly for the soldier Tunny, portrayed by Stark Sands. Tunny is recruited by a sharp military official and his alluring red, white, and blue backup dancers in “Favorite Son.” War turns out not to be so sexy, however; after being wounded, Tunny and other soldiers in the hospital perform a softer, contemplative round reminiscent of Rent‘s “Will I?” With the soldiers strapped to their gurneys, “Before the Lobotomy” is an engaging respite from the relentless motion and raging noise of American Idiot. As the druggie Johnny, the pitch-perfect John Gallagher Jr. also has a few self-accompanied acoustic moments that linger in memory.

Tom Kitt’s arrangements of Green Day’s music translate to the stage beautifully, and the powerhouse ensemble has a seemingly endless well of energy for this vocally and physically demanding production. But the endless motion – like the blaring set and overamplified sound – builds to an assault on the audience’s senses. What’s more, American Idiot is a rock opera of endless ironies. This show strives to be politically engaged, but complains more than it engages. The representation of women is incredibly problematic; women are nothing more than sex objects – and most of them are nameless, like Watsername and The Extraordinary Girl. In a dream sequence, Princess Jasmine – dressed in a particularly Orientalist harem outfit – flies down from the rafters to seduce the soldier in Iraq. The theater also serves specialty drinks to take in to the performance (“St. Jimmy’s Wild Ride,” “Letterbomb,” and “A Shot of Novocaine”) that may put audience members in the same physical condition as the onstage characters: too wasted, or at least too much in the mind of pleasure, to actually process the politics. We really are American idiots, aren’t we?

American Idiot rages with great force and energy, but I am still not sure what it is raging about – or why the critics are raving. Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot … these are supposedly the musicals for the next generation. I must have been born in the wrong era. Nonetheless, I can appreciate American Idiot‘s attempt at creating an engaging new work: it certainly is pulling in and captivating many younger patrons, who will hopefully become regular theatergoers as a result.

La Cage aux Folles: Longacre Theatre, 6/17/10

1 07 2010

Before college, I only remember going to the theater twice: my family splurged on the national tour of West Side Story when I was in middle school, and my high school took a field trip to an NC Shakespeare Festival production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both times, I was enthralled – but my access to theater was limited in Albemarle, NC. When I moved away to college, I took advantage of every opportunity to see and study theater, and I started to develop this valuable but sometimes pesky little thing called a critical lens. Hundreds of shows later, I’m still developing that critical lens and I enjoy putting it into practice here on my blog – but I sometimes get nostalgic for those days when I could turn the critical lens off and simply be enthralled by a good production.

Enter La Cage aux Folles, 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical Revival. Maybe my critical lens was just tired; after all, I was getting over a terrible cold and had been pushing myself to the max with the West Village Musical Theatre Festival, countless Broadway shows, and long catch-up chats with my NYC-based friends. But after seeing La Cage, I was simply left with the warm afterglow of a classic musical comedy. I wanted to preserve that exuberance without dissecting the show into its parts. This production of Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical left me with a feeling, rather than words.

Still, I felt the imperative to write something, to perhaps capture a bit of the glow. Here are the sketchy notes that I forced out of my pen – rather incoherent and almost all raves:

  • possibly the best show of the trip!
  • classic musical comedy construction, hilarious
  • STAR performances, esp. Douglas Hodge, Kelsey Grammer, Robin de Jesus
  • choreography is stunning, loved the audience interaction
  • set design very simple and classic, lighting unobstrusive, lots of spotlighting!
  • genuinely appreciative and engaged audience
  • the cast has so much fun!
  • loved the musicians in boxes to the sides of stage, more interactive
  • not the greatest voices per se (esp. Grammer), but SUCH life and enthusiasm!

In the guise of a simple musical comedy, La Cage aux Folles grapples with complex issues of gender and sexuality.  Based on Jean Poiret’s 1973 play, the densely-layered musical probes alternative constructs of family, a subject of continuing relevance in the current fight for gay marriage.  Chaos ensues when Jean-Michel brings his fiancee’s conservative parents home to meet his family: Georges (Kelsey Grammer), a nightclub manager, and Albin (Douglas Hodge), the club’s star drag queen. Someday when I return to La Cage – either to this production or another – I know there will be endless complexities to dissect and probe. I can’t wait.

But for now, let me bask in a less-critical enthusiasm for a memorable night of entertainment. Such experiences are few and far between.