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January 27, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 04
 
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Bits & Bytes
Revivals of Sweeney Todd, Seascape highlight quality in New York theater, Altar Boyz rocks with Gay character
by Milton W. Hamlin

New York - Irving Berlin famously set an old Broadway adage to music-"There's No Business Like Show Business." This immortal theater anthem from the composer's Annie Get Your Gun serves as Bits&Bytes' theme in this week's chapter of an incredible seven-night stay in The City That Never Sleeps.

This scribe crammed 15 major performance events into a week's visit-just-opening new plays and musicals, the world premiere of An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera, an early-morning concert by the famous New York Philharmonic, revivals of major American works, smart, sophisticated cabaret shows.

Read on for details about an important new approach to Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, an engrossing revival of Albee's Seascape, the cute off-Broadway Altar Boyz with a closeted Gay character who will win your hearts. Next week, Bits&Bytes returns to Seattle and reality-and important Emerald City entertainment news. For this week, part three of "New York, New York-It's A Hell Of A Town."

RADICAL NEW SWEENEY TODD HILITES REVIVALS

The works of openly Gay composer Stephen Sondheim are perennial nominees for Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Revival Of A Musical. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street is one of his unquestioned masterworks. A startling new production imported from England gives American audiences a new look at the musical classic. The revival-headlining Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris-is sure to be the front runner in the Best Musical Revival category at this spring's Tony Awards, and LuPone and Cerveris will obviously be nominees for best performances in a musical.

John Doyle, who directed and designed the import, has worked in four prestigious English regional theaters. His pioneering work at the Watermill Theatre has focused on his musical revivals using "actor/musicianship," a style that has the singer/actors also play the score of the musical. This radical concept was explored earlier-in a different way-in the Tony Award winning revival of Cabaret which had the orchestra of the Kit Kat Club on stage and playing minor roles.

For his Broadway Sweeney Todd, the all-American cast had to work with the concept. Since most Broadway musical actors are well trained in the arts, many of them have at least some background in performing instrumental music. Patti LuPone, this production's Mrs. Lovett, played the tuba in her junior high school marching band-a skill she rarely has confessed to-and brushed up for this revival. She added simple percussion instruments-a triangle fits neatly into Mrs. Lovett's apron pocket-and does her share to bring the show to life instrumentally.

Doyle's self-orchestration concept was born out of financial and space limitations in his Watermill stagings. Here it gives Sweeney Todd a new concept, a new look, a new feel. (Seattle musical fans still rave about a traditional production of Sweeney Todd at the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre this fall. Long time Emerald City theater fanatics also have fond memories of a wonderful production at Civic Light Opera in "the good old days.") The classic original will undoubtedly be the standard production for decades to come, but the new concept will obviously inspire other theater companies to stage Broadway classics in smaller spaces with limited budgets.

The self-orchestration often works incredibly well. When the show's two love interests meet, they-of course-sing. It turns out that the actors playing Johanna and Anthony both played the cello. So, here they sit side-by-side playing and singing their duet beautifully while gazing into each other's eyes. The reduced cast of 10 actors/musicians actually includes six or seven accomplished pianists who provide a musical backbone to the performance.

The big question: aside from the gimmick of the self-orchestration does this production work? The answer is simple-YES. Patti LuPone, Tony Award winner for Evita, has been absent from Broadway musicals far, far too long. She is a wonderfully memorable Mrs. Lovett, the role immortally created by Angela Lansbury long before the British actress made zillions on television's Murder She Wrote. (On a local note, LuPone made a rare Seattle visit last year with Matters Of The Heart, her Broadway concert/revue that wowed New York at Lincoln Center but was swallowed by the cavernous Paramount Theatre in its Best Of Broadway series.)

Cerveris, a Tony Award winner for last season's revival of Sondheim's Assassins, is astounding as the title character. His character really is The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the original tale's famous subtitle. (Bits&Bytes is lucky enough to have seen the original Sweeney Todd when it opened on Broadway. There is no doubt that Cerveris is a stronger, creepier Sweeney than that production featured.)

Sweeney Todd has won rave reviews and is delighting Sondheim fans and slowly building an audience from "the general public." The show is selling in the 60 or 70 per cent range which means it is often available at the half-priced ticket booth in the theatre district-a plus for budget-minded Emerald City visitors.

The limited box office success also means that the show will have trouble surviving New York's current winter box office slump. It's sure to win major Tony Award nominations for acting, design, direction and orchestration, and it is a shoo-in for Best Musical Revival. It is truly the "must see" revival of the season for serious musical theater fans.

FEATURES CLOSTED GAY CHARACTER

Altar Boyz, one of off-Broadway's biggest hits of the year, is one of many "little shows that could" currently delighting New York's theater crowd and Big Apple visitors. A staged reading two years ago launched the show on a successful course, and the off-Broadway staging last spring turned the mini-musical into a certified hit.

(Seattle's Cheyenne Jackson was featured in the staged reading, but he moved on to the leading role in the Elvis songbook musical, All Shook Up. The openly Gay Spokane native has no regrets about picking a big Broadway musical that didn't last the season over Altar Boyz, but his work-and casting-in the important staged reading was another feather in his theatrical cap.)

Altar Boyz is a short, snappy mini-musical which bridges the line between revue and play. Like Forever Plaid and others of that ilk, Altar Boyz has a minimum of plot and a maximum of music. The original music by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker is constant fun with some very clever twists. The show's big love song from the young Christian music troupe is an anthem to abstinence. In this day and age of all out sexual spontaneity, "Some About You (Makes Me Want To Wait)" seems wonderfully old fashioned and understated.

Other moments are not understated in the least. One of the Boyz has a deep, dark secret he is afraid to share with the other members of the touring musical group. But when the hunk of the group sings "God Put The Rhythm In Me" and our closeted Gay character happily swishes, "put it in me, put it in me" as a cheerleader chorus girl. His secret is soon shared with the audience-if not with the rather dense members of the Boyz.

Speaking of dense, Luke, who "drives the van," confuses "aquatic" and "anorexic" but no one seems to notice this Mr. Malaprop of the 21st Century. The show's humor and lyrics work wonderfully on the "easy meter" side of entertainment. With a lyric like, "Praise the Lord with funk and rhyme" and puns like "We're gonna alter your minds" no one expects the show to win a Pulitzer.

The five characters' names deserve special mention: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Abraham and Juan. Abraham is the unlikely Jewish member of this Christian touring troupe and Juan, well, he is a cute Hispanic one-liner.

New York and visiting GLBT theater fans have helped make Altar Boyz into a certifiable hit-a rarity in off-Broadway terms. It shares a new four-theatre complex on the edge of the theater district with the long-running Naked Boys Singing. Bits&Bytes started his New York visit with Altar Boyz-and it was the perfect high energy, high jinx outing to balance off a non-stop flight from Seattle and a 4 a.m. alarm clock. Check it out.

EDWARD ALBEE'S SEASCAPE ASTOUNDS BROADWAY AUDIENCES

Edward Albee, the openly Gay Pulitzer Prize-winning author, often writes in allegorical form-note George and Martha in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, the unseen terror in A Delicate Balance, the miniature church model in Tiny Alice, the man-loves-goat plot in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? One of his least understood plays, Seascape, is also one of his three Pulitzer Prize winners.

Lincoln Center's all-star revival of Seascape, which just ended its highly praised run on Broadway at the intimate Booth Theatre, is sure to catapult the rarely staged work back into a "top of the charts" status with regional theaters. Hopefully, The Seattle Rep or Intiman or ACT or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will join the bandwagon of welcoming Seascape back in popularity.

Like many of Albee's play, not much actually happens in Seascape. A somewhat happily married grumpy older couple sit at the edge of the sea and grumble. Albee has explored this relationship many times-but it still works. Out of the sea come another, younger, couple-but they are oversized sea lizards. They, too, sit in the sun and grumble about their relationship. They are afraid of the new species they encounter-the human pair. The two couples finally meet and exchange fears and dreams. When it is over, in a brisk hour-and-a-half, the audience may ponder what is all means. But it was clear that the New York subscription audience loved every minute of the show. Allegory or not, it is great theater.

Frances Sternhagen, a Broadway veteran and double Tony Award winner, teamed with George Grizzard, Albee's original Nick in Virginia Woolf and a Tony Award winner for the revival of Albee's A Delicate Balance. Newcomers Frederick Weller and Elizabeth Marvel were featured as the sea serpents and both were outstanding.

(Weller, a veteran of the Gay-themed Take Me Out, which featured an on-stage full frontal nude shower scene in the baseball drama's locker room, wore an incredible homoerotic sea lizard costume that was the talk of the town in Gay New York-form fitting would be the understatement of the year. A young Frank Langella created the role of the male sea serpent in the original Broadway production and his photo in a similar homoerotic outfit was all over theater magazines and newspapers that year.)

Seascape is certain to be a Tony nominee for best play revival. All four actors, the lighting, costume and set designs and Mark Lamos' sensitive, intelligent direction are all sure to be nominated in open categories. Most importantly, the stunning Lincoln Center revival is sure to call attention to this overlooked work. Seattle audiences are sure to have a chance to see it in the next 18 months-Bits&Bytes would bet on it.

(A chance encounter with Clayton and Susan Corzatte, now headlining Village Theatre's On Golden Pond, found us discussing Seascape and its two great roles for the famous Seattle-based acting couple. "Why don't you quit writing and turn producer and stage it starring us?" Susan asked somewhat innocently. Bits&Bytes was flattered but will stick to writing-or as Truman Capote once described a rival, "typing.")

Next week-what's hot and what's not in the Emerald City.

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