But seeing Billie Joe Armstrong in American Idiot last night was, to put it simply, like seeing a phenomenon unfold before you eyes. The show was completely and overwhelmingly changed, and for the better. Now this is Broadway! The highest level of live entertainment on the planet!
It's funny too, how changing the cast member of one minor role can evolve the entire experience into a different stratosphere. I can say that without a doubt, If Billie Joe Armstrong had opened in this show, instead of Tony Vincent, he most certainly would have gotten a Tony nomination. Because of his Tony nomination, John Gallagher, Jr. would have gotten one too, with Billie Joe acting as a dramatic foil, thus lifting Mr. Gallagher up to a superstar level. Above all, the show would have had much more award momentum going in, and certainly picked up a nomination for direction, orchestration and possibly more. It's funny how these things that seem like gimmicks can go either way. In this cast, it's the highest level of genius. And genius is not a term I often use in reference to American Idiot, since it had been one of my least favorite shows all season. If Billie Joe had been performing, it would have changed everything. I'm sure the Tony nominations (especially for Gallagher) would have been there because the universe would have demanded it.
And it's not that Tony Vincent did a lesser job, or gave a weaker performance. In fact, I still believe that Tony Vincent was the greatest strength of this show, and his vocal abilities and performance may be stronger than Billie Joe's. It's simply the unquestionable influence of star-power onstage. Knowing that this 30-something millionaire who can fill arenas anywhere in the world, whose music created the show, is now performing in a character he created onstage, in a small house (comparatively to arenas). It's amazing to see because Billie Joe did create all these characters, that is to say, they are all based on him, in the album. The only struggle for him is to learn what not to sing, since at any one of Green Day's concerts, you will hear him sing every song in this show himself.
And for Billie Joe to also be making his Broadway debut, it's a bit surreal. For me, it adds 100% theatrical legitimacy, from what I once considered a soulless commercial formula jukebox musical. When this superstar takes the stage, it's as if he's saying, "This is what I want to do!" and "I had every hand in creating this show, I'm a fan of it as much as anybody, and I'm absolutely proud of what has been created." This is not the message I seemed to get before, in interviews that only sounded like talking-points and obligated promotion for the show. Billie Joe really loves theatre!
Billie Joe's performance:
It was inspired casting for many reasons, despite the star power. Billie Joe is almost the exact same height, weight and size of John Gallagher, Jr. so it's really no mistaking that St. Jimmy is the evil alter-ego of Johnny. They're practically twins onstage! Only Billie Joe has his hair up and looks evil! This twin look is not something that happens with Tony Vincent. Of course, Mr. Vincent is much scarier onstage, but he's really another character entirely.
Billie Joe was whimsical, and comical. His St. Jimmy was goofy, and humorous. Or was it the audience swooning over his sometimes awkward and inexperienced quirks? During the death of St. Jimmy, as they carry him away, he pops up again with that bright Billie Joe smile and waves to the audience as he's carted offstage; his final exit. Delightful! It's knowing you'll never see anything like it again in your life. I wasn't a Green Day fan before, maybe I'm an old fart, but knowing the significance of the experience at hand, makes almost every second enjoyable, despite the parts I hated the first time around.
I suppose it's like if you were to go see the show Lennon, which was also a terrible show, but if miraculously, John Lennon decided to perform with the cast as himself. Suddenly, the whole show is amazing, no matter how terrible the other things may be, because it's John Lennon onstage! That in itself is amazing. The show is about him and created from his music, and the house is full of Beatles fans... What an experience! Without him, it's just a second rate jukebox musical. That is how I feel about American Idiot. The story is the same, the music is the same, the performances are the same, the book is still stupid, obnoxious, and unsympathetic, but with Billie Joe Armstrong, it's suddenly in an entirely different class of entertainment. It cannot at all be judged the same way it was before. It's an entirely different show. It is "Billie Joe Armstrong in American Idiot on Broadway!"
I should also take a moment to thank the young fans in the audience who packed the house and created the electric atmosphere I experienced. The cheer alone when the announcement came, "Tonight the role of St. Jimmy, will be played by Billie Joe Armstrong." was deafening. The show kicked off like a fire cracker. The energy in the house was like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, the Superbowl, and the entire Afghanistan War shoved into one theatre. The audience was screaming to Billie Joe onstage, and cheering, laughing and applauding every gesture he made. The audience was mesmerized by his power, and I fell for it, completely. I'm glad I took that chance to see this show again, after how I felt the first time; I accepted an invitation from a friend, and fan of the show. To everyone else, get in while you can, it only lasts one week with Billie Joe, before the show goes back the thing it was before.
What POPE! The Musical does right:
1) A good score with show-tunes. Most songs have a good hook or gimmick, and the score varies in styles. The songs aren't too long, and some move the plot, while others teach lessons.
2) A simple plot. It's basically the story of any natural leader who gets overthrown, only to regain that thrown in the end. It's Lion King, It's Jesus Christ Superstar...it's a formula for a good dramatic arch.
3) Comedy sketches. There are several vaudeville/variety show sketches that are pure comic relief. They don't move the plot, but they're clever and witty. The humor of the show is admirable, and the characters are like-able. I like that this show has elements of camp-fire sketch, while maintaining a full arch, and taking itself seriously. It's exactly what a Fringe show should be. Despite whether the authors see future productions, the Fringe is an excellent showcase for this production.
4) Great use of space. For a minimal set, there are many actors, and the use of space is important. The way they cover time and location is successful. There is some great choreography and lighting that helps too.
5) Originality. Most of all, who thought to write a musical about the Pope? I actually learned something, while it's not entirely about being informative. It's entertainment, but it's also interesting.
Fringe encores has ended, thus concluding the Fringe festival 2010. Now it's on to NYMF! Check back often!
During the NYC Fringe Festival a few weeks ago, one play I consistently heard people raving about (and one enthusiastic gentleman who saw it twice), was the play Lost and Found. The family dramedy about a widow and two children, and their reaction to a surprise guest, is heartfelt, genuine, and smart. This was easily the best show I saw at Fringe this year, and could easily have a second life Off-Broadway and elsewhere.
What Lost and Found does right:
1) A family drama with a real family. The authors chose to depict a Bostonian cop family whose problems are just like every other family. In fact the scenarios are so simple, they bypass cliche to just normalcy. Its easy to believe they are a family, and you care about them staying together. All thecharacters have interesting subplots about their own personal flaws, and each overcomes. It's almost Tennessee Williams, but far greater than anything you'd expect to see at Fringe.
2) Geraldine Librandi gives an outstanding performance as Eva, the matriarch of the family, and a character who in another time or place could be a great character of American Theatre. Geraldine is completely enveloped in her character, and this performance drives the entire show. The emotional climax revolves around a vision Eva has, that will not leave a dry eye in the house. Bravo!
3) For a Fringe show, there was a surprisingly elaborate set, I was surprised. This also added to the more professional feel of the play. Lost and Found fit perfectly within the Lortel Theatre, it's hard to believe this wasn't a full extended run of the show.
4) Surprises. This story has some twists and surprises, none that are too unpredictable, but keeps the story interesting. It's a small August: Osage, in less time, and a more relatable plot. I mean, in August: Osage, they were F**ked up! But here they could be your neighbors, your church members, even your own family; anyone who's suffered a loss of a father, or has to deal with mistakes of the past. When a stranger arrives it'll change the whole show, the more you learn the more gripping the drama is. I like that this is a Cop family, but doesn't involve much violence, crime, or crime related drama. This is strictly about the family, and they keep the plot moving by revealing information and personal triumphs.
5) Every character is likeable in their own endearing, sensitive, and hurt, way. They each have flaws, but they're able to overcome them. It's great to see everyone become a hero, and the ending pose of the show is just a great feeling for everyone. It's hard to write characters with flaws, and who make mistakes, that you don't all love. This show makes it look easy.
I would recommend this show to others, but I look forward to seeing a bigger production somewhere else. The show ran 2 hours with an intermission, which was appropriate. It never felt slow, or rushed, or Fringe-y.
I turned to my left and a woman was very obviously sleeping. A man in the row in front of me had fallen asleep too. Later, when i woke up to a loud bell ringing I realized, I too had nodded off. About two thirds into the production is when I noticed the first walkouts.
This was Brief Encounter, the new Broadway sleeping pill from Roundabout Theatre Company, based on the 1945 film of the same name. In fact, the British import, which was staged intimately in Brooklyn prior to Broadway, uses a surprising amount of actual projected footage from the film; in addition to some created footage. So why is this story of married strangers sleeping together such a... snoozefest?
What Brief Encounter Does Wrong:
Last week I attended a preview of Mrs. Warren's Profession, the play revival from Roundabout Theatre Company playing at the American Airlines Theater. Spoiler warning: Mrs. Warren is a prostitute. Of course, you could probably guess that's what the play is about before even attending, like I did. I'm sure in its time, it wasn't so obvious. In 1893, the play might have been shocking, or scandalous and was banned in Great Britain for over a decade. Now it's interesting for historical purposes. There was very little I found relevant for today that hadn't been done over and over again for the past century in more well known works. What I find most interesting is that the play blames social conditions for working women instead of male force, or female desperation, for the cause of prostitution. This sentiment is reflected in Mrs. Warren's apparent pride in what she does. She has peace in mind knowing that her life was the best she could give herself and her daughter. And financially speaking, she was much more well off then most of society.
What Mrs. Warren's Profession does wrong:
1) This production is basically the story of Mamma Mia, the young girl has three fathers, and the mother doesn't know who the real one is. However, this show isn't a comedy. It's not romantic. No characters are enjoyable except Mrs. Warren, and the ending is unhappy for everyone. In fact, after a certain point, the paternity question becomes lost, and the mystery resigns to larger social themes. If I were to rewrite this show, I would at least finish the paternity plot line in a rounded way to either support or contradict the current ending. I think the discovery of the girl's real father would have had a really interesting impact on the girl's downfall.
2) The production values are far too cold. The scenic design is mean to be as an illustration, a water-colored exterior covering up for darker more personal interiors. I suppose that's symbolic of prostitution. However, when at one point in the first scene an actor throws down a folding chair which makes a loud "crash!" noise. It was hard to imagine they were all sitting on actual grass. Some of the force perspectives were nice, but it was all too pretty and unnecessarily expensive. The wide open spaces were to clear the stage and make ease for scene changes, but I would have loved to see this show done much more intimately, like Roundabout's Glass Menagerie production last year.
3) The show is so long and quiet, it would have been nice to see something less traditional about this production. I would have liked a few modern twists, or greater stylistic theme. Sometimes a gimmick works wonders. The story is much more about class structures, than family drama. It's about a your women who refuses to accept her mother's lifestyle because the morality of which she was raised forbids it. In the end, she refuses everyone in her life. There's a lot of room for creative, or unique choices. Sometimes I like theatre to make you pretend you've traveled backwards in time 100 years to see the original production. In this case, its just a snooze-fest if you do that.
Cherry Jones is always a delight onstage; both she and Sally Hawkins give honorable performances.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert:
What they did wrong:
The song was “Say a Little Prayer,” a Burt Bacharach song currently being done justice by Kristin Chenoweth at the Broadway Theatre in this year's revival of Promises, Promises. Only in Priscilla, it’s sung by Will Swenson. It’s also cut to half-time, so it’s a little sleepy, melancholy and sad. The show is about drag queens, and couldn’t possibly have topped La Cage Aux Folles’ excellent performance prior in the concert. Out of costume and out of context, listening to Will Swenson sing about “Putting on his makeup” is more than confusing if you don’t know he plays a drag queen. Luckily they briefly announced it in setting up the number. It seemed like the type of number that might be during a scene change, transition, or montage since the tune is taken over by three female backup divas. For a show that brands itself on over 22 iconic dance beat hits, it wasn’t a great showcase. But then again, the show hasn’t even begun it’s out-of-town tryout yet. So it may have been prepared last minute, with minimal rehearsal.
Elf the Musical
What they did right:
They chose a book song, very upbeat, and the orchestrations poured with Christmas spirit. The song gives an idea into the personalities of the two characters, a mother and son, and the song serves as a revelation for them both. The lyrics were witty, and entertaining. Beth Leavel is always a delight onstage, and the actor playing the young boy was also exceptional.
Rain – The Beatles Tribute Band
What they did wrong:
How disappointing was this? Million Dollar Quartet puts this show to shame. Rain is a Beatles tribute band, and are neither professional actors or largely resemble the Beatles. They’re all quite old, and the song was only an impersonation and nothing more. The actors stood only in place, and the singer playing Paul McCartney sat and sang from the keyboard. The song was “Hey Jude,” a Beatles classic, which is a somber anthem, and did not arouse or excite. It's apparent there is no book or story to this show, but it is just what it promises, a tribute concert. It’s four guys pretending to be the Beatles and singing Beatles songs as if it were a Beatles concert. Concerts on Broadway are not uncommon, but impersonation concerts have to be Broadway calibre. This was not.
Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark
What they did wrong:
They didn't perform.
What Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party needs to do:
1) Change the title. Ok, I know you're all yelling at me in your heads thinking, "The title is the best part of the show." And it's true. The title is the best thing about the show. In terms of marketing, this show's title is the only attribute to its success. So why change the title? Ok, I'll expand. Change the title, or change the show to live up to the title. Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party insinuates a campy comic romp. Nothing could be further from the truth about this production. What I witnessed was a rather serious, and rarely insightful critique of politics, and politicians exploiting social issues for political gain. The "gay" issue cited in the play is not important. In fact, the authors never take a real stance on either side of the debate. In short, "Should homosexuality be taught in schools?" This takes a backseat to the more aggressive story of two rival politicians and campaign strategy. So the title is misleading, but it works in attracting attention. Though the experience may more than often be a letdown for some, a title should always fit like a glove. In this case, it's a mask.
2) Remove the "audience picks the order" gimmick form the show. I understand the use of this gimmick, it shows of the author's ability to write a clever script in three equal puzzle pieces. However, changing the order is just that, a gimmick. The story would be stronger, and the character would be better developed if the author picked a preferred order of acts, and ended each one with a great cliff hanger. He can also use the chosen order of acts to elaborate on better character development. The script is strong enough to not need this gimmick, and it serves no purpose that I can see than as the author's self-congratulatory show-off. Clever, yes. Pretentious, yes. Unique/original, no.
3) One intermission. If this show were to grow into a stronger/ more professional piece, it will need to adapt to a more traditional form. I know this is a matter of preference for some, and there is always room for experimental and unorthodox theatre out there. But the three act, choose-your-order form works well for Fringe, or for small theaters off-Broadway, and not for say, Broadway. I know some of you out there might say, "But this isn't that play." And all I'm saying is that the story is strong enough that it doesn't need to be so unconventional. Of course, the play does need to be shortened in addition. At 2.5 hours, it's pushing the envelope for a story that repeats three times. In my mind, I see this show strongest in the form of a farce.
4) Take a stance on the issue at hand. Not every political piece needs to take an actual stance. Not every political show needs to have a social agenda. But I think in this example, the internal social debate is more interesting than the political conflict. If the authors don't intend to take a strong stand, or maybe they did, I think both sides of the argument should be better represented. This makes for a more credible forum.
5) Expand the production values. I think there's room for expanded production values, but I think this is least important. Of course, any regional production will produce this show according to their budgetary limits. But I'd like to see a more professional production. People will take your show more seriously, if you take yourself more seriously. Quality has value.
What It Must Be Him needs to do:
1) Market yourself as a musical. I want to see "Music by Larry Grossman (Grind, Snoopy!, A Doll's Life) and Lyrics by Ryan Cunningham (I Love You Because)" on all materials. People need to know there is an original musical score to this play. You will gain more commercial success hedging some of the musical theatre market.
2) Fix the ending. The ending, while providing the proper message, is too convenient and a bit forced. This is because it happens to quickly. I refrain from spoiling the surprise, but does there even need to be a surprise? Maybe the audience could get the hint sooner, before Louie realizes it himself.
3) More of the musical. I know the sequence only serves a temporary purpose, but with such campy fantasies, there's room for more musical exploits. It is, in fact, the funniest, most interesting part of the show.
Like I said, this show is very good, it doesn't need much work. But those are my suggestions, and I think this show could be a bit more successful all around. For more information on It Must Be Him, click here.
And just in time too... The best show I saw at Fringe this year, was also the red carpet event of the festival. Just In Time: The Judy Holliday Story enjoyed a handful of star-studded (sold out) performances, I'm told. At my performance I sat between Joan Rivers, and Christine Baranski (and family). The house manager later told me it had been like that each night, and it's not surprising. Judy Holliday was an inspiring and sensational actress, both an Oscar and Tony winner. This show also had the best talent of any show I'd seen at Fringe this year. Starring Marina Squerciati (The 39 Steps, To Be or Not to Be), Adam Harrington (Scrubs, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia), Mary Gutzi (Ragtime), and newcomer Catherine Lefrere. Their performances alone are justification enough for being invited to the Fringe's encore series. And I've heard already that tickets are going fast.
What Just In Time: The Judy Holliday Story Does Right:
1) Marina Squerciati. Period. End of Story. Her total personification of Judy Holliday transcends impersonation. It's so heartfelt and lifelike, I was completely stunned. The voice, the humor, and the melancholy disposition are genuine. It's never too exact, or self-aware, she is playing Judy Holliday, and you instantly forget. You instantly fall in love.
2) The play is well written. It covers a good amount of time in Judy Holliday's life, with many different scenes and well-played theatrical devices that keep the audience alert, despite any knowledge of the actress's history. There's a variety of scenes, from Game shows, to move sets, to beaches, to Broadway. The show's variety that takes you places. The dialogue is very natural, the jokes, timely. There was a significant amount of research put into this play, not only into the Story of Judy Holliday, but into the popular culture references, the style of speech, and attitudes in 1950s Hollywood. It's the type of show where you know the authors put in a lot of effort, time, research, and expert polishing. I'm wouldn't be surprised if this was the 10th staged draft of this piece, because it's so strongly written. Not an ounce of fat. What a refreshing change from that disgusting, painful, stupid, abomination Jurrasic Parq. (Then read what I had to say about that, click here.)
3) The show is of perfect length, and captures the total spirit and message of Judy Holliday. In 90 minutes, the play achieves what it sets out to do. The show is especially relevant to New York audiences, and recent news of a Born Yesterday revival on Broadway made this especially timely. I could see this show expanded into two acts, made for television, a feature film, or stay the same. I'd certainly be anxious to see this show again in any later form, and I'd recommend it now.
I don't know what I'd recommend for this production, except I trust that the writers and producers know where this is heading. Of course, I'd like to see it expanded into a full-production with full sets. So it may come to that. That's my only suggestion.
For information about tickets to Just In Time: The Judy Holliday Story at Fringe Encores, click here.