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MAURICE KORT REVIEWS #3 (article first published : 2007-02-12)

This is a continuation of Maurice Kort’s reviews from his recent trip to London and New York. (See also Maurice Kort Reviews #1 and #2).

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is another highly original and innovative musical. The cast consists of six youngsters as the contestants overseen by three adults – the Vice Principal, a former Spelling Bee champion and realtor, and a parolee doing community service as a comfort counsellor. Before the show members of the audience who fancy themselves as good spellers could submit their names for audience participation and four names are drawn (I suspect not at random but by design as one of them was a young girl of about 10 whereas the others were adults of various ages). They also go onto the stage and are eventually eliminated – very clever, and so each performance will be different. The words are not easy and each contestant may ask about the word’s pronunciation or definition, its language of origin and its use in a sentence. This last is invariably particularly unhelpful. Great and hilarious pandemonium was caused by the, considered hugely unfair, word Cow given to the little girl. The whole show is very witty and vastly entertaining and is highly recommended. There is also the message that winning isn’t everything and losing does not necessarily make one a loser.

There aren’t that many performances on a Monday night (and no matinees) other than shows I’ve already seen such as A Chorus Line and Chicago etc. and did not wish to see again, but there is Altar Boys off-Broadway which is also original, highly entertaining and a fun romp. The cast were obviously enjoying themselves as well. It is about a struggling Christian boy band consisting of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham – yes he’s Jewish, go figure, self appointed apostles of pop who always stay well in character and intend to save the New York souls. There are catchy songs and great moves with harmless fun being poked at organised religion. There is also a digital machine which measures lost souls, the aim being to reduce the counter to zero by purifying the audience.

Company is a revival of the 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical which I had never seen. It concerns the 35-year-old conflicted bachelor Robert, performed by Raúl Esparza, considering marriage and what is missing in his life by observing his friends, five very different married couples and three single women. It is directed by John Doyle from the United Kingdom who has used the innovation of having the cast play various musical instruments often while strutting around the stage (except for the piano of course), first used in a previous production by him of Sweeney Todd which he has defended in the press as not being a gimmick.

Grey Gardens is a new musical based on the Maysles Brothers’ documentary film of the same name. It is about the reclusive Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie (Christine Ebersole), the real-life aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. They were once amongst the brightest names in the social register (Act 1 which takes place in 1941) but sadly became East Hampton’s most notorious recluses. They ended up living in their extremely dilapidated 28-room mansion, Grey Gardens, in extreme squalor (Act 2, now 1973). There is also a Prologue (1973). The contrast of the sets between the two periods is well depicted. Mary Louise Wilson portrays Edith in 1973 while the young 1941 Edith is portrayed by Christine Ebersole, who also acts as the 1973 Little Edie. Much was made in the press about this dual performance.

There were two morning performances, which helped me take in more shows – Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (as it is a children’s show) and the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular (multiple shows a day – if you plan correctly). It is well worth seeing a show at this venue as the theatre holds 6,000 people and no expense is spared in the productions. There have not always been shows on at this venue when I have visited the Big Apple in the past.

Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a musical about the nasty Grinch who hates Christmas and decides to steal all the decorations and presents of his neighbours in Whoville. Of course the true Christmas spirit prevails, due in no uncertain terms to the efforts of Cindy Lou. No expense has been spared in the terrific sets, enchanting costumes and special effects.

The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular is the perennial Christmas holiday revue and never disappoints. Two organists keep the masses entertained while they are being seated. Unfortunately this is still taking place once the show has started, due to the vast size of the audience. There is the famous, spectacular Living Nativity with no less than three live camels and much other livestock. The awesome Rockettes are deservedly world famous and are really something to see, particularly the Parade of the Wooden Soldiers. Their dancing, routines and precision are unbelievable. There are giant dancing toy animals, a Nutcracker ballet, ice skating, no less than 54 Santa’s, multiplied by the use or mirrors and an amazing journey by Santa in 3-D, the best effects I have yet seen.

I also saw three plays. Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw, a story of family dysfunction, follows the unlikely romantic encounters that occur in an estate on the English countryside. Romance springs ever eternal but is never mutual and the most successful relationships often have nothing to do with love. It starred Philip Bosco (Captain Shotover), Swoozie Kurtz (Hesione Hushabye) (a great favourite actress of mine), Byron Jennings (Hector Hushabye), Lily Rabe (Ellie Dunn) and Laila Robins (Ariadne Utterwood) with a superb supporting cast.

Butley, a revival of Simon Gray’s 1972 play, starred an excellent Nathan Lane although I found the play a little slow and wordy. It is about an English professor, Ben Butley, at a London college and details an awful day in his life. His estranged wife, Anne, advises him that she is getting married and his live-in boyfriend, Joseph, informs him that he will be leaving him to move in with someone else. Adding insult to injury, both these other men are friends of Ben Butley and had had prior knowledge of these events.

The Vertical Hour by David Hare, tells the story of a young American war reporter, Nadia Blye (Julianne Moore) who has become an academic and while travelling abroad becomes entangled in a romantic triangle, being pulled between the affections of her fiancé, Philip Lucas (Andrew Scott), and his father, Oliver (Bill Nighy). The play contained much political and social comment, blaming Americans, not only for the war in Iraq but also for many of the country’s and the planet’s problems. This was the first night of the previews.

Who would have thought that the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum written in 1900, would spawn that all time classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz which starred the unforgettable Judy Garland, the musically updated The Wiz, a dazzling, lively mixture of rock, gospel and soul, and the very recent smash hit Wicked which I saw in New York, in November 2004. It is still running there with further productions in London and Toronto, where I saw it again after leaving New York. It is a brilliant musical adaptation based on what was in the original book and was left out of the subsequent film and rock musical. It explains how the lion lost his courage, the tin man his heart and the scarecrow his brain, the enmity between the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West (who were sisters) and why the latter wants Dorothy's shoes.

Obtaining Tickets for the Shows: Half price tickets (with an additional small handling charge) can be obtained at tkts booths in Leicester Square, London, and Times Square, New York (now temporarily housed outside the Marquis Hotel on 46th Street while the original booth is being rebuilt). One can only obtain tickets for the matinee and evening performances for that day. Credit cards and cash only, are accepted in London, whereas only Travelers’ cheques and cash are valid in New York. I made good use of these two facilities but tickets for the real blockbusters are often not available at these venues. In addition, I would book in advance for the more popular shows, always by going to the theatres. There is seldom any problem obtaining single seats.

Copies of The Official London Theatre Guide can be obtained at the box offices of all the theatres. These are replaced with updates every fortnight. The equivalent Official Broadway Theatre Guide, also updated fortnightly, can be obtained at a Tourist Information Centre in Times Square. It takes some arranging, planning and foresight to see so many shows in so short a time. – Maurice Kort (Other reviews on Maurice Kort#1 and #2)




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