a.k.a. "The Oscar Messenger"

Bullets 2Helen Sinclair

“Bullets Over Broadway” was a constantly delightful movie by Woody Allen at his comic best, back in the day. Now it’s back as a full-blown, or more aptly OVERblown Broadway musical, where the chorus comes off best.Director Susan Stroman’s epic hoofers are tapping up a storm in the Best Choreographed numbers I’ve seen in years.

You never want them to stop dancing, but unfortunately, they do.

And it comes as a shock that Allen’s delightful piece of 1920s whimsy is so paper-thin when magnified to Broadway blockbuster size. “Guys and Dolls” it’s not, though it’s mixture of thugs and chorines is oddly similar. Close but no cigar.

And it begs comparison to Stroman’s other great hit at the very same St. James Theater “The Producers.” What’s the diff? Well, it just isn’t funny.

From the minute “The Producers” curtain went up, I just couldn’t stop laughing. In “Bullets OVer Broadway” I couldn’t START laughing.

What’s wrong? Well, the characters seem paper-thin and bloodless, rather than original. And it’s not really the casts’ fault. It’s rookie Broadway book-writer Allen’s, making newbie mistakes all over the place.

First, there are no original songs, although the show cries out for them. I mean, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” as the climatic curtain finale? I mean, seriously?

Zach Braff, sings and dances surprisingly well, as the leading character, the inevitable Woody stand-in as David Shayne, a struggling schlub of a playwright who just can’t catch a break. His best number(and he has a lot of them, too much almost) is the classic “I’m Sitting On Top of the World” and it’s stirring. I thought that would be the end of the first act, but no, it’s not. Not by a long show. Er, shot.

And the tap-dancing gangters, hoofin’ their heavy hearts out to “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” is really the high-point of the show, which comes waaay to early in the middle of a VERY long first act. Brevity is the soul of wit, Woody. But we thought you already knew that.

As you can see, the numbers seem oddly placed. ANOTHER newbie mistake.

There are some quirkily amusing burlesque-ish turns like the Atta-Girls chorus as pussy-cats shaking their blues away in “Tiger Rag,” which opens the show. And again, the hard-working male chorus disguised as hot dogs, yes, hot dogs, doing the “Hot Dog Song” to Olive Neal, here played by Helene Yorke. Yorke essays the EXTREMELY untalented, but nevertheless pushy actress wannabe/gun moll with the uber-irritating voice. Olive was one of Allen’s most endearing creations, but here she just aggravating.

In the movie, Jennifer Tilly’s rat-a-tat delivery of Olive’s sappily stupid one-liners was again delightfully brief. You couldn’t wait for her ditzy character to come brassily back on.

In the musical, you can’t wait for her to leave. I’ll never forget the jolt I felt when Olive’s fate overtakes her in the movie. In the musical, it doesn’t come quickly enough.

The same sense of too-much-of-muchness is displayed by Marin Mazzie’s waaaay over-the-top Helen Sinclair, a soused diva well-past her sell-by date. In the movie, this again smartly brief role was played with deliciously over-seasoned relish by Diane Wiest, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar, as Woody’s actresses often do. It was a peach of a part. Here she’s a over-ripe orchard.

Marin Mazzie is mugging to beat the band, and yes, she does beat them.

Sadly, in “Bullets Over Broadway” Helen Sinclair has been exploded and expanded to Best(bad) Actress in a Musical status. I like Marin Mazzie,but I always felt there was something missing. I think the word is star quality. Ethel Merman, she ain’t. She’s not even Beth Leaval in “Drowsy Chaperone,” though it’s the same part in a different show.

The word “cliche” springs to mind as we have instead the over-acting Ms. Mazzie, who belts well in “They Go Wild, Simply Wild Over Me” and then really has nowhere else to go but down. Her classic line to playwright Braff “Don’t Speak!” was a witty character trope, defining Diva Sinclair, but here is used over five or six or seven or eight times. Too much! TOO MUCH! ENOUGH ALREADY! Overkill becomes road kill very quickly on Broadway.

The criminally underused Karen Ziemba has fallen on times so hard, she, a real-life former Broadway headliner, is playing third fiddle to Olive and Helen Sinclair, and fourth fiddle to her to her dog Mr. Woofles, who yes, also does his own little doggie dance.

When she sings “It’s a New Day Coming” to open the second act, you sincerely open she’s right. But the number again disappoints, as it goes on and on and on. As Ziemba goes to the dogs, literally.

The real emerging star of the show, for me, was the singing gangster,Cheech, Nick Cordero, who has the deliciously silly “Up a Lazy River” played every time he goes to the Gowanus Canal to, er, work. And he of course, is UNDERused. As opposed to everybody else who is criminally OVERused, like Olive and Helen Sinclair and Mr. Woofles. The other OK actor who escapes unscathed here is Brooks Ashmanskas, whose overweight character grows into ponderous girth, as the show’s leading man, Warner Purcell. Ashmanskas doesn’t miss a beat, or a danish. And he and Olive are fun in “Let’s Misbehave,” as he keeps eating as she keeps seducing him.

But this is Allen’s first Broadway musical outing as a librettist, and it’s good that he’s trying to expand his horizons as a writer by doing so. The next one should be better, whatever it is. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Here’s the link to the unbelievable story! I always knew there was more!


Audra McDonald, who has won more Tonys than any other actress, five at last count, is looking seriously at her sixth, for her superb rendition of the doomed & dying Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille.” McDonald, always masterful, here touches the sublime in a superb interpretation the late, jazz great Holiday.

Watching, and hearing, this silken voice soar over the rainbow, is beyond the beyond. And watching a great singer and a great actress at the absolute peak of her vocal and dramatic prowess is a great, great privilege and a pleasure second to none. McDonald has captured lightning in a bottle.

The legendary MacDonald has an operatic range and Julliard training and was simply magnificent as Bess in “Porgy and Bess”, in what was, up til then, the performance of her career.

Now, she’s done the impossible and topped herself, with her heart-rending, scintillating, melodious “Lady Day.”

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille” is named that for a very specific reason. We here see Billie Holiday right near the end of her drug-addicted and booze-fueled life. She was dead at 44. And Emerson’s Bar and Grille was one of the only places she could play after being imprisoned in New York City for drugs. And it’s in Philadelphia, a town she hates.

“I don’t care if I go to heaven or to hell, as long as it’s not Philadelphia” she says.

She lost her license to perform in New York City clubs because of her prison time. Even though she could and did sing at Carnegie Hall, she couldn’t practice her art in nightclubs.

Her sad, sad life is enlivened and elevated, of course, when she sings. And MacDonald has captured the exact timbre and tone and the tremendous pain behind all of Holiday’s singing. And also the singer’s utter joy in her music.

McDonald has won Five Tonys and is celebrated and lauded wherever she goes. starring on Broadway and in concerts. And she restricts her vocal stylings to exactly match Holiday’s very limited range. But her voice flies up to rapturous emotional heights as Holiday’s did. I felt like I was watching a moonbeam sing.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille” is a very strange cocktail of a play and a musical. It’s really both, and it calls upon McDonald to go places onstage that she’s never been asked to go before. But go there, she does. As she continues to sing and interact with the admiring throng, she is also going to pieces right in front of us.

She literally staggers on to the Circle in the Square stage, from the back room of Emerson’s Bar and Grille, where she was clearly soused to the gills as the play opens, and McDonald weaves her way through the assembled cocktail tables where much of the audience is seated, as if it were a for-real nightclub. She staggers and needs help mounting the stage and sings a couple of upbeat numbers, before she halts her act, to inform the audience of her tragic back story. Her cleaning the steps of a Baltimore whorehouse, and actually working in some herself before she started singing.

She keeps cursing the man in her life who got her hooked on drugs, and now she’s helplessly in the death throes of her addiction, and there’s nothing she can do about it.It isn’t pretty, but Audra McDonald makes it beautiful beyond belief.

She even staggers back through the audience to leave the stage completely to her confused and dismayed musical trio, who vamp until she returns, having clearly shot up in the back room of Emerson’s Bar and Grille.

She wears long white gloves to cover the track marks, and one of them is dangerously slipping and MacDonald returns to the stage glistening with sweat all over, as junkies do. Her bare shoulders slightly soaked and beautiful face sweaty & screwed up into that all-too-familiar, self-satisfied smile of inner glee that junkies have immediately after they get high.This moment was so accurately portrayed, it was chilling.

McDonald builds her definitive portrait of this damaged artist detail by detail, describing one shocking racial incident after the other, so that by the time she sings her signature song, “Strange Fruit” she becomes an unforgettable mixture of pain and beauty.

The song, of course, describes a lynching she has witnessed in the South.

But the joy in this great spirit is incandescent. And a performance of this caliber is so high and so rare, don’t by any means miss it. You’ll never forget it.

I had the great privilege and pleasure at the Montreal World Film Festival this past summer to chat with the great Spanish actress Carme Elias, who is just stupendous in the Venezuelan film “La Distancia Mas Larga” or “The Longest Distance”. She also spoke very interestingly about her work with Pedro Almodovar on the film “Flower of My Secret,” one of my all time faves.

Carme played the mistress in the film of Marisa Paredes’ husband.

And in “La Distancia…” she plays an ailing, but determined and very modern grandmother, who goes to the mountains above the Amazon, seeking…she doesn’t quite know what…And Carme plays this end-of-life character with great force and great restraint. She’s utterly beguiling in it. And I hope American audiences soon get to see it. Venezuelan actor Alec Whaite, who co-stars in the film, directed by Claudia Pinto, translates here.

Camera ~ Federico Foa Fuentes
Editing ~ Kevin Teller

Bobby Steggert is now wowing the crowds on Broadway in Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons.” But here’s Bobby in 2010 at the Drama Desk Nominee Cocktail party, where he had the unique honor or being nominated for TWO Drama Desk Awards in the same season! Best Actor for “Yanks” an Off-Broadway musical and Best Supporting Actor for the revival of “Ragtime” on Broadway. He was also nominated for the Tony Award in that category for “Ragtime.”

The great Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” is the best new play of the year and the best new play on Broadway. And Tyne Daly as the mother is giving ANOTHER one of her greatest performances and in surely on her way to a Best Actress in a Play Tony nomination, if not a win. She won her first and only Tony(so far) for “Gypsy.”

“Mothers and Sons” is the kind of new play we should be seeing regularly on Broadway, but never do. It’s powerful. Immense, in its’ concentration on only four characters, or five, if you count the off-stage character of the late Andre Gerard, who is the real center of the play, and its’ uniting figure.

Andre is the handsome, sexy, 20-something young actor who dies twenty years before the play actually begins of AIDS.And by the way, we never see him. Except on a theater regional theater poster of him playing a rage-filled Hamlet.

It’s now two decades on and grief and time have brought his angry Republican mother, Katherine (Tyne Daly) and his surviving lover Cal (Frederick Weller) together in his semi-sumptuous Upper West Side apartment that overlooks Central Park.

She has come in her black, bulky fur coat and jewels to return her late son Andre’s diary to Cal. She can’t read it. And neither can he. She’s a dragon, breathing fire at Cal.

Yes, it’s another AIDS play. (I wrote one of the first one’s myself “Fever of Unknown Origin” in 1984, but that’s another story.) “Mothers and Sons” is set decidedly today. In a time when gay marriage is legal, and Cal has indeed moved on since the beloved Andre’s death to marry Will (Bobby Steggert) and they have a son Bud. This arrangement is seen as the highest point of gay achievement, and yes, perhaps it is. It certainly is a profound political and societal change.

Gay Marriage as well as AIDS is also front and center here because that too is what the play is addressing. Since the wonderful privilege of marriage for gay men was not even a serious thought or consideration when Andre died. But now it’s an inspiring fact of gay life.

And Bobby Steggert’s heart-warming, handsome young Wil can’t even imagine a time when it wasn’t this way. The rest of us all do. Wil is the younger generation who has missed the plague years, where literally someone I knew was dropping dead every day. It was like a war zone. It was a holocaust. It was ghastly. It was horrible beyond belief. Nearly everyone I knew died.

Frederick Weller’s Cal has lived through all of that era and nursed Andre through the horrible final stages of that illness that changed all our lives forever.

Weller has never been better and he has the daunting task of standing up to Tyne Daly’s formidable, homophobic monster of a mother. And he does.

Daly is a theatrical miracle in a career-topping performance. I saw her as Momma Rose in “Gypsy.” She was great. I saw her as Maria Callas in “Master Class” She was astonishing. And now her Katharine Gerard is an unforgettable portrait of a right-wing, Texas Republican mother who has all her anger and all her self-righteous conservative prejudices and confusion intact. And is still mourning the loss of her only son.

A seemingly impregnable, immovable slab of Mount Rushmore granite at the start of the play, she removes her black widow mink, to reveal a bright red dress that symbolizes her slow melt. And melt she inevitably does, and it is to Tyne Daly’s unending credit that she makes us like and UNDERSTAND this hostile harridan’s point of view.

And credit too to the great playwright McNally, who has always been one of my favorite American writers. He strips Katharine down to the bone as he has her reveal layer by layer, monologue by searing monologue, the depths of this woman’s despair and loneliness and sense of abandonment. Her husband, whom she didn’t love, has passed away, too, two weeks ago. And though she couldn’t stand him, his passing has sent her reeling into Cal’s CPW apartment to try to find….something….Something she doesn’t even understand she’s looking for.

And we find it with her, and what a journey it is! I can’t stop praising this great, new play and recommend it to one and all everywhere. It’s a great, great theatrical triumph.

Bravo and definitely BRAVA!

What an uproarious delight is awaiting theater-goers at the CSC on E.13th Street! You must see two young, incredibly talented and gifted actors become stars in David Yves uproarious new comedy “Heir Apparent”. Carson Elrod explodes and Dave Quay shines in one of the most expertly executed comic duets since Laurel and Hardy had us in stitches! This kind of delight and excitement is so, so rare in theater or in film, or anywhere. It’s a unique and festive romp that will leave you rolling,if not dancing, in the aisles! Send in the clowns! Don’t bother, they’re here! At the CSC!

Carson Elrod, remember that name! You are going to be hearing it a lot this season, is a veteran, and quirky, comic actor whose work I have been following ever since he graduated from NYU’s prestigious Grad Acting program a few years back. His is a unique talent that has finally gotten the role of his career in “Heir Apparent”, as Crispin, the wily servant straight out of Commedia dell’Arte via the inventive playwright David Ives’ wildy comic take on a centuries old French farce by Jean-Francois Regnard”Le Legataire Universel”(1708).

If all of this sounds a little stuffy and pretentious, “The Heir Apparent” is none of that. It’s simply the funniest show in New York! And Carson Elrod’s comic genius of timing and impersonations is finally allowed to explode like the Supernova he’s going to be.

Director John Rando (“Urinetown”) has given Carson Elrod his comic head and unleashed the stupendously funny volcano inside. Elrod explodes and explodes, topping himself in scene after scene, where he, the wiliest of servile servants, is called upon to assume one outrageous disguise after another, trying to bilk the dying Miser character of Geronte (the always perfect Paxton Whitehead), out of his considerable fortune.

He is matched beat for beat by the stunning Dave Quay(pictured above^), who only JUST graduated NYU’s grad acting program this past June, and who here makes an incredibly impressive New York debut in what perhaps is the more difficult role of Eraste, the ardent young lover, who is Crispin/Elrod’s master, and the Heir Apparent of the title role.

Quay has to play straight man to Elrod’s wackness-to-the-max-ness and it’s a comic duet by two young actors the likes of which I’ve never seen in all my play-going life!

Quay has to be touching, ardent, relatable, impetuous romantic and sexy, too, and he manages to do all that and not miss a comic trick, complementing and completing Elrod’s tour-de-force, Quay does this without missing a beat, or a laugh.

Elrod’s character describes himself at one point as a “one man Comedie Francaise”.

I’d say it was two!

Playing the straight, leading man to Elrod’s whirling dervish is no easy task for an actor. But Quay’s meets the challenges and surpasses expectations ~ for handsome love interests are not USUALLY this funny. But he is!

You have to CARE about Dave Quay’s blond, blue-eyed, sincere heir with the Rock-Star hair, and you do. You have to want him to inherit the earth and the considerable fortune that is at stake here.

“The Heir Apparent”is like discovering a new play by Moliere! Yes! It’s THAT funny!

The fact that both Elrod and Quay trained in clown work at NYU makes them a perfectly matched pair of comical technical wonders. They can handle the slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am physical comedy as well as Ives’ scintillating wit.

And did I mention the play is entirely in RHYME!?! What a joy! To hear language this highfalutin (and hilarious) handled with such magical mastery by Elrod, Quay, and past British masters Paxton Whitehead and Suzanne Bertish who set an expert pace here.

If Carson Elrod is a volcano, Dave Quay is simply a star, and does what stars do. He just shines, shines, shines!

And I can’t forget to mention the gigantic comic performance of the world’s tiniest lawyer Scruple, played on his knees, with tiny little pads for feet by the redoubtable David Pittu. He doesn’t make his entrance til Act Two but you’re going to never stop laughing at the world’s littlest lawyer with a wig(by Paul Huntley) that is bigger than he is!Pittu is the comic cherry on top of this delicious French pastry of a play!

Don’t miss “The Heir Apparent” before it moves to Broadway! Or somewhere more expensive, like David Yves’ last hit “Venus in Furs” did which made another NYU Alum Nina Arianda famous. (WHAT magical elixir do they have in the water down there?!?)

I think “The Heir Apparent” will do the same for Carson Elrod and Dave Quay! Don’t MISS iT at the CSC, a theater that is barely large enough to contain the laughter!

They throw gold coins at the audience at the end, and I’ll treasure mine for ever and ever, like you will the golden, mirthful memories “The Heir Apparent” will leave you with. You’ll exit happy!

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