Monday, February 1, 2010

Aging with Dorian Gray

Some of the hardest reviews to do are those where you wish you could write something favorable, but you know that if you do, you’d be something less than honest. And that’s the case here. Students from my alma mater brought a show off-off Broadway, and I wanted to be able to champion their successes. Having served as the theater editor for Columbia Spectator, I was eager to follow this production to its new digs on Theatre Row. But watching Daniel Mitura’s stage adaption of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray made me think that this rendition wasn’t ready for a midtown audience.

Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the significance we ascribe to youth and beauty, and uses art as a mirror to reflect the actions we take in life. An artist enamored with his subject, Basil paints the portrait of 20-something Dorian Gray. But once Basil’s friend, Henry enlightens Dorian about the power and influence of the beautiful, Dorian wishes that he could stay forever young and that the painting would age instead of him. (Think kind of a darker twist on Tuck Everlasting.)

I confess that I’ve never read the book, but I have no doubt that writing an adaptation of such would be challenging. Mitura penned his version of Dorian Gray in 2004, well before earning his bachelor’s in Art History from Columbia College this past spring. But the play lacks a consistent voice (Mitura v. Wilde), leaving some characters to spout philosophy while others speak conventionally, with neither narration nor exposition to tie the two together.

While Mitura’s fourth off-Broadway production received some creative input from the Columbia/Barnard theater group, NOMADS, its director, Henning Hegland (from Columbia’s School of the Arts) ultimately inherited a stage on which two title characters are left to carry the play. Henry (Vayu O’Donnell) and Dorian (Wil Petre) are satisfactory in their roles mentor and protégé, respectively. But Henry, who walks with the assistance of a cane, appears to be a talking head that extols the virtues of youth using a vocabulary 10x that of all the other characters. Being the strongest actor in this hodgepodge of a cast, O’Donnell helps to convey Wilde’s wisdom at select moments. But Henry may have worked better on the page where you can relish in certain passages, underlining the parts you want to remember. In Mitura’s Dorian Gray, the philosophy lesson is too fast, too contradictory and frankly too much for one intermissionless sitting.

Petre’s initial carefree demeanor, albeit gawky, thankfully offsets some of the weightiness of Henry’s lines. But soon Dorian grows evil and manipulative, and here Petre has the greatest command of his character. He struts around like an egomaniacal prince, both satisfied that he’s retained his youth but horrified at the portrait he witnesses vilifying before his eyes. But where there should be gruffness, on occasion, there’s whininess. Petre’s voice can grow grating, which doesn’t befit a character who is supposed to be such an Adonis of a man.

A velvet rope cordons-off the other supporting actors who dress in period garb and strike various poses. Hegland succeeds here in giving the stage a museum feel that hints at the disconnect between life and art, but the framed characters existed merely to advance the plot and contribute very little to the take home message. I suppose this is a good thing, though, as their acting spans the range from over-exaggeration (Christina Broccolini as Dorian’s first love, Sybil) to woodenness (Jade Rothman as Sybil’s protective older brother).

Perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the most affecting moments of the evening is one without words. Henry and Basil (a genuine Leif Huckman) run powder through their hair to show their age, while Dorian slicks his back with gel (maybe water?) and a dresser lends two extra hands to button the vest of his three-piece suit. It’s an inventive way to show the passage of time, and makes for a nice picture.

It’s unfortunate then that the rest of the play falls so two-dimensionally flat, reminding me that unlike Dorian, I had in fact aged in the span of 90-minutes.

For further reading, I suggest a feature written by my fellow Speccie, Joy Resmovits:
Directed by Henning Hegland, The Picture of Dorian Gray is adapted by Daniel Mitura and based on a novel by Oscar Wilde. It runs through Feb. 6 at the Kirk Theatre, which is located on Theatre Row at 410 W. 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues). Tickets are $18. For more information, please visit

PHOTO CREDIT: The cast of Dorian Gray / by Ofer Zimchi

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Revisiting performances of 2009 with Jonathan Groff, Colman Domingo, and a tunnel boring machine?

So, I got a new laptop for Christmas (finally!), and as I was transferring my files I came across some questions I had sent to my friend, Jonathan Groff (of Spring Awakening fame) at the end of last summer. A host of circumstances didn't allow me to get these up here in a any sort of timely fashion, and I was going to wait until he makes his Glee debut this spring, but then I figured: why not post them now? A little randomness never hurt anyone. And it's always nice to think back on shows from the past year - only helps to strengthen those neuronal connections in an art form so transient that to revisit a particular performance relies solely on the salience of its memory. Poetic and scientific, yeah? That's what I'm here for! Ah well, once again folks, happy new year ... 18 days in!

As it says in the parens above, Jonathan originated the role of Melchior in Broadway's Spring Awakening. A musical where angsty nineteenth century adolescents sing their inner-most feelings into a hand-held mics, Spring Awakening opened in 2006 and won the Tony for best new musical in 2007. Critics praised the energy and freshness it brought to the form, while fans flocked to the stage door nightly to catch a glimpse of the hot young cast. I interviewed Jonathan for the first time in the beginning of Spring Awakening's run, and we've been in touch ever since. Small world: We actually have a mutual friend, who now stars as Belle in Beauty and the Beast down in Disney World. She was the one that introduced us initially.

Since leaving Spring Awakening, Jonathan has starred in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park productions of Hair (2008) and The Bacchae (2009). He also performed in Craig Lucas' A Prayer for My Enemy (2008) and The Singing Forest (2009, also at the Public). This past summer, Jonathan made his debut on the silver screen. Sporting an only-slightly-ridiculous wig (Jonathan had showed me some photos on his phone before the movie came out), he played the role of Michael Lang in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock.

I think that'll do for an intro ... so without further ado, the Q&A (dated Aug. 31 2009):

Stage Synapses (SS): So, your run with The Bacchae ended last night. This marks your third show with the Public. Any reason you keep coming back?
Jonathan Groff (JG): I love the Public Theater. And nothing compares with performing in the Park for two reasons. First of all, the tickets are free and the audience spends HOURS waiting for them in the park, so you get to perform the show for people who REALLY want to see it. And then you are outside! There is nothing more magical than performing outside in the heart of New York City… truly, nothing compares to it. I feel so lucky that I got to do it two summers in a row.

SS: Speaking of repeat performances – aside from doing two Craig Lucas plays in the 2008-2009 season, you also performed in Hair and rehearsed Taking Woodstock simultaneously. Claude and Michael Lang may be very different characters, but what is it about them that you were drawn to? Did the two ever inform each other?
JG: I was drawn to Claude because at that moment in my life I really connected to his quest of self discovery and his desire to break free. After spending two years buttoned up in 1891 Germany, letting loose and playing Claude was just what the doctor ordered. The thing that drew me most to Michael Lang was the fact that I got to jump into the skin of a 24-year-old guy who made Woodstock happen and didn’t even seem to break a sweat. Michael was and is a fascinating man, and getting to spend time trying to figure out how he operates was life changing. The research for the projects informed each other way more than the characters did… to me they were two totally different people from the same era.

SS: The Bacchae included, how has performing in these period pieces helped you to grow as an actor?
JG: Part of the joy of being an actor is getting to learn something new in each project that you take on. Getting to learn about and explore the 60s opened up my mind and my heart. And for The Bacchae, I took a trip to Greece as preparation and explored the ruins and immersed myself in the ancient history. Taking the time to really embrace these different times and cultures not only informs the particular role you're playing, but also develops your mind and spirit as a human being.

SS: You’ve shown me pictures of you visiting Michael Lang when you were rehearsing for your role in Taking Woodstock. It seems like you really do your homework. What’s something you typically do to prepare for a performance?
JG: Every project requires a different kind of preparation. But, I always do as much research as I can about the person, the time period, the events of play, etc. And then when it comes down to the performing of it, you throw all that away and focus on the acting and hope that all of that research has, in some way, informed what you’re doing. Research is great, but you never want to see an actor showing you the homework that he did while he’s performing - you want to see him living in what is happening.

SS: Since your Broadway debut in Spring Awakening, you’ve been a critics' darling. Now you’ve also won over the hearts of movie reviewers. How does that feel?
JG: Reviews are tricky. A positive review can effect you just as negatively as a bad review can. I read all of them because I believe that knowledge is power, and I believe that what I do onstage means so much more to me than what someone writes about it. I love what I do way too much to let someone’s opinion, positive or negative, get in the way and steal my joy.

SS: Yet, even though the raccoons may have been supportive, The Bacchae generally received press not of the good kind. (New York Magazine taking a shot at your boxers. That’s just low!) How do reviews, positive or negative, affect your performance?
JG: (see answer above!)

SS: Yeesh, I feel like I’ve been asking you some intense questions. Onto something more fun. During our first interview when you were still in Spring Awakening, you showed me some of the crazy things fans had brought to the stage door. Anything new to add to the collection these days? A bottle of wine, or a bong perhaps?
JG: Hmmm… great question! The latest was actually a beautiful picture that someone drew of me with quotes from The Bacchae on it… it was awesome!

SS: Totally unrelated, but I’m curious … in Taking Woodstock which was most fun to ride: the helicopter, motorcycle, or various animals of the equine variety? You really do have the most sweeping entrances.
JG: Definitely the horse. Taking those two weeks of horseback riding lessons was one of the highlights of the entire experience!

SS: I know you just filmed a little indie flick somewhere out West. (What was the name of that again?) But now that you’re wide open employment wise, what can we expect to see from you in the future? Do you ever see yourself living in Hollywood?
JG: I don’t think that I am allowed to talk about the indie flick, since they aren’t done with it yet… But honestly I am just looking for the next challenge. It can be in film, movies, or TV, it doesn’t matter to me, I am just looking for the next project that makes my heart leap out of my chest, whether it’s because of the material, the actors, the director, the role, or hopefully all of the above!
Wrapping up some other 2009 news, I don't think I ever posted the link to my Philadelphia Inquirer story on Colman Domingo and his one-man show A Boy and His Soul. (I remember that there was something weird about waiting in my freelance contract.) But now I think we're good to go! Here she be:
(Oh, and check out the audio link at the top right of the article. I feel like everyone misses it!)

Producer Elizabeth McCann has picked up A Boy and His Soul, so 2010 looks to be an exciting time for Colman. In addition to revisiting his own material in a commercial transfer, he'll also be performing the final Kander and Ebb musical, The Scottsboro Boys, at the Vineyard Theatre. Previews begin Feb. 10.
Finally... (and this last thing is totally unrelated to the theater or neuroscience, but I'm really proud of it all the same) ... my final project for my seminar in J-School was on the tunnel boring machine that will be used to create the Second Avenue subway. I went to see the machine 3 times, getting an increasingly-detailed engineering lesson with each visit. Well, I came to love the big lug so much that I made it its own website for my final: There's text, pics, a map, some silly video (made at 2 AM in the J-School's 5th floor radio lab while listening to "Last Midnight" from Into the Woods) - enjoy!
PHOTO: Jonathan Groff (Melchior) and Lea Michele (Wendla) in Spring Awakening / photo by Joan Marcus courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Updates on the Finian's and Ragtime fronts

Press reps confirm that Finian's Rainbow is now definitely closing this Sunday (Jan. 17), and will not be moving into the Neil Simon Theatre as rumored. Michael Riedel, theater columnist for the New York Post, gives the backstory on that.

According to Riedel, a shifty producer named Garth Drabinsky (not composer Andrew Lloyd Webber) was involved in the negotiations with producers to transfer and monetize the critically-acclaimed revival. Coincidentally, Drabinsky's baby was the original 1998 Ragtime, but this production also led to his financial undoing. ran a detailed article last March about Drabinsky and his fraudulent theater producing company, Livent Inc. Drabinsky and his business partner Myron Gottlieb were convicted of swindling about 500 million Canadian dollars (that works out to 405 million American bucks).

Despite multiple attempts, I was unable to get a hold of someone attached to Finian's to speak to the Drabinsky claims. Will keep trying.
The press rep for Ragtime maintains that the show is closed, though remains tight-lipped when it comes to talking about load out. "I don't know why you need to know this," was all I got ... granted, I have essentially lost my voice and this made any further communication strained and mildly awkward (on my part).

I leave you with this Huffington Post piece by Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in D.C. The revival of Ragtime originated at the Kennedy Center in the spring of 2009 before transferring to Broadway this past fall. Kaiser makes an insightful distinction between non-profit and commercial theater, and how each contributed to Ragtime's fleeting stage life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ragtime resuscitated? Finian's luck?

Rumors are circulating that Ragtime may be coming back to Broadway in the very near future, and a source who works at the Neil Simon Theatre confirmed that load out had been delayed (as of yesterday). That means the Ragtime scenery remains in its Broadway house on 52nd St.

Meanwhile rumors have also spread that the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow, which is scheduled to play its final performance on Jan. 17 at the St. James Theatre, will be getting a new home and another shot at the Great White Way. The show is supposedly going to make the move uptown into the Neil Simon Theatre, where Ragtime was. Is?

Stage Synapses decided to investigate these dubious claims, and not surprisingly, no one wanted to talk. At least not really.

Press representatives for both Ragtime and Finian’s Rainbow said they couldn’t confirm or deny any allegations at this time. When asked if Ragtime was going come back, Ragtime’s press said, “Right now there are no definite plans for that to happen.”

Kevin McCollum, a lead producer for Ragtime, said he wouldn’t speak to speculation and had no comment on any rumors. He did speak to Ragtime’s delayed departure from the Neil Simon, saying staff was busy loading out another one of his shows, White Christmas in Kansas City, MO. The supervisor who oversees the load out process couldn’t be in New York on Monday.

Currently the Nederlander website has not announced a new spring tenant for the Neil Simon Theatre. The Nederlander Organization operates nine Broadway houses, including the Neil Simon.

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to the Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies, is likely to move into the Neil Simon this fall, though a venue has not been formally announced. Opening night is set for Nov. 11.

I should know more on either Wednesday or Thursday, folks. Check back!

PS: There are claims that Webber is financially involved in all of this, but as I haven’t made any calls to his representatives, I’m cannot endorse any of these allegations.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ragtime only makes it 10 days into 2010

Happy New Year, folks! I've finally returned after a much-too-long absence. My apologies! That problematic cocktail of school and work got the better of me, and my blogging fell by the wayside. But 2010 will bring a lot of changes, and most notably, a change of venue. That's right! My lovely roommate, Lindsey is busy designing me my very own website. (Sorry, blogspot.) I'll be sure to let you know when to expect the unveiling!

In the meantime, I'll be posting some new content over the next few days. I saw three shows this weekend, so there's plenty for me to talk about.

But enough of my preamble, here's my thoughts on Ragtime's closing ...

The Broadway revival of Ragtime played its final performance this afternoon at the Neil Simon Theatre, and though it’s a little bit sad, it doesn’t totally surprise me. Here’s why …

If you want to take up the celebrity argument, there were no recognizable names above the title. And really, when you can see Catherine Zeta-Jones or Scarlett Johansson or Ashlee Simpson-Wentz (what! what?) on any given night, the “name on everybody’s lips” surely wasn’t going to be Quentin Earl Darrington (who played Coalhouse Walker Jr.) or Christiane Noll (who played Mother).

Yet, Ragtime is a charming parade of our nation’s history from the turn of the century to the first World War. Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, Terrence McNally’s script includes a prejudiced Anglo-Saxon, an African-American jazz musician, and an Eastern European immigrant artist. Sitting this side of the curtain, we suspend our disbelief that these unrelated individuals eventually become somewhat intertwined. But hey, this is the theater, and frankly too, this is America. That Ragtime sometimes plays out like more of a revue is ok because its soaring tunes are designed to warm your Yankee-doodle heart. (At the performance I attended, people were apt to give regular ovations throughout the show.)

Still, I left the Neil Simon Friday night feeling satisfied but not wowed. I sincerely enjoyed the score, the singing (especially Darrington’s) often made those little hairs on the back of my neck raise, and the story twice moved me to almost-tears. So, why the note of restraint in my voice when my friend asked if I had liked it, and I replied, “Yeah, it was really good.”

After a cab ride of contemplation, I decided that the nearly every character is a stereotype, and the story is history (as in, it was required reading in grade school.) Don’t get me wrong, stereotypes exist for a reason, and it’s important to remember where we’ve come from, but it doesn’t leave much room for creative storytelling. Instead Ragtime plays out as a tribute to our nation’s history, yet we know how the plot will twist before we get to the turn. The white man is rich and ignorant, the black man is oppressed but a revolutionary, and the Jewish immigrants are struggling to adjust to their new home. (In case you couldn’t discern this by the costuming, music & lyrics, or your general knowledge of the stars and stripes, each group lines up and dances its own distinctive dance during the opening number.) Of course everyone eventually learns to peaceably cohabitate in the melting pot of the US of A, though, true to the books, Ragtime shows that our sordid past is not without its casualties.

Now, this is not to say that a historical drama can’t be engaging or fresh. In fact, I found some of the most interesting characters to be Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, and Evelyn Nesbit. (Sure, these are based on the real historical figures, but maybe that’s precisely why they seemed the least 2-dimensional of the bunch.) The problem is that Ragtime tries to fit a text book of personalities into a just-under-3-hour musical, and it doesn’t work. There’s no room for character development when you have a cast of 34, so the audience doesn’t have much more than those tunes to hold onto. But Jersey Boys or Wicked, Ragtime is not, and people weren’t buying seats based on any prior familiarity with the music.

Just to reiterate, though, the score by Stephen Flattery and Lynn Ahrens is beautiful. And you’ve probably heard of some of these songs before (read: “Your Daddy’s Son”, and “Wheels of a Dream”) even though you may not think you have. (At least that was the case for me.)

For this production, the design has been paired down considerably from the 1998 original, which fashioned a model T onstage and real live fireworks. (Collective ooo and ahh!) Here, there’s a backbone, but most of the meat and potatoes are left to the imagination, which helps offset some of the weightiness of the script.

Given its sweeping score enhanced by an effective minimalist staging, it's a shame that more folks couldn’t have seen this revival. It came here after a successful run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., but it will have played only 65 regular performances as of today after opening on Nov. 15. Yet, even if an outpouring of support had welcomed this production to Broadway, I don’t believe Ragtime would have lasted past awards season.

When it comes down to it, it’s that bloated and predictable storyline that’s most responsible for my enthused-but-not-ecstatic embrace of Ragtime. First-time Broadway director Marcia Milgrom Dodge has done some good work here – this Ragtime revival taps into our American heritage and pride in such a way that it seems almost unpatriotic not to like it. But unfortunately, as is the case with revivals, it’s tough affix wheels to a show that was stagnant from its beginnings.
For further reading on the Ragtime closing, I suggest this article from the LA Times written by critic Peter Marks of the Washington Post:,0,5043018.story

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On the Town: In Rehearsal

Click on the link for an audio slide show of Paper Mill's On the Town rehearsals. When I tried to upload from to my blog, the picture was huge. Since I'm not entirely sure if I can fix that retroactively on the blip site, I've just copied and pasted the link here. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Brave New World: Criticism in the Age of Twitter

Last week I went to an arts criticism discussion at Stony Brook University. It was formally titled: Elevating the Discourse: Artists, Critics and Audiences, A Roundtable Discussion on the State of Criticism in the Age of Twitter. (Oof, what a mouthful!) My brilliant former professor/chief theater critic for Newsday, Linda Winer, invited me to attend – she was on the panel. (NOTE: I think I might have been the only journalist in an audience full of dramaturgs. Makes sense, I suppose, as the discussion was sponsored by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.)

So, one of the first questions asked was something on the order of, “How can we elevate the discourse when talking about the theater?” I'll confess, I’m not sure exactly what that means, but a lengthy discussion ensued – much of which aimed to answer the more focused, if not entirely realized, inquiry: “Are critics writing for the artists or the audience?”

When I was younger (a naïve late teen), I would always complain to my parents that criticism wasn’t in touch with its audience – it was writing for someone that knew too much. I vowed to create a criticism that maintained a regard for my subjects, but was written with my readers in mind. As I get more entrenched in the theater community, however, I fear I’m losing touch with that “audience” I once felt so indebted to. I sigh when friends ask me if they should take their parents to see Jersey Boys when their in town. Typical, I think – safe commercial choice. (Perhaps another question that should have been asked at this panel – but wasn’t – might have been: How do we get serial commercial theatergoers to make the jump to Off-Broadway and beyond?) The honest truth is that I’ve never even seen Jersey Boys, and I have a particular distaste for the jukebox musical. Yet, I turn my nose up because Jersey Boys isn’t the best “artistic” option out there. We seem to live in a society where “artistic” is just another word for highbrow, and “entertaining” is the damning synonym for lowbrow. Something “brazenly artistic” generally garners a good review, and something “sordidly entertaining” usually means a pan is in order. But why does it have to be this way? Something artistic may be a total bore, just as something entertaining can provide for a memorable, enjoyable even, night in the theater. And what’s more, can’t something be artistic and entertaining at the same time?

I’ve decided that it’s largely a matter of taste. I see at least one show a week, so I’ve cultivated a palate sensitive to nuances in performances, direction, and narration. Regrettably, many people are fooled into thinking that critics are laymen that know nothing about the theatrical craft. But the fact is, we’ve probably seen more theater than most. It is our life’s work, after all.

But the hypothetical Jones family that schleps into Times Square to see two Broadway shows a year doesn’t share that same luxury. Going to the theater is a treat for them, and they’re probably going to stick with something "safe." (Here, word of mouth from friends probably holds more sway than anything the critic has to say.) The trick then is: How do I get them trust in my informed opinion? Can you mix experts and amateurs?

I’ve spent a long time thinking about the state of criticism today, and I’ve come up with three roles that critics can play. They are as follows:

1) Scoreboard keeper – This is the worst type of critic that I can imagine. Sadly, though, as we continue to whittle down our reviews to stars and thumbs, keeping score is becoming our reality. As the scoreboard keeper, I’m asked to objectify a subjective art form, and my creative license is completely stripped away. But I didn’t sign up to take a multiple choice exam where I’m instructed to fill in my scantron for the categories of acting, playwriting, and directing. Art is rarely extraordinary, but infrequently atrocious. How do I “bubble in” the middle ground without becoming redundant? Bottom line: I lose. You lose. And 2.5 stars becomes the norm.

2) Personal shopper – So let’s assume I get paid to write 300-400 word reviews for a publication of my choosing. (What an awesome alternate universe, right?!) Now say I write multiple reviews a week. In my limited space, I can’t say much, but as an avid reader of my engaging and witty blurbs, you get to know me – Laura Hedli: theater critic. You get to know what types of theater I enjoy, if I prefer to laugh or cry, if I like this actress or another. After a while, you know where your preferences line up with mine. I can recommend things about certain shows, but you take them in stride – you’ve got your own style after all. Still, I’m a consumer reporter. You want to know if you should pay your good, hard-earned dough to go to this-or-that particular show. You may want a brief explanation of why it suits you. But essentially, the question remains, “Does it fit?”

3) Matchmaker – Okay, so perhaps I’ve got to think longer on this term, but bear with me here. In an ideal world, my reviews would make you want to go to the theater. Maybe you want to see what I see, or perhaps you want to disagree. Either way. I would exist in order to foster a love between my reader and the art form that I hold most dear to my heart. Every time I take my seat, no matter the venue, I feel that I am home. I realize this is a bold statement, and I don’t make it lightly. It’s a privilege to be able to go to the theater once or twice a week, but I can think of few better ways spend my time. You, the reader, may not enjoy the same luxury, but I can bring the theater alive to you through my writing. If my critiques foster an organic connection between reader and theater, then I have done my job. I have opened the door to another voice, a broader discourse. I have perpetuated the dialogue – and by association, the art form.