Branson: A Visit to the ‘Redneck Las Vegas’

Though it’s not far from my hometown of Kansas City, I had never been to Branson, Mo., at least not since it became the entertainment capital of the Ozarks. But having just finished writing a book on Las Vegas entertainment, I figured it was high time to at least lay eyes on the town sometimes called the redneck Las Vegas. So I made a quick trip there last week. 

For a New Yorker — or even someone driving down from Kansas City, 200 miles away — Branson is another world. It’s the heart of the Bible belt, where every AM radio station plays either Christian music or right-wing talk, and where my first sight on driving into Springfield, the big town nearby, was a couple of roadside stands selling Trump merchandise.  On investigation, I discovered that the President was arriving on Friday for a rally at the local arena, so I guess you’d call them pop-up stores. But this is definitely Trump country.

I have a feeling the entertainment in Branson has seen better days. There are lots of big names here, but few big stars. Most of the shows, at the couple of dozen theaters lining route #76 and environs, are tributes to stars — 50 Years of Kenny Rogers, The Glen Campbell Songbook, Beach Boys California Dreamin’, and others celebrating the music of Dolly Parton, John Denver, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Presley, ABBA, and more. A few real live stars do come through Branson, usually for one nighters  —  Tanya Tucker, Michael Bolton, Tony Orlando, and Charley Pride are among those scheduled for the next few weeks. The Oak Ridge Boys seem to be in Branson a lot, and comedian Yakov Smirnoff, of all people, has his own theater.  As I said, strange country. 

To get a real taste of Branson,  I probably should have spent my sole night in town at one of the many country-music variety shows, featuring large extended performing families, like the Haygoods, the Duttons, the Hughes Brothers, and the Presley clan (no relation — at least I hope not). But as a snobby New York theater critic, I decided to go for one of the big-city offerings: a revue called Broadway’s Greatest Hits, which alternates with a Sinatra tribute show at the King’s Castle Theater. 

It’s not exactly the Broadway revue you’d see on Broadway. Production values are fairly rudimentary, and there’s little attempt at organization or creative presentation: a cast member simply announces that she’s going to sing “Memory” from Cats — and then proceeds to sing “Memory” from Cats. There’s a nod to Broadway’s past, with a few selections from Oklahoma and West Side Story, but mostly the show concentrates on musicals of more recent vintage (A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera, Wicked), and shows familiar from the movies or pop-music charts, like Grease and Mamma Mia.  I kind of doubt that many people in the audience even knew that Mary Poppins actually was a Broadway musical — but here it is, chimney sweeps and all.  

Unlike Las Vegas, where tribute shows like this are generally held to an hour or so (to make sure customers don’t stay away from the casino for too long), Branson (which doesn’t have gambling) lets its shows run for a full two hours, with an intermission.  A long one, in this case — 20 minutes, announced with a reminder that popcorn is available in the lobby and souvenirs in the gift shop. But I don’t mean to be condescending. Broadway’s Greatest Hits was reasonably entertaining, competently performed by a road-company-quality troupe of a dozen singers and dancers.  I admired them for taking on several good numbers from Cabaret and Chicago (including the tricky “Cell Block Tango”) and doing a fair approximation of the Bob Fosse dance moves. And watching them do the complicated, fast-paced, hand-jiving choreography for the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number from Mary Poppins reminded me of how good Matthew Bourne’s work was on that underrated Disney show.

This is Branson, so after the show the stars hang out in the lobby and sign autographs.  It’s at least one way to find out who they are — since there’s no program, no cast list, and the performers are only acknowledged (from the stage just before the finale) with their first names. Too bad. But if Maggie makes it to Broadway, I’d go see her again.


From Vegas to Broadway

The blog has been inactive for a couple of months. My apologies — with an explanation. I have just finished the manuscript for my latest book. It’s a history of the 1960s golden age of Las Vegas entertainment — the heyday years of the Vegas show, from the Rat Pack to Elvis. I focus especially on Elvis Presley’s big comeback show at the International Hotel in 1969, the show that not only revived Elvis’s career, but changed Vegas entertainment. Next summer is the 50th anniversary of that show, and the book (from Simon & Schuster) should be out by then. So watch for it.

Now, back to Broadway. Looking ahead at the coming fall season, I am struck, first of all, by an unusual imbalance. For once there are more straight plays — new ones, not revivals — than musicals. I can’t say I’m optimistic about the chances of some of them. The Nap, by British playwright Richard Bean (opening Sept. 27), is a comedy-thriller about, of all things, snooker. The Lifespan of a Fact (Oct. 18) centers on a magazine researcher who discovers that an article he’s assigned to check has been largely made up. (Can fake news be real Broadway entertainment?) Another new play that seems geared for the moment is Christopher Demos-Brown’s An American Son (Nov. 4), starring Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale as a biracial couple whose son goes missing. And Bryan Cranston stars as the insurrectionist newscaster Howard Beale in a new stage version of the movie Network (Dec. 6). The play was well received in London (and Cranston won an Olivier award for Best Actor), but if it damages my memories of Paddy Chayevsky’s brilliant 1977 media satire, I’ll be mad as hell.

Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Dec. 13), which has already drawn fire from the Lee estate for its revisionist portrayal of Atticus Finch, will certainly get a lot of attention. But the most highly touted new drama of the fall season is The Ferryman (Oct. 21), Jez Butterworth’s critically acclaimed, multiple-award-winning play from London, which centers on a family in rural Northern Ireland in 1981, in the midst of “the troubles.” Butterworth (Jerusalem, The River) always thinks big, and his three-plus-hour epic promises to be the serious theatergoer’s must-see of the fall. 

On the musical front, the big event is the arrival of King Kong (Nov. 8), the blockbuster $35 million stage version of the classic monster movie, which has been dazzling audiences in Australia with its giant animatronic ape. I’ve been immersed in Las Vegas glitz for the past few months, and that has only reminded me of how completely out of fashion the big Broadway spectacle is these days. Mega-musicals like Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon are pretty much dismissed today as ’80s kitsch; splashy Disney shows, like last season’s Frozen, can’t buy a good review. It’s the little shows (The Band’s Visit, Dear Evan Hansen) that now win the Tony awards — and draw the audiences. But spectacle has its pleasures too: the childlike delight we take in seeing imaginative designers and directors to try to achieve the impossible onstage. King Kong may well (probably will) plummet to earth in a hailfire of bad reviews. But for now, I’m rooting for the big guy.


‘Straight White Men’: Faking It

I have to be careful talking about Straight White Men, the new Young Jean Lee play that has opened on Broadway, following an acclaimed off-Broadway run in 2014.  It’s hard to imagine a play more perfectly calculated for this multicultural, gender-fluid, #MeToo moment. Lee is the first Asian-American woman ever to have her work produced on Broadway. The play opens with two “persons in charge” speaking directly to the audience, one identifying as “transcending gender,” and the other as “non-binary.” (I’m steering clear of personal pronouns here; no Twitter backlash, please.) The play is called Straight White Men — which means, of course, it’s going to hold up that unfortunate, un-evolved species to satire, or at least to a kind of anthropological condescension.

Straight White Men has gotten mostly rave reviews, as has Lee’s earlier off-Broadway work (which, alas, I have not seen). But I had a lot of trouble with this play.  Lee’s heart is in the right place, and her theme of white entitlement is certainly apt, especially in the Trump era. But this is a badly written play, directed (by Anna D. Shapiro) with a startling lack of subtlety, and there is hardly a moment in it that doesn’t seem forced or fake. It’s agenda-driven playwriting at its most annoying.

The action (one act, 90 minutes) revolves around three 40-ish brothers and their widowed father, together for a Christmas Eve celebration in their old family rec room. The brothers had a progressive upbringing, trained from childhood to recognize and be suspicious of their own privileged status. We know this because, not 10 minutes into the evening, two of the brothers happen upon an old Monopoly-style board game called Privilege, which they play just long enough to establish the play’s political orientation and get a few easy laughs. (One Chance card reads: “What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”)

One brother is a banker, one a novelist, the third a low-level clerk at a community organization. But who can believe in these people as actual siblings? Half the time they engage in the kind of teasing-roughousing-in-joke-sharing behavior that is drawn less from real life than from some cliched writer’s conception of male bonding. (Dad even brings out Christmas pajamas and forces his sons to change into them.) The rest of the time they seem to be learning about each other in the same way the audience does — through clunky expository dialogue. Typical exchange: “When is your novel coming out?” “March.” “Will it be the same kind of thing? What did the Times critic call it? A ‘radical attack on the crassness of American materialism’?”

The play spells out everything like this; it’s all talk, talk talk. “I’ll get some plates,” says one brother, as he goes to get plates for their Chinese takeout dinner. “Let’s pull the table a little closer,” says another, as they pull the coffee table closer to the couch.  (Might I suggest that the stage action precludes the need for these two lines?) What passes for a storyline involves the underachieving older brother, who has moved back in with his father, seems depressed, and gets to express the playwright’s objectifying analysis of the guilt-ridden entitled class.

It may well be (as Jesse Green suggests in his Times review) that Straight White Men worked better downtown, in a more stylized production that doesn’t play like a bad sitcom — with the impossibly handsome Armie Hammer and Good Wife heartthrob Josh Charles overacting in key roles. And it may well be, as a recent Times Magazine profile proclaimed, that Young Jean Lee is “one of the most fearless experimental playwrights of her generation.” But Straight White Men doesn’t come close to convincing me. 

Three Quick Thoughts About the Tony Awards

  1. Now that the New York Times has taken to polling the Tony voters in advance — getting to a fairly sizable portion of the relatively small population of voters — the Tony Awards show has largely been drained of whatever suspense it once had. Almost every award went as predicted. The Band’s Visit won pretty much everything it was nominated for in the musical categories (a clear statement vote: This is the Sort of Show Broadway Should Have More Of). Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Angels in America, predictably, swept most of the other awards. The only surprise was in the category of Best Musical Revival, which was assumed to be a close fight between two revered classics, My Fair Lady and Carousel. But they must have split the golden-oldies vote — allowing Once on This Island to sneak in for an upset. Cheers. 
  2. Just how much political messaging can one awards show hold? Andrew Garfield dedicated his Tony  to the LGBTQ community and urged, “Let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked.” Tony Kushner reminded us that we have “21 weeks to save our democracy.” Members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama department sang “Seasons of Love” from Rent. Glenda Jackson praised Americans for being “welcoming and kind and generous” and added, “America is always great.” And then, to cap off the night, Robert De Niro opened his presentation with a defiant “Fuck Trump!” Worthy sentiments all. And yet De Niro’s words were bleeped out, leaving the TV audience to sit mystified as he got a standing ovation. Could there be a more vivid example of the chasm that separates the Broadway community (really the whole show-business community) from the country that voted Donald Trump into office? Was there not a single person in that crowd of 6,000 crammed into Radio City Music Hall who voted for Donald Trump? Shouldn’t there be?
  3. Interesting that the #MeToo movement was largely left out of the political speechifying. But just a reminder of how far we’ve come: The host of last year’s Tony Awards show was Kevin Spacey.




‘Chess’ Redeemed: A Glorious London Revival

What’s to be done about Chess?

I mean, of course, the 1980s musical about Cold War chess rivalries, with a score by the ABBA boys, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and lyrics by Tim Rice. This show simply can’t catch a break.  It opened in London in 1986 and ran for three years, but reviewers griped about a book that one called “an inchoate mess.” The show was rewritten and restaged when it came to Broadway in 1988, but got even worse reviews and closed in just two months. It has been revised several times since, apparently to no avail: today it sits largely unmourned, a relic of the pop-opera mega-musical era — an era we’re supposed to be very glad is long gone.

But not all of us.. Chess retains its devoted fan club, of which I consider myself a charter member. (Another was my late, beloved TIME colleague Richard Corliss.) So when I found myself in London for short visit last week, I made sure to catch the new revival by the English National Opera, now playing at the London Coliseum.

That meant ignoring the usual bad reviews. (“No matter how frosty the West’s relations with Russia, is there really any reason to roll Chess out of cold storage?” sniffed Variety, amid a chorus of disapproval). And, as usual, I found myself as stupefied by the clueless critics as I was enthralled by the show. This is a truly glorious production, better than either the original London or Broadway versions, beautifully sung (West End musical star Michael Ball heads the terrific cast) and strikingly staged — really the apotheosis of Chess, the greatest of all pop-rock operas.
Once again, there has been some tinkering, in an effort to streamline the musical’s somewhat lumpy story of a bad-boy American chess star (named — in the original, if you can believe it — Freddie Trumper) and his conflicted Soviet rival, who defects to the U.S. and leaves his wife for Freddie’s ex-girlfriend. The show still has second-act problems, and some of my favorite Tim Rice lyrics have been excised — to no great advantage, from what I could discern.

And yet, Chess has been punished too harshly for its ambitions. For all its flaws, the show is a politically astute and often affecting look at the way Cold War tensions were transferred to the chess board — and reflected in the lives and loves of the people who hovered over it.  This new concert-style production, directed by Laurence Connor (who did such a fine job with the recent revival of Miss Saigon), presses the point with video montages that recap highlights from Cold War history — a history that lately has come to seem not so distant after all. (If Chess is dated, then so is The Americans.)

But Chess remains, as always, a demonstration of the power of a great score to enhance, even ennoble, everything it touches.  The music is as rich and stirring as anything written for the theater in the past 40 years: from rock anthems to Bach-like fugues, from the lovely, complex ballads (“Someone Else’s Story,” “I Know Him So Well”) to the catchy disco hit “One Night in Bangkok,” culminating in the jabbing, dissonant, minor-key theme that drives the climactic chess match — elevated to symphonic heights by the 60-piece orchestra and marvelous ENO chorus. It left me breathless.



Admiring Ayckbourn: ‘A Brief History of Women’


I consider Alan Ayckbourn the great playwright of my theatergoing lifetime. Through most of the 1980s and ’90s, I would plan my trips to London to coincide with new plays from the prolific British dramatist: Henceforward, The Revengers’ Comedies, Man of the Moment, Wildest Dreams — an amazing string of masterpieces, most of which have not even been produced in the U.S. (never mind Broadway; not even Off, or in the regionals). Over here, Ayckbourn is still best known for his earlier, lighter-weight comedies, like Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, and for his high-concept stage gimmicks (one weekend at a country house replayed three times from three different rooms, for example, in the Norman trilogy).  This has only affirmed his typecasting as a clever boulevard farceur — rather than, more accurately, as a profound chronicler of the human tragicomedy, an incisive social satirist and intrepid stage innovator, surely our best living playwright.

He is still going strong at 79, and thanks to the invaluable 59E59 Off-Broadway company,  New Yorkers have been able to see many of Ayckbourn’s recent plays, in productions directed by the playwright himself for his home company in Scarborough, England. A couple of recent offerings have been lesser works, and I was beginning to fear that age is finally catching up with him. But the latest 59E59 import, A Brief History of Women, shows that Ayckbourn is still in top form.

As usual, he starts out by setting up strict stage parameters. The play is made up of four scenes, spaced exactly 20 years apart, starting in an English manor home in the mid-1920s — which becomes, by turns, a girls boarding school just after World War II, a community arts center in the turbulent ’60s,  and finally a boutique hotel in the gentrifying ’80s. The eras are linked by one character — Anthony Spates, a 17-year-old servant in the manor house, who becomes a teacher at the school, the administrator of the arts center, and finally owner of the hotel. The title is somewhat ironic, since the play is less a history of women than of the self-effacing Anthony’s encounters with them — the females who variously enchant, ensnare and love him over the decades.

The play is both funny and poignant, perfectly balanced, with light brushstrokes of social commentary and feminist history.  But what struck me most, on this go-round with Ayckbourn, is how thoroughly (unlike so many current playwrights) he conceives of his work as theater creations — not with showy gimmicks, but with the simple confidence of a man who believes that the medium and the message are inextricable. So, in this case, we have one set, divided into three parts — on the left a study, on the right a ballroom, in the middle a sort of anteroom, through which characters move back and forth, opening and closing imaginary doors, with sound effects that rise and fall as the rooms are entered and exited. For each new scene, the furnishings are altered — the study becomes an office, the ballroom a school auditorium — in full view of the audience, with an economy of movement that belies the drastic changes from era to era.

The transformation for the last scene is done with such amusingly precise choreography that it actually gets applause. Leave it to Ayckbourn to create a play in which even the stagehands become stars. A small thing, perhaps, but worth savoring  — like this warm and winning play. 

The Tonys: Wrapping Up a Weak Season

The Tony nominations are out, and they have brought home something that hadn’t really occurred to me as I raced through the busy last few weeks of Broadway openings.  It’s been a pretty bad season.

Yes, I saw several things I enjoyed, but as I look back, nearly all of them were revivals. The powerful two-part revival of Angels in America, imported from London, certainly deserves its 11 nominations (the most for any play), and Denzel Washington is a force of nature in George C. Wolfe’s fine revival of The Iceman Cometh. I had some quibbles with the revivals of Carousel and My Fair Lady, but heck, they’ll make for some great numbers on next months’s Tony show.

But when you look at the nominees in the two major categories — Best Play and Best Musical — you realize how slim the pickings were. For Best Musical, The Band’s Visit is the clear critical favorite — but I still maintain it’s an off-Broadway show that’s in over its head. That Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants got a whopping 12 nominations apiece is testament to the dearth of credible contenders. Oh yes, and there’s Disney’s Frozen,  which did manage a Best Musical nod (and would probably be my pick for the award). But this beautifully designed show was, unaccountably,  shut out of every single technical category. How much does the New York theater establishment hate Disney? They think The Band’s Visit has better scenery. 

The two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, another London import, is a shoe-in for Best Play, and no argument here: even for a non-Potter fan, the show is a marvel of stagecraft and narrative ingenuity. But talk about a weak field: None of the four other nominees — The Children, Farinelli and the King, Junk and Latin History for Morons — is even still running, and (not to be cruel) I’m not so sure any of them deserves to be. The imbalance between the shortage of new plays and the abundance of worthy revivals is only emphasized by the snub for Saint Joan, which failed to get a nomination for Best Revival. The critics were surprisingly cool, but I was totally absorbed by Daniel Sullivan’s straightforward, well-acted production (with Condola Rashad as a fierce and commanding Joan) of Shaw’s great play, which is as challenging and relevant as ever.