Enchantment, off-key comedy in revised Cinderella

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Kaitlyn Davidson is Ella and Andy Huntington Jones is Topher, her prince, in the touring company of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, playing the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Davidson’s Ella (far right) must contend with the wicked stepmother and stepsisters played by (from left) Blair Ross, Kimberly Fauré and Aymee Garcia. Photos © Carol Rosegg

There has rarely been a moment when Cinderella’s glass slipper wasn’t the hottest shoe on the market. The Charles Perrault fairy tale is among the most well worn in the storybooks and shows no signs of losing her edge. A great deal of her popularity must be attributed to the Disney machine, er, Studio, which animated the tale in 1950 and then remade it in 2015 as a live-action film (well, a lot of live action and a lot of computer animation and effects). Side note: the geniuses at Disney produced a straight-to-video sequel to Cinderella in 2002 followed by a second sequel in 2007.

Running parallel to the evolution of Disney’s popular princess is the dynamic musical theater duo of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who turned Cinderella into a musical for live television in 1957. That broadcast, starring Julie Andrews was watched by some 107 million people (a staggering 60% of the country). The musical leapt to the British stage soon after, and then to American stages in the early ’60s. Capitalizing on that popularity, a second television production was mounted in 1965 starring Lesley Ann Warren, and still a third (much more drastically re-worked with Rodgers & Hart songs added) was broadcast in 1997 starring Brandy and Whitney Houston.

If audiences get confused by this abundance of Cinderella that’s completely understandable, especially if they assume that the Rodgers and Hammerstein version has something to do with Disney. Any confusion will only be exacerbated by the 2013 Broadway production, which involved some major revision in the book by Douglas Carter Beane and a production design that looks like it took inspiration from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

The Broadway production won a Tony Award for William Ivey Long’s lush, plush, jewel-toned costumes (and a gold dress for Cinderella that probably has Belle’s name tag sewn into it somewhere), which actually provide some of the liveliest moments in the show. Both the fairy godmother and Cinderella make flashy costume changes before our eyes: the godmother going from crone to magical beauty (like the witch in Into the Woods) and Cinderella going from charwoman to princess faster than you can say bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.

The touring company of the Broadway Cinderella finally made its San Francisco debut this week and has a short run through Sunday as part of the SHN season. The show played San Jose last year, and if Wednesday’s opening-night crowd is any indication, there are a whole lot of princess worshippers (prinshippers?) right here in the City? Who knew audiences still audibly swooned when a prince kisses a princess? Indeed they do.

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And there’s a lot that’s swoonworthy in this production, most notably the Rodgers and Hammerstein score and the two leads.

Even a secondary R&H score, which this mostly is, has aural treasures beyond compare. How could anyone not enjoy lilting tunes like “Impossible/It’s Possible” and “A Lovely Night” or not succumb to the romantic sweep of “Ten Minutes Ago” or “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” or the sweet melancholy of “In My Own Little Corner”? This production (like others before it) incorporates R&H songs from other projects like “He Was Tall” (cut from The King and I), “The Loneliness of Evening” cut from South Pacific, “Me, Who Am I?” from Me and Juliet and “There’s Music in You” from the 1953 movie Main Street to Broadway (which featured Rodgers and Hammerstein playing themselves working on this song with Mary Martin).

The score is a definite highlight here and a sobering reminder that no one writes with the lyrical and melodic sophistication and apparent ease of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s not simply old-fashioned Broadway – it’s gold-standard Broadway. And that’s why Beane’s re-worked script clunks more than it works. Imagine keeping all the famous bits of Hamlet but reworking the rest with contemporary dialogue and pseudo-political, thoroughly politically correct meanderings. You’d have a mess, and that’s sort of what happens here, granted we’re not quite at the Hamlet level, but still, with a strong musical comedy score you want a book to match its tone, and this one aims for cheap laughs rather than nobility or romance.

As with so many modern re-workings of fairy tales, the princess is no longer a damsel in distress waiting for a handsome but personality-free man to come and save her. This Cinderella (played with gusto by Kaitlyn Davidson) practices the power of kindness (her eventual book will surely make it to Oprah’s book club), and though a dilettante in matters of politics, she’s not afraid to tell the obtuse prince what’s going wrong with his kingdom’s laws and economy. She’s oppressed by her wicked stepmother (a droll Blair Ross) and one self-involved stepsister (Lulu Picart) but treated sweetly by the other stepsister, Gabrielle (Kimberly Faure), who is in love with the newly invented character Jean-Michel (David Andino), the kingdom’s rabble-rouser.

Davidson has a lovely voice, and you root for her from the start, which is always a plus in this rags-to-tiara tale. She is ably supported by Andy Huntington Jones as Prince Topher, a sheltered royal whose parents have shuffled off this mortal crown (unlike previous versions in which the King and Queen are alive and singing). He’s being bamboozled by his trusted vizier (shades of Disney’s Aladdin), Sebastian (Blake Hammond), who is a money-grubbing, land-grabbing, power-hungry creep. In this version, Prince Topher may have the money, clothes and palace, but he is saved by Cinderella, who shakes him out of his aristocratic stupor and sets him back on the throne to glory.

That’s all well and good, but what registers here is what has always registered: the fairy godmother granting life-changing wishes, turning mice into horses, woodland animals (played by annoying hand puppets) into coachmen, a pumpkin into a coach and a dress of rags into a sparking ball gown. That and the kiss and the (spoiler alert on a 1,500-year-old story!) royal wedding.

It seems they keep trying to turn Cinderella into an even bigger fantasy – blowing up the coach and puffing up the dress, you might say – but the story is what it always was: wish fulfillment, sparkles and a happy ending.

[bonus video]
Here’s a look at the 2013 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella:

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella continues through Sunday, May 8 at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$212. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Oh do do the Xanadu that you do so well

Xanadu 2You have to believe we are magic: Chloe Condon is Kira, the muse from Mt. Olympus, and Joe Wicht is real estate mogul Daniel in the New Conservatory Theatre Center production of Xanadu: The Musical. Photo by Lois Tema Photography


When I called playwright Douglas Carter Beane to interview him for a San Francisco Chronicle story on Xanadu: The Musical at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, he happened to be taking a break from rehearsals for his latest Broadway show, Lysistrata Jones. That musical, a hip, funny adaptation of the Aristophanes classic, happens to rehearse in the same building as the Foxwoods Theatre, home to Broadway’s notorious web slinger, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Douglas Carter BeaneWith his ear pressed to his cell phone, Beane surveyed the crowded sidewalk and quipped, “I hope people don’t think I’m buying tickets.”

Lyssie Jay, as Beane calls it, opens Wednesday (Dec. 14) after a successful run off-Broadway. It’s something of a family affair what with Beane’s partner, Lewis Flinn, providing the music and lyrics and Beane providing the book. The story has been updated so that instead of Greek women withholding sex until the men stop warring, it’s now a college cheerleading squad withholding nookie from a losing basketball team until they start winning some games.

While San Francisco audiences get a gander at what magic Beane worked with Xanadu (he wrote the book), Beane is essentially storming Manhattan. There’s buzz about his libretto revision for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella popping up next year. He’s also casting for The Big Time, what he describes as his “feel-good musical about terrorism.” The show is slated for off-Broadway. “The G-8 is on a cruise ship that’s taken over by terrorists, and the lounge singers on the ship end up saving the day,” Beane explains. “How would the Freed Unit at MGM back in the day deal with terrorism? It’s silly but very moving. I’m quite proud of it.”

He’s also working on a new play called The Nance for Nathan Lane (“the great genius Nathan Lane” as Beane puts it). “It’s a real period gay play I’ve been wanting do for a while,” Beane says. “It’s set in the world of burlesque and it’s about the gay stock comedy character, the nance.”

As if Beane weren’t busy enough (did I mention he also did all the re-writes on Sister Act: The Musical?), he and Flinn are raising two kids, Cooper, 7, and Gabby, 5. The secret to his success, he says, is: “A cute partner who is significantly younger. The children are also younger. Even our dog is younger.”

Visit the official website for Lysistrata Jones here.


Read my San Francisco Chronicle feature on NCTC’s Xanadu here.


FOR MORE INFORMATION

Xanadu: The Musical continues through Jan. 15 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, Decker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.

Bless my Blu-ray forever…

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The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews, 1965. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp.
All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.

 

Back in the dark ages of VHS, I remember being thrilled when I could actually buy The Sound of Music and watch it whenever I wanted, not just on whatever holiday the networks chose to trot it out. Ever since I saw the movie on the big screen in the early ’70s, it had become one of my favorite things because Julie Andrews was right up there with Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore in my youthful pantheon of perfection.

Then, as an adult, I saw The Sound of Music again on a big screen. It was like seeing a whole different movie from what I was used to seeing on videotape. The TV version was pan-and-scan, meaning they decided widescreen (with the black bars across the top and the bottom) was unacceptable but shifting focus on certain parts of that widescreen and cutting out the rest was perfectly all right. From then on I couldn’t watch the movie on TV unless it was letterboxed.

With the advent of DVD, letterboxing became the norm – preserving the original screen ration as the cinematographer and director intended. No more cutting out VonTrapp children during “Do Re Mi.” I didn’t mind shelling out more money for the DVD because the format seemed to be the apex of the home video revolution. Then came the special anniversary DVD edition of the movie, which featured new features, including interviews with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (not to mention a promotional film starring Charmian Carr about her life as a teen movie star working in Austria). Had to buy that one.

Then the Rodgers and Hammerstein folks released a box-set collection of all the R&H movie musicals (except Flower Drum Song), which included the special edition Sound of Music discs I already had. But I had to have the whole set.

If you’re counting, that’s four times I purchased The Sound of Music for my home collection. Somehow I bypassed the LaserDisc craze, so that saved me some money. And please don’t get me started on all the various versions of the soundtrack I’ve owned through the years (remember 8-track?).

I’m savvy enough to know that I’ll probably never be done spending money on The Sound of Music. Couldn’t resist going (more than once) to the Sing-Along Sound of Music at the Castro Theatre, and I’m always open to seeing the movie on a big screen in a theater with a great sound system. I thought about downloading a digital version of the movie, but it’s not available … yet. That one can’t be too far away.

Until then, we have yet another format and another potential purchase. Come next Christmas, we’ll be able to have a near-perfect Sound of Music experience in our own homes with the Blu-ray release. Here’s a teaser trailer.

For further VonTrappist fun, check out this entry in a long line of re-cut trailers casting sunny musicals as horror films. This one is my favorite of the Sound of Music efforts.

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Broadway by the Bay’s musical man

As someone who has loved musicals since his formative years, Jim Gardia is certainly in the right business. And to think, he could have ended up as a swim coach.

In college, Gardia, who was a competitive swimmer, was seriously considering a career as a swim coach.

Jim Gardia

“But theater pulled me harder,” he says.

For six years he worked with Los Angeles’ acclaimed Reprise Theatre Company, both as managing director and as producing director. Last year, he left his native L.A. to come north. He is now the executive director of San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, replacing Greg Phillips, who left early last year to serve as executive director of Oregon’s Portland Center Stage.

A musical theater performer since childhood, Gardia is someone who has the musical in his bones. While with Reprise, he got to work on some great shows with some great talent. Here’s a sampling: Sunday in the Park with George with Kelli O’Hara and Manoel Felciano directed by Jason Alexander, Follies with Patty Duke, Vikki Carr, Harry Groener and Donna McKechnie, Anything Goes with Rachel York and Brent Barrett, City of Angels with Stephen Bogardus and Vicki Lewis and Zorba with Marc Kudisch and Judy Kaye.

As Gardia says, he didn’t leave Los Angeles or Reprise out of any kind of dissatisfaction. “I had been wanting to move to the Bay Area for years,” he says. “I saw an opportunity with Broadway by the Bay. Jason Alexander is running Reprise, so I left it in good hands.”

A high-level community theater, Broadway by the Bay opens its 44th season this week with the Gershwin musical Crazy for You. With nearly 7,000 season subscribers and more than 6,000 single show ticket sales per production, BBB is the biggest theater on the Peninsula and has a reputation for big, splashy musicals with giant casts and strong production values.

Coming into such an established organization, Gardia, now a resident of Half Moon Bay, says he doesn’t have any plans to change the Broadway by the Bay vision. “What they do thrills me. This format works. I’m here to help make change if it’s needed, but I don’t see the need. We can buff up here and there, but nothing’s broken.”

Nothing in the company may be broken, but there is something big that has gone bust: the economy. Opening a new season in the midst of a recession is something that weighs on every performing arts company at this moment, especially after having seen American Musical Theatre of San Jose cease operation last year.

“Of course the recession is something we have to prepare for,” Gardia says. “We’ve cut our budget, gone line by line and cut where we could. I do not like cutting anything that goes on stage because that’s what we do. Everyone on the board has cut back where they can.”

Ticket prices have gone up, according to Gardia, by “a couple dollars.” But, he adds, you can still see a BBB show for $20 at the lowest level and under $50 at the highest.

“One of our goals is to keep these shows affordable,” Gardia says. “We want this to be for everyone, especially during these times. With this kind of musical entertainment, you can walk into the theater and get carried away for a couple of hours. That’s essential to our psyche. Our job continues to be bringing entertainment to the masses.”

>Also coming this season, whose theme is “The best is yet to come”: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (July 16-Aug. 2), The Full Monty (Sept. 17-Oct. 4) and the composer showcase, Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman (Nov. 5-8).

Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein are familiar names at BBB. But the work of composer David Yazbeck, the man behind The Full Monty, is not. Also new to the BBB stage is the notion of male strippers.

“Full Monty is a little riskier kind of show for us,” Gardia says. “But think about the storyline: unemployed steel workers in Buffalo trying to figure out how they can raise money. It says a lot about the world right now, and every time I’ve seen the show, the audience leaves with huge smiles on their faces.”

This will be the third year that BBB has offered the composer showcase after previous outings honor Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Schwartz. Gardia says subscribers weren’t sure about the composer showcase at first but have warmed to it.

“I think people definitely see it as a highlight of the season now,” Gardia says. The Cy Coleman tribute will feature Coleman collaborator David Zippel and ASCAP’s Michael A. Kirker joined by Broadway performers Lillias White and Jason Graae.

“One of the things we hope to do with the composer showcase is expand it into a master class of some kind for our Youth Theatre and Musical Theatre conservatories,” Gardia says.

Broadway by the Bay’s Crazy for You runs April 2-19 at the San Mateo Center for Performing Arts, 600 Delaware Ave., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$48. Call 650-579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org for information

New seasons: TheatreFIRST, Broadway by the Bay

TheaterFIRST, under the new artistic direction of Dylan Russell, has announced its 15th anniversary season, which will run from January to June 2009 and will include a staged reading series and a Harold Pinter revival.

The season opens with a staged reading series from mid-January to mid-February. Plays and location still to be announced, but the readings will be at 2 p.m. Sundays.

The centerpiece of the season is Pinter’s Old Times featuring L. Peter Callender, a veteran Bay Area actor who last performed with TheatreFIRST in World Music. Old Times runs April 2 through May 3 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

Call 510-436-5085 or visit www.theatrefirst.com for information.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, under the leadership of artistic director Brooke Knight and executive director Jim Gardia, has also announced its new season — its 44th — which begins in April of 2009 and concludes the following November. Here’s how the season shakes down:
Crazy for You, a revamped Gershwin musical, runs April 2-19.
The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, dances July 16-Aug. 2
The Full Monty, a Broadway musical based on a spunky British film, disrobes Sept. 17-Oct. 4
Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman, starring Jason Graae (right), runs Nov. 5-8

Performances are in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo. Season subscriptions are $90-$152 until Nov. 16, when prices change to $100-$164. Single tickets also go on sale Nov. 16. Call 650-579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Broadway baby Peters can still be a blast

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, Bernadette Peters was in a good mood. Her voice was in great shape (and her shape was in GREAT shape).

In other words, Peters’ “Summer in the City” concert was a triumph.

Last time Peters was in town, she was performing a theatrical concert at the Orpheum Theatre to promote her new Rodgers and Hammerstein album. That 2001 run got scotched by illness (she says Rita Moreno gave her the flu at a Jerry Herman tribute), and she hasn’t been back since.

Friday night, she stood in front of the San Francisco Symphony, with her longtime musical director Marvin Laird at the conductor’s podium (and, quite often, at the piano), and delivered the kind of old-school Broadway razzle dazzle that has made her a beloved musical theater icon.

If you’ve seen Peters in a show, especially a long-running one, you know that she can get tired and bored, and she can let her weariness come through in the performance so that it seems she’s giving it about 50 percent. In her many appearances with the SF Symphony – 1991, 92, 95 and 98 – Peters has been hot and lukewarm. She trotted out a lot of the same songs, jokes and mannerisms, concert after concert.

This time around we saw a much fresher Peters. At 60 she has lost none of her Kewpie Doll looks – That hair! Those curves! – nor has her voice, one of the most bizarre instruments on Broadway, lost any of its appeal. I say her voice is bizarre because it is. The break between chest and head voice comes at a strange place, and her control is not always there. Sometimes the drama in her performance comes from wondering whether she can actually hit the note.

That said, Peters has learned to use her odd voice incredibly well. She has comedy notes and break-your-heart notes. She’s a smart interpreter, and as she has gotten older, she has learned simplicity can be equally as effective as the most involved vocal manipulation. That’s one of the reasons she’s so good at singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim, who was well represented in Friday’s song selection.

After an orchestral program conducted by Edwin Outwater that featured Broadway composers Sondheim, Bernstein, Gould and Styne (no mention need be made of the attempt to make the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” into orchestral rockabilly), Laird led the orchestra through an overture that plucked out highlights from Peters’ career (Gypsy, Mack and Mable, Sunday in the Park with George).

Peters entered singing a cutesy “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy and then got serious with “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, a song she sings just about better than anyone, and the simple arrangement for piano and cello was stunning.

Aside from a go-nowhere running joke about trying to sell a vacation home in Florida (five bedrooms, six baths, one pool), Peters was charming. She did do her “this is my back” joke when she turned to sip water, but mostly she connected with the adoring audience as she strutted through her vampy “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and then climbed on top of the piano for a hot – truly hot – “Fever.”

She headed back to Rodgers and Hammerstein for “Mr. Snow” from Carousel and “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (she says she’s seen the current revival twice and that we should catch it if we can) and then surprised us with a delicate “Shenandoah” that was practically a cappella. A recent gig at L.A.’s Disney Concert Hall forced her to add some Disney to the act: a lovely medley of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

The Sondheim section of the evening started on the Davies grand organ in a riff from Sweeney Todd that turned into a beautiful “Johanna.”

Peters sings “Not a Day Goes By” all the time, but Friday night’s version seemed somehow less acted and more natural, which made the song all the more heartbreaking. Her “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is fun (not as fun as Andrea McArdle’s), but her “With So Little to Be Sure Of” brought weight and drama and beauty (more than the set closer “Being Alive,” which didn’t have quite the oomph it should have).

For an encore, she performed her first composition, “Kramer’s Song,” a lullaby she wrote for her dog and that accompanies her recently published children’s book Broadway Barks. Peters walked into the audience to perform the song, which is truly lovely and emotional and has more than a touch of Sondheim in it.

Of course Peters could have performed more songs from her own shows. She didn’t do anything from Song and Dance or Annie Get Your Gun or anything of note from Gypsy. But it was nice getting a mostly fresh plate of show tunes from such a delightful diva.

Visit Peters’ official site: bernadettepeters.com

 

Great American musical roundup

 

We have a tradition here at Theater Dogs, and that is to commemorate the Fourth of July by celebrating the greatest American art form: the musical.

It was an interesting year on Broadway for new musicals. Below are reviews of cast albums for three of them (I passed on Little Mermaid because I love the movie soundtrack from Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman so much that I don’t really want to hear how Ashman’s brilliance was diluted by someone else attempting to fill his shoes; and I had previously reviewed, and hated, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Xanadu). There’s also a classic American musical revival below and a pop album by current Broadway star, Kelli O’Hara.

Passing Strange: The Stew Musical ($18.97, Ghostlight Records)

Recorded live from the Belasco Theatre, this original cast recording captures everything the Bay Area fell in love with when the show had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Stew’s rock score is alternately rousing and mesmerizing. Brilliantly performed by the cast, this album has the distinction of being the first Broadway cast album to be released online first (you can find it at iTunes). It won’t be released in three dimensions until July 15. Recording live was a stroke of brilliance because the audience reaction fuels the experience of the music, especially during the more humorous songs.

My one complaint is that some of the songs ramble. The repetition grows wearisome on some tracks. But that’s a minor quibble. This is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience with a you-are-there feel that pulses with energy.

In the Heights ($21.98, Ghostlight Records)

I haven’t seen the show, but one listen to this double-album set convinced me that it would go on to win the Tony Award for best score (for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars) and for best musical. This is joyous music that incorporates rap, hip-hop, salsa, pop and more traditional Broadway sounds for a highly pleasing patchwork of songs. Miranda’s rapping is intelligent and humorous, which will go a long way toward not alienating Broadway audience members who might not care for rap while pleasing those who do.

Favorite tracks include the boffo opening number (“In the Heights”), the catchy “Piragua”, Mandy Gonzalez’s “Breathe” and the beautiful “Champagne” (by Gonzalez and Miranda). The recording quality is superb, and though there are hints of Rent here and there, In the Heights comes across on record as a true original.

A Catered Affair ($19.98, PS Classics)

A fan of composer John Bucchino’s, I was eagerly awaiting the cast album for this modest musical about a Bronx family that works itself into a frenzy over the daughter’s impending wedding (the daughter wants to elope, the mother, perhaps attempting to make up for her less-than-wonderful wedding, wants a blow-out).

The first impression from the album is that Faith Prince is amazing as Aggie, the mother. Her solos, “Our Only Daughter” and “Coney Island,” are superb, as is her duet with Leslie Kritzer as daughter Janey. Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh as Ralph, the fiancé, shine on the duet “Don’t Ever Stop Saying `I Love You,'” which is the score’s standout song. Jonathan Tunick’s delicate orchestrations are gorgeous, and Bucchino’s songs are more about heart and storytelling than about big Broadway moments.

The jarring element of the album is Harvey Fierstein, who adapted the book from previous scripts by Paddy Chayefsky and Gore Vidal. Fierstein wrote himself a role as Aggie’s brother, Winston, and if you know the cast album of Hairspray, you know that Fierstein is more personality than vocal star. In a big splashy musical comedy, Fierstein is just fine. Here, he sticks out and causes little flinches here and there.

South Pacific: The New Broadway Cast Recording ($18.98, Sony Classical)

Gorgeous, wonderful, inspiring – there’s not much left to say about this fantastic cast recording of the Tony-winning Lincoln Center hit – the first Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 classic.

Kelli O’Hara is a vibrant, honey-voiced Nellie Forbush, and Paulo Szot, with his gorgeous bass baritone, imbues songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Is How It Feels” (cut from the original, now a duet with O’Hara) with commanding, sexy power. Matthew Morrison provides a touching “Younger Than Springtime” and a forthright “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations are brilliantly realized by musical director Ted Sperling. I’ll always love the original Mary Martin-Ezio Pinza recording, but this revival disc is a welcome addition to the library.

Wonder in the World, Kelli O’Hara ($16.98, Ghostlight Records)

Speaking of Kelli O’Hara, in addition to starring in a hit show, she has a new solo CD arranged and orchestrated by her Pajama Game co-star Harry Connick Jr. (and produced by longtime Connick collaborator Tracey Freeman). There are a couple show tunes – “Fable” from Light in the Piazza, which O’Hara was in, but she didn’t sing this song, “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I and “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi – but this is mostly a sweet pop album. There are three Connick tunes, including the duet title song, which is fantastic, and some James Taylor (“Fire and Rain”), Don McLean (“And I Love You So”) and Billy Joel (“And So It Goes”). There are also some O’Hara originals: “Here Now” and “I Love You the World.” There’s even a song from O’Hara’s husband, Greg Naughton (“The Sun Went Out”). It’s all pretty great because O’Hara is such a solid singer – effortless and compassionate. She may not be belting about being in love with a wonderful guy here, but she impresses with her skill, charm and warmth.

And can we just give a shout out to Ghostlight Records and PS Classics? If it weren’t for them, we’d be well short of the show tunes we love. Please keep up the good work. Please.

Missing the Tonys

For the last four days I’ve been in Ashland, Ore., reviewing shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the San Francisco Chronicle (more on that later), and while the Tonys were on Sunday night, I was at the opening of a new musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Of course I’ll watch the whole awards show on TiVo when I get home, but I was able to catch glimpses here and there (thanks to the spotty www.tonyawards.com online coverage), and of course I couldn’t wait to find out the winners.

I must say I’m disappointed that Passing Strange only one award (for best book of a musical). I guess I’m feeling territorial because the show had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Still, it’s better than nothing. Here’s what co-creator and star Stew had to say about his win:

“Music is something that comes easy to me, and I’ve received numerous accolades for my songs – but to be honored for my writing means a whole hell of a lot, especially when it comes from theatre people for whom words really mean something. Those words took shape at Berkeley Rep, a place that makes space for people like me to take risks and try out things that theatre isn’t used to seeing. We loved working there, and we miss that Berkeley scene.”

More on the Tonys later. In the meantime, here’s a complete list of winners:

Play (and playwrights): “August: Osage County” (Tracy Letts).

Musical: “In the Heights.”

Book-Musical: “Passing Strange” (Stew).

Original Score (music and/or lyrics): “In the Heights” (Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Revival-Play: “Boeing-Boeing.”

Revival-Musical: “South Pacific.”

Actor-Play: Mark Rylance, “Boeing-Boeing.”

Actress-Play: Deanna Dunagan, “August: Osage County.”

Actor-Musical: Paulo Szot, “South Pacific.”

Actress-Musical: Patti LuPone, “Gypsy.”

Featured Actor-Play: Jim Norton, “The Seafarer.”

Featured Actress-Play: Rondi Reed, “August: Osage County.”

Featured Actor-Musical: Boyd Gaines, “Gypsy.”

Featured Actress-Musical: Laura Benanti, “Gypsy.”

Direction-Play: Anna D. Shapiro, “August: Osage County.”

Direction-Musical: Bartlett Sher, “South Pacific.”

Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, “In the Heights.”

Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, “In the Heights.”

Scenic Design-Play: Todd Rosenthal, “August: Osage County.”

Scenic Design-Musical: Michael Yeargen, “South Pacific.”

Costume Design-Play: Katrina Lindsay, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”

Costume Design-Musical: Catherine Zuber, “South Pacific.”

Lighting Design-Play: Kevin Adams, “The 39 Steps.”

Lighting Design-Musical: Donald Holder, “South Pacific.”

Sound Design-Play: Mic Pool, “The 39 Steps.”

Sound Design-Musical: Scott Lehrer, “South Pacific.”

Previously announced:

Regional Theater Tony Award: Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Special Tony Award: Robert Russell Bennett.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Stephen Sondheim.

Ramping up to the Tony Awards

This Sunday, the Tony Awards will be handed out.
Here’s what you need to know (and get busy organizing your Tony party — we’ve got to get those dismal ratings out of the basement so CBS will continue broadcasting the darn things).

For the first time, there will be pre-ceremony Tony Concert chock full of juicy musical numbers from all the nominated shows. In the Bay Area the concert will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 15 on KPIX-TV. Mario Lopez (currently playing Zach in A Chorus Line) hosts, and we’ll see numbers from 10 musicals: A Catered Affair, Cry-Baby, Grease, Gypsy, In The Heights, Passing Strange, South Pacific, Sunday in the Park with George, The Little Mermaid and Xanadu—on stage at the Allen Room at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, with its spectacular, floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park South visible to viewers of the telecast.

Nominees who perform on the program include Laura Benanti (Gypsy), Daniel Breaker and Stew (Passing Strange), Kerry Butler (Xanadu), Daniel Evans (Sunday in the Park with George), Faith Prince (A Catered Affair) and Loretta Ables Sayre (South Pacific).

“We’ve tried very hard not to cannibalize anything that will be on the actual Tony telecast, but just to whet people’s appetites for June 15,” says The Broadway League’s Jan Friedlander Svendsen, who is an executive producer of the special. “We purposely didn’t want this in costume, we didn’t want big production numbers. We wanted it to feel very intimate. And we wanted to have those up-close-and-personal profiles.”

Actor nominees who are interviewed during the pre-Tony telecast include Laurence Fishburne, who talks about his role as a Supreme Court justice in Thurgood, and Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, who reveal a touching story from the casting of their revival of Macbeth. Steppenwolf Theatre Company members Laurie Metcalf (November) and Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed from the Best Play nominee August: Osage County celebrate the success of Steppenwolf-ers on Broadway this season—the roster also includes Martha Plimpton and Kevin Anderson—who all told represent six different Broadway shows.

“One of the issues with the Tonys is, often times, not all of our nominees are as well known as, say, Oscar nominees,” says Svendsen. “It’s great to let audiences be exposed to some of those who aren’t as well known. It’s kind of like the Olympics. Many of those athletes aren’t as famous, and one of my favorite parts of watching the Games is getting to know those athletes from a human interest side. Then I have an emotional connection with them and a more rooting interest in who’s going to win.”

The Awards, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg (thank God someone on “The View” cares about theater since Rosie O’Donnell’s departure) begin at 8 p.m. on TV, but watching the tape delay is so retro. Why not tune into the live Webcast? Past Tony winners Michael Cerveris and Julie White host. Log on to www.tonyawards.com for all the details.

On the broadcast, we’ll get musical numbers from all four of the Best Musical nominees (Cry-Baby, In The Heights, Passing Strange and Xanadu) and the four Best Musical Revival nominees (Grease, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific).

Also represented will be three other new Broadway musicals: A Catered Affair, The Little Mermaid and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. And just for good measure, Rent and The Lion King will also make appearances.

Video memories from past Tony winners, clips from nominated shows and a whole lot more await you at www.tonyawards.com, your one-stop shop for Tony Award information.

To whet your appetite, here’s Passing Strange on “The View.”

The bliss that is Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald is just so darn normal – not that outrageous beauty and talent are normal. But the point is, she could be a raging diva if she so chose. And maybe she is offstage (though I doubt it), but onstage, she’s funny, self-deprecating and comfortable, just as you’d expect of a girl from Fresno.

McDonald was back in the Bay Area Sunday afternoon for a concert at Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus as part of the Cal Performances season. McDonald has been something of a regular visitor to Berkeley, and she never disappoints.

Sunday’s was a concert that almost didn’t happen. Flying into SFO from Eugene, Ore., McDonald encountered a baggage snafu. In the Bay Area for only a few hours – song, slam, thank you, ma’am – before she had to return to L.A. to resume filming of the ABC series “Private Practice,” McDonald found that her luggage had been checked all the way through to L.A. And the really bad news was that all the sheet music for her Berkeley concert was in those bags.

Oh, well. She and pianist Dan Lipton joked that this concert could be called “Songs that We Could Find the Sheet Music For,” or something like that.

If anyone in the packed audience was worried that four-time Tony Award-winner McDonald would offer a less-than-stellar show, they were soon calmed by several things: a) McDonald’s svelte and sexy figure poured into a full-length, low-cut, summery red gown and b) from the first number, the sexy, bass-heavy “When Lola Sings,” a specialty number written for her by Michael John LaChiusa, one of the new-guard Broadway composers she champions.

Just as she was launching into her second number, McDonald halted the proceedings – could it be a diva moment? She said, “Sorry, it’s just one of those days,” and she leaned down and picked up a roll of duct tape a stagehand had left on the stage, which was thrown into the wings.

Messy details taken care of, McDonald and her four-piece band got down to business with a lovely medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” from State Fair and Lerner and Lane’s “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. With her glorious soprano mixing otherworldly purity with your average, everyday shimmering beauty, McDonald delivers what might be considered show tune heaven.

Curiously, McDonald did not pay much attention to songs from her most recent album, “Build a Bridge” (on Nonesuch Records). She sang only one song from that contemporary collection, Adam Guettel’s “Dividing Day” from his Tony Award-winning The Light in the Piazza, which was a powerhouse dramatic aria in McDonald’s hands. This isn’t a complaint, it’s just that the album is so good that McDonald might have thrown a few more selections into her recital (then again, maybe that sheet music was in L.A.).

Absent a wealth of new material, the audience had to “suffer” through some McDonald standards such as Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and Moon,” an anti-capitalist story song that still packs a wallop, Jay Leonhart’s jazzy-funny “Beat My Dog,” the lustrous ballad “When Did I Fall in Love?” from Fiorello and Frank Loesser’s “Can’t Stop Talking About Him” from the Fred Astaire movie Let’s Dance.

Some of the 90-minute concert’s most intriguing numbers came from McDonald’s Carnegie Hall concert in which she sang songs that for one reason or another scared her. Among those songs were “Will He Like Me?” from She Loves Me,
Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” from the movie version of A Little Night Music and “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, performed beautifully with acoustic guitar (played by Brian Pardo).

Among the more dramatic moments were LaChiusa’s take on anger as part of a series of songs McDonald commissioned from her friends dealing with the seven deadly sins and the truly heartbreaking “I Won’t Mind,” a ballad of spinsterhood by Jeff Blumenkrantz, Annie Kessler and Libby Saines. McDonald’s version of “Bill” from Show Boat is usually a highlight, but McDonald diffuses the beauty of the song by putting it in a comic context. She chose to sing the song at an event honoring Bill Cosby, but the Bill in the song is just an ordinary guy and it turned out to be completely the wrong song to sing. So every lyric in the song that trumpets Bill’s lack of anything extraordinary gets an audience laugh because of the Cosby connection, and the song becomes something other than the lyrical beauty it is.

After a rousing audience sing-along to “I Could Have Danced All Night,” McDonald blended two Sondheim songs, “What Can You Lose?” from the movie Dick Tracy and “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along, then capped the show with an encore of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music, performed without a microphone opposite Pardo’s acoustic guitar.

The only drawback to McDonald’s show was that it ended too soon. Where’s that cranked-up Judy Garland spirit of singing them all and staying all night? Oh, yeah. McDonald is the normal one with a real job and a 6-year-old daughter. We’ll just have to be grateful for what we get.

Here’s McDonald in concert (from her PBS “Build a Bridge” show) singing “Stars and Moon” with composer Jason Robert Brown at the piano: