2014 – A Year of Reviews in Review

userpic=theatre_musicalsI just posted my last write-up for 2014, so it is probably worth looking back at my entertainment (theatre, ♦ concerts, ◊ movies, and ⊗ other reviewed stuff) year. Here’s what I saw in 2014:

All told, 2014 saw us at 53 live theatre shows, 6 concerts, 1 comedy show, 2 tribute nights, and 3 movies or TV equivalents.

So out of all of this, what were the most memorable items of the year?

I think the most impactful show was Sex and Education at the Colony. I quote that show regularly: it taught me an important lesson: to convince an audience, don’t write what you think will convince them. Instead, get into their head and write what they think will convince them. It’s an important message — convincing someone by presenting the argument that works for them.

I think the most impactful situation was the bru-ha-ha over REP’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The production itself was excellent. Two shows after we saw it, an audience member either got drunk or acted drunk and made homosexual slurs. An actor went into the audience before calling theatre staff and physically threatened the patron. After the incident, the theatre fired the actor for that behavior and was forced to close the show. The fired actor and his friends put the story on the Internet, and the theatre’s name was dragged through the mud (I was one of the few voices able, for legal reasons, to speak up for them). About a week after the incident a version of the production showed up at another theatre (without proper licensing), with many of the original cast but sans the original director, as a “benefit” (and the actor and that production were cited). The Santa Clarita community and REP regulars rallied around REP with a number of fundraisers, and the theatre came out of it OK. It goes to prove the adage: do something great, or do something awful — in either case, they’ll remember your name.

I think the production that made me think the most was Discord, which reappeared later in the year at the Geffen. An intense theological discussion similar to Meeting of Minds, it made one see the bible and the New Testament — indeed, the impact of Jesus — in a new light. I still remember Jefferson’s comment that if you remove all the miracles from the New Testament, the story is even more miraculous: a simple man who through the power of conviction was able to change the world.

We had a number of science fiction or similarly themed musicals: Zombies from the Beyond, Evil Dead: The Musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Roswell. All were great fun and demonstrate that the genre can be a hoot if done right. Bat Boy – The Musical deserves some special mention, as the songs and the story go beyond the normal parody type story to make an even larger statement about society.

There were a number of shows that were extremely moving: The Immigrant at Tabard Theatre was astounding in its characterizations; Big Fish at MTW was just a delight in the scope of its story, and Harmony at the Ahmanson was amazing in its significance and impact.

There were some truly classic shows, in addition (of course) to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Shows like Inherit the Wind at GTC, Harvey at Palo Alto Players, and The Great Gatsby at REP East. There were also some classic musicals, expertly done: Li’l Abner at LA City College, She Loves Me at Chance, and Bye Bye Birdie at Cabrillo.

There were some once-in-a-lifetime shows, notably the tributes to Stan Freberg and Theo Bikel, where we were were sharing the theatre with major industry people. Only in Los Angeles. Our other concerts weren’t slouches either, in particular Noel Paul Stookey‘s concert at McCabes and the long-awaited return of the Austin Lounge Lizards.

I’m not the type that gives meaningless awards. I can’t say who was a best actor, or what was the best show that I saw. Certainly, I can’t judge what was the best show in Los Angeles. I can tell you which performances I enjoyed and stayed with me the most. Weekly, I can share with you the impressions of what I see; I hope that they help you in discovering all the entertainment possible in Southern California.

May you have the happiest of new years, and may 2015 bring you a year of wonderful entertainment, theatre, and concerts. Want to know how to afford going to so much theatre? Look at my post on discount theatre options.


It Won’t Grow Up

Peter Pan Liveuserpic=televisionLast night was the second live musical in a new NBC tradition: live theatre as a Christmas special. Last year, there was “The Sound of Music Live“; this year brought us “Peter Pan Live“. Again, as with last year, the hater and snark community was out there hot and heavy (as could clearly be seen in the responses on the Forbidden Musicals group on Facebook), although the professional reviewers treated the show a little better. The basic opinion, once you threw out the obvious haters and snark, was that this was a better effort than Sound of Music, but it had its odd flaws. That’s basically my opinion as well, but I thought I’d elaborate a bit. After all, this was live theatre (well, pre-recorded for my time zone), and I watched it, meaning some sort of write-up is due. However, this won’t be a full theatre review write-up: I feel no need to summarize the reworked plot, or to list the credits and to link to every actor in the production. You want that, you go to IMDB.

The Story

If you came into this expecting the Disney version of Peter Pan, you were likely disappointed. This was the stage musical version, famously made, umm, famous by the Mary Martin telecast on NBC (although, I’ll note for the record, I’m not a fan of Martin’s Pan — I find her voice too lilting for the role). The stage version of Peter Pan, for the record, originated out of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, and featured music by Mark “Moose” Charlap, with additional music by Jule Styne, and most of the lyrics were written by Carolyn Leigh, with additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It first appeared on stage in 1953 in Los Angeles, on Broadway in 1954, on TV in 1955, 1956, and 1960, with numerous stage revivals.

If you’ve seen the musical Pan on stage, you know it is a relatively short show. NBC had time to fill, so they talked to Adolph Green’s daughter Amanda, and worked in some additional music (and story to support that music). They reworked two songs from Do Re Mi: “Ambition” became “Vengeance”, and “I Know About Love” became “Only Pretend”. From Say, Darling they adapted “Something’s Always Happening on the River” into “A World Without Peter”. They brought in a song that was cut during previews in San Francisco: “When I Went Home”, and they added some reprises of existing songs. They also reworked “Ugg-a-wug” into “True Blood Brothers” to address Native American sensitivities, a move that got many upset.

In general, I liked the song additions and changes. Both “Vengeance” and “A World Without Peter” worked well for me; the plot changes to fit things in also worked. There are those purists out there who insist a show never changes; to them I say: “Get Over It!”. Many shows have undergone changes and tinkering — sometimes without the source author’s permission, sometimes with. In this case, Green was involved, so I have no problem. Both Do Re Mi and Say Darling are unlikely to be revived and have dated plots. I’ll note that even Rodgers and Hammerstein songs were reworked and reused: State Fair revised and adapted songs from both Allegro and Me and Juliet. As for the changes to Ugg-a-Wug: Again, I liked them. They added in words that were supposedly drawn from Native American languages, as opposed to nonsense words. They also got rid of clearly offensive lines, like “true noble redskin” (I also noted that in Hook’s song, they changed “massacre Indians”). Such changes will give this musical more life. I hope these changes will be worked into the licensed script as an option.

There were some story changes I didn’t like. I didn’t see the need for the “bomb the island” subplot — I think it was just a silly excuse for the “X marks the spot” and stealing the map as a different way of getting into what would have been the Mysterious Lady scene. It could have been done in a different way.

There was also the handling of the traditional breaking of the fourth wall — the moment where Peter asks the audience to clap to save Tinkerbell. Yes, they did it, although supposedly on the east coast they were asked to tweet to save her (we didn’t see that on the west coast). It seemed odd with no audience sound — perhaps they should have added the crew clapping at that point. The biggest problem was that the extending of the show moved this moment to about 10:20pm — long after the children who were watching were likely in bed.

Lastly, I’ll note that my view of Pan is colored by “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers“, which I saw at The Blank Theatre a few years ago. Pan is not the good little boy, just as Tinkerbell is not a delightful sprite. Pan is also out for vengeance: in his case, although he wants a mother, he feels no emotion towards her. Think about this: Not only is Pan incapable of loving Wendy, Pan injures every generation by taking away their child for an unspecified time, warping their psyche, and returning them to always look for boys in their men.

The Performances

Last year, although everyone seemed to trash Carrie Underwood as Maria, I had less of a problem with her. Allison Williams (as Pan) fared much better in the reviews, and I tend to agree: she gave a very good performance and sang well. She (well, all of the actors) adopted a British accent for the show. That wasn’t required and likely offended the purists who could see only Martin, but it didn’t bother me. She could have used a little more childish enthusiasm; however, overall, I thought she did well and I’d like to see her do more musicals.

Then there was Christopher Walken. Sigh. Yes, the man could dance. But Hook is not a dancer. The real problem was he couldn’t act or sing. His singing reminded me of Rex Harrison, who basically spoke the songs in My Fair Lady. His acting was — IMHO — wooden and stiff, and he didn’t bring the maniacal energy and character that Hook requires. The problem is — who could have done better? You need an actor who can dance, act, and sing; who is well known to the TV audience (not necessarily the stage audience); and who is available for all the rehearsals. Roger Rees? Nathan Lane? I’m not sure who else could have done this and have been the draw.

Stealing the show, as always, was Christian Borle as both the father and Smee. I think something was lost in not having Walken dual as the father, but I can understand the costuming changes (plus I’m not sure Walken could have provided the warmth Mr. Darling requires). Borle was an absolute smash in both roles and stole the scenes whenever he was in them. I also agree with the line I read on the Forbidden Musicals group: I never knew Borle had such guns!

Let’s look at the generations of Wendy together: Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling, Taylor Louderman as Wendy, and Minnie Driver as the narrator and adult Wendy. Louderman was wonderful as Wendy with a good characterization and a great singing voice (we also saw her in Bring It On in Los Angeles). O’Hara also gave a good performance as Mrs. Darling, and her duet with Wendy was delightful. Lastly, Driver did a fine narration job and was quite touching in the closing scene (especially when you realize what Peter was doing to her).

As Tiger Lily, Alanna Saunders (Gypsy) did good in her few songs, although her character came off as a bit wimpish in the final fighting scene. The claim was made that changes were made to the character to address Native American sensitivities (including Saunders’ casting, as she is part native american). She did very good on the reworked Ugg-a-Wug (True Blood Brothers), but the costuming of her tribe still seemed a bit stereotypical to me.

As for the remaining characters, they are mostly indistinguishable. I will note that the Lost Boys seemed to be too old to be Lost Boys, but that’s how theatre casting goes if you want strong dancers. Some of the supporting pirate crew had some few cute moments. According to Playbill, here are the remaining major credits: The Lost Boys are played by Ryan Steele (Curly), Jason Gotay (Tootles), Jacob Guzman (Twin 1), David Guzman (Twin 2), Chris McCarrell (Nibs), F. Michael Haynie (Slightly), Dyllon Burnside (Prickles), Daniel Quadrino (Bunting), Garett Hawe (Patches) and Michael Hartung (Sniffler). The Pirates are played by Bryce Ryness (Starkey), T. Oliver Reid (Oliver Shreeks/Islander), Michael Park (Cecco), Chris Sullivan (Noodler), Alan H. Green (Cookson), Austin Lesch (Bill Jukes), Gary Milner (The Vicar/Islander), Matt Wall (Skylights/Islander), Ryan Andes (Admiral Chrichton) and John Arthur Greene (Robert Mullins/Islander). Assuming multiple roles are Dominique Kelley, Marty Lawson, Charlie Williams, Michael Munday, CJ Tyson, Alex Wong, Andrew Pirozzi, James Brown III and Keenan Washington.

I also note that they made Nana a real dog. She/he/it worked and made her marks — I was particularly amused to see the dog trained to turn down the bed.

The Technology

Many of the reviews I read complained about the visibility of the wires. This didn’t bother me at all. Consider: When you are seeing a stage production, most people are typically far from the stage, making the wires less visible. With TV — and especially with HDTV and Ultra-HDTV — you’re up-close with the actors. Of course you’re going to see the wires. Suspend your disbelief, folks.

CGI was used in a number of places, and (to me) it didn’t work too well. The animation for Peter’s Shadow was problematic, especially when you could see it against Peter’s real Shadow. More importantly, the opening scene where he was dancing with the Shadow was marred by overuse of transition effects (the Shadow breaking apart into butterflies, for example). Tinkerbell worked better and was similar to laser effects (which I’ve also seen used), although again there were some transition problems. More problematic was the fact that the CGI overlay seemed to create odd screen problems, such as white squares at times. The electronic fairy dust worked OK.

Doing the production across sound stages, as opposed to a single proscenium stage, allowed for fancier sets. There were still problems. The Darling’s nursery was far too expansive, and I wasn’t crazy about the map effect on the floor in Neverland. The weird spatial relationship between the pirate ship and Neverland was made worse by all the different sets there — this actually hindered suspension of disbelief. Lastly, I noticed all the Christmas set dressing — trees, wreaths, etc. This is not specifically a Christmas story, other than Michael flying when he says “Christmas!”. So why they chose that dressing is beyond me.

TV likes to emphasize the risk of doing things live, forgetting that real theatre people do it live 8 times a week. As expected, it looks like a few props didn’t work, and there were times the actors were visibly out of breath in the scenes after a major dance.

The Music and Movement

I loved the new orchestrations and intend to pick up a copy of the soundtrack. I could not tell if the music was live and piped in or pre-recorded. I hope the former — it makes it more of a challenge.

The dancing was good, and it was clear they extended a number of scenes to add extended dance. The Pirates, in particular, danced much more than usual.

Overall Impression

Overall, I liked it. Walken’s performance was perhaps the weakest part of the show for me. Is this a keeper to watch again? Unclear. We don’t see NBC repeating last year’s Sound of Music; we don’t see ABC repeating their musical versions of Cinderella, Annie, or Music Man. I think people want to see their performances live. However, I do want to pick up the soundtrack, if only to have a copy of the added and changed songs.

The Usual Disclaimers

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

There’s no theatre on the books this weekend; I’m heading off to the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans. When I return, it will be “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim in the afternoon, followed by an Austin Lounge Lizards concert at Boulevard Music in Culver City on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente; additionally we’ll likely have the first show of the REP East (FB) season: “Avenue Q“.  Ticketed productions pick up in February, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on the weekend of March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.


Bill Cosby

userpic=great-race-clueAn article in the LA Times today about Bill Cosby and the current situation had a very interesting statement from Cosby’s attorney:

“The situation is an unprecedented example of the media’s breakneck rush to run stories without any corroboration or adherence to traditional journalistic standards. Over and over again, we have refuted these new unsubstantiated stories with documentary evidence, only to have a new uncorroborated story crop up out of the woodwork. When will it end?”

This meshed with an earlier blog post I read from Mark Evanier about Cosby:

I’m trying to invent a scenario where he comes out of this okay and goes back to being Bill Cosby. I can’t. And maybe one of the reasons he’s not going on TV to try and deny it is that he can’t, either. He’d have to say all these women are lying and that would (a) embolden them to repeat the charges louder, (b) cause him to be accused of trashing his victims, (c) maybe bring forth other accusers and (d) not be believed by very many people. He may try it but on a “nothing to lose” basis, which is not a good reason to do anything.

In other words, at this point, Cosby’s career is toast. It’s over if he admits the charges. It’s over if he denies the charges for the reasons above. It’s over if he ignores the charges. Note that this is all true whether or not the charges are true.

This also meshes with a third point I heard from a security expert at a security conference once. He said that if you truly want to trash someone, you break into their computer, plant child porn, delete it, and then call the authorities. They can’t admit it, they can’t deny it (because they look guilty). They are positively screwed.

This, my friends, is the power of the evil word — of loshan hora. Gossip about people may not be true, but cannot be taken back once said. We’re all eager to learn about it. We’re all eager to repeat it. We all do so with nary a thought about whether it is true, whether it is substantiated with evidence, or the damage it may cause.

Now, I don’t care whether the news about Cosby is true (well, if it is, I do hope the women find some relief by coming out about it). Cosby’s contributions are no less than they were before, just as Woody Allen’s films are no less funny given what he did, or that Roman Polanski’s films are not art. All it means is that we shouldn’t put artists on a pedestal; artists are often very flawed individuals. These problems go back to the days of Roscoe Arbuckle. In the long run, their art will be what is remembered, but they will always have that asterisk.

What I do care about is what we do. We must be careful about loshan hora, malicious gossip. Before we repeat or believe a story about someone (and pass it on), let’s give it the benefit of the doubt. Let’s find out — and confirm — that it is true. The reputation you save may be your own.



Saturday Stew: Clearing out the Groupatwos before Pesach

Observation StewIn the Talmud, there is a learned Rabbi who opines that groupatwos are to be considered Chametz during Passover. Luckily, this week was so busy I accumulated a bunch of groupatwos. So let’s get that feather and that candle and get them out of the links list before Passover starts Monday night:



Technical Items of Yore

userpic=televisionIn my continuing question to clear off my accumulated news chum list, here is a collection of links related to technical items of olden days (like, say, when I was young 🙂 ):



Historical Airs

userpic=headlinesHere are three stories of historical “air”s that caught my eye over the last few days:



Monday Musings: Finding the Right Forum

userpic=yorickIn the comments for my write-up of “Inside Llewyn Davis”, Peter Reiher made an interesting statement in response to my opinion that there were some films that were better for the small screen (television), and some that were better in the cinema:

Honestly, though, I find almost all films play better on the big screen than the small, even little B movies like old noir films. On the other hand, there are clearly properties that work on stage live and don’t work on film very well.

This got me thinking about the differences between the three venues: stage (“theatre”), the big screen (“theater”), and the small screen (television).

First, let’s look at budget and reach. Take a really expensive musical — Spiderman: Turn off the Dark. This musical cost $75M, not counting the cost of each show. It’s reach is much much smaller — for the most recent week, 12,755 people over 9 performances, averaging about $94 a ticket, for a gross of $1.2M.  Much of that gross goes to the weekly salaries and theatre rental; it certainly hasn’t returned a profit to its investors. Let’s compare this to the movie: Spiderman 3 cost $258M to make. On the other hand, it has brought in a lifetime gross, foreign and domestic, of $890M. Furthermore, the main movies costs are upfront on the production end as opposed to theater rental; for the stage (especially musicals), it is the ongoing costs (salaries for actors and musicians) that are a big factor. The small screen is similar on the cost side with large upfront production costs; the income side is different as it depends on advertisers and redistribution fees. The main point I’m getting at here is the reach: both cinema and television have an audience overall that numbers in the multiple-millions, who are seeing the exact same product that was filmed. Live theatre has a much smaller reach (only a truly long-running production will be seen by an audience numbering in the millions, and each performance is different). As a result, the amortization of the upfront cost is vastly different, and this is reflected in the different nature of the final product.

Next, let’s think about the experience. Live theatre depends on the audience reaction. When we saw “Humor Abuse“, it was noted that every performance is different because the actors play on the audience. Theatre permits a certain amount of reaction and variance. This is what makes live theatre unique and special. The energy of the audience is reflected by the actors back into the performance. The cinema also depends on the audience reaction, but in a different way. In the cinema, the audience reaction doesn’t affect the filmed behavior of the actors. They are completely oblivious and draw no energy from it (in fact, it is hard for them to even draw energy from the character’s arc, as the stories are not necessarily filmed sequentially). However, the audience itself draws energy from the audience: comedies are funnier when people around you are laughing. Peter noted this in his comments when he said:

Comedies almost invariably work better in social settings than alone. Having other people to laugh with you amplifies the fun of a good comedy. Laugh tracks for sitcoms are meant to fool you into thinking that there’s an audience around, after all, and that’s why many TV comedies are filmed in front of a live audience.

So, given that, why do dramas and action adventures work better in the theater? I think one reason is the screen size — large screens immerse you in the drama and make you feel as if you are there. Television is more detached. There is also the audience reaction of gasps and such (as well as screams) that amplify the emotions.

So given all of this, what works best on the small screen? I’d opine that it would be stories that aren’t worth immersing yourself in — certainly reality television, news, and small-scale episodic stories. I still believe that some movies just aren’t worth the big screen effort — the shared humor may be such that audience amplification isn’t required, or the story may just not be worth the large treatment.

I’d be curious about your thoughts on this subject. What do you see as the differences between theatre, theater, and TV, and do you think there are types of production best for each? Are there movies you see that you go: that didn’t belong on the big screen?


The Golden Age Wasn’t So Golden

Sound Of Music Live!userpic=televisionWe tend to look back on the past through rose colored glasses. We think travelling by plane in the 1950s and 1960s was so much more elegant and refined than today’s cattle cars, but it really wasn’t. Similarly, we look back on the “Golden Age” of Television — live TV from the 1950s and 1960s — as something special, but it really wasn’t. Sets weren’t fancy, performances were hit or miss, and there were numerous imperfections (anyone who has watched rebroadcasts of the live Peter Pan will remember it). But through the rose-colored glasses of time it seems better, and so NBC tried to capture that magic last night with a live production of “The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald, Christian Borle, and Laura Benanti. Although I only meant to watch 20 minutes, I ended up watching the whole thing. In short, I thought it was a reasonable effort — it was imperfect, but it wasn’t unwatchable. Here are some short comments regarding the production — certainly not a full review as I don’t have the time (further, I don’t think you need the full review treatment).

First and foremost, this was a remake of the stage production, so all you Julie Andrews-loving, Carrie Underwood-hating people out there… shut up. It is wrong to compare this to the movie, which used a rejiggered script with songs in different places, and had the money and time to get perfect scenery and to retake and retake until it was just right. This production, although rehearsed, was a single live take that could not be redone. Comparing it to a full movie is apples and oranges. Compare it to other stage productions or equivalent live stage musicals on TV. [I’ll note that most of the “hating” reviews I’m seeing are upset that this wasn’t their benighted movie, believing that the movie is the musical. The stage production existed for years before the movie.]

That said, the production had a very 1950-ish feel to it. Although this was a remake of the stage production, it didn’t feel like a stage production — it felt like an odd hybrid with much more elaborate sets that were obviously on sound stages, but that lacked the framing limitations of the proscenium arch. Stage productions often use simple sets that permit you to use your imagination. Here, the realism of the sets made you wish for the movie and its larger scenery, but the limitations of the sound stage and the live nature of the performance (which limited camera angles and cutting) amplified the artificial nature. This was common for 1950s and early 1960s TV, but is completely uncommon to today’s audience.

The larger problem with this production was the casting and direction. Each of the lead’s casting was wrong in various ways…

Audra McDonald had the perfect voice for the Mother Superior, and she played the role with class and style. Of course, historically, the casting was incorrect and thus felt off, but her performance more than made up for it.

Carrie Underwood wasn’t the train wreck many made her out to be. Her singing was strong, and I had no problem with her voice or accent. I certainly (and perhaps this is heresy) preferred her to the lilt Mary Martin always had. People forget that Julie Andrews did Maria with an English accent (as did Sally Ann Howes), Mary Martin had some Texas twang in her voice, and other brought vaguely American accents. There’s no correct accent for Maria (unless someone does Austrian). However, she wasn’t the best Maria that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few — most recently Shannon Warne in the 2011 Cabrillo Music Theatre production (who was excellent), but also the earlier Cabrillo production with Christina Saffran Ashford, the 1978 Los Angeles Civic Light Opera (LACLO) production with Sally Ann Howes, and the 1972 LACLO production with Florence Henderson), but she certainly wasn’t bad in the role. She had a youthful enthusiasm that was fun to see, and I’m sure she would have improved in the role if she was performing it 8-shows a day for a few months. But this was her first major acting performance after just a little rehearsal, and so there were a more than a few wooden moments. But she remembered all of her lines, and never expressed contrary emotions. How much the wooden-ness was due to the director, as opposed to the actress or a lack of chemistry with her other main lead, I’m unsure. Certainly the director could have helped her more during rehearsals. But still, not that bad. My major complaint was more that she was the same size as some of the children, which was jarring.

As an aside: Could the director have chosen someone better for the role? Most assuredly. Would that choice have been the same draw, and pulled in the same audience to see if she could pull it off? Quite likely not. From the point of view of the network, which was more important: Having quality actors that those “in the know” would tune in to watch, or having actors with a greater risk of failure and thus getting a larger audience to see them fail? Do I really need to answer that question? This is television, where ratings trump quality every day. If you want quality entertainment, television is not your first choice. It exists, yes, but it rare and doesn’t get the ratings, and is more likely found on specialty channels than legacy broadcast networks. This production did exactly what the network wanted: it drew ratings, and probably sufficient ratings for them to attempt a stunt like this again. Given the dearth of theatrical musicals and variety on the major networks, this is not a bad thing. At least NBC is demonstrating itself as a network that at least thinks about theatre.

Stephen Moyer was more of a problem. The Captain required more seasoning given the character’s history, and Moyer did not convey that seasoning, nor did he have the strength of voice of a Theodore Bikel or others I have seen in the role, such as Edward Mulhare. Another problem was that he had little chemistry with Underwood’s Maria. Underwood-haters are quick to blame this on Carrie Underwood and her acting. However, I’m more inclined to blame in on Moyer — Underwood had spunk and was appealing, if not perhaps too upbeat. Moyer just didn’t seem to click with her.

Christian Borle, although a great actor, was just off (to me) as Max. He played it much more comically, and came off much more gay than I’ve seen in other portrayals (especially when compared to someone like Werner Klemperer). He seemed unrealistic. This, I believe was a directoral problem, as his singing was great. I’ll note that most reviews I’ve read praised Borle in the role. He performed well, but had notes in his performance that seemed untrue to that character at that time. As an aside, I saw a recent article on Kveller about things you never think about during this musical, and one was Max. He was obviously both gay and Jewish, and just let a war hero escape the country. He didn’t have a happy future in the 3rd Reich.

Laura Benanti was perhaps the best casting in a role that always comes off as wooden and stiff. She did attempt to bring life to the role and interacted well with the rest of the cast. She had more chemistry with Moyer, and perhaps might have been better as Maria (after all, IIRC, she has done Cinderella on Broadway… and has done Maria in one of her first Broadway shows). But she wouldn’t have drawn the eyeballs — outside of the theatre community, few have heard of her. Remember: Her presence didn’t save the one series she was in.

Most of the children worked reasonably well — I still remember the lovely interplay of Maria and Leisl in the final reprise of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” — but poor little Gretl was just miscast. She was cute, but she really couldn’t sing.

One last problem: Live performances… and even more so live stage performers… feed off the response of the audience and their reactions. The audience and the performers are a symbiotic whole, and this is what makes live theatre unique. This performance moved from soundstage to soundstage with no audience. This contributed to the stiffness of the production. It is also one reason why movies are different beasts, and 100% faithful adaptations rarely work: the stage production is paced for the stage, with scenes and timings designed for audience reaction and scene changes. Without the live stage and those constraints, the artifice becomes visible and hinders the production. If you want to film a stage production, treat it as a stage production and film a real live performance (even if you invite an audience).

In any case, those are my quick thoughts on the production. I went in planning to only watch 20 minutes, and then catch up on Big Bang Theory, but I ended up watching the entire production. It wasn’t unwatchable, but it wasn’t perfect. In short, it was a great example of what the “Golden Age of Television” was really like, and if NBC tried this again with a different musical, I’d likely watch.