Tag Archives: Tony Award

‘Violet’ opens Skylight Music Theatre’s season

Continue reading ‘Violet’ opens Skylight Music Theatre’s season

Henry Winkler dreams of a Tony, stars in new NBC reality series

During an hour-long chat at his Los Angeles home, Henry Winkler does impressions of George Foreman, Terry Bradshaw and William Shatner (his co-stars in the new NBC reality series Better Late Than Never), walks like a ninja who suddenly sports jazz hands, and improvises a scene as the intolerant acting coach he plays in a new HBO comedy.

The 70-year-old entertainer is visibly animated as he discusses his career, which spans four decades and counting. But the overriding vibe from the former Fonz is one of gratitude. It’s not long before he launches into how thankful he is for the opportunities and success he continues to enjoy.

“I live by tenacity and gratitude,” he said. “I am grateful for every inch of earth that I tread on in my life.”

Acting remains a passion. Winkler is also a successful author of children’s books (his 32nd was just published) and travels the country as a motivational speaker. And he’s a doting grandfather of four, including 4 1/2-year-old Ace, a redheaded sprite who calls him “Papa” and stays close to him during this interview.

(Ace just started requesting Winkler’s Here’s Hank books as bedtime stories. “I think I’m about to faint,” Winkler said.)

His next television endeavor is Better Late Than Never.

The four-episode reality series follows Winkler, Foreman, Bradshaw, Shatner and comedian Jeff Dye on various cultural and culinary adventures in Asia.

As an executive producer, Winkler helped assemble the quintet, who barely knew one another before embarking on the 35-day trip through Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. But talk about your bonding experiences: Together, they appeared on a Japanese game show, studied with samurai warriors, danced in a K-pop video and befriended elephants at an animal sanctuary.

Now “it’s friends for life,” Winkler said. “It might have been the trip of a lifetime.”

He’s so confident about the show — “to the point that I will come to your house and do the dishes” — if each episode isn’t better than the last.

“The reason that it gets better and better is — if you feel us being a tight unit in the first (episode) — it gets tighter and tighter and we get looser and looser and more outrageous with each other,” he said.

Winkler is also embracing the outrageous in scripted form with Barry, a new HBO series that starts production in January. Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader stars as a middling hit man who finds unexpected community among a group of theater hopefuls in Los Angeles. Winkler is their cantankerous acting coach.

Rather than describe the role, he breaks into character.

Winkler studied drama at Yale and has pursued the craft with vigor since he graduated. He only started writing children’s books when he had difficulty shedding the Fonz persona after Happy Days ended its 10-year run. But he’s never stopped looking for the next great part. Even now, he still goes out on auditions and dreams big.

“It makes me so happy,” he said. “And now that I’m getting better, that I’m more relaxed, that I’m more in touch with what I’m doing, it’s like I step into nirvana.

“My favorite role is the next role I do,” he continued. “I love going to work.”

Winkler’s joy and gratitude is palpable. He knocks on the wooden table when he mentions his hopes and blessings. He’s kept every single script from Happy Days (and every other show and film he’s done) and had them bound in hardback leather like a treasured collection of encyclopedias.

“You cannot take for granted one single second,” he said.

Though he is still yearning for one particular piece of hardware.

“Here’s my bucket list,” Winkler said. “I would like to see my grandchildren thrive. I would like to work until I absolutely cannot anymore. I would like to win a Tony. I watch the Tony Awards and cry every year. I love it. That is my dream. That is my dream. Whatever it is, that is my dream: to win a Tony.”

His thank-you speech may already be written.

‘Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike’ a modern riff on Chekov

Playwright Christopher Durang’s most famous work, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike may be strongly influenced by the plays of 19th-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov. But it’s the contemporary elements he’s woven in — including quasi-autobiographical details and those of friends like Yale Drama School classmate Sigourney Weaver — that give the play’s characters the energy, vitality and pathos to rise above stereotypes and imbue the play with lasting comedic appeal.

Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for best play, Durang’s classic/contemporary mashup is on stage Aug. 11–28 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is firmly rooted in the present,” says Marcella Kearns, director of the production. “Though his musing about Chekhov provided inspiration for the play, Durang gives us much more. He actually sweeps us through a survey of Western theater — eras, styles, acting techniques — with nods to the Greeks, Chekhov, acting for television versus the stage, and more. And that’s just in the first act.”

The play’s references to Chekhov are deliberate and overt. Vanya, Sonia and Masha’s names are taken from the Chekhovian canon, as is the name of an additional character, Nina. The play blends comedy with semi-tragic situations in a way similar to such Chekhov works as The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard.

Durang says Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is not a parody of Chekhov. One doesn’t need to know his plays to appreciate this contemporary one.

“I do like Chekhov’s plays and got to read them in my 20s and 30s,” says Durang. Durang left New York City several years ago and moved to rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his now-husband John Augustine. The play is set in that same county and reflects an urban/rural tension.

“A lot of Chekhov’s characters are unhappy with their lives and regret the things they didn’t do, and those who live in the country seem to be unhappier than those who live in the city,” Durang says. “I thought, ‘What if I wrote a play that incorporated the themes of Chekhov and set the play in modern day?’”

Durang’s question led to Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and drives its comedic trajectory.

The story is set at the home of Vanya (C. Michael Wright) and Sonia (Jenny Wanasek), siblings who live together in Bucks County. Unemployed, they have spent most of their adult lives caring for their now-dead parents, literature professors who loved Chekhov and named their children after his characters. The siblings are supported by their movie star sister Masha (Carrie Hitchcock).

The pair’s static environment ruptures when Masha returns home with her boy toy Spike (JJ Phillips). Sonia’s insecurities and Masha’s competitive nature spark a series of arguments that Vanya must try to mediate, while Spike flounces about the house distracting the trio with his buff body. It quickly becomes clear that Masha is intent on selling the family home, which would leave Vanya and Sonia destitute.

Durang says the characters in the play must deal with feeling left behind as times change, as well as with the struggles people face in their attempt to coexist and come to terms with their gains and losses.

While Durang acknowledges the play’s characters share some similarities to his own life, he says their differences helped him maintain needed distance.

“I realized that I was the age now of Vanya in the play, and I am very much that character,” Durang says. “But it’s more of a what-if scenario. I feel very lucky that I was able to pursue a career in theater after college, but the Vanya character is what I think I would be if I didn’t get to follow my choices.”

The play is largely motivated by jealousy and sibling rivalry, another what-if scenario for Durang, an only child who had to play peacemaker between warring parents.

One of the major forces in this play is the longing for connection,” Kearns says. “It’s as old as human community.”

Durang says he created Sonia as a composite of several women he’s known, and the narcissistic Masha is inspired by Weaver — or rather, by a similarly self-involved character she played in college. “I’m not saying that any part of Masha is based on Sigourney Weaver,” Durang explains, “but I thought she would have fun playing the role, and I was lucky to get her.

In addition to Weaver, the Broadway production featured David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen as Masha’s siblings and Billy Magnussen as Spike.

On stage

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs Aug. 11–28 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. The Aug. 11 performance features an LGBT Night Out promotion at 7:30 p.m., with a 25 percent discount on tickets using the code LGBT25. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Editor’s Note: Michael Muckian’s interview with Christopher During was conducted in 2015 for a preview of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that played at Madison’s Forward Theatre Company.

Milwaukee to premiere AIDS-related film starring Kenosha native

Milwaukee has been selected as one of five cities for an early premiere of an HBO film.

“The Normal Heart” stars Kenosha native Mark Ruffalo as well as Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons and Alfred Molina.

It’s based on the Tony Award-winning play by Larry Kramer and is about the AIDS crisis in early 1980s New York.

Brad Pitt is producer.

The movie will be shown at the Landmark Oriental Theatre on May 21.

Milwaukee was selected along with Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco to see the film before it airs May 25 as part of a partnership between Milwaukee Film and HBO.

HBO spokesman Mike Hopper says Milwaukee is one of the top markets for “Game of Thrones” viewership, so there is a definite audience for HBO in Milwaukee.

‘Chicago’ burns with talent

When Kander & Ebb’s Tony Award-winning musical Chicago finally hit the big screen in 2002 after a few failed attempts (including proposed versions rumored to star Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn), it was a massive success. The winner of six Oscars, including best picture, Chicago seemed to signal the return of the big-screen movie musical. 

Neither of the lead actresses in the film Chicago — Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones — was known for her musical stage work. But under the direction of Rob Marshall, the duo glittered as murderous jazz-age mamas Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, respectively — and Zeta-Jones took home an Oscar for her work.

Now available in a Blu-ray+DVD+Digital HD/Ultraviolet Diamond Edition, with more than two hours (!) of new content, Chicago is holding up better than the city it’s named for. Bill Condon’s inspired Oscar-nominated screenplay transforms wannabe performer Roxie’s musical numbers into effective flights of fancy. As inmates, Roxie and Velma compete for the spotlight and the sympathies of the public and the press. They sing and dance to their (and our) hearts’ content.

Supporting players John C. Reilly (as Roxie’s “invisible” husband Amos), Queen Latifah (as warden Mama Morton), Christine Baranski (as newspaper columnist Mary Sunshine) and Richard Gere (as unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn) all make the most of the Kander & Ebb songs, including “The Cellblock Tango,” “All That Jazz,” “Mr. Cellophane,” “Razzle Dazzle” and “Nowadays.”

Special features include commentary by Marshall and Condon, which offers fascinating insight into the film. You’ll also find the deleted “Class” scene, and much more.

Paradise Found | Levi Kreis finally does an album his way

You’ll find musical paradise on “Imagine Paradise,” the soulful new album by Tony Award-winning gay singer/songwriter Levi Kreis. The fan-funded recording features a dozen Kreis compositions written for individual supporters who contributed at specific levels. The remaining donors are given their due on the album’s front and back covers.

A distinct move in a new direction for Kreis, the songs on “Imagine Paradise” take the best elements of retro R&B and splash them with a fresh, funky and vivid new coat of paint. Just try to stand still when you hear “Any Way You Wanna,” “Taking Back My Boogie,” “So Much Better,” “Love Revolution” and especially “It Ain’t Over.”

The perfect soundtrack for summer parties, the disc also includes ballads, such as “What Love Is,” an example of the dramatic numbers on which Kreis built his devoted following.

I spoke with Levi shortly before the release of “Imagine Paradise.” 

Gregg Shapiro: The last time we spoke, you were preparing to play Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet” – the part that earned you a Tony Award. Do you keep your Tony in a special place?

Levi Kreis: (Laughs) It only just came out of the closet. (The Tony) was an extra thing that I was grateful to have while I was going through a divorce, while I was getting sober, while, literally, every level of my life felt like it was falling apart. When the Tony Award happened, I honestly felt like, “Holy shit, did I pull the wool over everybody’s eyes?” I really felt like I wasn’t worthy of it. That’s actually why I put it away. 

Did Jerry Lee Lewis ever see your portrayal of him?

Jerry Lee Lewis not only came to see the show, he sat in with us on the encore. I got to play with him. It was the best experience of the whole thing. As a matter of fact, we got to spend a whole day together and The New York Times followed us around and wrote a whole story about it. He was very complimentary. I remember him saying, (in a thick drawl), “There’s a lot of boys that tried to play me, but I tell you what, you’re the only one that does it justice” – which was a huge compliment.

I would like to shift gears now and talk about your new CD “Imagine Paradise,” beginning with the CD cover on which you appear naked except for the names of your project backers written all over your body. 

This is about the people who actually created this album by lending their stories and their life experiences for me. What better way for me to honor them than to get all of them on my body and wear nothing but them. That’s what the project is – it’s nothing but them.

Would you ever do a Kickstarter campaign again?

I wouldn’t do it again, because I actually honor the concept of Kickstarter more from the perspective as a business loan. If you are actually able to get that kind of money, you want to look at how you’re doing business and how you can impact the album to bring the funds to do the next one. I don’t think artists should live off of Kickstarter. 

Each of the 12 songs was written for a backer. Did they make specific requests as to the subject matter or did you have carte blanche?

There was a certain incentive. Whether you came in at $1,000 or $2,500, you would get your own personalized, custom-written theme song. Once they made their pledge and the Kickstarter campaign was finalized – some of them I yapped on the phone with for a few hours, others I just emailed. Whatever their preference was. Some people had very little to say, some people had a whole lot to say. It was my job to take the core emotional experience of their life situation and liken it unto my core emotional experience of a situation.

“Imagine Paradise” is your fifth full-length disc. In what ways would you say that you’ve evolved as both a songwriter and a performer?

I look back on the albums of my past and I can’t help but acknowledge that they were often created from an economical standpoint. For instance, (my first album) “One of the Ones,” I had $200 in my pocket, I only had these eight songs left from the deal with Atlantic Records, and I literally went into a studio in New York City and asked the guy behind the front desk if he would please let me go in and play one time through the songs. That was the album. I look at “Gospel,” where we went from a $200 budget to a $3,000 budget, which I thought was remarkable. But we’re still in the living room, working with old equipment, and it’s just me and someone else. Along the way, I also think that what informed the albums was that I had an undue concern for what was hot at the time. For instance, “The Gospel According to Levi” was (recorded) around the time of Kelly Clarkson’s big hit “Since U Been Gone,” and you can hear whatever was hot in the day in that particular album. Why I love “Imagine Paradise” so much is that I finally let that go and decided that I wanted to do the music that I like to listen to. Some of my friends over the years have introduced me to the greatest music of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the black and gay communities were creating these anthems of freedom. I’m coming out of the closet with that, that’s what I listen to, that’s what I have on repeat. I don’t listen to my old albums, because I never would listen to that style of music. This is actually the style of music I would listen to.

 “Love Revolution” is one of your most political songs.

I don’t think I could’ve honored the story of Richard Friend, who inspired it, without speaking that. He was a political activist, he was reaching out to our HIV/AIDS victims at the height of ACT UP. He was building organizations. He was caring for people. “Love Revolution” is the second single (from the album).

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‘The Book of Mormon’ is a distinctly modern musical

“The Book of Mormon” is one of the funniest and most profane shows to appear on a musical stage. Maybe that’s to be expected, considering it’s the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of “South Park,” working together with “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez. 

What’s unexpected about this Tony Award-sweeping hit, playing through Oct. 6 at Chicago’s Bank of America Theater, is the sometimes sweet Rogers and Hammerstein-style innocence that adds a novel dimension to the production.

The storyline is simple. Elder Price (Nic Rouleau) and Elder Cunningham (Ben Platt, see p. 38) have just graduated from Mormon missionary training.  They, along with the other new missionaries, eagerly await their assignments. Squeaky clean Price, a young go-getter probably voted most likely to succeed by his high school class, wants to do his mission work in Orlando, Fla. Fuzzy-headed bumbler Cunningham, probably voted least likely to even be noticed, is happy to go anywhere.

The pair ends up assigned to Uganda, which, they quickly discover, is nothing like the Africa of “The Lion King.”

Price and Cunningham join an existing Mormon mission – headed by closeted Elder McKinley (Pierce Cassidy) – that hasn’t baptized a single Ugandan. Their would-be converts live with crushing poverty, rampant AIDs and a local warlord (David Aron Damane) intent on circumcising every female in the village.

Price decides he will deliver the mission from its ineffectiveness, but it’s the bumbling Cunningham, with his “colorful” take on Mormon theology, who saves the day, so to speak. In his version of Mormonism, the prophet Joseph Smith is in the same league as Darth Vader and the Angel Moroni descended from the starship Enterprise. The natives find this brand of the religion far more appealing and approachable.

Despite its offbeat nature, “The Book of Mormon” plays like a classic musical. “Hello,” the show’s hilarious opening number, features a singing cadre of doorbell-ringing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionaries. They populate the stage with their traditional short-sleeved white shirts, conservative neckties and bright, eager smiles.

The 150-minute production ends on a similar note, with a host of numbers in between, including expressing the Ugandans’ longing to visit paradise in “Salta-Laka-City.”

Strong performances carry the show, and few are stronger than that of Ben Platt as Elder Cunningham. His buoyant naivety, sifted through a Bobcat Goldthwait-brand of psychosis, provides the perfect channel for his mixed-metaphor theology. 

As Price, Nic Rouleau offers a perfect, yet human blend of vanity and sanctity. He helps make the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” – complete with dancing demons, a four-armed Satan and familiar Hades denizens Hitler, Genghis Kahn, Johnny Cochran and Jeffrey Dahmer – a true show-stopper.

Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is simple but strong, and the show’s energy runs nonstop through to the traditional feel-good Broadway finish. But the profanity and irreverence make the production very non-traditional and decidedly adult fare.

“The Book of Mormon” successfully sets Parker and Stone’s uniquely sassy “South Park”-style humor to music, creating a distinctly 21st century work.

On the stage

“The Book of Mormon” plays through Oct. 6 at the Bank of America Theater, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. For tickets, visit www.chicago-theater.com/theaters/bank-of-america-theater/the-book-of-mormon.php.

Nathan Lane is a tour de force in ‘The Nance’

Douglas Carter Beane’s play “The Nance” opens with Nathan Lane hungrily looking around an automat. It is 1937 in New York and he’s not there for the food.

Lane, who portrays a lonely burlesque performer in the play, is there on his off-hours to try to pick up a man – any man, really. It’s an assignation that city officials frown upon in these closeted times and so everyone has to be careful or they’ll end up in jail.

He spots an attractive younger man and offers him part of his sandwich. “I warn you, it is ham,” Lane’s character says, always ready with a quip. “I’m an actor, that might be considered an act of cannibalism.”

This furtive dance at the automat – dangerous and funny and with its own careful rules – is a quiet and thoughtful labor of love. Directed with subtlety and tenderness by Jack O’Brien, this is a bittersweet tale of repression and rebellion wrapped up in a valentine to a lost theatrical art form.

Lane’s character is a “nance” – a show business term for a stereotypically camp homosexual man – who is struggling both with his own identity and frustration at society’s hypocrisy toward homosexuality amid the dying days of burlesque. That art form had to follow its own strict rules and patterns – pasties and G-strings on the girls – or its performers also risked official condemnation.

The two stories Beane is telling are brilliantly connected by John Lee Beatty’s rotating set, which takes viewers both backstage and in the seats at a burlesque theater, as well as inside the apartment of Lane’s Chauncey Miles. It is another way of exploring the gulf between public and private.

Lane as the tortured soul at the play’s heart is magnificent – showing sides that are charming, witty, savage, self-destructive and yearning. He recently received a Tony Award nomination for his performance.

While many nances were actually straight men, Miles is a gay man pretending to be an over-the-top, ridiculously limp-wristed fairy, (“kind of like a Negro doing blackface,” he says) which makes him sometimes sick to his stomach.

Love comes into his life – or at least it seems that way – when a younger, down-on-his luck man called Ned (Jonny Orsini) shows up at the automat and gets picked up by Miles, a complexly written character who staunchly defends the Republican Party despite the cultural crackdowns.

The show alternates from dealing with politics – Miles’ defense of burlesque and free expression during a monologue in court is a highlight – and the intensely personal, as when our hero must confront why he can’t seem to remain monogamous, needing to chase after “boys with a touch of lavender.”

One of the best scenes is toward the end when a self-loathing Miles returns to the stage in full-on drag. He has dropped the nance act and is playing an old whore named Hortense.

Lane is still funny but seems thoroughly and unbearably broken. It is heartbreaking.