Weird; Godspell; The 39 Steps

Day By Day

Here’s a roundup of some entertainment I’ve seen recently.

The first and only thing I’ve gotten around to seeing on my newish Roku set is the movie Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, starring the unlikely but oddly convincing Daniel Radcliff. I’m a  big Weird Al fan, owning at least 90% of his work on LP or CD.

I imagine that familiarity with not only the music but the backstory of the creation of the songs and the launching of this career would enhance the appreciation of the storyline. The movie was written by Al and director Eric Appel, and it is a parody of biopic films about musicians.

It’s often funny, definitely silly, and inevitably excessive, especially in the second half, featuring Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), when the pace sags for me.

The pool scene featuring Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), Wolfman Jack (Jack Black), and several well-known icons is my favorite. I also liked the resolution involving Al’s father (Toby Huss). And Al is convincing s the record producer who wants to have nothing to do with Weird Al.

The film sometimes seems rushed, probably because of its 18-day shooting schedule, but I’m glad I saw it.


My wife and I had said in the spring that we might see three or four shows at Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY, over the summer. Suddenly, it was Sunday, August 13, and the final day of the third or fourth show. She said, do you want to go see Godspell?

I love Godspell. In 1976, I was in a production in New Paltz. I’ve seen the movie starring Victor Garber.

But this Godspell was sublime. Check out this review:  ” This Godspell, this gospel according to [director Trey] Compton, is an edgy, piercing, gritty, brilliant piece of theatre… “

This is how the show starts: “Cue the Gospel. As the ensemble cast of eight enters, each clutches a cell phone in his or her hand as if they are the last lifelines to their very existence. The soon-to-be disciples are quite literally separated one from another by virtue of Compton’s sharp and intentional staging, scattered about the theatre like the wandering souls they are at this moment.

“Looking for all the world like a world-weary crowd gathered on a dark subway track awaiting the last train of the day, they begin to deliver the Prologue/Tower of Babble, a number not always included in every production, but thankfully included here…

“[It] is a truly unique, brilliant, thought-provoking, cutting-edge work of theater art.” That says it all.


My wife wanted to know if I wanted to go to the Spectrum Theatre to see the film The 39 Steps (1935). I had never seen it, so absolutely.

What I liked is that the protagonist, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian vacationing in London, didn’t believe the mysterious agent Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) and her fanciful tale about an international spy ring involving something called the “39 steps.”

That is, until Smith ends up dead in Hannay’s apartment, with him as the only suspect. Hannay has to elude those chasing him while trying to figure out the truth behind the secret. His life becomes entangled with Pamela   (Madeleine Carroll), his unwilling accomplice, who doesn’t believe Richard any more than Richard initially believed Annabella.

The chase is a bit improbable, as the pursuers are mainly inept. It’s also a very humorous and early rom-com.

Incidentally, I did see The 39 Steps before, but it involved shadow puppets.

Rabid goats and rabid fans in June

The performances were good, but the storybook is still very thin.

There’s only three of us, but we calendar a LOT these days so that we don’t inadvertently book a couple items on the same day. These all happened in June.

ITEM: The Wife and I saw, at the local Steamer Number 10 theater, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, an “unauthorized parody” written by Bert V. Royal. The “play imagines characters from the popular comic strip Peanuts as degenerate teenagers.”

It starts when “CB and CB’s sister have a funeral for their dog, who recently contracted rabies and was put down after killing ‘a little yellow bird’.” This is NOT children’s fare.

It was very good, but obviously very dark. I would like to believe that the homophobia displayed by Matt, a manifestation of Pig Pen, would not be as virulent in 2017 as it was when the play was first performed in 2004, but maybe it is.

Here’s the script.

ITEM: Friends of ours gave us tickets to the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which is a very fine symphony indeed. This program was held at the EMPAC, a fascinatingly cool structure.

The logistical issue was the birthday party to which the Daughter was invited late in the afternoon, but that ended up working out well. She stayed at the party long enough that she was home alone only about an hour. In large part, that was aided by the ASO decided NOT to perform the first piece on the program because ot wasn’t ready, the first time that’s happened when we’ve attended. But the other four pieces were quite enough.

ITEM: The three of us saw the last performance of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Mac-Hadyn Theater. All I know of this musical is the LP I owned, barely 30 minutes. This is expanded by at least three songs. The performances were good, but the storybook is still very thin.

ITEM: Another trip to Mac-Hadyn a couple weeks later to see Anything Goes. The first time I had seen it was a couple years ago at Catskill High School. I continue to marvel how well the choreographer coordinate people coming off and on this tiny stage.

ITEM: I’ve mentioned our church’s relationship with Giffen Elementary School, with with the Book and Author event the past five years, and tutoring for even longer. We went to the grand opening of Wizard’s Wardrobe, “a non-profit organization providing a free, after school tutoring program for elementary school students in the South End of Albany.”

So it was distressing I read that rabid goats had to be euthanized at Albany’s Radix Center. Three second-grade classes at Giffen Memorial Elementary School took field trips to the Radix Center during this time period. Yuck.

Dear diary, my short summer staycation

Albany Institute of History & Art
Albany Institute of History & Art

I’ve come to the conclusion that people dis blogging, even when they don’t read blogs, because they believe it’s just a bunch of personal entries, as though it were some sort of public diary. While, I’ve usually attempted to give you a much more diverse and eclectic record, every once in a while, I need a journal entry, if only for ME to keep track of my activities six or sixteen months from now.

July 23: After work, I met The Wife and The Daughter at Albany’s Washington Park at for a free Park Playhouse presentation of the musical Singin’ in the Rain. The family didn’t get there until close to 6 p.m. for a 7:30 performance, and that’s too late. We found probably the last seats in the amphitheater, in the last row, far to the right, with some obstruction from one of the light poles. This was the antepenultimate performance, and it had reviewed well.

That said, the performance of the musical was quite fine. Great singing and dancing, even though only the guy playing Donald (the Gene Kelly role in the movie) was an Equity union actor. And, as advertised, there was actual singing, in the controlled “rain.” BTW, in case of real rain, the show might be postponed or even canceled. My friend Susan, who plays the oboe in the orchestra, and who the Daughter and I happened across at intermission, said only one show was canceled, though a couple were delayed over the four-week run.

The problem is that, because the stage gets wet, and has to get mopped up during the break, there’s not much story left afterward; a small complaint.

July 24: I took a day off from work, and we headed for the Albany Institute of History and Art. The baseball exhibit was also on its antepenultimate day on display. While the info on the major league teams was interesting, I was most intrigued by the local history. It showed the Capital District from our now-defunct minor league Yankees showcasing future stars such as Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams to the Albany Senators playing an exhibition game against Babe Ruth to the 1880s team in Troy that was a precursor to the San Francisco Giants.

After lunch, we went to the New York State Museum. There was an exhibit of art from students from the 64 education campuses comprising the State University of New York. There was also a fine display of photos and tools of the Shaker communities, several of which were around the area back in the religious organization’s heyday.

July 25: The folks putting on Park Playhouse had also produced a two-day run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, with child and teen actors, at Albany’s Palace Theatre. This is the iteration in which Cinderella was played at various times by Julie Andrews, Lesley Ann Warren, and Brandy. I love this show, and this version was quite good, especially the title actress and the girl playing the herald.

However, because it was for free, and was presumably kid-friendly, parents brought their infants and toddlers, who couldn’t be still, or QUIET, for a 55-minute presentation, so it was occasionally difficult to hear. Outdoors, the noise may have been more diffused. Indoors, in the 2800-seat theater, at least 2/3s full, it was amplified.

July 26: I’ve previously touted the amazing work that happens on the very small stage of the Mac-Haydn Theatre, in Chatham, 45 minutes from Albany, where the entrances and exits become part of the set. My love for West Side Story is even more well established. This combination did not disappoint, from the very athletic mixing between the Sharks and the Jets, to the fine use of space to show Maria’s balcony.

The Wife thought the guy playing Tony was too pretty, though I disagreed. The problem with theater in the round, though, is that it may take a few seconds to find the highlighted action, such as when Maria and Tony first meet, and Tony is, for us, briefly obscured by the crowd at the dance.

What particularly worked for me was the Somewhere dance. Often a ballet that stops the action, it was quite effective with, e.g., “Anybodies”, the “tomboy” Jet dancing with Bernardo, the now slain Shark leader. Hey, maybe there IS “a place for us.”

And to nail that down, as we found our way to our car, we saw the actors playing Tony and Bernardo get in their vehicle and drive away together.

The Theater!

The Mac-Haydn Theatre is a 350-seat theater in the round, the stage is not huge, yet they use it and the various entrances and exits so well.

skd283131sdcIt’s peculiar that I hardly ever write about plays and musicals, given the fact that I go to them quite often, at various venues.

One great location is Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, pretty much the next city over from Albany, in the once a rundown vaudeville house that’s now a refurbished gem. Shows that had been on Broadway and are now touring show up here. It holds about 2700 patrons.

The Wife and I saw at least two shows in the 2010-11 season:
February 2011: Lion King. Astonishing, starting with the entrances from throughout the theater
May 2011: Hair. The story doesn’t age well, but it was still fun, with a lot of talented vocalists.

Mar 2012: Jersey Boys. The story of The Four Seasons gave me a lot more respect for the singing group. Well done.
April 2012: Memphis. Apr 12 This is why I watch the Tonys; I wouldn’t have known what this award-winning show about music and race was about had I not seen it on the awards show. Good stuff.

As a result of these, we decided to get 2012-2013 season tickets:
October 2012: Mary Poppins. The one show we took The Daughter to, it was colourful and charming. We saw this only a few months after we saw the movie, the Daughter and I for the first time.
November 2012: Wicked. As good as was promised, and much more interesting than the book. The one musical I did review.
January 2013: Million Dollar Quartet. The heavily fictionalized story of a recording session with Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins. It was pretty good, but the performances at the end were great. There’s a chat with some of the actors after some Thursday afternoon performances, and these guys were particularly charming.
February 2013: Priscilla. Very entertaining, occasionally provocative show I enjoyed. No, I never saw the movie.
May 2013: Les Miserables. I had never seen a theatrical production. The movie I found to be tiresome. This production, though, I found wonderfully compeling, with some great singing, and touching acting performances.
An extra show we saw that season-
June 2013: Billy Elliot. While it took some wide swings between comedy and pathos, I did enjoy it quite a bit, and it was ultimately effective storytelling.

After watching the previews of the 2013-2014 season back in March, which included a singer from Sister Act, we signed up again. I was sold not just by the fact that Book of Mormon was on the roster, but by seeing the War Horse horse, live on stage. You can see the three people controlling the large puppet, yet you buy into the horse’s actions. The neighing comes from them making three different pitches.
September 2013: Ghost. This was the first Proctors show that I thought was an outright disappointment. It was as though they still needed to work out the pacing bugs. Worse, I never really believed the romance of the two main characters. But the woman playing the Whoopi Goldberg role was great. I liked, didn’t love the movie. Here’s the Broadway World website.
October 2013: Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Was it dance? Was it theater? Good chunks of the story made no sense to me. It LOOKED great, but left me cold. The Wife liked it more than I. Here’s the Nippertown review.
January 2014: War Horse. This is an extraordinary event, this horse who is thrown into war, and his owner who fights to find him. Quite intense sat times. There may have been something in my eye at the end.
February 2014: Sister Act. I had very low expectations of this, another Whoopi Goldberg movie made into a musical. But it was GOOD! Entertaining, funny. Arguably better than the movie.
March 2014: Book of Mormon. I did not see. I was in the hospital with The Daughter. The Wife went – I told her if she had to stay all night at the hospital, I’d stay all day. She thought BOM was too raunchy for her taste.
May 2014: Phantom of the Opera. This was a new production, but since it was a totally unknown commodity, it didn’t matter. While we liked it quite a bit, we were both confused by a few things that maybe would have made more sense to a veteran of the musical.

Thus, for the 2014-2015 season, we opted out of getting season tickets again. It’s not that some of the shows were disappointing. It is that too many of the shows are familiar.
Newsies • Oct 11-17, 2014 – The Daughter and I saw this on Broadway in February 2014, only her second trip to NYC. It was really good, especially the second act, but I don’t need to see it again. Maybe The Wife will go with a friend.
Jersey Boys • Jan 13-18, 2015 – Saw this a couple years ago, and don’t need to see it again so soon.
The Illusionists Witness the Impossible • Feb 17-22, 2015 – Have no feel for this, whether it’d be interesting to me.
Annie • Mar 3-8, 2015 – I’ve seen no fewer than three iterations of Annie in the past four years, including my niece in a high school production. Even though this will be “new”, I’ll pass.
Pippin • May 26-31, 2015- Now THIS I’ve wanted to see since seeing the TV ads for the original production 40 YEARS AGO.
Kinky Boots • Jun 16-21, 2015 – And I’d see the recent Best Musical.

Another great venue is the Mac-Haydn Theatre, about 45 minutes away from Albany in Chatham, NY. It’s a 350-seat theater in the round, the stage is not huge, yet they use it and the various entrances and exits so well.

In June 2011, we saw The King and I, and the aforementioned Annie, and they were quite fine. This year, in June, we saw The Music Man, and Fiddler on the Roof. The former was quite good, but the latter, incredible. I can’t believe the number of people traveling on the stage without bumping into each other or falling off. This is my second-favorite musical, and it was a very worthy production. BTW, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who just turned 90, tells his story.

There have been plays in Washington Park in Albany for over a quarter-century, with the Park Playhouse, and I’ve seen 80% of them. The last two productions I recall seeing were West Side Story, my favorite musical, which I pretty much hated, especially the intermission huckstering; and Cabaret, which was considerably better.

Steamer 10 is a little community theater within walking distance of our house. It has a mixed fare of serious plays and things such as Robin Hood and the Good (& Bad) Fairies of Nottingham, which we took in back in March. But they’ve branched out; their production of Romeo & Juliet, outside near Lincoln Park, was quite fine, despite the incredible wind the day we saw it. Fortunately, my man Dan reviewed it.

For several different periods, but not in the past five years, I went to Capital Rep, an Equity theater. I know I saw these, and I may have forgotten one or three:
Dreaming Emmet by Toni Morrison (premiere)
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
Fences by August Wilson
Halley’s Comet by John Amos
A Tuna Christmas by Williams, Sears & Howard
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati – a particularly clever staging
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (adapted by Christopher Sergel) – still powerful
Always…Patsy Cline by Ted Swindley
Over the Tavern by Tom Dudzick
Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Pretty Fire by Charlayne Woodard
Forever Plaid by Stuart Ross
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol adapted by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill
Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts
Menopause The Musical! by Jeanie Linders
Jacques Brel is Alive & Well & Living in Paris Words & Music by Jacques Brel, Conception, English Lyrics and Additional material by Eric Blau & Mort Shuman

The Small House of Uncle Thomas

Things on the cast album that seemed pedestrian suddenly made sense.

Many bloggers, including this one, will start a blog post and then move on to something else, leaving it in incomplete draft form.

Such was the case of this piece about the two musicals my wife, my daughter and I saw, both in June 2011, at the Mac-Hadyn Theater in Chatham, NY, about a 40-minute drive from our house in Albany.

The first show we viewed was Annie. I’d seen TV productions of it, I’m sure; certainly the one with Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan. But the stage performance made it more real than I remembered.

So my wife asked if I wanted to go see The King and I. She could hear the ambivalence in my response.

You see, I thought I knew the story well enough that I didn’t need to. I remember seeing the movie, or at least segments of the movie. Moreover, I own the 1977 Broadway cast album, even though I had never seen the musical. And while the hits Hello, Young Lovers, and Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance? are strong, the totality of the listening experience of this Rodgers & Hammerstein piece was lacking; this was, to swipe a phrase, “a puzzlement.”

Yet seeing the performance in person brought this chestnut to life for me. Things on the cast album that seemed pedestrian suddenly made sense. In particular, the reprise of I Have Dreamed was a real revelation.

And there is this whole long section in the second act not even hinted at on the cast album: the narrated dance “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” From Wikipedia: “Hammerstein found his ‘door in’ to the play in [author Margaret] Landon’s account of a slave in Siam writing about Abraham Lincoln.” At some level, that rewrite of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with its revisionist happy ending, is the core value of the whole musical.

So maybe I only viewed scenes from the movie. Regardless, seeing this production was a revelation. Glad I saw it.

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