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Donald’s New York theater week

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I recently spent a week in New York cramming in as much theater as I could. While time constraints meant it was impossible for me to see all the Tony-nominated shows — and I couldn’t get my hands on a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” ticket without having to sell my car — I managed to see a heck of a lot. (Nine shows total, seven on Broadway and two off-Broadway). Just in time for Sunday’s Tony Awards, here’s my recap:

‘LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL’
If, like me, you’re from Fresno and are into Broadway, THIS was the must-see event of the trip. Audra McDonald is nominated for best leading actress in a play in this acclaimed production, and if she wins her sixth award on Sunday, she’ll set a record as the most Tony-winning performer ever. Plus: She’ll be the first performer to win a Tony in all four acting categories (leading actress in a play, featured actress in a play, leading actress in a musical, featured actress in a musical). So you can be sure that people from Fresno will be rooting hard for her.

It’s an incredible, indelible performance.

McDonald, to me, has one of the most instantly recognizable voices I’ve ever heard. Give me two seconds of her with almost any song and I’ll snap: “Audra.” Yet in Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play, which recounts a night of the life of Billie Holiday near the end of her life, McDonald burrows into her character with such intense authenticity (and does crazy-screwy things with her voice that completely tamps down her operatic tendencies into a bluesy twang) that I simply forgot I wasn’t in the presence of Billie Holiday herself. (I never did forget, however, that I sat directly behind Oprah Winfrey, whose own star wattage kept distracting some members of the audience. One woman on the way to the restroom in the middle of the show even leaned in from the aisle, stuck her hand in front of Winfrey’s face and waved.)

“Lady Day” turns out to be one of those experiences in which the performance far outshines the material. In lesser hands, the sad spectacle of Holiday boozing it up and crumbling before our eyes could have been tawdry and cheap, even eye-rolling. But McDonald sails clear of such travails so smoothly that it makes the characterization that much more impressive.

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Nine shows later, I’m back from New York

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Regular readers of this space over the years know that I have a pedal-to-the-metal approach to visiting New York. I fill every minute I can with shows, visits to museums — and more shows. (Food is a low priority — I’m known to wolf down an energy bar and a seltzer between matinee and evening performances.) Even though I’m sure some would call my approach a Cultural Long March, I love every minute.

I just returned from my latest binge, and I set a personal record: Nine performances in six days. (Because it’s Tony Awards season, some shows are scheduling special Thursday matinees, which let me fit in an extra show.) I’ll be writing an extended recap of what I saw in the days to come, but for now I’ll just share my itinerary:

SUNDAY:
“Bullets Over Broadway,” St. James Theatre
“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” New York Theatre Workshop (Off-Broadway)

MONDAY:
Visit to Metropolitan Museum of Art
Visit to Guggenheim Museum
“Heathers: The Musical,” New World Stages (Off-Broadway)

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Now THESE are Broadway vacation pics to gloat about

If you follow Fresno-area theater on this blog, then you know Marc Gonzalez, whose enthusiasm for the stage extends both to performing and spectating. I already told you last week how he, Mady Broach and Daniel Hernandez scored tickets to the Tony Awards by winning the ticket lottery. Now that he’s just finished up his action-packed visit to New York, which he topped off Sunday night with the Tonys, I’m giving his photos a standing ovation. Gonzalez has never met a stage door he didn’t like, and he got some great photos with some of Broadway’s biggest names. Below, Gonzalez with Sigourney Weaver after a performance of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

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Gonzalez, who was flying back to Fresno on Monday afternoon, will be updating his blog later this week. In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek of what looks like a most satisfying theater binge.

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My New York recap

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After returning to work Tuesday from my recent trip to New York and Washington, I got right back into the busy Fresno culture season. But I promised to fill you in on my various adventures. My final tally in New York: seven plays and two museums. Here’s my theater recap:

MATILDA THE MUSICAL, Shubert Theatre: My favorite show of the trip. I predict that when the Tony nominations are announced Tuesday morning, this import from London will score more nominations than any other show. (I’m not exactly going out on a limb here; last year the musical won more Olivier awards, the British equivalent of the Tonys, than any show in history.)  In terms of Broadway depicting children, the tone of this smart and crisp adaptation of the famed Roald Dahl book about a genius little girl with pathetic parents is different than anything I’ve seen. It makes “Annie,” the other big currently running musical about a fictional little girl, look like little more than an extended sentimental sugar high. Sentimentality does exist in in “Matilda,” but it is doled out with the severity of a nutrition-minded mom offering a small dollop of whipped cream to top off a piece of pie; the small bit that is there seems to taste even better because of its scarcity.

The show is a marvel to behold, from the beautifully crafted tiled letters that fill every square inch of the front of the theater to the percussive lighting effects. (At one point, a giant “burp” becomes tangible, thanks to the lighting design, as we watch it travel to the front of the schoolroom and right up to the nostrils of the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, played by the splendid Bertie Carvel.) The staging is a wonder. And Tim Minchin’s music and especially lyrics are so smart they almost hurt.

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A whirlwind visit to New York

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Back from Broadway: I was only in New York City for four nights (after arriving on a red-eye), but I managed to pack in a lot: five shows, four museums and my Columbia grad school reunion. Hey, it’s the city that never sleeps, right? I kept my Beehive Facebook readers up to date on my cultural activities, but here’s a little more detail on the shows I saw plus several museum exhibitions:

“GHOST: THE MUSICAL,” Lunt-Fontanne Theatre: I like to see shows in previews because 1) it’s easier to get tickets; and 2) it’s fun to be ahead of the curve. So I snapped up a last-minute discount mezzanine seat to the musical adaptation of the 1990 movie. The show is slavishly faithful to the musical, right down to the iconic pottery scene, but what stands out isn’t the storyline, which teeters between cheesy and affecting, but the over-the-top scenic design. Basically the whole stage is smothered in massive video screens — including the back and side walls — with many on moveable panels that slide, swoop and fold out. (The audience is bombarded with graphics, rapidly changing colors, big blocks of text and even video of the dancers complementing the live ones on stage.) Pretty impressive stuff, but there’s a price to pay for all that complexity: With half an hour to go in the show, I watched as two of the big movable panels crashed into each other, bringing the production to a grinding halt. (It started about 20 minutes later.) As bad luck would have it for the show, I was there the same night as the New York Times and Daily News critics. They were harsh on the music and the chemistry between leads Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy, and made a few cracks about the scenic mishap, of course. Dazzled as I was by the visuals, I felt a little more kindly toward the experience. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I really wanted the show to start again after the scenery mishap. (Which I guess is a much better sign than wanting to bolt for the door.)

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To-Do Tonight: Big-screen Broadway

I’m intrigued by tonight’s opening of “Memphis: The Musical,” last year’s Tony Award-winner for best musical, at Edwards theater. Though I’ve enjoyed Metropolitan Opera productions on the big screen, I’ve never experienced a Broadway show — especially one that’s still playing on Broadway — in a similar setting.

From the producers of the event:

The show was captured live in performance at Broadway’s renowned Shubert Theatre in New York City where it is currently playing to sold out audiences. This electrifying musical event will begin with an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how the show was captured for the big screen and then follow directly into the feature presentation.

I wonder if this will become more the norm. Sure beats the cost of going to New York — or waiting years for a secondary national tour with a non-Equity cast to come through town. Then again, I’m wondering if the magic of live theater will translate in this new medium.

Screenings are 7:30 p.m. tonight, Saturday and Tuesday; and 1 p.m. Sunday.

I don’t think I’ll be able to make it until the Tuesday show. I’m curious to hear from other theater fans what they think if they see it before then.