JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Legally Musical?

Yesterday I saw the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Legally Blonde: The Musical and I enjoyed it.

It’s a genuine musical comedy, filled with likeable characters, high voltage dance numbers, and committed performances; the only thing it lacks is music—but I’ll get to that.

Last week when I saw my neighbor Georgia, she introduced me to her future daughter-in-law, whom, she said, was appearing in the Walnut’s Legally Blonde. So I ordered a ticket for yesterday’s performance.

And then I realized that I didn’t remember Georgia’s future DIL’s name. What if I didn’t recognize her under her stage makeup? Or worse, what if I mis-identified her? I checked the production’s web site to see if I could pick her out from the publicity photos, and I thought I could, but I wasn’t absolutely certain.

That’s Lindsey Bliven as Vivienne in the center

So I did the sensible thing and knocked on Georgia’s door to ask. As it turned out Georgia’s future DIL was there, and her name is Lindsey Bliven (check out her web site), and she showed me a picture of herself in her stage makeup (and yes, it was the same one that I had tentatively picked out). Furthermore, she said she plays the mean one.

And although I’ve only met Lindsey for a total of about four minutes, she seems to have a sweet, outgoing disposition, but she absolutely plays mean very well. Really the whole cast is outstanding. As I said I enjoyed myself.

The plot is pretty simple and fairly predictable in its broad outline: The protagonist Elle Woods is dumped by her boyfriend because she, a sorority girl, isn’t “serious” enough for him as he plans to go to Harvard Law School and become a Very Important Person. So Elle resolves to follow him to law school in order to win him back.

One of the sub-plots features a UPS driver, a hair stylist, and a dog

The book of the show was written by Heather Hach (it’s based on a novel and a movie), and I think it’s one of the strongest books for a musical that I’ve seen. It completely avoids the second act problem that plagues so many shows where they get bogged down working out the plot trying to wrap things up and keep the audience engaged. If anything, the second act is stronger than the first.

Alas, the songs by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin are, how shall I put this? They stink.

If a cat had stepped in spilled ink and randomly scattered some notes on a musical staff, it could have come up with more memorable tunes than these two people did. I don’t seem to be alone in my assessment; Clive Barnes in his review of the original Broadway production referred to the “amorphous, synthetic, and maniacally empty-headed music”. As to the lyrics, I barely understood a word during the ensemble numbers. The solo (dare I call them) “songs” fared better as I was able to make out about 80% of the words, and they were serviceable, no more.

As to the intelligibility of the words, I don’t blame that on the cast, I blame that on the sound crew who had the amplified volume turned up so high it was actually distorting the sound.

But enough negativity. Despite the fact that this was a musical where there was no music, only amplified noise, I did enjoy it and get involved in the story. That is a tribute to the well written book and the excellent performances by a large cast of humans and two dogs (who steal every scene they appear in).

The Bard's #MeToo Comedy

After I saw a production of the Scottish play a few years ago, I decided I wasn’t going to go to see any more Shakespeare plays because the language was too much of a barrier for me to enjoy them in live performance.

Then a few weeks ago I noticed that the Lantern Theater Company was doing Measure for Measure, and I broke that rule because I’ve never seen that particular play in performance and it’s a special favorite of mine because Shakespeare, or whoever was writing under that name, reveals what he believes true justice and mercy entails.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, here is a quick summary. The Duke of Vienna, realizing that he’s been lax in enforcing the laws decides to leave the city in the charge of Angelo, a stern, puritanical man of impeccable character. Angelo immediately sets an example of Claudio, a nobleman who has impregnated his fiancé before their wedding, by sentencing him to death. Claudio’s sister Isabella pleads her brother’s case, and Angelo agrees to free Claudio—if Isabella will have sex with Angelo. Isabella, who was about to become a nun, refuses.

Meanwhile, the Duke returns disguised as a friar in order to see how Angelo is doing. He tells Isabella that Angelo had been betrothed to Mariana, but he dumped her when she lost her dowry. Mariana for some inexplicable reason is still in love with Angelo, and the disguised Duke suggests that Isabella agree to sleep with Angelo on condition it be done in the dark, and Mariana will swap places with her.

A scene from Measure for Measure at the Lantern

The deal is made, and Angelo reneges on his side of the bargain and commands that Claudio be beheaded anyway. Does Angelo sound like anyone you’ve heard of? The Duke tells Isabella her brother is dead, but secretly arranges to spare Claudio. In the final scene the Duke returns as himself, and Isabella reveals Angelo’s treachery and duplicity and debauchery. The Duke decrees that Angelo must marry Mariana, and then leaves Angelo’s fate in Isabella’s hands. Should Angelo be executed for his crimes as he had her brother killed, or should his life be spared and he be allowed to be Mariana’s husband?

Isabella shows Angelo the mercy that he never showed her brother. Then the Duke reveals that her brother Claudio lives, and the Duke declares his intention to marry Isabella. Shakespeare doesn’t give Isabella’s reply to this declaration, but the implication is, because this is a comedy, that of course she will marry him. Curtain.

There are several other characters and several other plot complications, but that’s the gist. And the point seems to be that for the word mercy to have any meaning at all, we must show it to those we hate, not just to those we are sympathetic to.

Anyway, I have never enjoyed a Shakespeare play as much as I enjoyed the Lantern’s Measure for Measure. All the actors were top notch, and most of them doubled in more than one role. The theater is a small one with a thrust stage, so the audience sits on three sides of it, right in the middle of the action. And very unusually for me, I understood enough of the dialog to follow the action, even if I hadn’t refreshed myself on the details yesterday.

The cast at the Q and A after the performance

For a comedy, there weren’t that many laughs—until the final scene when all hell broke loose, and the audience was really enjoying themselves as one revelation followed another. There is a secondary character, Lucio, a friend of Claudio’s who helps Isabella and then later gets himself into hot water by dissing the Duke to the friar (who is actually the Duke in disguise). I don’t know if the actor intended it, but he was made up to look a little bit like Randy Rainbow. He acted a little bit like him too. As I say, I don’t know if that was intentional.

After the performance, there was an Artists in Conversation with the actors, who looked very different without their makeup. We found out that this play was scheduled a couple years ago, long before the #MeToo movement exploded. Among the other questions they were asked was why stay in Philadelphia rather than New York, to which the answer was they don’t need an agent in Philly, thus saving money, and the atmosphere is very friendly and collegial here.

Oh, I almost forgot. They changed the ending.


Directors have been tinkering with Shakespeare’s plays since—well, probably ever since they were written. Sometimes the tinkering works, sometimes it doesn’t. This time I thought it worked brilliantly, and judging by the audience’s reaction, I wasn’t the only one.

When Claudio is revealed to have escaped the the executioner, the Duke says this to Isabella: “Give me your hand and say you will be mine.” Shakespeare gives Isabella no reply and in this production she ignores the Duke and goes to hug her brother.

Then at the end the Duke says to her:

“Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine.”

To which this Isabel replied: “What the f—” [GONG]

An Enchanted Afternoon?

Liat and Lt. Cable (Alison T. Chi and Ben Michael)

As I've written previously, South Pacific is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, so I was looking forward to the Walnut Street Theatre's current production.

I like sitting front row center when possible, but the ticket I bought was for the far right seat, which had a partially obstructed view because of the palm tree on the stage and some other scenery. I've grown to accept that modern audiences generally don't stop their gabbing for the overture, but I wasn't prepared for the latecomers who jostled their way in front of me in search of their seats or the obnoxious couple to my left who kept fiddling with their phones, shining them on their programs to read and incidentally into my eyes. And said obnoxious couple were roughly my age, so they should have known better. Plus I was sitting right next to the over-amplified speaker so the sound was quite unpleasantly loud. And when the show began, I realized that with my obstructed view seat, I could only see perhaps 50% of the action on stage.

Bloody Mary (Lori Tann Chin) hawking a grass skirt

So I decided I'd leave at intermission.

But then something happened. Kate Fahrner as Nellie Forbush and Paul Schoeffler as Emile de Becque launched into my favorite song of the score, “Twin Soliloquies”, and I had an inkling of how powerful a spell this show can cast on me.

The spell continued when the men's ensemble broke into my favorite song of the show, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”, performing a pitch-perfect rendition of that rousing number.

Luther Billis (Fran Prisco), Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kate Fahrner), and the Seabees

Lori Tann Chinn as Bloody Mary gave a very broad interpretation of that role, quite different from Juanita Hall’s, but I loved the way she handled my two favorite numbers from the score, “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk”. While we’re on the subject of “Bali Ha’i”, I thought the staging of that number was the director’s only major misfire. Mary begins her seduction of “Lootellin” Cable with that song and her focus should be on him and him alone; everyone else on stage should disappear from the audience’s attention. Instead, the director had the stage brightly lit and although Mary began singing directly to Cable, after a while she started roaming the stage and engaging with the various Seabees. That was just wrong. Her only interest is in Cable.

Emile de Becque (Paul Schoeffler) and Ensign Nellie Forbush (Kate Fahrner)

Nellie and the Nurses gave an outstanding performance of my absolute favorite hit song from the show, “A Wonderful Guy”, though sadly I missed most of the stage business and choreography because of the aforementioned obstructed view. But with its very long verse setting up Nellie's conflicted feelings and need to justify her decisions to her friends, followed by one of the most lilting and exhilarating waltz tunes that Rodgers or anyone ever penned, oh, what a song!

By the time Act I ended all thoughts of leaving had long since evaporated.

Ben Michael as Lt. Joseph Cable got to perform my favorite social protest number in the show, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, and Schoeffler’s performance of “This Nearly Was Mine” just might turn that into my favorite song from the score.

Overall the cast was fine, even great at times, the orchestra played wonderfully, and the staging, what I could see of it and other than the “Bali Ha’i” number, was terrific.

Captain George Brackett (Dan Olmstead) and Cmdr. William Harbison (Jeffrey Coon) drive onto the stage in a Jeep

In short, after a rocky start it turned into an enchanted afternoon after all.

UPDATE 2016-10-23: I went to see it again this afternoon at what was its final performance. This time from the mezzanine where I could see about 95% of the action. And there was a lot to see; I had missed more than I expected. My verdict still stands. I'd add “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” to my list of director misfires; it was just a little bit too well staged. But overall, I liked what I saw.

One other criticism: they cut a bit of Emile's music right after “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”, but that music does appear in the underscoring a little while later. Which is why I was confused about whether it was included or not.

Nerds--The Musical

Benny Elledge and Matt Bradley as the two Steves who founded Apple in the musical Nerds. Can you tell which is which?

A musical about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates with a supporting cast of characters that includes Steve Wozniak and Paul Allen? Welcome to Nerds. Or N3RDS, as the Philadelphia Theatre Company bills it.

I'll say right off that I enjoyed it, but more important, the audience at the matinee that I attended seemed to enjoy it even more.

Musically, it's an eclectic combination of Broadway and many of the pop music styles of the last 30 years, including rap. It sounds a lot like William Finn, sort of like Falsettos but without the pathos.

The book is filled with lots of in-jokes that will appeal to, well, the nerds who know the history of Apple and Microsoft, but it never loses sight of the broader audience; if you remember what it was like to use a DOS-based computer, you'll get most of the gags.

Kevin Pariseau (as Tom Watson) schooling Stanley Bahorek (as Bill Gates) in the ways of ruthless business.

Bill Gates comes off as a bullied child who tries to get back at the world that mistreated him, especially after he's schooled in the wicked ways of dog-eat-dog business by Tom Watson of IBM. Dum-dum-DUM! Yes, every time anyone utters IBM (Dum-dum-DUM!) three ominous chords are sounded. Gates is also pretty clueless, as when he meets Steve Jobs at the Homebrew Computer Club: "I'd like to stop by your garage sometime and give you a hand, Jobs." (This becomes something of a running gag.)

Steve Jobs, OTOH, is a brilliant but arrogant guy who steals most of his ideas, first from Woz and then from Xerox. He's prone to making predictions like "I see birds on a hand-held device. Why are they so angry?"

Needless to say, this is a cartoonish history of the development of Apple and Microsoft.

The cast is mostly young and enthusiastic. Stanley Bahorek (Bill Gates) and Matt Bradley (Steve Jobs) were fine in the two leading roles, though I especially liked Benny Elledge as Woz (he did extra duty in some of the ensembles as Albert Einstein, etc.).

The production is fittingly very high tech with lots of video screens, projections, and flashing lights.

As to the songs, I think I enjoyed the ensemble opening number ("I Hope I Win") best; it's set in a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club and it effectively prepares the audience for what is to follow. Jobs's "Email to God" is also a winner.

As I said, I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. Judging from their reaction, most of the audience did love it.

My major complaint: the volume, especially during the ensemble rap numbers is way too loud. If you go, take some earplugs. For more information go to Nerds.