Matt Doyle

War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theater

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I didn’t particularly have an interest in seeing War Horse, even after it won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Play. We ended up seeing it last night (how that came to be, below), with extraordinary seats, in the second row.

I don’t go to the theater often enough for anyone to take my opinions to heart. When we make it out to Broadway, it’s more often for a musical than a play. Even then, often for the same musical (we’ve seen Wicked 10 times, already heave tickets for our 11th). Clearly, War Horse is a runaway winner, not just with critics/awards, but with audiences (tickets are very hard to come by).

With that out of the way, here is my opinion of the show, with no spoilers (not that there’s much to spoil to begin with).

The good:

  • The Puppetry is beyond brilliant. I like puppetry (I posted about a puppet show in Atlanta that we loved). This takes it to another level (more likely an order of magnitude).
  • Basically, it doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief to accept that you’re watching real horses on stage. This is a testament to both the puppets (and puppet makers) and to the puppeteers (3+ per horse!). The fact that you can ignore the puppeteers that you see working the horses is mind-boggling (yes, this is a continuation of the first point).
  • There is very little singing/music in the show, but what’s there is very well done.
  • Much of the acting is top notch, including a few exceptional performances (perhaps my favorite was Alyssa Bresnahan as the mother)
  • The staging is clever, in a very austere setting (more is done with less)
  • The second half (in particular the first 10-15 minutes) is filled with solid laughs. During the rest of the play, most of the laughs come from marveling at various puppets, not from clever lines.
  • The theater is beautiful and comfortable. Even though we had amazing seats, I imagine that the worst seat is pretty darn good.

The bad:

  • The story is actually trite. It’s a child’s story, drawn out in a series of ridiculous circumstances. The last scene was cringe-worthy for me (the writing and the acting).
  • The dialog is rarely engaging, bouncing back-and-forth between attempts at humor and overly serious philosophizing.
  • A small number of the actors overact so badly it’s almost laughable. Unfortunately, a few are in critical roles. I couldn’t tell whether they were poorly directed (and therefore possibly fine actors) or poorly cast. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

You can see more good than bad bullets above, and that’s ultimately how I felt about the show. I enjoyed it, and on a few levels am glad I went, but that this won the Tony Award for Best Play makes me sad to think about the state of Plays on Broadway. Perhaps there are too few to choose from to begin with.

To me, this should have won for the puppetry, in the same way that movies win Special Effects Oscars, without even being considered for Best Movie.

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The cast received a standing ovation (from me too). Many of them deserved it (especially the puppeteers), so I didn’t feel silly standing. The real point is that for probably most everyone else in the theater, they were standing because they loved the show in every respect.

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How we got there, which is one of the levels that I thoroughly enjoyed the show.

On July 6th, 2011, we met three young men who are attending the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary. They were up on a business trip and we all had dinner together followed by seeing two sets at Rockwood Music Hall. The first set (and a paragraph about the dinner) was covered in this post, which includes a photo of everyone who attended the dinner at the bottom.

One of those men is someone we’ll call John (because that’s his actual name). Winking smile John and I stayed in touch mostly through Twitter and he exchanged a few emails with Lois over the following months. John is in the Army, having served multiple tours in Iraq. In a recent email exchange, he told us that he was coming to NYC for a weekend with his wife, Alicia.

He mentioned that they were considering seeing War Horse. He has the obvious connection of being a soldier. Alicia is a horsewoman (a serious one at that), so she had independent reasons for wanting to see the show. I had a curiosity that came more from the musical side (I’ll conclude with that) so we suggested that the four of us see it together.

We also arranged to meet for dinner a few blocks away at Rosa Mexicano. Early yesterday morning we found out that in a couple of days, John will be promoted to Major. John was surprised that we knew when we congratulated him at dinner. We heard the news from our friend who introduced us back in July. We toasted his accomplishment and shared an incredible meal (well, at least mine was incredible). Smile

AliciaJohn

Both John and Alicia raved about the show afterward. I think that bringing their own perspectives to the performance made them connect more deeply with it than I did. For example, one of the things that John talked about the second the show was over was how well they captured the feeling that individual soldiers on each side experience nearly identical feelings.

Alicia being a horsewoman, explained how every nuance of a real horse’s movements was captured to perfection by the puppeteers. I’ve been around thousands of horses in my life (you don’t want to know how much time I’ve spent at the racetrack, both thoroughbred and harness), so I wholeheartedly agree.

When the show was over, we tried to catch a cab together. Given the freak October snowstorm in NYC that day, it wasn’t going to happen. We parted ways and Lois and I walked a number of blocks over to Central Park West. We ended up sharing a cab with a couple who was in town from San Diego for the weekend. They too had just seen War Horse (and loved it!). We dropped them at their hotel and continued to our apartment.

Circling back to one of my personal curiosities about War Horse. On May 23rd, I saw two sets at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2.

Mighty Kate (Katy Pfaffl) was the first one (covered second in this post). While she was on stage, War Horse was winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play! She had a special guest star join her to sing a duet, Matt Doyle, who is also in the show.

So, I had a personal interest in seeing each of them.

Katy is listed in the Playbill as Kate Pfaffl. She is the primary singing voice throughout the show, in a visible/background/narrator way. In other words, she’s not part of the scenes, but she’s often somewhere on stage, singing while the play is going on.

She has a gorgeous voice. She sings in a Scottish accent throughout (an interesting surprise for me). It’s hard to concentrate on the lyrics, because quite often, there is action happening on stage, even dialog (which is independent of not being used to hearing a Scottish accent in song).

In addition to singing, Kate also plays the violin (one of her multi-instrumental talents) a number of times.

There is a male singer, Liam Robinson, who is on stage a bit less than Kate. Most of the time that he’s on, they are singing together. They sounded fantastic. He played accordion and harmonica.

What of Matt Doyle? He has CDs out and clearly has a wonderful voice (from the show we saw in May). To my surprise, he doesn’t sing a lick. He’s one of the lead actors in War Horse, playing Billy Narracott. He was one of the strongest performers.

So, both Kate and Matt impressed (if I added mightily, which was my instinct, we would have come full circle back to Mighty Kate).

Big Apple Singers and Mighty Kate at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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What do you do when an extremely talented group of musicians doesn’t blow you away, then announces a new show? You go, without hesitation. No two shows are alike and the likelihood of a repeat experience is low.

When I noticed that The Big Apple Singers (TBAS) were playing last night at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 at 10:15pm, I admit to a second’s hesitation (making my second sentence above a bit of a white lie). However, when I also noticed that it would be a night of songs exclusively by The Band and would likely be TBAS last show for a while (ever?), I really had no hesitation.

It was a fantastic set. The only complaint was that much of it was too loud, but not in exactly the same way as the last time.

TBAS is four people and they brought up four guests as well. I’ll get to the guests after I mention the main guys. Left-to-right on the stage:

Greg Mayo on keyboards (grand piano and organ) and vocals. Greg has an excellent voice and he put it to good use last night on leads and harmonizing with the others. Greg is my favorite local guitarist, but he doesn’t play guitar in TBAS. Greg is an excellent keyboardist (aside from seeing him with TBAS before, that’s his instrument of choice in his own band, the Greg Mayo Band).

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I have always enjoyed Greg’s keyboard play (at every show), but last night he took it up a notch. He played some parts with both hands on the grand, others with both hands on the organ and many with his left on the organ and right on the grand. All were tingle-worthy.

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All three of the lead vocalists (including Greg) took one very long solo (without any accompaniment whatsoever) to start off one song each. Greg’s was entirely on the organ. He played for somewhere between 3-5 minutes while everyone on stage and in the audience stared at him and his fingers in amazement.

GregMayoOrganSolo

Evan Watson on electric guitar and vocals. Evan is an excellent guitarist and has a powerful voice. As I mentioned in my last post about TBAS, he’s very generous on stage. When Josh sings or does a drum solo, Evan squats on the stage so that the audience can see Josh. I didn’t mention it in the last post, but this is the second time that Evan broke a string on his primary guitar. Just like last show, rather than string a new one, he grabbed a spare electric guitar on the next number.

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Just like Greg above, Evan took a 3-5 minute solo on the electric guitar to kick off a song. It wasn’t too flashy, more like a building melody that kept the crowd interested, with their pulse (or at least mine) rising slowly but surely throughout, so that we were primed for the full band to kick in when the solo was done.

On the last number, Evan wailed on the harmonica quite well. I knew he wasn’t going to play it again that set, because when he was done with the harmonica, he tossed it (unceremoniously) on the floor and immediately switched to a guitar lead. Smile

EvanWatsonHarmonica

Josh Dion on drums and vocals. I was late to the party on hearing about and seeing Josh. He’s a favorite of many people whom I respect and that goes for me as well now that I’ve seen him a number of times (on drums and on keyboards). He’s an excellent singer and an amazing drummer.

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Just like Greg and Evan, Josh took a 3-5 minute solo. He’s soulful when he’s drumming slowly and blazingly fast when the sticks are just a blur. At either speed, he’s tasty and captivating. The looks on the band’s faces (let alone the crowd’s) were priceless!

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Chris Anderson on electric bass and vocals. Chris did a great job on the bass. In addition to singing harmony, Chris took the lead on a verse in at least two separate songs. The only other time I’ve heard Chris sing lead was at the last TBAS show. He does it quite well.

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Rebecca Haviland on vocals. Rebecca jumped up on stage a number of times. Twice by herself and two other times with the ladies I will mention next. What can I say about Rebecca’s voice that I haven’t said before? Well, I’ve mentioned how powerful it is (coming from a tiny person), but not how easily she was able to be heard over the too-loud music. Such a force. Rebecca has her own set at Rockwood 1 on Thursday at 8pm. We’ll be there. Join us and experience this dynamo first hand!

RebeccaHavilandSingingTambourine

The first time Rebecca came up, three other women joined. Two of them are the leads in a group called The Vanity Belles. Carrie Welling (no good individual link) and Jessi Rae Waltz (also no good link) both added to the vocals and dancing, standing on either side of Rebecca. Both Carrie and Jessi joined Rebecca on a second song later in the set.

CarrieWellingRebeccaHavilandJessRaeWaltzAshleyLehmann

Ashley Lehmann joined Rebecca and The Vanity Belles the first time they were all up on stage. Considering that all four members of TBAS sing (well!), that made eight voices rockin’ it out on that number. Fantastic!

I am very glad to went to see TBAS again. Smile

Before going to a show at Rockwood, I always check to see who’s playing the set before. Aside from the opportunity to discover good music serendipitously, I do it because Rockwood has limited seating and we prefer to sit. Back in January, when doing exactly that, the set before was Mighty Kate (Katy Pfaffl).

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If you visit the site I linked above, at the time I’m typing this, the song Better Days starts playing automatically. That’s all I needed to hear to know we’d be attending the earlier set independent of the desire to sit. Unfortunately, Katy (or should I call her Kate, or Mighty?) got very sick and canceled that set back in January. I admit that I forgot to track her, but it turned out she didn’t reschedule until last night anyway (I’ll explain later!).

Imagine my surprise when I checked who was on before TBAS and immediately recognized the site and song. This was a no-brainer, we weren’t going to miss a second chance to see Kate/Katy/Mighty (OK, I’ll stop now). Winking smile

The set before Katy was a paid show, so even though we arrived way too early for her set, we had to wait outside. Thankfully, the weather was nice (it ended up pouring at some point while we were enjoying the two sets and was nice when we left again!).

Even though we were the first two to line up for Katy, the line got long pretty quickly. It was amusing to see how many people showed up claiming to be performing with Katy. It felt like a cast of thousands (it ended up being seven people in total).

Kate (see what I did there, I switched to her performing name) started the set off solo, playing the grand piano and singing. A very mellow, jazzy number that highlighted both her incredible voice and her excellent piano skills. Not the greatest song to grab a somewhat noisy crowd by the throat, but for those who listened, a well executed opener.

For the most of the remaining numbers (very few exceptions), Kate was joined by a drummer and bassist (electric). I’ll get to them shortly.

In addition to having such a great voice, Kate is also a mutli-instrumentalist. In addition to her piano play (most of the songs), she played an acoustic guitar (mostly picking, a little strumming) and a violin (on one number). She’s good on all three, but the piano play was the strongest (and most consistent).

MightyKateViolin

Not every song grabbed me, but all were very pleasant to listen to. Some were great. Many of the lyrics were deep, sophisticated and flowed very naturally. She’s a very talented woman (more on that in a bit).

Rich Mercurio on drums. I can’t find a good individual link for him, but here’s a summary on a band page (a little outdated, but wildly impressive nonetheless):

Manhattan based producer/musician/songwriter, has produced and written for various record and television projects. Rich has recorded and/or performed with artists including Enrique Iglesias, Jewel, Chris Whitley, Vitamin C, Jonatha Brooke, Michael Bolton, and Ronan Tynan. Appearances include The Tonight Show, The Late Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brian. He can currently be seen in the broadway production, Martin Short, Fame Becomes Me

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Richard Hammond on electric bass. Read his performances and discography. Be prepared to have your mouth agape while you’re doing it.

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That accounts for two of the seven people that performed with Kate, the two Rich’s (as she called them) forming the core band members.

Matt Doyle joined Kate to sing a cover, Thin Air by Aqualung. Kate played acoustic guitar and they sang harmony throughout. They were amazing together. Matt’s voice was buttery smooth.

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This is as good a time as any to fill in why Kate waited five months to reschedule at Rockwood. Both she and Matt are currently appearing in War Horse at Lincoln Center. While Kate was on stage entertaining us, War Horse was winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play! Nicely done, Kate, Matt and all involved in the play.

Kate brought out two women to sing harmony with her on two numbers. Morgan Paige and Nisha Asnani. Very nicely done ladies.

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Jody Shelton joined Kate toward the end of the set for another duet with Kate on acoustic guitar. Another winning combo. In other words, in addition to singing so well alone, Kate is masterful at singing harmony with others and at choosing the right people to sing with.

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OK, we’re down to one last (very special) guest. Kate brought out Scott Chasolen to accompany her on piano while she sang a gospel song (the only song that Kate did not play an instrument on). Scott wowed us the only other time we’ve seen him, at a recent Rockwood-based Backscratch show. I found out after the show that Scott is Kate’s husband. They too were well matched, but Scott, who has an excellent voice himself, didn’t sing on this number.

ScottChasolenMightyKateSingingGospel

Kate closed the set with Morgan and Nisha singing harmony. She explained that she tries really hard to sing at least one new song every time she performs. Given her current schedule, she hasn’t had much time to write. She performed a song that she said she wrote mostly in her head, Bright Star. It was awesome, truly, so perhaps we need to lock her in her loft bed (I think that’s where she said she wrote it) more often. Smile

There was quite a large crowd there for Kate and they wouldn’t let her get off the stage when her set was over. She was given permission to play one more. She performed it solo on the piano. It was another brand new song, that she begged forgiveness for in advance if we didn’t like it. This was the first time anyone was hearing it in public.

Kate, no need to worry, it too was beautiful. Lois was particularly drawn to that last number, so you left us on a high note. Smile

MightyKateSetList