PLAYBILL THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 17-23: Elf, A Christmas Story, The Piano Lesson and Rocky the Musical Open

By Robert Simonson
23 Nov 2012

Rocco Landesman

With the re-election of Barack Obama, a few of the stalwarts of the President's first administration are announcing their exits. One such is New York producer and theatre owner Rocco Landesman, who will step down from his role as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts at the end of 2012, the government agency confirmed Nov. 20.

Landesman, formerly the president of Broadway's Jujamcyn Theaters, was appointed his role as NEA chairman in 2009. He is departing, as planned, after serving one term.

"My intention has always been to serve one term, and we have been able to accomplish more than I had ever thought possible: sparking a national movement around creative placemaking, forging significant relationships with other federal agencies, creating an unprecedented healing arts partnership with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and increasing both the scope and impact of our research office," Landesman said in a statement.



Landesman had been the most high-profile representative from the theatre world to head the agency since actress Jane Alexander held the post during the Clinton years.

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Off-Broadway, director Ruben Santiago-Hudson — who has moved in recent years from being known as an expert August Wilson actor to being recognized as an expert August Wilson stager — opened his Signature Theatre Company mounting of The Piano Lesson.

The production, which has already extended, stars Eric Lenox Abrams, Chuck Cooper, Brandon J. Dirden, Jason Dirden, Alexis Holt, Mandi Masden, Roslyn Ruff and James A. Williams. The critics were unusually moved, filing frankly emotional reviews. "After a traumatic fall that has left half the city in a harried funk…," wrote the New York Times, "The Piano Lesson feels like a generous gift: the stage equivalent of a free Thanksgiving turkey, amply stuffed and surrounded by all the trimmings. This immensely satisfying show, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, an actor who has become an expert interpreter of Wilson's work, brings a timely reminder of how consoling, how restorative, how emotionally sustaining great theatre can be."

Variety, too, was pinching itself. "What have we done to deserve a magnificent revival like the new Signature Theatre production of The Piano Lesson?" it asked. Said Entertainment Weekly, "Santiago-Hudson knows how to assemble a versatile ensemble of actors and musicians: Be it an a cappella spiritual or a piano-fueled boogie-woogie, music is essentially a supporting character in this play — serving at various moments as entertainment, elegy, and even exorcism."

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Once upon a time, Broadway shows worked out their kinks in New Haven, Boston and Philly before heading into big, bad New York. When the Gotham critics started getting too close for comfort, filing reviews from the road, the producers headed further afield, staging shows in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco. Some even premiered their shows in London to get away from the Broadway gossip mill.

The producers of Rocky the Musical have gone one better. The new show, based on the Sylvester Stallone film, bowed Nov. 18 in Hamburg, Germany.

Drew Sarich, an American actor who has had a busy career performing musicals in Europe (St. Louis-born, Vienna-based), plays iconic underdog boxer Rocky Balboa in the show from the top-drawer American creative team Alex Timbers, Thomas Meehan, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. The show, very much a product of the stage world's increasingly international business model, was first written in English, but translated into German for its premiere. The cast is culled from 12 different countries. The producers are Stage Entertainment, filmmaker and original creator/star Stallone and Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko.

The musical is aiming for a Broadway life in 2013, Meehan has said. It will be back in English by then.