Five plays in five days. Picasso, Van Gogh, Magritte, Pollock, Warhol. A Liberty cruise. And enough food and drink to sink a battleship.
That’s what Alan and I experienced last month when we joined other supporters of the Clarence Brown Theatre on the group’s annual pilgrimage to New York City.
Four out of the five plays we saw were terrific and we highly recommend them. The fifth — and the one we were most excited about seeing — was a disappointing bust. Read on for a rundown on what we think is one of the most entertaining and enlightening experiences offered by any of our area cultural attractions.
The best: “To Kill a Mockingbird”
This excellent production starred Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in the familiar Pulitzer Prize-winning story by Harper Lee of a white lawyer in a small Southern town defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. Unlike in the novel and movie versions of the story, in this iteration, adapted for stage by Aaron Sorkin, Atticus is played with a bit more nuance. He’s not quite as morally pure and clear in his intentions as in the other versions, which makes the story even more interesting this time around.
It is nominated for nine Tony Awards, the winners of which will be announced on June 9 at Radio City Music Hall. The nominations include one for Knoxville’s Jennifer Tipton, a Clarence Brown Theatre alumna, for lighting design.
A fun romp: “The Cher Show”
Three actresses play Cher in three stages of her life in this jukebox musical featuring more than 25 of her songs. To say that Sonny doesn’t come off looking very good would be a huge understatement. We recommend you see it if you can. It’s nominated for three Tony Awards, including one for the costumes, which were designed by Bob Mackie, of course.
More music we grew up with: “Ain’t Too Proud”
This is the story of The Temptations, and the friendships, jealousies, greed and substance abuse problems that roiled the group since its formation in the early ’60s. Nominated for a dozen Tony Awards, it features more than 30 of the songs that rocketed the group to stardom and kept it there for decades. Interestingly, the play points out that the group has had more than 30 members over the years. This story concentrates on the founding members, though. We loved it.
Politics and fabulous choreography: “The Prom”
The musical, nominated for seven Tony Awards, follows four washed-up Broadway actors as they travel to a small town in Indiana to take up the cause of a lesbian student who was not allowed to bring her girlfriend to the high school prom. They hope they can garner attention for the students’ cause. But, mostly, they want to generate good press for themselves and, hopefully, become relevant again. This production featured some of the best dancing we’ve ever seen.
Bomb: “King Lear” starring Glenda Jackson
You’ve probably seen the murderous reviews. Although Glenda Jackson is a wonderful actress whom we adored last year in “Three Tall Women,” this adaptation of “King Lear” was horrible. The sound in the theater was muddled, making Shakespeare’s words difficult to hear. The costumes were modern, but weird. And the graphic violence made me hide my eyes to avoid getting sick. I left at intermission after someone’s eyes were gouged out on stage but before a gratuitous nude scene which seemed to be placed in the play simply for shock value – according to those who stuck it out. “Lear” only was nominated for one Tony. That was for Ruth Wilson who played King Lear’s youngest daughter. Do yourself a favor and skip this one. I was waiting in the bar in our hotel when I found out the 3-1/2 hour play was over. I received this text from Alan, “The bloodshed has ended.”
An annual highlight is a reception for the folks on the trip with Clarence Brown Theatre to meet some CBT alumni living in New York City. That event was held this year at the Bourbon Street Bar & Grill at 346 W. 46th St.
A great thing about these Clarence Brown trips is the perfect mix of free time and planned activities. For example, only three of the plays we saw — “Mockingbird,” “The Prom,” and “King Lear” — were scheduled by the theater staff. We added “Cher” and “Ain’t Too Proud” ourselves. We also added a cruise to the Statue of Liberty and a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In all our visits to New York, we’ve never been on a Liberty cruise to see the famous statue up close. As opposed to the famous art that often is smaller than you expect, Lady Liberty is larger!
Another fun part of the trip is the “gathering” opportunities when we get together and compare notes.
Sometimes our gatherings are a little more formal.
Don’t miss the next blog post. We’ll tell you all about the food!