Monday, March 30, 2015

Hamilton

Much like the titular subject of his densely chewy, enormously satisfying new musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda is clearly so driven by, fascinated with, and passionate about something that he has been unable to keep from inserting himself into it, messing around with its guts enough to leave an indelible mark. Alexander Hamilton, the exceptionally driven founding father, loved his adopted, newborn country so deeply that he couldn't help but pour most of his energies into it, tinkering endlessly with details of its very foundation in hopes not only of ensuring its best possible future, but his legacy along with it. Just as Hamilton helped make this country what it is, Miranda has worked obsessively to push forward, and thereby ensure the continued relevance of, one of its more iconic art forms, which will not be the same as a result of his multifaceted attention to it.

Even before Hamilton entered previews, it became the hottest show in town, and tickets to see it became almost astonishingly hard to come by. When I finally snagged a pair, I decided to avoid reading or listening to other people's opinions about the musical. It's been a long time since any show snowballed the way this one has, and in far less breathless situations, I tend to believe the hype. I've almost always experienced serious disappointment as a result. It turned out to be pretty hard to tune it all out this time around, no matter how hard I tried. When a production gets lauded as often as this one has--when it regularly gets called game-changing, paradigm-shifting, unparalleled, and even revolutionary--it becomes pretty hard to keep the wax in one's ears and remain bound in ignorance to the mast.


Monday, March 23, 2015

The Liquid Plain

Ito Aghayere, Michael Izquierdo, and Kristolyn Lloyd
Photo: Joan Marcus
As with her previous offering earlier this season, And I and Silence (which Wendy reviewed), Naomi Wallace's The Liquid Plain is daring, messy, serious-minded, and unapologetically poetic. It's also quite possibly the most interesting and invigorating play I've seen all year. Working from the true story of a smallpox-infected female slave who was thrown into the Atlantic Ocean, Wallace constructs an admirably complex narrative that encompasses the history of slavery in America, the fluidity of love and gender, and the overwhelming familial bonds that even profound indignity cannot weaken. In the first act, Adjua and Dembi (Kristolyn Lloyd and Ito Aghayere, respectively), two runaway slaves, toil on the docks of a Rhode Island port town to earn enough money for passage to Africa. They are deeply in love and long to start a family, a fact complicated by the fact that Dembi is biologically female. One day, an amnesiac sailor (Michael Izquierdo) washes onto their docks, sitting in motion a series of mystical events that threaten the two lovers best laid plans. Act Two takes place forty-six years later, when Adjua's daughter, Bristol (the extraordinary LisaGay Hamilton), a free black woman raised in England, arrives stateside to enact a long-dreamed revenge plot. However, it doesn't take her long to realize that the history she believes she's been sent to avenge is far more complicated than she could imagine.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Paint Your Wagon

Alexandra Socha and Keith Carradine
Photo: Joan Marcus
One of the many worthy aspects of City Center's Encores is that it often provides a venue for musicals that would otherwise go unrevived. Some of my personal favorite Encores productions--Juno, Pardon My English, Fanny, Pipe Dream, Of Thee I Sing!--are, for one reason or another, not likely candidates for a commercial Broadway production any time soon. Yet this invaluable concert series provides the opportunity to hear these scores sumptuously performed by some of the best singers in New York, backed by a full orchestra. For a musical theatre lover, this is as close to heaven as it gets.

Lerner and Loewe's 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon, which concludes its Encores run with two performances today, fits squarely in this category. (Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre is actually planning to mount a full production of the musical in 2016, albeit with an entirely rewritten book). The story itself is almost beside the point, and, as is the case with most Encores concerts, the book has been pared down to the absolute essentials. Ben Rumson (Keith Carradine), a widowed prospector, strikes gold in California; soon enough, he's got a town named after him, with men flocking from all over the country looking to similarly strike it rich. Ben's teenage daughter, Jennifer (Alexandra Socha), is the only girl in town--it soon becomes clear that the love-starved miners are taking an interest in her. Ben wants to send her to a finishing school in Boston, but Jennifer has set her eye on Julio (Justin Guarini), a soulful Mexican miner who seems as likely to quote poetry as pan for gold.

The show itself might not be much, but the score is resplendent, and it's getting a first-rate treatment. Despite being saddled with some truly unfortunate fake facial hair, Carradine is wonderful as Rumson. His light baritone is less secure than it was twenty-five years ago, when he headlined The Will Rogers Follies, but he makes up for any vocal shakiness by singing with great refinement. He beautifully handles Ben's two big numbers, the hauntingly lovely "I Still See Elisa" (an ode to his late wife) and the folksy "Wand'rin Star."

Socha is perfectly cast. She deftly conveys Jennifer's girlishness and her blossoming womanhood. She's equally adept in comic numbers like "What's Going On Here?," where she puzzles as to why the miners are so fascinated by her every move, and romantic songs like "All For Him," about her devotion to her love. Guarini is an ideal match. Although his accent is a bit shaky, he wraps his elegant tenor around Julio's beautiful music and all is forgiven.

The supporting cast--which includes Jenni Barber, Robert Creighton, and William Youmans--is uniformly excellent. As the miner Steve, Nathaniel Hackmann leads a rousing rendition of what's perhaps the musical's best-known song, "They Call the Wind Maria." It was no accident that he received some of the loudest applause at the curtain call. He's on the fast track to stardom.

Under the baton of Rob Berman, the Encores orchestra is lush and lovely. This is exactly the kind of show Encores should be doing. If I may say, they've struck musical theatre gold. And for those who won't be able to make it to City Center to catch the final performances, fret not: It was announced yesterday that a cast recording will be made.

[Front balcony. $30 + an insane amount of fees, but worth every cent.]

Thursday, March 19, 2015

An American in Paris

There are two sorts of lovers. (This is simplified, but bear with me.) The first focuses on one thing at a time, giving it full and lingering attention. The other is more varied, changing positions, kissing here, touching there, changing positions again. Christopher Wheeldon is the choreography equivalent of the latter. My preference is the choreography equivalent of the former.

(Note that while I saw an early preview, the show already had a run in Paris, so it's fair to assume that what I saw is what the creative team wanted me to see.)

I did not particularly enjoy An American in Paris. Although Wheeldon's dance vocabulary is impressive, and although I have adored some of his ballets, his choreography here is overbusy, constantly upstaging and distracting from itself. For example, at one point various characters are watching a delightful faux-avant-garde dance. The movements are mechanical and odd, and lovely. Wheeldon manages to be satirical and beautiful at the same time. When the other characters then start their own dance, it is actually annoying. Let me just watch one thing and enjoy it! This sort of split focus happens over and over.

Wheeldon seems to be anti-ensemble. His dancers rarely do the same thing, and certainly not for any length of time. New movements come at you like the editing in a music video, never allowing you to focus. When one number had a kick line, and a damn good one, it was fabulous to sit back and enjoy the ensemble work--which unfortunately lasted for maybe maybe six kicks. Really? It's a Broadway dance show and you can't give me a decent kick line?

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Heidi Chronicles

Tracee Chimo, Jason Biggs, Elisabeth Moss, and Bryce Pinkham.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Peggy Olson, the barrier-breaking copy chief on AMC’s Mad Men, is surely kin to Heidi Holland, second-wave feminist art historian and central figure of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1989 dramedy The Heidi Chronicles. Thus it seems only fitting that, for the first New York revival of Wasserstein’s still-vibrant character study, Heidi should be played by Elisabeth Moss, television’s Peggy. I’m sure this will have double-consciousness effect on many in the audience.

The Heidi Chronicles begins in 1989, at Columbia University, where Heidi is now a professor. There’s a gradual erasure: in the middle of a lecture on neglected women artists of the 18th and 19th-century, Heidi begins to recede into her own past. We meet her at seventeen, in her hometown of Chicago, at the dance where she meets her lifelong friend Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham). We see her as a “Get Clean for Gene” kid in Manchester, New Hampshire, where she meets another significant man: her once and future lover, Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs). The seventies find Heidi at a consciousness-raising women’s group at the University of Michigan; protesting the lack of female representation at the University of Chicago; and coming to terms with her fractured personal life. Along with Scoop (radical journalist-cum-lifestyle magazine founder) and Peter (chief pediatrician at New York hospital), Heidi hits her professional stride in the eighties, becoming (or, perhaps more accurately, being thrust into the role of) an avatar of yuppie-boomer status.

Given these events, it’s perhaps understandable that some questioned whether this play would pack the punch it did twenty-five years ago, when it was firmly identifiable as a comment on current culture. Those fears of datedness, however, were completely unfounded. The Heidi Chronicles is as fresh, alive, and necessary as ever. Like the works of the female artists Heidi champions, this is not merely a museum piece; it is a living testament to the life, achievements, and struggles of a modern woman. And Pam MacKinnon’s smashing production hits its stride early and fires on all cylinders.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

On the Twentieth Century

If I hadn't seen the original production of On the Twentieth Century, I suspect I would have been as blown away by the revival as were my co-bloggers Liz and Cameron. But I did see the original, multiple times, and I just can't ignore where the new version falls short. (By the way, I am not of the knee-jerk "the-original-was-better" school of thought. I found the benefit performance of On the Twentieth Century with Marin Mazzie and Douglas Sills to be excellent.)

Unfortunately, that this revival is a pale recreation becomes evident with the very first notes of the small orchestra. On the Twentieth Century has a superb, exciting overture. The revival provides a taste of the excitement, but it's a thin and tinny taste. The cast is also too small. It includes seven fewer people than the original, which makes a difference again and again in crowd scenes and big musical numbers.

Then there is the direction. I'm not a fan of Scott Ellis, but he does a good job here. However, Hal Prince did a brilliant job. Ellis's direction occasionally loses laughs, focus, and pacing, and it totally lacks Prince's grace notes and specificity. One example [spoilers]: When the female lead is still Mildred Plotka, and Oscar Jaffe is trying to turn her into a star, he hands her a script and says, "Begin reading." In the original, the next bit happened in three sections. (1) Mildred reads and is lackluster and monotonal.(2) Mildred keeps reading in a monotone, but when she gets to "hear the population shout: save our city" she sings "Save our city" full out and beautifully--and then goes right back to the monotone. (3) Mildred becomes Lily Garland, on stage, playing the role she was reading as Mildred. Part 2 is very funny and also provides a necessary transition between 1 and 3. It's missing in this production, making the scene less funny and throwing off the timing. Another example: Prince had little bits of business going on in the background--other people on the train meeting, talking, going off together. It gave a lovely texture to the show. This may not be Ellis's fault--he may not have enough performers to allow these moments--but whatever the cause, it's a loss. [end of spoilers]

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Long Story Short

When a show covers 50 years, difficult decisions must be made about what to include and what to leave out. Long Story Short, which covers five decades of a love relationship, omits showing us how its couple falls in love. We see Charles really like Hope, without Hope reciprocating. Then we see Hope loving Charles, with no explanation of just how that happened. The missing scene might have enticed us to care about the couple and their life's journey together. Without it, they're slightly annoying people who go from relationship cliché to relationship cliché. And when the story does break out of the mold, it becomes heavy-handed and unconvincing.

Charles is Jewish; Hope is part Chinese, part Filipino. Both are completely, generically American. They marry, reproduce, fight, and age. They are, ostensibly, deeply in love, and we are suppose to care if they stay together. Unfortunately, the scenes that might have won our hearts failed to make it into the show.

The music and lyrics (by Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda) are occasionally pretty and occasionally clever, but frequently repetitious. I left the show with a vicious earworm that hammered my brain for hlurs.

Pearl Sun, as Hope, has moments, but mostly she seems miscast. (Her singing is surprisingly lackluster for someone who stood by for the lead role in Next to Normal.) She handles big emotions competently. Bryce Ryness also has moments. His younger and later years are awkward, but he is believable and moving in the middle decades. His voice is nice, and he sometimes truly connects with the audience. The show is directed by Kent Nicholson.

(fifth row; press ticket)

Monday, March 09, 2015

Placebo

Carrie Coon and Florencia Lozano
photo: Joan Marcus
I can’t stand people who talk during a performance. It demonstrates rudeness in the extreme and an utter lack of consideration for the enjoyment of fellow audience members. Yet when the man sitting next to me at Placebo, the new play by Melissa James Gibson, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons, turned to his wife and whispered, “this is one of those plays where everyone just sits around and whines,” I couldn’t help but nod and agree. (Though in the future, sir, please save your commentary for after the show).

Sunday, March 08, 2015

An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon is one of those plays that is so excellent, challenging, insightful and funny that it leaves me with the desire to see it again immediately, several times even, and also to read it a couple of times for good measure. It's one of the strongest and most satisfying shows I've seen in a while. It serves as a reminder of the fact that as a nation, we tend not to talk meaningfully, effectively, or straightforwardly about race, and that our inability to do so makes our ugly racial past bleed into our present. It does all this without crushing the possibility of frank talk or real, productive change. And it's really fucking funny.

While not a straightforward history lesson, An Octoroon does a seamless job of demonstrating to its audiences some of the ways our distant past and immediate present remain entwined. The show simultaneously reconstructs, comments upon, and updates aspects of Dion Boucicault's 1859 melodrama The Octoroon, which was, in the states, second only in popularity to the big commercial blockbuster of the time, the melodramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Clearly, as it remains now, race was on a lot of American peoples' minds during the leadup to the Civil War. Go figure.

Jacobs-Jenkins' Talmudic reworking of the Boucicault piece is at once respectful to and critical of the original, and through it, An Octoroon compares past performance styles, social mores, views on race (and class and gender), and collective national consciousness with their contemporary equivalents. Lots has changed; lots hasn't. The production is unsettling, and even disorienting at times--especially since Jacobs-Jenkins doesn't let his audience get too caught up in the comedic aspects of the show before abruptly reminding us about what we're laughing at in the first place. He also refuses to tie up all the loose ends he and Boucicault have introduced in the process. There are just so many, after all--and as a collective, contemporary Americans are still trying to figure out, a century and a half after slavery ended, who is allowed to approach them, and in what ways, let alone how we are supposed to work them out once we do.

I am humbled by and grateful for An Octoroon. I hope you run right out and see it if you can. I hope it continues to be staged, seen, and discussed. And for the love of this stained, strained country, I hope like hell it's not the only contemporary American theatrical entertainment to do so.

Friday, March 06, 2015

On the 20th Century

Yup, I'm with Cameron on this one.

The Roundabout's revival of On the 20th Century, currently in previews, is delightful in its embrace of a whole mess of contradictions. The cast is having a loose, giggly, slapsticky good time, which doesn't mean that they aren't, to a one, professional as hell. The show itself is pretty dumb. But it's also so fast-paced, charming, and sharply staged that you won't bother to think about how many holes there are in the plot until well after you've left the theater.

And even then, seriously, who cares when there are four totally awesome tap-dancing porters who introduce and conclude the acts? Or when Mark Linn-Baker does a truly brilliant spit-take in the second act? Or when Andy Karl, late of Rocky fame, gets smashed repeatedly behind a door? Or when he uses Kristin Chenoweth as a human barbell? This show is comedy gold, people. COMEDY GOLD.

Peter Gallagher is still not back on stage, though when he is, I am sure he, too, will contribute to the overall madcap grooviness of this revival. Gallagher's understudy, James Moye, is not as chiseled or as glib as Gallagher can be, but he sounded terrific, and infused the role of Oscar Jaffe with a fine mix of clueless arrogance, melodrama and desperation. And as Letitia Primrose, Mary-Louise Wilson is a titch understated in act I, but then, as a result, the revelations about her character, revealed in a riveting extended ensemble number in act II, are that much more enjoyable.

Then, of course, there's Kristin Chenoweth, who is her own wonderful mess of contradictions: she's a teeny, tiny, classically beautiful woman with an absolute monster of a voice and seemingly no hangups about looking totally ridiculous when the role calls for it. As a result of her disarming goofiness, she comes across as warmer and less intimidating than some of her contemporaries; this quality is milked to great effect during a showstopper in act I, where she brings the house down just by looking out at it. Chenoweth's a great physical comedian with notably good timing, and in this case, she's working with a whole bunch of people for whom I might say the same.

On the 20th Century is hardly the deepest or most layered thing you'll see in your life--or even, probably, during the course of the day you see it. But the cast and company know that, and they don't give a rat's ass. They just want to have a good time while they're traveling on the train between Chicago and New York--and to get you to elicit a couple of genuine belly laughs as you sit back and watch them go. 

Why Can't Women Play Men's Roles as Frequently as Men Play Women's?

I stumbled across this casting call for Doctor Faustus on Playbill.com, and a fascinating document it is. It gives the salary for actors doing shows at CSC (not much), discusses how much double-casting they're doing, and gives hints of the tone the show will take.


Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet
It also reveals, as so often happens, that the men get all sorts of interesting roles (devil, clown, doctor) with all sorts of interesting things to do. The one women, however, is to be "Female, 20’s. Vision of loveliness, incomparably beautiful. Sexy, pin-up girl. Possible nudity."

Yes, of course Doctor Faustus was written centuries ago, and that's a pretty typical role for a woman in those days. (And not even actually for a woman, since it was likely played by a man.) But it's the 21st Century, and nontraditional casting is one of the glories of modern theatre. However, that nontraditional casting is often limited to two types: (1) people of color playing roles that are not traditionally played by people of color, and (2) men playing women. 

For some reason, having women play men is a lot less frequent, but why? Why couldn't a woman play any of these roles in Doctor Faustus?
  • WAGNER: Narrator of the play; A more refined and learned clown; Faustus’s servant.
  • MEPHISTOPHILIS: A devil called on by Faustus. Depressed clerk who has worked at the same desk job for all these years.
  • A clown; brazen fool, but not without native wit.
  • Another clown / bumpkin; a complete idiot, innocence incarnate and a dupe; loveable and dangerously daft.
  • The Devil; kind by temperament, but firm; likeable.
  • An almost absent presence, like a wayward son or disaffected teen.
  • Versatile utility actor, comedic clown.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Fashions for Men

Bravo to the Mint!

Once again, the Mint has revived and revitalized a neglected play with respect, creativity, fine acting, excellent direction, and knockout scenery and costumes. This time around it is Fashions for Men, by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, author of Lilliom (turned by Rodgers and Hammerstein into Carousel), The Guardsman (Lunt and Fontanne starred in the original Broadway production and the movie) , and The Play's the Thing (seen periodically in New York in the adaptation by P. G. Wodehouse).

Fashions for Men opens in a Hungarian habadashery shop owned and operated by Peter Juhász. Juhász is so kind that he cannot bear to stop offering credit to a poor aristocrat who will never pay him back, even though the shop is having financial problems. Also working at the shop are Juhász's wife Adele and his friend Oscar, who love him dearly--but not as dearly as they love each other. We also meet a fiercely loyal clerk who has worked for Juhász for years, another employee who wants desperately to be rich, the much older count who loves her, and an array of customers. The plot is in some ways predictable and in others surprising, but always engaging and satisfying.

Friday, February 27, 2015

John & Jen

It is a wonderful thing that John & Jen exists. Written in the early 1990s, it was never going to be a huge hit or a big money-maker. Clearly Andrew Lippa (music and book) and Tom Greenwald (lyrics and book) simply had something to say, and a unique way to say it. The story of Jen and her brother John and then Jen and her son John, it addresses serious themes of abuse and the meaning of love, and the heavy parts outweigh the light ones. It is largely sung, and it covers nearly 40 years. Many of the songs are excellent: funny, sad, emotional, informative, silly, etc, as needed. Some are beautiful.

Kate Baldwin, Conor Ryan
Photo: Carol Rosegg
And it is a wonderful thing that Keen Company is presenting this strong revival. Kate Baldwin is lovely as Jen, and Conor Ryan does an excellent job as both Johns. All in all, this is a piece of work that should be seen.

That being said, I have to admit that I didn't much like it. I admired it tremendously, but I was never quite emotionally involved. I think this is due to the book, which I found problematical.

[here be spoilers]
The show begins with John sitting quietly. He seems to be a young adult. Jen says something along the lines of "can you forgive me?" Then we go back to their childhood, with Jen striving to protect John from their abusive father and promising to always be there for him. But when Jen goes off to college, she ignores John for years as she lives the '60s full out, and he ends up allied with their father. John joins the army, goes to Vietnam, dies.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

On the Twentieth Century

All aboard, ladies and gentlemen! The express train to musical theatre heaven is departing the station eight times a week. You can catch it at the American Airlines Theatre, where a sublime revival of On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 operetta by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, is currently in previews. Dazzlingly designed, brilliantly choreographed, and featuring the peerless Kristin Chenoweth in a career-high performance, this shimmering production is sure to leave audiences tap-dancing their way up West 42nd Street when the curtain comes down.
Kristin Chenoweth performing "Veronique"
photo: Joan Marcus
As Lily Garland, the mousy young girl who is transformed--with the help of her former lover, theatre impresario Oscar Jaffe--into the greatest star of stage and screen, Chenoweth has found a role that is perfectly tailored to both her virtuosic vocal gifts and her razor-sharp comic timing. She lands every joke, ably filling shoes once worn by some of the greatest comic actresses of all time (Carole Lombard in the 1934 film, Madeline Kahn in the original Broadway production). Musically, she deploys her pristine soprano to thrilling effect, but she never lets her acrobatic vocal feats quash the comedy of Comden's airtight lyrics. She looks smashing in William Ivey Long's eye-popping gowns, radiating every inch of early Hollywood glamour. Never have I seen this fine actress so well-suited to a role.

At the performance I attended, both of Chenoweth's leading men--Peter Gallagher as Jaffe, and Andy Karl as her celluloid co-star and lover, Bruce Granit--were felled by illness. They were ably spelled by James Moye and Ben Crawford, respectively. If Moye lacks some imperiousness, he makes up for it with clarion singing and comfortable chemistry with Chenoweth. Crawford also sings beautifully, though he could use a few more performances to fully nail the physical comedy required by his role. The rest of the supporting cast--which includes dependable veterans Mary Louise Wilson, Mark-Linn Baker, and Michael McGrath--is largely superb.

This is Chenoweth's moment. There is so much to enjoy in this production, but surely nothing surpasses the instant-classic performance she's giving. It will be talked about for years.

[Fifth row mezzanine. Highly discounted ticket.]

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Academy Awards

Awards shows can tell us a lot about ourselves, which is why I insist on watching them, even when I haven't consumed much of the entertainment content being awarded. Last night was a case in point: I think I've seen about four films in the past year, only two of which were up for awards. I was pretty bored for most of the Academy Awards ceremony, and some of my ennui certainly had to do with my lack of connection to the films themselves. But my lack of enthusiasm was not entirely due to the fact that I don't go to the movies much of late. Nor was it entirely due to the thudding predictability that plagues such ceremonies at this point.

No, what bored me--what bores me in general--is how rooted our entertainment industries are in routine, and how truly resistant they seem to real, actual, honest change.

I don't mean to imply, here, that films themselves can't reflect life in interesting and important ways. Nor do I mean to imply that people who make movies can't do so with insight, intelligence, and the real desire to teach, reach, inspire, and impel. I'm not saying that at all. We are a country that makes great movies (and also plenty of really shitty ones). That's a good thing. But the disconnect between what is made and what is lauded by the industry that makes it riles me, and I found myself especially riled by last night's flat, strange, strained charade.