Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Going Postal: I've gone legit

Last year, my dad (author of the award-winning two-volume set: The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity and The American Musical and the Performance of Personal Identity) asked me to collaborate with him on a proposed article about the growing trend of letter-writing-as-songs in musical theater, and how that device collapses both space and time within a song. I of course said yes because that sounded super fun and cool and if you think I'm being sarcastic, you don't know me very well.

After many many drafts, revisions, killings of our darlings (sorry Daddy Long Legs, we were very proud of what we wrote about you), I am proud to announce that our article, "Going Postal: Collapsing time and space through sung letters in Broadway musicals," is now published in Studies in Musical Theatre.

The article covers the early markers of this trend, She Loves Me and 1776, traveling through Passion and culminating in the more recent examples in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Hamilton, and Dear Evan Hansen (with quick drop-ins on Sondheim's frequent indulging of this temporality in Pacific Overtures, Assassins, and others).

Check it out here!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W19: Our Lady of 121st Street, Paradise Blue, Me and My Girl

5/10/18: Our Lady of 121st Street
What: Former students, friends, and relatives gather when beloved but stern teacher Sister Rose dies. However, with a missing body, the mourners must instead face their own ghosts.
And? This was really well done. Excellent cast, particularly Hill Harper, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maki Borden, and Dierdre Friel. Satisfyingly staged and structured; it was fun realizing how the disparate scenes were were seeing interconnected. I think I was ultimately disappointed that the play didn't so much end as stop, with many threads left unresolved. I recognize that that's probably a very deliberate point on the part of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, so it's just a personal preference on my part.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Hill Harper, Dierdre Friel, and Kevin Isola as
Inez, Rooftop, Sonia, and Gail. Photo by Monique Carboni.

5/11/18: Paradise Blue
What: Trumpeteer and club owner Blue is looking for a way out of Paradise (the name of his bar and of his neighborhood in Detroit), while his girlfriend, friends, and newcomer Silver look for a way to keep the club afloat, even if it's without him.
And? Another really finely performed, staged, and designed offering from Signature, by new-to-me playwright Dominique Morisseau. It's a sad story, but Pumpkin's arc of liberation is beautifully rendered.

J. Alphonse Nicholson and Simone Missick as Blue and Silver.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

5/13/18: Me and My Girl
What: City Center Encores! concert staging of the 1930s (and revised 1980s) musical. The long-lost heir to the earldom of Hareford has at last been found, but he's a wise-cracking cockney with a beloved girlfriend in tow. Classes collide as Bill's aunt attempts to refine him and separate him from Sally.
And? The buzz that Mark Evans steals the show with his act two opener is entirely true. And even though the rest of the cast is good, this is such a boring show. Each song is only half a song; the second half is repeating the first half. And "The Lambeth Walk" does nothing for me.

Mark Evans as The Honorable Gerald Bolingbroke and ensemble. Photo by
Joan Marcus.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Weekly Margin 2018, W18: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Travesties, The Band's Visit, A Brief History of Women

(note: I saw no shows W17. strange but true)

5/02/18: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
What: Three ages of Donna (Ducking, Disco, and Diva) tell the story of Donna Summer's childhood, rise to fame, and the obstacles she met along the way.
And? Long story short: really lazy writing, really excellent performances. The book, such as it is, exists on bare bones, only enough to get us from one song to the next, and consists too frequently of narration rather than action (telling vs. showing). However, one embarrassingly bad fight scene aside, I thought this was very well staged (and of a more consistent quality than Frozen or Carousel), and the three women playing Donna were terrific, with incredible voices. The casting of the ensemble was a bit of a treat, too: only five men, balanced by twelve women (not counting the three Donnas), a reversal of the usual gender disparity. Many of the women played both male and female roles, with one delightful lantern hung on the affair (black actress Jenny Laroche referring to her character, Norman Brokaw, as a white man, as if it were self-evident to all of us). I'm not particularly familiar with Donna Summer's song catalog, but those around me were, and met the beginnings of many numbers with enthusiastic applause. For those looking for a fun (and under two hours!) evening with stellar renditions of her songs, this will be a good fit.

LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, and Storm Lever as Diva Donna, Disco Donna,
and Ducking Donna, with the ensemble. Photo by Joan Marcus.

5/04/18: Travesties
A repeat visit (family in town)

5/06/18: The Band's Visit
A repeat visit (family in town)

5/06/18: A Brief History of Women
What: Told in four parts at twenty-year intervals, A Brief History of Women follows the unassuming Anthony Spates from 17-year old footman in a 1920s English manor, to retired 77-year old hotel manager in the very same converted house. He and the house remain ever faithful, even as the characters around them change with each new decade.
And? It doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement to say the scene changes were my favorite part, but guys, the scene changes were freaking awesome and delightful. The play itself was ultimately eh for me, though it did feature some good performances from the ensemble. And the title is entirely misleading and kind of a mistake.

Antony Eden, Louise Shuttleworth, Russell Dixon, Frances Marshall, and
Laura Matthews as Tony Spates, Gillian Dunbar, Dennis Dunbar, Pat
Wriggly, and Jenny Tyler. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Weekly Margin, 2018 W16: Frozen, The Metromaniacs, Travesties, YOU / EMMA

4/17/18: Frozen
What: Live stage adaptation/expansion of the Disney hit film. Princesses Elsa and Anna are as close as sisters can be, until the manifestation of Elsa's winter powers injure her sister, and she withdraws until she can regain control. At her coronation as queen, she instead loses control and sends the kingdom into eternal winter. Only Anna can bring her sister back, and rescue the kingdom.
And? During the opening sequence, a twenty-minute montage of six songs which covers the younger days of the two princesses, leading up to Elsa's coronation, I was blown away. The storytelling and staging were great, the cast was stellar, and I trusted that this beloved film's adaptation was in good hands. However, as the show went on, it never quite lived up to its opening. I questioned a lot of the staging choices throughout (even some of the content choices), and the ending felt beyond rushed. "Let it Go," the film's breakout hit song, was an excellent closer to Act One, and some of the effects, particularly in that number, were very well rendered. But, to quote another song from the score, this show's "a bit of a fixer upper."

Caissie Levy, Patti Murin, and the ensemble as Queen Elsa, Princess Anna,
and the people of Arendelle. Photo by Deen van Meer.

4/20/18: The Metromaniacs
What: David Ives's updated translation of Alexis Piron's French farce (complete with rhyming couplets). Ives describes the play as "a comedy with five plots, none of them important." So we'll leave it at: changing partners, mistaken (and faken) identities, and some Rooney-Garland-style "let's put on a play."
And? Utterly delightful, start to finish. Marvelous and polished cast, nonsense plot, and hilarious rhyming couplets which continue to surprise. I loved it.

Adam Greene, Amelia Pedlow, and Noah Averbach-Katz
as Mondor, Lucille, and Dorante. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

4/21/18: Travesties
What: A revival of Tom Stoppard's play inspired by the fact that Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Dadaist Tristan Tzara were all in Zurich at the same time, and that one inconsequential fellow named Henry Carr seems to connect them.
And? I remember being faintly bewildered when I first read this play ages ago. But watching this production was just wonderful. It's really a marriage of form and content, with a dadaist spin on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest as a connective tissue for the discordant memories of an aging Henry Carr. The entire ensemble is terrific, the set design stunning, and the whole whirling mess more coherent than it has any right to be. I loved this one too.

Scarlett Strallen, Patrick Kerr, Dan Butler, Opal Alladin, Sara Topham, Tom
Hollander, Seth Numrich, and Peter McDonald as Gwendolen, Bennett, Lenin,
Nadya, Cecily, Henry Carr, Tristan Tzara, and Jame Joyce. Photo by Joan Marcus.

4/21/18: YOU / EMMA
What: Paz Pardo adapts Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary into a multimedia solo performance which places the audience as the protagonist who must contend with the tragic mundanity that ruins Emma Bovary.
And? Though I don't care for the story, this was a terrific adaptation and a wonderful solo performance by Valerie Redd. Full review here.

Valerie Redd as  You/Emma. Photo by Samantha Fairfield Walsh.

Margin Notes: YOU / EMMA

Valerie Redd as You/Emma, watching a montage of bad boys.
Photo by Samantha Fairfield Walsh.

Seen on: Saturday, 4/21/18.
My grade: A-

Plot and Background
Paz Pardo adapts Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary into a multimedia solo performance which places the audience as the protagonist (hence the title, YOU / EMMA) who must contend with the tragic mundanity that brings Emma Bovary to her ruin. We are reminded just how young Emma is as she enters a loveless marriage, a friendless life, and disappointing affairs, at an age when contemporary young women are leaving home for college. Flaubert himself makes a few cameo appearances to both claim full ownership of Emma while also denying all responsibility for her unhappiness.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen (and reviewed) an earlier production by Wandering Bark, also starring Valerie Redd. And I read a plot summary of Madame Bovary on Wikipedia about half an hour before the show.


Play: "Flaubert doesn't tell us what you dream about that night," our narrator confides to us midway through Paz Pardo's 65 minute exploration of what it is to live Emma Bovary's journey. The play is a giddy mixture of whispered secrets, flights of fantasy, confrontations with a negligent author, and the woeful realization that, with all the possible futures Emma imagines for herself, she's stuck with a lonely reality riddled with irresponsible choices. The actress onstage telling us our story is Emma, and so are we (Flaubert claims he is too, but half an hour later he denies it), stuck in a cage only partly of our own making. It's a rather cynical story, and Pardo doesn't let Flaubert off the hook for it, demanding that Emma be given her due, demanding an answer for why he created her, then abandoned her with no friends, no one to love or to love her, and nothing but her dashed fantasies and rising debts to keep her company.