Monday, December 21, 2015

15 for '15 - My Top Theatrical Experiences This Year

Daniel N. Durant as Moritz in Deaf West's Spring Awakening.
Photo by Kevin Parry.
We don't need no stinkin' rules! Especially not rules that limit me to choosing only 10 shows for 2015. That's just cruel and unusual punishment. And, as I'm not an accredited journalist, and this is my house, we're doing 15 for 15 this year.

I'm quite proud to report that my attendance bumped up from last year - I saw 130 shows in 2015, and when we remove the repeats, it comes out to 121 unique shows - only one fewer than I saw in 2013, and 24 up from last year. It's been an odd mix this year - some truly extraordinary theater, including the groundbreaking work by Broadway's biggest nerd, Lin-Manuel Miranda - but the Fall season on Broadway, at least in terms of straight plays, was oddly disappointing. However, Off-Broadway picked up the slack, there's still plenty of good work to remember from this past Spring, and loads to anticipate for 2016.

So let's get started. (and before anyone calls the dogs out on any shows I omitted, the list started at 32 for the year, which I then had to painstakingly cull down to its present length)

Honorable Mention: I can't officially include Hedwig and the Angry Inch on this list, since the production made my '14 list last year, but if I didn't include John Cameron Mitchell's incredible performance in the role he created, I'd be doing a disservice to all of us. I saw him only after his injury early in his run, but even hobbled as he was by multiple knee braces, his Hedwig was a terrifying and heartbreaking force of nature. The role (and the show) transformed under his care, running a good twenty minutes longer from all the riffing and adlibbing. This was Hedwig as I knew her from before - bitingly cruel one moment, sweet and loving the next. A deeply-bedded river of bitterness ran through her, even as she valiantly soldiered on, crutch tucked under her arm. And oh god, the moment JCM opened his mouth in the first song, sounding just like he did twenty years earlier, I started to cry. (I feel it would be remiss if I did not also mention the fact that my friend Marissa received the infamous car wash treatment when we attended together - without a doubt, an unforgettable evening).

Friday, December 4, 2015

Margin Notes: POPTART!

Seen on: Thursday, 12/3/15.
My grade: B+
Monique St. Cyr and Allison Strickland as Monique Jackson and Anna Martin.
Photo by Patricia Phelps.

Plot and Background
Monique Jackson is a rising singer-songwriter star acting out the role of a spoiled diva for anyone who will tolerate her. James Pearce is a gifted songwriter with a lofty view of the business of show. When Monique's assistant Anna maneuvers a meeting between the two to negotiate a collaboration, personalities collide in a big way. POPTART! is a new play by Krystle Phelps, co-founder of Girl Just Died, a NY-based theater company "dedicated to bringing to life new, exciting, and honest work that heavily features a variety of voices."

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I've worked with - and am friends with - director Gwenevere Sisco. Beyond that, I'd seen and reviewed her previous collaboration with Krystle Phelps, James Parenti, and Monique St. Cyr, May Violets Spring.


Play: There's always something rather thrilling about a real-time play with an approaching deadline. As Monique stalks about her dressing room, primping, drinking, changing clothes, writing "Bitch" on her mirror with lipstick, we know she has a performance (to a pre-recorded "live track") at an unspecified awards show only moments away. This is borrowed time: a chemistry meet with a new collaborator, dodged calls from her mother slash former manager, and a showdown between a diva and her only friend. Time seems to both expand and contract around moments - music plays and everything holds still. Tragedy strikes, and the show must go on. While Monique does her best to drive everyone away, there remains a moment of hope at the end - perhaps she recognizes that she is worth saving, after all. The final performance is thrilling, a release for both Monique and the audience.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Margin Notes: Aftermath

The cast of this is my (trigger warning). Photo by Bobby Alford.

Seen on: Friday, 11/13/15.
My grade: B-.

Plot and Background
Aftermath is two one acts presented as part of Ivy Theatre Company's 2015 Trellis Project, a page-to-stage partnership with playwrights. this is my (trigger warning), an Ivy ensemble original piece conceived and directed by Audrey Alford, presents the female experience with PTSD through physical and vocal exploration. Reach, by Ryan Sprague, takes place in New Orleans one year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, to explore the lasting effects on one woman who refuses to leave.

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I've worked with and greatly admire Audrey Alford, the creator of this is my (trigger warning), the first of the two pieces, and I've contributed money to Ivy's fundraising. Beyond that, I knew only that it was an evening of two short pieces.


Although the two pieces are vastly different in tone and content, their themes are (obviously) connected - an exploration of the aftermath of intense trauma - and thus work in conversation with each other. While the language of the first piece is largely breath and movement, those are the healing tools Leila lacks in the second piece. She relies on words - unread letters she faithfully composes daily, a fierce armor against all of Jordan's efforts to reach her - she is frozen, unable to breathe, unable to move from her home except for her daily pilgrimage to visit her comatose husband. What's really remarkable about the conversation of these two pieces, then, is how both resolve - in Reach, Leila begins to heal through her connection with Jordan, with her ability to finally breathe and change; in this is my (trigger warning), the women who have been having their own private crises in isolation, weeping and contorting, find strength and their center by joining in singing, "she was never crazy," and building together a creature that is equal parts silver-armored strength and a finally-chrysalized butterfly. In terms of that conversation, the evening is successful; however, individually, each piece is rather lacking on its own. this is my (trigger warning) is perhaps a bit underbaked - what language there is, is rather sparse and never particularly explicit - while it's clear each woman is dealing with the after-effects of trauma, the nature of the trauma or its lingering savagery of their psyches is never clarified. However, the seeds are there for a longer piece, for something poetic and affirming - it just needs shape. Reach, meanwhile, has definite craft in the structure of its narrative, but it's hindered by somewhat stilted dialogue and a too-repetitive pattern of tactics by its characters.

Both pieces make excellent use of the space - in tim(tw), the windows that back the playing space are uncovered, allowing the occasional passing traffic - both sound and lights - to penetrate our consciousness, the always-threatening outside world lingering outside the cocooned women. Reach, meanwhile, scatters Leila's unfurnished apartment across the space, littered with books and dying plants, and places the door to her apartment - the bridge to an outside she can't bear to see - completely behind the audience, as outside our experience as it is hers.


Running: Now playing at Lucid Body House (Ivy Theatre Company) - Opened: November 5, 2015. Closing: November 21, 2015
Category: two short pieces
Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwrights: Ivy Theatre Company (this is my (trigger warning)) w/additional collaboration by Diane Chen and Shoshanna Richman; and Ryan Sprague (Reach)
Directors: Audrey Alford (tim(tw)) & Andrew Block (R)
Designers:  Audrey Alford (Costume - tim(tw)), Kitty Mortland (Costume - R), Jorge Olivo (Sound).
Cast: Audrey Alford, Phoebe Allegra, Ciarah Amaani, Alexandra Moro, Jeanne Lauren Smith (tim(tw)); Katie Braden, Christopher Lee (R)

Phoebe Allegra in this is my (trigger warning). Photo by Bobby Alford
*note: no production photos for Reach were available at the time of writing this*

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Margin Notes: Richard II

Morgan Hooper as Richard II (with Kitty Mortland as
Duke of Aumerle). Photo by John Hoffman.

Seen on: Wednesday, 10/28/15.
My grade: B.

Plot and Background
Richard II, a young king given to whim and jest more than serious thought, is in the final years of his reign when an arbitrary banishment to end a dispute leads to rebellion by his cousin Bolingbroke. Although Richard abdicates his throne readily - if unhappily - it soon becomes clear that it is not so simple to merely lock away the fallen king in a prison. One of Shakespeare's histories, Richard II was probably written in 1595 and serves as the first part of the Henriad tetrology (followed by Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V). Richard II is presented in rep with Romeo and Juliet by Hamlet Isn't Dead, the self-proclaimed "286th-best Shakespeare-related theatre troupe" in New York. Their mission is to present Shakespeare's work in chronological order.

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen Mark Rylance play Richard II at The Globe, and Ben Whishaw play the role in The Hollow Crown series for BBC, which featured it as the first in the series. I've seen some of Hamlet Isn't Dead's work in the past, and I'm friends with the director, Emily C. A. Snyder.


Play: From the first line of the play, director Snyder makes her vision clear. King Richard II strolls onstage alone and begins his famous Act V monologue:
     I have been studying how I may compare
     This prison where I live unto the world:
     And for because the world is populous
     And here is not a creature but myself,
     I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
And suddenly the stage is flooded with courtiers, and the play begins proper. Thus the narrative is framed as a sort of flashback - Richard is able to repopulate his prison and examine how he got to this point. The motif continues when his wife, Queen Isabella, trapped in her courtly life to a husband she does not fully understand, begins the same speech; and then again when Bolingbroke, at sea in the growing momentum of his rebellion against Richard, finds himself with crowd and crown in hand. This is a world of prisons where each character is his own jailer. The tragedy of Richard II is how many points along the way the audience can see a bloodless solution hiding in the characters' blind spots. So many times, were the characters able to pause and examine, perhaps swallow a bit of pride, could this all have sorted differently - no banishment, no insurrection, no murder, no abdication, no secret plotting. But in their isolation, in their individual prisons, all they can do is stumble on, heedless of the bloody barriers in their way. Snyder understands this acutely and crafts her production - staged in the challenging alley formation - cleanly and with little ornament, relying on the words and the people speaking them to convey the narrative.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Margin Notes: Daddy Long Legs

Megan McGinnis as Jerusha Abbott. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Seen on: Monday, 9/14/15.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Jerusha Abbott, an orphan with more energy and wit than is desired at the John Grier Home, finds herself suddenly sponsored by an unknown trustee for a full university education to help her pursue a career as a writer, with the only stipulation being that she send letters to her "Mr. John Smith" benefactor, apprising him of her progress. This two-character chamber piece, based on Jean Webster's 1912 novel of the same name, first premiered in 2009 at the Rubicon Theatre Company (starring its current lead Megan McGinnis) and has toured both regionally and internationally, leading up to its Off-Broadway debut.

What I Knew Beforehand
I loved Paul Gordon's last Broadway musical, Jane Eyre, and I knew that this show was a reunion between its two writers, Gordon and John Caird. I knew nothing about the plot, but I was so excited to see his new work.


Play: Perhaps the plot itself, as summarized, isn't the most compelling story. But - I say this as someone who herself has written an epistolary play - it comes down to the storytelling, and in that the show is largely successful. It's like if you went poking in the attic of a distant relative and found a packet of letters tied with a ribbon - it's a sweet valentine, a simple clear view into a young woman's mind as her horizons expand. The narrative itself isn't as intensely shattering as that of Jane Eyre, Gordon and Caird's previous collaboration, but it is still engaging and light, as warm-hearted as its heroine. Gordon's score bubbles and trips along, and Caird's book is funny and economic. If I were to register a complaint, it's that there is a bit of a tonal inconsistency between the two characters - Jervis's songs are a bit emptier, and feel somehow more contemporary than Jerusha's. Maybe it's McGinnis's legit soprano against Nolan's pop-ier tenor. Maybe it's the sliding notes he's given, which are largely absent from her songs. Maybe it's just that his songs have far less story to tell - he reacts, while she lives. His numbers aren't necessarily bad, but they're distinctly less engaging than hers. Luckily, most of the show is hers, so you'll still leave smiling and content. (also for fellow nerds, there's a shout out to Jane Eyre that I'm sure the writers just couldn't resist!)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Margin Notes: Amazing Grace

Josh Young as John Newton, with Ensemble.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Thursday, 6/25/15.
My grade: D.

Plot and Background
John Newton, who would later go on to write the song "Amazing Grace," is in his youth a bit of a manchild, rebelling against his emotionally withdrawn father, drinking too much, and getting into one too many scrapes. When his ship is attacked at sea, he's taken hostage by Princess Peyai, and continues in his father's line, helping her to sell African slaves. After his father rescues him, their ship is torn apart in a storm, and Newton experiences a religious awakening when he cries out to God and the ship is spared. Meanwhile in England, his childhood sweetheart Mary risks her life by spying for the abolitionist movement. This show was originally workshopped at Goodspeed's Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut in 2012. It had its world premiere in Chicago this past autumn, and has transferred to Broadway.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew (or thought I knew) it was about the genesis of the popular titular song, which turned out to be incorrect. And I was excited to see Josh Young perform again, having enjoyed his voice in JCS.


Play: Big ol' grain of salt - I saw the first preview performance. That being said, my issues with the show don't seem to be ones fixable before opening night. The first and possibly biggest problem is the show's chosen subject: John Newton, as portrayed in the show, is a drunkard, a dropout, a dick with daddy issues, a man unwilling to acknowledge the consequences of his actions, and by the way a man who sells and trades literally thousands of slaves in both England and Africa. The show assures us in its epilogue that, after the nearly three hours we watched of him being awful, he went on to fifty years of working for abolitionist causes. That's awesome, and I'm glad he finally learned from his actions, but where is that story? Why do we get only an epilogue acknowledgement of the show's protagonist not being a shit? The only redeeming thing about Newton as portrayed within the show's narrative is the fact that he's played by Josh Young, who has one of the most beautiful baritones on Broadway.

Other issues I had with the show include:
  • Too many monologues and speechifying. Typically in a musical, when a character feels the need to speechify, he or she expresses that through song and thus sways the audience with the power of the emotion and the rhetoric and soaring melody and whatnot.
  • You would think, with a show that takes its title and its advertising from the fact that Newton would go on to write the universally known song "Amazing Grace," that that would also work its way into the narrative, instead of serving as a coda to the epilogue.
  • Honestly, the structure was all over the place. The villain Major Gray isn't that villainous (he's a dick, but so is Newton), the hero (as already pointed out) isn't that heroic, and Mary, the female lead and love interest, the one with the actual heroic plot of intrigue and nobility, is handled so dully that I kept tuning out.
The writing's not all bad - there is definitely an appealing bombast to a lot of the score, even if the lyrics are largely unmemorable, crutching on abstract concepts. And I don't think a single audience member could help getting chills when the entire company sings the title song in full-throated harmony, a cappella. There are bits of this show that hint at what could be a good show. Some of the bones are there. But the majority of it is so awkwardly constructed that you'd need a complete overhaul (plot, book, score) in order to actually mine the show's potential. I could see, sometimes, how to fix it, or at least part of it. But I'm afraid all we might achieve would still be a bit of a dullard.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Margin Notes: The Wild Party

Brandon Victor Dixon, Steven Pasquale, and Sutton Foster
as Black, Burrs, and Queenie. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Wednesday, 7/15/15.
My grade: C+. Not really my show, and the acoustics didn't help.

Plot and Background
Queenie and Burrs, a vaudeville couple on the rocks, throw a raucous party to distract from (or perhaps exacerbate) their quarreling. When Queenie's friend Kate brings the mysterious and attractive Black, Queenie sees a way out - and Kate sees a way in. Filled with a menagerie of personalities and showcase songs, the show is based on Joseph Moncure March's 1928 narrative poem, and was workshopped in 1997 before its Off-Broadway run at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000 (in a weird bit of theater kismet, another adaptation of the poem, this time by Michael LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, opened in the same season, but on Broadway). Lippa's version is presented here as part of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center Series.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the strange story of two separate adaptations of The Wild Party running in the same season. I'd heard both cast albums once or twice, and had read the synopsis in the liner notes. I think I probably had a better sense of the Broadway/LaChiusa adaptation than the Off-Broadway/Lippa, going in. I also knew that the issue of which adaptation is superior is a rather divisive one among theater aficionados. Not having seen the LaChiusa adaptation, I'm not ready to weigh in on that debate.


Play: I should start off by saying the acoustics were bad enough that any time the orchestra (or singers) were at full volume, I couldn't understand a word. This was obviously not a problem for some of the audience, either because they could hear fine, or because they already had the show memorized. There were clearly a lot of fans in the audience, as numerous songs were greeted with cheers before they even started. Sound issues aside ... I think this just isn't my show. Surrounded by cheering fans, I all too often felt like I was missing out on something everyone else was experiencing. What I experienced was a collection of generally unlikable characters who weren't giving me a reason to root for them, and a rather depressing conclusion (I get that that's the point, but ... why do I need to see it?). What I could hear of the score was definitely catchy, jazzy and fun, though the lyrics weren't always the most compelling.

(Also - I don't typically address design with the Encores! shows, but I want to note that Donyale Werle's set - with its clotheslines draping the back wall, strings of lights overhanging the playing space, and rugs draped everywhere - and Clint Ramos's costumes - full of flappers, fringe, and outlandish suits - were quite the treat for the eye.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Margin Notes: Ruthless!

Kim Maresca, Peter Land, and Rita McKenzie
as Judy Denmark, Sylvia St. Croix, and Lita Encore.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Seen on: Monday, 7/6/15.
My grade: B. Good campy fun.

Plot and Background
Tina Denmark, at only eight years old, is the biggest star her town has seen - or so she thinks. When Louise Lerman is cast as the lead in the school play over Tina, bloody intents are revealed, as well as shocking (!) backstories. Is Judy, Tina's housewife mother, quite as talentless as she believes? And what is Sylvia St. Croix's scheme when she invites herself into their home? Bookwriter and lyricist Joel Paley directed the award-winning original production of this campy take on the already-campy The Bad Seed in 1992, and returns to direct this production as well, which is touting itself not as a revival but a re-imagining - the show is streamlined and updated.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the musical took at least some of its inspiration from the cult classic melodrama The Bad Seed, which I'd seen in my youth on one of my TCM kicks. And that this version had to do with show business.


Play: The show starts off strongly, with Kim Maresca knocking "Tina's Mother," a paean to her supporting role in her daughter's budding showbiz career, out of the park, followed quickly by the prancing Annie-on-crack herself. The script is riddled with musical theater references galore (like a "Hidden in This Picture" for nerds), including a Sweeney Todd factory whistle and nearly every line from Gypsy. It's a relatively fun journey, as camp as you can get (the climax is a murderous showdown where all the guns are pointed fingers), and the songs are (with the exception of "I Hate Musicals!" which outstays its welcome) generally fun and keep things moving. At some point, however, the camp isn't enough to sustain the story or the audience's energy - at only 95 minutes it feels overlong. Still, it ends charmingly enough, and shows off its cast to good effect.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Margin Notes: A New Brain

Jonathan Groff and Dan Fogler as Gordon and
Mr. Bungee. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Seen on: Wednesday, 6/24/15.
My grade: A.

Plot and Background
A semi-autobiographical musical, inspired by a potentially terminal brain diagnosis composer William Finn received, A New Brain follows Gordon Schwinn, a struggling composer working for a children's show he abhors as he tries to balance his love life, his overbearing mother, and his dream of writing something brilliant before he dies - which may be all too soon. Finn began writing the songs for this show - with collaborator James Lapine's encouragement - soon after his discharge from the hospital. The show was originally workshopped in 1996 and 1997 before its Lincoln Center Off-Broadway run in 1998. It is presented here as part of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center Series.

What I Knew Beforehand
I was extremely familiar with the original cast recording, though I've never read the script nor seen the show performed live.


Play: James Lapine proves once again to be as skilled a director as he is a writer, effectively staging the production to such a professional and clean degree that one can only barely call it a concert (Equity rules probably still require us to call it that). The shows moves quickly and fluidly from scene to scene, and Josh Prince's choreography, best displayed in "And They're Off" and the tango "Brain Dead" is fun and kinetic. Lapine manages to maintain the sense of play Finn wrote into the score, with Gordon wryly conducting the ensemble in "Gordo's Law of Genetics," while also giving space and time to the more poignant moments like "Really Lousy Day in the Universe" or "The Music Still Plays On." I was a fan of the show already, but I did appreciate the revisions made to the score (sure, I miss "Calamari," but they cut several of the songs I always skip on the CD, so that's cool, too). I could see this very easily transferring to a commercial run, if the producers feel so inclined, though they may have to wait for Jonathan Groff's schedule to clear up (incidentally, his upcoming Hamilton gig gave a fun little punch to Lisa's line, "I don't care if you're the King of England").

Monday, June 22, 2015

Back Into the Woods

Impossibly, it starts with Tom Aldredge. Aldredge, who originated the role of the Narrator and the Mysterious Old Man, died four years ago. But here his voice is, as the lights dim, booming over the speakers, "Once upon a time!" I immediately start crying.

I'm transported back to 1991, to the couch in my dad's apartment, when he first showed us the VHS tape, recorded off TV, of Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods. It's hard to explain what this show means to me, in part because I don't think I quite realized what it means to me until the reunion starts. This was it. This was the first role I wanted to play. The first musical I deliberately memorized. The first story I actively analyzed. I was only in first grade the first time I saw it, but this was it. My first Sondheim. I learned all the songs (including the intricate arguments of "Your Fault"). I wanted to be the Witch (maybe I just wanted to be Bernadette Peters - who wouldn't?). Into the Woods is so indelibly a part of my childhood, a part of my growing up, of my love of theater, musicals, Sondheim, of complex deconstructions of narratives. It's the kind of show that, due to my many many rewatchings of the VHS and then DVD, if you speak a line of dialogue or lyric to me, I'll almost certainly spit back the next line on reflex.

This is probably true for nearly everyone in the audience at the Into the Woods Original Cast Reunion, which had two performances yesterday at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. It's also almost definitely true for Mo Rocca, who not only did a terrific job moderating the reunion, but was clearly just so kicked to be onstage watching these people recreate the songs in front of us.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Margin Notes: Significant Other

Gideon Glick, Lindsay Mendez, and Carra Patterson as Jordan, Laura,
and Vanessa. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Friday, 6/19/15.
My grade: B+.

Plot and Background
Jordan, a young single man in New York, is the perennial Gay Best Friend to his three ladyfriends, each of whom seems to be finding and marrying a man in quick succession - and leaving Jordan in the dust. That doesn't mean he's not trying to find love - he's in fact rather obsessive in his infatuation with a coworker - but luck does not seem to be on his side, and he's becoming more and more afraid he'll be left all alone as his friends build families in which he does not fit. This is a new play by Joshua Harman, known in New York for his recent play Bad Jews.

What I Knew Beforehand
Nothing. I missed Bad Jews, so all I really knew going in were the work of some of the cast and the director.


Play: The play moves at a brisk and satisfying pace, slipping from scene to scene with no transition beyond a light change and a character entrance. It's an engaging rhythm, putting us firmly into Jordan's stream of consciousness as he experiences the world, going from friend to friend, to grandmother, to flirtation, to another bachelorette party. The play is equal parts genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking, as Jordan's plight becomes more and more dire. While the plot itself may not be treading much new ground, the pain the characters feel is all the more real because of how genuine the relationships are between the four friends, and between Jordan and his grandmother. They all love each other, but how far does that love extend? I will say that eventually the increasingly frantic neurotic monologues by Jordan pile too high on each other without the balance of quiet, and I did start to tune out - but then comes a welcome scene of honesty between Jordan and his aging grandmother, who reminds him, "It's a long book, honey. You're in a rough chapter." This play has some similar themes to another play I saw recently, Nice Girl - a fear that life and love are passing you by - and while I liked both, I think at the end of the day, the fact that Nice Girl ended a bit more hopefully than Significant Other is enough for me to prefer it (regardless of the fiction I myself tend to write, I do prefer stories that have hope in their worldview, or at least some kind of positivity for the future). This was still extremely well done, but it's hard to love watching someone in despair.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Margin Notes: Nice Girl

Diane Davis and Liv Rooth as Jo and Sherry.
Photo by Monique Carboni.
Nice Girl

Seen on: Saturday, 6/13/15.
My grade: A-.

Plot and Background
Josephine Rosen lives with her semi-agoraphobic mother in Boston, 1984. As her high school's 20 year reunion looms large, she looks back at the choices she's made, and didn't make, and wonders if it's too late to change her life for the better - with the help of a new friend at work, and a new romance with the local butcher. Can she break out of being a Nice Girl to be a real woman? The play is written by Labyrinth company member Melissa Ross, and signals Artistic Director Mimi O'Donnell's return to directing after the death of her partner Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What I Knew Beforehand
Nothing into nothing, carry the nothing ...


Play: So while I couldn't figure out a way to describe the plot that made it sound compelling, the play itself truly was. The characters felt deeply human, their various relationships felt honest and yearning. I was extremely glad I got to see it with a good friend, as the friendship between Jo and Sherry, new though it was, was deeply felt. The whole cast was truly unified in the world under director Mimi O'Donnell's sure hand; and, thanks to the intimacy of the space, small honest moments flavored the entire performance. The play's final moment was especially moving - not a definitive conclusion, but after two hours of disappointed dreams and regrets - a moment of uncertain hope. It almost didn't matter who was behind the headlights of the car pulling up - what mattered was that it mattered.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Margin Notes: Spring Awakening (Deaf West)

Sandra Mae Frank and Austin McKenzie as
Wendla and Melchior. Photo by Kevin Parry.
Margin Notes: Spring Awakening

Seen on: Saturday, 6/6/15.
My grade: A-.

Plot and Background
Based on German playwright's Frank Wedekind's 1891 expressionist play, which explored the irresponsibility of the divide in communication between adults and children - and its catastrophic consequences for teens stumbling into sexual maturity - Spring Awakening the musical, which ran on Broadway 2006-2009, introduced a further dichotomy into its storytelling. While the book scenes maintained a stiffness and precision of dialogue meant to evoke the play's time period and its subsequent repression, the songs - alternating ballads with head-banging rock - were a distinct departure to contemporary expression and tone (a choice further highlights by the use of handheld microphones). That production won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Deaf West Theatre is a California-based theater company specializing in productions performed by deaf actors. This is their fourth musical produced [earlier productions were Oliver (1999), Big River (2002; Broadway transfer 2003), and Pippin (2009)]. These productions utilize both hearing and non-hearing actors - with all performers signing ASL, and hearing actors providing voice for the deaf ones - intended to be accessible for both hearing and non-hearing audiences. Michael Arden, who costarred in Big River and Pippin, returned to Deaf West to direct this production for a sold-out run last fall at the Rosenthal Theater, This is the production's encore run.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew both the original Wedekind play (studied it in college as well as saw a production) and the musical adaptation that ran on Broadway. Though I saw the flaws in both the play and the musical, I still found much to admire in both. I also was a huge fan of Deaf West, having been lucky enough to see their profoundly moving and visually stunning production of Big River (my dad also recently hosted a panel at UCLA on this production and its impact, which included several members of Deaf West, one of the original translators, the director Jeff Calhoun, and some of the cast).


Play: I found this production extremely moving and electrifying. Arden and choreographer Spencer Liff really tap into the frantic pulse of Sheik's score, the erratic heartbeat of hormonal youth and insecurity. They find a vibrant balance of maintaining clarity with ASL while also crafting dynamic staging and choreography (as when the girls "assist" Hanschen with his risque Desdemona monologue, or when two of the girls (sisters?) seem to share thoughts, signing and speaking for each other). More than the past musicals produced by Deaf West, this production wants to also make a statement about how deaf people themselves are treated by society. In his Director's Note in the program, Arden points out that at the time Wedekind's play was originally written, sign language had been banned by The Milan Conference, and deaf people were forced to learn to lipread and speak despite their difficulties. Arden chose to illustrate this in the boys' classroom scenes, where signing is forbidden, the three deaf students are forced to speak, and Moritz - already the worst student - speaks the least intelligibly of all of them. It makes the already brutal scene even harsher, and furthers one of the themes of the show, that the adults are not just unable to communicate with the children, but resolutely refuse to learn. This production was a powerful reexamination of Spring Awakening, but it still could not fix my biggest problem with it - that ridiculous coda song, "Purple Summer." The show is over. The narrative is over. People are dead, the the rest are going to try to keep living. Why do we have this song? (my theory is the writers were too enamored of the song to cut it, and couldn't find a place within the show to stick it, so tacked it to the end) This production failed to answer that question for me, though it achieved a gorgeous stage picture in its attempt to do so.

Monday, June 1, 2015

My Perpetually Inaccurate Tony Predictions

*part of the ongoing series in which I refuse to engage in reality.

This was a packed season, or at least it felt like one looking back. Overstuffed with play revivals (none of which grabbed me that much),the season was also full of exciting new plays. And then the new musicals category had a weird dearth this season. It Shoulda Been You was atrocious, Something Rotten was not that great, and while An American in Paris and The Visit are new to Broadway, they're neither of them new properties. Even Fun Home already ran Off-Broadway last season. And then shows like The Last Ship and Honeymoon in Vegas, though critically well-received (and enjoyed by yours truly), never got the crowds and quickly shuttered. So it's also been a really weird season.

And then there's the elephant in the green room: the most exciting new musical to open this season opened Off-Broadway and blew everyone away. Now we're all just waiting for Hamilton to start its Broadway run this summer and do it again.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the telecast, and hoping Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming are adorable and not awkward (I'm kind of worried they'll be awkward). I'm also incredibly excited that John Cameron Mitchell's amazing return to the role of Hedwig is being honored with a special Tony Award. NPH was fantastic, but JCM is Hedwig, and since he couldn't win a Tony for playing her 20 years ago, he gets one now. Yay yay yay!

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Without further ado, my predictions:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Margin Notes: The Flick

Matthew Maher as Sam. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Flick

Seen on: Sunday, 5/10/15.
My grade: B+. Not my type of play, but truly excellent at what it does.

Plot and Background
The various misadventures of three employees at a single screen crumbling movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts. A floor perpetually littered with popcorn and soda cups, and three humans struggling to overcome their own internal blocks in communication. Originally produced at Playwrights Horizons last year, The Flick won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That production, cast intact, has transferred to the Barrow Street Theatre.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've read a number of Annie Baker plays, but hadn't seen any yet. I knew that this one was rather controversial in its run at Playwrights Horizons because of its many many pauses and resulting long running time.


Play: As I've said before, I generally prefer shows with actual plots, which this doesn't really have. BUT, if you go in knowing that, I think you won't be disappointed. The play is as much about its three misfit characters as it is about the relic of the theater, one of the last bastions of 33mm projectors against the rising tide of digital, and the struggle of people on the fringe of life to feel like they matter. The play was well-constructed in terms of character development and revelation, and if not hopeful at its core, at least it had a sense of humor about it. Sam Gold directed this play perfectly - everyone talks about the pauses, but they weren't just voids of sound or space - there wasn't an empty moment. If no one was speaking, there was action; if there was neither action nor word,  it was still with a specific purpose.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Margin Notes: An American in Paris

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope as Jerry and Lise.
Photo by Angela Sterling.
An American in Paris

Seen on: Wednesday, 5/13/15.
My grade: B. Lovely ballet, a story I could take or leave.

Plot and Background
Three new friends in post-war Paris - the American artist Jerry, the Jewish American composer Adam, and the textile heir/would-be nightclub singer Henri - are all in love with dancer Lise, though none of them knows it. Lise herself feels an attraction for Jerry, but also feels beholden to Henri and his family for their protection of her during the war. As all prepare for an upcoming ballet that will feature Lise's debut starring role, secrets are revealed and loyalties questioned. This production, inspired by the 1951 Gene Kelly film, originally played at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris last year, where it ran about half an hour longer.

What I Knew Beforehand
I remember somewhat the film on which it is based (Gershwin songs, Gene Kelly singing with children, a dream ballet, yes? Yes) and had heard this production was stellar.


Play: I think the show got a bit overhyped for me, unfortunately, and I respected the craft in the show more than I invested emotionally in the story of it. But let me go back a pace. A large part of the show is told in ballet - the two leads are ringers, which helps tremendously - and that is pure loveliness. Wonderfully staged and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon among the fluid set pieces, the show is never more captivating than in its dances. However, the story itself, fleshed out a bit by Craig Lucas from the film, never quite captures the heart. The romance of Lise with any of the three gentlemen isn't all that interesting. The story, indeed, is at its strongest when focusing on the three men together. Their varying perspectives - romantic optimism, dry melancholy, and a mix of denial and suppressed suffering - paint a fair portrait of a city recovering from Nazi occupation and a devastating war. And their different approaches to love and what it means could make for a very good play, if it weren't trapped within all the rest of the musical going on around it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Margin Notes: In Flight

Jackson Thompson and Danielle O'Farrell as Ted and Marty.
Photo by John Hoffman.
In Flight

Seen on: Monday, 5/11/15.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Marty runs The Omega Traveler, an in-flight magazine for a major airline, and is using her background in literary journals to try to bring a sense of poetry and adventure to an otherwise dry arena. Trying to hire two new writers with that particular flair, battling creative control from her boss at the airline, and also exploring that little thing we call a personal life, Marty must confront the question of what is more important - poetry and distance, or reality and experience? Written in rhymed couplets, Jenny Lyn Bader's new play is produced by Turn To Flesh Productions, which specializes in new plays dealing with modern themes, written in classical styles.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen a few of Turn to Flesh's previous productions and had a generally favorable opinion of them. I knew this was a new play entirely in rhyming couplets. I think that's it.


Play: There's a lot to be admired here - the craft of the thing, the fact that the rhymes didn't feel forced, and that I caught only a few slant rhymes when listening for it. And the idea of it, of trying to reincorporate a sense of poetry, of vivid imagery, of time actually spent describing a thing, into a travel magazine, to reintroduce the romantic notions of travel and experiencing life ("An in-flight magazine - but it's intense!") - this was all very appealing and infectious. Marty's struggle to find a balance between the ethics of poetic perfection and a flawed reality, a dream versus a life lived, was elegantly placed against the office she never leaves, opting instead to send out writers to report on places she's never been. However, the seemingly randomly-inserted subplot of corporate corruption felt shoe-horned in, and more a means to an end (the acquiring of magazine control) than an actual character- or idea-exploration. The argument with Melanie didn't enlighten us further to Marty's arc, nor really to anyone else's. And I could argue that she was too quick to forgive spoiler for spoiler, but why ruin the fun for you?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Margin Notes: The King and I

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O'Hara as the King and Anna.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.
The King and I

Seen on: Saturday, 5/9/15.
My grade: A. Lush and lovely production.

Plot and Background

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the show, of course, and the movie even more so. And I knew that Bartlett Sher's revival of South Pacific, while still not a show I'll ever love, was still an extraordinary production. I went in with similar expectations for this show.


Play: As with Bartlett Sher's LCT revival of South Pacific, this was an admirable and gorgeously done production - but it still didn't make me love the show. But again as with SP, this is definitely the way to see a show you don't love. Sher took advantage of the vast sweep of the Vivian Beaumont's thrust stage to give us an expansive space of light and dark, of connection and uncrossable divides. He also managed to well-craft dialogue-less moments, notably the romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha. Armed with the choreography of Gattelli/Robbins, and a distant echo of the iconic moments from the film, he delivered a full and rich view of a trying-not-to-be-but-still-kind-of-is-racist musical.

Margin Notes: The Perfect Wife

Gwenevere Sisco and John Lenartz as Kathy and Paul.
Photo by Patrick Taylor.
The Perfect Wife

Seen on: Sunday, 5/10/15.
My grade: B-. Weak script bolstered by good design and some good performances.

Plot and Background
After her estranged father Paul slipped into dementia, Kathy returned to be caretaker - and much more than she bargained for, as Paul recognizes her as his late ex-wife Natalie more frequently than he does as his daughter, all grown up. Though Kathy's sister Sarah attempts to intervene, Kathy's and Paul's codependency runs too strong a current for her to divert. Per the program, "The Perfect Wife​won the 2012 Stanley Drama Award from Wagner College, was a semi-finalist in the National Playwrights Conference, and chosen for the 2013 nuVoices Play Festival at The Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. Karen L. Lewis (WGA & Dramatists Guild) has had productions and readings regionally and off Broadway and has won various awards."

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I have worked with the director, Audrey Alford, and the actor, Gwenevere Sisco, before, on a play I wrote, and consider them both friends. Gonna do my best to remain objective.


Play: I'm going to be honest, I wasn't really wild about the script. There was too much Exposition as Argument, where two characters argue by telling the other things they already know, for the benefit of the audience. And I think it ultimately hurt the actors' ability to build character, with nothing but angrily expositing to drive them. And the climax, I think, ought to have felt inevitable, unavoidable - instead, it just sort of ... happened, and it didn't feel earned. And then the play ended. For all that, I admired the portrayal of dementia in the character of Paul - the sudden unexplained swings of mood and memory felt honest - painful and heartbreaking and unfixable. I certainly felt for the impossible situation in which Kathy found herself, as well as the incommunicable gulf between her and her sister. Director Audrey Alford navigated the lines of tension between her characters well, orchestrating between moments of sweet calm and wild calamity.

Margin Notes: Finding Neverland

Matthew Morrison and Laura Michelle Kelly as J.M. Barrie
and Sylvia Llewlyn Davies. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Finding Neverland

Seen on: Thursday, 5/7/15.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
Playwright J.M. Barrie, struggling to write a new play that's not just a rehash of his earlier work, encounters widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four precocious sons and finds not only inspiration for Peter Pan, but a family that needs him as much as he needs them. This musical, commissioned by Harvey Weinstein and based off Miramax's film by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, was originally produced at Curve in Leicester in 2012. A revised version (with new writers and creative team) ran at the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts in 2014. That production transferred - with some recasting - to Broadway this spring.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen the film on which this is based, and wasn't that wild about it, but I'd also heard good reviews from some friends of mine, so I tried to go in with an open mind.


Play: I don't quite know how to evaluate this show. It sometimes works. It almost works. And then it stops working. So many songs end with the cast wearing expressions of exultation that the song itself did not reach or earn. And the scenes themselves are generally so overacted by the supporting players - it must be a choice, but a highly questionable one - that each line feels like an absurd declaration into a vacuum, with no connection to the rest of the show. There is definitely a problem in the writing - the lyrics are in general not interesting enough to be memorable, and the music, while not badly done, doesn't help elevate them. (there are a few exceptions, like "The Dinner Party," "Stronger," or "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground") But I wonder if the problem may actually just be that Paulus was the wrong director for this piece, though I've liked her other work tremendously. The staging of the songs feels slightly wrong, the scenes have no grounding in reality - not even in Barrie's heightened reality - and there's very little chemistry or consistency of tone. But then - sometimes there are moments of magic, of transcendence, that help excuse some of the annoying bits beforehand (see discussion in design). Oh and for God's sake, we all agree that Cheers joke was so far beneath them that it may already be buried underground?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Margin Notes: Two Gentlemen of Verona

Zachary Fine and Andy Grotelueschen as Crab and Launce.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Two Gentlemen of Verona

Seen on: Saturday, 5/2/15.
My grade: B. A fun production of a bad play.

Plot and Background
Proteus and Valentine are best friends in Verona. Valentine travels to Milan and falls in love with Sylvia, who is also being pursued by Thurio. Though Proteus has pledged himself to Julia and exchanged rings with her, when he follows his friend to Milan, he too falls for Sylvia and seeks to sabotage Valentine's chances. Julia, meanwhile, because this is a Shakespearean comedy, puts on men's clothes and follow Proteus to Milan and witnesses his faithlessness. Some messed up gender politics ensue. Fiasco Theater has become known for its semi-deconstructed productions - often of Shakespeare - with minimal cast and sets, much character jumping and instrument playing, and a healthy sense of play. This production was originally produced by Folger Theatre in Washington DC last year.

What I Knew Beforehand
I haven't actually read the play, though I've certainly seen monologues performed from it. I knew some of Fiasco's work - I loved their Cymbeline and I had a mixed response to their recent Into the Woods.


Play: We need to start off by acknowledging what an absolutely problematic play this is. Fiasco certainly did, with their various scholarly quotations analyzing the work included in the program. It's called Two Gentlemen of Verona, and that term for either man could be used at best with a raised eyebrow. Proteus is a bad friend and a worse boyfriend, Valentine may be a slightly better one, but he still counsels the Duke with a "No means yes" wooing tutorial, and is all too willing to hand over Sylvia to a man who, not five minutes ago, threatened to rape her. What the hell, Shakespeare? That aside, this was still a fun production, but yeah, I wasn't rooting for any characters in this mess (well, maybe Crab and Launce. But certainly none of the lovers). The play travels at a pleasantly brisk pace, transitions smoothly running over Paul Coffey's musical accompaniment, and the character shifts happening smoothly and cleanly. Chemistry between performers is strong, and there's a good deal of fun to be had. But wow, Proteus is such a dick.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Margin Notes: Fun Home (a revisit)

Sydney Lucas and Michael Cerveris as Small Alison and Bruce.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Fun Home

Seen on: Wednesday, 4/29/15.
My grade: A. Profoundly moving, excellent ensemble work.

Plot and Background
Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home follows a grown Alison as she backtracks through her memories, writing her memoir, trying to sort through the contradictory memories and emotions attached to her closeted and emotionally abusive father. She struggles with the fact that a few months after she came out as gay in college, her father was hit by a truck - did he kill himself because of her? Because of him? Was it an accident? Alison's memories are aided by Small Alison, the child who knew she was different but not what it meant, and by Middle Alison, the college student, exploding into her sexuality like an epiphany. This show was developed at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, the Sundance Theatre Lab, and The Public Theater's Public Lab, before its full production at The Public in 2013-2014. It was nominated for numerous awards, and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That production has transferred to Broadway with its cast mostly intact (Emily Skeggs has taken over for Middle Alison, and the two brothers were also recast).

What I Knew Beforehand
I've broken my self-imposed rule to not review shows I've already seen, as I like the idea of doing this more as a first impressions from first exposure (which is why I haven't reviewed, say, Hand to God or The Audience). But I never reviewed Fun Home when I saw it at The Public and I should have, and the staging and set are different enough, that I'm allowing myself to defy myself. So what did I know beforehand? I saw the show at The Public (Emily Skeggs had already taken over for Socha by that time), I've listened to the cast album numerous times, and I've read Alison Bechdel's book on which it is based.


Play: What that does mean is that I'm going to focus the majority of my thoughts on cast and design. That being said, I think this is a remarkable show based on a remarkable book (that you should read. have you read it? go read it). The fluidity of it, narratively non-linear and yet absolutely emotionally so, following grown Alison through her memories of childhood, of coming out, of trying, over and over, to understand her father and why he did what he did. The fact that the lyrics are written by a playwright and not a lyricist lend them a more naturalized rhythm, as of dialogue elevated, even if it does result in some predictable or forced rhymes. And perhaps the structure could be stronger, I'm not sure (the elimination of "Al for Short" was a good cut, for the record). But it still feels like an important show, it's still so moving, and so unusual to see such a female-dominated story, to see a young girl sing a love song to a delivery woman. I'm so grateful this show got a Broadway transfer.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Only Slightly Uninformed Opinion on Tony Noms

Steven Boyer in Hand to God. Photo by Joan Marcus.
I should start with the caveat that I still haven't seen the following shows: The King and I, An American in Paris, Finding Neverland, Fish in the Dark, or Holler if Ya Hear Me (that last one's a lost cause, unfortunately, but I plan to catch the rest in the next month). I've seen the NTLive screening of Skylight, but not the current Broadway run yet.

That being said, here are my general thoughts on nominations and - I don't like the word snubs any more than you do - non-nominations. For a full list of nominees, click here.

While I'm not looking to kick out any of the four nominees for Best Play (Curious Incident ..., Disgraced, Hand to God, and Wolf Hall), I would have liked to see both Constellations and The River remembered, as I found them both such striking pieces of theater, moving and intimate and unusual. As for Best Revival of a Play, I don't have particularly strong opinions about what was included versus what was excluded - it's perhaps a sign that none of the Broadway play revivals this season really grabbed me (whereas the new plays were for the most part pretty exciting). Also, side note - how cool is it that a play got nominated for Best Choreography? And well-deserved - the staging of Curious Incident is something else.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Margin Notes: Airline Highway

Julie White and Scott Jaeck as Tanya and Wayne.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Airline Highway

Seen on: Thursday, 4/9/15.
My grade: B+. While not necessarily my kind of show, it was moving and very well acted.

Plot and Background
It's the very near future (May 2015, to be precise) at the gone-to-seed Hummingbird Motel, just off the Airline Highway in New Orleans, and the motel's inhabitants are throwing a "living funeral" for the not-quite-departed Miss Ruby. Most of the attendees are those who will never leave, but when Bait Boy, gone three years to a life of respectability, returns with his stepdaughter in tow, tempers fly. This play is Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D'Amour's Broadway debut, and has transferred to New York from its recent run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

What I Knew Beforehand
Literally nothing but the title.


Play: I don't know if everyone will like this show. There's not a whole lot of plot to it - it's more a collage, a collection of portraits, a landscape even, than a story. I've been seeing people compare it to Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead or The Hot L Baltimore, and it certainly has elements in kind with those - an ensemble of semi-broken individuals, clinging together while also desperately trying to break apart, break free into something else. This is post-Katrina New Orleans, and no one's very optimistic about their prospects. Musically it also evokes Wilson's work, in its overlapping dialogue and conversations - no one politely takes his turn here, and there are often two or more conversations happening at one time. So I don't know if everyone will like this show. But if theater is meant to elicit honest and spontaneous emotion from its audience, this show worked for me. I found myself suddenly crying in Act Two, and I didn't stop until the curtain call. Perhaps it was just Miss Ruby's insistence, when looking at her despairing children in the lot of a motel that's being threatened by a newly-opened Costco across the way, that despite what they think they "are not disposable." An important thing to remember.

Margin Notes: The Visit

Chita Rivera as Claire. Photo by Thom Kaine.
The Visit

Seen on: Saturday, 3/28/15.
My grade: B+. A fine production of a show that just wasn't for me.

Plot and Background
Claire Zachannasian, a widow several times over and now one of the wealthiest women in the world, returns to her former hometown, now a crumbling ruin of poverty and despair, and still clinging desperately to the hope that she will save it. However, her offered salvation comes with a price - she will pay the town a billion dollars - if they kill Anton, the man who jilted her when she was a teenager. It's been a long road to Broadway for this musical, adapted from Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1956 play; originally produced in 2001 in Chicago (still starring Chita - she's been with it the whole time), then at Virginia's Signature in 2008, then in the Williamstown festival last year, it now comes to Broadway condensed to one act.

What I Knew Beforehand
If memory serves, I performed in a scene from the original straight play when I was in college 300 years ago. And of course, I know plenty of other work by the authors Kander & Ebb, and McNally.


Play: While the show itself doesn't necessarily speak to me, score or script, and the staging is often deliberately distancing (echoes of Brecht whenever the townspeople come into play), this really was a very well done production. The whole thing was eerie, vaguely surreal. From Claire's entrance, a stack of suitcases rolled in on top of a black coffin (she came prepared!), through the ghosting appearances of Young Anton and Young Claire, flitting throughout the action, to the bizarre "Yellow Shoes" number, and ending in Claire's and Anton's exit, the whole thing could feel like a dream, but a very deliberate one. One got the sense that none of the other people of the town were quite real, outside of Claire and Anton.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Margin Notes: Something Rotten!

Brad Oscar and Brian d'Arcy James as Nostradamus and
Nick Bottom. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Something Rotten!

Seen on: Saturday, 3/28/15.
My grade: C. While not a terrible show, it was largely disappointing.

Plot and Background
Nick Bottom and his brother Nigel are struggling playwrights in Renaissance England - and Nick has nothing but resentment for Shakespeare, a rock star blowhard who seems to steal other people's writing more often than he creates his own. Desperate to have a hit (and to not lose his last cent and patron), Nick finds a soothsayer to tell him what show to write - and thus the first musical was born. However, this seer's sight is a little ... cloudy. Throw in some Puritans, a cross-dressing wife, and a healthy dose of self-awareness. World premiere.

What I Knew Beforehand
Something about Shakespeare as a rock star, and a very self-aware musical about writing a musical. And that a whole mess of actors I like are in it.


Play: I should open by saying that I saw the show in its first week of previews, and it is my understanding that the show has had revisions and improvements since then. After seeing all the cute viral marketing of Brian d'Arcy James and Christian Borle clowning around, I guess I expected a slightly different show than I got (for one, CB's not in it that much at all). While the show has a good heart and fun intentions, it just wasn't clever enough. Many of the nods to contemporary references, courtesy of Nostradamus, were definitely entertaining, and the portrayal of Shakespeare as a hack high on his own hype was a good touch, but the main characters and their story ultimately just weren't as compelling as the fun fringier aspects (and every time Brother Jeremiah made another "accidental" gay innuendo, I cringed. It's not funny, it's just dumb). Fun songs included the show-stopper "A Musical," the first act finale, "Bottom's Gonna Be on Top," and Shakespeare's second act number, "Hard to Be the Bard."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Margin Notes: Living on Love

Douglas Sills and Anna Chlumsky as Vito and Iris.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Living on Love

Seen on: Wednesday, 4/1/15.
My grade: B. Good clean fun.

Plot and Background
Conductor Vito De Angelis and his wife Raquel, a soprano diva, are both facing the risk of waning careers as they age (he seeing the threat of Leonard Bernstein behind every corner; she, the risk of becoming - gasp - a mezzo-soprano). They both embark on competing memoirs ("Call Me Maestro" vs. "Call Me Diva"), with ghost writers trailing desperately behind them, trying to sort through the lies and exaggerations to find some truth. This play is based on Garsin Kanin's 1985 play Peccadillo, and originally premiered at the Williamstown Theater Festival in July 2014.

What I Knew Beforehand
Farcical farce-type shenanigans starring Renee Fleming as an opera star and Douglas Sills, who was in The Scarlet Pimpernel and therefore will always be loved by me.


Play: You know, for what it was, it was fine. It got laughs in the right places, and didn't annoy too much. Is it a life-changing play, or one that is likely to have much life beyond this cast? No. But it was a fun, and not overlong evening out, fast-paced, and with some pretty good talent onstage. A friend I saw it with was less than impressed but as for me, after sitting through Something Rotten and It Shoulda Been You, neither of which were nearly as funny as they needed to be to make me enjoy myself, this gave me a pretty good time. I have no complaints.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Margin Notes: Sequence 8

Alexandra Royer. Photo by Lionel Montagnier.
Sequence 8
Seen on: Thursday, 4/16/15.
My grade: A. Wonderful, thrilling work.

Plot and Background
A combination of acrobatics, modern dance, meta commentary, absurd sketch, juggling, and anything else you can think to throw in, acts segueing seamlessly (but for applause breaks) into each other. Sequence 8 originally premiered in Lyon, France in 2012, and has performed in 15 other countries. This performance is part of its US tour. The company, Les 7 Doigts de la Main, is a Montreal-based group founded in 2002 whose "initial goal was to restore a human scale to the circus."

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen 7 Fingers's last New York offering, Traces, at the Union Square Theatre in 2011, and loved it. (And of course I'd seen the recent Pippin revival on Broadway, which boasted acrobatic choreography by Gypsy Snider, one of the company's founding members, as well as several performers from the company)


Play: As evidenced in my review of 2011's Traces (linked above), I struggle to find a concise way to describe just what makes 7 Fingers's work special. Maybe it's related to how often they address each other by name, the feeling that there is something personal happening for each of them on the stage. Maybe it's the beautifully kept balance between the eight performers who seem to breathe as one, and the sense of spontaneity to their play. This is the first time they're doing this; they've been doing this all their lives. And because there's such a good tonal balance, the transitions between the acrobatic stunts, the group dances, the "interviews," the pantomimes, the spectacular moments are truly spectacular, gasp-worthy, the absurd moments whimsical and sweet and funny. You feel like you're watching something truly special, something unusual and not to be seen again. Standouts include (god, how do I choose?) Eric Bates's cigar box juggling, a whimsical defiance of gravity and other laws of physics; Alexandra Royer's hanging hoop dance, where she ran without touching the ground; and Devin Henderson's frankly terrifying sliding up and down the Chinese pole.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Margin Notes: It Shoulda Been You

Lisa Howard and Tyne Daly as Jenny and Judy.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
It Shoulda Been You

Seen on: Monday, 3/23/15.
My grade: D+. A convoluted and unfunny book, pedestrian songs, rescued in part by a talented cast, but there's only so much they can salvage.

Plot and Background
There's the bride, the groom, the bride's controlling and hypercritical mother, the groom's possessive dipsomaniac mother, the bride's overlooked and overweight sister, the two beleaguered fathers, the bride's ex, the best man and maid of honor, and the omniscient wedding planner with his two wise-cracking assistants. Hijinks, secret plans, and plot twists ensue. Did I leave anything out? Oh yes, there's also a bit of Jews vs. Gentiles. This show played previously at the George Street Playhouse in in New Jersey in 2011, with some of the same cast. This marks the Broadway directorial debut for David Hyde Pierce.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew it was a big ensemble cast full of actors I've enjoyed, and that it was about a wedding.


Play: I wanted to enjoy this more than I did, but the jokes weren't consistently funny, the songs barely ever interesting, and the characters were more often than not archetypes rather than unique individuals. And honestly I feel like a lot of the plot twists would have played more interestingly had the audience been in on them from the start. I don't have a whole lot to say beyond that, because the show just didn't grab me, so I'm going to take a slight tangent to talk about a bit of a beef I had. Apologies. I was particularly disappointed in the writing for the character of Jenny, the bride's sister, a woman who was a size or three larger than her ingenue sister. Her mother, in stereotypical Jewish Mother Mode, regularly berates her for not trying hard enough, etc etc etc, and treating any imperfection of appearance as a character flaw. And obviously this perspective exists, and is prevalent in the world, but - just once I'd like to see a story where a character starts out owning herself, and where that perspective, that toxic type of opinion is dismissed out of hand, is not given a shred of validity by any other character. Instead, it followed the same stereotypical path of Jenny wrapping her entire sense of self-worth on how others view her, and it's not until she's pronounced beautiful by her mother at the end, that you get the sense she's gained any real lasting sense of self esteem. I wish her character had had any more defining feature than "overweight and self-esteem wrapped around that fact" because I think it's fantastic that we got a show where the protagonist was not your typical leading lady. But she needs more definition than this. She needs a better story than this.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Margin Notes: Wolf Hall, Pts. 1 & 2

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. Photo by
Johan Persson.
Wolf Hall, Pts. 1 & 2
Part One: Wolf Hall
Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies

Seen on: Thursday, 4/2/15 and Friday, 4/3/15.
My grade: A. Competently done, all around.

Plot and Background
Wolf Hall tracks Thomas Cromwell's rise from being the fallen Cardinal Wolsey's supporter and friend to becoming King Henry VIII's right hand man, despite class and religious prejudices of the King's other advisers. He must bring about the annulment of King Henry's marriage to his first wife, Katherine (and in so doing, separate England forever from the Pope and Catholicism), and arrange his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies continues the narrative after the marriage, as Anne fails to produce a male heir, and the King's attentions wander to the young Jane Seymour. Cromwell must again negotiate an annulment to the King's marriage, by any means necessary. These two plays, produced by the RSC in January 2013 and transplanted now to Broadway, are based on the first two novels of an intended trilogy by Hilary Mantel, which reframes King Henry's reign from the perspective of his political fixer Thomas Cromwell. The novels were award-winning though controversial, and have also inspired a BBC miniseries (now airing on PBS) starring Mark Rylance.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew that this was based on the first two books of a very popular trilogy of novels (third novel not yet out) by Hilary Mantel, following Cromwell's adventures with Henry VIII. And I vaguely remembered what some of those adventures might entail from history class, some movies, some plays, you know the drill.


Play: What's fascinating, watching the smoothly manipulative Cromwell navigate his way through these six hours, is on how many levels he's operating simultaneous. What is his primary drive? Is it a simple rise to power? A desire for control and influence over his monarch? A forwarding of Martin Luther and the Gospels? Serving his king? Or - as the final chilling tableau would have us believe - a protracted but sure revenge on the people responsible for the death of his spiritual father? It made me really want three things: 1 - part three; 2 - to read the books; 3 - to see how the miniseries handles it. This was a very cool perspective on a story we've already seen from a variety of angles (history class, The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, a spot of A Man for All Seasons, and other retellings) but this one focuses on Cromwell and not the more dramatic royals. It's behind the scenes in a different way - where policy is crafted, bargains struck, and the ladder slowly but surely climbed by the "butcher's boy." My one real criticism would be that both parts are rather long. My other vague criticism may spout from the fact that I was rather foggy in the head from a cold when I saw the show, and so while I had no difficulty following the plot or staying awake, there were an awful lot of characters whose wrongs I couldn't always track - it just all gets rather busy when you're dealing with history, I suppose. It was a good production, and if not action-packed, it was packed with men  (and a few women) planning their next move.

Final random thought: It was interesting, with the 2008 Frank Langella revival of A Man For All Seasons still fresh in my memory, to see Cromwell and More play the villains in each other's stories.