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.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Margin Notes: Gigi

Vanessa Hudgens as Gigi. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Monday, 3/30/15.
My grade: A. Really just a stellar production all around.

Plot and Background
Paris, 1900. Honore, an aging bon vivant, celebrates the glories of l'amour, while his rich nephew Gaston is heading toward another break up with his current mistress. Meanwhile, Gaston's young friend Gigi, raised by her grandmother and great aunt, is dismayed and confused by Paris's fixation on matters of the heart. But as she starts to come into her own maturity, Gaston notices, and, well ... sparks fly. Gigi was originally adapted from the 1945 Colette novel into an Oscar-winning film by Lerner and Loewe in 1958, then later turned into a stage musical in 1973. This production has a revised script by Heidi Thomas, and premiered first at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center in January this year before transferring to Broadway.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen the film numerous times, so was fairly familiar with the story and score. I also knew we were in for some revisions, to smooth over some of the less-acceptable-in-these-here-times aspects of the narrative.

Major Changes
The primary change was to Gaston's character, which - let's face it - needed some revision. No longer the bored cynic, he instead values innovation over romance, frequently visiting the World's Fair, and talking enthusiastically of various technological advances. He's also cast considerably younger (and sweeter-faced) than in the film, and so seems more able to be Gigi's equal, and more deserving of her love, than Louis Jourdan could.

I don't remember the score perfectly enough to speak to every particular change, but the two major revisions I noted were to the men's songs - "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," formerly the rather uncomfortable anthem sung by Honore, is now shared by Mamita and Aunt Alicia and transformed into a gentle argument (think the film revision of "America" for West Side Story but with less dancing); and Gaston's duet with Honore, "It's a Bore," is revised to no longer be a blanket rejection by Gaston of every one of Honore's suggestions, but rather a conversation with Gaston making his own suggestions of values beyond romance in Paris.


Play: This was just utterly lovely, all around. It stayed faithful to what made the original film charming, while working to improve some of its more problematic elements (a career-long issue for the misogynistic Lerner and Loewe, it seems). I loved the design of it, the staging of it, the casting - everything working together to make a perfectly enjoyable evening. (not having seen King and I yet, I feel like if the race for best revival were between Gigi and On the Town, it would honestly just break down to which show or story you preferred originally). As for the revisions, they mostly worked - both Gigi and Gaston were more dynamic figures, and it was nice to see Gigi with a bit more agency. However, Gaston's reformation was still hamstrung by his songs. His rant in the title song is still just as nasty and infantilizing, for all that Corey Cott tries to soften it. That song was written to fit the film Gaston, and not the stage Gaston.