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: