Saturday, November 27, 2021

Only Cups of Tea and History and Someone in a Tree

 Thank you, Stephen Sondheim.

Stephen Sondheim. Photo by Fred R. Conrad.

On Friday morning, one of America's most important theater writers, not just of the 20th century, but of all time, passed away. Stephen Sondheim was 91. In a career spanning six decades he gave us so much work, work that has changed so many lives, including mine. I wrote my college essay about his Pulitzer Prize-winner, Sunday in the Park with George, and how it resonated with me as someone hoping to spend her life telling stories. And with the parents we had, my siblings and I grew up knowing Into the Woods and Assassins and Sunday and Sweeney by heart. A precocious child, I tried to explain the interconnected plot of Woods to anyone who would listen. By fifth grade I was doing the same with Sweeney, including a full recital of "Worst Pies in London." My dad and I discovered the TV recording of Pacific Overtures together at Paley. My mom took me to the six shows of the Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration. Sondheim appears in every chapter of my dad's musical theater books. My mom realized she was pregnant with me while crying through Sunday's act one finale. My sister and I attended (nearly) twelve hours of Sondheim at Symphony Space's Wall to Wall Sondheim event. I saw John Doyle's revival of Company ten times (possibly eleven; I lost count). Sondheim's words and music are woven through so much of my life and the thread has just snapped. Or--as he himself wrote--something just broke.

For a lyricist so often accused of austerity, of coldness, he consistently managed to write with a poignancy that spoke to our souls and spirits. He continued to honor the assignment given by Dot to George: "Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new. Give us more to see." He gave us so much. Last year, in an April that saw my community in perpetual mourning, Raul Esparza organized an online concert to honor Sondheim's 90th birthday, and I cried through at least half of it. I'm so grateful for Mr. Sondheim. So grateful for the work he did, for the care he took. 

I can count on one hand the writers who changed my life, who changed the way I approach theater, writing, and storytelling. Sondheim's been one of them since I saw the VHS of Into the Woods, years before I knew I wanted to be a writer, wanted to be part of the theater. I'm not trying to be greedy. I know people age, they die. I just ... wasn't ready for him to go yet. His loss cannot be measured and my words are insufficient. 

Thanks for everything we did.
Everything that's past.
Everything that's over too fast.
None of it was wasted.
All of it will last.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W47: Medicine, Baby, Caroline, or Change, Clyde's, Constellations

 11/18/21: Medicine
What: St. Ann's Warehouse presents the American premiere of Enda Walsh's play about, well, about what an Enda Walsh play is about.
And? This feels very much a companion piece to Misterman, in part because while I was engrossed in the journey and feeling empathy for a character in clear crisis as he attempts to untangle the threads of his experience and tell his story, I was also waiting in vain for a moment of clarity or epiphany that never came. But listen, knowing that that's what you're often in for with an Enda Walsh play means that, to paraphrase Lincoln, for those who like this sort of play, this is the sort of play they would like.

Aoife Duffin as Mary 1, with Clare Barrett as Mary 2 in background.
Photo by Jess Shurte.

11/20/21: Baby
What: Out of the Box Theatrics presents an intimate whitebox revival of the Maltby & Shire musical about three couples of different generations and their potential pregnancies, with an updated script (in collaboration with the original authors) to reflect contemporary times and a more diverse representation of society.
And? This production doesn't just talk the talk when it comes to representation. Not only has the middle couple been revised to two women of color (Danielle Summons as Pam and Jamila Sabares-Klemm as Nicki) trying to conceive via a sperm donor, but the younger couple are both people with disabilities (Johnny Link as Danny has moderate-to-severe sensorineural hearing loss and Elizabeth Flemming as Lizzie--also OOTB's Founding Producing Artistic Director--is visually impaired). Even the older couple has been aged up to reflect the performers, as well as highlight how much Arlene (Julia Murney) has deferred her own dreams in favor of raising four children. It's a beautiful thing when the writers are still around to help revise their script for a new society, both book and score. The book remains a bit clumsy--there's a lot of characters explaining to their partners who they are (including their marginalized identities), rather than character moves, and some character moves are never even dramatized (Danny's transformation during his three month tour), but I'm giving them a lot of credit for what they're trying to do, and the score--well, that score still sings. Theaterlab is an intimate whitebox space and the production is ably staged by Ethan Paulini for an alley audience configuration with only three hard-working ensemble members, and you don't miss a word or moment, no matter where you're sitting (seriously, excellent sound design by W. Alan Waters of DimlyWit Productions).  For the cast, Julia Murney and Danielle Summons are the most adept at the emotional heavy lifting (and comedic timing), as well as in wonderful voice, but truly there are no bad performances here.

The cast of Baby. Photo by Kyle Huey.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W46: Urinetown: The Musical, Assassins

11/11/21: Urinetown: The Musical
What: Blue Hill Troupe's revival of the surprise Broadway hit about a town where the water shortage is so bad that people have to pay to pee.
And? The lovely thing about Blue Hill Troupe is you know the voices will be good--an especially nice thing when none of the cast are miked. And they're always having a lot of fun. In terms of acting and staging, they're about on par with community theater, which unfortunately means that a lot of the cast (and the directing) struggle to nail the tone of the script. However, three of their leads--Brady Lynch, Andrew F. Neuman, and Lauren Cupples, as Little Sally, Officer Lockstock, and Hope Cladwell--nail the tone, the acting, and the comedy.

The cast of Urinetown: The Musical. Photo source.

11/13/21: Assassins
What: Classic Stage Company's long-delayed John Doyle-directed revival of the Weidman-Sondheim musical about the various individuals who have tried to kill the U.S. President.
And? I should start off by saying that this is such a good show in its bones, so tight and clear, that even with the nits I'm about to pick, I still thought it was pretty good. Nit #1: while I think Doyle is more capable than a lot of other directors at staging his actors on a thrust stage so that they don't seem to be wandering aimlessly, the majority of his stage pictures still favor a minority section of the audience: the less than a third facing the front of the thrust. Seated as I was at the end of the side, I missed a number of the intended tableaux, especially in  the utilization of the projection screen bullseye (see image below). Similarly, while I don't know how the sound mixes from that minority angle, seated where I was, the instruments sometimes drown out the vocals. My biggest issue though is with Doyle's penchant for deliteralization. I still think his production of Company is the finest production of that show I've seen (don't worry, I'm seeing the newest one later this month), but I thought his Sweeney was weakened by not making it clear what particular actions were taking place. Similarly here, a number of the stakes are lost in particular scenes because we don't understand the physical threat: Booth parades around the space with no sign of a broken leg preventing his escape; Guiteau falters in his cakewalk but with no gallows for him to physically shy from, it's unclear why; Zangara screams from his chair but unless you have a good angle on the projection of the electric chair overhead, you don't realize these are his last words before his execution. And rather than being physically overwhelmed by the assassins, who shred him to transform the Balladeer to Oswald, actor Ethan Slater voluntarily surrenders his instrument and coverall.

Those issues aside, a lot works. Ann Hould-Ward's costume design is clear and clean, even against the rather unsubtle scenic design (which appears to be Doyle's work).  Will Swenson's Guiteau is twitchy mesmerizing, unable to be still even in stillness, his eyes darting in ever direction from beneath his lowered brow. Steven Pasquale's quiet dignity and charisma carry Booth well through many of the scenes, though I don't think he leans enough into the ugliness of Booth to remind us that this man is no hero. Brandon Uranowitz brings an earnest pathos to Czogosz. I could wish that Doyle brought more variety to the staging and light choreo for his ensemble--the first time they do a hopping march during "The Ballad of Czolgosz" it charms, but when that same move is repeated in later numbers, it becomes clear that there aren't a lot of tools in this particular box, and there is no staging particularity being given to the different musical styles. Final note, while the barbershop quartet harmonies still don't quite work (has anyone nailed them since the original 1991 cast?), the vocals are uniformly excellent and the orchestrations satisfying.

Regardless of the production, the thesis of the show remains chilling: the flipside of The American Dream, where Americans are born not only entitled to the pursuit of happiness, but happiness itself--and when happiness is denied, someone else is to blame and must be punished. This has always, unfortunately, resonated, but it is particularly pointed in light of January 6, 2021. 

I wouldn't mind seeing it again from a "better" angle.

Steven Pasquale as John Wilkes Booth, with Bianca Horn as the Flag Bearer,
and the cast of Assassins. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W45: GNIT, Wuthering Heights

11/06/21: GNIT
What: TFANA presents Will Eno's newest, an adaptation of Ibsen's Peer Gynt.
And? I found myself wishing I knew Peer Gynt, in order to see what was lifted and what was added/reinterpreted. For instance, this play seems a pretty clear indictment of a man with blinders so big he can never see what he has, including how privileged a position he occupies in the world, continually failing upward. Is that part of Ibsen's message, or a modern lens? And when he sees that a woman achieved peace and self-knowledge while he pursued aimlessly and failed over the same thirty years, he reacts by attempting to destroy what she built. Toward the end he looks to the audience and challenges us, if we feel sympathy, to feel sympathy for him, and bad news, Peter, I can't. Production-wise, Oliver Butler does a marvelous job crafting the play, with a poetic and appealing scenic design by Kimie Nishikawa, and a top tier cast, who all manage to deliver Eno's heightened and wry script with perfect straightforward manner (especially Jordan Bellow and David Shih).

Jordan Bellow as Stranger 1. Photo by Daniel Vasquez.

Streaming Theater Related Content I Watched

Monday, November 1, 2021

Weekly Margin 2021, W44: American Utopia, The Visitor, Minor Character, Sanctuary City, The Taming of the Shrew

 10/28/21: American Utopia
What: David Byrne's completely staged and designed concert/celebration.
And? I keep going back and forth on this. During the first three songs I came to the conclusion that this just wasn't for me, and that's fine. But as the stage filled with more and more musicians, as their pure enjoyment of the evening spread, it turned into a good time. I had a few disadvantages: I'm not too familiar with Byrne/Talking Head's song catalog, and during one song in which he encouraged the entire audience to their feet (and they joyfully acquiesced), I could see exactly nothing of the stage for an entire song. Which is not the most fun, y'all. It was a pretty sour note to hit near the end of the night for me, and it brought me back around to "this isn't for me, and that's fine." Back to the stuff that worked: the kinetic chemistry of the performers was consistently engaging, the design was clean, and the between-song patter didn't get in the way too much (near the end he seems to try to tie it all together into a cohesive whole, and that didn't work for me, but whatever). Byrne is a strange performer, never quite seeming at ease in his body, which looks sometimes like it's being marionetted across the stage, and his face has little affect. In spite of that, he commands the eye and attention, because he doesn't apologize for who he is or try to be what he's not. He's there, he has some songs to perform, he has a bunch of friends to help him do it, and we'll all be out of here in 100 minutes. So ... not really for me, but it might be for you?

David Byrne and the cast of American Utopia. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

10/31/21: The Visitor
What: The Public Theater presents a new musical adaptation of the 2007 film about a mild mannered economics professor awakened to the dire consequences of being an undocumented immigrant in a post-9/11 world through his surprise exposure to a Syrian drummer and a Senegalese jewelry maker.
And? Ugh. I spent most of the show wondering who the intended audience was, because it certainly wasn't for people who are already upset about the inhumane treatment of undocumented individuals in this country (and, for all that we're already upset, this portrayal is strangely cold and unaffecting). But then in David Hyde Pierce's embarrassingly written eleven o'clock number, "Better Angels," he flat out says he wants other old white men to be upset about this to. Okay then. But maybe a downtown musical isn't the right venue to reel them in? That's just one of many missteps here, in a production that delayed its opening in an attempt to decenter whiteness (mission not particularly accomplished), and lost one of its leads, Ari'el Stachel, in the process (we haven't officially been told why, but rumors are rumoring). I don't really understand casting David Hyde Pierce unless the point is that he can't sing well (and if that's the point, then I have questions ... we see him gradually get better at learning the beat of the drum, but his voice remains what it is)--and listen, I have a lot of respect for DHP and his love of live theater, but this was a mistake. Meanwhile, Tom Kitt needs to stop and think whether his melodies are actually serving the story being told, and the tenor of that story. The melody for Tarek's song about life in the prison is a great melody but it doesn't actually match the fear and desperation of the lyrics. And that's just one example. Did you like anything about the show, Zelda? Yes, I thought Alysha Deslorieux and Ahmad Maksoud were terrifically voiced, and the drum circle stuff was fun to listen to.

The company of The Visitor. Photo by Joan Marcus.