Monday, March 28, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W14: Take Me Out, Paradise Square, To My Girls

3/22/22: Take Me Out
What: 2nd Stage's starry revival of Richard Greenberg's play about a mixed-race MLB player who comes out as gay, and the reverberations of that announcement--including how it affects a quiet gay accountant who's just been assigned the newly-out player as a client and who now finds himself surprisingly invested in baseball, both as a sport and a metaphor.
And? Between this and Caroline, or Change last season, I'm officially hitting the milestone of seeing revivals of shows whose original runs I caught. Which means, inevitably, my brain's going to start making comparisons. And a few epiphanies, like how I didn't realize til I saw the play again this week how much Take Me Out influenced my playwriting voice as a college student--especially a narrator who keeps changing his mind mid-thought about how he wants to frame a story.* And speaking of segues, that leads to my biggest complaint with this revival: the script is written such that every character at some point changes his mind about what he's saying midsentence, cuts himself off, and starts a new thought. This was very clear in the original production directed by Joe Mantello, But here, under Scott Ellis's direction, the nuance of too many of these moments is missed, with only one overall thought being communicated. It doesn't obfuscate the meaning of the play, but it removes a lot of the interesting depth from it (since this is a problem across the whole cast, I'm laying blame with the director). I'm also laying blame with both him and lighting designer Kenneth Posner, for too often not sufficiently illuminating their actors' faces. Especially with this cast, where two of the three leads have more camera than stage credits and so do most of their work in their face, we need to see what those faces are doing. My final complaint before moving on to the positives is that I didn't feel like this production knew what its center was--like it couldn't decide if it was the mind (Kippy), the heart (Mason), or the enigma (Darren), and somehow landed on none of the above.

Positives! Scott Ellis has done a good job with finding verisimilitude in clubhouse behavior, what the players do while they're talking about whatever they're talking about. Jesse Tyler Ferguson is always a delight onstage and he is lovely at charting Mason's growing enthusiasm for baseball, and how much he's learning about himself. Brandon J. Dirden, who's been getting so much work lately (yay) is excellent as always, charming and aloof and ultimately shatteringly dismissive. Michael Oberholtzer and Jesse Williams acquit themselves well as the antagonistic forces in the play, sometimes trying to reach each other, but too often at such a stark divide they may as well be standing by the destruction of the Tower of Babel (the image made sense in my head, leave me alone). And at the end of the day it's still a good, if imperfect play (a friend of mine has raised some valid criticisms about how "safe" both of the gay characters are, as neither of them are sexually active), and I'm glad Greenberg got the chance to make a few minor tweaks to the text to recognize how certain conversations about both consent and race are changing.

*[Another interesting connection: both plays feature an exchange in the denouement where the white character asks if they can be friends again and the Black character either denies or questions whether they were friends in the first place.]

Jesse Williams, center, as Darren Lemming, and the cast of Take Me Out.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

What: A new musical from Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, Larry Kirwan, Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, and Masi Asare, about the historic Five Points in lower Manhattan during the American Civil War, when free Black people and Irish immigrants lived together in harmony, and all gathered in Nelly O'Brien's brothel-pub-homebase, Paradise Square. But tensions soon rise, stirred by a local city "boss" and fears of what will happen when the war ends.
And? Before I get into my issues, I want to start off with the good this time: it is so wonderful to finally see Joaquina Kalukango leading a musical. She's a powerhouse talent, and it's been a long time coming. She brings nuance, intelligence, passion, and a tightrope balance of strength and vulnerability to her portrayal of Nelly, a Black woman thriving in a white man's world, and elevating her songs to a higher level. The choreo is an impressive contrast (and sometimes blend) of Irish Step and African Step, led by some talented Dance Captain/ringers in the cast (Chloe Davis, Colin Barkell, and Garrett Coleman, who for better or worse outshine the two principal characters who are meant to be excellent dancers). Allen Moyer's multi-level scenic design is effectively skeletal, a reminder of the scaffolding that frames so many New York buildings-in-progress, and perhaps a foreshadowing that this thriving community has a clock ticking on its existence.

Now then. There are a lot of cooks in this kitchen, even leaving out the six writers. In addition to director Moises Kaufman, there is not only a choreographer (Bill T. Jones), but also a Musical Stager (Alex Sanchez), and two people specifically for Irish & Hammestep choreo (Garrett Coleman, Jason Oremus). There is also a lot this show is trying to do. It's a very ... full show. But with this crowded atmosphere, there's not a lot of space to carve out real individualized characters. Kalukango's Nelly is fully realized, a person with strengths, weaknesses, and choices she must make and live with, but a lot of the others are very nearly stock characters with only a few flavors to play within that space (Annie Lewis, the Fiery Irish sister-in-law; Washington Henry, the earnest young idealist on the run; Frederic Tiggins, the singular embodiment of White Supremacy; Milton Moore, aka Cultural Appropriation; 'Lucky' Mike Quinlan, the Irish ally-turned-traitor, a turn that the show doesn't actually manage to earn). Once you figure out which Type each character is, there are no more more surprises to be had out of them. This is true as well for the story being told.

I can't help thinking of Ragtime, another ambitious historical musical about race in America, also produced by that ratfink Drabinsky (yes, he's back, yes he's producing this show, and no, I have no idea why anyone is still trusting him with their money. It's his fault we lost Ragtime too soon! /rant). Both shows set out to give space to a part of American history that's been erased, to confer dignity to Black people in a society that would prefer they remain invisible, and to wish quietly for a more peaceful future. But Ragtime had more variety and modulation in its score, whereas most of the songs here sound too similar--I craved desperately for a moment of quiet and instead too often I got another bombast. Even one of the more poignant plights, as sung by young Owen, "Why Should I Die in Springtime," becomes a big dance number both times it's sung (though I did like its dramatic pairing with "I'd Be a Soldier"--these two were the strongest songs for me). And though the choreo does strong work in the show to differentiate between the African Step and Irish Step for the ensemble, the music rarely reflects that cultural dichotomy. I want to honor the ambition that went into making this show, including how many talented artists are involved, but ultimately the show is often enough nearly three hours of Same. It's not there yet, but I think somewhere underneath all the bluster, there's a good story to be told, and a good show.

The company of Paradise Square at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W13: Notes From Now, Prayer for the French Republic, Help, The Life, Discus

What: Prospect Theater Company presents a song cycle about surviving the pandemic, written by a host of theater writers, and performed by a diverse cast.
And? Uneven but not unpleasant. Understudy Genesis Adelia Collado is particularly striking and poignant in their songs ("Soon" by Michelle J. Rodriguez and "Under the Snow" by Georgie Castilla and Jaime Lozano), and Josh Lamon is ticklishly funny in his ("Ovid" by Jeff Blumenkrantz and "Coming Back to You" by Peter Mills).

Ashley Blanchet, center, and cast. Photo source.

What: MTC presents Joshua Harman's new play, about several generations of a Jewish family living in Paris, France and their longstanding legacy of surviving persecution while selling pianos. The play covers both the recent present (2016ish) and during and immediately after World War II.
And? To be a Jew is to be the descendant of the survivor of a pogrom. Of a massacre. Of a genocide. This is what I kept thinking while watching Harman's powerful play, beautifully directed and staged by David Cromer, with a consistently superb ensemble (special praise for Kenneth Tigar as Adolphe and Francis Benhamou as Elodie). I thought of my own family, and what we escaped (or didn't). My great-grandmother came to America using the one ticket her family could afford, a ticket that was bought for her oldest sister. Her sister chose to stay; my great-grandmother took the ticket. That choice is the reason I exist. It is also the reason my great-grandmother lost her entire family. To stay or to go--to stay in your home with your loved ones, with the language you know, or to leave it all behind because you are not sure it is safe to exist as you are, where you are--this is the central question and argument of the play. Teenage Pierre's grandparents chose to stay during the war, as the generations of their family behind them had, and miraculously survived German occupation. Pierre and his father, who also stayed, had to watch the rest of their family be destroyed in the camps. A generation later, Pierre's middle aged daughter Marcelle and her adult children are sadly reckoning with the same question, in a France that is feeling more and more inhospitable to Jews. Her son Daniel, the only family member to wear a visible signal of his Judaism (his kipa), has been attacked more than once, and they are considering joining the 8,000 other Jews who have fled France for Israel.

Throughout the play Marcelle's acerbic brother Patrick speaks to us, not only his family's history, but also of historic moments of Jewish persecution (the smaller forgotten ones that get quiet plaques), even as in the present day his sister grapples with her  terror over the increasing count of hate crimes against Jews in Europe. I saw the show on the night of Purim, a holiday commemorating our escape from destruction by Persian vizier Haman. Purim is a night of celebration and feasting. The night I went, I sat surrounded by a denser population of Hebrew speakers than I've encountered since my last trip to Israel. The night I went (and, I assume most nights), the end of each of the three acts is accompanied by sniffling and weeping from the majority of the audience. This fear, this confusion, this recognition that this is our story, permeates the space. I do not know how it is to see this play as a gentile. But as a Jew, I felt seen, I felt mirrored, as the argumentative family delved not only into their own personal experiences and fears but the larger sociological implications of the resurging antisemitism, the overlap with any dialog regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the feeling of isolation, of having no true allies on either the Left or the Right of the political divide, of sitting terrified in the growing chasm, wondering "where is it safe for us to exist?" Wondering if we are always destined to be a wandering people.

This production's been getting a lot of acclaim, and for good reason. I'm so grateful it extended enough times that I was able to see it.

Molly Ranson, Jeff Seymour, and Yair Ben-Dor as Molly, Charles, and Daniel.
Photo by

Margin Notes: Discus

Philip Estrera and Patrick T. Horn as Apollo and Hyacinth.
Photo by Al Foote.

Seen on: Saturday, 3/19/22.
My grade: A-

Plot and Background
"I need to pray. Where am I?" Hyacinth, a mortal prince, awakens to find himself no longer in life, but somehow not yet in death. Caught in the Nether, he tries to remember how he got here, and what came before, flashing back to the time leading up to his injury. In these flashbacks we see a gala benefit hosted by the god Apollo, where the two meet and have an instant attraction, growing closer over time, to the chagrin of Hyacinth's former lover, the jealous west wind Zephyrus. Hunger and Thirst's production of Becca Schlossberg's Apollo and Hyacinth retelling was originally slated for 2020, but was delayed two years by the *gestures at everything*.

What I Knew Beforehand
Nothing of the story, which is always exciting, but I've enjoyed a number of Hunger and Thirst's previous outings.


Play: This is a beautiful work. Sweet and intimate, with still the epic threads that are sewn into any myth involving the pantheon. Playwright Becca Schlossberg's work exists both in the then of the original myth and the now of contemporary mores, where Hades has a PDA and the gossiping winds sound like any young starlets at a Hollywood party, looking to score either a hook up or word of someone else's hook up. Even with this grounding, Schlossberg doesn't shy from the larger question of how do you love a monster--for a god who lives forever, even if today he is kind and generous, is the same god who a generation earlier called down a plague and jealously murdered his sister's mortal lover. Is he the same person he was, or, like the Ship of Theseus, is he constantly rewriting himself when no mortal is left to remember who he was before? Is he worthy of the sweet prince Hyacinth, and is he strong enough to wrest him back from death when disaster strikes? Can love live on when the body cannot?

Monday, March 14, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W12: Plaza Suite, The Music Man

 3/07/22: Plaza Suite
What: The Broderick-Parker revival of Neil Simon's comedy--three one acts that all take place in the same suite at the Plaza Hotel, with the two leads starring as the central characters in each act.
And? The tl;dr version is this show isn't for me, and I could have predicted that. I've never been a big Neil Simon fan, and I vaguely remembered being underwhelmed by this particular script when I saw a community theater production as a child. I'm also not a particular fan of the leads, especially Mr. Broderick, whose stage persona has been bewildering me for a few decades now. But I was graciously gifted a free ticket, and thought I might as well go. I've been told now that Act One is the weakest; I didn't end up staying to see Acts Two or Three. Watching Act One just made me tired and somewhat sad at the complete stagnant inertia of the performance. However, the audience around me was laughing and rapturously applauding, and I hope they enjoyed the next two acts even more than the first. I hope anyone who wants to see real life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker onstage sees this show and  has a lovely night out, I really do. I don't want to yuck someone's yum. But this one just wasn't for me.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick as Muriel Tate and Jesse
Kiplinger in Act Two: "Visitor from Hollywood." Photo by Joan Marcus.

What: That big ol' revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, about a conman who tries to sell a small town in Iowa on forming a boy's marching band, and gets his foot caught in the door.
And? Whenever my hometown would stage Golden Age musicals on our main proscenium stage, they adhered to the staging standard in which those shows were written: in the pre-hydraulic era of scenic design, where small talky scenes happen on the front apron of the stage while the big set is hurriedly changed over behind the closed curtains. In what is surely a deliberately nostaglia-inducing move, director Jerry Zaks's revival of The Music Man employs a similar device with a lowered barn-front flat (scenic design Santo Loquasto), as well as the use of Grant Wood style painted backdrops, which have visibly patched-together sections rather than being one large piece. So, a nostalgic throwback to an earlier style, but with some noticeable stitching on it.

Can you see where I'm going with this? If you've heard the gossip about this revival, then probably yes.

The rewrites are ... well, they feel inevitable after the slapdash revisal trend we've been seeing in the past few years, including the Gigi rewrite, which tried to rewrite its way around the fact that Gigi is a teen girl training to be a courtesan; the Kiss Me, Kate rewrite, which missed the point by trying to pretend pre-growth Petruchio is not the misogynist he is (why?); to this season's truly misguided Encores! rewrite of The Tap Dance Kid, which erased Emma's fat identity. I'm not saying there's nothing to grapple with when we revive older works with problematic content. But washing over them to pretend these issues were never there is problematic in a new and troubling way. To take it to the extreme, trying to pretend problematic attitudes don't exist, even in beloved works, is the kind of historical revisionist methodology that makes it easier for people to pretend slavery wasn't the monstrosity that it was, or that antisemitism hasn't been a problem for literal centuries. This is not woke culture. This is not even PC culture. This is people not understanding nuance, and trusting their audience to understand it even less. My friend and fellow pundit Michael Dale has also pointed out the basic problematic issue of rewriting works without an author's consent (because the author isn't alive to consent), and still selling it as the original thing, and not a new adaptation. If you don't feel safe doing the work as written, maybe don't do the show? Maybe write a new show?

To remove my Henny Penny hat though, I will say that the rewrites in this case are also just ... bad. The removal of the initial invocation of Balzac means that Marian's subsequent line to her mother, an intended laugh line, makes little sense and lands with a thud. The Mayor's dislike of Tommy Djilas is no longer rooted in Tommy's class status (and his implied first generation American status). And "Shipoopi" is now a song about "the boy who tries his best." That's ... that's a bad lyric. We can all agree that's a bad lyric, right?

Anyway. The show is okay. It's not extraordinary and it's not a total failure; it's okay. Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster are fine, but I have to make the damning admission that I enjoyed the show more in the moments they weren't onstage. I don't think Warren Carlyle's choreo is particularly effective at advancing plot or character (and it goes on too long, but I said the same thing about Kathleen Marshall's choreo for the last Music Man revival), and actually I think undermines Marian's arc in particular in "Marian the Librarian" (1, if someone was encouraging everyone to toss books in the air in MY library, that'd be a deal breaker for me; 2, it's a fine Taming-of-the-Shrew line but if you don't want Hill to come off as a complete stalker, we need to see Marian softening toward him earlier on, and this is the number to do it, and they don't do it). The kids are great, both the wee ones (Benjamin Pajak as Winthrop and Kayla Teruel as Amaryllis) and the teen ones (Gino Cosculluela as Tommy and Emma Crow as Zaneeta). The School Board barbershop quartet (Phillip Boykin, Nicholas Ward, Daniel Torres, and Eddie Korbich) sound amazing on all their numbers, and y'all, the opening number on the train ("Rock Island") is a complete DELIGHT start to finish. They nailed it. Oh and the puppet! The puppet is great.

See? I didn't hate it.

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster as Harold Hill and Marian Paroo, center,
with the cast of The Music Man. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W11: Coal Country

3/04/22: Coal Country
What: Audible Theater and Cherry Lane Theatre host an encore run of Jessica Blank, Erik Jensen, and Steve Earle's new docuplay with music about the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia and its aftermath.
And? I'm divided on how to react, because my initial criticism is that this is awkwardly staged. But then I have to remind myself that they originally staged it at The Public, then restaged at Cherry Lane, which has notoriously challenging stage access points for actor entrances and exits (to say nothing of the fact that the performance I saw was their first in the new space). But ultimately I do still think anything involving the whole ensemble is visually clunky, even as the various monologues and harrowing stories told by the survivors are powerful and engaging. Looking at the production photos on the website tells me it probably looked better at The Public. Ah well, alas, alack.

Positives: Carl Palmer is an absolute standout as the no-bullshit Goose with his quiet dignity and simmering fury. Richard Hoover's scenic design, a curving slat of boards from floor to back wall, recalls both a coal chute and a structure on the verge of collapse. When Goose spoke of the ventilation system's ineffectiveness and the danger of the methane in the mine, my eyes were continually drawn to the breaks in the wall, the cracks threatening to suddenly shatter.

The cast of Coal Country with Thomas Kopache, center, as Gary. Photo source.