Monday, April 25, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W18: Wicked, A Strange Loop, POTUS

4/19/22: Wicked
What: Yes, indeed. My first return visit since Thanksgiving Day, 2003 to the musical based on Gregory Maguire's book about how Elphaba became the Wicked Witch of the West.
And? What's kind of funny to me is I still remember some of my takeaways from 2003, and those opinions still stand: 
  • The good songs are still so much fun ("What is This Feeling?," "Popular"), the bad songs are just terribly written, and "Defying Gravity" is a fantastic Act One closer. I even cried when Elphaba started flying this time. 
  • Casting Kristin Chenoweth as the original G(a)linda altered the writing of the show to such a degree that it injured the story by throwing it off-balance -- Glinda has the central change, not Elphaba, and that's a problem that becomes increasingly clear when they no longer have Cheno in the role.
  • The ending is such a stupid stupid cheat that makes no sense when you examine it for more than two minutes.
  • Damn that's a good show curtain/proscenium.
  • The Wizard's songs are so boring. I know I already had a bullet point about songs, but this bears repeating because they are so boring.
  • I'm still mad Glinda doesn't come clean to Elphaba about her role in what happens to Nessa. "Then again, I guess we know there's blame to share/And none of it seems to matter anymore" is trying to wash away a pretty big stain.
  • That aside, ELPHABA AND GLINDA ARE SO IN LOVE OMG. Fiyero is a beard.
Other thoughts, these newer:
  • Overall the machine that is Wicked holds up well.  Joe Mantello really is a good director. Wicked is an often mediocre show, but the shape of the thing, the stage pictures, all of it, is so much less crappy than the rushed-to-Broadway Frozen production that recently graced the stage.
  • The fact that they didn't build a new silver wig for the Tinman to reflect the hair texture of Jordan Barrow, the Black actor playing him, is lazy and racist.
  • I think originally casting Norbert Leo Butz, who always makes interesting and intelligent choices, hid the fact that Fiyero is extremely underwritten; however, this becomes immediately clear when they just cast ingenue men in the role who have less imagination.
  • The motif switch of "Unlimited" to "I'm limited" is so piercing and simple and just really really good, and it's frustrating that Stephen Schwartz can do that and also write the nonsense the ensemble has to sing in this show.
  • I had forgotten about the song "The Wicked Witch of the East," because it's not on the album. Some cool cool stuff in that song.
  • It's nice to see Broadway workhorses Michael X. Martin and Michael McCormick onstage; they're always reliable. Also pleased with the performance of Lindsay Pearce as Elphaba. You'd never know this was her Broadway debut. (Brittney Johnson was out the night I saw it, but her standby Allie Trimm, acquitted herself well enough)
  • I'm so glad Avenue Q won for best musical in 2004.
Lindsay Pearce as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What: The Broadway transfer of Michael R. Jackson's ourobouros musical about a Usher, a Black, queer aspiring writer and composer who's writing a musical about a Black, queer aspiring writer and composer writing about ...
And? Still brilliant, though the pacing gets sloppier as the show goes on (not sure if this is deliberate or not, a form-content choice, but it's a little rough on the audience). Jaquel Spivey is wonderful as Usher, with great voice, presence, and timing. The six actors playing Usher's thoughts are all in amazing voice and making great specific choices for each character (special note for James Jackson, Jr.'s timing, John-Andrew Morrison's blindered affection, and Antwayn Hopper's basso voice and physicality). The show samples from the canon in exciting ways (the chorus of voices calling for "Usher" a clear nod to the "Bobbys" of Company, to name just one example) while also having something entirely new to say. Seeing this show (already a Pulitzer-winner) gives me confidence that musical theater can and will continue to thrive, with new voices and ideas expanding the content and palate.

Jacquel Spivey, center, as Usher, with James Jackson, Jr., Jason Veasey, John-
Michael Lyles, L Morgan Lee, John-Andrew Morrison, and Antwayn Hopper.
Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W17: The Skin of Our Teeth, Funny Girl, Hangmen, Suffs

What: Lincoln Center's revival of Thornton Wilder's play about the Antrobus family and their maid Sabina, who are sometimes the first family (Adam, Eve, and offspring) and sometimes a contemporary family and sometimes a family torn apart by war, and sometime ... well, you get the picture. It's Wilder's three-act Pulitzer winner about a family facing an ice age, then an epic flood, then the ravages of war.
And? I still really like this play, but this production did not hold up against my memories of TFANA's thrilling production in 2017. Even with how transcendently wonderful Gabby Beans is as Sabina (and she absolutely is, oh my god), the production as directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz is too messy. Far too often I didn't know where to look, and I didn't know to whom (or what) I should be listening--and I often didn't have a choice because whatever sound was undermining the dialog rendered it so I couldn't properly listen to either the dialog or the distraction. Even something as simple as a slow motion sequence is undermined by the lack of unity in the cast on the actual speed of that slow motion. Adam Rigg's scenic design has some magical moments -- particularly the overgrown garden of Act III, or the working fun slide on the Atlantic City pier in Act II -- but it too sometimes distracts too much from whatever it is I'm supposed to be paying attention to in the story. When I saw the TFANA production, I described it at intermission as "it's about all of us, about everything, about whether we deserve to survive." I can still hear that story if I listen intently to this production, but the answer to the question seems to be increasingly "nah, but maybe next world-ending event around we'll do better."

Julian Robertson, Roslyn Ruff, Paige Gilbert, and the puppeteers as
Henry Antrobus, Mrs. Antrobus, Gladys Antrobus, and the dinosaur and
the wooly mammoth. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

4/14/22: Funny Girl
What: The long-anticipated revival of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill-Isobel Lennart biomusical about Fanny Brice's rise to fame and her ill-fated romance with Nicky Arnstein.
And? This show and its star are getting pretty torn up on the message boards, but unfortunately I don't have a lot of positives to sandbag against it. Beanie Feldstein is a talented actress with a sweet voice but she is noticeably uncomfortable onstage--uncomfortable physically, uncomfortable vocally, and uncomfortable comedically. I can hope that as the run goes on she'll attain more ease and find a way to unite the clown of Fanny with the sweet humanity she's already giving her into one coherent character. Ramin Karimloo as Nicky is all things wonderful and heartbreaking, and his chemistry with Feldstein is pretty great. Beyond that, I find Michael Mayer's direction of the show a bit inert. I can't tell how much of my meh reaction is the show or the production.

Leslie Donna Flesner, Afra Hines, Beanie Feldstein, and Ramin Karimloo as
two chorus girls, Fanny Brice, and Nicky Arnstein.
Photo by Matthew Murphy. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W16: Alex Edelman: Just For Us, Birthday Candles, How I Learned to Drive, for colored girls ..., Cyrano de Bergerac

What: Jewish comedian Alex Edelman's storytelling piece about the time he attended a white supremacist meeting in Queens, NY, and how he grapples with his Jewish identity. After a sold-out run at Soho Playhouse, the show returns for a limited run at the Greenwich House Theater. (and it just got extended, so grab your tix!)
And? Wonderful, funny, moving, unique. I'm so grateful my friend Lauren told me about this so we could see it together. Alex Edelman is a great storyteller, and I'm glad his show is doing so well that it keeps selling out and then extending.

What: Roundabout presents Noah Haidle's new play which follows Ernestine through ninety years of birthdays, and the people she loves and loses and gains along the way.
And? I went in with my expectations in the basement (I've been burned by Roundabout too many times), but I just love this. Debra Messing is wonderful as the keystone of the show, fully emotionally present, full of love and vitality. The play's thesis, as well as its content, is a reminder that not every story needs to be epic to be important, and that making the decision to treasure the gift of an hour, of a breath, of time spent together, is just as vital to our survival. Director Vivienne Benesch does a deceptively delicate job tracing the journey of the play, with the clean but subtle transitions from birthday to birthday and year to year, as Ernestine and her loved ones go through the ritual of baking her special birthday cake. Also -- and this is super important -- Christine Jones's scenic design is a goddamn poem and I love it so much.

Debra Messing as Ernestine. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W15: Confederates, The Little Prince, Mr. Saturday Night, London Assurance

3/29/22: Confederates
What: Signature presents Dominique Morisseau's newest play, which follows two timelines/stories: Sara, an enslaved woman fighting for freedom and fending off the advances one of her enslavers; and Sandra, a tenured professor of political science at an Ivy League school, who's recently found an incendiary photoshopped picture taped to her door, and is grappling with that while fending off accusations of bias from students and colleagues, both for and against women, both for and against Black people.
And? Dominique Morisseau is fast becoming one of my favorite playwrights. Her language and character work is crystalline precise, and her stories are incisive and deeply human. She doesn't paint the world in all-evil/all-good, but treats the nuances of character while still drawing clear lines in the sand between forgivable and unforgiveable choices. And she lets the scenes play out in such a way that even if you can figure out where it's ultimately going, you still don't know everything about the journey to get there, or who these people will decide to be: their best selves or their worst. And in this particular play, with whom do they choose to collaborate, or co-conspire with? Beyond that I don't want to give too much away, as the joy and moving nature of this story lies in how it unfolds, scene to scene. But I loved it. The cast is wonderful, particularly its two centers, Kristolyn Lloyd and Michelle Wilson. It's delicately and swiftly directed by Stori Ayers, and the ambiguous combination of Rachel Hauck's plantation-cum-university scenic design and Ari Fulton's time-bending costume design are clever.

Kristolyn Lloyd, Elijah Jones, and Andrea Patterson as Sara, Abner, and
LuAnne. Photo by Monique Carboni.

What: A new modern dance and acrobatic adaptation of the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, about a young boy who travels from planet to planet, learning about the different worlds.
And? Such beauty and poetry! I wasn't sure how I'd do with a primarily dance-based piece, as I notoriously fall asleep at the ballet (I've still never seen Nutcracker in its entirety and I've tried at least five times). But this is lovely. The choreo is vibrant and a gorgeous blend with the aerial acrobatics, and the storytelling clearly aimed at that happy medium of engaging a young audience while still entrancing the adults present. Director and choreographer Anne Tournie, in collaboration with co-director, librettist, and narrator Chris Mouron craft an elegant and entertaining adaptation, still pulling at those same melancholic strands the story has always pulled, while expanding the imagination of how to tell this story on a stage. If I had one complaint, it's that they booked the wrong theater for this show. There's so much floor work, and the Broadway Theatre has little to no rake in its orchestra seating. Both the eight year old child sitting next to me, and my own less-than-five-feet-tall self had trouble seeing a good portion of the performance. However, I recall that the mezzanine has a good rake, so if you're going, aim for the mezz and you won't regret it.

The Rose and the Little Prince. Photo by Prudence Upton.