Monday, May 29, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W22: Prima Facie, Shucked, Summer, 1976

 5/23/23: Prima Facie
What: The Broadway transfer of the National Theatre production of Suzie Miller's one-woman play starring Jodie Comer, about a criminal defense barrister in the wake of her own sexual assault.
And? While it's a tour de force showcase for Comer, who is more than up for the challenge, I guess I'm a bit tired from seeing a nearly two-hour play of someone realizing something a lot of us have known for a very long time: the criminal justice system, whether in the UK or US, is built not to protect sexual assault victims and punish their attackers, but rather to do everything it can to discredit those victims and protect their attackers. We know this. I'm glad she figures it out too, but she had to figure it out by being assaulted herself. Her entire character development in this play is predicated on her being assaulted, which is a storytelling trope I am EXHAUSTED by. It makes me stop watching TV shows. It makes me avoid books written by men. This may have been well done but the entire premise of it is one that I am tired just thinking about. Also major trigger warning for anyone who is a survivor of such an assault: she speaks in explicit detail about the assault itself. Proceed with caution.

Jodie Comer as Tessa. Photo by Helen Murray.

5/26/23: Shucked
What: It's that corn musical.
And? What I kept thinking about during this show is how subjective humor can be. And I kept wondering if I was just in the wrong mood, and that's why the humor in Shucked mostly annoyed me, while a lot of the audience around me was having a good time. I loved Head Over Heels and & Juliet, both very silly shows, but I was bored by the likes of ...One More Time. So here I probably just have to say that this show wasn't for me, but that doesn't actually speak to the competency of the production itself. The score feels a little disjointed: some songs know how to function like musical theater songs; some songs are full pastiche; and some songs function like country songs with a script mashed around them to justify their drop-in, like in a jukebox musical. The absolute failure to find a pure rhyme for Tampa besides grampa, but insisting on increasingly slanted slant rhymes instead is ... a choice. Understudy Traci Elaine Lee is great as ingenue Maizy, Andrew Durand continues his brand of loveable dope with a high belt as Beau, Kevin Cahoon knows how to handle a running joke like a pro, and Alex Newell can wail until the roof shakes (they got a partial standing ovation midshow for that fantastic voice). For me, though, Grey Henson (Storyteller 2) deserves props for his offhand manner of delivering joke after joke, most of them groaners but almost funny anyway in his hands.

Ashley D. Kelley and Grey Henson as Storyteller 1 and Storyteller 2.
Photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W21: Once Upon a One More Time

What: A new jukebox musical utilizing the song catalog of Britney Spears to deconstruct Cinderella and other fairy tales.
And? Let me preface this by saying: I am the wrong audience for this show. This show for sure has an audience, but it's not me. I was hoping the show would be so ridiculously over the top it would be fun, like & Juliet or Head Over Heels. I think if I knew Britney Spears's full song catalog better (or if the sound design was sharper so I could understand the lyrics to the songs I didn't know), I might have had a better time. Instead I was annoyed at how thin the whole thing was. The script feels plagiarized from a tumblr thread from a decade ago, "discovering" that fairy tales include a lot of now-toxic tropes. I read a review that accused & Juliet's feminism as being half-baked. One More Time is feminism tartare. I saw a very early preview so I can also hope they'll get their vocals together. While the Act Two opener, "Crazy," is flipping fantastic (vocally, choreographically), the Act One opener, "Baby One More Time," sounds truly messy. 

I am also once again tired to report that while there are two actors in the cast who are in bigger bodies, one of them (Goldilocks) mostly talks about porridge, and the other (Belinda, as played by the adorable and underused Ryann Redmond) is one of the "ugly" stepsisters. Come the fuck on. Give us a fat princess!

Pros: I got two of them, and their names are Jennifer Simard and Justin Guarini. Simard steals every one of her scenes, and Guarini steals the entire score. He dominates the stage and you cannot take your eyes off him.

(D.C. production) Aisha Jackson, Morgan Weed, Briga Heelan, Ashley Chiu,
Wonu Ogunfowora, and Lauren Zakrin as Snow White, Princess and the Pea,
Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Little Mermaid. Photo by
Matthew Murphy.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W20: Grey House, & Juliet, shadow/land, Eternal Life Part 1

 5/08/23: Grey House
What: A new play by Levi Holloway about a couple who, after crashing their car in a blizzard, find refuge in a strange house hosted by a moody woman, four teenage girls, and a quiet nameless boy. And then more strange stuff happens.
And? I'm still mulling over what I think of this. The cast is fantastic and properly creepy, the production is really well-designed (all the tricks and magic are very effective), but when the mystery of the house and its inhabitants is finally revealed, it's not quite a satisfying enough clarity. I might appreciate this more when I get a chance to read over the script, but until then, it leaves me a bit unsatisfied. Still, it's fun and rare to see a creepy play on Broadway, and I'm definitely here for commercial theater expanding its repertoire. (Representation notes: it's nice to see some Deaf representation with Millicent Simmonds as Bernie, but damn this is a super white cast, and it didn't need to be)

The cast of Grey House. Photo by MurphyMade.

5/09/23: & Juliet
What: The Broadway transfer of the West End jukebox musical, wherein Shakespeare's wife decides to rewrite the ending of Romeo & Juliet to let Juliet survive and discover herself. Husband and wife battle over control of the narrative, so many amazing hijinks ensue, and it's all set to the chart toppers by Max Martin (and friends).
And? This show is a goddamn delight, start to finish. Every single cast member is living their best life, and inviting us to join in on the fun. Somehow everyone's comic timing is spot on (props to director Luke Sheppard), their voices are top-notch, and it's just all so beautifully packaged (god, I love Paloma Young's costume design: a playful blend of Renaissance and contemporary, and every single character is wearing sneakers made to move). Lorna Courtney delivers a career-making performance as Juliet: playful, intense, empathetic, and a voice to shake the rafters. Betsy Wolfe is always delightful but she really gets to show her comedy and range as Anne/April. Justin David Sullivan shimmers with heart and joy as Juliet's bestie May, with a beautifully clear singing voice. Paulo Szot, best known on Broadway for melting everyone's hearts with his powerful performance in South Pacific, is having so much fun camping it up as patriarch Lance Du Bois, complete with ridiculous codpiece. And Melanie La Barrie as Angélique/Nurse, she just owns my entire heart for her rendition of "Fuckin' Perfect." On top of all this we've got some good gender diversity rep (not only nonbinary actor Justin David Sullivan, but also a number of ensemble cast members as well), good ethnic diversity, and at least some strides toward body diversity.

I don't want to spoil the jokes or surprises along the way, because they're such a damn treat to experience live. Jukebox Musicals, especially ones that aren't just using the song catalog to tell a bio-musical, can be such a crapshoot. (Yes, I know Mamma Mia! was a hit, but not with Zelda) Head Over Heels will probably remain my favorite of this genre of musical, but I got a kick out of & Juliet, with its self-aware and hilarious book by David West Read and its overall joyousness at being here.

Lorna Courtney, Betsy Wolfe, Justin David Sullivan, and Melanie La Barrie
as Juliet, April, May, and Angélique. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Monday, May 8, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W19: King James, Good Night, Oscar, New York, New York, Primary Trust, Oliver!, Peter Pan Goes Wrong

A quick note: There's a conversation happening right now about the exclusion of non-binary performers from awards consideration when we divide acting categories into Male and Female. And it's a conversation we need to have. There were three potential non-binary nominees for performing on Broadway this year: two of them, Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee, submitted in the Male category; the third, Justin David Sullivan, recused themself from consideration as they did not want to choose either of the binary options. But with the current state of theater, I have major reservations that the solution to that problem is eliminating gender in the category altogether. Why? Look at the list of shows I saw this week. Every single one of them is male-dominated. The pool of award-eligible performers is male-dominated. Historically and currently, the majority of juicier and more interesting roles are for male performers (this is why the recent 1776 revival--which received zero Tony nominations--was a big deal). Until we fix that problem, the solutions on the awards end are just band-aids. For my money, I think it could behoove us to introduce a third category for non-binary performers. And if producers complain that they don't have enough contenders to be eligible, hey guess what? You can go find them. Go cast them. Maybe this is how we encourage more diversity of experience and representation in the stories we tell.

5/02/23: King James
What: MTC presents Rajiv Joseph's new play about the twelve year friendship between two men, Shawn and Matt, who first connect over their enthusiasm for the Cleveland Cavaliers, touching on four milestones of "King" Lebron James's career with that team.
And?  Rather a fun moment for me as I was reading through my playbill, to see that Glenn Davis, one of the stars of this play, also starred in Rajiv Joseph's Describe the Night, which I saw at Steppenwolf in March. This play, while ultimately satisfying, is a bit uneven. The first scene telegraphs its conclusion fairly early on; however, the second scene is full of delightful surprises and turns. As the story continues it becomes clear that we'll be seeing a see-sawing of power between the two friends, which unfortunately never reaches a contented equilibrium. Great scenic design by Todd Rosenthal.

Glenn Davis and Chris Perfetti as Shawn and Matt. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

What: Doug Wright's new play starring Sean Hayes as Oscar Levant in a fictionalized imagining of the troubled comedian's four-hour leave from a sanitarium to appear on Jack Paar's show.
And? As talented as Sean Hayes is (and as talented as Oscar Levant was), I desperately wanted this to be a better show than it is. But it feels pedestrian. Sorkin-lite (if we agree that Sorkin at his best is leagues better than what he did to Camelot this season). The dialog doesn't crackle like it should (except when clearly sourcing things Levant actually said), and the pacing of the show is off, at least when Hayes isn't onstage. The characters keep telling us there are stakes here, but I don't feel them. I'd call the evening completely forgettable if we hadn't been treated to an extended excerpt from "Rhapsody in Blue" played live on the piano for the play's climax. (As an aside, I'm also deeply troubled by the fact that Levant's most offensive jokes--body shaming, sex shaming, or misogynistic--were the ones to get the biggest laughs from those around me, as if they were relieved they were allowed to laugh at punch-down humor again)

John Zdrojeski and Sean Hayes as George Gershwin and Oscar Levant.
Photo by Liz Lauren.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Weekly Margin 2023, W18: Eleanor and Alice

What: Urban Stages presents an encore presentation of Ellen Abrams's play, spanning nearly sixty years in the friendship between cousins Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of Franklin Delano) and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Teddy).
And? Not precisely a story, but a respectable character study, I suppose. Alice is renowned enough for her acerbic wit that a lot of her lines felt like they were lifted from reality, rather than organically part of a dialog. Both actors do good work crafting their individual characters' arcs over the years, emotionally and vocally, but I never quite feel they're in the same room as each other. Either one feels like she could exist in a one-person version of the same play and accomplish the same thing.

Trezana Beverley and Mary Bacon as Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt
Longworth. Photo by Russ Rowland.