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.

What: A "new" musical using the Kander & Ebb song catalog, and loosely based on the 1977 film, to tell the ensemble story of survivors in New York City, just after World War II, many of them musicians looking to make their big break.
And? I haven't seen the source film but after reading a plot summary, it looks like the show is not only more expansive in the stories being told, but also more optimistic in general. I don't think this show is as bad as some of the reviewers are painting it to be. I don't think it's great, but I do think it mostly accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. It knows what it is. This is the kind of musical that people who have nostalgia for Golden Age musicals will probably love. This is the kind of musical that people who say they hate musicals will probably hate. For me? I can respect some of the achievements but I got a lotta caveats along the way.

I might have to bullet point this.

What worked:
  • Delightful tap number on the construction high beams (even more so, the design of the transition to that space). A+ to both Stroman choreo and Beowulf Boritt scenic design.
  • The Manhattanhenge sequence, especially with Ken Billington's lighting design. Very moving.
  • Colton Ryan and Anna Uzele as the leads Jimmy and Francine. Excellent voices and choices.
    • Especially Ryan's performance of "Sorry I Asked" and Uzele's performance of "But the World Goes 'Round."
  • An actual multicultural New York.
  • From my back-row seat I couldn't tell if the actors were playing their own instruments but if they weren't, they were very good at faking it. If they weren't faking it, damn they sounded great.
  • Crystal clear sound design from Kai Harada. I heard every word, every instrumental nuance.
  • That final number. What a triumph.
What could use work:
  • There's a vaseline effect over much of how the show deals with discrimination and persecution in America. The story recognizes the variety of ethnicities living in New York and how many obstacles to success there are for marginalized identities. But the show doesn't interrogate any of that very deeply. It makes the most headway with discrimination against Black people but doesn't go as far as acknowledging lynchings, enslavement, and other assaults. The canon Japanese character (a one-line role, but she's there) makes no allusion to the internment camp from which she was most definitely recently released.
  • In addition to this, I feel a major imbalance to how loss is treated. A lot of weight is given to Jimmy's grief for his brother who died in combat. A similar amount of space is given to Emily Skinner's Madame Veltri waiting for her son to return. Very little space is given to Jewish refugee Alex Mann, whose entire family was slaughtered in Treblinka. Just. Come on, y'all. Especially to ask Alex to then comfort Madame Veltri's grief, when no comfort was offered for his own.
  • And while we're talking about how this show disappoints its marginalized identities, we should also talk about how Mateo Diaz (played wonderfully by Angel Sigala) is probably gay but the script is so damn cowardly and covert about it. Do it or don't. I'm tired of queer-coding when we could have queer canon.
  • Stepping off my soap box, most of the characters, with the exception of the central couple, are painted in fairly broad strokes. It's a side effect of the ambition of wanting to hit on so many stories in less than three hours. This is part of why I said it will probably appeal to people nostalgic for the Golden Age, when we had lower expectations of character depth in supporting roles.
Other notes:
  • It's possible I'm being too harsh on the show, expecting it to be something it's not.
  • It struck me that this show has a lot of the same ambitions as Bandstand, with similarly mixed success, both artistically and commercially.
  • I hadn't realized until the song started playing, but "New York, New York" is, for me, indelibly linked to 9/11. When Broadway was reopening, they filmed a commercial in Duffy Square featuring performers from every show. They sang "New York, New York." I still remember the close-up on the actor playing The Beast when they got to the line "I'll make it anywhere." He had tears in his eyes. That commercial turned this song into one about resilience and community, and that's absolutely how it functions in this show, too, sung by survivors who persevere.
The cast of New York, New York. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

5/05/23: Primary Trust
What: Roundabout Theatre presents Eboni Booth's new play about an isolated man in a small town who loses his job and must break his routines to find a new way to exist.
And? I really liked it. I know the plot description above sounds kinda whatever, and that's on me, but I really liked it. William Jackson Harper is completely lovely as Kenneth, and he has beautiful chemistry with Eric Berryman, who plays his best friend Bert. Booth's play is a gentle and affectionate character study, not just of Kenneth, but of the community he's only slowly learning he's a part of. Also I love Marsha Ginsberg's miniature scenic design, giving us the notable landmarks in the town of Cranberry, New York, clean and sweet through the lens of memory.

5/06/23: Oliver!
What: City Center Encores! presents Lionel Bart's adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel about an orphan boy named Oliver.
And? A great example of the value of Encores!: a show that probably shouldn't get a full revival, but it's well-presented here with a full orchestra and fantastic cast. There are several troubling elements to the show, issues that for me are specific to a musical adaptation of the story, rather than Dickens's original narrative. 1, the awkwardness of a story about the wrongness of putting tiny children to work, as portrayed by tiny children ... being put to work. 2, songs with terrible messages or ideas being performed so well that we should applaud the performer, but feel conflicted because that means we might also be applauding the sentiment (this issue is also a concern with the current revival of Parade, a transfer from Encores!, where songs of ugly bigotry are so well performed that they stop the show). 2 is a recurrent issue in musical theater, of course, but many of the songs have deliberately carried that stigma since they were written ("Tomorrow Belongs to Me" comes to mind). But with "As Long As He Needs Me," the conversation around abusive relationships has changed a lot since the 1960 premiere of this show.

But like I said, fantastic cast. Benjamin Pajak is a sweet and strong-voiced Oliver who delivers a touching "Where Is Love?," Lilli Cooper brings her charisma and power to Nancy, Thom Sesma is delightfully sinister as Sowerberry, and my man Raรบl Esparza is clearly having a great time getting to tap into his weird side again as Fagin. It's been a while for all of us. He slinks and capers around the stage, pulls faces, and manages to find the humanity within the monster as we see he does seem to care for the children's survival, even as he is the one often putting them at risk. His "Reviewing The Situation" stops the show.
The cast of Oliver! Photo by Joan Marcus.

What: Those rascals from The Play That Goes Wrong try their hand at ruining Peter Pan.
And? Neil Patrick Harris has stepped in for a few weeks to cover the track of Francis (narrator and one of the pirates), and talented as he is, I kind of wish I'd seen it without him. Having someone that famous in the show, and not in one of the blowhard tracks (Chris or Robert), unbalances the show (as does the "drowning" bit, which sticks out like a sore thumb: the game of this company is incompetence at theatrical production; the drowning bit is a character-within-the-play crisis). It's too bad, because in many other ways he's suited to be part of this group, adept as he is at making slapstick and physical comedy seem immediate and surprising. Otherwise the show is a delightful time, especially as the things going wrong keep coming faster and faster and the cast is running wild to keep up.
The cast of Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

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