July 13, 2024

Why "Empire" Failed to Win My Allegiance

Those of us who love musicals root hard for each new one that comes along. And we root extra hard when we know that a new creative team is getting its first big break or that the show is based on an original idea instead of on a movie, a videogame or an internet meme. We really want them to work, for their sake and ours. So it brings me no pleasure to have to report that the new musical Empire, which opened this week at New World Stages, doesn't work at all.  

Newcomers Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull appear to have taken on more than they could handle by doing the book, lyrics and music for this tale about the making of the Empire State Building because they don’t seem to know exactly what story they want to tell or how to tell it. 

The show opens in 1976 with a woman named Sylvie sorting through some family heirlooms that stir up her negative feelings about the Empire State Building because a family tragedy occurred there. But before any empathy can be worked up for Sylvie, another character enters and takes over the narrative. She is Frances Belle Wolodsky, who is known as Wally and is a big fan of the building. 

In fact, it turns out that the time-traveling Wally, who moves between the past and present without explanation, is the prime mover in getting the skyscraper—at 102-stories then the world’s tallest man-made structure—built and opened in 1931. 

But while we’re still trying to sort out our feelings about Wally, the show throws a bunch of other characters at us including Wally’s boss former New York governor Al Smith, an architect named Charles Kinney who also becomes Wally’s love interest and a motley crew of construction workers from Poland, Italy, Ireland and the American Dust Bowl, along with the Mohawk ironworkers, who in real-life were known as “sky walkers” because they were so skilled in working on high-rise structures.

There are so many characters in Empire that it’s hard to keep track of them and their storylines of missing home, falling in love or falling out with one another. The actors, sometimes doubling in these roles, don’t seem to know what to make of them either and so they simply resort to stereotypical accents or gestures (the young Okie is constantly wide-eyed; the immigrant Italian is easily irritated, the Mohawk leader is predictably noble). 

They get little help from their director Cady Huffman, the Tony-winning actress who seems totally out of her depth now that she’s moved to the other side of the proscenium. Her direction is a patchwork of elements from other shows: a solemn parade like the one in the play The Inheritance; a prop-heavy dance number like the inventive ones Susan Stroman so easily pulls off in her shows, although it’s not clear why the construction workers in Empire are dancing with baseball bats.

But even a more experienced director might have had a tough time with this show. Its book wrestles unsuccessfully with how to reveal the mystery of Sylvie’s family’s involvement with the Empire State Building, with what to do with the flirtation between Wally and Charles and with how to resolve the public’s initial unhappiness over the building’s high cost in the midst of the Great Depression. 

On top of all that, Sherman and Hull mix in some revisionist history about the role women played in the project. Wally seems based on Belle Moskowitz, a real-life top aide to Al Smith and the person who orchestrated the campaign to win public support for the Empire State Building. But it’s a stretch to say that Moskowitz was the main player in getting the building up and it’s an insult to suggest that Smith, a wily politician who was the Democrat’s presidential candidate in 1928, was the bumbler he’s portrayed here.  

And there was no romance between the architect who designed the building William Lamb (not the show’s fictional Charles Kinney) and Moskowitz, who at the time had long been happily married to Henry Moskowitz, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP.  

Similarly, while Mohawk ironworkers were key players in the construction of the building—as they had been for the construction of the George Washington Bridge and would be for the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center—it’s unlikely that any female members of the tribe were included in the construction crew for the Empire State Building. 

I know it’s only a show but Empire also purports to be calling attention to some forgotten part of our history and there’s a responsibility that comes with that.

A musical can sometimes be saved by its score but this one isn’t tethered to any time, place or style—a big mama torch song pops up for no reason that I could discern—and so comes off as generic. The show's lyrics are weak too and fail to move the plot along. So when you add it all up, there’s just not enough here to root for.  

July 4, 2024

Happy Fourth of July

 Wishing you a thoroughly festive holiday

June 29, 2024

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2024

Summer has come roaring in this year. Temperatures seem to be setting records everywhere, making many of us (O.K., me) want to kick back and chill out with a cold drink and a cool book. The drink of choice for me this year is champagne (I just stocked up on a whole bunch of those cute half bottles of it) and, as always, the book for me tends to be theater-related. The arrival of summer and the approaching July 4th holiday also mean it's time again for me to share my annual recommendations for books about the theater with those of you who love theater as much as I do. The list below is my usual mix of new books and old ones, fiction and non-fiction all of which I think will keep you in good company right through Labor Day.    


Finding a new novel about the theater is one of my favorite things because it allows me to disappear completely into a world I love.

All the World’s A Stage Fright: Misadventures of a Clandestine Critic: A Novella by Bob Abelman  This humorous roman a clef is about a theater critic who secretly embeds himself in a local company’s production of As You Like It with actors he’s previously panned as his co-stars. It's theater critic Bob Abelman’s sly way of showing his appreciation for the people and the work that go into making theater at every level. It also offers a pretty smart analysis of what makes Shakespeare so special.

Broadway Melody by Jack Viertel  Few people know the inner workings of Broadway better than the producer Jack Viertel, who spent 34 years at the Jujamacyn theater company and 20 years heading up the Encores! series. Now he’s put all that knowledge to work in this novel that covers seven decades in the lives of two Broadway insiders—a musician and a stagehand—and the female singer they both love. The book was inspired, in part, by the career of Viertel’s and my mutual late friend the legendary musical contractor Seymour Red Press. But it’s so readable that I’d be recommending it even if I hadn’t known and loved Red.

The Fury by Alex Michaelides  All of the main characters are connected to London’s West End in this Agatha Christie-style mystery about a murder that occurs when a group of friends and frenemies who have had varying degrees of success in work and love gather for a vacation on a private and isolated Greek island. The narrator is unreliable, the storyline is twisty and both are even more delicious in the audiobook version because it's read by the always deliciously entertaining British actor Alex Jennings. 

The House is On Fire by Rachel Beanland  The devastating fire that killed 72 people after a theater curtain accidentally caught fire during a performance in Richmond, Virginia, in 1811 really happened. But the true drama in this excellent historical novel centers on the aftermath of that tragedy and its effect on four characters whose fates will be determined by their class, their gender and their race.

Once More With Feeling: A Novel by Elissa Sussman  The main character here is a disgraced pop star who tries to revive her career by going back to her first love: Broadway musicals. The show she signs on to do is written and composed by her longtime best friend whom she met when they were girls in theater summer camp. And, of course, it’s directed by the former boy band member who was one third of the love-triangle scandal that destroyed her singing career. There’s more romcom than musical comedy in this one but it’s still a fun and breezy summer read. 

One Good Turn: A Novel by Kate Atkinson   The Edinburgh Festival Fringe provides the backdrop for this whodunnit in which Atkinson's retired detective Jackson Brodie is reluctantly pulled in to help solve a string of murders and attempted murders. And since Atkinson never saw a narrative that she didn’t want to fracture much of the fun—and it is great fun—lies in figuring out how all the suspects and their various larcenies fit together. 

Show Boat by Edna Ferber  I don’t know why it took me so long to read this 1926 novel that inspired Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's genre-defining musical because the book is steeped in its love for the theater, particularly the titular variety that traveled the nation's waterways during the 19th century taking shows to isolated parts of the country. Hammerstein made some tweaks but the familiar characters are here, as well as the themes of romance and racial intolerance. And so is the Mississippi River, which, as every theater lover knows, just keeps rollin' along.

Tom Lake: A Novel by Ann Patchett   While she may be most celebrated as a top literary novelist, Patchett clearly knows her way around the theatrical canon too. She’s set this story in a cherry orchard, albeit one in northern Michigan, where three sisters have come home during the pandemic to help their parents harvest the crop and save the family farm. As they work, their mother regales them with the story of her days as a young actress and how being cast in a summer stock production of Our Town changed her life. It’s a lovely tale about love and art and family. And having Meryl Streep read the audiobook version is, well, the cherry on top of an already very satisfying sundae.



It’s hard to think of a better way to spend a few hours on a lazy afternoon than peeking into the lives of the people who make the theater we all love.

Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy by Charles Busch  His mother died when he was seven and Busch was raised by an aunt who not only accepted his effeminacy but supported his differentness. So this lovely tribute to her is almost evenly divided between his coming-of-age days imagining himself as such tough-girl movie stars as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis; and his singular career as a camp icon who has won raves for playing female lead roles in such shows as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and The Confessions of Lily Dale.

Making It So: A Memoir by Patrick Stewart  Although he spent 14 years as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stewart sandwichs that experience in between his memories of a hardscrabble childhood in Yorkshire and his glory days as the star of the Star Trek and X-Men franchises on TV and in the movies. Still, his stories about working on stage with British acting greats ranging from his idol Vivien Leigh to his pal Ian McKellen—and his continuing wonder at doing all of it—are a treat for theater lovers. 

My Name is Barbra by Barbra Streisand   She may not have been on a Broadway stage since 1965 but the theater still claims Streisand as its own. And the very best parts of her 992-page memoir detail her early years in New York struggling to break into the business and to adjust to success when she does. If you can, you really should get the audiobook version of this one because Streisand has spliced in audio clips from her albums, movies and TV specials, plus there’s nothing like hearing her anecdotes, complete with improvised asides, delivered in that inimitable voice.

Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent by Judi Dench and Brendan O’Hea  This delightful book is drawn from a series of conversations in which Dame Judi and her good friend the director Brendan O’Hea discuss each of the Bard’s roles that Dench has played over her seven-decade career. She analyzes the plays, recalls the actors she performed alongside and provides glimpses into what was going on backstage at some legendary performances. The result is a master class in Shakespeare, acting and life. 

The Star Dressing Room: Portrait of An Actor by Alan Shayne  His name may not be as familiar as some of the other memorists on this list but I’m a sucker for stories set in the theater world of the 1950s, and Shayne tells a terrific one in this chronicle of his days taking acting classes alongside Marlon Brando and Elaine Stritch, struggling to make it as a working actor during Broadway's Golden Age and trying to find true love as he wrestles with his identity as a gay man in that homophobic Mad Men era.  

The Street Where I Live: A Memoir by Alan J. Lerner  It should be no surprise that this memoir by the lyricist and book writer of such Golden Age classics as Brigadoon, Camelot and My Fair Ladyand a man who married eight timesis a great read. Lerner goes into nitty-gritty detail about how he and his beloved partner Frederick “Fritz” Loewe put together their shows. And unlike some folks he’s willing to name names when he feels someone got in their way. I think this is the second best showbiz memoir I’ve ever read. The first—included on my 2015 list—remains Moss Hart’s “Act One”.  And I think Lerner, who knew, worked with and greatly loved Hart, wouldn’t mind at all being a runner-up to that one.

Will She Do?; Act One of a Life on Stage by Eileen Atkins   Most actor memoirs focus on the career high points of their authors’ lives but this three-time Olivier Award winner devotes most of her book to the very tough time she had making a name for herself in the business. Her climb from dancing as a seven-year old in British working men’s clubs to her breakout performance at the age of 30 as the dimwitted Childe in The Killing of Sister George is alternately hilarious, infuriating (even she admits she could be a pain in the ass at times) and inspirational. 


And now for the books that fall into a category all their own.

Carefully Taught: American History through Broadway Musicals  by Cary Ginell   There have been so many books about Broadway musicals that it’s a real treat to find one that looks at them through a different lens. Borrowing its title from the South Pacific song about how racism is passed from one generation to the next, this book looks at how our image of this country has been shaped by what we see on stage.  The usual suspects pop up: 1776, Assassins, Ragtime, Hamilton. But there are some surprises too: Baby Case, a 2012 musical about the Lindbergh kidnapping that never made it much further than the New York Music Theatre Festival made the cut.  But somehow, Titanic didn’t. 

Here’s to the Ladies: Conversations with More of the Great Women of Musical Theater by Eddie Shapiro   I don’t know how he does it but Shapiro is able to get celebrities to open up to him in ways they simply don’t to other journalists and this latest in his series of interviews with Broadway’s leading stars features some oh-wow-I-can't-believe-she-said-that conversations with Judy Kuhn, Mary Beth Piel and Karen Olivo among others.  

A Man of Much Importance: The Art and Life of Terrence McNally by Christopher Byrne   McNally wrote so many now-classic works (The Ritz, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion! not to mention the books for the musicals The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty and A Man of No Importance) but because he was so unassuming about all of it he hasn’t really been given his full due and so it’s great to get this tribute which chronicles the life and work of one of the major theater makers of the last 50 years and a pioneer in placing the stories of gay people onstage. 

Song of the Season: Outstanding Broadway Songs Since 1891 by Thomas Hischack   This veteran theater scholar and author of countless books is up to some mischief: he’s daringly selected one song from every Broadway season as representative of musical theater at that particular moment in time. Some of the choices are obvious (“Memory” from 1982's Cats) some head-scratchy (The Lambeth Walk” from Me and My Girl in 1986 instead of something from Les Miserables). Read it straight through or skip to your favorite seasons. Either way, there's plenty of fodder for debates over boozy summer dinners and throughout the rest of the year too. You can hear an interview with Hischack that BroadwayRadio's James Marino and I did (as well as more about some of the other books on this list) by clicking here

20 Seasons: Broadway Musicals of the 21st Century by Amy S. Osatinski   Most Broadway histories focus on the Golden Age shows of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s and so it’s refreshing to have a spotlight put on what’s been happening more recently. This survey tracks the rise of the jukebox musical, the growing prominence of screen-to-stage adaptations and the trend of revising old classics. So it gives shows such as Jersey Boys, SpongeBob Square Pants and Daniel Fish’s “sexy” Oklahoma the serious treatment they deserve and that many young fans—and those of any age interested in the future of the art form—are sure to appreciate.

This Insubstantial Pageant by Estha Weiner  Theater is the animating theme of this book of poetry and, full disclosure, the author is one of my oldest friends. Longtime readers of these posts may know her as my ocassional theater companion "Ellie," a one-time actress who, as her poems attests, has never lost her love for the stage.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now nearly 200 suggestions from previous years:









June 22, 2024

In Concert with "Titanic" and "Follies"

As the most devoted fans of musicals will tell you, the best way to appreciate a musical is probably to listen to its cast album (click here to check out my BroadwayRadio colleague Michael Portantiere’s site “Cast Album Reviews”). 
It’s often easier to hear the lyrics and the melodic references on a recording than it is while watching a show live in the theater. Plus you can enjoy the score as many times as you want without having to pay a fortune. 

The second best way may be to attend a concert version of a show. Stripping away the sets, costumes and choreography—and more recently, the video projections—can make it easier to engage with the music, particularly when it’s performed by brilliant singers. 

Attending both the Encores! production of Titanic that is finishing up its two-week run at City Center this weekend and Follies in Concert, the one-night event at Carnegie Hall this past Thursday, reminded me of just how big a treat a concert version of a musical can be—and also suggested how they might provide a solution to some of the problems now plaguing the revivals of old shows.

Putting on a terrific concert, complete with the gratifying sound of a full 30-piece orchestra, was the original concept of the Encores! series, which is now in its 30th year of showcasing seldom-revived shows. Those productions have become more elaborate over the years but director Anne Kauffman’s current staging of Titanic reverts back to the series’ roots. 

There are costumes in this Titanic and a hint of a set but Kauffman keeps the focus solidly on Maury Yeston’s glorious score. And that’s a good thing because book writer Peter Stone crowded so many storylines into his telling of the infamous 1912 ship sinking that it's hard to connect with most of the characters. 

Yeston’s songs fill in what the dialog fails to get across. Solos offer glimpses into the lives that will eventually be lost. And the big choral anthems, whose stirring orchestrations won Jonathan Tunick a Tony back in 1997, convey the hubristic optimism everyone aboard felt about the maiden voyage of the ship they believed indestructible.  

As usual, the playing by the Encores! orchestra, once again conducted by Rob Berman, is a pleasure unto itself. And also as usual, the cast is filled with major talents even in some of the smallest roles (yes, that’s Adam Chanler-Berat as one of the ship’s officers and Lilli Cooper as a third-class passenger) all of them singing the hell out of the material they’ve been given.

There was similar hell-raising at Carnegie Hall, where another star-studded cast performed the songs from Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 homage to the musical revues of the vaudeville era. 

The event, which also served as a fundraiser for the Transport Group—the company’s artistic director Jack Cummings III directed the production—was a true concert, with the performers taking on songs instead of roles and appearing in their own clothes (part of the fun was seeing who wore what). 

Ted Chapin, the author of “Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies,” and Kurt Peterson, one of the show’s original cast members, served as emcees, chiming in with behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the original production and setting the scene for each musical number.  

The folks in the sold-out audience had clearly heard the stories before and needed no context for this cult favorite but cheered them anyway.  And they went crazy for the performances, even when the orchestra, under the baton of Joey Chancey, sometimes threatened to overpower the singers.  

Although not all of them. Norm Lewis and Nikki Renée Daniels were commandingly magnificent in the poignant duet “Too Many Mornings” and Jennifer Holliday’s rendition of “I’m Still Here" brought the crowd to its feet.

And that’s another benefit of these concerts: they provide an opportunity for performers who wouldn’t have had the chance to take on such roles back in the day to do them now without having to, say, justify why a black woman could have been a leading showgirl in the all-white chorus lines of the 1920s. Or, in the case of Titanic, how an African-American got to captain the ship as Chuck Cooper does in this current production. 

Instead, they can just sing and we can just enjoy.

June 15, 2024

My Nostalgic Trip Back to "Home"

It can be hard to recapture the magic of the first time you saw a show.  And the first times I saw Samm-Art Williams’ Home were nearly perfect. The Negro Ensemble Company was in its heyday when it debuted this fable about a black southerner named Cephus Miles who loses the woman he loves, the land he loves and seemingly his very soul. It ran for 78 performances at the St. Mark’s Playhouse and then moved to Broadway's Cort Theatre a few months later, where it ran for another 287 performances and picked up a Tony nomination for the Best Play of 1980.  

One of my best friends worked for the NEC back then and so I saw the play in both venues and was enchanted each time by the way it spoke so directly to what I and my friends were thinking and feeling in those confusing years following the previous decade’s highs (the passage of the Civil Rights acts) and lows (the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.). And so as I watched the revival that is now playing at the Roundabout Theatre’s Todd Haimes Theatre, I couldn’t help wondering whether it was possible—to paraphrasie the words of the old saying—to go Home again. 

This new production, directed by Kenny Leon, echoes much of what I first loved, from the simplicity of the set, centered around a rocking chair on a raised platform; to the casting of a first-rate trio of actors to play Cephus and the other people who flow through his life (this time out they’re wonderfully realized by Tory Kittles as Cephus {click here to read a little more about him} and Stori Ayers and Brittany Inge as everyone else). 

And of course the play still has the simultaneously down-home and highly poetic dialog that Williams based on the language of the people he knew growing up in Burgaw, North Carolina, where his mother taught English and drama in the small town’s segregated high school for black students.

The tales Cephus tells about his friends and neighbors in direct address to the audience don’t really advance the plot but they were for me the most delightful part of the show and its true heart, a tribute to all the good things my grandparents left behind when they, like legions of others, fled the South to escape the evils of Jim Crow. And so I was really disappointed by Leon’s decision to have Kittles’ Cephus fast talk his way through those parts of the play.  

I wanted to savor that dialog and those stories. But, although it pains me to say it, Leon may have been right because several of the reviewers expressed an impatience with those early sections and a decided preference for the later parts that detail Cephus’ time in prison and his descent into drug addiction and homelessness when he goes north.

All of that now strikes me as a bit melodramatic. And similarly, Cephus’ belief that returning to the south is the way to solve the problems that black people face now seems naïve as southern states pass all kinds of legislation that will make life more difficult for their black residents. 

And yet, by the time Home’s ending rolled around, I had succumbed once again to the old-fashioned pleasures of the play—and to its defiant optimism. I just wish that Williams, who died at the age of 78 back home in Burgaw a few days before the first preview, had been able to savor its return too. 

Still I’m grateful all over again that the NEC was around back in the day to nurture playwrights like Williams and Charles Fuller, author of the prizewinning A Soldier’s Play (click here to listen to more about that one on my podcast about Pulitzer Prize-winners) and allowing them to tell the stories they wanted to tell instead of the ones that others might think they should have told.


June 8, 2024

Following a Paper Trail to this Year's Tonys

We’re in the homestretch now, with just a week to go before next Sunday’s Tony Awards. And it's a particularly exciting time because there are virtually no sure winners this year and even the so-called frontrunners can feel the competition breathing down their necks. 

And so, from the day the nominations were announced on April 30, the contenders have been campaigning like crazy, popping up on the morning shows and the late night shows, doing podcasts and TikTok videos. Attending precursor awards events. And giving interviews for a zillion stories, including for some publications that don’t usually pay much attention to Broadway. 

It's hard to keep up with all of it but below are some of the pieces about the shows in the leading categories that I've been enjoying while counting down the days to the big event and that I hope some of you might enjoy too:



Jaja’s African Hair Braiding:'You Can Bank on Black Stories': Director Whitney White on the Success of Jaja's African Hair Braiding” Playbill 

Mary Jane: “Rachel McAdams on starring in Mary Jane and her favorite Broadway tradition” TimeOut

Mother Play: “Paula Vogel, Tina Landau, and the Room That Made ‘Mother Play’” American Theatre magazine

Prayer for the French Republic: “How Broadway's 'Late Bloomer', Betsy Aidem, Became a Tony Nominee” Broadway World

Stereophonic: "The Cast of Broadway Hit Stereophonic Are Having the Ride of Their Lives” Vanity Fair


Hell’s Kitchen: “Alicia Keys Talks 'Cathartic' Experience of Watching Her Life Story in Broadway’s Hell’s Kitchen” People magazine 

Illinoise: “How Broadway’s ‘Illinoise’ Used Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 Album to Create a ‘Silent Film’ Told Through Dance” Variety

The Outsiders: ‘"The Outsiders’: anatomy of a rumble” Broadway News

Suffs: “In 'Suffs,' Shaina Taub Fights For Women's Rights. On Broadway, She's Smashing Barriers” Huffington Post 

Water for Elephants: “Jessica Stone Brings The Big Top To Broadway In ‘Water For Elephants’” Forbes


Appropriate: "Sarah Paulson Dares to Play the People You Love to Hate” The New York Times

Purlie Victorious: "Plays still matter to the health of Broadway’: Leslie Odom Jr. on ‘Purlie Victorious’” The Los Angeles Times


Cabaret: "How ‘Cabaret’ became Broadway’s hottest ticket — and most divisive show” The Washington Post

Merrily We Roll Along: "Jonathan Groff Rolls Merrily Back” The New Yorker

The Who’s Tommy: "Q&A: Director Des McAnuff Talks ‘The Who’s Tommy on Broadway’ Revival and the Power of the Message" RockCellar

 And if you want even more Tony-related stories, check out my Flipboard magazine "Tony Talk," which you can find here.













May 25, 2024

Bar Hopping with "The Keep Going Songs," "The Lonely Few" and "Three Houses"

All of a sudden everybody doing a musical in this brand new 2024-25 season seems to be bellying up to a bar. Already this month, I’ve seen three shows—The Keep Going Songs, The Lonely Few and Three Houses—where the theater itself has been transformed into a drinking establishment of some kind. 

I suppose it’s an attempt to be immersive, to jump on the bandwagon that has proven so tractive for big shows like the current revival of Cabaret with its pre-show bar scenes spread all over the August Wilson Theatre or the hip production of An Enemy of the People, which sets up an onstage bar during intermission and serves audience members free shots of Aquavit. 

Gauging by their box office numbers, those shows—helped of course by the presence of big name and Tony-nominated stars, Eddie Redmayne in Cabaret and Jeremy Strong in Enemy of the People—have audiences swooning. But the intoxication levels of the smaller and more recently opened off-Broadway shows vary greatly, or at least here's how they did for me:

THE KEEP GOING SONGS: The husband-and-wife duo known as The Bengsons have taken up residence at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater thru May 26.  As usual, the couple’s show draws from their life: this time, it’s their attempt to work through their specific grief over the death of Abigail’s brother Peter from cancer at just 55 and their larger grief over the environmental fate of the planet (click here to read more about the show’s genesis). 

Set designer Cate McCrea has created a playing space for these lamentations that turns the Tow into a nightclub including a half dozen or so café tables surrounding the stage, where Shaun plays a gaggle of instruments ranging from a guitar to a trumpet and Abigail works an onstage soundboard that adds background vocals and other sounds. At various points, one or the other of them leaves the stage to engage with the audience. Some members are even handed small cups of Guinness Stout, which we’re told was brother Peter’s favorite drink. 

The Bengsons have a devoted following and so there were hoots and hollers of approval after each of their folk-rock numbers in what is essentially a 90-minute concert. But I found the show to be less involving than some of their previous ones (my fave is Hundred Days in which they recounted how they met, fell hard for one another, dumped the people they were with and got married in that titular short period of time). 

This show may suffer by comparison because the Bengsons worked on those earlier ones with collaborators like the talented playwright Sarah Gancher or the savvy director Anne Kauffman. But this time, they’ve done the book themselves and are working with a comparatively inexperienced director. The result is a loosey-goosey show that rambles far more than it should, undermining both the power of their appealing songs and the messages of comfort and caution they’re attempting to convey.

THE LONELY FEW MCC Theater has transformed its Newman Mills space into a honky-tonk bar, with tables onstage, a few cozy-looking easy chairs in the space separating the orchestra seats from those in the mezzanine area and cheap Christmas bulbs lighting up the whole place. It’s a fitting setting for this story about a woman named Lila who has a day job in her small Kentucky town’s supermarket but headlines a rock band known as The Lonely Few which plays on weekends at a local spot called Paul’s Juke Joint. 

Lila and her bandmates get a chance at the big time when Paul’s singer-songwriting stepdaughter Amy drops by and announces that she needs an opening act to go on tour with her. The plot kicks off when the women fall for one another but then discover that they have different priorities.  

The show, which is running through June 9, has a book by playwright Rachel Bonds and a score by the up-and-coming composer-lyricist  Zoe Sarnak (click here to read more about her). But while it may be great to have a show with a female-dominated creative team and a queer-centered love story, Bonds and Sarnak don’t seem to know what do with their story.

So they load it up with a bunch of subplots—an alcoholic brother for Lila, an estranged mother for Amy, a pregnant wife for Lila’s bandmate and best friend Dylan—but they don’t do much with those subplots either. Obstacles appear and then disappear with no rhyme or reason.

The music is equally problematic. Every character gets a solo whether it advances the plot or not. Meanwhile, the rock numbers are self-consciously loud (ushers actually offer ear plugs when you enter the theater). And the sound quality was so poor that I also missed most of the lyrics in the quieter ballads.

This is all a shame because there are some terrific performers in this cast, including Lauren Patten as Lila, Taylor Iman Jones as Amy and Damon Daunno as Dylan. Patten is particularly impressive, demonstrating throughout why she deserved to win that Tony for her burn-down-the-house rendition of Alanis Morrissette's “You Oughta Know” in Jagged Little Pill.

But even this show’s set stumbles. The folks at those tables onstage have to turn around and crane their necks if they want to see the scenes taking place in the home that Lila and her brother share because set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has placed that space above the stage. 

All these missteps surprised me because The Lonely Few was directed by Trip Cullman, who has done such surefooted work on other shows including last season’s revival of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which just won the Best Revival award from the Outer Critics Circle. 

Here, however, Cullman is co-directing with Ellenore Scott, all of whose previous credits seem to be for choreography.  There isn’t much dancing in The Lonely Few so I’m not sure why they were paired in what turns out to be a pretty wobbly production.

THREE HOUSES: The bar in Dave Malloy’s latest musical sits centerstage in Signature Theater’s Romulus Linney Theater and the audience are cast as patrons at an open-mic night in which a bartender named Wolf serves as M.C. and three storytellers take turns sharing the details of how they made it through the early lockdown phase of the pandemic. 

One (Margo Siebert) found refuge in a family home in Latvia, another (Mia Pak) fled to New Mexico and the third (J.D. Mollison) hunkered down in a small Brooklyn apartment. All three were newly out of romantic relationships, which intensified their loneliness. Each gets about 30 minutes to perform a confessional aria about what they did to fill that time—sorting through old keepsakes, playing videogames, shopping online, drinking

The ghosts of long-dead grandparents pop-up in each installment and Malloy's frequent collaborator director Annie Tippe adds puppets, both of which lend a surreal feel to these stories. Plus there are some overt references to the fairy tales The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, whose meaning escaped me.

Once again the performances are all quite fine. But your enjoyment of this show, which is now running through June 16, will depend on how you feel about Malloy’s music. Personally, I'm mixed. I kept the cast album of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 on repeat for months when it came out a decade ago but I could barely make it through 2019's Octet (although I’m an outlier on that a cappella production, which many people I respect really love).  

There are beautiful moments in Three Houses but overall, Malloy’s music here struck me as more like the underscoring for a moody indie film or the background music at a high-end spa. My mind kept drifting off and I kept having to drag it back to focus on what was going on. In the end, I found the show to be a downer that left me just wanting to go out and get a real drink.