June 25, 2022

Broadway—Many Kinds of Media—& Me


For the second time this month, there will be no regular post here. It’s not because there haven’t been shows to see and talk about: although it will be weeks before anything new opens on Broadway, a steady stream of comedies, dramas and musicals have been opening off-Broadway. And I’ve been fortunate enough to see a good number of them. But I’ve been busy in other ways too and so instead of posting a review as I usually do, I’m going to share some of that other stuff with you.

The Monday after the Tony Awards ceremony, my friend Patrick Pacheco invited me to record an episode of his TV show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts” to talk about the Tonys and the future of Broadway. I was in great company because also on the panel were Helen Shaw, the theater critic for New York magazine; and Adam Feldman, the theater editor for Time Out New York and the longtime president of the New York Drama Critics Circle. We all had a lot to say and we discovered that each of us was a card-carrying member of the fan club for the incredible Deirdre O’Connell, who delighted us all when she won the Tony for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Dana H., Lucas Hnath’s play about his mother’s kidnapping by a white supremacist. You can watch our discussion by clicking here.

A couple of days before that, BroadwayRadio released the latest installment of “All the Drama,” my podcast about plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over the years. This recent episode focuses on the 1995 winner, Horton Foote’s The Young Man From Atlanta. I was lucky enough to get Ben Brantley, the former New York Times theater critic and a longtime Foote fan, to talk with me about Foote and his play.  You can listen to our conversation by clicking here.

Meanwhile, I was so taken with one of those new shows I saw, Queen, a drama about two female scientists whose careers and friendship are jeopardized when one finds an error in their research, that I knew I wanted to talk more about the show with its playwright Madhuri Shekar. So I restarted "Stagecraft," my old podcast in which I regularly talked with playwrights and musical book writers but that I had to put on hiatus when Covid shut down theaters in the city. I was delighted—but not at all surprised—to find that Shekar is just as smart and lively as her play is.  You can check out what she had to say by clicking here.  

Finally, James Marino, the head of BroadwayRadio, has invited me to join him and regular commentators Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere on this Sunday’s episode of “This Week on Broadway” to talk about some of the shows we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks and you’ll be able to listen to that by clicking here.

 

 

 


June 11, 2022

"Exception to the Rule" and "soft" Offer Laments on the Tragedy of Being, Young, Poor and Black or Brown in Today's America


The settings and the circumstances are the same in two new off-Broadway shows that portray the plight of the young Black and Brown people who are so often trapped in systems that view them—and force them to see themselves—as failures who have no real future ahead of them.

Both open in sterile classrooms that have seen better days. And each is populated by a half dozen or so teens who are paying penance for wrongdoings. Audiences are seated on either side of both playing areas, creating an intimacy that ultimately makes viewers complicit in each story’s outcome.

The students in Dave Harris’ Exception to the Rule, now playing in the Roundabout Theatre’s Black Box through June 26, have been assigned to detention on the Friday before a holiday week-end. Most of them are no strangers to this purgatory. 

They’ve done penance before for talking back to teachers, violating the school’s dress code, getting into fights and otherwise failing to follow the rules. But the regulars are shocked when they’re joined by Erika, a straight-A student with a rep for doing the right things.

As they wait for the detention-room teacher to show up and sign the pass slips that will allow them to leave, the others flirt and bicker with one another and try to guess why Erica is among them. Director Miranda Haymon has her game young cast playing much of this for laughs and the audience at the matinee I attended eagerly lapped up all the antics.

But then, as announcements over the school’s faulty public address system became more difficult to decipher and more ominous, the students became more frantic, started revealing troubling details about their lives and began to worry about what would happen if the teacher never came and they were never allowed to leave.  

Only two dare to even attempt leaving on their own. And by the end, the room—actors and audience members—was left silent. 

The teacher is very present in Donja R. Love’s soft, which just opened in MCC Theater’s Frankel Theater this week. But the dedication of that teacher, Mr. Isaiah as his students call him, doesn’t seem to make that much difference in the fates of the students at the residential juvenile detention facility where he teaches English. 

At first, things seem more upbeat as the play opens with Mr. Isaiah complimenting his students on their compositions about Othello and encouraging them to write their own poetry. He’s taught them enough about poetic forms that they proudly distinguish between choosing to do cinquains, haikus and sonnets. And he even allows them to freestyle their results to the accompaniment of his beat-boxing (Warning: audience members who aren’t regular hip-hop listeners may have some trouble keeping up with the rapid flow).

These youngsters seem older than the kids in Exception to the Rule, the dysfunctions they’ve experienced are more apparent and the crimes they’ve committed are generally more serious. But both Love and Mr. Isaiah recognize that there is value in these boy-men if only the conditions can be created that will allow it to blossom. 

Instead, Mr. Isaiah is forced to use dilapidated textbooks because there isn’t money for new ones in the institution’s budget, societal norms about black masculinity force the boys to hide any softness within them and the suicide of the most talented and charismatic of the group pushes them all to the breaking point. 

Under the visceral direction of Whitney White and the fight choreography of UnkleDave's Fight-House, their outbursts were so raw and realistic that I found myself worrying for the safety of the actors. Isaiah’s desperation to connect with his students and his sense of guilt when he’d let them down also rang true.

And yet, I didn’t find myself as moved by soft as I had been by Exception to the Rule.

Maybe that’s because the young men in soft were given so many hardships—sexual abuse, parental neglect, homelessness, homophobia, drugs, AIDS—that it seemed to me as though boxes were being checked off as the play leaned into the expected stereotypes without challenging or, at least, deepening them. 

Or maybe it was because having the most fem gay character provide most of the humor also struck me as a tired trope. Or because although the ending—which I won’t spoil—seemed to soothe a good part of the audience at my performance, it annoyed me for wanting to have it both ways.

Still I think what both of these plays are trying to say is that most of the young people in these situations have limited choices. So both plays are worthy of being seen by serious theatergoers but it’s the real-life tragedies they depict to which attention should be paid.

 

 


June 4, 2022

"Dreaming Zenzile" Gets Lost in Its Reveries

Dreaming Zenzile, the musical that opened at New York Theatre Workshop this week, began as a tribute concert.  And it probably should have stayed one.  

The show, a co-production with the National Black Theatre, is now a musical biography that its writer and star Somi Kakoma created to honor her idol, the South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba. 

Kakoma has a lush, velvety voice, shares some of Makeba’s winning charisma and she looks terrific in the magnificent gowns that costume designer Mimi Plange created for her. But Kakoma’s dramaturgical chops are disastrously weak.

Dreaming Zenzile (the show takes its title from Makeba’s name in her native Xhosa language) opens at the 2008 concert during which Makeba suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 76. As Kakoma's Makeba tries to resist four white-clad angels of death who have come to carry her away, significant moments in the singer's life flash before her eyes and ours.  

It’s not a bad conceit for a show but there are several problems with the way it unfolds here. For starters, Makeba’s life story isn’t as familiar to most theatergoers as, say, Tina Turner’s is. So the fever-dream-style references to names and incidents just swirl by. And it doesn’t help that director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her actors speaking in over-emphasized African accents that make it difficult to understand what they’re saying.  

There are stops for re-enactments of some of the more dramatic events but they tend to deal with now-tired tropes: the abusive husband, the racism that eats at the singer, the guilt of being an absentee parent. 

There’s no doubt that these things happened to Makeba but similar things happened to Dinah Washington in the 1998 musical Dinah Was, to Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (for which Audra McDonald won her sixth Tony) to Nina Simone in Little Girl Blue which just completed a three-month off-Broadway run and to Tina Turner in her current namesake Broadway musical. So just saying that bad things happen to good and talented women is no longer enough.

With the exception of Tina all these woe-was-her shows tend to be modest affairs, performed with small casts on minimally designed stages.  Dreaming Zenzile hews to type here too. 

There’s a four-piece band onstage and a four-member ensemble who play everything from the angels of death to Makeba’s family, friends and fans over the decades. The actors are talented but they’re called on to morph so quickly from one character to another that I gave up trying to figure out who was who. 

Of course most people come to these shows for the music, to hear the songs that evoke memories for them. Dreaming Zenzile is at a disadvantage here too. Makeba had some hits in the ‘60s, including “The Click Song” and “Pata Pata” but few are remembered today. And although she’s credited with helping to introduce Afro-pop to the the rest of the world, Makeba's songs, at least as presented here, don’t have the exuberance that so animated the hit 2009 musical Fela!  

Some of the songs in Dreaming Zenzile are originals by Kakoma.  But they didn’t jump out for me either. In fact, I found the Afro-pop recordings that played before the show and during the intermission more enjoyable than the tunes in Zenzile.

Lots of people left at intermission during the performance I attended. A few black people in the audience, including the two women sitting in front of me tried to create some supportive energy by swaying their shoulders and bopping their heads to the music but even they eventually ran out of steam.

As for me, I sat there thinking how much more we all might have enjoyed the show if Kakoma, who occasionally seemed to be out of breath after performing Marjani Forté-Saunders’ spirited choreography, had simply followed her first instinct and honored Makeba with the fine tribute concert that she certainly deserves.

 

 

 


May 21, 2022

"Belfast Girls" Updates the History Play


The girls aren’t what they’re expected to be in Belfast Girls, the new show that opened at the Irish Rep this week. They also aren’t what we’ve come to expect to find in historical dramas like this one set in 1850 during the Irish famine in which about a million people starved to death and twice as many fled the country in search of a better life elsewhere. 

And the unexpected makeup of these characters in a history play is precisely what I so admired about this engaging drama by the British playwright Jaki McCarrick. 

 A 2012 finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize that honors female-identifying playwrights, Belfast Girls is inspired by the real-life program in which some 4,000 Irish women volunteered to be shipped to Australia, where they hoped to find husbands among its then-majority male population or to support themselves as servants (click here to read more about it).  

The volunteers were supposed to be teenagers and “morally pure.” But many were considerably older and more than a few had worked as prostitutes. McCarrick’s play imagines the voyage for five of those women who share a steerage cabin during the then-three-month long journey. 

Her women are strangers to one another at first but each has experienced the hardships of the potato famine and each has secrets she’s reluctant to reveal but that, no surprise, will come out over the course of the play as shifting alliances and dangerous rivalries develop among them. It’s the kind of costume drama in which the Brits excel. 

But McCarrick adds some twists. One of the women is Jamaican, the child of a free black woman and a white settler, who ended up in Ireland. Two of the women fall in love. None of that should be remarkable but these kinds of stories seldom get told in these kinds of plays. And they’re particularly welcomed at a time when theater is vowing to be more inclusive.  

I’ve seen lots of shows struggle with that. Many fall back on colorblind casting or making a supporting character gay. But McCarrick has realized that she doesn’t need to shoehorn people of color or queer people into history because they were there all along. Instead she simply weaves these storylines into her overall narrative, and does so without any pat-me-on-the-back fanfare.

The result is a fresh look at a period that has been viewed primarily through the eyes of straight, white men. Of course, none of this would matter if the storytelling were poor. But McCarrick has crafted a crackerjack tale filled with romance, suspense and ruminations on class struggle via references to Marx and Engels. 

Aided by a terrific cast (there’s not a ringer in the bunch) director Nicola Murphy hits all the script’s emotional beats. And the creative team is onboard too. Particular shout-outs go to Chika Shimizu for her eye-catching set, China Lee for the smartly detailed costumes and Caroline Eng for the evocative sound design. 

Some theatergoers have griped about the accents the actors adopt (a common complaint for Irish Rep shows) and, to be honest, a few people left during intermission at the performance I saw. But stay if you go—and you should—because Belfast Girls offers the kind of all-embracing and thoroughly satisfying look at history that theater really needs right now. 

 


May 14, 2022

Celebrating Even Making it to Awards Season

It may seem strange for a theater lover—and hip-hop know-nothing—like me to be quoting the rapper Drake but his self-congratulatory lyrics “Started from the bottom, now we're here” seem particularly apt at this theatrical moment. After all, concerns about the spread of the coronavirus had closed theaters everywhere at this time last year but now, we're here, in the awards phase celebrating a full New York theater season. 

Of course, there have been bumps along the way. Broadway shows opened and closed and opened again as infection rates in the city ebbed, surged, wavered. Performances were canceled when stars like Hugh Jackman, Patti LuPone, Sarah Jessica Parker and Daniel Craig tested positive for the virus. But, thanks to having been vaccinated, they all returned relatively quickly to their productions, even though the Tonys had to extend their deadline so that nominators would be able to see all the shows and all the contending performers. 

Meanwhile, tourists, the lifeblood of Broadway, have been slow to return and the city’s official marketing organization is predicting that visitors to New York will be down about 15% from the pre-pandemic levels of 2019. And even some locals have been skittish about seeing shows, including those off-Broadway. 

All of that has caused premature closings, even of touted shows. The much-praised revival of Nzotake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf announced that it would close next week, three months ahead of schedule, before an online campaign won it a two-week reprieve until June 5. The musical Mrs. Doubtfire is unlikely to be so lucky; after getting just one Tony nomination (for Rob McClure's terrific lead performance) its producers said they will bring down the curtain on May 29.  

On the other hand, people seem happy to pay premium prices to see Jackman in The Music Man, Craig in Macbeth, Parker and her also-starry husband Matthew Broderick in Plaza Suite and Beanie Feldstein headlining Broadway’s first revival of Funny Girl in 55 years, even though those four shows have drawn mixed reviews. 

So the awards this year will have been particularly hard won and may be even more cherished than usual. The Tony nominators tacitly acknowledged that this week when they gave nods to 29 of the 34 shows that opened between Aug. 1, 2021 and May 4, 2022. Even Diana, the much-derided musical about the late princess that ran for just 34 performance, got a nod for its costumes. 

But the biggest bragging rights went to the musical A Strange Loop, which lead the pack with 11 nominations although it was closely followed with 10 each by Paradise Square and MJ, the musical about Michael Jackson. On the play side, The Lehman Trilogy boasted eight nominations, including one for each of its three actors. All the winners will be announced at the ceremony scheduled for June 12. You can find—and debate—the entire list of nominees by clicking here.

Of course the Tonys aren’t the only honors that will be given out over the next few weeks. It can be difficult to keep score because the various awards groups have different qualifying periods. On Monday the Pulitzer Prize committee, which uses a calendar year and recognized A Strange Loop in 2021, gave its award to Fat Ham, a new twist on the Hamlet story by James Ijames that was streamed by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater last year and just started previews for a May 26 opening at The Public Theater. You can read more about it and about the two semi-finalists by clicking here.

A couple of days later the New York Drama Critics’ Circle gave its Best Play prize to Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God, a fantastic play that opened last week at Playwrights Horizons (click here to see my review). It also named Kimberly Akimbo, David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of his 2003 play with a score by Jeanine Tesori, as Best Musical (click here for my thoughts on that one). The musical, which had a brief run at the Atlantic Theatre, is scheduled to open on Broadway in November and you can see the impressive list of runners-up for best play by clicking here.  

There’s even more to come. The Drama Desk, which recognizes Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions, was supposed to announce its nominations on May 2 but pushed them back to this coming Monday.  A day later, the Outer Critics Circle, on whose executive committee I’m proud to serve, will announce our winners for the 2021-2022 season. In the meantime, you can check out the list of our nominees by clicking here.

And this Sunday, I’m going to join my BroadwayRadio colleagues James Marino, Peter Filichia and Michael Portantiere to discuss all of this and more on this week’s episode of This Week on Broadway, which you should be able to find here.


May 7, 2022

In Praise of "A Case for the Existence of God"

Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God has been almost universally adored by the critics. And the play, which has just been extended at Signature Theatre through May 22, deserves that praise. It’s a beautifully written piece, beautifully directed by David Cromer and beautifully performed by the actors Will Brill and Kyle Beltran

I’ve also been impressed with the many ways in which it speaks to the people who see it. One critic, recently a new father, was moved by the play’s loving portrayal of contemporary fatherhood. Another was taken by its sensitive depiction of male friendship. 

I appreciated all that too but what made A Case for the Existence of God so special to me were its insights into the feelings of alienation that have so divided this country. 

In some ways, you might call Hunter a bard of MAGA country (click here to read an inter view with him). It’s not that he’s an advocate for Fox News watchers but in play after play, Hunter has displayed an empathy for the white working class—be it the cashiers at a Hobby Lobby store in his 2010 breakout play A Bright New Boise, the wait staff in a chain restaurant like the characters in 2014’s Pocatello or the displaced miners in 2019’s Greater Clements.

These are the folks who feel as though the America their parents knew and that they expected to inherit is disappearing and that the world is leaving them behind. Paying heed to those fears and showing those people that they still have a place in our more diverse society might have made them less susceptible to troublemaking extremists in 2016 and on Jan. 6, 2021—and might yet make a difference in this year's important midterm elections. 

Like all of Hunter’s plays, A Case for the Existence of God takes place in the playwright’s native Idaho. The specific setting this time is Twin Falls, a real city with a population of about 50,000 people, but the symbolism of its name shouldn’t be overlooked. The play’s two characters are Keith, a black mortgage broker; and Ryan, a white first-time buyer. Both are in free fall when we meet them.  

Keith, who is college-educated and has a dual degree in Early Music and English, is gay and acutely aware of living in a place where black people are in a distinct minority. Ryan, who only made it through high school and works the line at a yogurt plant, is straight and desperately wants to buy some land that his ancestors originally homesteaded but that his family lost over the years.

You can almost see the banners of blue-state elite and red-state yokel waving over their heads. But Hunter doesn’t deal in polemics, even when making room for his characters to complain about their circumstances. 

Although brought up in the comfort of a middle-class family, Keith still bears the emotional scars of being bullied for his race and sexuality by Ryan and his friends when they were in high school. The child of addicts, Ryan feels that he drew the shorter end of the stick. "I’m sure it was hard for you, growing up in this town, I’m sure it’s still hard to live in this town," he tells Keith. "But you know what else is hard?! Being in this town and being dirt fucking poor!"

But Hunter's plays work because he refuses to allow his characters to be identified solely by their grievances and instead digs deep into the specifics that reveal the humanity beneath their issues. Here it's that both Keith and Ryan are fathers. Keith is trying to adopt the little girl he’s been foster parenting since she was an infant. The recently-divorced Ryan is fighting for joint custody of his daughter. 

Despite their differences, the men bond over their love for their children and the loneliness they both feel in a country that seems to save its best stuff for people who aren't them. “I think we share a specific kind of sadness,” Ryan tells Keith.

Although the actors never leave the cramped space of Keith's office, the narrative moves forward over several weeks (shout-out to the invaluable lighting design by Tyler Micoleau) as their characters struggle to negotiate the financial and governmental bureaucracies that will determine their fates. 

I’m obviously not going to spoil the outcome for you.  But I will say that Hunter doesn’t just show empathy, he prescribes it. I think that what he's saying is that the only way we’re going to get out of our current political morass is to accept the ways in which people on all sides fail, to acknowledge and attempt to ease the pains each of us suffers and to join in celebrating the things we all cherish.  

The saying goes that the devil is in the details, but in this play, the case for the hope that God represents is quietly but effectively made in the interstices between its lines. And that's what makes this such a work of wonder.


April 30, 2022

Four New Shows Try to Answer the Question "What Kind of Show Belongs on Broadway?"



Seventeen shows opened or reopened on Broadway this month and as I bounced from one to the other, I found myself asking what exactly is a Broadway show. The simplest answer to that question is, of course, any show that’s on Broadway. But as the four shows below demonstrate, it isn’t always that simple. 

THE LITTLE PRINCE found that out the hard way. This adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved 1943 novella uses music, dance, fanciful costumes and Cirque du Soleil-style aerial acrobatics to tell the story of the titular character’s metaphysical travels to various planets in search of love and friendship. It’s been a hit in Europe, Australia and the Middle East and was supposed to enjoy a four-month run at the Broadway Theatre as part of its world tour. But the lack of dialog, the heavy reliance on videos and the confusing narrative seemed out of place on Broadway. Critics panned the show and theatergoers didn’t seem to know what to make of it either (about a fifth of the audience left at intermission the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show). So this week,  just two weeks after its April 11 opening, the show’s producers announced that it would close early on May 8.   

On the other hand, some shows seem tailor-made for Broadway. MRS. DOUBTFIRE, a staged version of the 1993 movie that starred Robin Williams as a divorced dad so desperate to be with his kids that he masquerades as a female nanny, fits right into the trend of popular films that have become Broadway shows. Directed by musical-comedy maestro Jerry Zaks, it’s funny and colorful, filled with witty songs by the brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (click here to read more about them) and features a bravura performance by Rob McClure. The Outer Critics Circle, of which I’m proud to be a member, liked it too and this week we awarded it six nominations (click here to see all of them), including one for Catherine Zuber’s terrific costumes, which allow McClure to quick change from his male to female personas right in front of the audience. This is an old-fashioned show, the kind that used to advertise itself as one the whole family could enjoy.  And I think they actually would.  
 
A STRANGE LOOP might seem an odd candidate for a Broadway run but this musical about a young would-be musical maker who is black, queer, somewhat overweight and totally insecure has drawn some of the best reviews of the season. The show, whose semi-autobiographical book, score and lyrics were all written by Michael R. Jackson, also won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming only the 10th musical to be awarded that honor (South Pacific, Rent and Hamilton are among the others). The show boasts a bunch of ear-wormy songs, a narrative that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking and a slew of terrific performances including one by 23-year-old Jaquel Spivey who just graduated from college last spring and lends the main character a winning vulnerability (click here to learn more about him).  But A Strange Loop also has graphic depictions of sex, some blasphemous representations of religion and lots of profanity, including the n-word. I was a fan when the show played off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons back in 2019 (click here to read my review) but I worry that this is the kind of offbeat show that despite being embraced by the theater cognoscenti might have a harder time drawing in the civilians on whom Broadway depends and is eager to woo back after the long pandemic pause. So I’m curious to see whether it will stick its Broadway landing.


Star vehicles have always found a home on Broadway and Billy Crystal’s MR. SATURDAY NIGHT could be the epitome of that genre. This new musical is based on Crystal’s 1992 movie about a once-famous comic trying to make a comeback. His protagonist Buddy Young Jr. was a big shot in the era of 1950s variety shows but 40 years later, finds himself unhappily doing gigs in nursing homes until he’s given one last shot at the big time. The movie portrayed Buddy as an egoist who mistreated his brother, wife and daughter as he climbed to the top. But Crystal, who grew up in a showbiz family, has long revered those Golden Age comics and he shares their appetite for Borscht Belt humor and their hunger for applause and so he and his collaborators—the Hollywood screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell who worked with him on the book and the Broadway vets Jason Robert Brown and Amanda Green who do the score—have softened the character, allowing Crystal to woo the audience. I had thought his shtick might be outdated and have limited appeal but, if the the two 14-year-old boys sitting next to me who kept doubling over with laughter are any indication, Mr. Saturday Night could play for many nights to come.