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:

 

BEST NEW PLAY

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


BEST NEW MUSICAL

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


BEST PLAY REVIVAL

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


BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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.


May 4, 2024

A Few Thoughts on an Awards Season Full of News-Worthy and Prize-Worthy Nominations

We’re officially in awards season.  The Outer Critics Circle, on whose nominating committee I sit, announced its choices for the best in the 2023-2024 season last week (click here to see our nominations for shows both on and off Broadway).  And then this week came nominations from the Drama Desk, which celebrate shows on, off and off-off Broadway (click here for its choices) and the Chita Rivera Award nominations for the best in theatrical dance (click here for those nods).  And then, of course, came the Tony Award nominations (click here to see those).

Still to come are the Drama Critics Circle Awards, which will be announced on May 13 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which is scheduled to be announced on May 8.

But even with all those chances, some worthy contenders always get left out. And that was even more the case this year because there were so many shows13 opening in the last two weeks of the season aloneso many of them boasted award-worthy elements and so many of them featured big casts with lots of talented performances. Which made it all the more difficult to put out a slate of just five to seven names in any category. 

It delighted me when some of my personal favorites got recognized (yay, Mother Play) and made me a little sad when some didn’t (Michael Imperioli really should have been in the mix for his turn in An Enemy of the People). But what I focused on more is what these combined nominations tell us about the current state of Broadway, which is searching for a new identity in this post-pandemic era.

Most attention tends to center around the prizes for musicals because (1) that’s what so many theatergoers think of when they think of a Broadway show and (2) musicals are so damned hard to get right. So I'm going to focus this post on them too. And it makes extra sense to do that because last season saw an influx of new voices and talents into that arena.

More award-winning playwrights than ever are writing the books for musicals. Kristoffer Diaz, a one-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wrote the book for Hell’s Kitchen, the musical drawn from the songbook of Alicia Keyes and inspired by the singer-songwriter’s coming of age in the ‘90s in the New York City neighborhood that gives the show its title. 

Another former Pulitzer finalist Craig Lucas collaborated with composer Adam Guettel on Days of Wine and Roses, the story of a couple (gloriously played by Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara) whose lives are ruined by alcoholism. 

Meanwhile yet another Pulitzer finalist, Adam Rapp adapted The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s now-classic 1967 novel about rival teen gangs divided along social class lines.  

And Jackie Sibblies Drury, who actually won the Pulitzer in 2019 for her audacious play Fairview, created the narrative storyline for Justin Peck’s all-dance show Illinoise, which was inspired by and set to the music of Sufjan Stevens.

But Stevens’ music wasn’t the only score to redefine what a Broadway show now sounds like. Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson created the pop-rock score for The Notebook; the folk-rock duo Jamestown Revival collaborated with Justin Levine on the music for The Outsiders and the collective of musicians known as the Pigpen Company did the score for Water for Elephants.  

However perhaps most surprisingly, Will Butler, a former member of the indie band Arcade Fire, wrote the songs for Stereophonic, David Adjmi’s play about a rock band working through both artistic and personal issues as it records its sophomore album. 

Shaina Taub’s score for Suffs, a show about the feminist campaign to get women the right to vote, is a bit more traditional but it's attention worthy too because Taub is one of just a handful of women ever to have written the book, score and lyrics for a Broadway show.

Women also broke out in other ways last season. Four of the five Tony nominations for Best Director of a Musical deservedly went to women: Maria Friedman for Merrily We Roll Along, Leigh Silverman for Suffs, Jessica Stone for Water for Elephants and Danya Taymor for The Outsiders.  

All of these writers, composers and directors picked up OCC or Drama Desk nominations too. As did their shows.  And because there is no obvious frontrunner for the Best Musical this year, watching as the nominees and their producers jockey for the top prizes could make this awards season one of the most fun and exciting in recent memory.

Update: Although above the post said the Pulitzer Prize for Drama would be announced on May 8, it was announced on May 6 (and you might think I would have known better since I had the honor of chairing this year's jury; click here for info about the runners-up and the other jury members). The prize went to Eboni Booth's Primary Trust (click here to listen to an interview I did with Booth when the show ran at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre last year).


April 27, 2024

"Mother Play" is a Work of True Compassion

After seeing Mother Play, Paula Vogel’s semi-autobiographical three-hander which opened at the Hayes Theater on the very last day of the 2023-2024 theater season, my friends and I went next door to Sardi’s for a post-show dinner. While we waited for our drinks to arrive, I went to the ladies room. And when I came out of my stall, I found a woman standing in the middle of the room, her eyes brimming with tears. With no prompting from me, she explained that she was still reeling from having just seen “the most remarkable play.” And, of course, that play turned out to be Mother Play

Now as regular readers will know, I am a longstanding Paula Vogel stan but I suspect that even those of you who might be new to her work will, like the woman in the Sardi’s restroom, find yourselves deeply moved by this play.  And that will be especially so if, like Vogel and me, you’re a member of the Baby Boom generation and was raised by one of those mothers who felt thwarted in those days before women’s liberation took root and so poured her ambitions—and her anger—into her children.

The full title of the play is Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions and it tracks four decades of ejections and rejections in the relationships between Phyllis, a single mother whose husband left her for another woman, and her children Carl and Martha. And as this memory play opens, a middle-aged Martha looks back at the day when the three of them—Phyllis then 37, Carl 13 and she 11—moved into a dingy basement apartment in a D.C. suburb that they could only afford if they took on the building’s janitorial duties.  

Carl, who shares a name with Vogel’s real-life brother who died of AIDS in 1988, is one of those sensitive boys who reads serious literature, listens to classical music and yearns to live in someplace like New York or Paris. Martha, a stand-in for the playwright, is socially inept and just trying to avoid the school bullies who make fun of her. But the main preoccupation for both siblings is Phyllis, which also happens to be the name of Vogel’s mother.

Phyllis is furious about the hand that life has dealt her and she deals with it by guzzling gin, chain smoking and criticizing her kids. The latter intensifies when both of them later come out as gay.  “Was it too much to ask for one normal child? “ she rages.

Tina Landau’s deft direction balances the pathos of the family’s interactions with the humor they employ to survive them. The set and video projections also provide some clever moments of levity. But it’s the performances that drove the show home for me and each of the actors—Jessica Lange as Phyllis (click here to read an interview with her) Jim Parsons as Carl and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Martha—is superb. 

Several critics have compared Mother Play to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: a memory play with an absent father, overbearing mother, sensitive son, awkward daughter. But while Glass Menagerie may be the greater play, Mother Play is the more compassionate one.

In his playand throughout the rest of his lifeWilliams struggles to forgive himself for leaving his mother and sister behind. Vogel's play holds onto her anger toward a mother who emotionally abandoned her and her beloved brother but it also tells those of us still trying to understand mothers who were overtly or covertly ambivalent about motherhood that simply acknowledging the past might be the best way to move on from it.





April 23, 2024

HAPPY SHAKESPEARE DAY


The Bard was born 460 years ago today—and died exactly 52 years later in 1616. But of course his works live on even though debates about whether or not he actually wrote them do too (click here to read the latest). I confess that in the past I've declared moratoriums on seeing his work but I keep coming back (my theatergoing buddy Bill and I are scheduled to see a simulcast of Ralph Fiennes in Macbeth next week). So Happy Birthday Will!

April 20, 2024

Their Wobbly Books Cause "Lempicka" and "Suffs" to Stumble More Than They Should


What’s the hardest job in show business?  There are obviously lots of contenders but right now as one musical after another is opening on Broadway, I’ve been thinking that the answer to that question might be writing the book of a musical. In some ways it’s a thankless job. When a show works, the composer usually gets the credit (after all, it is called a musical) and when a show doesn’t work, the book writer often gets the blame. 

I thought a lot about that as I watched two ambitious musicals—Lempicka and Suffs—that opened this week to middling reviews. Although both shows are inspired by the lives of real people, neither is based on pre-existing material like a book, movie or superhero comic. So it was up to their book writers to determine exactly what story they wanted to tell and how to tell it. 

Alas, neither Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould who collaborated on the book for Lempicka; nor Shaina Taub, who not only wrote the book for Suffs but also composed its score, wrote its lyrics and performs as the show’s main character, manage to do this as successfully as I’d hoped.

Lempicka tells the story of the Polish-Jewish artist Tamara Lempicka who rose to fame between the World Wars for the bold art deco nudes she painted. She also had a colorful personal life that included escapes from both the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of Paris as well as a string of affairs with both men and women. 

So Kreitzer and Gould had a lot to work with. The problem is that they worked so hard to cram all of it into two-and-a-half hours that they forgot to include a reason to make us care about any of it. Maybe things got lost in rewrites during the show’s 16-year gestation period.  For example, a too-expensive-not-to-use car that resembles the Batmobile sits on the stage but no longer serves any real purpose in the storytelling.

The current book just slides from one scene in Lempicka’s life to the next, without taking time to develop her character or those of the people around her. And while Eden Espinosa who has been with the show through most of its long development process (click here to read an interview with her) brings the rattle-the-rafters intensity to Lempicka's songs that she honed as an Elphaba in Wicked, she isn’t able to flesh out this character.

And her castmates are similarly hobbled. One minute Lempicka’s husband (played by Andrew Samonsky) is incensed that she’s spending so much time in her studio and the next he’s boasting about her accomplishments. Similarly a female lover quickly switches from being a woman who doesn’t want to be tied down to one who is clingy and can’t bear to be apart from Lempicka. 

That lover, called Rafaela in the play, is supposed to have inspired the painter’s most iconic works but that presents another problem for this production, which clearly wants to use reproductions of those images but is constrained because they all feature white women and Rafaela is played by the black actress Amber Iman. The script calls for viewers to make the instant connection between the paintings and their subject but whenever someone did that it took me right out of Lempicka’s already too-thinly-realized world. 

By comparison Suffs has clear stakes and a fairly straight-forward storyline: the campaign in the early part of the 20th century to get American women the right to vote. Its main character is Alice Paul, the real-life feminist who was one of the main strategist in the suffrage movement, from which the show takes its title. 

But sensitive to the politics of our day, Taub tries to be inclusive, telling the stories of a range of women, including the African-American activists Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell and the working-class labor organizer Ruza Wenclawska. However as good as it is to celebrate these women, we don’t truly to get to know any of them well. And we get to know Paul, who lived to be 92 and a fierce advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, least of all.

Still, the production has improved considerably since its run at the Public Theater two years ago (click here to read my review of that). Taub and director Leigh Silverman have replaced half of the songs, hired a new choreographer, brought in new costume, set and lighting designers and enlisted two high-profile producers: almost-President Hillary Clinton and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

They’ve also shuffled around the cast, moving some actors into different roles and getting rid of the well-meaning but confusing colorblind casting that made it difficult to tell if actors of color were playing African-American feminists or white characters.

But what they didn’t do was deepen their characters, give them motivations that made us understand why they were the ones willing to risk so much to empower all women.  Instead the characters justify their actions by occasionally breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience “this really happened.” 

That may be so but what we want—OK, what I want—from shows like this one is an emotional truth, an understanding of why people do things instead of just an accounting of what they did. 

Suffs may now be an entertaining history lesson (it's chocked full of memorable anthems and the row of women seated behind me cheered them all) but I'm not so sure that the show will make it into the musical theater history books.