January 1, 2022

Wishing All of Us a Really Happy New Year...

...and the chance to once again safely put the spotlights back on some really good theater:







December 25, 2021

Christmas Tidings



Please click the arrow below and enjoy!


 

December 18, 2021

Sizing Up An Uneven and Uneasy Fall Season



You might have thought that I’d given up on theatergoing if you’ve been checking in here to see what I had to say about this comeback season’s new shows only to discover that I’d written about just three of the productions that have opened over the past four months. It’s not that I haven’t been going. 

Despite my trepidations about the coronavirus and its variants, I got my booster shot, double-masked myself, hung a mini air-purifier around my neck (the latter probably doesn’t offer much protection but it’s been a nice emotional palliative) and ventured out to a theater about twice a week. The problem is that, with a couple of exceptions, I haven’t really enjoyed most of what I’ve seen and who wants to naysay theater at a time like this when it’s scrambling to stay on its feet. 

I don’t know if my lack of enthusiasm reflects my uneasiness about sitting in a closed space with a bunch of strangers, even if they do have to show proof of having been vaccinated and are required to remain masked throughout the performance. Or if it’s because producers have been saving the really good stuff for the spring season when, they assumed, the virus would be controlled and we’d all be back to normal.

Either way, the most recent shows I’ve seen— Morning Sun, Kimberly Akimbo and Company—have offered a mixed bag of experiences. Here are some brief thoughts about each of them:

MORNING SUN:  From the first moment I even heard about Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of British playwright Simon Stephens’ latest work I knew I wanted to see it because its cast consisted of the powerhouse actresses Edie Falco, Marin Ireland and Blair Brown. And I wasn’t disappointed. All three, under the sensitive direction of Lila Neugebauer, give moving performances in this portrait of a working-class woman who in the final moments of her life looks back at the good and bad choices she made. 

Until recently the lives of women were mainly celebrated when they were royal, rich or the sexual objects of men's desire and some critics—mostly male ones—dismissed this everywoman story as not worthy of being dramatized. But Stephens’ determination to show that even the most mundane lives matter spoke to me. I wish I had seen this one earlier so that I could have urged you to see it. Instead, its run ends tomorrow.


KIMBERLY AKIMBO.  David Lindsay-Abaire’s dark comedy debuted back in 2003 but now he’s teamed up with composer Jeanine Tesori to create a musical version of it. The title character in both incarnations is a girl with a genetic condition that causes her to physically age at a rapid rate so that by the time she’s in her teens, she resembles a woman way past menopause and is facing the prospect of a premature death. The people in her life include her alcoholic father, narcissistic mother and a nerdy boy at school who becomes her lifeline. 

I have to admit that I found myself wishing I’d seen the original because the show doesn’t really seem to need music. Luckily, Victoria Clark is on hand to lend her gorgeous voice to Kimberly’s songs and an unsentimental poignancy to her story. A fresh-faced newcomer named Justin Cooley also brings a sweet charm to her boy friend. So in the end, I had a good time and I suspect you might too. The run has already been extended to Jan. 15 and there’s talk of a move to Broadway.


COMPANY: One of the most high-profile productions of the season even before Stephen Sondheim’s death last month, this revival of his genre-redefining show that established the concept musical turned out to be the biggest disappointment for me. Perhaps that’s because I originally had such high hopes for it. 

Unlike so many revivals that are done simply because a big name wants a crack at a classic part or producers feel they can cash in on a title already familiar to ticket buyers, this one had a mission: director Marianne Elliott wanted to upend Sondheim and book writer George Furth’s exploration of the romantic life of an unmarried guy turning 35 by recasting that role as a woman. 

That, of course, meant other changes too. Some work (the couple getting married in the show-stopping number “Getting Married Today” are now both men) but some really don’t (the older woman friend who propositioned the male Bobby in the original, now tries to pimp her husband out to the female Bobbie). 

But the biggest glitch is the revival’s star Katrina Lenk, who was wonderful in Indecent and won a Tony for playing the world-weary tavern owner in The Band’s Visit. Here, perhaps to fit in with Elliott’s concept of Bobbie as a kind of Alice in Nightmare Wonderland, she plays Bobbie as a wide-eyed naïf, which seems wrong for the role. Also neither her vocal chops nor vocal interpretation are up to the demands of such bittersweetly nuanced songs as “Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive.” 

The audience the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show didn’t care about any of that. People cheered as soon as the lights went down and they went crazy when Patti LuPone, stepping into the role of the older woman friend made famous by Elaine Stritch, sang “The Ladies Who Lunch.” 

I also appreciated the way LuPone made the song her own and a few of the other performances too (talking about you Claybourne Elder as one of Bobbie’s meathead beaus and you Matt Doyle as the reluctant bridegroom). 

But my favorite part of the evening was the usher who quietly patrolled the aisles throughout the performance, reminding mask scofflaws to pull their masks up over their noses, more important than ever when covid outbreaks in their casts or crews are forcing more and more shows to cancel performances. At least nine, including the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, have had to go dark for part or all of this pre-Christmas weekend. These are indeed uneasy times for us all...


November 26, 2021

Stephen Sondheim, 1930-2021

 Lots of words are going to be written over the next few days by people who knew him, people who admired him and people who have a better way with words than I do.  So although the pleasure his work has given me over the years compels me to mark  the passing of this irreplaceable theatrical giant, I'll just say, Thank you.




November 20, 2021

"The Visitor" May Have Arrived Too Late


Everyone involved with The Public Theater’s new musical The Visitor seems to be walking on eggshells. And who can blame them?  

The week before previews were scheduled to begin, the production shut down for a few days and brought in diversity consultants to help the cast and creative team work through their feelings about the show's story of the relationship between a white college professor and two undocumented immigrants (click here to read about that). 

Two weeks later, one of the show's stars Ari’el Stachel, a Tony winner for The Band’s Visit, left the production, reportedly because he objected to speaking with an accent and to other ways in which his Syrian-born-but-American-raised character was being represented (click here to read more about that).  

And, of course, this was all happening against the backdrop of the theater community’s new struggle to tell stories in a way that is more equitable and inclusive than has been done in the past. The solution to all those problems requires a tricky combination of nuance and boldness that, alas, this show lacks. 

It didn’t start out that way. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the team behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, based The Visitor on the 2007 film of the same name that offered a then-fresh look at the lives of two immigrants: Tarek, a musician brought to this country when he was a child; and Zainab, a jewelry designer from Senegal. 

As such stories have traditionally tended to do, the film centered    its tale around the developing social consciousness of a white character. In this case that’s a grieving widower named Walter.    The immigrant couple and Walter meet cute when he turns up at the Manhattan apartment he rarely uses to find that a swindler has rented it to them. 

After some confusion, Walter invites them to stay and even begins taking drumming lessons from Tarek until the musician is arrested for a misdemeanor he didn’t commit and threatened with being deported. Walter tries to help his new friend and begins to fall for Tarek’s mother Mouna when she shows up to look for her son.

The musical, whose book is now credited to Yorkey and the black British theatermaker Kwame Kwei-Armah, follows the film almost beat-for-beat but its dialog strains to be politically correct. It’s low on humor too, as though the writers were afraid they might get their knuckles rapped for making fun of the wrong thing. 

That puts a lot of pressure on the score to save this show but it can’t carry the weight either. Its two dozen songs offer a mix of pop tunes, power ballads and some Middle Eastern-inflected melodies but none are memorable, and some are less than that. You can too often guess the coming rhyme as soon as you hear the final word of a couplet's first line. 

And there’s an almost embarrassing earnestness about some of the other lyrics, especially Walter’s final solo, which is supposed to be a rousing anthem about American values but only made me feel badly for poor David Hyde Pierce as he tried to put it over.

Pierce, always endearing, and the rest of the cast (which includes Jacqueline Antaramian as Mouna, Alysha Deslorieux as Zainab and Ahmad Maksoud, the understudy who stepped in when Stachel left as Tarek) all work hard—and well. As does the show’s appropriately multicultural ensemble.  

But they’re all let down by the somewhat flaccid direction of Daniel Sullivan, who hasn’t staged many musicals before, and by Lorin Latarro’s choreography, which tries to compensate with lots of busy Steven Hoggett-style movements but without any distinctive flair.

Six years ago, a chatty woman sitting next to me at another Public production struck up a conversation before our performance started. She told me she was working on a terrific new show that I had to see. It was, of course, The Visitor. And the show might have worked better if it had been produced back then instead of seeming outdated as it does now in this post-George Floyd era.

Some people will still respond to the still-urgent plight of immigrants in this country that the musical wants to tell.  But others of us will wish it had found a different way to tell it. 


October 23, 2021

"Lackawanna Blues" and Other Laments

Eight plays written by black playwrights are scheduled to open on Broadway this fall. That’s twice the number of all the shows by black playwrights that opened on the too-aptly named Great White Way in the five seasons before the pandemic shutdown. So this is a good development, particularly because we’re talking about straight plays and not musicals where black creators have traditionally been given a little more leeway (although only four of them opened during that five-season period). 

However to my surprise, my response has been somewhat mixed. Of course I’m happy for the playwrights, be they newcomers like Keenan Scott II, the author of the poetry-driven Thoughts of a Colored Man, and Douglas Lyon, who created the family comedy Chicken & Biscuits, or seasoned vets like Ruben Santiago-Hudson, whose wistful memory play Lackawanna Blues I saw this week, and Lynn Nottage, the only female playwright to have won two Pulitzers, who is gearing up three shows for this season (the Michael Jackson musical MJ, an opera version of her 2003 play Intimate Apparel and a brand new work Clyde’s).

But I also feel uncomfortable that these shows are getting their shot at a time when many people are still skittish about the idea of sitting among strangers in an enclosed theater. Producers aren’t releasing grosses this fall but word-of-mouth suggests that the shows aren’t selling out. I worry that this will be misused as evidence that black shows can’t do well on Broadway.

And to be honest, I’m also uncomfortable about sharing some of these stories with people who aren’t black. I haven’t yet seen Thoughts of a Colored Man but I can’t help noticing that while many white critics are praising its insights into black manhood, some black critics have pointed out that its portrayal of black men doesn’t fit at all with their lived experience. “All the talk just adds up to a collection of tropes,” wrote the New Yorker’s critic Vinson Cunningham. “This ‘colored man’ kept thinking, Speak for yourself.”

I didn’t have any trouble identifying with Santiago-Hudson’s tribute to his beloved foster mother and the metaphorical village of people who helped her raise him and who are all commemorated in Lackawanna Blues, a show Santiago-Hudson first performed at the Public Theater in 2001.

Called Nanny by most everyone in the eponymous factory town in upstate New York where she lived, Santiago-Hudson’s foster mother ran a boarding house that catered to and cared for the physically and emotionally crippled, the kind of people who today end up in homeless shelters or on street corners. As Santiago-Hudson tells it, “Nanny was like the government if it really worked.”

A Tony-winner for best featured actor in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars and a Tony-nominated director for the 2017 revival of Wilson’s Jitney (click here to read more about him) Santiago-Hudson has directed himself here and plays all the roles, assisted only by guitarist Junior Mack who provides the blues underscoring. 

The result is a virtuosic performance, with Santiago-Hudson switching effortlessly from one of some 20 characters to another. It's a feat that's all the more impressive because Santiago-Hudson has been plagued by a back injury that caused him to miss some performances early in the run, although there was no trace of that as he nimbly scampered around the stage at my matinee. 

But I particularly appreciated the memories he shared. Like Santiago-Hudson, I grew up in a tight-knit black community in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the unemployment rate hovered around 4% and black men, even those without much education, could find good-paying jobs. Families who had moved north for that work still hung onto the folkways of their southern or Caribbean roots.  

I knew men who, like the characters in the play, went by colorful nicknames like Suitcase, Shoebrush and Little Bill.  My mother hosted off-the-books card games and sold fried chicken dinners and fish sandwiches to make a few extra dollars just like Nanny does in the show. And I often watched neighbors calm violent outbursts by men who had been damaged in war or maltreated in prison or otherwise battered by racism without calling in the police. 

So Lackawanna Blues left me feeling nostalgic but also protective of its characters, be they the malaprop-spewing old guy who complains of  “roaches of the liver” or the hot-tempered boxer who knocks out the teeth of his wife. These are people who can so easily be reduced to stereotypes and I winced a little as the white audience members seated around me laughed at the words of the old guy and shook their heads at the behavior of the boxer.  

This creates a dilemma for me.  I want to urge everyone to see the show, which has just been extended through Nov. 12, because it’s a good one.  And I also want to encourage them to enjoy it because it’s an entertaining show.  

But if you do go, I hope you will take a few minutes to think about the real people who inspired its stories because they weren’t jokes or morality tales or one-dimensional stereotypes but flesh-and-blood people who despite the odds against them came together, supported one another and helped produce the likes of Ruben Santiago-Hudson and me.


October 9, 2021

Going Back to "Pass Over"—and live theater

 

I went to see a show this week.  There was a time when that wouldn’t have been a remarkable statement. I routinely saw 150 shows a year and shared my thoughts about many of them here. But, of course, that was in the before time: before the global Covid pandemic struck, before it killed some 700,000 people in this country and a total of 4.5 million around the world, before the threat of even more infections, hospitalizations and deaths shut down theaters everywhere.  

My husband K and I have social distanced aggressively during the past 19 months, venturing out only for occasional grocery trips and for two memorial services, neither of the deaths caused by the virus. We stayed cautious even last spring when we got vaccinated and at the beginning of this past summer when it looked as though the worst might be behind us and some live performances began popping up. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I even tried one of those outdoor productions. But then, the more insidious delta variant arrived and I scurried back into hibernation, where I tried to scratch my theater itch with productions streamed online.

But over the past month, a dozen shows have opened in Broadway theaters, including such warhorses as Wicked and The Lion King and newbies like Six, which had been scheduled to open March 12, 2020, the night the pandemic forced the lights to go out on Broadway. There have been openings at smaller theaters around the city too. And more are scheduled for the rest of the year.  

There have been some setbacks. Aladdin had to close down for 10 days after the virus insinuated its way through that company. But rigorous testing of cast and crew members, along with additional safety protocols have kept other shows going (click here to read about some of those measures). 

Meanwhile producers and theater owners have tried to woo theatergoers back with such anti-virus protections as limiting entry only to those who show proof of vaccination or negative results from recent testing, insisting on the wearing of masks throughout performances and, in some cases, installing high-powered air purification systems.

Many of my friends jumped at the chance to return. They reported back about tearing up as they walked back into theaters for the first time, cheering the pre-show announcements and joining extended standing ovations.  Finally, nervously, I’ve joined them. 

I went to see Pass Over, before its short seven-week run at the August Wilson Theatre closes this weekend. It's one of the many works by black playwrights scheduled for this fall season, an acknowledgment of the racial reckoning in the theater community and elsewhere in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. 

Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s response to the massacre of black men by white law enforcement officials across the country is also an audacious riff on Waiting for Godot. She sets her play on an urban street corner, populated by a single street lamp and two young black men named Kitch and Moses who, like Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s original, dream of getting off the block but are unable to figure out how to do it. 

Two white characters show up.  One is a seeming do-gooder, dressed in a white suit and eager to share his lunch with Kitch and Moses. The other is a cop, wearing reflector sunglasses and carrying a billy club, who’s determined to humiliate them. The fact that the white men are played by the same actor underscores Nwandu’s message of white duplicity.

At moments during the play, Moses and Kitch are literally paralyzed with fear of what the cops, or po-pos as they call them, can do to black men like them. And yet, like Godot, Pass Over manages to balance both humor and despair.  

I’d seen the show when it played at LCT3 in 2018 and I was knocked out by it. The excellent cast here remains the same as then with John Michael Hill as Moses, Namir Smallwood as Kitch (although understudy Julian Robertson performed at my matinee) and Gabriel Ebert as the white characters. 

But Nwandu, explaining that she no longer wanted to dwell on black pain, has since crafted a different ending for the Broadway production (click here to read more about that). I sympathize with her desire to sidestep that brand of tragedy porn but I found the new ending to be awkward, pedantic and overly long.  

I missed the powerful ending that dared the audience, particularly the white audience, to confront how deeply systemic racism is ingrained in this country. But an earlier Chicago production with that devastating conclusion was preserved on film by Spike Lee and you can find it on Amazon Prime (click here to watch it). 

I know from recent experience, that streaming isn’t the best way to watch theater but like many theater lovers I remain wary of being in crowded indoor spaces (click here for some other views of that.) So I haven’t yet decided if I’m really ready to give up online viewing and return to live theater full-time.  As they say on TV, stay tuned.