May 19, 2018

The Unabashed Confessions of a "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" Fangirl

My name is Jan and I'm a Harry Potter fangirl. Seriously. I mean I pre-ordered the published script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Amazon, downloaded the Kindle version on the day it came out last July, devoted a couple of uninterrupted hours to reading it that same afternoon and then set up a Google alert to notify me when I could buy tickets to the stage version when the show transferred from London's West End to Broadway's newly renovated Lyric Theatre.

I fell under Harry Potter's spell 20 years ago when the first of the seven books in J.K. Rowling's series about the education of a boy wizard was published in the U.S. I clearly wasn't the intended audience but its enchanted world swept me up and I turned my teenage niece Jennifer onto the book. We went through the rest of the series together, reading each installment as soon as it came out. We watched the movies that made Daniel Radcliffe a star too, or at least most of them since the final ones grew a little tedious.

So both Jennifer, now herself the mother of a two-year-old, and I were excited and nervous about the prospect of seeing our beloved Harry's world brought to life on a stage. We left totally delighted by what we'd seen.

Playwright Jack Thorne, working off a story devised along with Rowling, and director John Tiffany have created a two-part, five-hour saga that extends the coda at the end of the final book. It's a smart idea, playing directly to the Gen Yers, who grew up reading and loving the Potter books. Like them, Harry is now an adult. He's married with three kids and working for the Ministry of Magic, where his old friend Hermione is the top minister and married to their old pal Ron.

The show opens with the three friends and Harry's wife Ginny at the train station, preparing to send their own kids off to the wizarding school Hogwarts. Hermione and Ron's daughter Rose can't wait to start there but Harry's middle son Albus, named for the famed former headmaster of the school, is more reluctant.

 A loner, Albus has never adjusted to being the son of a famous father. That creates a bond between him and another lonely boy wrestling with his family's legacy, Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry's one-time nemesis Draco who is in disgrace for having been a follower of the evil wizard Voldemort, whom Harry vanquished at the end of the books.

The play's plot is a convoluted tale about the two boys' clumsy attempts to use a time traveling machine to change a tragic incident in the past. It's hard even for Potterheads, who cheer loudly whenever a familiar name or place is mentioned, to follow what's going on. But plot is just a maguffin for Rowling who has always been far more interested in the atmospheric setting of the world she created and the emotional connections between the people who populate it.

Thorne (click here to read an interview with him) and Tiffany remain true to that spirit.  But even audience members who come without knowing the difference between Hogwarts and Azkaban (a guide and glossary are included in the program to help out) can appreciate the magic they've created onstage.

Characters disappear right in front of our eyes. Others fly through the air, without any apparent support. Ghostly apparitions float throughout the theater. The how-did-they-do-that sleight of hand was crafted by the illusionist Jamie Harrison and is supportively lit by Neil Austin. Meanwhile, the master movement maker Steven Hoggett choreographs such brilliant sequences that he picked up one of the show's 10 Tony nominations even though Harry Potter and the Cursed Child isn't a musical.

The show seems destined to pick up a bunch of Tonys when they're given out on June 10. Some critics are gripping that it doesn't deserve the prize for Best Play because, they say, the sensational stagecraft obscures a sappy story. But I was moved by the struggles of the play's fathers and sons to connect with one another. And I thought the final scene was a perfect way to end the saga. 

Much of the credit for that must go to the show's top-notch cast. And although it's unfair to single out any of the principal players, I'm going to do it anyway and cheer Anthony Boyle who brings both humor and poignancy to the role of the towheaded Scorpius and is a frontrunner for the Tony for best actor in a featured role (click here to read an interview with him).

I'm also cheering Noma Dumezweni's wise and warm performance as Hermione. Some fans complained when Dumezweni, a black Brit of South African descent, was originally cast in the role but the noise quieted down after Rowling tweeted her wholehearted support for that decision and Dumezweni's Tony-nominated performance should please all but the most retrograde naysayers (click here to read more about her).

The offstage experience is fun too. Some audience members—both kids and adults—show up in costume and parade around the lobby as their favorite characters. And I was even charmed by the renovation of the Lyric, which use to look cold and unwelcoming but now resembles a cozy Victorian-era theater. However some people have complained about problems with the narrow steps in the center aisle that have caused a few audience members, including the 93-year-old critic John Simon, to fall (click here to read about that) so watch where you walk if you go.

Although going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child isn't easy either. The producers are using a verified ticketing system so that purchasers have to register and then, after being approved, have to join an online queue to buy tickets when blocks of them are released for sale. The tickets aren't cheap either, since you have to buy both parts. And yet, it's money well spent. I've already got seats to see it again later this summer. Like I said, I'm a fan.

May 12, 2018

"A Brief History of Women" and "Summer and Smoke" May Be Minor Pieces by Master Writers But They're Still Worth Seeing

We theater junkies can be a demanding lot. And sometimes we let our pursuit of the excellent get in the way of our enjoying the very good. At least that's how I've been feeling about two shows by master playwrights that recently opened to middling reviews. I, too, had carps about them and yet I also left each theater grateful that I'd had the chance to see each show. Here's why:

A Brief History of Women: Alan Ayckbourn has a reputation for clever works like Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests that play with form while tickling the funny bone. But the laughs in A Brief History of Women, Aykbourn's  81st play over a nearly 60-year career, tend more toward rueful chuckles than the out-and-out guffaws that so many of his other plays elicit. Or as the couple sitting next to me lamented, "it isn't as funny as he usually is."

Still, Ayckbourn, who also directed this production which is playing as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at the 59E59 Theaters through May 27, hasn't lost his knack for poking behind the stiff-upper-lip facade of Britain's middle and upper classes. This time he does it through the changing fortunes of an English manor house and the local everyman Anthony Spates whose life intersects with it from his service as a teenaged footman to the noble family that owns the house in 1925 through his tenure as the manager of the place and the caretaker of its legacy when the building becomes a posh hotel in the 1980s.

There are amusing bits along the way, most of them delivered with deliciously hammy relish by Russell Dixon, who, like most of the six-member cast, assumes different roles as the house's function changes over the years. But it is Antony Eden's quietly understated performance as Spates that anchors the play and sent me away thinking back over the places I've lived and the people who filled those empty buildings and also my heart. As I tweeted when I got home, A Brief History of Women may not be top-shelf Ayckbourn but even generic Ayckbourn has what it takes to hit the spot.

Summer and Smoke: As big a Tennessee Williams fan as I consider myself to be, I had never seen Summer and Smoke until my friend Ellie and I recently attended the Transport Group production that is playing at Classic Stage Company through May 25. I'm not sure it's the best introduction to this play because director Jack Cummings III has created such a minimalist production that characters actually have to mime eating ice cream cones and playing cards because there are no props or set, except for two paintings and a few chairs.

But what the play does have is yet another glorious performance by Marin Ireland who portrays Alma Winemiller, the restless but repressed daughter of a minister in a small Mississippi Delta town during the early years of the 20th century. Alma, whose name she likes to tell people is Spanish for soul, yearns for both a more cultured life and for the affections of her next door neighbor John, the dissolute son of the town doctor.

Nathan Darrow is alluring as John, whose inner turmoil rivals Alma's and who is drawn to her but willing to settle for something less than the challenge she offers. There are other good performances too, including Tina Johnson as the town busybody and Barbara Walsh as Alma's mother, another restless woman who is locked in a bad marriage that has driven her mad.

But the play's success rests on Alma's shoulders. The character has often been played by an actress pretending to be homely but Ireland's Alma is simultaneously aware of her beauty and frightened of it and of what the feelings inside her might unleash if fully acknowledged. This take on the roll, the acquiescent undoing of an intelligent and sensual woman, deepens its poignancy. Some scholars say Alma was Williams' favorite female character and Ireland makes it easy to see whyand why it's worth seeing this production.

May 6, 2018

An Ironic Intermission

The irony is that I've been seeing so many shows lately that I've fallen behind on just about everything else and so find that I don't have the time to tell you about them. I'm hoping to climb out of this hole soon—and I'm hoping you'll be there when I do.

April 28, 2018

...And We're Off Into Awards Season 2018

Let the games begin.  The spring theater season officially closed Thursday night with the opening of The Iceman Cometh, which means the Tony nominators will be toting up their scorecards this weekend, gather on Monday to vote and then announce this year's nominees for Broadway's top prizes on Tuesday, ushering in five weeks of genteel, but still fierce, campaigning.

But awards season actually began at the beginning of April when the nominations were announced for the Lucille Lortel Awards, which honor off-Broadway shows. Then two weeks later, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was given to the young playwright Martyna Majok for Cost of Living, her terrific drama about people living with disabilities (click here to read my review of that play and here to read a recent interview I did with the playwright).

Two days after that came the nominations from the Drama League. And this past week the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk announced theirs.  Parsing all those lists and figuring out which shows in this somewhat lackluster season got the biggest embrace—and which the sharpest cold shoulders—could make a person cross-eyed. 

Heck, even laying out who runs each group and which kinds of shows they honor is a challenge.  Luckily, "Playing for Prizes: America's Award for Best Drama and Best Musical," a nifty little book by Tim Donahue that I've been reading, does that hard work and so I don't have to (if you're interested, you can check it out by clicking here). 

And if you're as crazy about this stuff, as I am, you also can keep track of the odds for this year's Tony race on the Gold Derby website, where a foolhardy bunch of theater fanatics (including me) try to handicap the winners by clicking here.

Meanwhile, as a literal card-carrying member of the Outer Critics Circle, I'm just going to list all the OCC nominees (some of which I enthusiastically endorse, others which I'm resignedly going along with) and then I'm going to try to catch up with the shows I still haven't seen so I can improve my odds on Gold Derby:

The Children
Farinelli and the King
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Escape to Margaritaville
Mean Girls
Prince of Broadway
SpongeBob SquarePants

*we celebrated The Band's Visit as the Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical last year so it's ineligible this year

Cost of Living
The Low Road
Mlima’s Tale

Cruel Intentions
Desperate Measures
Jerry Springer- The Opera
Miss You Like Hell
Woody Sez

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Tina Fey Mean Girls
Quiara Alegría Hudes Miss You Like Hell
Kyle Jarrow SpongeBob SquarePants
Peter Kellogg Desperate Measures

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)

Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert ofEdward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil’C, Jonathan Coulton and Tom Kitt, SpongeBob SquarePants
David Friedman & Peter Kellogg Desperate Measures

Imogen Heap Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Erin McKeown and Quiara Alegría Hudes Miss You Like Hell
Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez Frozen

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)

Angels in America
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train
Lobby Hero
Three Tall Women

(Broadway or Off-Broadway)

My Fair Lady
Once on This Island
Pacific Overtures

Jo Bonney Cost of Living
Marianne Elliott Angels in America
Patrick Marber Travesties
Joe Mantello Three Tall Women
John Tiffany Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Michael Arden Once on This Island
Bill Castellino Desperate Measures Tina Landau SpongeBob SquarePants
Casey Nicholaw Mean Girls
Bartlett Sher My Fair Lady

Camille A. Brown Once on This Island
Christopher Gattelli My Fair Lady
Christopher Gattelli SpongeBob SquarePants
Steven Hoggett Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Justin Peck Carousel

(Play or Musical)

Miriam Buether Three Tall Women
Myung Hee Cho In the Body of the World
Christine Jones Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Michael Yeargan My Fair Lady
David Zinn SpongeBob SquarePants

(Play or Musical)

Katrina Lindsay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Clint Ramos Once on This Island
Paloma Young Time and the Conways
David Zinn SpongeBob SquarePants
Catherine Zuber My Fair Lady

(Play or Musical)

Kevin Adams SpongeBob SquarePants
Neil Austin Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Paule Constable Angels in America
Paul Russell Farinelli and the King
Lap Chi Chu Mlima’s Tale

(Play or Musical)

Tim Reid 1984
Finn Ross Frozen
Finn Ross In the Body of the World
Finn Ross & Adam Young Mean Girls
Finn Ross & Ash Woodward Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

(Play or Musical)

Gareth Fry Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Kate Marvin [Porto]
Fitz Patton Napoli, Brooklyn
Marc Salzberg My Fair Lady
Darron L. West Mlima’s Tale

Jason Robert Brown Prince of Broadway
Tom Kitt SpongeBob SquarePants
AnnMarie Milazzo & Michael Starobin Once on This Island
Jonathan Tunick Carousel
Claire Van Kampen Farinelli and the King

Sean Carvajal Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train
Andrew Garfield Angels in America
Tom Hollander Travesties
Gregg Mozgala Cost of Living
Michael Urie The Government Inspector

MaameYaa Boafo School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
Jessica Hecht Admissions
Glenda Jackson Three Tall Women
Lauren Ridloff Children of a Lesser God
Katy Sullivan Cost of Living

Harry Hadden-Paton My Fair Lady
Joshua Henry Carousel
David M. Lutken Woody Sez
Conor Ryan Desperate Measures
Ethan Slater SpongeBob SquarePants

Lauren Ambrose My Fair Lady
Erika Henningsen Mean Girls
Hailey Kilgore Once On This Island
Taylor Louderman Mean Girls
Patti Murin Frozen

Anthony Boyle Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Johnny Flynn Hangmen
Nathan Lane Angels in America
David Morse The Iceman Cometh
Paul Sparks At Home at the Zoo

Jamie Brewer Amy and the Orphans
Denise Gough Angels in America
Harriet Harris The Low Road
Laurie Metcalf Three Tall Women
Mary Testa The Government Inspector

Norbert Leo Butz My Fair Lady
Alexander Gemignani Carousel
Gavin Lee SpongeBob SquarePants 

Nick Wyman Desperate Measures
Tony Yazbeck Prince of Broadway

Kerry Butler Mean Girls
Lindsay Mendez Carousel
Lauren Molina Desperate Measures
Ashley Park Mean Girls
Emily Skinner Prince of Broadway

Billy Crudup Harry Clarke
Eve Ensler In the Body of the World
Alison Fraser Squeamish
John Lithgow Stories By Heart
Sharon Washington Feeding the Dragon

(Presented for an American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Kate Benson [Porto]
Jocelyn Bioh School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
Lindsey Ferrentino Amy and the Orphans
Meghan Kennedy Napoli, Brooklyn
Dominique Morisseau Pipeline

April 22, 2018

My Last "King Lear"...At Least for A While

Traditions says that King Lear is the most difficult role in the English-speaking theatrical canon. So as soon as actors hit their 50s, they start itching to take on the challenge. Which explains why there always seem to be so many productions of King Lear. And it also explains why I've seen so many of them, including the Royal Shakespeare Company's current one, now running at BAM's Harvey Theater though next weekend.

I'd told myself that after having seen Derek Jacobi, Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, John Lithgow, Joseph Marcell, Christopher Plummer, Sam Waterston, and some others I can't even remember, I was going to give the play a rest. But when my theatergoing buddy Bill suggested that we see Antony Sher's interpretation of Shakespeare's mad and foolish king, I found I couldn't resist.

Besides being a celebrated Shakespearean actor, Sher is also a fine writer who has chronicled his experiences playing such iconic characters as Falstaff and Richard III. So I ordered tickets and a copy of his latest book, "The Year of the Mad King, which talks about his take on Lear (click here to listen to an interview with the actor). Alas, the new memoir, which focuses more on Sher's personal life than his preparation for King Lear, is the weakest of his books and the production isn't much stronger.

To be fair, King Lear has been done so much that it's hard to come up with anything new, as the book "Performing Lear," an analysis of 30 or more of the most significant performances over the last 70 years, makes clear (click here to see more about that book). Still, Gregory Doran, the RSC's artistic director and Sher's husband, tries.

Doran has put together some striking set pieces, including a majestic entry for Lear at the beginning of the play and a memorable scene in which a bunch of the king's rowdy knights abuse the hospitality of his eldest daughter Goneril, strengthening the case for why she and her sister Regan might be fed up with their father.

And the director has thoroughly integrated the cast (the prime roles of Lear's faithful youngest daughter Cordelia and his minister Gloucester's duplicitous son Edmund are both played by black actors). He's also come up with staging innovations that uses supernumeraries to play the wretched residents of Lear's kingdom and a big Plexiglas box that's probably supposed to symbolize something but, in all honesty, I can't figure out what.

Sher's Lear makes his first appearance sitting on a throne in that transparent box, which is initially brought in on the shoulders of four brawny litter carriers. Dwarfed by the large fur-trimmed robe he's wearing, this king might be mistaken for a little boy playing dress up if not for his gray beard.

The combination of the character's childish petulance and his dread of aging and his own mortality are used to fuel his decision to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, determining how much each will get on the basis of the declarations of love for him he forces them to give. This sets off the chain of jealousies and rivalries that will lead to the ruin of them all.

As you might expect from an RSC production, nearly everyone, from Sher to the actors playing the servants, speaks the Bard's lines beautifully. I admired them for it, particularly Paapa Essiedu, the RSC's sleek rising star who infuses Edmund with a disaffected disdain for both his enemies and his allies (click here to read more about the actor who is also slated to play Hamlet at the Kennedy Center next month). 

But none of the performances made me feel anything even though this is perhaps the saddest of Shakespeare's plays. That's no doubt because Doran and Sher have deliberately downplayed the histrionics that have enlivened—or overwhelmed—other Lear productions. 

It may be a smart choice but watching this King Lear made me realize that sometimes, particularly with an old warhorse like this one, a little fanfare helps. And although the timing is unfortunate since the Bard's birthday is tomorrow, it also made me think that it may be time for me to take a break from Shakespeare. So I'm declaring a six-month moratorium on seeing any of his plays.  We'll see how long I can resist.