February 28, 2015

There's Nothing All That Super About the New Superhero Musical "Brooklynite"

Maybe it’s because I stopped watching superhero movies around the time Michael Keaton left the "Batman" franchise. Or it could be because I don’t live in Brooklyn and only visit when there’s a good show playing at BAM or St. Ann’s Warehouse. But almost nothing about Brooklynite, the new musical about superheroes living in that now-trendy borough, worked for me.

So, you might ask, why did I go see it? The answer is simple: I’m a sucker for pedigrees. And this show, which opened at the Vineyard Theatre this week, has a terrific one. 

It was conceived by Michael Mayer, whose direction of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Spring Awakening and American Idiot, have made him the go-to guy for smart shows that know how to blend pop, rock and show tunes. 

And although I’m not into superheroes, I was further intrigued when I read that Mayer had collaborated with Michael Chabon, the author of one of my all-time favorite books, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the early days of the comic book industry (click here to read about the genesis of the show).

On top of all that, I read that Stephen Hoggett, who has introduced a whole new concept of choreography with the stylized gestures he created for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Rocky, Once and The Glass Menagerie, had signed on to create the superhero movements for Brooklynite.

But they all let me down.  

Mayer (credited with co-writing the book, in addition to directing) Chabon and his wife, the writer Ayelet Waldman, and the young composer Peter Lerman have concocted a goofy tale about a group of people who acquired superpowers when they were hit by the rays of an asteroid that crashed into Brooklyn and then joined together in a crime-avenging league. 

The league's leader is Astrolass, who possess super strength and the ability to fly but yearns to be just a regular girl. One of the group’s biggest fans is Trey, who, as seemingly all comic heroes must be, is an orphan whose parents died in a calamity. 

Trey runs the hardware store his folks left him but spends most of his time on scientific experiments that he hopes will one day give him superpowers so that he can join the league. Eventually Astrolass and Trey meet cute and sparks fly.

There is another storyline in which one of the superheroes, Avenging Angelo (Nick Cordero, pretty much repeating the lovable-lug performance he gave in last season’s Bullets Over Broadway) goes to the bad side and tries to take over the city. And there's yet another in which a superhero couple try to sort out the work-life balance in their relationship.

But it’s all just an excuse for the actors to run around in tights, make lame jokes about Brooklyn and belt out Lerman’s pop-rock tunes, none of which I remembered any longer than it took my theatergoing buddy Bill and me to walk the couple of blocks across Union Square Park to grab a post-show dinner at Blue Water Grill. 

Even the usually inventive Hoggett comes up flatfooted with generic choreography that looks as though someone dared him to be more conventional and he took up the challenge with a vengeance.

The game cast, lead by the appealing Nicolette Robinson as Astrolass and Matt Doyle as Trey, works hard and I suppose Mayer was going for something in the campy style of Little Shop of Horrors or the old "Batman" TV series. And, indeed, some of the mainstream critics have found the show to be good silly fun.

But Brooklynite affected me the way Kryptonite does Superman: by the end of its overly long two hours, I felt as though all the energy had been drained out of me.

February 25, 2015

"Hamilton" Really is a Revolutionary Show

If you care anything about musicals, you must have heard by now about Hamilton, the everybody’s-talking-about-it show that’s playing down at The Public Theater (even David Brooks the Times political columnist has chimed in; click here to read what he said). So all I can really add is this: believe the hype. For this is the most exciting musical, exciting show of any kind, that I’ve seen in a long time.

All of this is a little surprising because Hamilton is a bio musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the country’s lesser-known Founding Fathers. Now it’s true that his face is on the $20 $10 bill but, at least until now, he hasn’t had the rep of a Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin.

On the other hand, the hoopla isn’t all that surprising because the show was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who like Stephen Sondheim has been, and Jonathan Larson might have been had he lived, is a game-changer who possesses  all the right stuff to revolutionize the American musical.

As he did with his Tony-winning debut show In the Heights, Miranda has mashed together hip-hop and other contemporary sounds with the traditional aesthetics of the Broadway musical. And this time out, he’s added a story that has both intellectual and visceral heft.

The musical is based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton, who was born in the West Indies to unwed parents, orphaned as a boy, immigrated to America, got caught up in the revolutionary fervor, became the senior aide to George Washington during the war, wrote most of The Federalist Papers that helped shaped the U.S. Constitution, founded The New York Post, became the first Secretary of the Treasury and was infamously killed in a duel by his erstwhile friend Aaron Burr before he was 50.

That clearly gives Miranda a lot to work with. And he flies with it. What’s most impressive about his version of Hamilton (Miranda not only wrote the book, music and lyrics but plays the title role) is that it reminds you how young the country and the men who made it were (Hamilton was about 19 when the war began) when they went up against the greatest power in the world—and, of course, won.

The play bristles with that same kind of audaciousness. The music is fresh and ingratiating and the lyrics, both rapped and sung, are piquant and insightful. 

The fact that nearly all the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, are played by actors of color strips off the moldiness that usually clings to bio-shows. Every move these rebels make declares that this country is for all of us (click here for a New Yorker profile that describes how Miranda conceived the show).

And the moves are fantastic. Miranda works once again with director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Both have done other shows with varying degrees of success but they seem hyper-energized when they’re working on Miranda’s. The stagecraft here is inventive and witty and the dancing somehow manages to be both of Hamilton’s time and ours.

The entire 24-member cast is equally fine. It’s ridiculous to single anyone out cause they’re all so good but Renee Elise Goldsberry, always a smart and sympathetic actress, out does herself as Hamilton’s sister-in-law and confidante, a woman as fearlessly intelligent as he is but also prudent where he's rash. 

Meanwhile, Brian D’Arcy James was a scene-stealing hoot as Britain’s foppish King George. James, who apparently assumed the run would be a short one, is leaving the show next week to begin rehearsals for the upcoming Shakespeare-era musical Something Rotten! and leaves behind big shoes to fill.

The announcement came just yesterday that Hamilton, which is pretty much sold out downtown, will open on Broadway this summer. Some observers had speculated that the show would try to take advantage of all the praise it's been getting (click here to check out some of those raves) and rush in before the season ended to make a run at the Tonys. But the later opening will give Miranda and his cohorts time to continue tinkering (the show feels a bit long) but without losing too much of its current momentum.

It will also give some other rumored frontrunners like Fun Home (another Public production) and Something Rotten! their time in the limelight and a better shot at the Best Musical Tony. 

It’s the kind of less than perfect compromise that the Founding Fathers, who, of course, debated hotly over their young nation's positions on issues like slavery and monetary policy, would understand—and maybe admire.

And oh, I got so excited about Hamilton, that I almost forgot to announce the winner of last week’s giveaway of two free tickets to the also worth-seeing new play Rasheeda Speaking.  

The lucky guy is Larry Bloch, who got the right answers to my questions about which previous awards had been won by the show's stars Tonya Pinkins (a Tony for Jelly's Last Jam) and Dianne Wiest (Oscars for "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Bullets Over Broadway.")  Kudos to him too.

February 21, 2015

The Singular Pleasures of Two Solo Shows: "The Lion" and "Every Brilliant Thing"

If you’d ask me, I’d say that I’m no fan of one-man shows. But, apparently, I’d be lying. Cause over the past week, I’ve seen and, in varying degrees, really enjoyed two of them.

The first was The Lion, Benjamin Scheuer’s musical memoir about coming to terms with the death of his father, who passed away when young Ben was barely in his teens.

Playing at the Culture Project’s intimate Lynn Redgrave Theater in NoHo, it’s a no frills production. Guitars are scattered around the stage. Scheuer, dressed in a natty blue suit, comes out and starts playing, moving from instrument to instrument as the 70-minute show unfolds.

An accomplished and versatile musician who’s played with Mary Chapin Carpenter, won ASCAP’s 2013 Cole Porter Award for songwriting and been writer-in-residence at the Goodspeed Opera House, Scheuer is a troubadour, whose sweet and pungent songs remind me of James Taylor at his best (you can hear him sing some songs from the show by clicking here).

The sung-through story Scheuer, now 32, tells is a Bildungsroman that encompasses the peculiarities of his childhood with an ill parent, his rebellious teen years, first important romance, career struggles and a life-changing bout with cancer. 

But, under the astute direction of Sean Daniels, Scheuer's musings about those events take on an everyman quality that struck me as surprisingly familiar (click here to read a Q&A with Scheuer).

One woman sitting in the front row at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended seemed so affected by what he was singing that she left abruptly right when Scheuer was relating an uncomfortable incident he’d had with his mother.

But I was rapt. And I’m clearly not alone since the show drew rave reviews when it originally debuted at Manhattan Theatre Club last summer and it's now at the beginning of an encore run that’s currently selling tickets through March 29. You should go.

The struggle to overcome the legacy of a troubled parent is also the subject of Every Brilliant Thing, which is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre through the end of March. This time though, the relationship is between a boy and his mentally ill mother. She keeps attempting suicide. He keeps trying to save her by putting together a list of all the reasons for living.

The show was written by the British playwright Duncan Macmillan but its main performer is the affable comedian Jonny Donahoe. I say main performer because what makes this show so distinctive is that almost the entire audience is recruited to participate in it.

Before the show, which is performed in the round with the house lights up, Donahoe walks around and hands out slips of paper that bear a number and one of the reasons for living. During the course of the play, he calls out the number and the audience member who holds it reads out the line (I was No. 320: burning things).

A few audience members are called on for more ambitious parts. And it's fun to see how good some of them can be. The guy playing a college professor at my performance was so spot-on that Bill, who gamely went to this one with me too, wondered if he might be an actor, not a plant but an actor on a kind of busman’s holiday.

Even my coat got into the act, enlisted to play a key role as the young boy’s dog. But don’t worry, you don’t have to participate if you don’t want to: I saw Donahoe try to talk a woman into playing his guidance counselor but then move on when she ultimately declined—click here to read how he makes his casting choices).

Like The Lion, this show follows its main character into adulthood with stops along the way for milestone moments. But it derives most of its specialness from the audience participation gimmick and what Every Brilliant Thing lacked, at least for me, was a true feeling of catharsis. 

Its success obviously depends even more than shows usually do on how its audience members react but so much time was spent on the mechanics of getting people to say and do the right thing at the right moment that I lost track of what was at stake. Events that should have hit me hard in the gut felt more like gentle pokes.

Still it was a pleasant way to spend 60 minutes (yep; it’s even shorter than The Lion). And the audience, like the one at The Lion, was filled with twentysomethings whose appreciation of one-man shows I’m finally beginning to catch up with.

February 18, 2015

Rasheeda Speaking: A Review + a Giveaway

Talking about race is hard. So instead, most of us talk about talking about race. But playwright Joel Drake Johnson goes full tilt at the main subject in Rasheeda Speaking, now playing in a fine New Group production at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Inspired by an incident that Johnson (who’s white) had with a receptionist (who was black) the play follows the chain of events that unfolds when a doctor who has hired an African-American receptionist to appease the human resources department in his medical group enlists his longtime white employee to help him get rid of the unwanted black one.

Over the six months they’d worked together, the two women had become friendly but as the white Ileen reluctantly follows the doctor’s orders to monitor her black co-worker Jaclyn, tics previously accepted become major annoyances, both their affection for and tolerance of one another frays, replaced by insecurities, resentments and bigotry on both sides. 

The production could hardly be more timely or better realized. Dianne Wiest knows just how to use her trademark whispery voice and fidgety mannerisms to underscore Ileen’s initial discomfort with the doctor’s request and growing uneasiness as Jaclyn figures out what’s going on and begins to undermine Ilene.

Meanwhile Tonya Pinkins, who gets most of the play’s humorous lines (and despite the serious subject matter there are plenty of them) is just as good at conveying Jaclyn's complex mix of brusque and bruised, both peeking out from behind a mask of folksy affability. (Click here to read an interview with both actresses).

In her debut as a director, the talented actress Cynthia Nixon keeps the tension high throughout the play’s 95-minute running time and she refuses to make it easy for the audience to choose sides (click here for an interview wit her). 

Some critics have accused Rasheeda Speaking of race-baiting and complained that it’s unrealistic, or at the very least unfair, for it to portray racism as something lurking inside all of us. But the show rang true to me. 

I mean who amongst us hasn’t made a racist comment or joke, as the producer Scott Rudin and the Sony movie chief Amy Pascal, both liberals, did in their hacked emails about President Obama? Or is there anyone who, at some time, hasn’t quietly rolled their eyes when someone else resorted to playing the race card? 

And you can find lots of other examples on that kind of thing in Claudia Rankine's "Citizen: An American Lyric," the poetry collection about race relations in the 21st century that's currently up for two National Book Critics Circle awards.

The problem isn’t so much doing and saying inappropriate things as it is not being able to talk, without fear of opprobrium, about what’s motivated that behavior. So this play deserves credit for doing that.

And you may be able to see for yourself how good a job it does because I've got a pair of tickets to giveaway for a performance of your choice before the show closes on March 22. 

You can win them by naming the movie for which Wiest won her Oscar or the show for which Pinkins won her Tony and sending the answers to me at  jan@broadwayandme.com by midnight on Monday, Feb. 23. 

You know the drill: I’ll put all the right answers in a hat and my husband K will pluck one out. Then I’ll announce the lucky winner next Wednesday.

February 14, 2015

A Very Happy Valentine's Day for You, A Very Happy Anniversary forBroadway & Me

Valentine’s Day now means I get to celebrate two big romances in my life. The first, of course, is the ongoing one I share with my incredible husband K. And the second is with those of you who read this blog, which is eight years old today.  

Yep, I’ve been writing here for eight years!  I’ve seen a lot of theater during that time, shared all kinds of thoughts about what I’ve seen here, on my Twitter feed and in the pages of the B&Me Magazine on Flipboard. And I look forward to continuing to do so.  

But there’s no post today, except to say how very grateful I am for the shows—good and bad—that I’m able to see, for your keeping me company as I see them and for K’s great patience in allowing me to spend so much time doing all of it.  

Lots of love to you and yours, jan

February 11, 2015

Cozy At-Home Options for Theater Lovers

We’re in that annual lull between the shows that rushed to open before the holidays and those waiting in the wings to make their bows in the spring. A few shows have bravely ventured out over the past few weeks and I’ve already talked about some of them (you really should try to see Constellations if you can before it closes on March 15) and I plan to chat about some others once they’re officially open (although I’m going to cheat a bit and say that you really should see Hamilton if you can find a way to get a ticket). But like most theater lovers at this time of year, I’m on the prowl for other kinds of theater-related diversions, particularly those that can be enjoyed at home on cold wintry nights. Here are three that have recently kept me good company:

Shakespeare UncoveredPBS has been airing the second season of this terrific show that devotes an hour to one of the Bard’s plays. Each installment is hosted by a celebrated actor who has starred in that play and he or she interviews others who have taken on the same role about its challenges and delights. It’s great fun to see clips of past productions (including silent movie versions), to be reminded of more recent stagings and to hear the lore and the gossip that accompany them all. The last two episodes of the six-show season will air on Friday night and are scheduled to feature Kim Cattrall talking about Antony & Cleopatra, while Ralph Joseph Fiennes discussing Romeo and Juliet.  You can find out more about it here.

The Producer’s Perspective podcastI’ve really missed the old “Downstage Center” shows in which my pal Howard Sherman conducted hour-long interviews with all sorts of theater people who shared stories about their careers and so I’m delighted to have discovered this new podcast in which the industrious producer Ken Davenport talks to Broadway insiders about the jobs they do. His guests so far have ranged from playwright Terrence McNally (represented on Broadway this season by the hit comedy It’s Only a Play and the book for the upcoming Kander and Ebb musical The Visit) to PR wiz Rick Miramontez (who oversaw publicity for the notorious Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and just parted ways with the Peter Pan musical Finding Neverland). This week, the controversial New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel spouts off on a whole bunch of stuff. Davenport, who’s worked as a company manager as well as a producer, has personal relationships with all his guests and so the sessions are like eavesdropping on a conversation at one of the side tables at Joe Allen. You can subscribe to them here.    

Dancing Sondheim iPhone app: There have been so many tributes to, and interpretations of, Stephen Sondheim’s music that I thought the possibilities had been exhausted. And then I came across this app, which is the most recent installment of choreographer Richard Daniels’ “Dances for an iPhone” series. Each video runs between three and four minutes and features a dance set to a Sondheim song and performed mainly by dancers of a certain age, adding an extra layer of poignancy to the lyrics of Sondheim’s wistful love songs. I dare you to watch 84-year-old Carmen de Lavallade’s rendition of Sunday in the Park with George's “Children and Art” without swooning.  You can get a sneak peek here.

February 7, 2015

"Honeymoon in Vegas" Deserves More Love

The new musical Honeymoon in Vegas has been doing terrible business. It’s playing to audiences that are barely three-quarters full and most of those folks have gotten such heavily discounted tickets that the show is taking in less than a third of what it should. 

And that’s a shame because Honeymoon in Vegas is the kind of old-fashioned song-and-dance show that people so often think of when they think of Broadway. It may not be groundbreaking but it does provide some good-natured fun.

Based on the 1992 movie of the same name, it's a romcom about a nice guy who made a deathbed promise to his mother that he would never marry; the longtime girlfriend he nervously takes to Vegas to wed; and an older professional gambler who goes after the bride-to-be because she reminds him of his late wife. Also involved are some Hawaiian tiki gods and a bunch of Elvis impersonators (hey, it’s Vegas).

Andrew Bergman, who wrote the original screenplay, has teamed up with the endlessly versatile composer Jason Robert Brown (click here to watch a concert he recently did on PBS) and they’ve created a show that has the look (leggy chorus girls and flashy production numbers) sound (catchy Bacharach-era pop and Sinatra-style ballads) and feel (PG-rated jokes and upbeat optimism) of musicals like Sweet Charity and Promises, Promises.

Brown’s score isn’t in the same category as the Tony-winning one he did for last season's The Bridges of Madison County (whose premature demise I’m still lamenting) but it’s perfect for this show. The lyrics are clever and the melodies hummable. If the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce isn’t negotiating to make Brown’s “When You Say Vegas,” the city’s theme song, it isn’t doing its job.

The show has some winning performances too. Rob McClure, so terrific a couple of seasons ago as the title character in Chaplin, is every bit as good here as Jack, the would-be groom. 

McClure is nowhere near as manic as Nicolas Cage was in the movie (who could be?) but he sings, dances and clowns around with infectious enthusiasm. 

But the real marquee name is Tony Danza, the beloved TV star who brings his real-guy charisma to the role of Tommy, the gambler played onscreen by James Caan. 

Tommy is a tricky part because the character does some underhanded things to woo Jack’s beloved and yet he needs to be charming enough to make it believable that she might consider going off with him. 

Danza’s innate likability and vulnerability keep the audience on his side.  In addition to crooning tunes and doing a little soft shoe onstage, Danza has been going all out to promote the show, even working the line at TKTS (click here to read an interview with him).

Director Gary Griffin does his part by surrounding Danza, McClure and the rest of their 24-member cast with a whirlwind of activity. And the design team looks to be having a particularly good time. 

Brian Hemesath’s over-the-top costumes provide one sight gag after another (click here to read a profile of him). Meanwhile, Anna Louizos’s roll-on sets and video projections move the show in cinematic fashion from Brooklyn to Vegas to Hawaii, with appropriately garish panache.

Sounds like a winning show, doesn’t it? Well alas, Honeymoon in Vegas lacks the edginess, irony or smuttiness that seem to be the dominant flavors of the day, unless a show is a revival of one of those old feel-good musicals that we’re always saying don’t get made any more. Except, of course, that this time, it did. 

February 4, 2015

Guest Blogger: Bill Says "Let the Right One In" is a Bloody Good Vampire Story

A note from Jan: Scary stuff spooks me. A lot. As in, not able to sleep for nights and so as much as I wanted to see the new John Tiffany-Stephen Hoggett show about vampires, I just couldn't work up my nerve to do it. Luckily, my intrepid theatergoing buddy Bill is made of sterner stuff. He went and generously agreed to share his thoughts below about the show:
The dozens of birch trees that rise from the floor of Christine Jones’s winter-forest stage set are so tall that their crowns are out of sight. They make for a beautiful, chilly sight. A chilling one too. The police have warned the locals, we quickly learn, not to stop there—on this nor on any other snowy evening. People are being murdered. And not just murdered but mutilated.

Such is the set-up for Jack Thorne's suspense drama Let the Right One Inwhich comes from the National Theatre of Scotland and is playing through March 8 at Brooklyn's adventurous St. Ann's Warehouse. 

Based on the 2004 novel and 2008 film, both of the same name, both by the Swedish John Ajvide Lindqvist, the meaning of the title is never made explicit. But does it need to be? Let the Right One In is a vampire story. And vampires, as we all know (don’t we?) can't come in unless they're invited.

The full house with which I saw this thriller last week certainly wasn't put off by the prospect of spending an evening with a vampire. Perhaps, in fact, that was its appeal, the very reason the overwhelmingly young and younger audience was there. After all, vampire stories—whether movies, TV shows or books—have been quite the rage for some time now.

An even more compelling draw for me was the team responsible for the production of the play: Director John Tiffany and Associate Director (also in charge of "movement," as his billing reads) Steven Hoggett. Tiffany and Hoggett are a multi-award-winning pair (Broadway's Tony-winning Once and last season's revival of The Glass Menagerie) whose work I first became acquainted with in another National Theatre of Scotland production, presented at St. Ann's a few years ago: Black Watch, about the Scottish regiment of that name and their service in Iraq. That one was so mesmerizing and moving that I saw it twice.

If Let the Right One In isn't quite in that league, it more than satisfies. Elegantly staged and beautifully acted by a cast of nine (some of them doubling), at bottom it's the simple story of two misfits who meet and come to find solace in one another: Oskar, a teenage boy, and Eli, a peculiar young girl—at least that's what she first seems to be. 

Oskar (Christian Ortega, winningly nerdy), who lives alone with his mother because his parents have split up, is an awkward loner whose jock schoolmates bully him mercilessly. Venturing into the dangerous woods even after being warned not to, he encounters the very odd Eli (Rebecca Benson, brashly appealing), who is looked after by the much older Hakan (Cliff Burnett), who is… well, it's hard to know just who Hakan is. (You can read a brief Q&A with Benson here).

Following some cautious verbal fencing, Oskar and Eli slowly form a bond, which holds and strengthens even after Eli asks Oskar if he would still care for her if she turned out not to be a girl. Which of course she isn't.

While Oskar and Eli are bonding, the maimings and murders continue to occur, mostly offstage (a vampire needs her blood, of course). Throughout, Tiffany and Hoggett steadily build a sense of dread, Hoggett through the use of mysterious, stylized movement, employed mostly between scenes. (Tiffany talks about his approach here).

Because the atmosphere is otherwise so low-key, when mayhem actually does break out in full view of the audience, it's particularly effective. As is the ominous score of Olafur Arnalds, who provides a piercing "Psycho" shower-scene accompaniment for the production's single most shriek-inducing moment. Even though Let the Right One In isn’t especially original, nor even probing, it makes for a bloody-well intense experience.