May 25, 2016

Another Intermission

Ooops. I've slipped into a hole again. Not to worry; it's all good stuff. I'm working on a freelance piece for one of my favorite publications (more about that in the future) and gearing up for a concert that my husband K is doing at Symphony Space this Friday night, plus, of course, seeing a bunch of shows. 

So there will be no post today—and probably not Saturday either. But I'll be back next week to talk about some of the things I've been seeing, including the fabulous Hadestown down at New York Theatre Workshop, and I hope you'll come back then.

In the meantime, I also hope you'll check out the articles about the upcoming Tony awards that I've been gathering in a collection called "Tony Talk" on the Flipboard site. You can find it by clicking here.  

May 21, 2016

"Daphne's Dive" Is a Little Too Shallow

Daphne's Dive, the bar in the play of that same name which opened this week at Signature Theatre, seems to be a great place to hang out. The bar's genial regulars are diverse ethnically and politically; and its owner is generous, both with the drinks she pours and the gruff affection she dispenses.

But I'm not sure that what happens at the bar makes for good theater. Relationships there change without apparent reason. People give rambling speeches that evaporate in the air. Situations present themselves and then disappear.

That may be the way it happens in real life (and this is a production that prides itself on its verisimilitude; I spent my early childhood in the working-class bars my father managed and can say honestly hats off to Donyale Werle's authentic set). 

But I expect something more from the theater, particularly when the playwright is a Pulitzer Prize winner, as is Quiara Alegría Hudes, who won the award in 2012 for Water by the Spoonful, the second in her trilogy about an Iraqi War veteran struggling to adjust to civilian life (click here for my review).

That story was inspired by a relative's experiences and Hudes, whose parents ran a neighborhood bar in North Philadelphia, has borrowed from her life again. But this time she's intentionally switched the focus to the struggles that working class women face (click here to read a Q&A with her).

There are men in Daphne's Dive but the most dynamic characters are its women, from Daphne's nouveau riche sister Inez to Jennifer Song, the bar's resident radical who uses the American flag as a fashion accessory.

But the central relationship is between Daphne and Ruby, the abused girl she adopts. The play unfolds over two decades from the start of the mid '90s dot-com boom to the beginning of the Occupy Movement. The passage of time is marked at the start of each scene with Ruby telling the audience how old she is.

Lots of things happen as she comes of age. Characters get rich, run for political office, fall in love, get divorced, get hooked on drugs, die. But almost all of that happens offstage and in the interstices between the scenes. Which doesn't leave much for the audience to engage with.

A series of celebrations and holidays keep the characters returning to the bar, but those occasions seem more and more contrived as the play goes on. As do the revelations and epiphanies that those encounters are suppose to provoke.

The show's director is Thomas Kail, who helmed Hamilton, TV's "Grease: Live" and In the Heights, whose book Hudes also wrote (click here to read an interview with him). 

Kail is a master at smoothing the transitions between disparate events, as he proved in Lin-Manuel Miranda's survey of the significant moments in Alexander Hamilton's life but he isn't able to smooth over the cracks in this one.

Still, he does what he can. He has staged Daphne's Dive in the round, which may make it tricky to see everything that is going on but also creates a feeling of intimacy in which the audience is standing in for the other customers in the bar.

His cast, which includes Vanessa Aspillaga as Daphne, Samira Wiley as Ruby and the scene-stealing Daphne Rubin-Vega as Inez, is all-around excellent. 

And under his sympathetic direction, all the actors so fully embody their characters that it's easy to see how much these people care for one another even when they are fighting with one. 

The problem is that the play doesn't give us enough to understand how they got that way. "I'm depending on you to tell me what that all meant," my friend Mimi said as we left the theater. As warm as I felt toward the gang in Daphne's Dive, I didn't t have an answer.

May 18, 2016

History Class: "Shuffle Along" and "Indecent"

Show biz people love shows about show business, especially ones in which a band of artists overcome some adversity to put on a show. And right now, two productions about works that broke through barriers almost 100 years ago are playing to sold-out houses on Broadway and off.

The first is Shuffle Along or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, George C. Wolfe's tribute to the all-black show that introduced the jazz sound to Broadway. Now playing at The Music Box with an all-star cast lead by Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, it's drawn 10 Tony nominations including for Best Musical. 

The second is Indecent, a play with music at the Vineyard Theatre that playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman created to tell the backstory of The God of Vengeance, a Yiddish-language play credited with presenting the first lesbian kiss on Broadway back in 1922.

They're both labors of love that are brilliantly staged and performed but their well-intentioned desire to right history's wrongs gets in the way of either being totally successful. Still, each is worth seeing.

Wolfe discovered Shuffle Along when he was in college. He says he couldn't understand why the show, a collaboration between the vaudeville duo of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and the song-writing team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, wasn't better known and more celebrated. Over the years, he decided to do something about that (click here to read my Playbill interview with him).

As Wolfe's subtitle suggests, Shuffle Along created a sensation when it first opened, showcasing the syncopated rhythms and show-stopping dance numbers that would define Broadway musicals for years, as well as introducing such talents as Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and Florence Mills.

The original production, which included the first serious African-American romance on stage and the classic song "(I'm Just) Wild About Harry," ran for 504 performances and became the first Broadway show that allowed black ticket buyers to sit in the orchestra section instead of a segregated balcony.   

In a futile attempt to avoid going up against Hamilton, the new Shuffle Along's producers tried to get the Tony committee to classify their show as a revival (click here to read more about that) but it maintains only snatches of the original's silly plot about a three-way mayoral race in a place called Jimtown that leaned heavily on the stereotypical minstrel humor that would make most audience members flinch today. 

Instead, the 2016 version is a typical backstage musical. The first act focuses on the struggles to bring the show to Broadway and the second act looks at what happened after it became a success.

There's a lot to tell (biased theater owners, near bankruptcy, battles over creative differences) and Wolfe's book jumps from anecdote to anecdote, occasionally pausing to unleash a barrage of history that he accumulated during his decades of research.

And because he has to juggle five lead characters—the show-within-a-show's four creators plus their female star Lottie Gee—it's hard to really invest in any of it. Or it would be if the performances and the staging weren't so terrific.

It's hard to go wrong with a show starring three Tony winners, including McDonald who has a record-breaking six, although there will be no chance for a seventh this time out since she wasn't nominated despite giving another bravura—and surprisingly funny—performance (click here to read a profile of the actress).

The cast also includes Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry and a Tony-nominated performance by Adrienne Warren, who plays two different ingénues, Gertrude Saunders and Florence Mills.   

But, as with the original 1921 production, what really makes this show is the dancing.  Savion Glover, who last collaborated with Wolfe on Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, has blended his explosive style of tap and old-school hoofing into a thrilling mix that's performed by an ensemble of apparently tireless young dancers (click here to read more about the choreographer).

I'll confess that I was disappointed that the new Shuffle Along didn't recreate more of the original or fully explain its magic but I do appreciate how it captures the visceral excitement that caused those earlier theatergoers to sit on the edge of their seats.  

I had a similar experience when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see Indecent, which opened yesterday and is currently scheduled to run though June 12.  As Wolfe did with Shuffle Along, Taichman discovered a now-almost-forgotten play called The God of Vengeance when she was in school and has long wanted to do something with it.

Written in 1906 by the Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch, the play tells the story of a brothel owner who wants to marry his innocent daughter to a Talmudic scholar only to have her fall in love with one of his prostitutes, setting off a series of tragic consequences. But, again like Wolfe, Taichman was even more fascinated by the story that surrounded the play.  

The God of Vengeance was performed throughout the Yiddish-speaking communities of Europe and even for the Jewish immigrants on New York's Lower East Side. But when a translated version opened on Broadway, complete with the famous rain scene in which the women consummate their love, the cast was arrested on charges of moral indecency.

Taichman recruited Vogel to help tell that tale. They've chosen to do it through the experiences of the acting troupes that performed Asch's play over the years. An everyman stage manager serves as the connective thread that ties those narratives together. 

The resulting story is more cohesive than Shuffle Along's (and at 90 minutes, more succinct than Shuffle's 3 hours and 40 minutes) but Indecent also overestimates the audience's interest in the minutiae of the play's history, too often substituting dogma for drama.

But, once again, the staging trumps those shortcomings. Vogel and Taichman enlist a range of Brechtian techniques to tell their story: seven actors and three musicians sit in chairs onstage when they're not performing, change costumes in front of the audience and perform both traditional and original music that underscore the Jewish tradition and its later devastation during the Holocaust. 

The opening scene is stunning.  And the cast is superb, particularly Richard Topol's compassionate portrayl of the stage manager Lemml, and Katria Lenk, a mesmerizing beauty who plays several different actresses.

The history Shuffle Along and Indecent provide is a little heavy-handed but the spirit with which they deliver it is buoyant. 

May 14, 2016

"Fully Committed" is Satisfying Enough

Fully Committed, the one-man show about a reservation clerk at a trendy high-end restaurant, didn't get any Tony nominations. But in a season filled with weightier plays about such downer subjects as dementia (The Father) pedophilia (Blackbird) rape (Eclipsed) substance abuse (Long Day's Journey Into Night) and the overall decline of the American middle class (The Humans) there are rewards to be found in the silliness of New Yorkers trying to lie, cheat and bamboozle their way into a fancy restaurant.

That's especially true when that one man onstage is the eager-to-please Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who may have made a name for himself on TV's "Modern Family" but cut his professional teeth on the New York stage and keeps them sharp with return visits almost every year (click here to read an interview with the actor).

This time out, Ferguson is spending his summer break at the Lyceum Theatre through July 24, where he's playing some 40 characters, including the restaurant's imperious chef, its snobby maître d' and an assortment of desperate would-be diners. 

Over the course of 80 minutes or so, he whips back and forth as his main character, an underachieving actor named Sam, juggles the callers on multiple phone lines in an oppressive basement office designed by Derek McLane (click here to read more about it).

The play also adds a dollop of gravitas with a few details about Sam's personal life with calls from his ineffectual agent, a frenemy up for the same small part in a Shakespeare production and his recently-widowed Midwestern dad who wants Sam to come home for the approaching Christmas holiday.

The characters are all largely drawn as caricatures but under Jason Moore's light-handed direction, Ferguson gets such a workout as he fast-changes his voice and body language to distinguish one from the other that I almost sweat along with him.

Written by Becky Mode and previously performed by Mark Setlock, Fully Committed had an 18-month run at the Cherry Lane Theatre that ended in 2001. Now, Mode has updated it to include nods to Yelp and the vegan dietary needs of Gwyneth Paltrow.

Some of the jokes are cheap shots. Others aren't as clever as they should be. But Ferguson still manages to make you smile even if you don't go to the kind of restaurants that serve dishes sprinkled with edible dirt.

May 11, 2016

"The Effect" Sets Off a Positive Reaction

There's been so much going on in the theater (and in my life) over the past few weeks that I haven't had a chance to talk about one of my favorite shows of the spring season: The Effect, which, luckily, is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre until Labor Day so you've plenty of time to see it. Which you definitely should.

It would be easy to dismiss The Effect as a simple rom-com. There's a couple that meets cute (they're paid participants in a study to gauge the effectiveness of an experimental anti-depressant). And they're the kind of opposites that always seem to attract in those kinds of stories (she, Connie, a by-the-rules gal; he, Tristan, a goof-off).

But the British playwright Lucy Prebble has more on her mind than the usual will-they-won't-they question. Prebble is the author of the play Enron, a deep dive into the nefarious doings that lead to the collapse of the giant energy company. That show racked up awards when it played in London but lasted just 16 performances on Broadway back in 2010.

I caught one of them and liked what I saw (click here to read my review). But I like even more that Prebble is willing to wrestle with the big issues of our day and the forces that make them so.

In The Effect, she takes on Big Pharma and its endless crusade to medicalize everything that happens to us so that it can sell us drugs that are supposed to control situations that earlier generations regarded simply as a natural part of being alive.

Medical researchers monitor Connie and Tristan's responses to the new drug while they're quarantined on a medical ward. They tell them that sex is verboten because it will have it own effect on their hormone levels. Of course—and this is no spoiler—the couple ignores the prohibition.

But as their flirtation deepens, they find they can't tell if what they're feeling for one another is true love or a drug-induced effect. That could be played for laughs but Prebble raises the stakes as doses of the medication are steadily increased leading to unanticipated reactions and a clash between the doctors running the test, who have a complicated relationship of their own.

The result is a bracing investigation into the nature of love that stimulates both the head and the heart. And David Cromer, perhaps the smartest director working today, draws out all the nuances of the competing arguments in a sleek production, punctuated by Maya Ciarrocchi's clever video projections (click here to read more about the making of the show).

And yet the best parts of this production are the performances by Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson. Neither is well known but the unaffected and yet committed way in which they realize their roles proves that both should be. Particularly Hudson, who emits the idiosyncratic charms of a young Jeff Goldblum, a bit ungainly, not conventionally handsome and yet you can't take your eyes off him. 

I fell in love with both him and Flood—and with this play.

May 7, 2016

"Dear Evan Hansen" Delivers a Fine Message

The nominees for this year's Tony for Best Musical are all the kind of big song-and-dance shows that have for years defined the Broadway musical. But I sometimes think the future of the art form will be found in the small intimate musicals like last year's winner Fun Home. Or in Dear Evan Hansen, the appealing show that is playing at Second Stage Theatre through May 29 (although there are already whispers, albeit perhaps only wishful, about a Broadway transfer).

Written by everybody's favorite up-and-coming team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen is a completely original show. It's inspired by Pasek's memory of how some kids in his high school claimed to be close friends with a student who died (click here to read more about the genesis of the show).

The musical's book, written by playwright Steven Levenson (click here to read an interview with him) focuses on just one kid, a socially awkward senior named Evan Hansen, who has no friends. His divorced mom loves him but is so busy working double shifts to support them that she's rarely around.

Evan copes by taking anxiety medication, writing motivational letters to himself and pining after a pretty junior named Zoe. One day, he has a chance encounter with Zoe's brother Connor, a druggie and volatile misfit who, in the cruel calculus of high school hierarchies, is the freak to Evan's geek.

Connor snatches one of Evan's more morose letters and when Connor later commits suicide, his parents find it in his pocket. They think their son wrote it as a farewell to his only friend and because Evan doesn't correct that misunderstanding, they gradually begin to treat him as a surrogate son, while others, including Zoe, also begin to find reasons to appreciate him.

The question, of course, is whether Evan will allow the ruse to continue. Because Evan is at heart a good kid, the musical is able to explore the desperate need to belong that all teenagers feel, the pressures today's parents experience as they try to give their kids space without losing closeness, and the role social media now plays in defining the way the world sees all of us.

Because the show is directed by Michael Greif, who specializes in pushing the envelope of what a musical can be and whose resume includes the original productions of Rent, Grey Gardens and Next to Normal, the show juggles these heavy themes with impressive ease—and without forgetting the need to be entertaining.

Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland provide terrific comic relief as two other outcasts (she's an overachiever; he's a wiseass) who find ways to take advantage of the mythology that develops around the relationship between Connor and Evan. And kudos to Greif for casting a black actress in a role that is race neutral. 

Greif, set designer David Korins, sound engineer Nevin Steinberg, lighting master Japhy Weideman and projections wizard Peter Nigrini are also good at creating an environment of moving scrims, buzzing voices and scrolling images that mimic the way a single moment can be magnified into a viral sensation on the internet.

But the show's real secret weapon is a passionate performance by Ben Platt, who is achingly authentic as Evan, showing both the shy stammering boy who is easy to bypass and the warmhearted one within who is easy to love. 

Platt also does a sensational job with Pasek and Paul's melodic but complex songs, even though their tendency to push him into falsetto becomes as much a tic as Evan's stutters (click here to watch an interview with the actor).

A shout-out also has to go to Rachel Bay Jones, who plays Evan's mom. The parents in this show aren't used for comic fodder and Jones is especially poignant as a woman who wants to give her son an easier life than she's had but doesn't know how to do it.

A few critics have complained that the show is too manipulative. But I don't mind having my emotions worked over when it's done well. And Dear Evan Hansen plays equally to the concerns of the middle-aged people who tend to buy most theater tickets and to those of the young people who we all hope will do so in the future.

May 4, 2016

Time Out for Tony Talk & "Hamilton's" Effect

People are always saying "it's an honor to be nominated" when they get a slot on the ballot for a top award like the Tonys. But that's more true than ever for most of the nominees in the musical categories for this year's top theater honors because the one sure bet for the Tony nominations that were announced yesterday morning was that Hamilton was going to get a lot of them. And it did.

The hip-hop-infused musical about one of the previously least known of the Founding Fathers, picked up 16 nominations, the most ever. Four of those went to Hamilton's creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score and Best Actor in a Musical. 

I'm going to go out on a limb—OK, a very sturdy one—and predict that Miranda and his show will win a bunch of those awards when they're given out at the Beacon Theatre on June 12.

That's left the other 10 musicals that opened this past season struggling for just the honor to be nominated. The consolation prize for the four that made it is the chance to better woo ticket buyers who can't get into the already-sold-out-through-next-year Hamilton but still want the bragging rights of going to a hot show, or at least one warm enough to have picked up the most coveted nomination.

The four that managed to do that are Bright Star (the blue grass musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell) School of Rock (Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Julian Fellowe's adaptation of the movie about a rocker turned music teacher) Shuffle Along, Or the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed (George C. Wolfe's all-star tribute to the show that helped kick off the Jazz Age); and Waitress (singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles' adaptation of the indie film about a woman who bakes her way out of a loveless marriage).

Which means that American Psycho and Tuck Everlasting, both of which recently opened to mixed reviews and middling ticket sales, are going to have a tougher time making a go of it. Disaster, the spoof of '70s disaster movies, has already announced that it will close this weekend. 

And although it's been rumbaing along nicely since the fall, I also feel a bit sorry for On Your Feet!, the exuberant bio-musical about the singer Gloria Estefan. It got just one nod for Sergio Trujillo's hip-shaking choreography and surprisingly, at least to me, not one for its terrific leading lady Ana Villafañe.

But there is some welcomed news for the ladies who are in the running for Best Actress in a Musical:  Audra McDonald, the six-time Tony winner and almost never loser, didn't get nominated for her role in Shuffle Along. I haven't yet seen it and so I can't yet weigh in on whether its 10 nominations (second in number only to Hamilton's) were deserving or if Audra got robbed.

However I can say that the nominating committee did a terrific job in the non-musical categories. There's not a ringer in their slate of nominees. And even though Eclipsed and The Humans each drew six nominations, including for Best Play, Best Director and assorted acting categories, those races are wide open. At least I haven't decided how I'm going to vote.

Ditto on the choices for the revivals, both musicals and straight plays (click here to see a full list of all the nominees). And continuing in this feel-good vein, the committee is also to be congratulated on selecting racially diverse nominees in nearly every acting category (take that Oscars) and even in the directing categories, with Liesl Tommy picking up a nomination for Eclipsed and George C. Wolfe picking up his eighth for Shuffle Along.

Of course I don't agree with every single choice the committee made but I agree with so many of them this year that it seems petty to nitpick. Instead, as we've done in past years, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I have recorded a brief conversation in which we shared some more specific thoughts about the nominations—and the Hamilton effect. Click the orange button below to listen in: