January 30, 2016

Why "I and You" Isn't For Me

Just a couple of days ago I was yapping on in another post about how "as long as a show is well made, it's OK with me even it if isn't what I think of as 'my kind of show.'" So I suppose I've got to give some props to Lauren Gunderson's I and You, the two-hander that opened at the 59e59 Theaters this week. For even though the show practically put me to sleep, it so earnestly accomplishes what it sets out to do that it has already had 20 productions around the country and won the American Theater Critics Association award for the best play of 2014.

Here's the setup: a teenage girl has a life-threatening liver disease that keeps her at home and a classmate unexpectedly shows up in her room to enlist her help with a homework assignment in which they have to analyze the use of pronouns in Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself."

They spar (he's sensitive and black; she's spunky and white) and share (he's into classic jazz; she likes vintage rock) and talk a lot (I mean really a lot) about Whitman. She sometimes yells for her mom who never appears. Then, right before the end of this 90-minute drama, there's a startling revelation that hurls everything that's gone on between them in a wholly different direction.

Under the direction of Sean Daniels, the young actors Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White, display an easy rapport with one another but they've been given a big job to do: embody the everyday angst of regular teens, lay the groundwork for the pivotal twist and deliver such highfaluting meditations on Whitman as "So Whitman's 'you' started out as the reader, then became his own soul, then a friend, then the entire planet."  

Despite the fact that both actors are reprising performances they've given in previous productions of the play and that Gunderson actually wrote the part for White (click here to read a Q&A with the playwright), they're only partly successful, struggling with the subtext of the piece and compensating by trying too hard to be ingratiating, as though sensing the restlessness of the audience.

Two women, who apparently hadn't read, as I had, that a surprise was coming, actually stood up and walked out during the middle of the performance I attended. Staying might have given them something to debate over a post-show dinner but I'm not sure it would have left them any more satisfied.

January 27, 2016

Standing Up for the Old-Fashioned Fun of "On Your Feet" and "School of Rock"

Theater snobs complain that Broadway has become too focused on shows that will appeal to the tourist trade. But the populist in me doesn't have a problem with that. As long as a show is well made, it's OK with me even it if isn't what I think of as "my kind of show." Which is why I have no trouble giving thumbs-up to the big eager-to-please musicals On Your Feet! and School of Rock. Neither show is advancing the art form but they're both great fun.

On Your Feet! is the bio-musical about the singer Gloria Estefan and her producer husband Emilio. The couple have been together since Gloria was 19 and have now been married for 37 years. Together they've won nearly two-dozen Grammys and had the first Latin-music album to top the Billboard charts. Both from working class families that fled Castro's Cuba, they have accumulated an estimated net worth of $700 million and last year President Obama awarded them the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

These achievements may be impressive but there's not a lot of drama in them so book writer Alexander Dinelaris squeezes what narrative juice he can from Gloria's mother's unhappiness about her daughter's decision to go into show business, Emilio's battles to move Latin music onto the mainstream and the 1990 tour bus accident that injured Gloria's spine and threatened to leave her in a wheelchair (click here to read a Q&A with the real-life couple, who are also lead producers of the show).

But the real reason for making (and seeing) On Your Feet! is its feel-good music and this jukebox musical is filled with such hits as "1-2-3," "Conga," "Turn the Beat Around," and, of course, "Get On Your Feet," all exuberantly played by an onstage band that includes members of the Estefans' Miami Sound Machine.

The result is like a big dance party and director Jerry Mitchell, who is always up for a good time, cranks the festivities up high. The sets and costumes are vibrantly colored and the 30-member cast (almost all of them, in a nice change to see on Broadway, Hispanic) is constantly whirling around the stage.

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo knocks himself out with one hip-shaking dance after another (click here to read an interview with him). There's even a conga line that snakes through the Marquis Theatre, with the dancers beckoning audience members to join in. 

A mohawk-haired man in the row in front of my sister Joanne and me was so inspired to answer the call that he actually stepped on the laps of the four people between his seat and the aisle.

The leads are great. In her Broadway debut, Ana Villafaña looks and sings just like the younger Gloria but brings her own charisma to the part. Josh Segarra, who plays Emilio, leans a little heavily on his innate sex appeal but it works cause he's got plenty of it.

Stage vets Andréa Burns and Alma Cuervo provide heart as Gloria's disapproving mother and supportive grandmother. And little Eduardo Hernandez almost steals the show when he breaks into his dance routine. By the end, Joanne, a big jukebox musical fan, and I, not normally so, were up on our feet and moving to the music right along with everyone else.

We stood up for School of Rock too. It's the other genre that purists pooh-pooh even more than they do jukebox musicals: a musical based on a hit movie. In this case the move is the 2003 comedy about a failed heavy metal rocker named Dewey Finn who becomes a substitute teacher at a fancy prep school where he secretly turns his grade-school students into a kick-ass rock band.

The movie, written by funnyman Mike White and starring Jack Black at his most manic and charismatic, featured songs by Kiss, The Clash, AC/DC and Metallica. Which made the pedigree for the musical seem somewhat dubious when I first heard about it.

The book for the stage version is by Julian Fellowes, who has written all the episodes of TV's British country-house drama "Downton Abbey." And the music is by Phantom of the Opera's Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, who has specialized in Disney productions like the movie "Tangled" and the stage version of The Little Mermaid.

But what doubters like me forgot is that Lloyd Webber started his career with rock scores for shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar and so knows his way around a guitar riff.  And that Fellowes knows how to craft a narrative that commands attention even when the storyline is as silly and predictable as it is here. 

Fellowes is also unafraid of schmaltz, which allows him to underscore the anxious relationships between the kids and their helicopter parents (straight and gay) that the movie only glossed over (click here to read an interview with the writer).

As the show's lead producer, Lloyd Webber also had the good sense to hire Alex Brightman, until now a Broadway ensemblist, who turns in a high-energy performance that pays homage to Black's Dewey while making the character wholly his own. 

Brightman reportedly gained weight to play Dewey and it's a marvel how he keeps it on as he throws himself around the stage at the Winter Garden for two hours at each performance (click here for a piece about him).

Sierra Boggess plays the by-the-books principal of the school who, only in a musical, becomes Dewey's love interest but she only has a few chances to show off her crystalline soprano. 

Spencer Moss is nerd-perfect as Dewey's best pal Ned who is trying to put his rock days behind him. But poor Mamie Parris has the thankless task of playing Ned's shrewish girlfriend

They're all backed up by a hard working ensemble that, under Laurence Connor's sure-handed direction, takes on triple duty as Dewey's old band mates, the kids' parents and other teachers at the school, helpfully distinguished by Anna Louizos' sly costumes.

But the true key to the show's appeal is the multi-ethnic group of kids, none of whom have yet hit puberty, who make up Dewey's band and its crew. They're augmented by an offstage adult band but there are many moments when the kids are actually playing and when they let it rip, they're equal parts fierce and adorable.

Your irony-obsessed cousin may not care for this show but both your hip grandma and your tween goddaughter are likely to enjoy both School of Rock and On Your Feet!, regardless of what the theater snobs say.

January 16, 2016

Turning on the (Vacation) Ghost Light

My husband K and I are off for a no-Internet-access vacation so I've put on the ghost light that theaters set up when they're temporarily vacant. But I'm leaving plenty of good stuff for you to read and watch while I'm away:

The Flipboard site allows people who are obsessed with a subject (like me with theater) to collect articles they've read about that subject in a single spot so that they can share them with other similarly obsessed people (like a lot of you). I often refer you to The Broadway & Me Magazine and the stories put there currently range from rundowns of the various theater festivals playing around New York this month to a look inside the dressing room of Tim Pigott-Smith, who's giving a terrific performance in the title role of King Charles III, the play, closing Jan. 31, that speculates about what might happen when the current Prince of Wales succeeds his mother to the throne of England. Click here to see those pieces and others.

I've also honed in on a few specific obsessions with a Flipboard collection on Shakespeare in honor of this year's celebration of the 400th anniversary of his death (and you can find that one here) and another on everything I can find about the phenomenon that is the musical Hamilton (which you can find here).

And speaking of Hamilton, I hope you'll also read the Q&A I recently did for Playbill with Ron Chernow, the guy who wrote the biography on which Lin-Manuel Miranda based Hamilton. You can find it by clicking here.

But this isn't all about me. The actor and writer Eric Bogosian recruited a bunch of his friends to create "100 (Monologues)" a collection of videos in which such terrific actors as Dylan Baker, Jessica Hecht, Marin Ireland and Michael Shannon sit on a simple set and perform short soliloquies that Bogosian wrote between 1980 and 2006. One with Brian D'Arcy James, currently on a roll with his performances in the musical Something Rotten and the movie "Spotlight," raised the hair on my arms it was so damn good. You can check them all out by clicking here.

And although its connection to theater is slight, I got such a charge out of the video that mashes up the catchy Bruno Mars song "Uptown Funk" with dance sequences from the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals. I defy you to watch without smiling. Click here to find it.

Enjoy them all and I'll see you in a couple of weeks.

January 13, 2016

"Misery" Isn't Completely Miserable

Everything I've read about Stephen King suggests he's a really nice guy. He's been married to the same woman for 45 years. He gives away about $4 million a year to worthy causes. And he works hard, having published more than 50 novels and four times as many short stories. But I haven't read much by Stephen King or seen the movies based on what he's written because his books are designed to creep people out and I'm a notorious scaredy cat.

That means I've never seen "Misery," the movie that won Kathy Bates an Oscar for her portrayal of a crazed super fan named Annie Wilkes who rescues a famous writer from a car crash and holds him hostage in her isolated farmhouse until he agrees to resurrect the heroine he's killed off in her favorite romance series.

It also means I had trepidations about seeing the new stage adaptation, even though it was written by the much revered William Goldman (yep, the same guy who wrote the classic theater book "The Season," as well as the screenplays for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "All the President's Men"—and "Misery").

Reviews, to be kind, have not been kind for this production. The combined grades of the professional critics averaged just 48 on Show-Score (click here to read some of the withering remarks)

But to my surprise, and relief, I actually ended up not minding the show at all. Although that's probably for the very reason that others didn't like it: it's not scary. 

In fact, Misery is so tension-free that I never had to hold my hand in front of my eyes and peek through my fingers at any point during its 90-minute running time, not even when Bruce Willis, playing the writer, wheels through the house while Annie is out, a scene made almost cinematic by David Korins' nifty revolving set and Michael Friedman's spooky interstitial music (click here to sample it).

Elizabeth Marvel was originally supposed to play Annie but dropped out before rehearsals began and Laurie Metcalf stepped in. At home in all kinds of roles, Metcalf is probably a better choice than the often-eccentric Marvel. I mean if you were doing a production of The Wizard of Oz, you'd cast Metcalf as the always-supportive Scarecrow, while Marvel might make more sense as the leader of the Winged Monkeys.

And indeed Metcalf commits fully to the role of Annie. She makes it clear that the woman is a nut case and she doesn't back away from the campiness that has developed around the character over the decades. But she also taps into the pathos of a lonely woman who becomes enthralled with the fantasy life she's found in a series of books because her own life is so barren.

Misery also marks Willis' Broadway debut and is the first time the movie star has been on a New York stage since he understudied Ed Harris in the 1983 off-Broadway production of Fool for Love.

Since his character spends most of his time in a bed or a wheelchair while plotting his escape, Willis doesn't really have all that much to do. And although he still tripped over the occasional line seven weeks after the show opened, he did his part well enough. In fact, I'm giving him points for being smart enough to pick a piece that couldn't embarrass him too much (click here to read an uncomfortable interview he did with The NewYork Times).

However the bad word-of-mouth has been keeping theatergoers away and the show, which started its run at the Broadhurst Theatre with standing room only, has seen its audience dwindle to houses only two-thirds full and is now limping toward a close on Feb.14.

But Willis super fans and those of the movie (I could tell who they were at my performance because they not only had grins on their faces both before the show and after but squealed during Misery's most infamous scene) may have a good time.

January 9, 2016

"The Color Purple" and Its Star are Radiant

I'm usually no fan of director John Doyle's work. It always strikes me as too self-congratulatory about how clever it is. But Doyle's revival of The Color Purple knocked me out. And that's almost entirely because he had the good sense to cast Cynthia Erivo as the show's star when it played at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013 and to bring the relative unknown here for the Broadway production.

So much of the pre-show publicity for this musical version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about black women who learn how to take possession of their own destinies centered around the casting of Jennifer Hudson, the pop singer and Oscar-winner for playing Effie in the screen version of Dreamgirls, as the free-spirited blues singer Shug; and Danielle Brooks, the Juilliard-trained actress who plays Taystee on the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black" as the free-speaking Sofia, that I almost forget the story's main character is the much-put-upon Celie.

When the story opens, Celie is 14. Her mother has long died and the man she believes to be her father berates her as ugly and regularly beats and rapes her, giving her two children that he takes away as soon as they're born. Her one solace is the relationship she has with her younger sister Nettie but the father bargains Celie off to a nearby farmer and Nettie runs away when his incestuous attentions turn to her.

The new husband, whom Celie refers to only as "Mister," is just as bad, working her like an animal and sexually abusing her until Shug shows up and begins to encourage Celie to stand up for who she is and what she wants.

As is his want, Doyle has stripped the show down to its elements and this is a much simpler production than the original which opened in 2005. Marsha Norman has done her part by trimming almost 30 minutes from her book, including, thankfully, an unfortunate fantasy sequence in Africa that had me rolling my eyes when I saw it in the original. The size of the cast has also been downsized from 28 to 20.

And, in addition to directing, Doyle has taken on the duties of both choreographer (here called musical staging) and set design (a unit set, dominated by a wall of hanging chairs that the characters unhinge and rearrange in varying combinations to indicate different locations, reminiscent of the approach Susan Stroman used for The Scottsboro Boys.)  

This streamlining places all the weight on the music and the performances. And despite slashing the orchestra from 18 musicians in the original production to six in this one, Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray's score still delivers a soul-satisfying mix of gospel, R& B and power ballads. 

And the cast is terrific from the smaller featured roles (Joaquina Kalukango as Nettie; Kyle Scatliffe as Sofia's henpecked husband Harpo) straight through to the big marquee names.

Hudson and Brooks, both making their Broadway debuts, don't let their fans down (click here to read an interview with Hudson). They look to be comfortable onstage and sing the hell out of the songs they've been given. Brooks is particularly winning—earthy, funny and, when needed to be, poignant—in the role that Oprah Winfrey played in Steven Spielberg's movie version of Walker's book. 

But it's Erivo as Celie who is truly sensational. Broadway favorite LaChanze won a Tony for her portrayal of Celie in the 2005 production and "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino won big kudos when she stepped in as a replacement. But both women emphasized the wounded bird aspect of the character.

Erivo, by contrast, imbues the character with an innate grit that makes it clear how she could withstand so much maltreatment and yet emerge from it with such a strong sense of self (click here to read a profile of the actress).

Her Celie is helped by Shug's advice and by the example of her friend Sofia but you never doubt, from the glee in her eyes when she fetches Mister's father a glass of water and spits in it before serving it to him to the upthrust of her chin after being slapped, that the inner dignity is always there inside her. Which makes the celebration of its total emergence all the more sweet.

Plus Erivo can sing. When she finished her 11 o'clock anthem, "I'm Here," the audience at the performance I attended couldn't stop clapping. Really. People cried, cheered and stomped their feet for about two solid minutes.

A woman two seats away from me started waving her hands in the air like someone who had caught the spirit at a church revival. And, although we both tend to be far more guarded about showing our emotions in public, my niece Jennifer and I cheered right along with the rest of them.

January 6, 2016

The Virtual Realities of "Marjorie Prime"

Marjorie Prime, the Pulitzer Prize finalist running at Playwrights Horizons through Jan. 24, is intentionally unsettling. Playwright Jordan Harrison has set it in the near future when today's twentysomethings will be entering their dotage and science has devised a remedy for the losses that have always plagued the old.

Its titular Marjorie is an octogenarian widow who is losing her memory. So her daughter and son-in-law have gotten her a "prime," an android that looks and acts like her late husband Walter. 

Primes are designed to resemble the departed one at a particular time in his or her life and the faux Walter looks about 30, decades younger than the actual Walter was when he died. 

The prime's job is to keep Marjorie company by recounting favorite anecdotes from her past. But the only recollections primes can share are the ones they're given, whether those memories really happened or not.

Thus, the play probes the question of what we most cherish about our loved ones (at which age would you like to see a deceased parent or spouse return—in the bloom of their youth or as they were in the final days you shared with them?) And it also asks what role the stories we tell about them and ourselves play in making us who we are.

Harrison, who is only 37, doesn't have definitive answers to those questions (click here to listen to some of his thoughts) and that leaves his 80-minute meditation on them somewhat up in the air, which clearly seemed to annoy some members of the audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended.

Luckily, Anne Kauffman's expertly calibrated direction grounds Harrison's sci-fi scenario in a world that is solid and familiar, albeit still slightly creepy. 

Kauffman has instructed set designer Laura Jellinek to give Marjorie's home the bland sterility of an upscale nursing home, where the expectation is that the residents won't be staying long. Meanwhile, she's had Ben Stanton set the lighting just a degree too bright, a tacit reminder of all the artificiality that surrounds Marjorie.

And her casting is superb. Lisa Emery makes the daughter's mixture of resentment, fear and regret instantly recognizable to anyone who has had to care for an aging parent. Stephen Root is excellent in the deceptively simple role of the affable son-in-law. And Noah Bean aces the equally difficult job of portraying the android Walter as simultaneously affectless and appealing.

But it is Lois Smith, herself 85, who anchors the play with a performance that allows glimpses of the woman Marjorie once was to show through, making it all the more poignant as her warmth and funniness recede.

Smith, who is performing her second major stage role in less than a year (she was the blind seer Genevieve in Annie Baker's John) and also recently completed a film version of Marjorie Prime with Jon Hamm as Walter, and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins as the daughter and son-in-law, is clearly in far better shape than Marjorie (click here to read an interview with her).

But as Bill and I walked to a nearby restaurant for a post-show dinner, I wondered what effect playing a woman so close to the end of everything might be having on Smith. Because the more I thought about it, the more unsettled it made me.

January 2, 2016

The Shows That Really Got to Me in 2015

Last year was a great year for theater. Lots of things to see. And lots of it good. Really good. And yet, as so often happens, a critical consensus has formed around just a few. The Humans, Hir, King Charles III, The King and I and A View from the Bridge appeared on just about every year-end best list I read (and, in my obsessive way, I read about two dozen of them). And, of course, everybody, including me, loved Hamilton.

But theater is a subjective experience. Friends at a holiday party asked my husband K and me what we thought of A View from the Bridge. We told them it had been a highlight of our theatergoing year. They sighed and said they hadn't like it at all.

So as I looked back at the 140 shows I saw in 2015, I didn't think about what was good or bad, which made lots of money or had short runs, whether they were done on Broadway or off. 

Instead, I just put a little asterisk next to the shows that, for one reason or another, punched me in the gut. Because, in the end, theater is a visceral experience.

As it turned out, there were 10 shows that really knocked me over. And in case you're curious, here, in alphabetical order, is that list:

Airline Highway: Lisa D'Amour's paean to the down-and-outers struggling to survive in her native New Orleans got to me because it's one of the few contemporary plays that treats people on the margins of society with dignity.

The Color Purple: It's impossible not to be moved by British actress Cynthia Erivo's powerhouse performance in this revival of the musical based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as she transforms from an oppressed woman to one who learns how to love herself.

Constellations: British playwright Nick Payne’s metaphysical two-hander dealt with love, grief and the nature of existence, providing an acting challenge for its stars—Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson—and an experience that grabbed both my mind and my heart.

Eclipsed: The struggles in Danai Gurira's drama about women caught up in Liberia's 14-year civil war was not only superbly acted by a cast lead by Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o but forced me to consider what choices I might make to survive.

Fun Home: The poignant performances by 11-year-old Sydney Lucas and the always-excellent Michael Cerveris in this Tony-winning musical version of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel about her coming out as a lesbian and her father's closeted life as a gay man broke my heart.

Guards at the Taj: Rajiv Joseph's sublime play about two lowly sentries standing watch at the unveiling of the Taj Mahal raised unnerving, but necessary, questions about the obligations of friendship, duty and the sacredness of art.

Hamilton: Yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda's retelling of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton's life has revolutionized the musical but his show is also a reminder of the passion, idealism and daring that went into making this country and it revived the patriot in me.

The Iceman Cometh: To be honest, I've slept through productions of this Eugene O'Neill classic about the denizens of a Bowery bar desperately holding onto the dreams they know they'll never achieve but the Nathan Lane-lead production at BAM last winter anchored the character's pain in a specificity that kept me riveted.

Skylight: Great performances can make you see and feel new things in a play and the sensational match-up of Carrie Mulligan and Bill Nighy in David Hare's drama about an attempted reconciliation between two former lovers brought home the gimlet-eyed truth that love isn't always enough.

A View from the Bridge: Arthur Miller wrote his plays as modern-day equivalents of Greek tragedy and director Ivo van Hove's revival strips this story of a good man's illicit obsession with his niece down to the essence of words, heroic performances and the blessing of the theater gods.

As I said, it was a great year. Now, here's wishing that the one ahead will be at least as theatrically rewarding for me and you.