October 29, 2016

The Art of Making Art in "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Tick,Tick...Boom!"

In 1984, Stephen Sondheim had already created the game-changing shows Company and Follies but, feeling disillusioned by the failure of Merrily We Roll Along, he was thinking about leaving the business when instead he wrote Sunday in the Park with George. Half a decade later in 1990, Jonathan Larson was turning 30 and feeling anxious about ever making it in the business when he wrote the show that would eventually become known as Tick, Tick...Boom! 

Both shows reflect their makers' struggles with being innovative artists in a commercial world and so it was fascinating to see them within days of one another, as I did this past week when I got to see one of the four sold-out City Center performances of Sunday in the Park with George and caught the Keen Company's revival of Tick, Tick...Boom!, which has just been extended at Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre through Dec. 18.

Sunday in the Park with George won a Pulitzer Prize and heartened Sondheim enough that he went on to write Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion. The reception to his one-man version of Tick, Tick...Boom! encouraged Larson to write Rent, which won a Pulitzer of its own but famously also played its first performance on the evening that Larson, just 35, unexpectedly died from a tear in his aorta.

I'm moved each time I hear the score from either of these shows but particularly so in Tick's case because it drives home how great a loss Larson's death was for musical theater. Tick was posthumously expanded into a three-person show but its autobiographical plot remains the same as when Larson did it.  

A few days before his 30th birthday, a composer named Jon tries to decide if he should give up his dream of composing music for the stage and get a regular job. The rock-infused songs run from love ballads like 'See Her Smile" to a humorous number about working the weekend brunch shift at a diner that slyly references Sondheim's Sunday.

The cast in the Keen production, staged by the company's artistic director Jonathan Silverman, isn't as starry as the one in the Encores! production I saw two years ago, which boasted Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and Karen Olivo. But Nick Blaemire, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Larson, is totally winning as the conflicted Jon.

Blaemire made his Broadway debut in the ensemble of Cry-Baby and then crashed and nearly self-immolated with Glory Days, the musical for which he wrote the music and lyrics and which infamously closed on its opening night. 

But Blaemire, in part inspired by Larson's perseverance (click here to read his story) has persevered and he channels Larson with such authentic sincerity that his performance is as openly emotional as the best of of his idol's songs.

And although stars abound in City Center's Sunday in the Park with George (the ensemble cast includes Brooks Ashmanskas, Phillip Boykin, Carmen Cusak, Gabriel Ebert, Zachary Levi, Ruthie Ann Miles and Phylicia Rashad) but it too is anchored by the lead performances of Broadway favorite Annaleigh Ashford and the movie star Jake Gyllenhaal.

Sunday is actually a pair of linked stories. In the first act, the 19th century French painter Georges Seurat creates his masterpiece ”A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,'' and in the second, Seurat’s namesake great-grandson, an American multimedia artist, tries to succeed in the modern art world.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who saw Ashford in her Tony-winning turn in You Can't Take It With You or as the title character in last season's Sylvia, that she is wonderful as Seurat's mistress in the first act and as the younger George's grandmother in the second.  Ashford's performance pays homage to Bernadette Peters, who played those parts in the 1984 production, but her quirky charm and plangent voice make the roles entirely her own.

Gyllenhaal, who's becoming a regular presence on the New York stage and who wowed the critics in last year's Encores! production of Little Shop of Horrors, is a terrific actor and he was wonderful as both Georges in the show's book scenes, particularly with the comic bits. He's also got a sonorous voice and clearly worked hard to master Sondheim's tricky notes. 

Most critics raved. And yet, I couldn't get the sound of Mandy Patinkin, who originated the roles, out of my head. Unfair? Maybe but as both Sunday in the Park and Tick, Tick...Boom! attest, it's those little quirks that make art, art.

October 26, 2016

"Stuffed" Isn't Totally Filling

Stuffed, the new comedy by Lisa Lampanelli, is a perfect fit for the Women's Project Theater, now known as the WP Theater. It's written by a woman and deals with a subject that just about every woman has worried about at one time or another: her weight.

Lampanelli is a stand-up comedian who gained fame for making potty-mouthed zingers on the comedy roast circuit which led to a Grammy-winning comedy album, a series of comedy specials, an appearance on Donald Trump's reality TV show "The Celebrity Apprentice" and now this play, which is running at the McGinn/Cazale Theater through Nov. 13.

Stuffed is Lampanelli's first play (click here to read more about her) and it borrows from the same dramaturgical tradition as Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues and Nora and Delia Ephron's Love, Loss and What I Wore. All three offer up a diverse group of women who stand or sit on a stage and tell the audience stories related to the subject at hand.

But Ensler based The Vagina Monologues on the more than 200 interviews about sex and relationships that she did with women around the world. And the Ephrons based their show on Ilene Beckerman's bestselling memoir about the outfits she wore at significant moments in her life.

Lampanelli, who lost some 100 pounds after gastric sleeve surgery four years ago, uses her own experiences (the anger and shame she recalls feeling when a heckler in the audience referred to her as the "fat chick" is one of the most genuine moments in the show) but then fleshes out the rest of the 80-minutes with color-by--the-number observations about women with other size issues.

One has an eating disorder, another is naturally thin and resents the envy that engenders and the fourth is slightly chubby but has fought her way to body acceptance. Under the workman-like direction of Jackson Gay, each woman is literally given a moment in the spotlight to declaim her woes.

They talk about favorite foods and forbidden foods, the right and wrong ways to lose weight, the role parents and lovers play in a woman's body image and the tyranny of blue jeans. The bottom line is supposed to be that women should be allowed to love themselves no matter their shape. But that seems an odd message coming from a woman who's spent thousands of dollars to alter hers.

In addition to Lampanelli, the cast consists of Ann Harada, the original Christmas Eve in Avenue Q; Zainab Jah, the fiercest of the women in the Liberian war drama Eclipsed; and Jessica Luck, a newcomer making her off-Broadway debut.

They only succeed at varying levels. Still, more than a few of the jokes Lampanelli has written hit the mark. And the audience, made up primarily of middle-aged women, seemed quite satisfied with the evening.

All the food and weight talk made me a little self-conscious as my theatergoing buddy Bill and I sat down to dinner after the show. So I ordered two appetizers instead of a full meal. But then, I called the waiter back and ordered a big juicy pork chop. It was delicious. And I didn't feel bad about eating it. So maybe the play worked on me after all.

October 22, 2016

"The Cherry Orchard" is Too Arid

Actors, directors, playwrights and producers are now eager for ways to make theater more inclusive (which is a good thing) but the rules for how to do that are still being worked out. Which may explain how a well-intentioned production like the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of The Cherry Orchard can go so awry.

This final play that Anton Chekhov wrote before his death in 1904 at the premature age of 44 centers on an aristocratic Russian family that has become so feckless that it loses its ancestral home, including the beloved orchard, to the son of one of the serf's who once worked their land.

The guiding impulse behind the Roundabout's new reinterpretation appears to have been a desire to draw a parallel between the descendants of the Russian serfs during Chekhov's time and the descendants of American slaves during our own. Four of the eight main male roles in this production are played by black actors. (Click here to read about the impetus for this approach.)

But instead of letting this casting speak for itself, Stephen Karam, the recent and deserved Tony award winner for The Humans who did the adaptation; and Simon Godwin, the celebrated young British director who's staged it, trivialize the analogy. 

These characters—and only they—high-five one another and utter contemporary catchphrases like "Get out!"  In one climactic scene one of them breaks into a dance that includes hip-hop moves.

The result is an insult to the intelligence of the audience (we can figured out what the show is going for without such nonsense, just as we do with the black and brown Founding Fathers in Hamilton). It's also an insult to the artistry and dignity of the actors involved.

Although the white actors don't fare much better. Perhaps too preoccupied with his political message, Godwin has neglected the inner lives of the people in the play and failed to create a cohesive environment in which actors of any color could develop them.

The period has been updated but it's not clear exactly when or why. The tone jerks from slapstick to melodrama, with stops along the way for a carnival interlude, complete with a dance number.

Meanwhile, the costumes hit a variety of decades, sometimes within the same scene. And it took me until the play was nearly over to realize that the abstract mobiles hanging over the stage were supposed to represent the cherry trees.

Understandably confused, the actors seem to have grabbed on to whatever style works best for them. The result is a mishmash. And if you haven't read or seen the play before, it can be difficult to keep track of who is related to whom and why it even matters.

This is a particular crime because the cast includes such usually terrific actors as Tina Benko, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Chuck Cooper, Tavi Gevinson, John Glover, Harold Perrineau and Joel Grey. 

The troupe is lead by Diane Lane, who made her Broadway debut as a child actress in the ensemble of the 1977 revival of the play (click here to read an interview with her) before going on to four decades of success in the movies, including an Oscar nomination.

Lane looks lovely in the outfits that Michael Krass has designed for her but she also looks somewhat lost, making Ranevskaya, the patrician but oblivious owner of the estate, recede into the doings instead of commanding center stage as she usually does.

My friend Ellie, a former actress who is given to taking a generous view of even the poorest production, said I was being too harsh as we discussed the play on our way out of the American Airlines Theatre, where the production is scheduled to play until Nov. 27. 

There were, Ellie said, things here and there that did work. She has a point. And among those things were the performances by Keenan-Bolger and Grey that managed to convey some of the poignancy that makes a Chekhov play Chekhov. 

But the thing that worked best for me was the trio of musicians—playing clarinet, violin and percussion—who sit in a box stage right for most of the evening and play incidental music composed by Nico Muhly. The melodies were lovely and haunting, creating their own poignant sense of what the rest of the show might have been.

October 19, 2016

"She Stoops to Conquer" Falls Too Short

The Anglo-Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith wrote She Stoops to Conquer in 1771 but The Actors Company Theatre's revival of this classic farce works hard to be contemporary. Maybe too hard.

Before each performance, cast members stroll the aisles of the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row, where the show is playing through Nov. 5, striking up conversations with people in the audience. "It's a way to be more interactive," I overhead one actor confiding to two friends who had come out to support him.

It seems that almost every other show wants to be interactive these days. I guess producers think that will lure younger people to their shows. But I'm hoping this is a short-lived trend, particularly when it's gratuitous, as it is here. Cause Goldsmith doesn't need the help. Many of his lines and bits are as funny as when he wrote them.

His tale centers around the wealthy Hardcastles, parents in a blended family who, in keeping with the traditional marriage plot, are overeager to have their children marry well.

They want Mrs. Hardcastle's son Tony to marry their ward Constance, an heiress who is secretly plotting to runaway with the more dashing but not quite as well-off George Hastings.

And they are trying to get Mr. Hardcastle's daughter Kate hooked up with Charles Marlowe, a rich Londoner who also happens to be Hastings' best friend.

It's Marlowe who has the affinity for commoners: society women make him nervous and he feels more comfortable with lower-class types. So Kate, as the title promises, stoops to conquer him by pretending to be a serving girl.

The plot tracks the hijinks employed to get everyone with the right person. And along the way, Goldsmith has a good time poking fun at the pretensions of the gentry.

I'm partial to this kind of silliness. I adored the Red Bull Theater Company's recent production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, another late 18th century comedy-of-manners (click here to read my review of that one). But, alas, this production isn't as entertaining as that one was.

And its budget seems to be much less. These actors are dressed in a distractingly motley fashion, as though they were encouraged to search their home closets for anything that looked vaguely 18th century. But the show still has a few pleasures.

That's mainly due to the cast, a mix of vets and newcomers to TACT's resident company. They not only roam the aisles throughout the performance as well as before it but, under Scott Alan Evans' somewhat loose direction, they sing, dance and accompany themselves on instruments, John Doyle-style, all the while giving the impression that they're having a great time.

Although he was a little too frat-boyish for my taste, Richard Thieriot's louche Tony was the crowd favorite the night my friend Jesse and I saw the show. But Jeremy Beck is the true standout. The scenes between his nervous Marlow and Mairin Lee's sly Kate are the show's best—and exactly the kind of interaction I like.

October 15, 2016

Turning on the Ghost Light

Well, it's late in the day and I still haven't had a chance to write today's post so I'm going to drag out the old ghost light that theaters turn on when they're temporarily empty. 

October is always a tricky month for me—so many shows to see, so many birthdays to celebrate (so many of my most beloveds are Libras and Scorpios) and so much pay-the-rent work to do.  Still, I'm hoping to be back next week and I hope you'll return too.  

In the meantime, there's a whole bunch of good stuff to read on the Broadway & Me Magazine that i curate on the Flipboard site and which you can find by clicking here.

October 12, 2016

Judith Light Provides the Heart—and the Soul—in "All the Ways to Say I Love You"

Neil LaBute made his name in the '90s by creating narcissistic characters who do mean and horrible things to the other characters in his films and plays. But over the years, this prolific playwright (he's written over two dozen full-length plays, including The Shape of Things, Fat Pig and reasons to be pretty) has mellowed. He's still fascinated by the pain that people inflict on one another but he now also has an appreciation for the pain that causes such behavior and the damage it can wreak on the do-er.

The latter is totally the case in the MCC Theater production of his latest work, All The Ways to Say I Love You, a one-woman show in which Judith Light plays Mrs. Johnson, a married school teacher and guidance counselor who has an affair with one of her students. Alone in her office, designed with depressing authenticity by Rachel Hauck, Mrs. Johnson confides her misdeeds to those of us in the audience at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the show is playing through Oct. 23.

Her story isn't particularly novel. Teacher-student scandals have been steady fodder for tabloids, trashy novels and TV mini-series since Mary Kay Letourneau was sentenced to seven years in prison for sleeping with a 12-year-old student. The two of them got back together after Letourneau finished her sentence and have now been married for 12 years.

But things don't turn out as well for Mrs. Johnson and the success of All The Ways to Say I Love You hinges on the ability of the actor playing her to show her gradual descent from a needy woman who knew at the time that what she was doing was wrong to one who becomes hollowed out by the deed in its aftermath.

It's a tricky challenge: we have to like Mrs. Johnson enough to care about her and yet resist being so seduced that we don't hold her accountable for the choices she makes. And who better to do all of that than the always-remarkable Light? (Click here to read an interview with the actress.)

Under Leigh Silverman's attentive direction, Light delicately peels back the layers of love, lust, desperation and anguish until the emotional viscera of Mrs. Johnson is fully exposed. All the Ways to Say I Love You runs just over an hour but Light packs a lifetime of emotion into it.

October 8, 2016

Counting Me Out of "The Encounter"

Immersive experience is the phrase that everyone keeps using to describe The Encounter, the unusual one-man show that is playing a limited run at Broadway's Golden Theatre through Jan. 8 when it's scheduled to take off for other parts of the country.

The show, which is based on a novel inspired by the American photographer Loren McIntyre's travels in the Amazon, was conceived, directed and is performed by the British actor Simon McBurney. But its real star and the source of the immersion is the audio system that plays three-dimensional sound through individual headphones that are hooked up to each seat in the theater.

And these aren't just regular earphones. Their clarity is sharp and their high-def technology allows sound designers Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin to aurally evoke McIntyre's experience during the two months he spent with a then-reclusive tribe known as the Mayoruna (click here to read about them and the making of this show).

The surround-sound design makes the rustle of tree leaves, the buzz of mosquitoes and the incantations of the native people all sound as though they are happening right over your shoulder. Or at least that's the way all the articles published before the show opened told me I was supposed to feel. And I did. It just didn't seem as big a deal as everyone kept saying it was.

But I may not have been the best audience for this show. I routinely spend three or four hours a day listening to podcasts or radio shows and while the quality of my personal earphones aren't up to The Encounter's level, I'm a bit jaded when it comes to being transported into some other world by sound.

It might have been different if I'd found McIntyre's story compelling but the two-hour tale of a white guy being seduced by the rituals of noble savages and engaging in various hallucinogenic ordeals that help him see the world in a new way struck me as the same-old-same-old. Maybe it was better in the book but in the theater, my mind wandered.

Integrated into the narrative are moments in which McBurney talks directly to the audience or pretends to be having conversations with his young daughter. I'm guessing these scripted interruptions are supposed to be meta-commentaries on the nature of reality but I found them to be distracting.

A shorter play might have helped to keep me—and it—better focused. Instead, this one rambles on for two intermissionless hours and then kind of dribbles to an end. "Did I miss something?" a befuddled man asked his companion, as they made their way out of the theater.

Still McBurney, co-founder and artistic director of Complicite, a 30-year-old company that specializes in sensual and surrealistic theater, is an affable guy and a committed artist. 

And he works hard, narrating McIntyre's odyssey, serving as his own sound-effects man by using water bottles and snack food bags to recreate some of the atmospheric sounds and then running around the stage to recreate some of the action as well.

At the beginning of the evening, he encouraged people to shut their eyes so that they could sink into the immersive experience. I did. So who knows, maybe everything I've written here about my experience is the result of a fever dream.

October 5, 2016

"Marie and Rosetta" Revives the Spirit

Marie and Rosetta, which has been extended at the Atlantic Theater's Linda Gross Theater through Oct. 16, aims to be a crowd-pleaser—and it certainly is. Just about everyone left the theater with a big grin on their face the night I saw the show.

Its title characters are the midcentury gospel singer Marie Knight and her mentor Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a crossover star who was also such a big inspiration for Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley that she's considered the godmother of rock and roll.

The women teamed up for about five years after World War II, toured the country, particularly the segregated south, and produced a series of hit recordings. George Brant's two-hander purports to tell the story of that relationship.

I say purports because his plot is thin, and his story employs a lot of poetic license. Key moments in the women's lives such as the death of Marie's mother and children in a fire occur offstage. Their various marriages and divorces are mentioned only in passing. And Brant doesn't deal at all with the intriguing rumors that the singing partners may also have been lovers.

But none of that matters because what gives this show its heart, and yes, its soul, is the music. There are few things more glorious than a well-sung gospel song and this show has a bunch of them. It also has two superb performances from Rebecca Naomi Jones as Marie and Kecia Lewis as Rosetta. 

Jones is a little too cutesy in the early moments of the 90-minute play when a nervous Knight is supposed to be auditioning for Tharpe. But it doesn't take her long to settle down and cut loose. She's rocked in American Idiot, Murder Ballad and as Yitzak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and so Jones knows how to wail.

Lewis, on the other hand, is a powerhouse right from the get-go. She tosses off her lines with down-home panache and delivers her songs with such full-throated ecstasy that each one brings down the house. (Click here to read a Q&A with the two actresses).

Director Neil Pepe neatly handles a twist toward the end with finesse but for the most part he's had the good sense to stay out of the way, freeing the women to feed off one another's energy and allowing those of us in the audience to be uplifted by it. 

October 1, 2016

Taylor Mac's "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" is a Sensational Celebration

The gender-fluid performance artist Taylor Mac isn't so much doing a show as he is hosting a party with A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which is playing at St. Ann's Warehouse only through Oct. 8. And in the process he is redefining drag.

Mac has set himself (he actually prefers the gender-neutral pronoun "judy" but I just can't do it) the ambitious task of telling the history of this country through its popular songs. And to do it he has created an extravaganza of a show that includes transvestite ushers, nude burlesque dancers, a hard-swinging jazz band, audience participation, puppets and Mac's sublime ballad singing.

This is not your standard lip-sync-Marilyn-Judy-and-Liza drag show. Mac (click here to read a profile of him) builds an hour around 10 or so songs, some classics and others forgotten, that were popular in each decade dating from the founding of this country until the present day. That adds up to 246 songs and 24 hours.

A marathon performance of the whole shebang is scheduled to start at noon next Saturday, Oct. 8, but Mac has also divided the show into eight three-hour segments and my theatergoing buddy Bill and I caught Part VI, which covers 1926-1956 and which I selected because I wanted to see how he did with the heart of the Great American Songbook.

He does great. He camps it up with total abandon one minute (the conceptual artist known as Machine Dazzle did the Carmen-Mranda-meets-a-tornado costumes) and in the next minute, he delivers moving renditions of classic songs, including Carousel's "Soliloquy," all beautifully arranged by Mac and his musical director Matt Ray (click here to read about how the numbers were chosen).

There's also a loose narrative constructed by Mac, the dramaturge Jocelyn Clarke and the show's co-director Niegel Smith that allows Mac to ramble on, untethered by a script, about America's long history of mistreating blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the poor and gays.

At one point in our show, Mac had whites sitting in the center section recreate the sad scenario of white flight by having them get up and leave their seats to the few people of color in the audience. People playfully complied but the underlining point was serious.

Mac told us we were lucky that there were chairs at all because he'd wanted to clear the floor of them so that people would feel free to dance. Some folks moved into the aisles and did so anyway when the band played tunes like "Pachuco Boogie."

I'm not a big audience participation fan (in fact, I detest the practice) but Mac creates such a joyous environment that I found myself joining in his sing-alongs and cheering the folks he brought up onstage to serve as his foils.

When I didn't want to participate, even tacitly, I could (and did) get up and go to the restroom or the bar. The show runs without any formal intermission and so folks are encouraged to come and go as they need. Mac snatched a breather (and maybe his own bathroom break) during the parade of burlesque dancers that featured people of all genders and body types.

The best moments of the show were those when the lights went low (shoutout to lighting designer John Torres for his mastery in guiding the eye exactly where it needed to be) and Mac just sang. He has an incredibly appealing voice and the songs were a reminder of how much we all love tunes with catchy melodies and witty lyrics.

Those moments made me curious about the other decades. The couple seated next to Bill and me had wasted no time in letting us know that they'd opted to see the entire cycle, albeit by taking in each of the three-hour shows instead of next weekend's marathon.

I don't know if I'd have the stamina (or the money) to do either but I'm glad for the three hours I got. And the merriment continued right through to the end. 

On the way out, we were given our programs by my favorite of the ushers—a burly, bearded guy wearing a replica of the dress that Judy Garland wore in "The Wizard of Oz." After just three hours in Mac's world, he didn't look odd at all.