May 31, 2017

Little Musicals with Big Aspirations: "The Boy Who Danced on Air" and "Ernest Shackelton Loves Me"

Over the past few months, I've been bingeing on the big awards-baiting musicals that have opened on Broadway. Several of them are terrific but it was nice last week to see two smaller shows that are also trying to do something different with the art form.

At first glance, The Boy Who Danced on Air, which is playing at the Abingdon Theatre Company's June Havoc Theatre through June 11, might seem to be just a traditional book musical with a pleasing score. But its subject matter and its subtle use of choreography push it into new territory.

The show was inspired by a 2010 PBS documentary on the revival of the ancient Afghan practice in which powerful men buy young boys and train them to perform as dancers and sex slaves until they reach puberty.

The boy of the title is Paiman, a graceful dancer and obedient concubine to his owner Jahandar but who is now at 16 aging out of his role as a "bacha bereesh," or boy without a beard.

Jahandar has fallen in love with Paiman during their six years together but acknowledging those feelings is taboo and so he plans an arranged marriage for the boy to mark the end of their relationship. Meanwhile, Paiman develops plans of his own when he falls for a fellow dancing boy and dreams of a life with him.

According to the program notes, book writer and lyricist Charlie Sohne and composer Tim Rosser worked on the show for six years. The results of their labor is uneven.

The book is overworked. In addition to the two love stories, there's a distracting subplot about Jahandar's efforts to embarrass the Americans who have bailed on a promise to finish a power plant that will make life easier for the local community.

But Rosser's score nicely incorporates Afghan rhythms through the use of percussions and the lute-like rubab. Some of the songs are hauntingly beautiful.

And the Abingdon's artistic director Tony Speciale, who also directed the show when it premiered at San Diego's Diversionary Theatre last year, has created a lovely showcase for their work. 

The Abingdon usually operates on a limited budget but Speciale and his design team have created an attractive production that makes inventive use of backlighting and scrims for scenes that might be too uncomfortable to sit through otherwise.

And Speciale has also assembled a cast of engaging actors with strong singing voices. Troy Iwata is particularly sympathetic as Paiman and he is indeed a beautiful dancer as he shows in an affecting solo number in the second act that has been sensitively choreographed by Nejla Yatkin.

A few critics have complained that a story involving pedophilia is nothing to sing or dance about. But in this case, they're wrong.

Those naysayers might feel more at home with Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, the winsome romcom that is playing at the Tony Kiser Theatre through June 11. Or they might not, cause this isn't a conventional musical either.

Instead, it's the improbable mashup of the stories of Kat, a Brooklyn single mom who's juggling the competing demands of being an electronic-music composer and the mother of a new baby, and the titular British explorer who was stranded in Antarctica a century ago.

Joe DiPietro's amusing book brings them together through some mystical mumbo jumbo that has the duo first communicating and time traveling through Skype messages and eventually in person.   She helps him with his mission; he helps her with her life.

The pop rock score is by Brendan Milburn with lyrics by Val Vigoda, who also plays Kat in addition to being fierce on the electric fiddle. Director Lisa Peterson keeps things zipping along through the show's 90 minutes.

And special kudos must go to production designer Alexander V. Nichols whose video projections make smart use of the historic footage from the real expedition. 

The show is silly, with most of the humor supplied by the talented Wade McCollum's chest-thrust-out portrayal of Shackelton and fast changes into the other men in Kat's life. 

But, at heart, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is an old-fashioned inspirational tale about having the courage to endure, be it subzero temperatures or a 3 a.m. feeding.

May 27, 2017

Tony Talk Episode9: The Design Categories

Just like everyone else involved in putting on a show, costume and set designers see their main job as telling a story. But that job--and winning a Tony for it--is harder than it looks.

Designs usually have to replicate the time period in which the play or musical is set or at least the director's vision of that. And the best designs illustrate not only the changes in the characters' outer lives but in their inner lives as well.

At the same time, designers need to make sure that their stars look and feel good in their costumes. And they need to find a way to distinguish the supporting players and members of the ensemble too. 

Sets can be naturalistic or expressionistic but either way they have to create the framework and establish the tone for the way in which the story will be told.

Meanwhile, a production hoping to win a Tony has to offer costumes and sets that deliver the wow-factor that people expect when they pay top dollar to see a Broadway show.

When it comes to winning a Tony, the award often goes to the shows that dress actresses in sumptuous gowns or that have spectacular sets. That tends to favor musicals. So the Tony administrators have tried to level the playing field by separating the design categories into those for plays and musicals.

But even when it's just plays competing against one another, costume dramas like Wolf Hall, the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2015 adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novel about intrigues in the court of Henry VIII, usually have had an edge.

Although not always. Last year, Eclipsed, the drama about a group of rags-clad women held as sex slaves during Liberia's civil wars beat out a couple of much fancier-dressed shows.

The competitors this year come primarily from the big shows and some of them like Santo Loquasto, nominated for both costumes and sets for Hello, Dolly!, and Catherine Zuber, up for dressing Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as cosmetics divas in War Paint, have won multiple times in the past. 

But one nominee Jane Greenwood, who had to devise outfits that would look good on both Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon who are alternating roles in The Little Foxes, has been nominated 20 times without ever taking home the prize.

In this week's episode, my pals Chris Caggiano, Patrick Pacheco, Bill Tynan and I talk about the design categories that can make the difference between winning and losing in the office Tony pool. Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say or check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on SoundCloud by clicking here 

May 24, 2017

The Misfortunes of "The Lucky One"

Most people know A.A. Milne as the creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh children's stories but in the two decades before he published the first Pooh book in 1926, Milne was best known as a humorist who wrote for the British satirical magazine "Punch" and as the author of 18 plays, most of which also had runs on Broadway. But those works rarely get done now, making them a great choice for the Mint Theatre Company which specializes in revivals of forgotten plays and is now presenting Milne's The Lucky One at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row through June 25.

Like so many plays of its time, The Lucky One focuses on an upper-class family and is set mainly in their drawing room. At its center are two brothers. The eldest is Bob, or poor Bob as everyone calls him. He's the kind of guy who's earnest and works hard but appears to everyone, himself included, as being one of life's also-rans.

That's especially so when he's compared to his younger brother Gerald, who excels at sports, at a job in the Foreign Office, when it comes to wooing women of all ages and even at being nice to Bob. But the real problem is that both brothers are in love with the same woman.

Bob met Pamela first but she was soon swept away by the more charismatic Gerald. As the play opens, Pamela and Gerald are engaged, while poor Bob is struggling to resolve a financial scandal at work that could send him to jail.

It's obvious who the lucky one is supposed to be but Milne, himself a favored son, slyly subverts that title, the tropes of the drawing room comedy and the themes of the Cain versus Abel matchup as well. In the process, he explores the nature of goodness and the burdens of the roles we're all assigned to play in our families.

If only the production were as astute. But, alas, the play seems to have overwhelmed its director Jesse Marchese, who is alternately too-heavy handed in some places and too light in others, leaving the actors shakily struggling to find the right balance for their performances.

Ari Brand, who has been nuanced in other shows I've seen him in, is totally one note as poor Bob and could have used some help in showing more than the character's petulance. Robert David Grant fares better as Gerald but still fails to convey the layered complexities that can come with being the chosen one.

Even the scenery, usually a treat at the Mint, is off-kilter. The set, dominated by an art deco staircase with a dual set of partially banistered stairs, is totally wrong for the country home of a tradition-bound aristocratic family of that period (not to mention dangerous for the actors). I suppose the staircase might have been meant to be expressionistic but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it's meant to be expressing.

The cop out would be to say that The Lucky One is just an old-fashioned play that has seen its day.  But Milne created something more emotionally enduring than that and I suspect we'd all be feeling differently if we—and Milne—had been lucky enough to get a more percipient production.

May 20, 2017

Tony Talk Podcast-Episode 8: The Campaign

The race is on. It may be done more politely than it was during our last presidential campaign (thank goodness), but the Tony nominees are beginning to elbow one another out of the way as they try to win voters—and that gold-plated statuette. 

That means placing expensive ads in both trade publications like Playbill and general-interest ones like The New York Times, where a full-page ad can reportedly costs $250,000. A Doll's House, Part 2, which was nominated for eight awards, including Best Play, took out four full pages in last Sunday's paper and another full one in Friday's.

Campaigning also means that the shows and their publicists are competing to get as much press coverage as possible for their nominated actors, playwrights, directors and designers. They're also trying to persuade those folks to attend the dozens of other awards ceremonies and events that happen at this time of year. 

And as though, that weren't enough, shows try to woo voters by sending them swag that includes cast recordings of the nominated musicals, special editions of the plays, inscribed book marks, beautiful coffee table books and, of course, free tickets to see the shows.

But as the New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel noted this week, even more attention is being lavished on the so-called road voters, the tour operators and theater owners in other parts of the country who make up about 10 percent of the Tony voters. They were in town this past week for their annual conference and were wined, dined and schmoozed throughout their stay (click here to read more about that).

All of this soliciting adds up to a lot of money and that's even before the $250,000 to $300,000 producers are estimated to spend on the musical numbers that will appear on the Tony broadcast on June 11.

This week my pals Patrick Pacheco, Bill Tynan and I talk about how likely these expensive—and exhausting—campaigns are to sway voters. You can hear what we had to say by clicking the orange button below, listening to our conversation on SoundCloud by clicking here or checking out all of our discussions on the Tony Talk homepage, which you can find here.

May 17, 2017

"Seven Spots on the Sun" Sheds Light on the Darkness a Repressive Regime Can Inflict

Getting a show in front of a mainstream audience ain't easy and it can be even tougher when you're a playwright of color. Which is why I'm happy to have seen Martín Zimmerman's Seven Spots on the Sun, which is running at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through June 4—and to be able to celebrate The Sol Project, which helped get it there.

The Sol Project, which officially launched just a year ago, is a collective that arranges for an off-Broadway company and a regional theater to give a full production to a play by a Latinx author, guaranteeing that playwright the much-desired chance to see his or her work done in New York and to get at least one more professional production elsewhere in the country (click here to read more about the initiative).

Like many young playwrights, Zimmerman has had plenty of readings and workshop productions at theaters ranging from the La Jolla Playhouse in California to The Roundabout Theatre's Underground space here in New York, which recently featured Marin Ireland in his On the Exhale, a searing monolog in which a mother grieves for a child killed in a school massacre and which made it clear that Zimmerman's work deserves to be seen by a wider audience (click here to read my review of it).

Seven Spots on the Sun is one of Zimmerman's earlier plays and its callowness shows in its occasional slips into melodrama, an overambitious use of flashbacks and an almost obligatory inclusion of the magical realism often associated with Latin American literature.

And yet, it is still an effective piece of work. That's in part because the language, some of it spoken in Spanish, is so beautifully lyrical. But it's mainly because Zimmerman, whose mother is Argentinian, forces the audience to confront the differing ways that people respond to oppression under a totalitarian regime. And, aware that heroes tend to be rare in situations like these, he refuses to castigate the choices taken.

My friend June, a journalist who has spent most of her career covering Latin America, quietly wept at moments. And she wasn't the only one I saw wiping away tears at the performance we attended. Even the spouse of a critic who would later give the play a lukewarm review appeared moved.

In the play, Luis, a low-paid miner eager to make a better life for his beloved wife Mónica, enlists in the military and is soon assigned to crack down mercilessly on anyone who challenges the government. A local doctor Moisés tries to stay neutral but is pulled into the conflict when his wife Belén insists that it's their moral duty to treat a wounded rebel left to die in the village plaza as a warning to other residents.

Meanwhile, the town priest tries to drown his timorousness in alcohol and a three-member chorus of townspeople comment on all these tragic comings and goings. The storylines come together when Luis' unit arrests Belén and, after the civil war has ended, Luis and Mónica's child is afflicted by a mysterious plague that only Moisés has a mystical power to cure.

The all-Latinx cast, as eager as Project Sol's playwrights are to show what they can do, gives strong performances, particularly Sean Carvajal as Luis and Flor De Liz Perez as Mónica. Director Weyni Mengesha has a tougher time wrangling the fractured narrative but ultimately gets the job done.

Some critics have complained that because Zimmerman sets the action in an unnamed country, the play lacks specificity. But, of course, that's precisely the point Zimmerman is making. These situations, and their hard choices and harsh consequences, have happened in many countries, both inside and outside Latin America. Seven Spots on the Sun is a reminder that they could even happen here.

May 13, 2017

Tony Talk Podcast-Episode 7: The Other Awards

The theater awards season is like a presidential campaign. Everyone has their eyes on the ultimate prize but there are lots of other contests along the way that offer trophies and with them, the chance to improve a show or a performer's odds of ending on top. This week both the Outer Critics Circle, which honors both Broadway and off-Broadway productions; and the Lucille Lortel Awards, which celebrate only off-Broadway, announced their selections for the best of the 2016-2017 theater season. Both chose Oslo for Best Play, just as the New York Drama Critics' Circle did earlier.

That would seem to clinch it for Oslo, J.T. Rogers surprisingly entertaining look at the backstory behind the Oslo Peace Accord. Lending validity to that conclusion is the fact that OCC and Tony voters have disagreed on the Best Play only once in the past 15 years when the OCC went with One Man, Two Guvnors in 2012, and the Tonys chose Clybourne Park.

Even so, the competition this year remains fierce. All the contenders are by first-time playwrights with compelling backstories of their own. And each has devoted partisans.

A Doll's House Part 2 earned raves from nearly all the major critics and features an all-star (and all-Tony-nominated) four-person cast headed by Laurie Metcalf, who's the frontrunner in the race for Best Actress in a Play.

Indecent by the deservedly beloved Paula Vogel is not only imaginatively directed by Rebecca Taichman but deals with subjects—the suppression of art, the love between two women, the plight of immigrants—that strike a particularly resonant chord with the people who vote for the Tonys.

And equally relevant is Sweat, Lynn Nottage's moving meditation on the effect that the deindustrialization of America is having on the people who once worked in the nation's mills and factories and the winner of this year's Pulitzer for Best Drama. 

The stakes go beyond bragging rights.  With the exception of Oslo, none of the other three is doing well at the box office. A Tony would give its winner a chance for a longer run and to recoup its investment.  

In this week's episode, my theatergoing buddy Bill and I speculate about what effect the wins thus far may have on the big one on June 11. Click the orange button below to hear what we have to say or check out all the Tony Talk podcasts on our show page by clicking here.