July 29, 2017

"The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin" Didn't Get Time to Show Off Its Star

It may seem silly to talk about The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin because it was scheduled for just two performances this past week, half the usual five or six-show run for productions in the Encores! Off-Center series. But I'm going to talk about it anyway because the show deserved more time, if only for Nikki M. James' scintillating performance in the title role.

The Off-Center series specializes in musicals that had short runs off-Broadway. Bubbly Black Girl, a semi-biographical show that debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2000, was completely written (book, lyrics and music) by Kirsten Childs, one of the few black women to have any success as a creator of musicals (click here to read an interview with her).

Her show tells the story of a middle-class black girl who grew up in Los Angeles sheltered from the heat of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and dreaming about a career on Broadway. But she's still traumatized enough by events like the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls her age that she fantasizes about becoming white and safe.  

In the second act, our heroine, whom everyone calls Bubbly, moves to New York intent on becoming a Broadway dancer, as Childs herself once was. Through it all, she struggles to deflect any hostilities (be it a belligerent cop or a casting director who wants her to act more black) by smiling and being agreeable. Until one day she can't keep up the pretense any longer.

The show's score is a pleasing pastiche of show tunes and soul jams that aptly capture the African-American experience during the latter half of the 20th century, from an amusing paean to the blonde talking doll Chatty Cathy to a silky seduction number "Come With Me" that Motown's Marvin Gaye might have recorded during his sexual-healing phase.

But the book is a patchy collection of vignettes that director Robert O'Hara couldn't find a way to knit into a satisfying whole. The ending seemed to come out of nowhere. And like apparently just about everyone else in the opening-night audience, I didn't know how to react when the bouncy number about the white doll ended with photos of the actual little girls killed in Birmingham.

I'd blame that clunkiness on the short week or so of rehearsals that Encores! shows typically get, but O'Hara had similar problems when he staged Childs' even more whimsical musical Bella: An American Tall Tale, which had a month-long run at Playwrights Horizons in the spring (click here to read about it).

And yet so many of Bubbly Black Girl's individual parts were so enjoyable in themselves that I almost didn't mind the herky-jerky nature of the overall show. Plus, I got a kick out of its loving send-up of Bob Fosse, with whom Childs worked.

The production, which included completely different costumes for Acts I and II and a simple but witty set, seemed particularly polished for a two-night venture, which I suppose might suggest a future for the show. Which would be great because as I've already said more people should get to see James' performance.

The Tony she won for The Book of Mormon already attests to James' talents but her singing, dancing and comedic chops are even more ingratiating here, making Bubbly someone you truly root for. The character's idol is Gwen Verdon and I think James would be terrific in some of Verdon's iconic roles, particularly the title character in Sweet Charity.

Bubbly Black Girl brought out more black folks than I usually see at Encores! performances, including what looked to be a group of some older church ladies who surrounded my sister Joanne and me and laughed as heartily as the rest of us at the show's raunchiest lines.

It's really a shame that the show closed before they could get to church on Sunday and urge other members of their congregation to check it out.

July 26, 2017

Drifting into Summer Vacation Mode

It's that time of year again: temperatures have heated up, show openings have cooled down and I've succumbed to summer sloth. So while I'll continue to see a few shows and to share my thoughts about them with you, these posts will be less frequent than usual until the season picks back up in the fall. In the meantime, I'll continue to add interesting theater-related articles I come across to the B&Me magazine on the Flipboard site, which I hope you'll check out by clicking here.

July 22, 2017

"Ghost Light" is a Love Letter to Theater

Although he's usually game for just about anything, my theatergoing buddy Bill declined when I suggested that we see Ghost Light, the immersive theatrical experience that the experimental theater company Third Rail Projects is presenting at LCT3's Claire Tow theater through Aug. 6. I suspect that may be because Bill was once an actor and later a stage manager and felt he didn't need the behind-the-scenes, in-the-wings view of the theater that Ghost Light promises. But the idea of it delighted me.

Ghost Light takes its audience members on a literal journey through theater history and through the Claire Tow, the tiny theater that sits atop the Vivian Beaumont. Over two intermissionless hours, scenes play out in its dressing rooms, its costume shop, hallways, stairwells, the flies overlooking the stage and even the lobby bar area.

Audience members are lead in small groups through the theater as performers enact scenes from Shakespeare, melodramas, musicals, an absurdist farce and other genres of theater.

Sixteen actors race from place to place. A scene in one room takes on new meaning when the same actors appear in another. The split-second timing of the choreography, directed by Zach Morris and Jennine Willett, who also conceived the show, is astonishingly impressive.

Regular B&Me readers know that the ghost light is the light bulb on a pole that theaters place on the stage when they're temporarily empty. The light is supposed to make sure no one trips over anything in the dark. But, according to theater lore, it also signals the ghosts of the theater that they are free to roam.

As Ghost Light would have it, all kinds of spirits from theater's past are haunting the Claire Tow, desperate to have one more moment in the spotlight. And yet while I enjoyed their individual glimpses into how shows get put together it's hard to connect those scenes into a satisfying narrative.

If you're going, you might want to pick one or two characters and pay extra special attention when they appear so that you can piece together their stories. But even that could be tricky since a few of the actors seem to play multiple roles. 

I'll admit I was also disappointed that the one black actor in the company seemed to have one of the smallest parts. But then it later occurred to me that she may have appeared in scenes that my group didn't get to see.

Audience participation has been built into the performances. I usually try to avoid shows like that or at least to avoid participating but Ghost Light's actors are so charming about it that I didn't mind doing the few things I was asked to do (hold a prop, move some scenery) at all.

What I did mind was the hammy guy in my group who tried to compete with the cast members. His girlfriend laughed uproariously at his antics. I thought he was just a pain in the ass and was delighted when, as occasionally happens, our group was split in two and they went one way and I another.

We all came together in the end for a finale that stretched on a bit too long. But despite the above carps, I still left the theater with a smile on my face. What can I tell you.  It's impossible for someone like me to resist this kind of theatrical magic.

July 19, 2017

"Pipeline" is Unsure of Where It Wants to Go

Dominique Morisseau's reputation as both a lyrical and thoughtful playwright has been growing for a few years now. Detroit '67, the first in a three-play cycle she wrote about her hometown, won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama in 2014. And the third, Skeleton Crew, created such a sensation when it played at Atlantic Theater Company in January 2016, that it was brought back for an additional run six months later, which is when I saw it and loved it so much that it made my list of last year's Top 10 shows.

But this is shaping up to be Morisseau's true breakthrough season. Signature Theater has named her one of its resident playwrights and will present her play Paradise Blue next spring. And last week, Lincoln Center Theater opened her Pipeline at its Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. I'm happy to see such a gifted writer getting such mainstream exposure, but I also wish Pipeline had shown her work off to greater effect.

The play is a rumination on what it means to raise a black son when even the slightest wrong decision could result in his being killed by police or sent away to prison. Nya, the mom in Morisseau's drama, is a public school teacher who has tried to safeguard her own son Omari by sending him to a prestigious prep school. But as the play opens, she gets the news that he's about to be expelled—and possibly worse—for assaulting one of his teachers.

Did Omari snap because, as he claims, he was baited by the teacher? Or is he acting out because his parents are divorcing and he feels neglected by his dad, an affluent exec whose chief contact with the teen has been through the checks he sends each month?  Or is he simply a victim of the conventional image of black boys described in the 1960 Gwendolyn Brooks poem "We Real Cool," which is dramatically rendered in the play? (Click here to read the poem).

Morisseau attempts to answer these questions and some others as well but she bites off more than she can comfortably chew in 90 minutes. She also overwrites some of the arias she's created for Nya, Omari, his girlfriend Jasmine and even for Laurie, a white colleague of Nya's in a public high school where even teachers run the risk of becoming victims of violence.

But the main fault in this production is less with the text than with the direction. Morisseau's work cries out for the kind of vibrant naturalism that Ruben Santiago-Hudson gave Skeleton Crew. But Pipeline has been staged by Lileana Blain-Cruz who tends to favor a more stripped down expressionism.

Here, she and set designer Matt Saunders have created a big white wall that could be found at either institutional end of the school-to-prison pipeline from which the play takes its title but, under Yi Zhao's intentionally harsh lighting, it dwarfs the stage.

Similarly the intense video projections by Hannah Wasileski double down so hard on images of the volatile atmosphere in public high schools that they took me out of the play.

Directors of new plays also have a responsibility to help the playwright weed out their play's undergrowth but Pipeline is seriously under-pruned. And the casting is also a bit off.

The always-dynamic Karen Pittman is strong and sympathetic as Nya, who is overwhelmed by her efforts to protect her son. But although Namir Smallwood gives an equally committed performance as Omari, the actor is in his mid-30s and I just didn't buy him as a high-school aged teen.

Heather Velazquez and Tasha Lawrence provide high energy (and some humor) as Jasmine and Laurie but their performances have been amped up so high that they verge on caricature. Meanwhile, the issues their characters represent (the challenges of being a minority kid at a predominantly white school; the demands of being a caring teacher at an understaffed inner-city school) detract from Pipeline's main plot. These subjects deserve their own plays.

But those lapses are somewhat emblematic of this play. Despite a literal list of recommendations that one character reads at the end, it was never clear to me what Morisseau wants to say about the way society is treating young black men, other than that it should do a better job. 

I thought we already know that but lots of reviews suggest that the play is providing a wake-up service (click here to read some of the praise) and it's hard to argue with that so I'll just end here.

July 15, 2017

Taking Time Out to Celebrate My Mom

Today would have been my mother's 100th birthday so although she left us 14 years ago, I'm going to take time out from the usual postings to wish her a Happy Birthday and to give her a standing O for being a great mother, a theater lover and the person who encouraged me to be even more of one.  Cheers, Mummy:

July 12, 2017

"1984" Isn't as Scary as It Should Be

The producers of 1984 are marketing their show as though it were a horror movie. They've put out a warning that children under 13 will not be admitted (click here to read about that). And they trumpet all the articles about how people have fainted or vomited while watching some of its more gruesome scenes (click here to read more about that).

And indeed, the British directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, who also collaborated on this adaptation of George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, have incorporated lots of horror-house thrills: an ominous soundscape, glaring lights that suddenly snap on and off, screens that add to the sense of paranoia. Plus, there's plenty of bloody gore.

I just wish they'd also focused as much attention on the storytelling.

Most of us read "1984" at sometime in school and know that it's about a low-level bureaucrat named Winston Smith who lives under a totalitarian regime that continually rewrites history, constantly monitors its citizens through TV screens and severely punishes anyone who tries to have an independent thought. Winston becomes one of those rebels when he falls in love with a woman named Julia and enlists in a resistance movement that seeks to bring down the government.

Even folks who skipped their ninth grade reading assignment know the book's lexicon of Big Brother, newspeak and thought police. And the election of Donald Trump with its similar-sounding references to fake news and alternative facts has made the nearly 70-year-old novel a bestseller all over again.

Prescient, Icke and Macmillan first staged their play in London back in 2013 (click here to read about the genesis of the show). But apparently unhappy with Orwell's bleak ending, they bookend their version with scenes set in a future time in which the regime has been overthrown and people are looking back at the bad old days. Such optimism may be welcomed but it also undercuts much of the novel's true horror (and yes, I know Orwell included a similar coda but at least he left it for his appendix).

The use of screens and video projections, particularly in the scenes in which Winston and Julia find a hideaway where they believe they can be and say whatever they want, is also distancing. And so despite the production's stylish stagecraft, I ended up feeling too little for the plight of its protagonists—or for the possibility that we could become them.

Still, the acting is compelling, at least it is in the intense interrogation scenes that take up nearly a third of the show's 101-minute running time, that odd number of minutes being perhaps a too cutesy allusion to the book's dreaded torture chamber, Room 101.

The show, which is running at the newly—and beautifully—restored Hudson Theatre through Oct. 8, also has an odd playing schedule with 5 p.m. matinees and 9 p.m. evening performances and I have no idea how the young British actor Tom Sturridge is able to put himself through Winston's harrowing torture scenes twice in such a short span of time.

Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde, making her Broadway debut, is appropriately enigmatic as Julia. And Reed Birney is his usual excellent self as O'Brien, a higher-level party member who, at various times and in various ways, offers to help Winston.

But neither the weak storytelling nor the strong acting seemed to matter to some members of the audience the night I saw the show. More people than usual brought in drinks and checked phones during the performance, their screens flickering like fireflies in the dark. A few hooted in laughter during the torture scenes. But I suppose that's the kind of behavior you can expect when people equate a live drama with a horror flick.

July 8, 2017

Pondering the Metaphysics of Life in "Marvin's Room and "Cost of Living"

What's the purpose of life?  I know that's a ridiculously big question but it's been on my mind because two shows I've recently seen take direct aim at that metaphysical enigma. And both come up with the same answer: to take care of someone outside ourselves and to allow someone to get close enough to take care of us.

Although the answer was the same, the question rang differently when Scott McPherson posed it back in 1991 when his play Marvin's Room debuted at Playwrights Horizons and quickly extended for a commercial run at the Minetta Lane Theatre that ended two months before McPherson died from AIDS complications at the age of just 33.

None of the characters in Marvin's Room have AIDS but several are staring mortality straight in the face. The titular, but unseen, Marvin had a stroke that's left him unable to do much of anything except moan. His sister Ruth wages a losing battle against chronic pain caused by collapsed vertebrae and memory loss caused by the electrodes doctors have inserted in her brain to help ease that discomfort.

Marvin's daughter Bessie has spent 20 years caring for her father and aunt but as the play opens, she discovers she has leukemia and is forced to summon her estranged sister Lee, who arrives at the family's modest Florida home with two troubled sons and no idea of how to care for anyone.

The play won both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards and The New York Times drama critic Frank Rich hailed it as "one of the funniest plays of this year as well as one of the wisest and most moving." A 1996 film version starred  Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep as the sisters.

Alas, the Roundabout Theatre Company's lugubrious revival, now playing at the American Airlines Theatre through Aug. 27, doesn't live up to that pedigree. Most of the blame for that has to fall on director Anne Kauffman, who in her first Broadway venture has failed to establish the right tone for the show or to help guide her cast through its admittedly tricky passages.

Janeane Garofalo, also making her Broadway debut, is totally flat as the self-centered Lee and seems at moments just happy to have remembered her lines. Lili Taylor is more sympathetic as the put-upon Bessie but displays little of the character's struggle to make herself believe that her life has had value because, as she tells Lee, "I am so lucky to have loved so much." (Click here to read an interview with both actresses).

Only Celia Weston as dotty Aunt Ruth captures the bracing tonic of melancholy and willful optimism that McPherson created. Without that mix, Marvin's Room is kind of empty.

Cost of Living, the new play by Martyna Majok at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I, reinvigorates McPherson's formula with contemporary compassion and wit. It links two stories about disabled people and their caretakers.

In the first, a wealthy Princeton grad student with cerebral palsy hires a down-on-her-luck woman to help him with basic tasks that include shaving and showering him each morning. His needs are obvious and he has to make himself physically naked in order to get them met (yep; there is nudity). Her needs are less apparent but they're all the more poignant when revealed.

Meanwhile in another New Jersey town, a thirtysomething woman has been in a car accident that has left her a quadriplegic and in need of full-time help. Her ex-husband, an out-of-work truck driver, volunteers for the job but it's unclear whether he's doing it out of guilt, love or some unspoken need of his own.

Gregg Mozgala, who plays the grad student, and Katy Sullivan, who plays the quadriplegic woman, are themselves disabled, although less severely than their characters. They're also terrific in these roles. Not just terrific for disabled actors but terrific period, creating characters who refuse to settle for cheap sympathy and who aren't afraid to be a pain in the ass.

Jolly Abraham and Victor Williams are equally good as the caretakers. Majok and director Jo Bonney are to be congratulated for casting actors of color in these roles, particularly because little mention of race is made. 

Williams emerges as the emotional linchpin of the play and it's wonderful to see a black actor get the chance to show a tenderness that men of color rarely get to exhibit onstage.

Still, the highest praise must go to Majok, who respects the full range of the humanity—the good, the bad, the prickly—in all four of her subjects (click here to read an interview with her).

The final scene ties things up too neatly for me but under Bonney's astute direction, Cost of Living, which runs only through next weekend, makes you look past corporeal concerns and into the soul-defining needs we all share.

July 5, 2017

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2017

Happy Fifth of July. The Independence Day fireworks may be over but we've still got nine more weeks of summer to celebrate until Labor Day. For me that means time to sit on our terrace reading (usually books about theater) and sipping cold drinks (my husband K is experimenting with Pisco Sours this year). And as has become a tradition, I'm hoping to share some of these pleasures with you by offering a list of theater-related books for you to read too. It's an eclectic mix and I think you'll find something to enjoy no matter your literary preference. So happy reading and happy summer:

Act Like It by Lucy Parker  What's a summer reading list without a good beach book? There's admittedly not much tension in this romance novel about two gorgeous-looking West End actors who get together as a publicity stunt and then fall in love. And the behind-the-scenes theater stuff falls off in the second half of the book. But Parker is an amiable writer and her rom-com goes down as easy as an icy drink on a sultry day.

Balancing Acts: Behind The Scenes at The National Theatre by Nicholas Hytner  I've had a crush on Hytner since I interviewed him back in the '90s and found him to be one of the smartest and most elegant people I'd ever met. Hytner's new memoir about his tenure as artistic director of London's National Theatre is just as smart and elegant. That turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. There's no juicy backstage gossip about the theatrical luminaries (Simon Russell Beale, Judi Dench, Adrian Lester and others) Hytner has worked with over the years but he talks in great detail about the productions he directed and produced during his 12-year tenure as the head of the National and since that includes shows such as War Horse and The History Boys plus the creation of NTLive, all is forgiven. 

The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway, edited by Steven Suskin and Dave Malloy  Every theater season seems to produce at least one terrific book about the making of a Broadway show that rises above the run-of-the-mill souvenir book and this year, it's the chronicle of how Dave Malloy and his collaborators transformed 70 pages in the middle of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" into the hip musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. The book is actually a mosaic of essays by people involved in the production so some of the stories are repeated but the overall effect is like being at a party with a bunch of really cool people. Plus there are lots of great photos and illustrations too.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood  This retelling of The Tempest is the first book I read in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that commissions leading authors to write novels that reimagine the Bard's plays in modern-day settings. And I couldn't have picked a better start. Attwood's book in which a disgraced theater director stages a prison production of Shakespeare's revenge tale about an exiled sorcerer and his daughter is part witty satire of the theater world, part brilliant analysis of Shakespeare's final play, part celebration of the power of theater and a complete delight.

The Men in My Life by Patricia Bosworth Although she is now best known as the author of biographies about Montgomery Clift, Diane Arbus and Jane Fonda, Bosworth began her professional life as an actress and this memoir chronicles her early days in the business. The title refers to her father (a lawyer for the Hollywood Ten who were blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s,) the brother who was her soul mate and the various lovers in her life. But the best parts of the book for us theater lovers are the anecdote-rich middle chapters that focus on her time as a fledgling member at the Actors Studio in the 1950s when it was the mecca for New York stage actors.

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose  A collection of linked stories by one of the country's most celebrated fiction writers, this novel centers around various people connected to the hapless performance of a children's theater production. They range from a Yale Drama School-trained actress who yearns for a more distinguished career to a super fan who so loves theater that he has seen even this inept show dozens of times. All 12 vignettes are both funny and touching.

The New Boy by Tracy Chevalier  The most recent addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels that update the Bard's plays sets Othello in a Washington, D.C. grade school in the 1970s. In this version, the Moor becomes Osei, the 11-year-old son of a Ghanaian diplomat who has transferred into an all-white suburban school. His Iago is the class bully and his Desdemona a girl with blonde pigtails who is beguiled by the exoticism of the dark-skinned boy. The plot unfolds in just one day and although it's a little unbelievable that sixth graders would develop such passionate feelings in that short a time, Chevalier, the author of such acclaimed historical novels as "Girl with a Pearl Earring," is a fine writer and clearly a lover of this tale.

Up in the Cheap Seats by Ron Fassler  It's hard not to envy Fassler, who, as a precocious 11 year-old, used the money he earned as a paperboy to buy cheap tickets to Broadway shows every weekend and kept it up for four years until his hormones took over and he began to spend his money on girls. Fassler's list of the 200 shows he saw (including the original productions of Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, The Great White Hope, Follies and 1776) and the contemporaneous critiques he wrote about them are the basis of this enchanting memoir that also includes recent interviews with some of the theater makers whose shows he saw back in the day.

And if you're looking for still more to read, below are the links to the suggestions from the previous 10 years that I've been writing B&Me and celebrating summer with all of you:

July 1, 2017

"Napoli, Brooklyn" is All Over the Map

The woman sitting next to me at the Roundabout Company's Laura Pels Theatre was the perfect audience for Napoli, Brooklynthe new family drama that opened there this week. She guffawed at its one-liners. She wiped away tears when members of the play's midcentury Italian-American family failed to connect with one another. And she sat up in her chair, shaped her hands into a megaphone and bellowed "Bravo" as the actors walked out for the curtain call. I think the only thing that disappointed her about the show was my response to it, which was far more tepid than hers.

Napoli, Brooklyn centers on the Muscolino family, which includes Luda and Nic, immigrants who still lapse into Italian when they're excited or otherwise emotional, and their three American-born daughters who all live together in a cramped apartment in Park Slope, long before it got gentrified.

Luda, played with commanding presence by Alyssa Bresnahan, attends daily mass, conducts chiding conversations with God and cooks endless dishes of pasta. Her husband Nic is prone to violent outbursts. And the family is so strapped for cash that the three girls, the youngest of them 16, have to share a bed. When the play opens, however, the middle daughter Vita has been exiled to a convent following a disastrous altercation with Nic.

That would seem to be enough for playwright Meghan Kennedy to work with. But Kennedy heaps on a whole bunch of other stuff: the Irish butcher carries a torch for Luda; the youngest daughter Cesca is a lesbian who is scheming to run away with the girl she loves; older sister Tina strikes up a friendship with a black co-worker and a tragedy, based on a real-life event, shakes the entire neighborhood.

It's too much. And I didn't believe any of it, except for that real-life event, which director Gordon Edelstein stages to impressive effect at the end of the first act.

I get that Kennedy, who says the play was inspired by her mother's life, is trying to look at the myriad ways in which the lives of women, particularly working-class women, were circumscribed in 1960, the year in which the play takes place. But her determination to touch on every obstacle they might have faced leaves her little room to dig deep into any of them.

What's left are stereotypes and platitudes. Like so many young playwrights Kennedy tries to cover up the patchy parts of her play with a couple of explain-it-all speeches at the end. For me, it was too little and too late.

And yet, as my seat mate demonstrated, there's clearly an audience for this play. During intermission, I overheard people reminiscing about the historical event and comparing the characters, particularly Luda, to women in their own families. Maybe it helps to be Italian.