December 30, 2017

Some of My Favorite Theater Things in 2017

As usual, I'm late to the party of 10 Bests Lists. All the others began going up the moment Christmas trees started sprouting on New York City street corners. But my tardiness matters even less this year because I've decided not to do a 10 Bests list. Instead, I'm celebrating the theatrical experiences that gave me the most pleasure in 2017. I didn't set a limit. I just wrote down all the things that left a smile on my face and they added up to 15. So I'm going with that and here, in no order at all, are 15 of my favorite theater things in 2017:

Seeing Jitney on Broadway: This was the last of the late great August Wilson's 10-play survey of African-American life in the 20th century to make it to Broadway, which is strange because its story, set during the '70s in the office of a gypsy cab company, may be Wilson's most accessible and it was great to see it getting the production it deserved with every single cast member rocking it hard.

Significant Other: Joshua Harmon's play about a guy watching all his best friends couple up and drift away while he's left still longing for a love of his own didn't work for a lot of people and its Broadway run closed after just 61 performances but it moved me, reminded me of my own days in the wilderness of loneliness and made me even more grateful than I already was that I found my beloved husband K.

A newfound appreciation for one-person shows: For years I've harbored a knee-jerk aversion to solo shows but the virtuoso performances of Marin Ireland in Roundabout Underground's production of On the Exhale and Billy Crudup in the Vineyard Theatre's Harry Clarke reminded me that it's not the format that counts but the artistry of an actor at the top of his or her game.

Danny DeVito in The Price: I'm not sure what I was expecting but Danny DeVito's Broadway debut as the wily antique dealer in Arthur Miller's spin on the Cain and Abel story was not only totally assured but scene-stealingly hysterical.

The stunning set for The Hairy Ape: Designer Stewart Laing created a cascade of deceptively bright yellow chairs inside the 55,000-square-foot drill hall at the Park Avenue Armory and then built a massive turntable around them so that the scenes for this timely revival of Eugene O'Neill's jeremiad about class division engulfed us viewers and left me gobsmacked.

The delicious silliness of The Play That Goes Wrong: Comedy is often a tough sell for me but the unabashed loopiness of this farce about an amateur theater group takes slapstick to dizzying heights and totally tickled my funny bone.

The pies at the Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd: This version of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler masterpiece originated in an actual London pie shop that has been recreated at the Barrow Street Theatre and features a pre-show dinner with pot pies made by the former executive pastry chef for the Obama White House that were almost as lip-smackingly delicious as your favorite Sondheim lyric.

The Profane: It was great to see a play about Muslims that didn't revolve around the subject of terrorism but I also loved the fact that Zayd Dohrn's dramedy about the daughter of a secular Muslim family who wants to marry the son of devout parents continued Playwrights Horizons' commitment to exploring America's new immigrant experience that began in 2016 with Julia Cho's Aubergine and Danai Gurira's Familiar.

Indecent: I was happy to see the great Paula Vogel finally get her Broadway debut with this form-shattering play about the power of art, delighted that Rebecca Taichman won the Tony for Best Director of a Play for her inventive staging of it and grateful that lead producer Daryl Roth not only kept the show running for four months even when it failed to hit at the box office but had it filmed so that theater lovers across the country could have the chance to see it on public television.

The Boy Who Danced on Air: The contemporary romance between an older Afghan man and the young boy he literally buys is an unlikely and uncomfortable subject for a musical but sensitive staging, artful choreography and fine acting made the Abingdon Theatre Company's production of Tim Rosser and Charlie Sohne's show one that lingered in my mind for weeks.

The Cost of Living: Two disabled characters played central roles in this Manhattan Theatre Club production but playwright Martyna Majok's refusal to define them solely in terms of their physical limitations and the unsentimental performances of her actors made for a powerful meditation on the need we all have to love and be loved.

Ghost Light: Combining ghost stories about the theater with a terrific backstage tour, this immersive production by Third Rail Projects used every part of the Claire Tow Theater atop Lincoln Center, from the dressing rooms and stairways to the lobby and its main stage, and provided me with a glimpse behind-the-scenes that makes me grin very time I even walk by the theater.

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train: Both Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi were last minute replacements when actors with bigger names dropped out of this revival of Stephen Adley Guirgis' 2000 play about inmates in a prison grappling with the life-and-death issues of sin and redemption but their performances were sensational and I'm hoping to see these two talented actors in many more shows.

Jake Gyllenhaal's "Finishing the Hat" video: The Hollywood star was winning when I saw his portrayal of the 19th century artist Georges Seurat in the revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George at City Center's Encores! series, but I was even more knocked out by the video in which Gyllenhaal moves around backstage at Broadway's newly restored Hudson Theatre singing the show's signature number, which you can see by clicking here

Theater Podcasts: When I'm not seeing theater, I'm often listening to shows about it. Among my favorites this year have been "The Ensemblist," interviews with the actors who make up Broadway's ensembles; "Broadway Backstory," oral histories of recent hit musicals from In the Heights to Come From Away and "Maxamoo," reviews of off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows by a revolving panel of theater insiders and avid fans.  Plus, I can't resist a shout-out to "Today on Broadway," the daily news show hosted by my pals James Marino and Matt Tamanini and giving a small log-rolling plug for my own podcast, "Stagecraft," which has given me the chance to talk with some terrific playwrights and book writers for musicals and which you can find by clicking here.

Now, here's hoping that 2018 brings us all theater memories as good as these are for me.  In the meantime, Happy New Year!  

December 23, 2017

Wishing You a Very Merry Christmas...

...a belated Happy Chanukah, a tardy Good Winter Solstice, a slightly premature Joyous Kwaanza and the all-pervasive hope that however you celebrate it, your holiday season will sparkle with the many joys that come at this time of year—plus the continuing cheer of good theater.

December 16, 2017

Turning on the Ghost Light, Again

It's been a month since I've turned on the ghost light that theaters use when they're empty and that I use to signal that there will be no regular post today. And I'm not happy about doing it cause I've been going to the theater almost non-stop since then and so there's plenty to talk about. But that's part of the problem. Between running to the theater,  finishing up the school semester, preparing my Stagecraft podcast interviews with playwrights and book writers of some recent shows (you can find them by clicking here) and realizing that Christmas is (gulp!) just nine days away, I haven't been able to find the time to write a decent post for today. However, I will be talking about some of the shows I've seen when I join my pals at This Week on Broadway this Sunday. I hope you'll join us and I hope you'll return here once I've gotten my act back together.

December 9, 2017

How I Got Stranded by "Once on This Island"

It's no fun being a party-pooper. But that's the role I find myself in when it comes to the revival of Once on This Island, the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flahaerty musical that opened this week at Circle in the Square to rave reviews.

Based on a 1985 novel by the Trinidadian-American writer Rosa Guy (you pronounce her last name like the word key), it's a fable set on a Haiti-like island that is uneasily shared by a small set of mulatto grand hommes, a larger group of dark-skinned peasants and the gods who play with all their fates.

The show's Romeo-and-Juliet plot derives from the romance that develops when the aristocratic Daniel has an accident and is rescued and nursed back to health by the peasant girl Ti Moune, who falls in love with him so deeply at first glance that she offers the god of death her soul in exchange for sparring Daniel's life.

It was a dubious premise back in 1990 when the show debuted at Playwrights Horizons and quickly moved to Broadway. But its Calypso-inflected score and a lovely performance by LaChanze won it a run of 469 performances and eight Tony nominations.

Today, nearly 30 years later, the idea of a poor dark-skinned woman sacrificing herself so that a wealthy light-skinned guy can live annoyed me so much that I sat there during the  entire 90-minute running time asking myself the words of a famous lyric from the show "why do we tell this story"?

Yeah, I get that it's supposed to be a testament to the unconditional love that we all want.  But how come the guy doesn't have to give up anything? Some people are calling this show an example of female empowerment but the idea of a woman dying for a man is empowering primarily to men. And yeah, I know it's just a story but is this really the message that we want to tell girls?

And things only got worse for me when the production indulged itself in another of my bugaboos: the rousing gospel aria delivered by a large black woman. As usual, the number brought down the house. But I sat there with my head in my hands, wondering "Why this again?"

I suppose the creative team thought it was breaking the stereotype by having a large black gender-fluid performer (Alex Newell of "Glee" fame) sing the song.  But wouldn't it be more radical to have a thin black woman (cis or trans) do it? Or even more radical still if a large black woman (cis or trans) were allowed to do something else?

I can't complain about the performances, which were all very good, lead by the newcomers Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune and Isaac Powell as Daniel and anchored by the stage vets Phillip Boykin and Kenita R. Miller as Ti Moune's adopted parents. 

Tony-winner Lea Salonga gets special billing (and the prettiest costumes) for playing the god of love and she sings her solo sweetly but still comes across as the least memorable of the play's four deities (although to be fair it's hard to compete with Quentin Earl Darrington's commanding physique).

Meanwhile, director Michael Arden has worked hard to add contemporary flourishes to the new production. As he notes in the Playbill, he's drawn a sharp parallel between the climate disasters of recent years and the storms in the play. 

Much of the action takes place on a sand-filled environmental set that seems barely recovered from a previous calamity, with clothes strung out to dry around the theater and livestock (including a real goat) being rounded up.

Arden has also cast two of the gods against gender (Merle Dandridge plays the god of death) and paid tribute to the narrative traditions of the islands by nearly doubling the original cast with an ensemble of storytellers. 

It's also nice to see the young African-American choreographer Camille A. Brown getting a chance to show off what she can do on Broadway (click here to read an interview with her).

And lots of people seemed to be enchanted by all of it, including my sister and the two men in the first row who waved white handkerchiefs high in the air to signal their surrender to the show's charms. 

I wish Once on This Island had charmed me too. But although I'm a theater lover, I'm thinking that something like Wonder Woman's home island of Themyscira might be more my idea of a paradise for those of us seeking powerful female role models.

December 2, 2017

"School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play" Scores High Grades Across the Board

The actress Jocelyn Bioh was a total delight in such shows as An Octoroon, Men on Boats and Everybody, bringing an extra zip to every line she spoke. So I figured a play Bioh wrote might be equally delightful. And I was right. School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, whose run has just been extended to the end of the year at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is a total pleasure that tickles the funny bone, warms the heart and gives you something substantial to think about on the way home.

Inspired by both the Tina Fey film (itself soon to be a Broadway musical) and her mother's experience as a student at a boarding school in Ghana (click here to read an interview with the playwright) Bioh's play centers on a group of girls at an exclusive school in 1986 who are vying to be contestants in a national beauty pageant that offers a chance—albeit slim—at the even bigger prize of becoming Miss Universe.

It seems a foregone conclusion that Paulina, a haughty beauty and the school's bullying queen bee, will be the winner until a newcomer named Ericka comes onto the scene. The daughter of a wealthy local industrialist, Ericka arrives with the cachet of having grown up with a white American mother in the U.S., the kind of singing voice that will triumph in the talent portion of the competition and, most importantly, the light skin, long wavy hair and other physical features that fit the more western standards of beauty that the contest organizers seem to be seeking.

Paulina's refusal to go down without a fight provides both the show's humor and its heartbreak. It's a fresh spin on the high school comedy trope. And it's also refreshing to have a show set in Africa that doesn't focus solely on war, famine or other adversities that have plagued the continent.

Bioh's play joins a growing number of works by artists such as the novelists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ayobami Adebayo and the playwrights Danai Gurira (In the Continuum, Familiar) and Mfoniso Udofia (Sojourners, Her Portmanteau) who are telling new stories about contemporary African lives, both in their ancestral homelands and here in the U.S.

That doesn't mean pretending the continent's problems don't exist. The school in School Girls has barely enough money to keep running. And the girls tangle head-on with the sexism and colorism that have made skin bleaching such big business throughout Africa. The debate over how to define African beauty echoes the controversy over the choice of a biracial Miss Ghana in 2011 (click here to read about that).

Still, Bioh is at heart an optimist and her play pulsates with good humor, much of it delivered in sharp one liners. Some of the jokes might seem mean-spirited or even politically incorrect in some other hands. But Bioh's love—and respect—for her characters is palpable. Plus she knows that the best humor often masks deep pain.

She shares the success of this MCC Theater production of her play with a pitch-perfect cast, lead by a fierce Maameyaa Boafo as Paulina and Nabiyah Be as a not-so-gentle-as-she-seems Ericka. Meanwhile, stage vets Myra Lucretia Taylor and Zainab Jah are equally effective as the school's headmistress and the pageant's recruiter.

But under the sure-handed direction of Rebecca Taichman, last season's Tony winner for staging Indecent, everybody shines. People at the performance I attended got a particular kick out of Paige Gilbert and Mirirai Sithole as the Timon-and-Pumba-like sidekicks who manage to be both mousy and mouthy.

In fact, School Girl's pervasive good-heartedness was so infectious that the audience roared with laughter throughout much of its brief 75-minute running time and cheered even more at the end. You'll probably do the same.