March 31, 2018

"Escape to Margaritaville" and "Frozen" Are Aimed Directly at Their Fans' Sweet Spots

Tourists now make up 60% of the Broadway audience and seeing a Broadway show for most of those folks means seeing a big, splashy musical. And if it has a title they already know, so much the better. Critics tend to be New Yorkers and while they like musicals too, their tastes tend toward, how should I say, more serious stuff. 

Which is why despite what the critics may be saying, audiences may be pleased with Escape to Margaritaville, the jukebox musical built around the songs of Jimmy Buffett that is now playing at the Marquis Theatre; and Frozen, Disney's stage version of its megahit animated film, which is at the St. James Theatre.

To be honest, they're not the kinds of shows that hit my sweet spot either. And yet, I had a pleasant enough time at each. That's largely because both shows are competently put together and are unabashed in their desire to please.

That's particularly true of Escape to Margaritaville which extends the laid-back aesthetic that has become Buffett's trademark right out into the lobby where tequila baristas whip up margaritas ($16 for frozen, $12 for straight) that aren't bad at all.

A bar is featured onstage too. In the story that TV sitcom writers Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley have cobbled together, it's the place at Margaritaville, the eponymous down-on--its-heels Caribbean resort, where visiting tourists congregate.

They're kept soused and happy by the nice-guy bartender Brick (played with goofy charm by Eric Petersen) and his pal Tully, a good-looking-and-great-abs musician (played by the good-looking-and-great-abs Paul Alexander Nolan) who not only plays the guitar and sings but also entertains some ladies with weeklong romances.

The lives of both men are turned upside-down with the arrivals of Tammy (the always-sympathetic Lisa Howard who develops a fondness for Brick even though she's on a pre-wedding vacation before she's supposed to marry a lout back in Cincinnati) and her best friend Rachel (a somewhat bland Alison Luff as a workaholic environmentalist who's initially determined to resist Tully's charms).

Also on hand are Rema Webb as the resort's irascible owner Marley, Don Sparks as an old hippie named J.D. who's given to tall tales about past adventures and buried treasure and is sweet on Marley, plus a hard-working 20-member ensemble.

Most of the action, including a threatened volcano eruption, is dictated by titles and lyrics to Buffet's most popular songs such as ""Margaritaville," "A Pirate Looks at Forty," "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and, of course, "Volcano," all of which are listed alphabetically in the program so fans can see which of their faves made the cut (click here to read about the making of the show).

They're mainly the kind of catchy tunes that get people swaying in their seats and director Christopher Ashley, last year's Tony winner for helming Come From Away, does everything he can to keep the party mood going. But your enjoyment of the show is probably going to be determined by how big a fan you are of Buffet's music. The fiftysomething guy sitting next to me seemed to know the words to all the songs and he looked to be having a great time.

The twentysomethings sitting next to me at Frozen had a great time too. The 2013 movie was celebrated for putting sisterly love at the center of this story, which is set in a fairytale Norway and focuses on two young princesses who become estranged when the elder, Elsa, develops the power to freeze whatever she touches, including her younger sister Anna.

But the move is best known for the Oscar-winning anthem "Let It Go," written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, performed on the soundtrack by Idina Menzel and sung endlessly in living rooms across America by legions of little girls.

Disney originally tapped Alex Timbers, the director of such offbeat shows as Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher, to transfer Frozen to the stage but later changed its mind (click here to read more about that) and brought in the more mainstream British director Michael Grandage, who has produced the kind of show that a 1950s grandma would have felt comfortable taking her grandkids to see.

The book by Jennifer Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, hews close to the movie. When their parents die, as parents in children's stories almost always do, Elsa (here played by the stiff but clarion-voiced Caissie Levy) becomes queen but soon hides away in an isolated ice palace so that she won't hurt anyone.

That leaves Anna (a spunky and winning Patti Murin) to seek solace and companionship in the too-good-to-be-true Hans (John Riddle), a prince from a neighboring country but still determined to find her sister with the help of a stalwart peasant named Kristoff (who, in a nod to non-traditional casting, is played  by the African-American actor Jelani Alladin).

Once again, the familiar elements are there— the cartoonish sidekicks, Kristoff's reindeer Sven and the talking snowman Olaf, and, of course several helpings of "Let it Go"—but magic can be harder to recreate onstage than it is on screen.

Grandage and set designer Christopher Oram have come up with simple but sometimes beautiful ways to recreate the snow storms (click here to read about how their approach) but they don't inspire awe the way the movie's effects did. The new songs that the Lopezes have written fit in with the original score but none of them is a standout. And more importantly, the story's edges have been softened and sits feminist message has become muddier.

None of this, I hasten to say, stopped the young women next to me—nor the scores of little girls in the audience, some decked out in Elsa costumes—from having a good time. Like Escape to Margaritaville, Frozen is a show for people who were fans of it before they even bought their tickets. The rest of us should probably seek our entertainment elsewhere

March 24, 2018

"Admissions" Only Partially Succeeds

Race has long been—long as in ever since white settlers arrived in the New World, took territory from the natives and then imported enslaved Africans to work that land—a divisive issue in this country. Which may be why playwrights (at least white ones) avoid writing about race. So Joshua Harmon deserves credit for jumping into the thicket of it with Admissions, which has just been extended at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater through May 6. And I'm going to applaud his chutzpah even though I can't totally champion his play.

Its title is a triple word play because the main character Sherri is the liberal-minded admissions director at a New England prep school; her own son Charlie is in the process of applying to his dream college, Yale; and, before the 105-minute play ends, all kinds of uncomfortable confessions will be made.

Sherri, played with her usual fine-grained finesse by Jessica Hecht, is inordinately proud of the fact that she has tripled the enrollment of students of color at the school from 6% to 18% in the 15 years she's been on the job and she's determined to raise the number even higher. But both she and Charlie are severely shaken when Charlie doesn't get into Yale but his best friend, a mixed-race kid named Perry, does.

Perry never appears. Nor does his black dad. Instead, Harmon has Perry's white mother, who also happens to be Sherri's best friend, make the case for her son's Ivy League worthiness. 
Some critics have chastised the playwright for leaving out the black characters but I found it refreshing to see a group of white people grappling with the complications of race, privilege and how to distribute opportunity more equally, topics that the theater usually leaves to people of color to deal with. I just wish Admissions had dealt with it all better.

After setting up the situation, Harmon and his director Daniel Aukin forgo plot and just allow the characters to step up onto metaphorical soapboxes and spout their beliefs, anger and feelings about being treated unfairly (click here to read an interview with the director). Charlie actually gets to give a 15-minute diatribe that's supposed to reveal how even the most progressive whites will reach for the race card when they feel they've been dealt a bad hand.

People at the performance I attended broke into applause at the end of his monologue. But it sounded to me as though Harmon hadn't combed through all of the arguments he was trying to make (somehow both Willa Cather and Penelope Cruz get thrown into the mix) or was nervous about taking too firm a stand. So I wasn't sure what my fellow audience members were clapping for, unless it was in admiration of the actor Ben Edelman's having learned so many lines.

But what really distressed me is that this is the second show I've seen over the past month that danced up to a hot-button topic (the other was MCC's Relevance which tangoed with feminism) and then danced away just as quickly before it got burned. As my grandmother used to say, if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

March 17, 2018

Turning on the Ghost Light and Heading West...

No post this week because my husband K and I have gone off on a quick vacation to the west coast.  But the theater season is kicking into high gear and I'll be back next week.  In the meantime, I hope you'll check out the piece I did for The National Book Review on "The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America," a terrific oral history about the Tony Kushner masterpiece, whose first Broadway revival opens March 21.  And you can find my book review by clicking here.

March 10, 2018

"A Letter to Harvey Milk" is Truly Sincere

There is an unapologetic sweetness to the musical A Letter to Harvey Milk that won me over despite the many flaws of this show which opened this week in the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row.

Based on a short story by Lesléa Newman, the feminist author of "Heather Has Two Mommies," it tells the story of a retired and widowed Jewish man named Harry who befriends a much younger woman named Barbara when he takes her writing course at his local senior center. But not to fear: this isn't yet another one of those May-December love stories.

The year is 1986 and Harry is still mourning the recent death of his wife Frannie and that of his friend Harvey Milk, the real-life gay activist and politician who was assassinated eight years earlier. Barbara has her own woes: she's a lesbian whose lover has dumped her and whose family rejects both her and the Jewish traditions she's always yearned to be a part of.

Each wants to ease the sadness in the other. In the process, secrets are revealed, the Holocaust is invoked, homophobia is confronted and 16 musical numbers are performed.

That's a whole lot to cram into 90 minutes but A Letter to Harvey Milk won the prize for "Best Promising New Musical" at the New York Musical Theatre Festival back in 2012. A follow-up professional production was delayed when its lyricist Ellen M. Schwartz died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. 

Composer Laura I. Kramer eventually recruited the actress Cheryl Stern (who also plays the ghost of Frannie) to help polish the lyrics. All three women are credited, along with Jerry James, for the book, which, perhaps because of all the hands involved, has the feel of something hammered out in a sitcom writers' room, complete with some wince-inducing one-liners. (click here to read more about the show's journey).

The score is pleasant but equally generic and unmemorable, although some of the lyrics are clever enough ("shanda," the Yiddish word for shame, gets rhymed with Rwanda) to elicit approving chuckles. The overall production is economically directed by Evan Pappas, a reflection of its clearly having been put together on a stingy budget.

So why, you might ask, was I won over?  Well, the performances by Adam Heller as Harry and Julia Knitel as Barbara are sincere and well sung. Michael Bartoli is a doppelgänger for Milk, who appears in several flashbacks. And while Stern's Frannie is a bit shticky and pitchy, she also provides a dash of Borsch-Belt high-spiritedness that gives the show a little ooomph.

But I think what most appeals to me about A Letter to Harvey Milk is the fact that this show isn't trying to be anything but what it is: an earnest ode to the beliefs that loss is a part of life and that love, even under the most difficult circumstances, is what makes it worthwhile.

March 3, 2018

Yes, There Are Shows I Like: "Edward Albee's At Home At the Zoo" and "Hangmen"

A couple of weeks ago, a friend remarked that most of my recent reviews have been negative. "Haven't you liked anything you've seen," she asked.

Well, yes I have. But since starting the Stagecraft podcast for BroadwayRadio, I've expressed my interest in the shows I most admire by interviewing their playwrights, as I recently did with Martyna Majok for queens, her timely play about the plight of women who immigrate to the U.S. (you can check out that interview here) and with Hammaad Choudry for An Ordinary Muslim, a gimlet-eyed look at the struggles of a Muslim family trying to adapt to contemporary life while remaining true to their cultural values (you can listen to that interview here).

Still, I don't want to gain a reputation as the Grinch of Show-Score (you can see my review ratings here) so below is one of my highlights-and-lowlights rundowns of two other shows I've seen over the past few weeks and liked a lot:

EDWARD ALBEE'S AT HOME AT THE ZOO: Albee was the third playwright to have an entire season devoted to his work by the Signature Theatre Company back in 1993 and Signature has been a home for him ever since (so much so that I often saw him in the lobby at the company's Pershing Square home before his death in 2016). The relationship continues with this awkwardly-named new show, a double bill of The Zoo Story, Albee's first produced play; and Homelife, a prequel he wrote 45 years later. Both are two-handers. In Homelife, a discussion between an affluent couple named Peter and Ann spirals into revelations about the perilous state of their marriage that both have tried to repress. The Zoo Story opens with Peter seeking refuge on a Central Park bench when he's interrupted by a talkative and slightly menacing guy named Jerry who becomes increasingly more volatile as their encounter goes on.
Highlight: The cast, under Lila Neugebauer's pitch-perfect direction, is superb. Paul Sparks brings a finely-calibrated mix of peevishness and unpredictability to the role of Jerry. And Katie Finneran, most familiar to me as a master comedienne, shows that she is equally deft at the drama stuff with her poignant portrayal of Ann. But the MVP is Robert Sean Leonard, whose role is the least flashy but the most essential and, in Leonard's fearless performance, the most devastating.
Lowlight: I don't know what costume designer Kaye Voyce was thinking with the distracting and inappropriate outfit she designed for Finneran's Ann. It's hard to imagine that an Upper East Side housewife spends her time cooking in a slinky white jumpsuit.

HANGMENBritish playwright Martin McDonagh is famous for his gallows humor but he gets literal with it in this entertaining black comedy about a famous executioner adjusting to the end of capital punishment in Britain. I'm something of a McDonagh agnostic but even I got a big kick out of this smart production which originated at London's Royal Court Theatre and has landed at the Atlantic Theater Company with several key cast members in tow and its tongue wiggling waggishly in its cheek.
Highlight: Director Matthew Dunster treats the play like an old-school farce and it's a luxury to watch 12 actors hitting every beat just right and without any of them burdened with the indignity of having to double. But the biggest kudos have to go to the sets and costumes by Anna Fleischle that are so witty they deserve a curtain call of their own.
Lowlight: The intentionally lower-class British accents, even from the American cast members, can be difficult to understand, which caused some grumbling, particularly from those already hard of hearing, at the performance I attended.
Both shows are playing only through March 25 (although there have been rumors that Hangmen might move to Broadway) and are largely sold out but if you love theater, you should do what you can to see them.