December 28, 2019

Why "Sing Street" is Slightly Off-Key For Me

Sing Street, the new musical that opened last week at New York Theatre Workshop and which is the final big show of the fall season to open, arrived with high expectations. But that can hurt a show as much as help it. And I fear the former is the case here.

Still, the advanced hoopla is totally understandable. Like the multiple Tony-winning and crowd-pleasing Once, which also got its off-Broadway start at NYTW, Sing Street is based on a small indie film about musicians in Dublin. Both films were written and directed by John Carney and adapted for the stage by Enda Walsh, whose book won one of the eight Tonys for Once. And both are filled with engaging music that provides the soundscape for an adorable love story.

Neither Once's stage director John Tiffany nor its choreographer Steven Hoggett are associated with the new show but it has been staged by Rebecca Taichman, who rightly won a Tony two years ago for her inspired direction of Indecent; and the choreographer Sonya Tayeh, who made her name on the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance” and created the movement for the hit Broadway version of Moulin Rouge!

So it’s hard to blame the prognosticators who predicted that lightning might strike twice (click here to read one of them). Still there are differences this time around. The biggest being that Once had a single focus (will the lead characters, known only as Guy and Girl, realize the love that is obviously growing between them and live happily ever after?) while the romance in Sing Street has to fight for space with a slew of competing storylines.

Sing Street’s romance is between Conor, a precocious but sweet teen, and Raphina, the slightly older girl and would-be model who becomes the object of his affection. To win her favor, he forms a band and creates homemade music videos in which she can star. Conor is winningly played by Brenock O’Connor, a 19-year-old British actor who possess the irresistible charisma of a rock star. It’s hard to take your eyes off him.

And yet the plot keeps pulling you away. For the musical also deals with the fractured marriage of Conor’s parents, the agoraphobia of his older brother, the bullying behavior of the priest who runs the new school Conor has to attend, the possible sexual abuse of Raphina, the questioning sexual identities of several of the band’s members and Ireland’s economic depression in the 1980s.

I haven’t seen the film but I’m guessing it touches on all of those subjects but that may be easier to do in a film than onstage. The publicity material says that it was Taichman’s idea to bring the film to the stage (click here to read more about that) but she hasn’t quite figured out how to make the transition.

There’s a herky-jerky quality to the narrative as the show flits from one plot to the next and the characters, particularly Conor’s bandmates, are thiner than communion wafers. Even the scenery by the usually imaginative Bob Crowley is insubstantial. Its main element is a projection of the grey Irish Sea that’s supposed to be symbolic of how the characters all long to escape but eventually turns monotonous and even a little silly.

All in all, this stage version of Sing Street lacks the fizz Taichman brought to such shows as Indecent and School Girls, The African Mean Girls Play. Perhaps she was stymied by the need to juggle so many characters and locations or because she had to devote too much time to finding and developing her young cast who also have to double as Conor’s band. it is nice though to see age-appropriate actors playing teens—and they play the music well too (click here to read more about them).

The score, which features both diegetic songs performed by the band as well as pieces that are supposed to tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling, was composed by Gary Clark and Carney for the movie. The songs, which evoke the new wave sound of the ‘80s, are catchy and are probably a special treat for the often pop-culturally neglected Gen X-ers who grew up with Depreche Mode, Duran Duran and The Cure.

Even so, the 40-ish couple sitting next to me got up and left before the first act ended. I don’t think it’s because Sing Street is a bad show (it isn't) but because it was less than they had been made to believe it would be. So if you adjust your expectations, you may have a perfectly decent time

December 24, 2019

Wishing You a Very Merry Christmas...

..and a Happy Chanukah, a tardy Good Winter Solstice, a strong Happy Festivus, a slightly premature Joyous Kwanza and the all-around sincere hope that however you celebrate it, your holiday season will glow with love, laughter and the company of good friends—and, maybe, the always sustaining cheer of some good theater too.

December 21, 2019

The Most Meaningful Shows of 2019 For Me

For those of us who write about culture, the holiday season includes making Top 10 lists. But this year, I’ve decided against trying to anoint the best shows I’ve seen or even tallying up my favorites of the past year. Instead I want to celebrate something that I think is more significant: the integration of works by theater artists of color into the theatrical mainstream.

Works such as David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power, Leah Nanako Winkler’s God Said This, Alexis Scheer’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord and Sylvia Khoury’s Power Strip provided engaging and enlightening views of the world as seen through the Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern gaze. But it is African-American stories that have made the most progress this past year.

Two shows by black playwrights—Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy and Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play—opened on the often all too aptly named Great White Way. And just about every major off-Broadway company included at least one black themed-work in their season and they didn’t maroon them all in February’s Black History Month slot either. 

Meanwhile The Public Theater presented the first professional revival of Nzotake Shange’s trailblazing choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf since the show debut there in 1976.

Other productions, such as director Daniel Fish’s resetting of Oklahoma!, The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of All My Sons, the Primary Stages adaptation of Little Women and Shakespeare in the Park’s all-black version of Much Ado About Nothing tried, with varying success, to weave the black experience into established classics.

At the same time, but with almost no aren't-we-woke fanfare, black women played the main love interest in such varied productions as Betrayal and Tootsie on Broadway and in Cyrano and Scotland, PA. off-Broadway.

Capping it all off, Jackie Sibblies Drury won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fairview, a boundary-busting work that challenged the way we all look at theater, especially when it deals with people of color.

I was lucky enough to see all of those shows and to find something of value in almost each one. And I'm hoping that they aren't just a fad but a real sea change ushering in truly more inclusive theater. In the meantime here, in alphabetical order, are the 10 (old habits die hard) productions I saw this year about the black experience that still linger with me:

1. Ain’t Too Proud: Sure it’s a jukebox musical with a traditional rags-to-riches-to-almost-wrecked-it-all storyline but the soul music of The Temptations is irresistible, the performances in this production are terrific and this show put a bigger smile on my face than any other thing I saw on Broadway this year.

2. American Moor: One-person shows aren’t usually my favorite but playwright-performer Keith Hamilton Cobb’s meditation on one black actor’s struggle to bring his interpretation of Othello to the stage personalized the tension between the way black people see themselves and the way white people, even well-meaning ones, see them.

3. Behind the Sheet: In telling the story of early gynecology in this country by dramatizing the medical experiments done on enslaved black women, Charly Evon Simpson not only revealed a painful part of this nation’s history but restored dignity and honor to those women, who like legions of others, suffered in anonymity to make America as great as it has been.

4. Boesman and Lena: Signature Theatre’s revival of Athol Fugard’s classic play about a South African couple driven from their homeland didn't erase the memory of previous productions with such actors as James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee and the great Zakes Mokae but the magnificent performances of Sahr Ngaujah and Zainab Jah still managed to give the show a new and urgent relevance when people around the world are being made refugees because of their ethnicity or beliefs.

5. Fires in the Mirror: I was dubious when I heard that Signature Theatre was reviving Anna Deavere Smith’s landmark 1992 one-person play without Smith. But Michael Benjamin Washington gives such a remarkable performance that this show about the 1991 Crown Heights riot that claimed black and Jewish victims resonated for me in new way that reflected the fractured times in which we now live.

6. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven: This is a big messy thing but playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ unabashed determination to pay honest tribute to women—abused women, butch women, fat women, immigrant women, old women, women of color—whose lives are so often marginalized or trivialized onstage and in society that it won me over.

7. The Light: The ongoing debate over what to do with men who have sexually mistreated women is sensitively portrayed in this two person-drama by newcomer Loy A. Webb and the fact that the characters are African-American is a powerful reminder of the ways in which this country has always dealt differently with sexual transgressions against black women and those allegedly committed by black men.

8. Marys Seacole: Not resting on her laurels, Jackie Sibblies Drury crafted another ingenious work, this one examining the way in which black women throughout history, starting with the titular British woman who served as a nurse during the Boer War, have served—and been ignored—in the role of caretakers, all brought to vivid life by a multi-cultural cast led by the always brilliant Quincy Tyler Bernstine.

9. A Strange Loop: Michael R. Jackson’s wholly original musical puts the life of a queer black artist at centerstage and sets his professional and personal woes to a pop-soul score that offers some of the most ear-wormy show music of the year.

10. Toni Stone: Shows about sports often have a hard time onstage but, with strong assistance from a heartfelt performance by April Matthis, Lydia R. Diamond scored with her bio-play about the titular character whose 1949 debut in the Negro Baseball League made her the first woman to play professional baseball for any male team.