February 23, 2019

Rolling Along with "Merrily We Roll Along"

My 40s were my favorite decade. I suspect that’s because it’s when I got my dream job (editing the arts section of a major publication) and met my dream guy (my still totally-adored K). But it was also because I realized that I was old enough to learn from the mistakes I’d made but still young enough to do something about them. 

The characters introduced in the opening scene of the musical Merrily We Roll Along aren’t so lucky. But the ruefulness that accompanies them in their journeys from idealism to resignation has made this show one of Stephen Sondheim’s most admired and it’s never tugged at my heartstrings more than it does in the Fiasco Theater’s revival, which opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre this week.

Inspired by the identically-named 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the musical chronicles the lives of three artists—a composer named Frank, a lyricist and playwright named Charley and their novelist friend Mary—but it tells their stories in reverse order, with the earlier scenes showing the compromises and disappointments the trio experience in middle age while the latter ones depicts the optimism of their youth.

The original 1981 production directed by Hal Prince famously miscast teenagers to play all the roles and ran for only 16 performances. (Lonny Price, who played Charley in that production, recently made a terrific documentary about it called “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” which you can find by clicking here).

Noah Brody, Fiasco’s co-artistic director (click here to read more about him and his approach) has cast age-appropriate members from his troupe in this revisal (the playbill says Sondheim endorsed the trimming of the late Furth’s book to just 105 intermission-less minutes and the reassigning of some songs). But Brody's casting choices also have their plusses and minuses.

Six people play all the roles, compared to the two dozen in the Prince production. And on the up side, those actors, many of whom have been collaborating since their college days at Brown University, put to good use the comfortable familiarity and knowing frustrations that come from their own long association. 

They're also clever at integrating into their stagecraft the Fiasco trademarks of inventive stage business (in one delightful sequence mannequins fill in for the missing ensemble) and quick costume changes. But here's a significient negative: their vocal strengths vary from impressive (Manu Narayan in the role of the uncompromising Charley) to not-all-that-great. 

And not everyone is rolling along with this Merrily.  A group of my theater-savvy friends and I had a great debate about it via email last weekend, with me in the minority. 

Still, George Furth’s book, a series of significant moments spread across the decades of the friends’ lives; and Sondheim’s score, filled with both amusing patter songs and gorgeous ballads, ring with the doubts and insecurities familiar to all of us for whom our 40s are now just a memory.

And as I sat watching Merrily and thinking back over the people who have moved into and out of my life over the past few decades, the show’s wistful anthem “Old Friends” has never sounded more poignant.

February 16, 2019

Celebrating a Dozen Years of B&Me

As longtime readers know, I started this blog on Feb. 14, 2007, and so every year, I get to observe Valentine’s Day by celebrating the big loves of my life: my husband K (we had a great dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, although I may have overindulged on the Cosmopolitans) and seeing theater and writing about it here. So I’m taking time out to toast 12 years of doing the latter.

The last 12 months have been really great. I saw some terrific shows and I got to talk to several of the playwrights who created them for the “Stagecraft” podcast I do for BroadwayRadio (you can check out those interviews by clicking here). 

And I got to talk to other theater makers for stories I wrote for American Theatre magazine (click here to read that piece) Broadway News (click here for this one) and TDFStages (click here for it).

I also had the honor of being elected to the executive committee of the Outer Critics Circle and to the American Theatre Critics Association, for whom I moderated a panel at last fall’s New York conference whose timely theme was “Beyond Straight White Men: Diversity on Page and Stage.”

But all of that began here, with this blog. And I am so grateful to those of you who've been reading these posts over the past dozen years and to those of you who might be visiting for the first time today. 

My calendar is already filling up with all kinds of promising shows and I hope all of you will stick around so that I look can share my thoughts about them with you in the coming year. In the meantime, a belated Happy Valentine's Day and, of course, happy theatergoing too.

February 9, 2019

"God Said This" is Quietly Eloquent

The only thing I didn’t like about Leah Nanako Winkler’s play God Said This is its all-purpose title which seems too generic for this simultaneously very specific and totally universal drama about a fractured family struggling to come together as its matriarch battles cancer.

The daughter of a Japanese mother and a white father, the play’s protagonist Hiro grew up in Kentucky but has made a life in New York City where she has distanced herself from a troubled childhood that included the alcoholism of her father, the acquiescence to domestic abuse by her mother and her younger sister's attempt to find refuge from it all in an early marriage and her evangelical faith. All these circumstances collide when her mother's worsening condition causes Hiro to return home.

Granted all this is the stuff from which Lifetime movies get made but Winkler, herself a transplanted southerner and the daughter of interracial parents (click here to read more about her), wrote the play during her own mother’s chemotherapy sessions and it pulses with an authenticity and a generosity of spirit steeped in that lived experience. 

And although laced with wry humor, God Said This also dares to ponder serious questions about what it means to live a good life or to have a good death. In the process, the play admirably manages to sidestep every conventional trope it encounters.

The white guy from high school that Hiro hooks up with during her visit home isn’t a good-ole-boy redneck. Sophie’s born-again faith isn’t ridiculed. And the women’s ethnicity isn’t the determining factor in their identity. What we get instead is just recognizable people who, like all of us, are just doing what they can to play the cards life has dealt them.

The result isn’t the kind of genre-pushing play that gets critics cheering (only a half dozen middling reviews can be found on the aggregation site Show Score) but God Said This is a fresh riff on an old standard and it's easy to see why it won last year’s Yale Prize for Drama, awarded annually to an emerging playwright (check here to read about that).

This Primary Stages production directed by Morgan Gould offers a lovely showcase for the play, filled with entertaining performances, especially from Tom Coiner as the high school friend and Ako as the mother. It’s running at the Cherry Lane Theater only through Feb. 15 17 but if you can, you should see it.