October 26, 2019

"The Wrong Man" Doesn't Do Enough Right

Joshua Henry has a magnificently supple voice that can do almost anything and I’d be happy to listen to him sing for hours on end. But he’s not the right man to play the lead in The Wrong Man, the new musical by singer-songwriter Ross Golan that has recently been extended at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space through Nov. 24.

Golan, who has worked with such disparate performers as James Taylor, Ariana Grande and Snoop Dogg (click here to read more about him) has created an appealing sung-through score that mixes country, soul and hip-hop. But he also wrote the book and lyrics and they tell the less satisfying and far more predictable story of a born-to-be-a-loser guy named Duran who gets framed for some murders he didn’t commit.

The key part of that description is “born-to-be-a-loser.” Because Henry is, as the 100-watt grin he beams at the curtain call clearly demonstrates, innately winning. I’m not throwing shade on Henry who is a terrific actor and brought tears to my eyes in some moments but I couldn’t help wondering what someone less concerned with making his audience love him, someone like Raúl Esparza or Leslie Odom Jr., might have done with the role.

But the whole production is softer and gentler than Golan’s tougher-minded concept album, which he’s turned into a musical with the help of director Thomas Kail. But even though Kail helped craft Hamilton into the cultural juggernaut that it is, I’m not sure he's the right man for this show either.

Kail employs many of the elements—a simple set, kinetic choreography, even some of the same ensemble members—that he used for Hamilton but both he and Golan fail to create any distinctive characteristics that might make you really care about the three people around whom this show revolves.

Duran and Mariana, the woman he falls hard for after a one-night stand, are one-note characters who do the same thing over and over: yearn for a better life. Meanwhile, Mariana’s estranged husband couldn’t be more of a stock villain if he wore a stovepipe hat and twirled a moustache.

The actors do what they can. Ciara Renée is appropriately sexy and sultry-voiced as Mariana. Ryan Vasquez, who also alternates as Duran at some performances, sings the hell out of the role of the husband, who doesn’t even get a name but is identified only as the Man in Black.

And Henry, who seems to have buffed up for the role (I hope it's not too sexist to say that he looks great in his muscle shirts) is onstage nearly all of the show’s 90-minutes and is singing full out for 90 percent of that time.

These three principals divvy up 24 songs, whose lyrics are dense and hard to follow even when well enunciated. And although I liked a lot of the music, which is played here by a jamming onstage band, I wish the songs did less narrating of what the characters are doing and more expressing of the emotions they are experiencing.

That heavy lifting is left to choreographer Travis Wall, a multiple Emmy winner for the emotive dances he created on the TV dance competition show “So You Think You Can Dance (click here to read more about him)” and to lighting designer Betsy Adams, who has filled the theater with strips of neon mood lights. Both of them, along with the six-member ensemble, work far harder than they should have to.

Months before the show opened, pundits who like to think themselves in the know (click here to read one of them) were predicting that The Wrong Man would move to Broadway and take all the top awards.  And the show still has its partisans (click here to read one of them). Alas, I think they’re wrong.

October 19, 2019

Yes, There Are Shows I Like

As some of you know, I host a podcast for BroadwayRadio in which I interview playwrights and musical book writers about their shows.  I've had some great conversations (click here to listen to some of them) and I really enjoy doing them. But there is a downside: if I like a show, I try to talk to its author instead of writing about it.

This means that increasingly the shows I write about here are ones that I haven't been particularly fond of. And I'm starting to worry that this makes me seem like a perpetual naysayer when, of course, I'm a person who loves theater.

So instead of posting a review this week, I'm taking time out to call your attention to an interview I did with Will Arbery, whose Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a fascinating play about a group of young conservatives, is currently running at Playwrights Horizons (you can listen to it by clicking here.)

And I hope you'll also read a piece I did for the online publication TDF Stages about Will Hochman, the young actor who is appearing opposite Mary-Louise Parker in Adam Rapp's sensational new two-hander The Sound Inside, which opened at Studio 54 this week (you can read it by clicking here).

If I'd reviewed either of those shows here, I'd have told you how much I really like them and would have urged you to go see them.  Which is what I'm doing now.

October 12, 2019

"The Great Society" Is, Sadly, Not Great

Lyndon Johnson has long been one of my favorite presidents. I know that’s heresy for a baby boomer like me to say. Johnson was a big, crude Texan who famously bullied people, regularly used the N-word and disastrously widened the war in Vietnam. But he was also committed from his earliest days to making life better for poor people and he summoned up all of his political power to push through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Plus he was the kind of larger-than-life character who might have propelled a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean drama. And so I was intrigued by Robert Schenkkan’s decision to write a two-part play about him.

The first, All the Way, dealt with the glory days of the Johnson presidency, chronicling his campaigns to pass the civil rights bill and to defeat Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. I had mixed feelings about that show but it won the Tony for the best play of 2014.  And like everyone else, I was wowed by Bryan Cranston’s vibrant performance as LBJ, which won him a Tony too.

Now has come the sequel, The Great Society, which is scheduled to run at Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater through Nov. 24. It focuses on the administration’s darker days as Johnson struggled to balance the growing demands of the war in Southeast Asia, his futile attempts to keep the peace as African-Americans became more militant in pursuit of their rights and his continuing desire to fight poverty with the programs whose collective sobriquet gives the show its title.

It’s a tale of hubris that’s inherently dramatic but Schenkkan and director Bill Rauch fail to bring it to life. Except for an attempted accent here or there, almost none of the 14 actors in the cast look or sound like their real-life counterparts. And that includes the Scottish actor Brian Cox, who comes off as more of a feisty bull dog than the fearsome Grizzly bear that Johnson was.

Cox is a gifted actor who has won acclaim for playing King Lear for London's Royal Shakespeare Company and the domineering billionaire patriarch on the HBO series “Sucession.” And he works hard here to show the more sympathetic side of Johnson that Schenkkan clearly wants to bring out (click here to read an interview with the actor).

But try though he might, Cox doesn’t manage to convey the emotional journey that Johnson took to get there. One minute he's the wily politician bending others to his will; the next he’s a man hollowed out by the compromises he’s been forced to make. What we don’t see, or at least feel, is how he got from the first point to the last, which is, of course, this story’s true tragedy.

The storytelling is also undercut by having all of the other actors play multiple characters. Rauch has assembled an impressive ensemble that includes Grantham Coleman, Marc Kudisch, Bryce Pinkham, Frank Wood and Richard Thomas. But though they change wigs and outfits, it’s still hard to keep track of who is who when, for example, the same actor plays Richard Nixon and George Wallace. Or when another actor plays three different aides to Martin Luther King Jr.

Speaking of which why does the show need all three of those aides?  I doubt that most of today's audience members will be familiar with Bob Moses, Hosea Williams, or the Rev. James Dobynes. Or for that matter with the Johnson men Clark Clifford, Deke Deloach or William Westmoreland.

The production seems to know that too since the program includes an insert with mini-descriptions of the three dozen or so principal characters. The befuddled woman seated next to me took out her cellphone during the middle of the first act, turned on its flashlight app and vainly tried to match the names on the card to the actors onstage.

The entire 2-hour-and-40 minute-evening is similarly frustrating. For it's little more than a historical pageant in which famous (or not so famous) figures show up, have someone call them by their name to let the audience know who they are and then walk off after saying, or shouting (there's a lot of shouting) a few lines.

The history is wobbly too. Johnson and King meet so regularly in The Great Society that you might wonder how either found time to do anything else.  And while Johnson did have a black secretary just as he does in the show, her real life story unspooled very differently and so didn’t have the impact on a crucial decision that the president makes in this version.

When you get right down to it, I can’t figure out why Schenkkan decided to write these docudramas. He hasn’t really dramatized Johnson’s story and he doesn’t offer any new revelations about his presidency or any useful parallels with the current occupant of the office. LBJ had his flaws but he deserves better than this.