July 16, 2022

"Between the Lines" Tells a Familiar Story

So many musicals nowadays are based on movies or other pop culture IP (by which I mean jukebox musicals of one kind or another) that it’s nicely retro to have one based on a book. That’s the case with Between the Lines, the new musical that opened this week at the Tony Kiser Theater. It's based on the eponymous YA novel that the bestselling author Jodi Picoult co-wrote in 2012 with her then-teenage daughter Samantha van Leer (click here to watch an interview about that with Picoult).

The original idea was van Leer’s. What, she asked her mom, might happen if characters acted one way when someone was reading the narrative in which they appeared but took on completely different personalities than the ones that had been written for them once the book was closed?  

The answer they came up with was a clever story about a prince in a picture-book fairytale named Oliver. In his closed-book moments Oliver has grown tired of slaying dragons and saving princesses. In fact, he so desperately yearns to enter the real world that he magically makes contact with a sympathetic reader named Delilah. 

She’s a teen who knows that she’s too old for picture books but has found refuge in the guaranteed happy endings in Oliver's fairytale after her parents' divorce has caused her and her mother to move to a new town where her mom cleans homes and her new schoolmates treat Delilah as an outcast. 

It's not the kind of book I usually read but I confess that I was charmed by the story, particularly by the amusing alter-egos Picoult and van Leer created for the fairytale’s other characters who, in their closed-book time, have made peace with the narrative that Oliver is trying to escape: the evil villain Rapskullio is actually a sensitive artist and lepidopterist, or butterfly lover; the regal Queen Maureen is a homey earth mother who likes to bake cookies and the man-crazy mermaids are proud feminists.

I’d looked forward to seeing all of them and their cohorts onstage as Delilah and Oliver fell in love and attempted to find ways to break the barrier between their real and fairytale worlds. And I was further heartened by the fact that the score was by a rare all-female team, the newcomers Elyssa Samsel and Katie Anderson.  

The presence of Daryl Roth as the show’s lead producer also promised a first-rate production. And under Jeff Calhoun’s sure-handed direction, the show delivers one with a talented cast led by the sweet-voiced Arielle Jacobs as Delilah and the pitch-perfect (in both voice and looks) Jake David Smith as Oliver. 

And they get invaluable support from, among others, the veterans Vicki Lewis and Julia Murney and a particularly appealing Will Burton, whose comic and dancing skills are equally endearing. There are also spot-on costumes by Gregg Barnes, an amusing and surprisingly malleable set by Tobin Ost and terrific video projections by Catie Hevner.

So I’m not sure why I was so disappointed by this staged version of Between the Lines.  Maybe it’s because book writer Timothy Allen McDonald, who has a background in adapting children’s books and Broadway shows for the youth editions that school productions use, has put so much effort into checking all of the boxes that he and his colleagues think will appeal to the young demographic they’re so eager to woo. 

Whatever the reason, the result turns out to be a patchwork quilt composed of what appear to be scraps from other shows. The conflict between Delilah and her mom has been amped up so that Murney can sing a Dear Evan Hansen-style power ballad about the difficulties of being a single mom.

Delilah’s only friend at school Jules is now nonbinary, nicely played by the nonbinary actor Wren Rivera but still echoing a similar character in Jagged Little Pill. And Delilah’s nemesis at school Allie McAndrews (played by the understudy Aubrey Matalon at the performance I attended) is a separated-at-birth twin of Regina George, the Queen Bee in Mean Girls

What’s more, the entire ensemble is required to play roles in both Delilah’s real-world and Oliver’s fantasy one, a callback to the 1939 “Wizard of Oz" in which the actors playing the workers on Dorothy’s farm in Kansas also doubled as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in Oz; that may have worked in that classic movie but it undercuts the narrative here. Meanwhile the backstories of the fantasy characters that won me over when I first read “Behind the Lines” get short shrift here. 

Still, almost every performer is given a solo, some of them unnecessary (do we really need the school librarian's paean to Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy?) and they simply add to the show’s 2 hours and 15 min. running time. 

Most of the melodies are catchy and many of the lyrics are smart (click here for a Spotify playlist of some of the songs) but the score doesn’t manage to distinguish itself from the legions of others that now mix show tunes, hip-hop and power ballads.

Of course despite my fondness for Picoult and van Leer's book, I’m not the target demographic their musical is aiming to please. And I imagine some tweens might really enjoy this show. Even so, I miss the enchantment I discovered in the pages of “Between the Lines” and it's made me a little grumpy that I didn't find a similar magic onstage in Between the Lines.

July 9, 2022

Women and Politics in "POTUS" and "53% Of"

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. At least that’s the approach two recent plays have taken with the current political morass in which we all find ourselves.  Selina Fillinger’s farce POTUS (that’s the acronym for President of the United States) is currently scheduled to play at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre through Aug. 14. Steph Del Rosso’s awkwardly named satire 53% Of (its title refers to the percentage of white women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016) ends a brief two-week run at Second Stage’s uptown space the McGinn/Cazale Theater this weekend. 

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but both boast all-female casts and nearly all-female creative teams. Heck, POTUS’s subtitle is “Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive” and its starry cast is led by Julie White and Rachel Dratch, both of whom were nominated for Tonys for playing the beleaguered chief of staff to the unseen president and his bewildered personal secretary. The young actresses in 53% Of aren’t yet as well-known, but they gamely play multiple parts, including the male roles, in their production. 

Both shows, written by twentysomething playwrights who clearly lean toward the left end of the political spectrum, made me chuckle but I wasn’t totally comfortable with the underlying message that either was trying to get across. The women in POTUS—be they the reporter who covers him, the press secretary who covers for him, the mistress who, ah, services him or the First Lady who puts up with him—all enable the man-child in the Oval Office. 

They may take time out to strike power poses or to give one another you-go-girl pep talks but they all miserably fail the feminist Bechdel test because although there are a whole bunch of women in the play, including the president’s lesbian sister, all they do is talk to one another about a man. And all of their efforts are directed at smoothing over his gaffs (it’s a Republican administration) and keeping their guy in office. 

I know. I know. It’s just a farce. And Susan Stroman’s jaunty direction and Beowulf Boritt’s turntable set keep the antics moving, complete with the requisite slamming doors. Plus at the curtain call there’s a crowd-pleasing dance and sing-along set to a Joan Jett anthem. Hillary Clinton even went to see the show this past week (click here to read about that) and she had a great time.

But in the end, I came away from the show feeling that Fellinger (click here to read more about her) left the blame for the political mess on the shoulders of the women and I couldn’t shake the additional feeling that when the music ended, the characters would end up right back where we found them, holding up some male doofus instead of doing their own thing.  

I had hoped that 53% Of was going to give me some insights into why women behave that way. The play opens shortly after the 2016 election at a meeting of white suburban Trump supporters who are congratulating themselves on their man’s win but who become uncomfortable when a newcomer, attracted by their social media postings, arrives proudly wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag. 

Alas, the play’s title is a misnomer and instead of digging into the dynamics of how the suburbanites reconcile their support for Trump with their unease for what he stands for, the play hopscotches to other settings: a bro-style gathering of the husbands of the women in the first scene, a get-together of self-consciously progressive young white women in an urban setting and finally a meeting at a bar between one of those white progressives and a black friend.  

The cast worked hard as they moved from one scene to the next and Lux Haac’s costumes helped a little but director Tiffany Nichole Greene couldn’t figure out how to make all of the quick changes work. So I was confused by the third scene, uncertain if its young women were the rebellious daughters of the women and men in the first two scenes or completely unrelated characters. 

The result was a series of SNL-type sketches that not only lacked depth but flicked at the idea that there’s little difference between the white women who voted for Trump and those who didn’t.  Which I don’t believe is true and didn’t find funny at all.

July 2, 2022

Theater Books for Summer Reading 2022

Now that Covid has been around for more than two years and vaccines have made contracting the virus a little less scary, a new kind of normal is settling in. The Tony award ceremonies returned to Radio City Music Hall. Tourists are trickling back into Times Square. And Broadway has dropped its mask-wearing mandate, at least for now. 

But some things haven’t changed: as I did in the summers both before the shut down and during it, I’ve nested myself on our terrace as soon as the weather would permit with a drink in one hand (my husband K has been whipping up caipirinhas this year) and an iPad in the other so that I can switch between reading books on my Kindle app and listening to them on my Audible app. 

As usual, most of the books have had something to do with theater. Most this year are fiction, a reflection of the fact that people are writing some really good novels and short stories about the world of the theater but also a reflection of the fact that I love those kinds of stories. So in keeping with what has become one of my favorite summer rites, I’ve put together a list of 10 books for those of you who, like me, enjoy theater-related reading during the lazy hours of this sweet season. In the meantime, Happy Fourth of July.

All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business by Mel Brooks.  You have to wait all the way until Chapter 25 for Brooks to start talking about teaming up with Susan Stroman, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to create their Broadway phenom, The Producers. But he’s such a great raconteur that even the accounts of his time in the army are entertaining. And there are even more enjoyable stories about his working on the all-star writing staff (Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Joseph Stein, Michael Stewart) that created Sid Caesar’s “Your Shows of Shows;” his writing and directing of such comedic film classics as "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" and his zany courtship of and very happy 40-year marriage with the actress Anne Bancroft. Plus, if you listen to the audiobook, you can hear Brooks break into song whenever the mood seemed to strike him.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler. This novel about the celebrated 19th century acting clan was written by a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize and so can be added to your calorie count for literary fiction. Beginning in 1822 and ending with the aftermath of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln (an avid theater lover) it is both a family saga and a historical chronicle of the events leading up to and through the Civil War. But the best parts are the vivid details—the constant and uncomfortable travel, the fierce rivalries that animated audiences, the declamatory style that exhausted its practitioners—that defined the theater world of the Antebellum era.

Fallout by Sadie Jones. In all honesty, the characters are annoying in this novel about the personal and professional entanglements of four twentysomethings trying to start their theatrical careers. But the glimpses the story provides into the London theater scene of the 1970s is catnip for any theater lover. I don’t know enough about the players in that theater scene but I suspect others who do know it will have extra fun figuring out the real-life inspirations for the folks in the book. Email me if you have any informed guesses on who the villain—the slightly older and sexually ambivalent producermight be.

From Gods to Bad Boys: A History of Theatre in Twelve Lives by Giles Ramsay. The god is Dionysus and the baddest of the boys is the playwright Joe Orton in this chatty history of theater told through profiles of the men (and a couple of women) who made it. Some of Ramsay’s choices can be eccentric (a whole section is devoted to the now forgotten British actor Victor Henry) and no Americans made the list but the book still makes its case that from the very beginning theater makers have always striven to make the work they put on the stage truly reflect the lives and concerns of the people watching it.

Good Company by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. If you’re a fan of the Noah Baumbach movie “Marriage Story,” that starred Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, there’s a strong chance that you’ll love this engaging novel about a couple who, after scrimping and maneuvering to maintain a small New York theater company for 20 years, move to Los Angeles, where they make discoveries about themselves, their definitions of success and their marriage.

In the Long Run: A Cultural History of Broadway’s Hit Plays by Jordan Schildcrout. Most theater lovers can list the longest-running musicals right off the top of their heads. But it’s tricker when it comes to naming the longest-running plays because there haven’t been many of them in recent years. Which is why Schildcrout’s chronicle of shows that clocked 1,000 performances or more (Lightnin', a comedy that opened in 1918 and ran for three years, was the first; Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, which closed in 1986 after its three-year run, was the last) is such a treat.  As Schildcrout notes in his introduction, critics didn’t always love these shows but audiences did and together they provide an invaluable portrait of a time when Broadway truly was mass entertainment. You can hear an interview with Schildcrout that BroadwayRadio's James Marino and I did (as well as more about some of the other books on this list) by clicking here.

I Was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein. How could this not be great?  Fierstein has been involved with so many seminal productions (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray, Kinky Boots). He’s known so many celebrated people in so many different fields (Anaïs Nin, Andy Warhol, Ellen Stewart, Bella Abzug, Cyndi Lauper). And it goes without saying that he is inherently funny. So this wildly-entertaining memoir, which covers his years as a cast-album-loving Brooklyn boy in the 1950s, as a club kid prowling for sex in the ‘60s, as an emerging talent in the downtown theater scene of the 1970s, as an activist during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and as an eventual Broadway icon, is a real page turner. And listening to Fierstein read the book in his distinctively raspy growl is like curling up for a gossipy gab with an old friend. 

The Show Girl by Nicola Harrison.  Set during the final years of the Roaring Twenties, this novel focuses on the personal and professional ups-and-downs of an ambitious young woman who becomes a showgirl in the Ziegfeld Follies. It’s basically a romance novel complete with a rich and hunky love interest but it’s also a fun behind-the-curtains look at what life might have been like for Sally, Phyllis and the other “girls upstairs” in Follies.

The Sisters Sweet by Elizabeth Weiss. The old sensation-loving vaudeville circuit provides the backdrop for this novel about twin sisters who climb up the billboard when their father, who once had stage dreams of his own, comes up with the idea of them pretending to be cojoined, or Siamese, twins. The deception works until the ambitions of one destroys the act and leads them down separate paths. The story is so redolent of that itinerant showbiz era that I kept expecting Mama Rose to make a cameo.

Vamp Until Ready by James MagruderIt would be hard to find a lovelier collection of theater-related short stories than this one. These five are linked by a group of people—gay and straight, theater professionals and amateurs—who are connected to a summer stock theater company in Ithaca, New York during the Reagan-Bush era and by the ways in which theater can change and expand lives. Supporting characters in one story become the leads in others, a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant reminder that we’re all the stars in the tales we tell ourselves.

Finally, as always, if you’re looking for even more to read, here are the links to my now over 150 suggestions from previous years: