November 26, 2022

Succumbing to the Charms of "& Juliet"


& Juliet, the exuberant new musical that mashes up Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the songbook of the pop hitmaker Max Martin wasn’t made for me. It was made for the tween girls sitting behind my niece Jennifer and me who clearly identified with the show's eponymous heroine and spent the intermission debating the choice they wanted her to make. Their consensus: reject all romantic options and go off on her own.  

The show was also made for the fortysomething-year-old guy sitting next to me who nodded fiercely to the bops and sighed deeply at the power ballads that Martin (click here to read more about him) has written over the past 30 years for the likes of Arianda Grande, Katy Perry and the Backstreet Boys and that no doubt provided the coming-of-age soundtrack for both my seatmate and my niece. Cause Jennifer loved the show too.

But don’t worry if you don’t fall into either Gen X or Gen Z because there’s a good chance that you’ll still have a good time at & Juliet. To my (Boomer) surprise, I did even though I have only a passing knowledge of Martin’s songs and found all kinds of holes in the show’s jerry-rigged plot. 

Written by David West Read, an executive producer of the cult TV comedy series “Schitt’s Creek," (click here to read more about him) & Juliet starts with Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway turning up at the premiere of his tragedy about the star-crossed young lovers and proposing a rewrite in which Juliet not only lives but embarks on a journey of self-discovery, accompanied by her devoted Nurse and—since this is a 21st century gloss on the 16th century—a nonbinary best friend named May.  

They head off to Paris because, well why not. There they encounter a confused young nobleman who woos Juliet in an attempt to prove his manliness to his macho father, who, as it so happens, has a romantic past with the nurse. Complications ensue. All of them underscored—and overscored—by nearly 30 of Martin’s hits.

But this is a jukebox musical that doesn’t take itself too seriously (it even opens with a jukebox sitting onstage) and everyone involved is far more committed to getting as many people as possible leaving the theater with smiles on their faces. 

So the plot’s silliness is intentional. The Shakespeares quibble over who should hold the quill that somehow gives them control over the narrative they're supposedly writing. Anne wants to take it in a feminist direction; Will tries to circle back to the original version. Meanwhile Read throws in winking references to the real Bard that are just knowing enough to make audience members feel smart when they notice them. 

The creative team is onboard too. Costume designer Paloma Young dresses the cast in a stylish mix of Elizabethan and contemporary wear that wouldn’t look out of place at a cool downtown club. Video designer Andrzej Goulding and lighting designer Howard Hudson join forces to create eye-dazzling effects that would do a rock concert proud. And director Luke Sheppard and the show's very busy choreographer Jennifer Weber (click here to read about her) keep the action moving with actors break dancing and tumbling across the stage, dropping from the ceiling and flying into the rafters.

But the highest praise has to go to the fantastic cast, led by Lorna Courtney, a charming triple threat—singing, dancing, girl powering—who's making her Broadway debut as Juliet. And just as appealing are Broadway vets Stark Sands as the Bard, who's trying to wrench his play back from his wife without wrecking their marriage; and Betsy Wolfe feisty and slyly funny as Anne.

In supporting roles, Melanie La Barrie is an inveterate scene stealer as the nurse (it’s also great to see a round, brown woman in a musical who isn’t required to sing a gospel number) and in the role of the noble dad, Paulo Szot (a Tony winner for the 2008 revival of South Pacific) is clearly delighted at being in on all the antics, including the wearing of a huge codpiece.   

Now, this is the spot where I should throw in some pun on one of Martin’s lyrics but I’m not familiar enough with the songs to do that. Instead, I’ll sum up my thoughts about his show with a quote form the latter-day bard Stephen King, “You can’t deny laughter; when it comes, it plops down in your favorite chair and stays as long as it wants.”  For & Juliet, that stay should be a long one.

November 19, 2022

Digging Deep Into Empathy With "Downstate"

Bruce Norris has a knack for making people uncomfortable.  His 2006 play The Pain and the Itch featured a 4-year-old with a genital rash, a metaphor for her family’s dysfunction that called for the young actor playing the part to scratch her crotch constantly which caused some theatergoers to accuse the play of child abuse. His 2010 Pulitzer and Tony winner Clybourne Park took on the issues of race and wokeness in a riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun that so riled some black members of the theatrical community that several wrote plays to refute it (click here to read about one of them). And now comes Downstate, a provocative meditation on remorse, righteous anger and retribution set in a halfway house for sex offenders.

 All three of those plays also contain scenes and exchanges that are laugh-out-loud funny. Which of course only adds to the discomfort of engaging with them. So you can understand why I shifted around uneasily in my seat at Playwrights Horizons where Downstate is currently scheduled to run through Dec. 11. But when I got home, I couldn't stop thinking about the play and the moral quandries it poses.

Downstate opens in the middle of a conversation between an old guy in a motorized wheelchair and a couple in theirs 40s who might be paying an obligatory visit to an older relative in a nursing home, except that a few lines in, the husband Andy calls the old guy “a fundamentally evil person” and describes how he has fantasized about killing him.  

For the old guy, whose name is Fred, is a former piano teacher who sexually abused Andy when he was 12. Fred now lives in a group home with three other offenders: Dee, a former dancer who when he was in 30s carried on a two-year sexual relationship with a teenager during a national tour of Peter Pan; Felix who committed incest with his young daughter and Gio who had sex with an underage girl who he swears told him she was 18.

They’ve all served their sentences but they’re still required to wear ankle bracelets that track where they go. They’re forbidden to have smartphones or any access to the internet. And a probation officer regularly monitors their activities and updates them on changes in their restrictions, including the latest that prohibits trips to a nearby supermarket because neighbors, who sometimes throw things at the house, have complained that the store is too close to a school.

Norris digs into each offender’s story, giving each man a chance to say why he believes he's a victim too. And although he’s a little less generous to Andy and his wife, Norris also allows them to make the case for how being abused can have long-lasting effects on the life of people struggling to survive that abuse and those who love them.

Under the deft direction of Norris’s frequent collaborator Pam MacKinnon, the performances are all superb. But first among equals are Frances Guinan and K. Todd Freeman. 

Guinan astutely nails how Fred both acknowledges responsibility for his crimes and yet desperately invests in the belief that he's really just a genial guy with a minor flaw. Meanwhile, Freeman adds layers of nuance to the role of Dee who insists that he’s done no wrong but knows that absolution will remain out of reach.

There are no easy answers to the questions their situations raise. Should people who have paid their debt to society be allowed to go on with their lives?  Sure. Would I want people who have committed such predatory crimes to live anywhere near me or those I love? Absolutely not.

Those of us who consider ourselves theater people like to talk about empathy. In Downstate Norris challenges us to confront exactly what that takes. “I feel compassion for those who’ve fucked up their lives,” he told Chicago Magazine when the play premiered at Steppenwolf in 2018. “If you want to extend compassion in the world, you have to extend it to everyone, not just to those you think deserve it.”

November 5, 2022

Life and Death Stories In "Everything's Fine," "Walking With Ghosts," "Where the Mountain Meets the Sea," and "My Broken Language"

The writer Joan Didion once said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But lately an increasing number of theater makers have not only been telling the stories of their lives but sharing them onstage. Over just the last three weeks I’ve seen four shows that look back at the lives of the people who created them and this week it was announced that Anthony Rapp, the original Mark in Rent, plans to bring a one-man show based on his 2006 memoir “Without You” to New World Stages in January.

It could be that producers like these shows because they tend to have small casts—sometimes just the one person—minimal scenery and almost no costume changes. But I suspect that the trend also has something to do with the fact that so many of us have gotten used to sharing our lives on Facebook and Instagram and TikTok. As Andy Warhol allegedly predicted, we’re all searching for our 15 minutes of fame. 

The challenge for the theatrical seekers is to make it clear why the rest of us should want to spend time with their stories and what those stories can tell us about our own lives. Here’s how four shows have fared at those tasks:

EVERYTHING'S FINE: Douglas McGrath got a Tony nomination for writing the book for the Carole King musical Beautiful and he earned an Oscar nomination for co-authoring the screenplay for the 1994 backstage comedy "Bullets Over Broadway" so he was no stranger to showbiz stories. Which made it somewhat surprising that his one-man show, which opened last month at the DR2 Theater in Union Square, focused on his Texas boyhood in the early 1970s. 

McGrath and his director John Lithgow (yes, that John Lithgow) allowed their narrative to meander a bit before they zeroed in on the 14-year-old Doug’s experience with a female history teacher in her 40s who became obsessed with him, left him notes, called him at home. The story didn’t go quite where you thought it would and the strained attempts to tie it into McGrath’s feelings about his late father left me wondering why I should care. 

And then, just as I was writing this post, came the news that McGrath, only 64, had suddenly died on Thursday night. In an interview he did last month with my BroadwayRadio colleague Matt Tamanini, (click here to hear it) McGrath said he didn’t want to hold onto the anger and bitterness he’d felt in the past and I’m sorry that it took his passing for me to grasp that message his show was trying to share with me.

WALKING WITH GHOSTS: The Irish actor Gabriel Byrne dips back into his childhood too in this one-man show based on the highly-praised memoir of the same name that he published last year. I haven’t read the book but it’s clear from the play that Byrne is an excellent writer, with a keen eye for detail and a poet’s ear for language. And yet, the transfer from the page to the stage isn’t a smooth one. 

For starters, the show’s running time of two-and-a-half hours is far too long. Directed by Byrne’s friend Lonny Price (yes, that Lonny Price) it unspools in a series of vignettes (happy trips with his grandmother to the movies, a tragic encounter with a pedophile priest) that probably worked in the book when you had time to stop and ponder how those people, or ghosts, from his past helped to make Byrne the man—and the artist—he is today. But there simply isn’t enough time to absorb those life lessons as they tumble out one after another onstage, despite the blackouts that mark the end of each short tale. 

To be sure, there are some pleasures: Byrne’s discovery of the amateur theater group that began his career is a delight and his account of an Bacchanalian evening spent with Richard Burton is the kind of peek behind the celebrity curtain that I wish he had shared more. 

Still, Byrne is good company (click here to watch an interview with him) and your enjoyment of his show, which is running at Broadway’s Music Box theater through Dec. 31, will probably depend on whether you feel that just seeing him in the flesh and hearing the lovely Irish lilt of his voice justify the cost of the ticket.

WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE SEA: I may be stretching here since I don’t know for sure that this musical about a father and son now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Center Stage space through Nov. 27, is autobiographical. But playwright Jeff Augustin’s book sure plays as though it is. Like Augustin’s dad, the father in the play immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti and like Augustin the son grew up to be a gay man. 

The story is told in alternating monologues by the father who takes a trip west with his wife while she’s pregnant with their first child; and by their now-grown son who years later is traveling east to collect the ashes of his recently deceased father. The actors—Billy Eugene Jones and Chris Myers—who portray them are excellent. But they don’t sing all that much. Instead, the husband-and-wife duo The Bengsons perform the score that they wrote on onstage.

I’ve enjoyed the Bengsons’ folksy, gospel-tinged music in Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones, the semi-autobiographical shows based on their lives, but the couple seems out of place here. This is a story about two black men struggling to connect with one another and so I don’t get why two white people are singing about them. 

And while the songs are lovely, they don’t advance the plot and there’s a sameness to them that eventually wears out whatever welcome they did have. Still, anyone who has yearned for a closer relationship with a father or a son may find themselves tearing up at the end.

MY BROKEN LANGUAGE: This adaptation of the memoir that playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes published last year doesn’t open at Signature Theatre until next week and I don’t want to jump the review embargo but the show fits so perfectly into this theme that I can’t resist mentioning it. Both the book and the play center around the women—her grandmother, her aunts, her cousins, her baby sister and especially her mother—in the extended Puerto Rican family that dominated Hudes’ childhood growing up in Philadelphia in the ‘80s and ‘90s 

Some of her family members fell victim to the AIDS and drugs that plagued their neighborhood back then but Hudes would win a scholarship to Yale and later study playwriting under Paula Vogel at Brown University. She then wrote the book for the Tony-winning musical In the Heights and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her play Water By The Spoonful, the second in a trilogy inspired by the life of a male cousin who suffered with PTSD after serving in Iraq. 

However in 2018, after lukewarm receptions to two plays she did at the Public Theater, Hudes announced that U.S. theater’s slowness to embrace diversity had sapped her interest in continuing to write for it (read more about that here). But the chance to put the stories of her female relatives onstage has obviously wooed her back. 

That storytelling, which mixes monologues, song, dance and Santeria rituals, may remind some theatergoers of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The actors in the five-person cast, which includes Daphne Rubin-Vega, the original Mimi in Rent, trade off roles and each of them gets a turn to play the playwright at various times in her life. Hudes is directing the show herself so what audiences see will be the way she wants to tell the story of her life.