December 31, 2022

My Favorite Theatrical Things in 2022

Theater worked hard this year to come back from the pandemic. As part of those efforts, Broadway dropped its requirement that theatergoers show proof of being vaccinated and made mask wearing optional. Smaller off-Broadway theaters dropped the vaccination requirement too, even though many of them kept their masking mandates. 

And there were so many new shows this fall that sometimes two or even three of them opened on the same night as producers rushed to serve up the theatrical equivalent of comfort food: familiar titles (there are currently four Pulitzer Prize-winning plays—Between Riverside and Crazy, Death of a Salesman, The Piano Lesson, Topdog/Underdog—running on Broadway) starry casts (Hugh Jackman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Vanessa Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Daniel Craig, Daniel Radcliffe) and lots of Sondheim.  

Some of those efforts were successful (several of those productions were terrific). But some weren’t (numerous performances, including the opening night of The Collaboration, the final Broadway production to open in 2022, had to be cancelled when cast members tested positive for the virus).  

Even in the before times, it could be hard for me to single out what was the best in a theatrical year and it’s even tougher to do that in these still fragile times. So I’m going to leave the anointing of this year’s best to my critical brethren and sistren (click here to read my pal Jonathan Mandell's annual compendium of their choices). Instead, to paraphrase the great Oscar Hammerstein, here are just a few of my favorite things:

Seeing A Case for the Existence of God: No play moved me more this year than Samuel D. Hunter’s quiet two-hander that opened at Signature Theatre all the way back in May. It started off as an uneasy reunion between two former high-school classmates (one black, gay and college-educated; the other white, straight and working class) but under David Cromer’s sensitive direction it evolved into a more encompassing meditation on both the feelings of alienation that have so divided this country over the past few years and the things we all share in common, managing in the end to offer a ray of hope for better times to come.

Reveling in Michael Potts' performance in The Piano Lesson.  There were plenty of performances I adored this year: Marylouise Burke in Epiphany, K. Todd Freeman in Downstate, Corey Hawkins in Topdog/Underdog, Linda Lavin in You Will Get Sick. But it was Potts who stood out most for me. In the midst of the dazzling constellation of stars—Danielle Brooks, John David Washington and Samuel L. Jackson—that director LaTanya Richardson Jackson assembled for this revival of August Wilson’s drama about the legacy of slavery, Potts stole every scene he was in with a performance that was so natural and so true that it didn't seem as though he was acting at all. 

Discovering Lloyd Suh and Sanaz Toossi: One of the things I most love about going to the theater is finding new voices who allow me to see the world from a fresh perspective. Suh, a winner of this year’s Steinberg Award for mid-career playwrights; and Toossi, who only completed her M.F.A from NYU four years ago, each did that for me twice this year. His plays The Chinese Lady at the Public and The Far Country at the Atlantic looked at parts of the American experience that too often get left out of the history books. While her plays English, also at the Atlantic Theater; and Wish You Were Here at Playwrights Horizons upended conventional stereotypes about Muslims, particularly Muslim women, living in contemporary Iran. All four productions opened my eyes and made me eager to see what these playwrights do next. 

Marveling at John Lee Beatty’s set for Chester Bailey at the Irish Rep.  Sets don’t usually get attention unless they’re big and glitzy in some way. Beatty’s hauntingly beautiful creation was the opposite of that. It was just a unit set that didn't change much at all but with the help of Brian Levitt's exquisite lighting, it elegantly evoked New York’s old Penn Station, a WWII munitions factory and an isolated hospital ward as though it had been designed specifically for each location in Joseph Dougherty’s drama about the power of imagination to insulate us from even life's cruelest tragedies. The Irish Rep has always punched above its weight but this year it was one of the beneficiaries named in Stephen Sondheim’s will and it is clearly putting that money to good use.

The casting of black leading ladies in musicals.  Twenty-one musicals are running on Broadway during this holiday season and 15 of them have women of color starring in leading roles. It’s no surprise that shows like Aladdin, Hadestown, Hamilton, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King and A Strange Loop (its L. Morgan Lee is the first trans woman to get a Tony nomination) have non-white actresses in principal roles but those parts were written that way. 

What got my attention is that this year Emilie Kouatchou became the first black actress to play Christine in Phantom of the Opera and Brittney Johnson became the first black actress to step into Glenda’s shoes full-time in Wicked.  

And they were joined by Denée Benton as Cinderella in Into the Woods, Lorna Courtney as Juliet in & Juliet, Lana Gordon as Velma Kelly in Chicago, Adrianna Hicks as Sugar in Some Like It Hot, Kristolyn Lloyd as John Adams in the gender-flipped revival of 1776 and Solea Pfeiffer as the head groupie Penny Lane in Almost Famous. Plus there’s the rainbow coalition that have made up the cast of  British queens in Six since its very beginning.

Such diverse casting is unprecedented for the Great White Way.  And I can hardly imagine what it would have meant for a young me to have seen leading ladies who looked like me standing center stage and being so adored and so admired when I was coming up. Or what it would have meant for the non-black people sitting in the audience beside me.

And finally, if you’ll permit me, I’m going to add one more thing to this list:

Working on my BroadwayRadio podcast "All the Drama."  For the past year and a half, I’ve been researching and talking to people about the select group of plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize. Putting the episodes together has been both really informative and great fun for me. And I hope that it will be enlightening and enjoyable for you too. You can check it out by clicking here.




December 17, 2022

"The Far Country" Recalls Forgotten History

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust announced this week that it is awarding its $100,000 Mimi Award to two mid-career playwrights: James Ijames and Lloyd Suh. I’m pleased for both of them but I’m particularly delighted for Suh, who has been writing plays for two decades but whose work I only discovered this year (shame on me) but have fallen hard for (better late than never).

Suh’s The Chinese Lady had a six-week run at the Public Theater last spring. His imaginative retelling of the real-life story of the first Chinese woman to come to the U.S. back in 1834—she was put on display and people paid money to gawk at her—was both enlightening and entertaining (click here to read my review of it). 

Now with The Far Country, which is running at the Atlantic Theatre through the end of the year, Suh has turned his gimlet eye on another overlooked part of the Chinese-American experience:          the practice of “paper sons.” It's terrific too.

When the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred most Chinese from entering this country, would-be immigrants got around the ban by pretending to be related to the Chinese who had come here earlier to seek their fortunes during the Gold Rush or to provide labor for the building of the transcontinental railroad and had over the years been granted legal residency. 

The newcomers—the paper sons trying to enter the country under false pretenses—often borrowed hundreds of dollars to pay for these phony relationships and spent years paying off those debts, sending money back home to help the poor relatives they left behind and mourning the loss of their true identities. 

The practice continued until the immigration laws were reformed in the 1960s. A close friend of mine is the son of someone who came into this country that way (click here to listen to his story and some others) and so I was particularly keen to see what Suh would do with the story.

The Far Country opens in 1909 in an interrogation room on Angel Island, the detention center that was a harsher west coast version of Ellis Island where immigrants were screened. The time is three years after the San Francisco earthquake and a laundryman named Gee is trying to convince an immigration official that he’s a citizen whose records were lost during the quake. 

He isn't; they weren't. But he insists he's telling the truth and that he only wants to visit his family in China and bring his oldest son back with him to help build up his laundry business. And Gee knows how to ingratiate himself with the white men in charge by bowing and smiling and pretending that his English is worse than it is. 

Gee gets his papers and when he gets to China, he starts looking for a paper son who will pay him the money and provide the indentured labor his business needs. He finds Moon Gyet, a young man who is the only support for his poor widowed mother.

Moon Gyet’s entry into the country isn’t an easy one. His stay on Angel Island, crammed into cells with others for months on end, and his agonizing efforts to convince officials there that he should be allowed into the country provide the play’s most effective demonstration of what many Chinese people endured to become Chinese-Americans. 

Still, Suh and director Eric Ting are occasionally too pedantic: sometimes stopping the narrative for direct-address history lessons and at others, showcasing video projections that hammer home parallels with the ongoing discrimination against Asian-Americans. 

But they are saved by the importance of the underlying message, the lyricism of Suh’s language and by this production’s all-around excellent cast, particularly Jenn S. Kim, Shannon Tyo (who was also great in The Chinese Lady) and most especially Amy Kim Waschke as Moon Gyet’s mother, who more than anyone else acknowledges the emotional and cultural costs of becoming a paper son in an unwelcoming land.

Despite the open-arms image it likes to claim for itself, America has long had an ambivalent relationship with immigrants dating from the Alien and Sedition Laws passed in 1798 and running right through the way that Governors DeSantis and Abbot are treating asylum seekers today. The final scene of The Far Country is a poignant and important reminder that despite the hardships they may face getting in, immigrants to this country often become its most devoted citizens and the ones who truly make America great.

December 3, 2022

How Broadway's "KPOP" Lost Its Mojo

The world of musical theater is divided right now between the people who saw KPOP before it came to Broadway and those who saw it afterward. I sadly fall into the latter group. 

The original production back in 2017 (the one that gives its attendees bragging rights) was an immersive theater piece, a joint production of Ars Nova, Ma-Yi Theater Company and Woodshed Collective that staged its scenes over several floors of the A.R.T./New York Theatres building on West 53rd Street. It was such an instant hit that it sold out before I could get a ticket. 

So as soon as I heard it was coming to Broadway this season, KPOP shot right to the top of the list of shows I most wanted to see. But the production that opened this week at Circle in the Square isn’t the show that it once was. That’s because all the action now has to take place on one stage and to accommodate that, the creative team has reconceived the plot.

The conceit for both versions is supposed to be a peek behind the scenes at the music factories that have made K-pop—a fusion of traditional Korean folk music, contemporary pop, hip-hop, and R&B—so successful that acts like the South Korean boy band BTS and girl group Blackpink now regularly top the U.S. charts.  

The real-life story of South Korea’s decades-long campaign to build up and export its cultural products offers plenty of material for book writer Jason Kim, composer and lyricist Helen Park (the first Asian-American woman to compose a Broadway score) and co-lyricist Max Vernon to work with (click here to read about that history). 

And from everything I’ve heard and read, the 2017 version tried to grapple with some of the industry’s most controversial issues, including the relentless drive to perfect the highly-choreographed routines that have become trademarks of the genre; the continuous threat that performers are interchangeable and can be replaced in those manufactured acts by younger versions of themselves as they age; and the pressure to undergo plastic surgery to make the stars more acceptable to western eyes.

Almost all of that is missing in the current production. Instead, it’s loosely—very loosely—centered around the preparations for one factory’s debut presentation of its major acts in New York. Its boy band members are bickering because a Korean-American has replaced one of the longtime members and seems to be getting more media attention than the others. And the girl group members are worried that anything they say to a filmmaker following the group around will jeopardize their chances to breakout.  

Meanwhile the star is having a meltdown because she doesn’t know if she really wants to pursue international stardom or to settle down with her modest school teacher boyfriend. The role is usually played by the real-life K-pop star Luna but she was out the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show. Her understudy Amy Keum turned in a solid performance but I couldn't help wondering what extra spark Luna, who's also done musicals (she played Elle Woods in the South Korean production of Legally Blonde) might have brought to the part.

All of the young cast members, most of whom are making their Broadway debuts, work hard but their characters' storylines are so thinly drawn that it was hard to connect with any of them. And director Teddy Bergman seems at a loss for how to help them make the narrative more compelling. Instead he leans on his creative team to do the heavy lifting. They do what they can.

Gabriel Hainer Evansohn has designed a flexible set with telescoping platforms that provide music-video-style close-ups of the performers and trap floors that allow them to appear and disappear as needed. The setting is assisted by a kaleidoscope of video projections, including live feeds from the stage that pop up on the TV screens that surround the set. But the most valuable contribution may be Jiyoun Chang’s dynamic lighting scheme which does a better job of storytelling than the actual book does.

And of course Bergman leans heavily on the music. In between the scenes of faux angst, the cast performs numbers that are supposed to be for the fictional show but that actually make up the bulk of the show that audience members at Circle in the Square see.

As in real K-pop, some of the songs are sung in English, others in Korean and a few toggle back and forth between the languages. Most of the numbers, with the exception of the requisite power ballads, are upbeat and bouncy. 

All are energetically choreographed by Jennifer Weber (click here to read more about this up-and-comer) and they feature delightfully gaudy costumes by Clint Ramos and Sophia Choi who come up with so many variations on boy-and-girl-band glamour wear that those outfits almost deserve a show of their own.

In the end, your enjoyment of KPOP will probably depend, unsurprisingly, on how you feel about K-pop music. Two elderly white women in our row could hardly wait for the lights to come up at intermission before they made their way for the door. But the young Asian couple sitting next to me could hardly contain their joy, bouncing along and clapping to almost every song.  As for me, I now wish even more that I had seen the 2017 version.