June 10, 2023

How "The Comeuppance" Let Me Down

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and I go back a long way. I saw his first New York show down at P.S. 122 right after its director quit during previews and one of the actors published a piece in The Village Voice calling the play “a piece of crap.” Jacobs-Jenkins had to rally the remaining cast and direct the show himself, which didn’t go so well (click here to read more about that). 

But four years later in 2014, An Octoroon, that same riff on an old Dion Boucicault melodrama, got a second chance at Soho Rep, where it was brilliantly staged and helped put the playwright on the theatrical map for his bodacious use of conventional tropes to explore uncomfortable truths about race, gender and class (click here to read my review of that one). 

I've been eagerly following Jacobs-Jenkins ever since and cheering most of the work (Appropriate, Everybody, Gloria) that he's done. Until now. The Comeuppance, his rumination on the mid-life disappointments of the Millennial Generation that opened this week at Signature Theatre, disappointed me.

The play is centered around the 20th reunion of a group of high school friends. They’re a multi-racial bunch (back in the day, they called themselves “Merge,” a homonym acronym for “Multi-Ethnic Reject Group”) and they dated one another and took pride in being the smartest kids at their Catholic school. But, of course, over the years their lives have gone down different paths. 

Emilio is an expat artist whose work has been selected for the Whitney Biennial but who’s a bit mysterious about his family back in Berlin. His former girlfriend Kristina is now a doctor and a mother of five but a not-so-secret alcoholic. Their friend Ursula is barely scraping by and dealing with an aggressive form of diabetes that has blinded her in one eye. 

Meanwhile Caitlin, once the smartest of the crew, is now a stay-at-home wife married to an ex-cop and Trump supporter; and her old beau Paco is a vet struggling with severe PTSD after multiple tours in the Middle East.  A sixth member who calls in to say he can’t make it to the gathering seems to be a finance bro.

Himself 38, Jacobs-Jenkins clearly wants to say something profound about how living through such ordeals as the Columbine High School massacre, the 9/11 attacks, the interminable wars that followed, the Great Recession, the rise of Trumpism and the Covid pandemic have affected his generation. But he doesn't seem to know what more to say about those calamities than that they happened. And that they messed people up. That seems to have been enough for some critics (The Comeuppance is a New York Times Critics Pick).  But I was left wanting something more.

Jacobs-Jenkins seems aware of the shortfall and he tries to draw some conclusions in wordy but vague speeches at the end of the play. There's also been online chatter about his revising the script substantially during previews. I can't confirm that but I find it believable because actors stumbled repeatedly over lines at the performance I saw a few days before the show opened. 

 And these aren’t the kind of actors who flub lines. In fact, the cast is stacked with such talented performers—Caleb Eberhardt, Brittany Bradford, Susannah Flood, Shannon Tyo, and Bobby Moreno—that it’s almost as though the casting notice read “Only the most excellent young actors working in New York need apply.”

They are funny and touching and, Moreno in particular is called on to give an intensely physical performance. So it’s easy at first to hang out with them. But the show runs for nearly two-and-a-half hours without intermission and since none of their characters really change, they eventually wore out their welcome with me. 

In an apparent effort to give some gravitas to the play, Death has been added as an additional player and speaks directly to the audience in the voices of each of the five onstage characters. We’re clued in that Death has taken over one of them when the lights flicker and that actor's voice is filtered through a synthesizer that often makes it difficult to understand what's being said. 

All of the action takes place on the front porch of Ursula’s modest home where the group has gathered for a pre-party before heading off for the larger class reunion, even though some dialog indicates that it’s chilly outside. 

Director Eric Ting does what he can to move the actors around the small space as their characters reminisce, get high and try to settle old disputes or rekindle old romances. But I couldn’t figure out why Jacobs-Jenkins had placed them out there in the first place. 

Maybe the setting is supposed to be some kind of metaphor for the characters—and all of us—being on Death’s doorstep. I've come too far with Jacobs-Jenkins and he's too gifted a playwright for me to abandon him but I can't help thinking that The Comeuppance owes us more than that.

May 27, 2023

Delicious Diversity with "Monsoon Wedding," "Bernarda's Daughters" and "Bees & Honey"

Diversity is sometimes thought of as the vegetable of theatrical offerings: something that we theater lovers should include in the diet of things we consume because it’s "good" for us. But maybe we should be thinking of it as the spice that can bring some zest to the theatrical mix. At least that’s what I’ve been thinking after seeing three recent shows that have found new flavors in familiar tropes by unabashedly rooting themselves in the customs and language of cultures whose stories we’re only now beginning to see onstage.  

Monsoon Wedding. This musical adaptation of Mira Nair’s 2001 film that is now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse through June 25 puts Indian culture in the spotlight. Its book by Arpita Mukherjee and Sabrina Dhawan sticks close to Nair’s original story about the complications surrounding an arranged marriage between a wealthy New Delhi girl and the American-reared son of an Indian family who live in the U.S. Maybe too close (click here to read more about the adaptation). 

It might have worked better if Mukherjee and Dhawan had gotten rid of some of the film’s ancillary relatives and their storylines and instead, focused on the main couple, who are here charmingly played by Salena Qureshi and Deven Kolluri. And the score, with music by Vishal Bhardwaj and lyrics by Masi Asare and Susan Birkenhead, is only so-so, a motley mix of show tunes and Bollywood-style bangers that, with the exception of a ballad or two, drift in one ear and out the other.

But Nair, who conceived and directed the show, understands that at its heart Monsoon Wedding is a riff on a Shakespearean comedy, complete with high and low humor and multiple marriages at its end. She makes it her own by leaning into the details that make up modern Indian life, be it the lingering respect for familial ties, the colloquial Hindi that's sprinkled throughout the script or the splashy production numbers reminiscent of those in Bollywood films. 

In the end, it’s fun to see a cast of some two dozen Indian actors filling the stage and having such a good time doing so. And it was just as gratifying to see so many South Asian people in the audience with big smiles on their faces.

Bernarda’s Daughters. Five Haitian-American sisters in contemporary Flatbush anchor Diane Exavier’s retelling of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia-Lorca’s classic drama The House of Bernarda Alba that is being given a joint production by National Black Theatre and The New Group at the Signature Center through June 4. 

Exavier peppers her version of this story of frustrated women held back by societal restraints with bits of French and Creole and with references to Brooklyn landmarks and lore. All of it clearly hit home with many members of the audience the night I saw the show. But I have to confess that it didn’t work as well for me. 

The show’s set is basically empty, save for some boxes and floor pillows, and so oddly constructed that at times important scenes can only be seen by some portions of the audience. Dominique Rider’s direction was just as poorly focused and the actors came across as though they were performing in different plays, although Pascale Armand and Tamara Tunie do manage to bring some gravitas to the roles of the eldest sister and the girls’ grandmother. 

But again, the people sitting around me seemed to delight in the show’s insider jokes, its politics (anti-gentrification) and just in the fact that so many black women were sharing a stage together. It wasn’t just the larger than usual number of black people in the audience enjoying it either. The young white guy sitting in front of me was one of the first to jump up at the end to show his appreciation with a standing ovation.

Bees & Honey. It’s usually a put-down when you say that a show resembles a romcom but Guadalís Del Carmen’s two-hander about the relationship between a Dominican couple in Washington Heights playing at MCC through June 11 is an endearing delight. 

That’s partly because guided by Melissa Crespo’s deft direction, there’s such terrific chemistry between the actors Maribel Martinez and Xavier Pacheco. But the show also works because, Del Carmen has her couple Jahaira and Manuel sidestep the usual stereotypes by making them specific and relatable people. 

There's no gangbanging. Or immigration angst. Jahaira is a lawyer rising through the ranks at the D.A.’s office; Manuel owns an auto-repair shop and is successful enough that he’s planning to expand to other boroughs. She reads bell hooks; he relaxes with videogames. They both love eating sancocho and dancing bachata. Each lapses into Spanish when feeling agitated or amorous. 

This time, the larger than usual number of audience members at my performance were Latino and they clearly identified with the characters, laughing heartily at jokes the rest of us knew to be funny, even if we weren’t entirely sure why. 

But none of these shows made me feel shut out, even when the characters spoke a few words in languages I don’t know. Rather, I felt as though I were being given a chance to share in an experience I hadn’t seen onstage before. 

These aren’t perfect shows. I particularly disliked the serious issues—child sexual abuse in Monsoon Wedding, police shootings of young black men in Bernarda’s Daughters, the legal system’s inadequate response to rape victims in Bees & Honey—that seemed shoehorned into each show, perhaps in misguided attempts to make them relevant to wider audiences. 

We don’t need that kind of pandering. We just need more chances like these to see new stories, or even old ones, reflected through a refreshingly new gaze.

May 20, 2023

Celebrating The 50th Anniversary of TOFT

No review posting today but I’m thrilled to be able to share the news that Patrick Hoffman, the director and curator of The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at New York's Library for the Performing Arts (TOFT), has invited me to interview him about the archive’s 50th anniversary and the wonderful exhibit that Patrick and his colleagues have put together to celebrate it.  This free event will take place on June 1 at 6 p.m. in the library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium. You can register to join us by clicking here.

May 16, 2023

"The Cotillion" Looks at the Very Complex Demands Put on Middle-Class Black Women

Regular readers will know that I usually post my reviews on Saturdays but I’m changing things up this week because the show I want to talk about has a short run and the performance I recently saw wasn’t as well-attended as I think it should have been so I want to get the word out about it. That show is The Cotillion, which New Georges and the Movement Theater Company are jointly presenting at A.R.T./New York only through May 27.

The show, whose full official title is The Harriet Holland Social Club Presents the 84th Annual Star-Burst Cotillion in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel, first drew my attention when I learned that it was centered around the seldom-discussed debutante balls in which young African-American women are introduced into society. 

Such ceremonies are usually associated with wealthy, white women in Regency-era novels, which makes sense because the first-ever debutante ball is believed to have been thrown in 1780 by King George III in honor of his wife Charlotte’s birthday (fans of the Netflix series “Bridgerton” can make of that what you will). But black folks here in the U.S. have been conducting similar events since 1895 (click here to read more about that).  

For their champions, these lavish affairs are demonstrations that prove young black women can be as poised and polished as any other girls. For their detractors, these events are a shameful display of class, caste and colorism within the black community. 

Now, here’s where I have to admit that I was a debutante—albeit a reluctant one—in my teens and I still have ambivalent feelings about cotillions. But they offer the kind of story about the black community that still rarely gets told onstage and so I was curious to see what this play would do with the subject.  

I’m happy to report that Colette Robert, who both wrote and directed The Cotillion, not only deals fairly with both sides of the debate but has come up with a simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking way to present it. 

The 100-minute play unfolds in 14 scenes that are supposed to represent the sequence of events in a cotillion hosted by the fictional Harriet Holland Social Club, whose members are drawn from the most affluent and successful black people in the local community of a major metropolitan city. 

We in the audience, arrayed around three-quarters of the playing area, have been assigned the role of stand-ins for the family, friends and other supporters attending the affair. As we enter the theater, a terrific female quartet, accompanied by a swinging three-piece combo, is singing Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a taxonomy of the different kinds of stereotypes to which black women have been subjected over the centuries (click here for more on that).

A few more upbeat tunes follow and then there are welcome speeches from two of the social club’s officers. It’s clear from the start that these women, deliciously played by Jehan O. Young and Akyiaa Wilson, don’t see eye to eye but that both are dedicated to the mission of celebrating the accomplishments of the debutantes, giving them that rare moment to feel special and crowning the one who best represents the image they want the rest of the world to appreciate about black women.

The six contestants are introduced and, as one might expect, each represents some aspect of the black middle and upper class. Among them are the legacy who’s afraid she can’t live up to the standards set by her high-achieving family, the daughter of strivers who's determined to succeed but doesn’t have as much financial or social currency as the others and the young lesbian who is trying to honor the traditions of the evening without compromising herself. 

There isn't enough time to dig into any of their stories but it's fun to watch as the girls go through the rituals of fixing their hair and stuffing themselves into flouncy white dresses (kudos to hair & wig wrangler Nikiya Mathis and costume designer Mika Eubanks) and as they perform elaborate curtseys, stumble through the steps of antiquated quadrilles and join their dads in the requisite father-daughter dance (none of the men are shown; instead the actresses mime partnering with them). 

But as the evening proceeds, Robert broadens her canvas and deepens her sense of purpose to consider how such rituals echo the ways that black women were treated on the auction block during slavery, by the 19th  century quadroon balls in which wealthy white men selected mixed-race women to be their concubines or in the modern-day settings in which black women are required to look and behave in a prescribed way in order to be deemed acceptable (the Crown Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of hairstyle and hair texture such as braids and afros, has only been adapted by 18 of the 50 states).  

Robert doesn’t issue a final verdict on cotillions. Or on the broader issue of respectability politics. But, as she says on the play’s website, The Cotillion reflects “the messy, beautiful, ugly complications of living in this country.” (Click here to read more of what she had to say.)  

I still don’t know how I feel about cotillions but in the final moment of this play I found myself sighing in deep and uncomfortable recognition of the conundrum they raise. 



May 6, 2023

Reveling in the 2022-23 Awards Season

And so it’s begun. The last show of Broadway’s 2022-23 season—a revival of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 meditation on white allyship—opened on April 27. And that's set off a flood of awards nominations, including the ones this week for the Tonys.

The Drama League got things going with its nominations for both on and off-Broadway productions (click here to see its choices) and will announce its winners on May 19.  

The Outer Critics Circle, for whom I serve as a nominator, announced our slate of on and off-Broadway nominees a couple of days later (click here to read them); we’ll announce our winners on May 15 and celebrate them in an awards ceremony at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on May 25. 

Then the Drama Desk (I’m a voting member of that one) announced its candidates for the season’s best productions on Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway (click here for those) and it will hand out its prizes on June 6.

The rules and even the eligibility dates vary from group to group but a consensus does seem to have formed around which were the best Broadway shows. Each of the groups put Tom Stoppard’s Holocaust drama Leopoldstadt on their lists and all three nominated the musicals & Juliet, a jukebox musical riff on Shakespeare set to pop songs by Max Martin; Shucked, a comedy about corn with a joke-stoked book by Robert Horn and music by country songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally; and Some Like It Hot, Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin’s updating of that classic movie comedy with a score by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. 

In the revival categories, the awards groups agreed on Ohio State Murders, Adrienne Kennedy’s seldom seen meditation on toxic racism, for best play; and Parade, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s rendering of an antisemitic lynching, as the best musical.  And now the Tonys have confirmed those choices, while adding others—including a few surprises.

Joining the already Olivier-honored Leopoldstadt for the Tony honor of best play are three Pulitzer Prize winners that have only now made it to Broadway: Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living and James Ijames’ Fat Ham, each of which also snagged nominations for actors in their casts. 

Rounding out the best play category is Ain’t No Mo’, a satire about a government program that addresses the race problem by giving every black person in the U.S. a one-way ticket to Africa. 

Ain’t No Mo's spot on the list is a bit of a surprise since the show ran for just 23 performances in December but it’s racked up six nominations, including one for its director and a featured acting nod for its 26-year-old playwright Jordan E. Cooper who also appeared in the play as a no-nonsense flight attendant named Peaches.

For best musical, Some Like It Hot, Shucked and & Juliet were joined by New York, New York, a paean to the city built around numbers from the songbook of 96-year-old John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; and Kimberly Akimbo, the musical that Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire adapted from his play about a 16-year-old girl with a rare genetic condition that prematurely ages her. 

That same production of Kimberly Akimbo won the top prize from all the other critics’ groups (including the New York Drama Critics Circle) when it played off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater in the 2021-22 season and it’s been a frontrunner for the Tony since it opened on Broadway last November. But it now looks as though it may have to beat back competition from Some Like It Hot, which earned 13 Tony nominations, more than any other show this year.

But the hottest races may be in the revival categories. Ohio State Murders didn’t make the cut for the Tonys (although its star Audra McDonald did get a nomination—her 10th—for her performance). Instead, the best play revival contest is between August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (both Pulitzer winners; are you detecting a trend?) and playwright Amy Herzog's new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic feminist drama A Doll’s House

And the showdown is even more intense in the revived musicals category with Parade facing off against two beloved Stephen Sondheim shows, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd: The Demond Barber of Fleet Street; and a new version of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot, updated by Aaron Sorkin (you can check out all the Tony nominations here). 

As you might imagine, I’ve spent the last few days doing almost nothing but thinking and talking about these awards. I’m delighted to be able to say that I tied for second place on the Gold Derby awards site’s list of theater “experts” who predicted which shows, actors and other creatives would get Tony nominations (click here to see more about that). 

I also spent an hour on Tuesday afternoon talking about the Tony choices with a panel of folks convened by the Theatre Development Fund (you can listen to that by clicking here). And two days after that, I again joined Adam Feldman of Time Out New York and Helen Shaw of The New Yorker to record an episode on the Tonys for my pal Patrick Pacheco’s show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts,” which will air later this month.  

I’m a little talked out right now. But that won’t last long. The one big takeaway I’ve had this week is that the 2022-23 season was a damn good one and I don’t think I’m done with it yet, especially since this year’s Pulitzer awards are scheduled to be announced next week. Plus, believe it or not, I’ve already begun lining up shows to see for the 2023-24 season. So I hope you’ll come back here and join me for all of it.

April 15, 2023

A "Camelot" That's Not the Most Shining Spot

O.K., so here’s the dilemma: when you revive a classic show that has problematic elements (and which of them doesn’t?) should you keep it the way it was written or update it for modern sensibilities? The new production of Camelot, which opened in Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater this week, chose the latter. And I’m not sure that was a good idea.

Camelot has always been problematic. Its score by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner is delightful and filled with gorgeous ballads like “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” but Lerner’s book, adapted from T. H. White's fantasy novel “The Once and Future King” with its story of the love triangle between King Arthur, his queen Guenevere and the cocky knight Sir Lancelot has always been clunky.  

That was in part because Lerner had a mental breakdown during the writing of the show and its director Moss Hart suffered a heart attack during rehearsals, all of that making it even more difficult than usual for the creative team to agree on what to cut, what to add and how to refine the end product.  

The reviews were understandably mixed but the appearance of four numbers on TV host Ed Sullivan’s popular variety show caused ticket buyers to line up, resulting in the show’s running for nearly 900 performances and winning five Tonys, including one for Richard Burton’s portrayal of the cuckolded king. 

But the show’s greatest claim to fame may be the fact that a week after JFK’s assassination, his widow Jackie Kennedy gave an interview in which she compared his brief time in office with the mythical Arthur’s hopes for a utopian society that would be just for all its inhabitants, or as the title song's lyrics say "Once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot."

The current problem with the show—no surprise—rests in the book’s treatment of Guenevere. Even though Julie Andrews leant her trademark sparkle to the role in the original production, Guenevere is basically just a trophy wife for the guys to fight over.  

So when the director Bart Sher decided to revive Camelot, he also decided that it need a book that reflected more updated views about women and he drafted his buddy Aaron Sorkin to supply them (click here to read more about that).

For his part, Sher has cast the show well and created some beautiful stage pictures. The opening image of the show as Arthur’s knights emerge to greet the arriving Guenevere is spectacular. But the show never hits that height again, not even in the terrific swordplay choreographed by the legendary fight director B.H. Barry (click here to read more about him).  

And what’s up with Michael Yeargan’s scenery? Why is the tree in which Arthur is supposed to be hiding at the beginning of the play so spindly that it looks unable to support a canary, less than a king?  And where is the round table that’s supposed to be the symbol of equality in Arthur’s realm?

Still, I’m afraid most of the blame for this revisal’s failings have to be laid at Sorkin’s door. As he’s said in many interviews, Sorkin decided to excise the magical elements that animated the original production. So Merlin is no longer a wizard but simply a wise tutor. Even the story of Arthur’s claiming the throne by drawing the sword Excalibur from a stone is given a rational explanation. 

And this being a Sorkin jam, there’s a lot of West Wing-style talk about good government. Don’t get me wrong, I love his TV series “The West Wing;” but I’m not sure it would make a good musical.  

Some of the changes come off as tone-deaf pandering: the character Morgan Le Fey is no longer a sorceress but a scientist (really, a woman scientist in the Early Middle Ages?) and given so little to do that the character’s one song, the lovely ballad “Follow Me,” has been cut, which hardly seems female-friendly.

Just as egregiously, Guenevere now comes off as the kind of smarter-than-everyone-else heroine that turns up in so many YA novels, Meanwhile Arthur is pretty much a nebbish. Lancelot is left largely alone but as a result seems to have wandered in from some other show. 

Phillipa Soo looks and sings like a queen but she seems too—how should I say it—modern for the story’s historical setting. Still she fares better than Andrew Burnap, whose Arthur seems like an emo lightweight, until the final few scenes by which time it was too late to get me onboard.  

Jordan Donica, tall, hunky and blessed with a marvelous voice, would seem to be a perfect choice for Lancelot (click here for more about him) but he lacks the knowing humor that Robert Goulet brought to the role. In fact there’s too little humor in this updating. And what there is relies mainly on groaner jokes that someone as skilled as Sorkin shouldn’t have let in. 

Those determined to put on classic musicals may have more choices than I suggested at the beginning of this review. They can lean into nostalgia as Sher successfully did with his sumptuous productions of South Pacific and The King and I.  

Or they can go the celebrity route and turn the shows into star vehicles as Jerry Zaks did for Bette Midler in the recent revival of Hello, Dolly and as just about everyone has done with Gypsy

Or they can take the Shakespeare route, hewing close to the original text and the original songs but finding new ways to frame them as Daniel Fish did with his "sexy "Oklahoma, or Marianne Elliott did with her gender-flipped Company and as even Ivo van Hove did with his controversial production of West Side Story .

Or—and I’m thinking this may be the best way to go so that we don’t have to lose direct access to those golden scores (this time out, the original orchestrations for Camelot’s are terrifically played by a 30-piece orchestra)they can just do concert versions of the shows that don’t have to wrestle with the problematic elements, which may require different responses in future days anyway. 

April 8, 2023

"Life of Pi" Ponders the Mysteries of Faith

It somehow feels appropriate during this Easter-Passover weekend to note that a lot of shows both on and off Broadway have been wrestling with faith this season (click here to read more about some of them). Maybe that’s because the pandemic has pushed thoughts about belief and mortality to centerstage for so many of us. Whatever the reason, I’ve been particularly struck by how New York audiences—almost defiant in their secularism—have received these shows and it’s been particularly interesting to check out the response to Life of Pi, which recently opened on Broadway. 

As you probably know, Life of Pi is based on Yann Martel’s metaphysical novel about an Indian zookeeper’s son named Pi who survives a shipwreck after being stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with, he tells his rescuers, a Bengal tiger as his only companion. 

A precocious teen, Pi had regularly attended a Christian church, a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple before political unrest in his homeland caused his family to pack their animals onto a cargo ship and head for Canada. But a storm strikes and the boat sinks, drowning everyone, including Pi’s mother, father, sister and most of their menagerie. Left alone, Pi calls on both his faith and his own ingenuity to help him survive—and to fend off that tiger.

This has proven to be a crowd-pleasing story. The novel sold over 10 million copies and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002.  A 2012 film directed by Ang Lee grossed over $600 million worldwide and won four Oscars, including for best direction. More recently, this staged production, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Max Webster, won five Olivier awards for its run on London’s West End.  

But somehow this was my first experience with any version of "Life of Pi" and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Was the whole story going to unfold on the boat?  Would the tiger be portrayed by an actor dressed in mufti as Robin Williams did a decade ago when he played the title role in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo or as a lumbering animatronic creature like the ape in the 2018 production of King Kong?  And would the spirituality be overly reverent or ridiculed? The answers turn out to be no, neither and determined to find a middle path.

The show opens in the hospital room where Pi is recuperating and his tale unfolds in a series of flashbacks. The set design by Tim Hartley flows almost cinematically between the sterility of the hospital, the colorful world Pi and his family leave behind and his alternately desolate and ecstatic experiences on the water. Lighting designer Tim Lutkin and video designer Andrzej Goulding provide award-worthy service when it comes to recreating the storm and the subsequent sense of being adrift at sea. 

The animals were designed by master puppet makers Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes and range from delightful fluttering birds and leaping fish to the menacing life-sized tiger, who, through a series of events too complicated to explain here, is named Robert Parker. Onstage puppeteers skillfully manipulate all these creatures and although the humans are always visible, the effect is often magical (click here to read more about how they do it).

Even critics uncomfortable with the show's religious undertones—most of them—have readily marveled at its stagecraft. But I don’t want to shortchange the actual performances, particularly that of the Sri Lankan actor Hiran Abeysekera, who plays Pi with a combination of wit, physical dexterity and the ability to convincingly play a teen even though the actor, who never leaves the stage, is actually in his late 30s (click here to read more about him).

All of this has been sensationally orchestrated by Weber, even if he does lean a bit too heavily into the show's humorous moments. Still, the point of Life of Pi is to make the case for faith. My theatergoing buddy Bill tells me that the movie is more overt in its spirituality and I suspect the book probably is too. But theater began as religious ritual and so it seems fitting that this version remind us believers and non-believers alike that we all need stories, myths and gospels to help us survive. Or at least that’s what I believe.

April 1, 2023

Swooning—Once Again—For "Sweeney Todd"

People always ask people like me—people who've been blessed with the opportunity to see lots and lots of shows—what our favorites are. I tend to hem and haw when it comes to plays (sometimes it’s How I Learned to Drive; sometimes it’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; other times it’s Death of a Salesman or Long Day’s Journey Into Night). But there’s no question when it comes to my favorite musical: it’s Sweeney Todd. 

Before its latest revival opened last week, I’d seen five major productions of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s masterful retelling of the tale of the barber who goes on a throat-slitting spree while seeking revenge on the judge who destroyed his life when he sentenced the barber to a penal colony on falsified charges, ravaged his wife and virtually imprisoned their young daughter Johanna under the guise of making her the judge’s ward. It’s melodrama at its best and the score is arguably (or at least I would argue) Sondheim’s greatest. Which, of course, is saying something.

Knowing of my deep love for the show, my dear husband K worried that I might be let down by this new production that stars Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. So I’m both delighted and relieved to be able to say that this Sweeney lived up to, and maybe even surpassed, my expectations.

Now I wasn’t the only one who had worried. Some skeptics had predicted that Groban, an émigré from the pop world who has sold over 25 million records, wouldn’t be up to the challenge of playing such a demanding stage role. But a truly great role—and Sweeny Todd is a great role—can be interpreted in many ways (click here to read about how some have done it). 

Groban, who studied theater before becoming a pop star (click here to learn more about him) doesn’t try to be as wild-eyed or scary as some of his predecessors have played the part. Instead he leans into the disorienting, almost numbing, grief that all the tragic things that have happened might trigger in Sweeney. And for me, it was easier to feel the pain of this more human-sized man. 

Plus, there’s Groban’s glorious baritone. He sings the hell out of Sondheim’s almost operatic arias, including "Epiphany," which rivals the famous "Soliloquy" that Sondheim's mentor Oscar Hammerstein and his partner Richard Rodgers wrote for their bad boy Billy Bigelow in Carousel.

On the other hand, almost no one doubted that Annaleigh Ashford would be right for Sweeney’s loony landlady and partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett, who not only tolerates his butchery of the men who climb into his barber’s chair but comes up with the idea of baking their remains into the pies that she sells in her shop downstairs. 

Ashford has been working her way through some of the best comedic roles in the Broadway canon over the past decade and a half and picked up a Tony award along the way. Here she crafts a Mrs. Lovett who is earthier and more antic than the iconic character that Angela Lansbury created in the original 1979 production but one who is just as endearing. 

Together, Ashford and Groban make such a symbiotic and sexy pair that you’re almost rooting for them to make it. Which, in turn, makes the end of their relationship all the more poignant. 

In fact almost all the principal actors in the cast play the emotions of their characters, rather than broadly portraying them as the stock figures in the cheap 19th century penny dreadfuls in which Sweeney’s story was first told. 

In her Broadway debut, Maria Bilbao uses her soaring soprano to underscore the captive Johanna’s yearning to escape the cage in which the judge has entrapped her. Meanwhile Gaten Matarazzo mines every bit of pathos from the vain promise that Tobias, the boy who works in the pie shop, makes to Mrs. Lovett that nothing will harm her while he’s around. And Ruthie Ann Miles turns the neighborhood Beggar Woman into the haunting presence she was always meant to be.

But when you get right down to it, the score has always been the true star of Sweeney Todd.  And here, it’s performed by a 26-member orchestra, playing the magnificent original orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick (who, in full disclosure, is a family friend but who is also the indisputable dean of Broadway orchestrators). This is a show you could enjoy with your eyes closed.

Of course, you don’t have to and for that I’m going to give props to director Thomas Kail. At a time when so many directors seem hell bent on showing that they're auteurs who can put their distinctive stamp on any show, Kail, whose inventive staging for Hamilton proves that he can stamp with the best of them, has taken an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach here: he isn’t copying Hal Prince’s original concept but he isn’t wiggling away from it either. 

Kail roots his Sweeney firmly in Victorian London and he’s brought in Natasha Katz to supply the moody lighting for Mimi Lien’s deceptively simple set and movement master Steven Hoggett to devise some smart choreography for the large ensemble, which has been handsomely dressed by Emilio Sosa. 

I could go on and on but I'm going to give the final words to Sondheim himself and if you're a theater lover, you'll heed them: Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.

March 25, 2023

"A Doll's House" is Chic But Underfurnished

Despite the projection of the date 1879 on the brick wall at the back of the Hudson Theatre, the new revival of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House could be taking place in some cool Brooklyn neighborhood today. For everyone on stage is dressed in hipster black outfits. Minimalism is so prioritized that there’s no set and no props, except for some wooden chairs. And when wanting to express deep frustration, its main character Nora just utters the word “Fuck.”

 As you might be able to tell, I wasn’t thrilled with British director Jamie Lloyd’s riff on this classic proto-feminist drama about a 19th century woman finding the courage to break out of the restrictions that society has imposed on her. 

Now I do appreciate the need for revivals to make old works relevant to modern times. Although I didn't see Lloyd's Cyrano de Bergerac, which played at BAM last year, I very much liked his production of Betrayal that ran on Broadway in 2019. Both of them shared the same stripped-down aesthetic as this new production does—and did so to general acclaim. But no one-size-fits-all approach works for every show. 

And alas, Lloyd is showing signs of becoming a straight-play version of John Doyle, whose innovation of having the actors in his musicals accompany themselves on instruments started out as a novel idea but eventually became an annoying gimmick. 

Another Lloyd tic seems to be the casting of famous screen actors in his productions. Tom Hiddleston anchored Betrayal, James McAvoy starred in Cyrano and now Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain is his Nora. Chastain's centrality to this production is on display even before the show starts: when audience members enter the theater, she’s sitting silently in one of the wooden chairs as a turntable revolves so that she can be seen—and photographed—from every angle.

The Juilliard-trained Chastain is a fine actress and she is compelling to watch here (click here to read more about her involvement in the project). She’s also backed by a strong supporting cast that includes Arian Moayed as Nora’s husband Torvald and Okieriete Onaodowan as the bank officer Krogstad. 

But the way this production presents them seems less like an actual play than the showcase night at a drama school where the best students get to show off how much they've learned. 

Meanwhile, playwright Amy Herzog’s updated adaptation softens the alpha-male characters, leaving Moayed and Onaodowan adrift, unsure what beats to play. Adding insult to injury, poor Onaodowan has apparently been directed to deliver many of his lines upstage, facing the wall.

It also doesn’t help that the plot of A Doll’s House pivots around Nora’s forging a bank document because women in her day couldn’t take out loans unless they were signed by a male relative. That obviously poses a problem for any updating because, of course, women now have direct access to their own finances. 

I get that the loan restrictions could be a metaphor for current-day attempts to control what women can and can’t do with their bodies but having the action (or lack of action in this case) take place in some timeless limbo undercuts that connection.

But even more egregiously, Herzog’s script and Lloyd’s direction fail to show Nora's evolving consciousness as she transforms from a flighty trophy wife into a strong woman with a mind of her own. And since that's the whole point of the play, I’m going to have to count this version of it as a failure.

March 18, 2023

How To Defend Yourself" Grapples With Gen-Z Concerns About Intimacy and Consent

Thousands of dollars and countless hours have been spent trying to figure out how to get young people into the theater. But I’ve got a hunch that the answer is simple: offer things they want to see and hear. I suspect that How to Defend Yourself, the bittersweet comedy of modern-day manners that opened this week at New York Theatre Workshop, is just that kind of show.

The narrative centers around a self-defense class organized by a group of college students after a couple of fraternity brothers so brutally raped a female classmate that she’s ended up in the hospital. The sessions are led by Brandi, a taut—in every sense of that word—senior who is determined to share her knowledge of the fighting techniques that she’s mastered and believes can disarm sexual predators.

The women in her class like practicing the martial arts moves (energetically choreographed by Steph Paul, one of the show’s three credited directors) but they’re more ambivalent when it comes to handling their feelings about sex. 

An eager freshman is excited about the prospect of losing her virginity to a hot guy on campus no matter what it takes. Another student is willing to hook up with just about anyone in exchange for even the slightest display of affection. While a third admits she likes it when her sex partners are a little rough.    

Two guys also come to the sessions to demonstrate their ally support but they’re even more confused. “Girls want you to read their fucking minds and then be everything to them,” one, who is perhaps too intentionally named Eggo, laments. “If you’re flirting with me, if you come up to me at a bar and press your tits on me, I’m assuming you want to fuck, sorry!”  

Such quandries about intimacy and consent are high on the list of issues that young people today are wrestling with and Eggo’s comments echo the way they talk about them. Which isn’t surprising. Playwright Liliana Padilla, who is part Asian, part Latinx and identifies as nonbinary, is just a few years out of grad school and has said that they themself are a rape survivor (click here to read more about that). 

But this isn’t a soapbox drama attempting to teach life lessons. Padilla, a winner of the 2019 Yale Drama Prize for emerging playwrights, accepts that life is messy and, allowing form to follow function, permits this play to be messy too. 

So How to Defend Yourself poses the challenging questions and then dares its audiences to figure out for ourselves what today’s young women and men should do to protect themselves—or at least to develop some compassion for those struggling to do so.

This may be frustrating for viewers who want a play that stakes out a clear position on what's right and what's wrong. But even they are likely to be entertained by this play’s bantering humor, its game cast and the kinetic staging, jointly crafted by Padilla, Paul and the always inventive Rachel Chavkin.

I’ll confess that I have no idea what the final five minutes of the play were trying to say but it probably wasn’t speaking to baby boomer me anyway. On the other hand, I happened to be sitting in the midst of a bunch of twentysomethings and I could tell by their head nods and murmurs of assent that it was speaking their language. And that’s why they were there.

March 4, 2023

"The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" Is a Sign of Better Things That Never Came

Lorraine Hansberry only lived long enough to see two of her plays produced. The first was A Raisin in the Sun, celebrated when it opened in 1959 as the first play by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway and now a revered part of the theatrical canon that has so far had five major revivals here in New York and countless others around the country. 

The second was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which limped through a three-month run that ended in 1965 just two days before Hansberry died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34 and that play has rarely been seen since then.  

So when I heard that the Brooklyn Academy of Music was giving Sidney Brustein its first major revival in New York and that it would be starring the power players Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan, I made sure to buy a ticket within an hour of they’re going on sale last year and made my way out to Brooklyn last weekend. What I saw wasn’t exactly what I expected but I’m so glad I got to see it.

Hansberry’s script is brimming with ideas and wit and passion. But it’s also filled with too many characters, meandering storylines and more political themes than a State of the Union address. “The truth must be faced,” New York Times critic Howard Taubman wrote when the original production opened, “Miss Hansberry's play lacks concision and cohesion.”

I can’t argue with that but what’s missing from Taubman's review and others at the time is an appreciation for how much ambition this play shows. For while Raisin focused almost entirely on a poor black family’s struggle to better their lives, Hansberry did something in Sidney Brustein that is still rare for playwrights of color to do: she wrote about white people. And they’re not just generic white people but the kind of white bohemians that Hansberry knew well when she lived in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

As the play opens its title character Sidney has just traded in one failing enterprise (a local nightclub that didn't serve alcohol) for another (a community newspaper that won’t engage with local politics). He can do these things because he’s financially supported by his wife Iris, a would-be actress who works as a waitress and whom he idolizes and puts down as the mood strikes him.  

Their motley crew of friends and relatives include their upstairs neighbor David, a gay playwright whose latest work has become a surprise hit; Wally, a glad-handing reform politician; Iris’ sisters Mavis, an Upper East Side matron stuck in a marriage of convenience, and Gloria, a free-spirited but fragile call girl; and Alton, a biracial ex-communist who’s in love with Gloria.  

Race aside, each of them represents an aspect of Hansberry herself, who grew up in an affluent family (her father was a big realtor in Chicago) wrote for progressive magazines before moving into playwrighting, married a white man even though she was a lesbian, and remained a committed activist who was a fellow traveler if not an out-and-out member of the communist party.  

Sidney Brustein refuses to let any of Hansberry’s disparate alter egos off the hook, zeroing in on the self-delusions of each of the characters in the play. How much, it asks, are they willing to pay for their pipe dreams? The sign in the title refers to the one that Sidney hangs when he impulsively decides to drop his apolitical stance and endorse a candidate—only to ultimately regret doing so. 

Hansberry’s efforts to wrestle with the many themes in this play can come off as pedantic in some places and as superficial in others. But much of that might have been ironed out (and the three-hour running time trimmed) if she could have focused on the play during its rehearsal period instead of literally fighting to stay alive. Her ex-husband and literary executor until his death in 1991 made some later revisions to the script but that’s hardly the same.

So kudos to director Anne Kauffman, who also did an earlier production of Sidney Brustein in Chicago back in 2016, for being such a steadfast ally of the play and for staging a production that is as engaging as most of this one is (click here to read about how it came together). 

Now there are some hiccups in the production. Some of the costumes for Iris look as though they'd be more at home on Park Avenue than in Washington Square Park. And I still can’t figure out why three of the actors set up chairs in front of the stage to watch their colleagues perform a few scenes. But Kauffman’s casting works beautifully.  

Brosnahan, now best known for her turn as a Joan Rivers-style comic in the Amazon Prime series “The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel,” is poignant here as a less assertive woman struggling to define who she is at the dawn of the modern feminist era. Meanwhile Isaac brings his trademark intensity to a man who yearns to be great but knows he lacks the capacity to be so. 

Watching them made me wish that Hansberry could see them too, and made me wish even more that she'd been able to give us lots of other works for actors and audiences to explore.

February 18, 2023

A Grateful Sixteenth Anniversary Message

So here we are celebrating—albeit slightly belatedly—the 16th anniversary of Broadway & Me. My first post went up on Feb. 14, 2007 and in the intervening years, 
I've seen so many wonderful shows (and yes, some not-so-great ones too) and I've had so many other wonderful theater-related experiences and I've loved sharing so much of all that with you. 

The most recent of those experiences was the opportunity to appear on my friend Patrick Pacheco’s TV show “THEATER: All the Moving Parts,” where I joined the theater critics Adam Feldman of Time Out New York and Helen Shaw of The New Yorker to talk about the upcoming spring theater season here in the city. You can watch our discussion by clicking here.

I’m hoping that I’ll also be able to talk to the creators of some of those new shows for my playwrights podcast “Stagecraft.” In the meantime, I’m continuing to produce my podcast "All the Drama" about the plays and musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The latest episode, which hit the feeds just last weekend, is on the 1953 winner Picnic by William Inge, who, along with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, was a titan of Broadway in the fifties but whose name isn’t as well remembered today as Williams and Millers still are (you can listen to that by clicking here).  

And finally, I want to give my continuing thanks to those of you who over the years have subscribed to and read these postings, listened to my podcasts or checked out my Flipboard magazine. I also want to extend a welcome to those of you who may have just stumbled onto this post for the first time. I'm so very grateful for all of you and I hope you will continue keeping me company as I share my joy for the theater we all love.  

February 11, 2023

"Pictures From Home" Lacks A Clear Focus


Around 1982 the photographer Larry Sultan began taking photos of his parents at their home in California’s affluent San Fernando Valley. And he kept at it over the next 10 years, finally publishing a curated selection of the images along with film stills from the family’s home movies in a book called “Pictures From Home.” 

The visual memoir was a meditation on aging, an investigation into the ways we create images of ourselves and a commentary on the American Dream. And now, the playwright Sharr White has turned all of that into a play also called Pictures From Home that opened this week at Studio 54.

A photo album, even one as artful and acclaimed as Sultan’s (click here to see more about it), is unusual source material for a play and I want to applaud such originality. So that makes it even more disappointing for me to have to tell you that White and his director Bartlett Sher haven't been as creative in transferring the book's complexities to the stage. 

Sultan died in 2009 at the age of 63 but, using texts from the book and taped interviews he conducted with his folks as he worked on the project (many of the quotes are used verbatim in the play), White has tried to imagine what the dynamics were between the Sultans during that decade-long process of working on the book and what motivated each of them to stick with it through to its conclusion (click here to read more about the transfer process).

Irving Sultan moved his family from Brooklyn to California in the early ‘50s to make a better life for his wife and kids (there were actually two other sons who are mentioned but don’t appear in the play). He succeeded, working his way up from a traveling salesman in hard-to-sell markets and into the executive suite at the Schick razor blade company before being pushed into early retirement. 

White and Sher are helped immeasurably in bringing that journey to life by an all-star cast consisting of Danny Burstein as Sultan, Zoë Wanamaker making the most of a smaller role as his mother Jean and most especially by Nathan Lane as his dad. 

Lane perfectly captures the alpha-male pride of the self-made man, the mid-century allegiance to American exceptionalism and the underlying uneasiness that things won’t be the same for his son who, despite all the differences between them, he deeply loves. And of course being Nathan Lane, he also wrings every bit of humor out of White’s text and then adds some more equally entertaining bits of his own for good measure.  

And yet the play’s center doesn’t quite hold. In fact, I had a hard time finding a center. Arguments about why Sultan is photographing his parents, how long the project is taking and whether art is more important than real life are repeated and then repeated again. Attempts at insights into the bonds that hold this family together are proclaimed in big speeches toward the end of the play but little groundwork is laid for them earlier and the revelations seem to come out of nowhere.  

Photos from the book of the real-life Sultans are projected on the back wall of the stage throughout the 105-minute performance and both my eye and mind kept drifting to them and away from the live action going on in front of them. Like the best art, those images not only invite you to look at them but prod you to look at yourself. Alas, that artfulness doesn't make the transfer from the page to the stage.

February 4, 2023

Cozy At-Home Theater for a Cold Weekend

A frigid cold front is sweeping across a large part of the country this weekend. And that can be a disincentive to go outside for even the most avid theatergoer. Luckily, there are—thanks to the internet—other options for us theater junkies. I’m going to suggest just a few of my current faves before snuggling up with my own remote control and a mug of tea.

My So-Called High School Rank: This awkwardly named but terrific documentary starts off as the story of how two high-school drama teachers wrote a musical in 2019 inspired by the pressure so many of their students felt to get into a top-rated college. Word of the show quickly traveled to other schools around the country who asked for permission to stage their own productions.  

The filmmakers focused in on the auditions and rehearsals at three of them: one in an affluent California community largely populated by highly-educated immigrants working in the upper levels of the tech industry and dreaming of even more successful careers for their kids; the second in a white working-class community in rural West Virginia where theater takes a backseat to sports; and the third at an arts high school in the Bronx where nearly all of the students are Black and Hispanic and hoping that their talent will push open doors to opportunities their parents never had. 

But the narrative really kicks into high drive when Covid arrives. The schools lockdown and all of the kids struggle to find ways to still put on their shows. The results in this 90-minute doc are both heartbreaking and heartwarming and a potent reminder of how theater really can change lives, particularly young ones. You can find it on HBOMax.

Kiss Me, Petruchio: The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions have been a beloved summer tradition in New York for over six decades but one of the most fondly remembered of its shows still remains the 1978 production of The Taming of The Shrew with Raúl Juliá as Petruchio and Meryl Streep as Kate. 

Beautiful and sexy, both actors were also full of the sass that comes from working with a scene partner who is as game and talented as the other. So it’s great fun to watch the back and forth between their characters in this classic battle of the sexes. But it’s even more of a treat to view the interviews the two gave backstage as dressers tighten Streep’s corset before one performance while she talks about bringing a feminist perspective to her role and as Juliá towels off sweat during an intermission while also explaining the importance of adding the rhythms of his native Puerto Rico to Shakespeare’s speeches. You can see it all for free on YouTube.

Streep, of course, is still with us, even if not onstage as much as we might want. But Juliá died in 1994 when he was just 54. His premature death was greatly mourned by the theater community, which you can also see in the documentary that the PBS “American Masters” series did on his life and which you can find here.

Between Riverside and Crazy: Second Stage’s current revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis' dramedy is still playing at the Helen Hayes Theater through Feb. 19 but the company is also simulcasting performances during the final two weeks of the show’s run. 

I finally caught up with the onstage version a couple of weeks ago and it’s as thoroughly entertaining as it was when I saw the off-Broadway production back in 2014 (click here to read my review). 

The plot centers around a Black ex- cop who is battling his landlord to stay in a large rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive (that provides part of the show’s title) and battling the police department over the compensation he feels he’s owed because a white cop shot and disabled him (which supplies the other part of the title).  

However the true joy of this Pulitzer Prize-winner rests in the colorful characters Guirgis has created and the even more colorful language—simultaneously scatological and lyrical—that he’s crafted for them to speak. 

Most of the original cast has returned, including the invaluable Stephen McKinley Henderson who has nestled himself even more snuggly into the role-of-a-lifetime that Guirgis reportedly wrote specifically for him. 

The ticket price for each of the dozen or so remaining simulcast performances is $77, including a $9 service fee, and you can find out more about those shows by clicking here. I haven’t seen any of them so far but my blogger pal Jonathan Mandell has and he compares the experiences of seeing the show live and online in a recent posting that you can check out here.

There are other screen options too, including the latest installment of Paula Vogel's Bard at the Gate series. You can find that and some others on the TDF site by clicking here. Whichever you choose, have a great time and stay warm.

January 28, 2023

Why the OCC (and Me) Made the Switch to More Gender-Inclusive Acting Awards

Giving awards can be tricky. We all want to—and should—celebrate extraordinary theatrical talent. But every time one person is ushered into the winner’s circle, a whole lot of other folks are left out of it. And adding insult to injury, it's often been really hard for some outsiders to find a way in at all. 

In the not-so-distant past, most of those who took home the honors and trophies looked like one another: lots of white men and some white women. That’s begun to change over the past few years in the wake of the reckonings brought on by the #OscarSoWhite and We See You White American Theater campaigns and the representation reports issued by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. 

So more opportunities to make their way into the circle have opened up for a wider range of people and some of those people have been really, really talented: seven of the last 10 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama have been playwrights of color.  

But there’s still more work to be done to level the playing field. Which is why I’m taking time out from talking about shows I’ve recently seen to note that this week the Outer Critics Circle announced that it is eliminating gendered acting categories.  

So instead of giving awards for, say, Outstanding Actor in a Play and Outstanding Actress in a Play, the OCC will now celebrate the Outstanding Performer in a Play, regardless of whether that performer is male, female or nonbinary.

I sit on the OCC’s executive board and although our deliberations are private, I’m going to out myself by admitting that the decision was complicated for me. I worried that we might end up with a slate of all male-identifying performers since they get so many more of the attention-grabbing roles. Only 37% of the 233 principal roles in the 30 new shows that opened on Broadway in 2018 were for women (click here to read more about that). 

Those numbers clearly run the risk of putting female performers at a disadvantage if all performances are being weighed against one another. But after doing a lot of reading, talking and soul searching, I also came to the conclusion that nonbinary actors were at an even greater disadvantage. Fitting into neither the category of Outstanding Actor or Actress, left no place for them be considered at all, unless they shoehorned themselves into a misnomer category (click here to read about one actor's experience). 

Changing the awards to Outstanding Performance in a Male or Female Role seemed like an option. But playwrights and musical book writers have begun creating characters like May in & Juliet or Daphne in Some Like It Hot who don’t fit into those slots either. Which meant, at least for me, that there was only one way to go.

And in the end, the board rethought entirely how we would distribute our acting awards. Now instead of dividing them by who’s doing them, we’re dividing them by where they’re being done. So there will now be awards for actors in Broadway shows and for those performing Off-Broadway. This evens things up in a different way since fantastic work by actors in smaller productions has long been overshadowed by that of their peers in big Broadway shows. 

But of course, awards tend to say as much, if not more, about the people giving them as the people receiving them. So it’s incumbent on all of us who see shows, lobby for favorites on social media or actually vote—be it for the OCC, Drama Desk, Drama League, New York Drama Critics or Tony awards—to make sure that it is as fair and easy as possible for any of the most talented performers, regardless of celebrity, ethnicity, gender identity or physical ability, to get into that winner’s circle.   

January 14, 2023

Finally Seduced by "Phantom of the Opera"

January can be a quiet time on Broadway. Lots of shows close (click here for a list of some of them). Very few open. Which makes it a good time to catch up with the ones still running that you might have missed earlier. And in my case that meant seeing Phantom of the Opera.  

Yes, I know the show opened back in 1988 when Ronald Reagan was president and that it has been running for the last 35 years. But it was such a hot ticket in its early days that I couldn’t get one and over the years—maybe the result of sour grapes—I convinced myself that it was a badge of honor that I hadn’t seen the most popular and successful show in Broadway history. But then came the news that Phantom was going to close.  

So I went. I saw. And although I can’t say I got conquered, I will concede that I now understand why people so love this show. It’s got insider jokes about opera for highbrow folks, Grand Guignol melodrama for the hoi polloi and lush hummable melodies that everyone can enjoy. Plus there’s the dangling chandelier.

As you surely know, Andrew Lloyd Webber was inspired to create the musical by the 1910 French novel by Gaston Leroux and recruited Charles Hart to write the lyrics and Richard Stilgoe to adapt the book. The story centers around a mysterious outsider who wears a mask and lives in the catacombs underneath the Paris Opera House, where he has become dangerously obsessed with a fledgling soprano named Christine Daaé. 

The spectacle-filled production staged by Hal Prince—a corps de ballet, a masquerade ball, a lagoon complete with a gondola and a chandelier that crashes down from the ceiling—opened to rave reviews in London in 1986. 

“It may be hokum,” wrote The Guardian's august critic Michael Billington, “but it is hokum here treated with hand on heart rather than tongue in cheek.” By the time the show made it to Broadway 18 months later, it had a $16 million advance and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. 

Phantom went on to win seven Tony awards including Best Musical. And, of course, it’s run forever. Or at least it’s run so long that many of the people who now see it can’t remember when it wasn't around. The guy sitting next to me told me he had brought his mother for her 65th birthday because she’d been wanting to see it since he was a kid; one of the two young women sitting behind me regaled her friend before the show and during intermission with her memories of having seen it as a girl.

I sat there thinking about what the show would have been like when Michael Crawford’s poignant performance of the love-crazed Phantom turned him into a Tony-winning star and, for a while, a sex symbol, while Lloyd Webber’s then-wife Sarah Brightman hit the crystalline high notes he’d written for Christine to sing. I also imagined how it must have been to see the show before it had become so familiar that people started applauding the moment something or someone appeared onstage. 

And yet, I still had a good time. I laughed at the corny jokes and I swayed to the tunes that were familiar to me even though this was my first time seeing them performed onstage. I loved the spectacle of Maria Bjornson’s witty costumes and lavish sets. 

It was particularly lovely to see the young dark-skinned actress Emilie Kouatchou making her Broadway debut as Christine and being so warmly embraced by a mostly-white audience (although it would also have been nice to see a few more black faces in the ensemble so it didn’t look as though she were the only black person in Paris). 

I left the Majestic Theatre (and it really is a majestic theater) happy that I’d seen Phantom but also a little sad that the show, which has become as iconic as the Phantom’s mask, is leaving. It’s not the best show I’ve ever seen. It’s not hip in the way that Hamilton is. Or as contemporarily innovative and diverse as The Lion King is. But now that Prince, that irreplaceable link to Broadway's Golden Age is gone, I can't imagine what will ever take its place.