May 25, 2024

Bar Hopping with "The Keep Going Songs," "The Lonely Few" and "Three Houses"

All of a sudden everybody doing a musical in this brand new 2024-25 season seems to be bellying up to a bar. Already this month, I’ve seen three shows—The Keep Going Songs, The Lonely Few and Three Houses—where the theater itself has been transformed into a drinking establishment of some kind. 

I suppose it’s an attempt to be immersive, to jump on the bandwagon that has proven so tractive for big shows like the current revival of Cabaret with its pre-show bar scenes spread all over the August Wilson Theatre or the hip production of An Enemy of the People, which sets up an onstage bar during intermission and serves audience members free shots of Aquavit. 

Gauging by their box office numbers, those shows—helped of course by the presence of big name and Tony-nominated stars, Eddie Redmayne in Cabaret and Jeremy Strong in Enemy of the People—have audiences swooning. But the intoxication levels of the smaller and more recently opened off-Broadway shows vary greatly, or at least here's how they did for me:

THE KEEP GOING SONGS: The husband-and-wife duo known as The Bengsons have taken up residence at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater thru May 26.  As usual, the couple’s show draws from their life: this time, it’s their attempt to work through their specific grief over the death of Abigail’s brother Peter from cancer at just 55 and their larger grief over the environmental fate of the planet (click here to read more about the show’s genesis). 

Set designer Cate McCrea has created a playing space for these lamentations that turns the Tow into a nightclub including a half dozen or so café tables surrounding the stage, where Shaun plays a gaggle of instruments ranging from a guitar to a trumpet and Abigail works an onstage soundboard that adds background vocals and other sounds. At various points, one or the other of them leaves the stage to engage with the audience. Some members are even handed small cups of Guinness Stout, which we’re told was brother Peter’s favorite drink. 

The Bengsons have a devoted following and so there were hoots and hollers of approval after each of their folk-rock numbers in what is essentially a 90-minute concert. But I found the show to be less involving than some of their previous ones (my fave is Hundred Days in which they recounted how they met, fell hard for one another, dumped the people they were with and got married in that titular short period of time). 

This show may suffer by comparison because the Bengsons worked on those earlier ones with collaborators like the talented playwright Sarah Gancher or the savvy director Anne Kauffman. But this time, they’ve done the book themselves and are working with a comparatively inexperienced director. The result is a loosey-goosey show that rambles far more than it should, undermining both the power of their appealing songs and the messages of comfort and caution they’re attempting to convey.

THE LONELY FEW MCC Theater has transformed its Newman Mills space into a honky-tonk bar, with tables onstage, a few cozy-looking easy chairs in the space separating the orchestra seats from those in the mezzanine area and cheap Christmas bulbs lighting up the whole place. It’s a fitting setting for this story about a woman named Lila who has a day job in her small Kentucky town’s supermarket but headlines a rock band known as The Lonely Few which plays on weekends at a local spot called Paul’s Juke Joint. 

Lila and her bandmates get a chance at the big time when Paul’s singer-songwriting stepdaughter Amy drops by and announces that she needs an opening act to go on tour with her. The plot kicks off when the women fall for one another but then discover that they have different priorities.  

The show, which is running through June 9, has a book by playwright Rachel Bonds and a score by the up-and-coming composer-lyricist  Zoe Sarnak (click here to read more about her). But while it may be great to have a show with a female-dominated creative team and a queer-centered love story, Bonds and Sarnak don’t seem to know what do with their story.

So they load it up with a bunch of subplots—an alcoholic brother for Lila, an estranged mother for Amy, a pregnant wife for Lila’s bandmate and best friend Dylan—but they don’t do much with those subplots either. Obstacles appear and then disappear with no rhyme or reason.

The music is equally problematic. Every character gets a solo whether it advances the plot or not. Meanwhile, the rock numbers are self-consciously loud (ushers actually offer ear plugs when you enter the theater). And the sound quality was so poor that I also missed most of the lyrics in the quieter ballads.

This is all a shame because there are some terrific performers in this cast, including Lauren Patten as Lila, Taylor Iman Jones as Amy and Damon Daunno as Dylan. Patten is particularly impressive, demonstrating throughout why she deserved to win that Tony for her burn-down-the-house rendition of Alanis Morrissette's “You Oughta Know” in Jagged Little Pill.

But even this show’s set stumbles. The folks at those tables onstage have to turn around and crane their necks if they want to see the scenes taking place in the home that Lila and her brother share because set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has placed that space above the stage. 

All these missteps surprised me because The Lonely Few was directed by Trip Cullman, who has done such surefooted work on other shows including last season’s revival of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which just won the Best Revival award from the Outer Critics Circle. 

Here, however, Cullman is co-directing with Ellenore Scott, all of whose previous credits seem to be for choreography.  There isn’t much dancing in The Lonely Few so I’m not sure why they were paired in what turns out to be a pretty wobbly production.

THREE HOUSES: The bar in Dave Malloy’s latest musical sits centerstage in Signature Theater’s Romulus Linney Theater and the audience are cast as patrons at an open-mic night in which a bartender named Wolf serves as M.C. and three storytellers take turns sharing the details of how they made it through the early lockdown phase of the pandemic. 

One (Margo Siebert) found refuge in a family home in Latvia, another (Mia Pak) fled to New Mexico and the third (J.D. Mollison) hunkered down in a small Brooklyn apartment. All three were newly out of romantic relationships, which intensified their loneliness. Each gets about 30 minutes to perform a confessional aria about what they did to fill that time—sorting through old keepsakes, playing videogames, shopping online, drinking

The ghosts of long-dead grandparents pop-up in each installment and Malloy's frequent collaborator director Annie Tippe adds puppets, both of which lend a surreal feel to these stories. Plus there are some overt references to the fairy tales The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, whose meaning escaped me.

Once again the performances are all quite fine. But your enjoyment of this show, which is now running through June 16, will depend on how you feel about Malloy’s music. Personally, I'm mixed. I kept the cast album of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 on repeat for months when it came out a decade ago but I could barely make it through 2019's Octet (although I’m an outlier on that a cappella production, which many people I respect really love).  

There are beautiful moments in Three Houses but overall, Malloy’s music here struck me as more like the underscoring for a moody indie film or the background music at a high-end spa. My mind kept drifting off and I kept having to drag it back to focus on what was going on. In the end, I found the show to be a downer that left me just wanting to go out and get a real drink.

May 4, 2024

A Few Thoughts on an Awards Season Full of News-Worthy and Prize-Worthy Nominations

We’re officially in awards season.  The Outer Critics Circle, on whose nominating committee I sit, announced its choices for the best in the 2023-2024 season last week (click here to see our nominations for shows both on and off Broadway).  And then this week came nominations from the Drama Desk, which celebrate shows on, off and off-off Broadway (click here for its choices) and the Chita Rivera Award nominations for the best in theatrical dance (click here for those nods).  And then, of course, came the Tony Award nominations (click here to see those).

Still to come are the Drama Critics Circle Awards, which will be announced on May 13 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which is scheduled to be announced on May 8.

But even with all those chances, some worthy contenders always get left out. And that was even more the case this year because there were so many shows13 opening in the last two weeks of the season aloneso many of them boasted award-worthy elements and so many of them featured big casts with lots of talented performances. Which made it all the more difficult to put out a slate of just five to seven names in any category. 

It delighted me when some of my personal favorites got recognized (yay, Mother Play) and made me a little sad when some didn’t (Michael Imperioli really should have been in the mix for his turn in An Enemy of the People). But what I focused on more is what these combined nominations tell us about the current state of Broadway, which is searching for a new identity in this post-pandemic era.

Most attention tends to center around the prizes for musicals because (1) that’s what so many theatergoers think of when they think of a Broadway show and (2) musicals are so damned hard to get right. So I'm going to focus this post on them too. And it makes extra sense to do that because last season saw an influx of new voices and talents into that arena.

More award-winning playwrights than ever are writing the books for musicals. Kristoffer Diaz, a one-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wrote the book for Hell’s Kitchen, the musical drawn from the songbook of Alicia Keyes and inspired by the singer-songwriter’s coming of age in the ‘90s in the New York City neighborhood that gives the show its title. 

Another former Pulitzer finalist Craig Lucas collaborated with composer Adam Guettel on Days of Wine and Roses, the story of a couple (gloriously played by Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara) whose lives are ruined by alcoholism. 

Meanwhile yet another Pulitzer finalist, Adam Rapp adapted The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s now-classic 1967 novel about rival teen gangs divided along social class lines.  

And Jackie Sibblies Drury, who actually won the Pulitzer in 2019 for her audacious play Fairview, created the narrative storyline for Justin Peck’s all-dance show Illinoise, which was inspired by and set to the music of Sufjan Stevens.

But Stevens’ music wasn’t the only score to redefine what a Broadway show now sounds like. Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson created the pop-rock score for The Notebook; the folk-rock duo Jamestown Revival collaborated with Justin Levine on the music for The Outsiders and the collective of musicians known as the Pigpen Company did the score for Water for Elephants.  

However perhaps most surprisingly, Will Butler, a former member of the indie band Arcade Fire, wrote the songs for Stereophonic, David Adjmi’s play about a rock band working through both artistic and personal issues as it records its sophomore album. 

Shaina Taub’s score for Suffs, a show about the feminist campaign to get women the right to vote, is a bit more traditional but it's attention worthy too because Taub is one of just a handful of women ever to have written the book, score and lyrics for a Broadway show.

Women also broke out in other ways last season. Four of the five Tony nominations for Best Director of a Musical deservedly went to women: Maria Friedman for Merrily We Roll Along, Leigh Silverman for Suffs, Jessica Stone for Water for Elephants and Danya Taymor for The Outsiders.  

All of these writers, composers and directors picked up OCC or Drama Desk nominations too. As did their shows.  And because there is no obvious frontrunner for the Best Musical this year, watching as the nominees and their producers jockey for the top prizes could make this awards season one of the most fun and exciting in recent memory.

Update: Although above the post said the Pulitzer Prize for Drama would be announced on May 8, it was announced on May 6 (and you might think I would have known better since I had the honor of chairing this year's jury; click here for info about the runners-up and the other jury members). The prize went to Eboni Booth's Primary Trust (click here to listen to an interview I did with Booth when the show ran at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre last year).