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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ivo Van Hove's THE CRUCIBLE

After seeing Ivo Van Hove's fast paced, streamlined revival of A View From the Bridge, I was so intrigued to see what he would do with Arthur Miller's most famous play, The Crucible. Unfortunately, I left the Walter Kerr theatre with more questions than answers. They were not robust, existential questions about life's truths or human nature. These were literal questions about directorial intent. What time period are we in? Why is the pacing so laborious? Why is that chalkboard still on stage? Who is using those desks?

The opening scene is a classroom full of young girls in a classroom staring at a chalkboard. The color scheme is dull and gray. This moment is but a glimpse as the curtain quickly falls and rises again on a drastically different scene. This glimpse motif repeats itself throughout both acts and is the one shred of urgency in the entire production. The rest of the piece drags like a funeral dirge. I won't bore you with a summary as we all know the plot, but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that I checked my watch more than I ever have during a show. I did see the piece early in the preview period, so I will try to be kind and assume that the pace will quicken by opening, but this piece is built on drama and suspense, both of which need a sense of urgency to unfold.

Philip Glass provides the score which aims to create a mood of suspense and even anxiety. It is mostly effective in meeting this goal, though the relentless wall of sound does distract from the text at times. Jan Versweyveld nails the ominous feeling of the piece with the mysterious stark lighting that highlights the cold, gray feeling of the sets, which he also designed. The focal point of the set is a chalkboard which works in the classroom and court room, but feels out of place in the Proctor home. Ditto for the desks and chairs. Wojciech Dziedzic's costumes represent curious choices that tie back to Van Hove's unclear (or unclearly articulated) vision. It is so difficult to tell what time period we are in. The Salem Witch Trials took lace in the late 1600s and the costumes are much more modern. They are not present day either, but rather somewhere in between. A modernized production would've been a remarkably intriguing concept, given recent political discussions over feminism, religion, and government power, but the performances are clearly period. The dialect and diction transport the audience to the past, while clearly modern props like coffee carafes place us in the present. It is quite jarring as an audience member and it made it extremely difficult for me to immerse myself in the world of the performances because I didn't know when or where that world was. If this was Van Hove's intention, then I commend his vision, but unfortunately it was hard for me to invest.

Though Saoirse Ronan is selling the tickets, her performance is not the standout. There is nothing inherently likable about her Abigail, who is more of a devious instigator than a sympathetic victim. As far as the ensemble of young girls is concerned, Tavi Gevinson's portrayal of Mary Warren is much more memorable. She is a vulnerable young girl who is clearly confused about her allegiances and that internal struggle shows in her nuanced characterization. Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo carry the emotional heft of the show as John and Elizabeth Proctor, respectively. They are a hard-working couple maligned by ghosts from their past. They are the ultimate tragic tale. Every attempt they make to prove their innocence pushes them further down the rabbit hole. They are faced with one of life's ultimate conundrums. Lies or truth? If they tell the truth that they have not engaged in witchcraft, they will be executed. If they lie and say they have engaged, their lives will be spared, but they will have to one day meet their maker knowing they've committed a grave sin. Whishaw plays out this question with such reckless abandon that I felt as if I was on his back as he desperately flailed about the stage in search of answers. His work is visceral, animalistic, and even maniacal as he seeks absolution.  This final scene was the only moment in the show that truly gripped me emotionally. It left me asking myself how high of a price I would pay to tell the truth and clear my name. This is what I call a "Miller Moment" where the beauty and purity of the text were able to shine through, unencumbered by Ivo Van Hove's confusing direction. I left the theatre largely disappointed, expecting the brilliance of A View from the Bridge to repeat itself, but this new-concept Crucible lacked clarity and cohesion.

BRIGHT STAR on Broadway

Simply put, Bright Star can be described as Broadway meets Bluegrass. The plot of this musical by Edie Brickell and Steve Martin could easily be a Nicholas Sparks novel, but the music is far more unique. Brickell and Martin capture the heart of the American South in a way that pays nuanced tribute to North Carolina nostalgia. They treat the South with loving care. As someone who grew up on country music, these are songs that would be more capably performed by Alison Krauss than your typical Broadway beltress.

The show begins when Billy Cane (AJ Shively) returns home from the second World War to his backwoodsy North Carolina town. He learns his mother has died and laments her passing, but quickly moves on. He dreams of following his own Bright Star, which is to become a published writer. With the encouragement of his childhood friend Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless) he moves to Asheville in hopes of writing for the Asheville Southern Journal. He soon meets Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack,) the Journal’s stern editor. She quickly tosses Billy to the curb, but in a moment of fleeting weakness, she gives him a second chance. We are quickly transported back to the 1920s when Alice is a free-spirited teenager in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan). Alice comes from a working class family, but Jimmy Ray’s father has bigger hopes for his son. When Alice becomes pregnant, Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren) does what he deems necessary to protect his son and ultimately takes Alice’s baby from her, disposing of him off the back of the train. As is the case with all great musicals, things work out for everyone. Alice and Jimmy Ray find one another decades later and fall in love again. Billy becomes a published writer and marries Margo. Oh, and I forgot one small detail…Alice’s baby didn’t die. He was rescued like Moses in a basket by a farmer and his wife; they named him Billy Cane.

If you think I threw that plot twist at you nonchalantly, then you and the show’s audience are in the same boat. The double-timeline structure is a tricky one for an audience to follow, but we will stick with you through the never-ending rising action if the payoff is sweet enough. In this case, the climax was over and done with faster than you could say Yee Haw! Billy invites Alice to visit his family home, she sees the baby sweater she knitted in a box of his old things, they realize they share blood, and they move on happily ever after. Where is Billy’s anger over being lied to by his father? Where is his confusion over which family he should feel allegiance to? Where is his father’s guilt over lying to his son or never helping him to find his birth family? The double timeline and the North Carolina setting do conjure images of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but the questions that are left unanswered and the lack of emotional catharsis are more reminiscent of a lifetime movie.

Though the structure and pacing of the book have serious flaws, the dialogue itself is sharp, witty, and dripping with appropriate southern colloquialisms. The score, both homey and evocative, is hands down the best I’ve heard in show that uses the country vernacular. Walter Bobbie’s direction is as swift and seamless as the clunky book will allow, using stylized movement rather than codified dance to express the melodies and transition between timelines and scenes. Carmen Cusack’s Broadway debut has been a long time coming, but talk about waiting for the perfect role! I have never seen an actress play two distinct ages so convincingly. You believe her when she’s 17 and when she’s 40. For fans of Designing Women, Cusack’s 1940s Alice is a dead ringer for Julia Sugarbaker. She has the musical theatre chops to “act the songs” and develop the character, but in my book nailing this role comes down to that country spirit and she exudes it. Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton would be proud. After having seen this show nearly two weeks ago, Cusack’s performance and the score are two of the three things that have stuck with me. The final thing is one of the most memorable lines I’ve ever heard in a musical: “It would be easier to remove Lincoln’s face from Mt. Rushmore than to remove home from the heart of a Southern Writer.” This motif carries this show, and while it may not sell hundreds of thousands of tickets to a Broadway audience, the sentiment will mean the world to those who get it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Color Purple is a Religious Experience!

Two Sundays ago, I went to church twice: Once at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, and again at the Jacobs Theatre. This phrase is often used liberally, but John Doyle's revival of The Color Purple is unequivocally a religious experience. I'm not one to preach, but the Holy Spirit was in that place. From the opening chorus number, "Mysterious Ways," it is evident that this company can saang! John Doyle has done it again. He has taken a show that was clunky in it's first incarnation, stripped away everything but the necessities, and presented a production that is emotionally charged in it's simplicity. The set is a simple wooden floor and a tri-section back wall with simple wooden chairs that can be moved by the cast. Immediately, the audience understands the setting: a small Southern farm town with caring people and a simple way of life.

The Color Purple is a beloved American story that we all know so I won't bore you with a summary. Let's jump to the performances, shall we? A highlight for me is anything involving the church ladies. If you grew up in church like I did, you'll know that is where you find some of the biggest gossips. But they mean well of course, even as they speculate about poor child Celie, that fine Mister, Sofia, and Harpo. Jennifer Hudson is selling the tickets, but in the role of Shug Avery, she is not the biggest powerhouse in the show. Her characterization of Shug is aloof and disconnected at first, but her heart shines through as she connects emotionally to Celie in "Too Beautiful For Words." She also carries the title song, my personal favorite. Danielle Brooks, whom I love in Orange is the New Black, left me utterly shocked. Her Sofia is not the tough, battered woman from the novel, but a diva who steals the show. When she takes the stage in "Hell No" you'll see what I'm talking about. It's Danielle/Sofia's world and we're just living in it. She has Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe) wrapped around her little finger and their relationship becomes a model for how to be a real man and treat a woman with respect. I won't give away the details but "Any Little Thing" is showstopper.

This brings us Ms. Cynthia Erivo. She is giving the female performance of the season. Her transformation from a meek, abused woman to a confidant, take-charge, entrepreneur is a master class in character work. Celie's changes are subtle until she curses Mister, and that is when she is reborn. When Ms. Erivo saunters onto the stage in her homemade lemon yellow pants, you would think you were watching Tina Turner. I don't intend to sound hyperbolic; that is just the confidence she exudes. I've never quite seen a eleven o'clock number as powerful a "I'm Here" except for maybe "Rose's Turn". Cynthia's interpretation of the song is quite reflective in the beginning, that is until the bridge. It builds, and it builds, and it builds until the audience is on their feet before the final exclamation. If you read my reviews often, you'll know that I'm a big cryer, especially in musicals. But this was something different. I had goosebumps of the variety that I've only ever gotten during particularly rousing renditions of church hymns or Whitney Houston's "The Star Spangled Banner." If you do not see Cynthia Erivo in this role, you will have missed one of the greatest female performances of all time. Think LuPone in Gypsy, McDonald in Porgy and Bess, and Ripley in Next to Normal....she's that good.

To put it simply, this a story of forgiveness. The show and it's source material carry numerous themes, but at the heart, this work teaches us not only how to forgive, but it also shows us how much lighter our load in life can be when we forgive those who trespass against us. My favorite lyric comes from the title track...."Like the Color Purple, where do it come from? Now my eyes are open, look what God has done." Enough said. The only thing that could've made the performance better is if the cast performed an encore of "Amazing Grace" or "How Great Thou Art". But then again, how would the Jacobs operate without its roof?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

She Loves Me Leaves Me Smitten!

She Loves Me is a story of sworn enemies turned lovers that is so sugary sweet it might give you a cavity. But when we attend the theatre, we are asked to suspend disbelief, and after twenty minutes or so you'll be swept into the charming little world of 1930s Budapest and you'll deal with the sugar hangover tomorrow. It's this season's version of On The Twentieth Century, another classic show long overdue for a revival and was also produced by Roundabout Theatre Company. In this, their 50th season, they've brought together Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Gavin Creel, Byron Jennings, Michael McGrath, and Jane Krakowski in this Bock and Harnick classic with Scott Ellis at the helm.

The above mentioned players work in Mr. Maraczek's (Byron Jennings) Parfumerie and things are running exactly as planned until Amalia (Laura Benanti) arrives. This charismatic salesgirls butts heads with head clerk Georg (Zachary Levi) from the moment she arrives. Little do they know, they have something very important in common. They've been writing to one another anonymously under the pseudonym "Dear Friend." While they've been hating each other in person, they've been falling in love on the page, and as we've learned from every romantic comedy, love always wins.

Highlights include Benanti's vocally virtuosic "Vanilla Ice Cream," Levi's exuberant "She Loves Me," an astutely choreographed hurricane of actors and props in "Twelve Days to Christmas," and the melodramatic "Ilona" featuring a crooning Creel and a Krakowski crash split. Speaking of Ms. Krakowski, she was born to play the comedic characters in these classic musicals and she absolutely shines in this production. If we could go back in time, I would give anything to see her take on Ado Annie or Carrie Pipperidge.

In addition to outstanding performances, David Rockwell's' set is a star. Forced perspective creates the illusion of a real Budpest street and the opening and closing of Maraczek's Parfumerie is like that of a supersized dollhouse. Appropriate words to describe Rockwell's designs as well as Ellis' staging are 'charming' and 'delightful'. This show is a welcome addition to Studio 54 and anytime we can see such a stellar cast performing the work of one of history's best composing teams, we should all be happy.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

THE WOODSMAN

At first glance, The Woodsman seems to be yet another spin-off in America's obsession with The Wizard of Oz. When you're deciding which shows to see this season, you may be tempted to swipe left on this one, but that wouldn't be right. What could have been an ordinary prequel is actually an aesthetically rich piece of art that completely reimagines a land of Oz that is heavy on impulse and light on text. In fact, Nick Chopper's opening monologue that provides context within the Oz canon is the only significant chunk of dialogue in the entire piece. The rest is left to puppetry, stylized movement, and vocalization. The skill exhibited by the performers is quite fascinating as you believe the puppets are alive without much suspension of disbelief. Directors James Ortiz & Claire Karpen create a full sensory experience. It is visceral.

Speaking of Nick Chopper, the role is played by James Ortiz who wears many hats in this production at New World Stages. He is the writer, puppet designer, set designer, co-director, and lead actor. Eliza Martin Simpson plays the other significant role of Nimmee, his eventual love interest who has spent her life under the control of the Wicked Witch of the East. Nick, of course becomes who we know as the Tin Man after the witch enchants his axe and directs it to chop off his limbs. Wicked gave us one theory of the Tin Man's origin: The Wicked Witch of the East was so angry when she was scorned by Boq that she removed his heart and Elphaba turned him to tin out of pity. As far as magic is concerned, Ortiz' interpretation of L. Frank Baum provides a much more plausible explanation. The Witch of the East craved her control over Nimmee so much that she destroyed her lover to get her back. The penultimate scene in the piece is one of despair as we see Nick Chopper (in tin puppet form) alone, propped up by wires. The only glimmer of hope is the final scene where we see three symbols that are as ingrained in American culture as Betsy Ross's flag: a farm house, a pigtailed girl, and a pair of slippers. You know the rest.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

HAMILTON: From the Public to the Rodgers

When I was lucky enough to win the TodayTix lottery to Hamilton at the Public Theatre last February, I had no idea what I was about to experience. In my entire theatre-going life, I've never experienced such a phenomenon. It seemed like every week there were more and more celebrities in attendance and the show just kept extending its run. When the producers announced that they were moving uptown to The Richard Rodgers, I had mixed feelings. This was such a perfect theatrical experience in the intimate Public Theatre, that I feared it would lose its energy in the bigger space. But regardless, I was so happy that I could say, "I saw Hamilton before you even knew what it was." I scoffed when it became part of the mainstream media and normal conversation, asking myself, "is it really that great?" I purchased the cast recording in September and after one listen, I had my answer. "Yes it is".

As an English teacher and a writer myself, I am enamored with Lin's use of language. It is incredibly complex and layered, yet simplistic enough to move the story forward. When I first saw the show downtown I was focusing so hard on the lyrics and got the gist of it, but when I began to listen to the cast recording on repeat, I understood the intricacies of his verbiage. Each time I revisit a song, I pick up on a new phrase that speaks to me. My personal favorite, from the song Burn, is "you have married an Icarus, he has flown too close to the sun". Lin's references to history, mythology, and other works of literature are inspired. My head spins when I consider the amount of time, research, and energy that he poured into this piece. But enough about my obsession with the cast recording....let's fast forward to this past Saturday morning when I checked my email to find that I'd won the lottery yet again. I was skeptical. Would it ruin the perfect experience that I'd had last year at the Public? As I sat front row center at the Richard Rodgers and listened to the opening drumbeats, my question was answered with a resounding NO! 

I know every single word of every song, so not having to concentrate on the lyrics and plot freed me to look at the bigger picture. I saw aspects of the staging, particularly the choreography, that I completely missed the first time. Andy Blankenbuehler's use of postmodern movement seamlessly conveyed the production's overall goal of telling a historical story through a modern lens. I am a dancer myself, and I love that there were so few moments where I could name the movements. Sure, there was an arabesque here and a penche there, but most of the movement was completely unique. While this is largely the same production I saw downtown, the layers were so much more apparent to me. The minimalist set, a tavern setting with a turntable, allows the the text and acting to shine through. Thomas Kail's staging accentuates the material without distracting from it. This show is so special and unlike anything we have ever seen on Broadway.

Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson) my second favorite actor in the show was not performing last Saturday and I greatly missed his rapid fire pace as Lafayette the tongue-in-cheek quality with which he imbues his Jefferson. His understudy was fine, but he didn't have Diggs' twinkle in his eye. My number one guy, however, is Leslie Odom Jr. and his performance grabbed me so much more than it did downtown. Don't get me wrong, I loved him downtown, but he has certainly grown into the role. I have seen many a show in my day and I have never seen so much passion in one performance. He had a fire in his eyes that you would normally expect from an opening night performance, not a random Saturday in February. I saw his Aaron Burr more as a narrator this time. Though it is Hamilton's story, Burr is telling it. The songs that reprise the opening theme are a perfect example of this. "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore," "Watch this obnoxious, arrogant, loud-mouthed bother, be seated at the right hand of the father" "How does a rag-tag volunteer army in need of a shower, somehow defeat a global superpower" and "How does Hamilton the short-tempered protean creator of the Coast Guard," etc. Clearly, The Room Where it Happens is a straight up showstopper and a huge highlight, but when he sings "now I'm the villain in your history" he truly had my sympathy. Yes, he killed Hamilton, but when you consider everything Hamilton achieved before Burr even became a senator, you can understand why he felt so much resentment. If someone was constantly steps ahead of you for your entire career, how would you handle it?

What strikes me is that it is so commercially successful, but before it was popular it was extremely well written and artistic. It is rare that these combine in a musical. It is more common that you have saccharine shows like Mamma Mia that runs for a decade juxtaposed with beautifully cerebral shows like Sunday in the Park with George that absolutely flop. Hamilton has shown the next generation of composers that you can write something intelligent with artistic merit and still sell tickets. I only hope that this is a gateway to a new generation of musical. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Musical Mondays: VANITIES

I'm embarking on a new journey called Musical Mondays. I want to spotlight some of my favorite musicals: old, new, popular, unsuccessful, hits, flops, and everything in between. These will not simply be my favorites shows, but more specifically the shows that were personally meaningful to me at one point in my life or currently. Come back every Monday to learn about another show that is near and dear to my heart!

I saw Vanities when it ran Off-Broadway at Second Stage in in the summer of 2009. It was supposed to transfer to Broadway, but it wasn't to be. Vanities a three-person show performed in three acts without an intermission. The story spanned several decades of the friends' lives from a Texas High School to an Upper East Side apartment. Kathy (Anneliese Van der Pol) Mary (Lauren Kennedy) and Joanne (Sarah Stiles) grew up together as cheerleaders and sorority sisters, but they went their separate ways after graduation. This show, with music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum, is based on Jack Heifner's play of the same name which was wildly successful in the 1970s.

I was enamored with this show when I first saw it as a college Junior, but it's really stuck with me and I've been drawn to different parts of the show at different times in my life. I immediately connected with Kathy, the organized one, who plans every single aspect of her life down to the last second. She firmly believes that if she plans everything she can keep her life under control, and I can certainly relate. She leads the other characters on the cheerleading squad, as the head of the school dance committee, and later as members of Kappa Kappa Gamma. Her mantra is "Take care of little things, you'll have an organized life," while Joanne and Mary prefer to "let life happen, relax, and that is the key." The characters remain basically unchanged from high school (1963) to college graduation (1968) but the third act is where we see the changes.

As I said earlier, I was a Kathy through and through in high school and in college. I lived by my Lilly Pulitzer dayplanner and my to do list, but then something funny happened after I graduated college. I looked around and nothing worked out as I had planned. This is where we find Kathy at the beginning of act three. It is 1974 and the once inseparable friends have reunited on Kathy's Upper East Side terrace after half a decade. We learn that Joanne, who has always dreamed of having a family is happily married with several children, or so it seems. Mary, who creates erotic installation artwork, blows up this fantasy when she reveals that she's been having an affair with Joanne' husband Ted. But even though their lives are falling apart, they rely on Kathy to have it all together. Much to their surprise, she has lost her job, and "spent a couple of years hanging out at every singles bar, and every therapy group on the east side." She then became so depressed and she couldn't leave her house. Her friends are shocked that her life didn't go according to plan. The rest is in the lyrics:

I sat around all day, without the slightest clue,
It shouldn't sound so sad, it's what I had to do,
'Cause I had worked so long, and I had tried so hard,
And I was so demanding, I was so relentless,
Always in control, and never letting down my guard,
And if that's how you organize your existence, you have an organized nervous breakdown,
You get strung out and neurotic, messed in the head,
That's what you tried to tell me way back in college, call it a bitterly hard-won knowledge,
But there's something to be said for simply living your life.

As someone who always joked that I would plan my own nervous breakdown, these lyrics hit me like a ton of bricks in my post-collegiate life when things didn't go even remotely as planned. They made me cry, they made me have full on breakdowns in my shower, but then they guided me forward, reminding me to stop trying to plan everything and just live! I loved this show so much and I wish that more people had gotten to see it. It's probably too small for Broadway, but I hope that it has life in regional theatre because so many young women could benefit from these characters and these lyrics. If it's playing in your area, go see it--you won't regret it!