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Sunday, July 14, 2019

Ladyship

Ladyship, the new show by twins Laura Good and Linda Good, exemplifies how difficult it is to write a good musical. There is so much here to like: some beautiful songs, an original story, and a clear desire to write something that matters.



The story of young women sent from London to Australia for seven years in the late 18th century as penalty for their (often small) crimes, Ladyship largely takes place during the long, long journey. The two main characters are the teen aged sisters Alice and Mary, who stole because they were hungry. Also on the ship are Lady Jane, brought low after her husband went through her money; Kitty, painfully young, without family, and innocent of the crime for which she was sentenced; the street-smart Abigail; and Mrs. Pickering, heartbroken because she didn't even get to say goodbye to her children. The four men we see on board are the captain, who is kind but turns away from many injustices; Finn, a sweet, mixed-race sailor; Zeke Cropper, a nasty, misogynistic drunk; and Lieutenant Adams, who hopes to have sex with a different woman each night.

This story is a lot to take on, and it is important that the show have a clear through-line. Is it about the injustice of the women's punishment? Yes, but. Is it about the relationship of the sisters? Yes, but. Is it about the generally horrible treatment of women in the 18th century? Yes, but. Is it about the rottenness of  the rich and men, and particularly rich men? Yes, but. Is it about women banding together to help each other? Yes, but. Is it about being brave and making the best of whatever life hands you? Yes, but.

There's nothing wrong with a show taking on a variety of issues and story lines, but they have to mesh effectively, and in Ladyship, they don't. The Goods use the "making the best of what life hands you" theme to avoid dealing with the true reality of the other topics. For example, not a single female character is raped. On one hand, that's fine with me; I was glad not to have to go through that scene. On the other hand, that's a cop out. Many of the women would have been raped. A lot. Nor do any of the women die. In fact, the show is so unwilling to depict reality that it has Kitty sing about the stars she can see through a grill from the orlop deck. The orlop deck is below the waterline! There are no grills there, no stars, no light. The Goods don't want to face that level of darkness.

Does it make sense to try to address difficult topics when you're not willing to go to difficult places? The best serious musicals, e.g., Sweeney Todd; Caroline, or Change, are actually painful to watch. The pain is mitigated by the art, but the pain is also real. By avoiding that pain, Ladyship becomes dishonest.

Also, on a more micro level, the Goods use half rhymes, sort of rhymes, not-even-close rhymes. Away does not rhyme with safe, no matter how many times they are repeated. The songs thereby lose the clarity that comes from true rhymes. Also, many of the songs end lamely, sort of petering out.

The Goods have much to be grateful for in this NYMF production of Ladyship. The cast is strong, with some gorgeous voices: Maddie Shea Baldwin, Jennifer Blood, Jordon Bolden, Caitlin Cohn, Noelle Hogan, Justin R.G. Holcomb, Lisa Karlin, Brandi Knox, Quentin Oliver Lee, and Trevor St. John-Gilbert. The lighting design (Sam Gordon) is clear, clean, and lovely. The scenery (David Goldstein), costumes (Whitney Locher) and sound (Patrick Calhoun) are all effective.

I hope that the Goods continue to write musicals (perhaps with an experienced book writer who can provide some perspective and theatre-savvy). There is enough that is good in Ladyship to want to see more of their work.

Wendy Caster
(fifth row, center)

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space

It's hard to know what to write about Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space since I was unable to hear ~70% of the lyrics (100% if more than one person was singing). I don't know if it was where I was sitting (house right, fifth row, near a speaker that was blasting the musicians much louder than the singers) or bad sound design in general, but the experience was downright dreadful. For a campy show like Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space, lyrics are all-important, and, who knows, they might have been brilliant. I believe I caught a rhyme of free and happy that required a painfully unnatural emphasis on the last syllable of happy, so I doubt the lyrics actually were that great, but, again, I just don't know.



The basic plot, such as it is: A beauty queen is denied her crown because she is an "illegal alien" from Canada (which I think isn't a country in the land of Illuminati Lizards). The Illuminati lizards, who, I think, are supposed to destroy earth, or something, believe she's one of them since they are actual aliens. And stuff happens.

I think Illuminati Lizards is supposed to be a goodhearted, campy, political satire, but it comes across as though a bunch of reasonably talented people threw a pile of ideas against the wall and kept what stuck. And then they swept up the losing ideas and used them anyway.

I loved the video design by Lisa Renkel and Wayne Bryant. It stands in for scenery and periodically provides an excellent head lizard speaking from outer space (if only I could have understood more of what he was saying!).

The cast seemed pretty good, to the extent I could tell, and I was blown away by Brian Charles Rooney's huge voice. I couldn't decide if I would rather hear him sing Jim Steinman songs or opera, but I'd be glad to try either.

The one lyric that did stay with me was "Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space.  Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space. Illuminati lizards from outer space." It rang in my head for hours after the show. I was grateful, though--it knocked out the "Hard-Knock Life" ear worm I had been enduring for days.

My apologies to everyone who worked on Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space. I wish I had been able to hear enough to provide a more useful review.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 5th row, far audience right)

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Bachelor Girls

Kristen Egenes, Laura Hall, Kathleen Culler, Kelly Berman, Gia Mongell, Timmy Hays, Emma Vielbig, Lucy Anders, Brittany Rodin, Emily Kersey, Mandy McDonell. Photo: Shoshana Medney

The Bachelor Girls (book, music and lyrics by Caroline Wigmore and Jen Green) is one of nine theatrical works (eight shows and a high school showcase), created by women, featured in the fourth annual She NYC Arts Summer Theater Festival at The Connelly Theater on June 28 and 29, and the only musical. While the piece’s plot and characters progress unevenly at times, the show features standout performances and often a witty score.

The premise intrigues: three British friends graduate from a woman’s college in 1919, just as the concept of the ‘modern girl’ is developing. Because of World War I — and the lives lost — the women are told that only 1 in 10 will get married. The graduates venture to London: Molly (Kelly Berman) takes care of her Aunt Smythe (Tracy Bidleman) while waiting to wed, Gertie (Lucy Anders) fights for women’s rights and Cecily (Lael Van Keuren) works as a nanny.

The title comes from an actual book published in 1916, The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything by Agnes M. Miall, which a teacher gifts to the co-eds at the show’s beginning. This world of flappers where women want careers, equal voting rights and pay equity offers a rich forum for heroic battles and character development. Unfortunately, the book still needs work as plotlines propel forward almost capriciously — so the show never gels like it could. In one scene, for instance, Molly and Gertie rescue Cecily from a graveyard, and it is never apparent how they even knew she was there. Such gaps pepper the musical and hinder character development, making the insights and growth the girls gather often unbelievable.

More thought-out is the role of Aunt Smythe, and Bidleman (Mrs. Harcourt in the national/international tour Anything Goes) shines in the best musical number of the show, "Bright Young Thing" — a showy romp worthy of Broadway at its best. Also good is Van Keuren (Broadway’s Sister Act) who displays a sweet earnestness in her yearning for romance and her difficulty in finding a place in the world.

In general, the 1920s style music and dance enlivens The Bachelor Girls. The choreography (Heather Douglas) is high-spirited and fun. The Bachelorette trio (Caitlyn Calfas, Maria Reginaldi and Stephanie Maloney), an Andrews Sisters type singing group, acts as a scatting/jazzy Greek chorus throughout the show — providing a nice addition to the drama unfolding on stage. Too bad their role isn’t more explanatory though — often they just provide background music rather than helping move the story forward. The show's second song, "Shimmy & Shake," touting the benefits of those activities set the high-stepping tone for the show.

The She NYC Arts Summer Theater Festival is a festival that seeks to develop full-length plays, musicals, and adaptations by women writers. Through an open submissions process, She NYC’s fosters up-and-coming talent by mentoring writers in how to produce their work. The yearly festival is in New York (SheNYCArts.org) and Los Angeles (see www.SheLAArts.org). The Bachelor Girls was also produced by British Youth Music Theatre in 2015. (Press ticket)

Friday, June 28, 2019

League Of Professional Theatre Women 2019 Leadership Luncheon


Andre De Shields
Donna Walker-Kuhn



Inspiring others was the theme at the League of Professional Theatre Women 2019 Leadership Luncheon celebrating the inaugural Rachel Crothers Leadership Award to Donna Walker-Kuhne, an expert in audience development who has raised more than $23 million to promote the arts to multicultural communities.

The ceremony, held on June 24 at Sardi's, featured entertainment by Marvin Lowe, who sang "Siyahamba," and Tony Award winner LaChanze (The Color Purple), who performed "Feeling Good"-- and was hosted by Tony Award winner Andre De Shields (Hadestown).

Yvette Heyliger, chair of the LPTW Rachel Crothers Leadership Award and co-vice president of programming, introduced De Shields, who she said inspired her since she just turned 60 and he recently won his first Tony at age 73. DeShields urged the audience to "stay on your chosen path until you win." A charismatic master of ceremonies, he noted a day after the first Democratic primary debate that Crothers was the one who coined the phrase, "A woman's place is in the home and in the Senate."

Walker-Kuhne is the founder of Walker International Communications Group, a boutique marketing, press and audience development consulting agency that specializes in multicultural marketing, group sales, multicultural press, and promotional events. She is also a senior advisor of community engagement at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. 

A veteran of over 22 Broadway productions, she has provided multicultural marketing and group sales for the shows Once on This Island, The Lion King, Aladdin, Smokey Joe's Cafe, among others, and for nonprofit clients such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, The Billie Holiday Theater and The August Wilson African American Cultural Center. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and Bank Street College, and the co-founder of Bite the Big Apple, an annual multicultural audience development tour that brings Australian arts professionals to New York, and the co-founder of Impact Broadway, an initiative that encourages African American and Latino students to participate in theatre.


She was introduced to the crowd by playwright/filmmaker Rehana Lew Mirza (Hatef**ck). Walker-Kuhne said she came from a long line of warriors and educators and that she never gives up on her vision because that's in her heritage. She emphasized the crucial role teachers provide in people's development and cited a list of her own mentors who inspired her, including Arthur Mitchell, dancer/choreographer/founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who exposed her to classical ballet.


She encouraged the audience to acknowledge and embrace diverse experiences and opinions and said, "Your job is to change the world and once completed, do it again."


The Rachel Crothers Leadership Award is given to a woman in theatre who has shown exemplary service and sacrifice for a common cause that creates a better society. Crothers, the first woman playwright and director to find commercial success on Broadway, had more than a 30-year theatre career and produces over 25 plays. 


(Press ticket)


Monday, June 17, 2019

Much Ado About Nothing

This isn't exactly a review because I wasn't able to see the whole show. But here are some thoughts based on what I saw.

  • The rhythms of African-American casual conversation fit beautifully with Shakespeare's rhythms. In fact, particularly from Danielle Brooks, it was some of the most real-sounding Shakespearean dialogue I have ever heard. A real treat.
  • Seeing theatre at the Delacorte in Central Park is always lovely. We had an almost full moon and beautiful weather.
  • The Claudio-Hero subplot is ugly, ugly, ugly. The fairly young, fairly multiculti audience certainly thought so. When Hero's dad says that, if she's not a virgin, better she be dead, the audience gasped.
  • I theoretically like the idea of having Dogberry played by a woman, But Lateefah Holder comes across as extremely smart and competent so she has to fight against type to play the role.
  • Director Kenny Leon plays with making Much Ado political but doesn't really do much with the idea.
  • While the choreography by Camille A. Brown and the singing were great fun, they slowed down the show.
I think this will be my last Much Ado, at least for a few years. I've seen many productions, going back to the incredibly charming Sam Waterson-Kathleen Widdows version in the '70s, and over time the Claudio-Hero subplot has come to overpower the Beatrice-Benedick main plot. 

You gotta wonder what centuries of literature would have focused on if writers had simply realized that a woman having sex is not a sin or an awful thing or necessarily that big a deal. Poof! There go thousands of pages by Wharton and Tolstoy and Flaubert and Zola and and and. 

Oh well.

Wendy Caster
(row N, free ticket)

Monday, June 10, 2019

How'd We Do? 2019 Tony Predictions

Well, two of us did okay: Liz and Sandra each had 17 correct predictions. I had decided to be iconoclastic, which was a bad idea: 10* correct predictions.

THE WINNERS
Liz
Sandra
Wendy
Best Musical: Hadestown
Hadestown
Hadestown
Hadestown
Best Play: The Ferryman
The Ferryman
The Ferryman
The Ferryman
Best Revival of a Musical: Oklahoma!
Oklahoma!
Oklahoma!
Oklahoma!
Best Revival of a Play: The Boys in the Band
The Boys in the Band
All My Sons
The Waverly Gallery
Best Book of a Musical: Tootsie, Robert Horn
Hadestown
Hadestown
The Prom
Best Original Score: Hadestown, music and lyrics: Anaïs Mitchell
Hadestown
Hadestown
Hadestown
Best Direction of a Play: Sam Mendes, The Ferryman
Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes
Sam Mendes
Best Direction of a Musical: Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown
Rachel Chavkin
Rachel Chavkin
Daniel Fish
Best Leading Actor in a Play: Bryan Cranston, Network
Bryan Cranston
Bryan Cranston
Adam Driver
Best Leading Actress in a Play: Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery
Elaine May
Heidi Schreck
Elaine May
Best Leading Actor in a Musical: Santino Fontana, Tootsie
Santino Fontana
Santino Fontana
Santino Fontana
Best Leading Actress in a Musical: Stephanie J. Block, The Cher Show
Stephanie J. Block
Stephanie J. Block
Stephanie J. Block
Best Featured Actor in a Play: Bertie Carvel, Ink
Bertie Carvel
Bertie Carvel
Benjamin Walker
Best Featured Actress in a Play: Celia Keenan-Bolger, To Kill a Mockingbird
Fionnula Flanagan
Celia Keenan-Bolger 
Ruth Wilson
Best Featured Actor in a Musical: André De Shields, Hadestown
André De Shields
Patrick Page
Andy Grotelueschen
Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Ali Stroker, Oklahoma!
Ali Stroker
Ali Stroker
Amber Gray
Best Scenic Design of a Play: Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Santo Loquasto, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Best Scenic Design of a Musical: Rachel Hauck, Hadestown
Oklahoma! 
King Kong
King Kong
Best Costume Design of a Play: Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Ann Roth 
Ann Roth 
Ann Roth, Gary
Best Costume Design of a Musical: Bob Mackie, The Cher Show
Bob Mackie, The Cher Show
Bob Mackie, The Cher Show
Bob Mackie, The Cher Show
Best Lighting Design of a Play: Neil Austin, Ink
The Ferryman
The Ferryman
Network
Best Lighting Design of a Musical: Bradley King, Hadestown
Hadestown
Hadestown
The Cher Show
Best Sound Design of a Play: Fitz Patton, Choir Boy
The Ferryman
Choir Boy
Network
Best Sound Design of a Musical: Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown
Oklahoma!
Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown
Ain’t Too Proud
Best Choreography: Sergio Trujillo, Ain’t Too Proud
Choir Boy
Kiss Me, Kate
Sergio Trujillo, Ain’t Too Proud
Best Orchestrations: Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, Hadestown
Oklahoma!
Oklahoma!
Oklahoma!
TOTAL
17
17
10*

*Corrected 6/10/19. I originally wrote 11, but, no, it was even worse.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

75th Theatre World Awards

Nathan Lane
The 75th Theatre World Awards celebrated the debut of promising Broadway and Off-Broadway actors on June 3 in a sweet ceremony full of touching stories, even though it ran more than two hours long. Host Peter Filichia charmingly kept the show moving though.

Awards went to Gbenga Akinnagbe (To Kill a Mockingbird), Tom Glynn-Carney (The Ferryman), Sophia Anne Caruso (Beetlejuice), Paddy Considine (The Ferrryman), James Davis (Oklahoma!), Micaela Diamond (The Cher Show), Bonnie Milligan (Head Over Heels), Simone Missick (Paradise Blue), Jeremy Pope (Choir Boy/Ain't Too Proud), Colton Ryan (Girl From the North Country), Stephanie Styles (Kiss Me, Kate!) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag). Hampton Fluker (All My Sons) won The Dorothy Loudon Award.

The highlight was Nathan Lane accepting the John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. He mentioned that he was getting to the age where he was "distinguished" and had accepted three such awards this season. Phillip Boykin (The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess), Ernestine Jackson (Raisin) and Linda Eder (J&H) sang


Rosemary Harris
Linda Eder

Lane's Gary castmates congratulate him
     
Ernestine Jackson
Micaela Diamond

James Davis



Phillip Boykin


Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Tootsie

There are plenty of pleasures to be had at the Marquis Theater, where Tootsie is running and probably will be for a while. The show is often quite funny; the cast is solid; David Yazbeck's score is strong and occasionally boosted by some truly impressive lyrics. I was pleased with the way a handful of the more outdated aspects of the film plot have been reworked and updated for Broadway. Sandy, here played by Sarah Stiles and in the film by Teri Garr, was at least for me easily the most problematic character: in her original iteration, she was a relentlessly neurotic, irritating obstacle whose sole purpose seemed to be to ruin Michael's best-laid plans. A particularly fun musical number with increasingly tongue-twisty lyrics, performed exceptionally well, will do a whole lot for a gal, I guess. As will an actual character arc, replete with a resolution.



A very big deal, though, has been made about how the Broadway version has addressed contemporary cultural concerns, and on this point I'm not as convinced. Yeah, sure, Michael's schlubby roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen)--a hilariously deadpan voice of reason here, as he was when Bill Murray played him--now strenuously assails Michael for stealing work from women, at least for a few seconds. There are some other attempts at updating with an eye toward contemporary gender roles: Julie (Lilli Cooper) is no longer sleeping with her sleazy director Ron Carlisle (Reg Rogers) as she was when she was Jessica Lange; here, she handles his sexism with aplomb. Later, when Michael-as-Dorothy forgets himself and kisses her, she eventually decides to roll with the times, and suggests they give romance a go anyway.

This is all well and good, but it's also all very much on the surface. One of the strengths of the film that the adaptation seems to have overlooked entirely is that back in 1982, Michael-as-Dorothy had to put up with a whole lot more in the way of condescending--and sometimes downright icky, scary, predatory--sexist bullshit from just about every man he worked with, talked to, or met. He also had to negotiate the very genuine feelings--and, eventually, break the heart--of Julie's father, Les (Charles Durning), who falls in love with Dorothy and who here has been completely rewritten as a younger, dumber, admittedly much funnier character named Max Van Horn (Jon Behlmann). But the constant barrage of sexism that Michael had to contend with in the film ultimately made the character's arc more meaningful: having walked in women's shoes, the character ends up Learning Some Valuable Lessons About Himself and Others. The final scene--in which he admits to Julie that he "was a better man with [her] as a woman than [he] ever was with a woman as a man"--thus feels more like a genuine realization, a heartfelt apology, and a serious attempt to move beyond a monstrous deceit that ended up hurting a great many people.

Of course, a Broadway musical has to make way for stuff a comedy film doesn't have to contend with, so there's much more singing and dancing, a speedier pace, and more frequent one-liners, but I was a little disappointed by how totally they replaced any real character development. Santino Fontana hits all his marks as both Michael and Dorothy, and sure, his character is still a self-centered blowhard who is exceedingly hard to work with. But Michael has no clear learning curve here. Instead, the Broadway Tootsie shows us a really talented straight, white dude who dresses like a woman, whereupon all the qualities that alienated people when he was a straight, white dude pretty much immediately get resolved. This is where I got a little confused: Maybe Tootsie was supposed to be set in a magical fairy world where everyone is totally cool about negative personality traits when middle-aged women exhibit them, but can't deal at all when dudes do? I don't get that part, having never in my life experienced such a thing, but maybe the all-male production team of the musical knows better?

Anyway, you know the drill: Michael-as-Dorothy lands a great role, puts up with Ron Carlisle's sexist remarks for about three seconds, bonds with Julie over how hard it is to be a professional woman in a man's world, teaches Max to be a better actor (or something), reveals his deception....and everything ends up pretty okay, anyway. He doesn't really need to do much in the way of penance, the supporting characters pair off (or don't), and it's pretty clear that Julie will come around in time, just like in the movie.

I say this all not to ruin your time seeing what is, in the end, a solidly produced and impressively-performed musical with some genuine laughs, and a few songs I fully admit I'll want to listen to repeatedly when the cast recording comes out. Go see it if the gender politics aren't going to bug the shit out of you. It's a charming, enjoyable show. But aspects of it irked me a lot more than I wish they had, largely because I've grown exceedingly weary of lip service to social causes, and to bandaids that blithely get slapped over deep wounds in the name of mass entertainment. If the prospect of a straight white guy who puts on a dress and thereby manages to succeed in all the ways straight white guys tend to succeed anyway doesn't jibe you at all, by all means, go, have fun, take your visiting relatives. Otherwise, though, maybe skip this one. Believe me when I tell you that you won't be missing anything you didn't know was already going to happen, anyway.