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Saturday, September 16, 2023

alt-Hamlet

What do you get if you stir together abortion rights, cancel culture, and Hamlet, throw in hints of Becket and Brecht, and add sharp writing, excellent acting, and fabulous make-up and costumes? The impressive alt-Hamlet, beautifully written and directed by Suzanne Willett, which is at the Players Theatre on MacDougal St through September 24th.

It's a heady mix, often funny, always insightful, frequently confusing, sometimes stunning. (It's also a little flabby, being maybe 15 minutes too long, but, oh, well.) It is very hard to describe!


Davon Howard, Yuliya Donovan
Photo: Find the Light


Alessandro Caronna
Photo: Find the Light

Here's what the website says:

Two Berkeley sisters come to realize the economics of being a woman.

A ghost, Gloria B.--the mother of Susan and Bella--tells her daughters to avenge her murder by uncovering their father’s guilt. Susan, a newly converted economics major, feigns madness by obsessively interpreting events through economics. Her sister, Bella, does the same via psychology. As the sisters gradually uncover the depth of their father’s duplicity, they spiral down into a cancel culture contest with deadly consequences. It’s a comedy.

But this description leaves out so, so much. More useful is this note from the script: "This is a carnivalesque/grotesque style of performance. Nothing should be sacred." The father is a demented ring master, his new wife a giant spider. Pregnancy is represented by balloons, abortion by excruciating popping thereof. One character is obsessed with representation via social media. And that still leaves out so much.

Leah Barker, Miranda Renée
Photo: Find the Light


Emily Ann Banks
Photo: Find the Light

Here's the thing: this is a rich and fascinating theatrical experience that doesn't feel required to explain itself and that dares to teeter over into too-too-much-ness. Watching it, I vacillated between thinking that this was Off-Off-Broadway pretentiousness and being sure it was brilliant. I was sometimes bored. I was frequently thrilled. There is great skill here, and great commitment. 

I left astonished yet again at the amazing things one can see in a nondescript theatre in a nondescript building, put together by people who give their time and effort and intelligence and talent for little outer reward (but, I hope, great inner reward). It's an incredible accomplishment.

Wendy Caster





Monday, August 28, 2023

How to Steal an Election

In this sad time of theatres' laying off staff, shortening seasons, and disappearing altogether, there is at least one bright spot: the York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti are back!!

Musicals in Mufti are somewhat informal (actors get only four days of rehearsal, they carry scripts during performances, costumes tend to be simple, etc) but always worthwhile. Sometimes they bring back familiar titles: eg, Tenderloin, Subways Are for Sleeping, I Love My Wife, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, The Baker's Wife. Sometimes they reconsider iffy but interesting shows: Cyrano, Roadside, Big, Minnie's Boys. And sometimes they provide rare looks at the odd and/or historical: Keen, Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi. Sometimes the original creators are involved; Comden and Green rewrote a bit of Billion Dollar Baby, a show they had created 53 years earlier! And the performers are often amazing, whether early in their careers (Kristin Chenoweth) or well-know (Tyne Daly).


I would categorize the current Musical in Mufti, How to Steal an Election, as odd and historical. The cast is astonishing. A satirical revue in which Calvin Coolidge (the charming Jason Graae) explains politics to disaffected young people in the late 1960s, its humor is hit and miss, and its point of view a bit inconsistent. Some of the songs are funny, a few are beautiful, and some aren't either. Is it a great show? No. Am I glad I saw it? Yes: partially just to have seen it; partially to enjoy the high points; partially to watch/listen to that amazing cast; and partially to just be at a Musical in Mufti again after so many years. 

Years ago, when I saw Kristin Chenoweth in Billion Dollar Baby, I knew the second she opened her mouth that she was a star, as did the rest of the audience. You could feel the excitement. A similar moment happened last night when Alex Joseph Grayson started singing. Electricity zinged through the audience, and his applause was long and loud. Gorgeous voice, gorgeous man. For his sake and ours, I hope he works for many, many years in many, many shows. (Some of you may already know his work; he was recently in Parade on Broadway. But he was new to me, and a real revelation.)

While Grayson was extraordinarily extraordinary, the rest of the cast was also wonderful, with beautiful voices, good comic acting, and even some dandy tap dancing: Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman, Emma Degerstedt, Drew Tanabe.

How to Steal an Election is on through next weekend; it closes Sept 3rd. The rest of the season consists of The Lieutenant (opening Sept 10th), Golden Rainbow (Sept 24th), and When We Get There (Oct 8th). The York's website is here.

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

If I were forced to name one favorite show, it might well be Sweeney Todd. (Actually, it would be Sweeney-Night Music-Follies, but that's cheating.) Sweeney's size, wit, pathos, beauty, and lushness add up to an evening of riches. It can also be enjoyably frightening.

The current Sweeney, starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, leans heavily on the wit and humor (and, unfortunately, shtick), leaving it less emotional and devastating. However, it is beautifully sung and often quite funny, and its (relatively) large orchestra is a gift. 

I have in the past discussed with friends whether Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett ever had sex. Most of my friends said no. I thought they did, although not necessarily good sex. In this production, they are definitely lovers, and they enjoy each other. Whereas most of the Sweeneys I've seen have sung "A LIttle Priest" with humor, they have still been somewhat stiff, definitely damaged. Groban's Sweeney is loose, giggly, and even flirty, and it's nice to see Sweeney having fun for once. While the production's emphasis on humor undercuts its power, having Sweeney like Mrs. Lovett makes her betrayal hit particularly hard.

Josh Groban lacks the gravitas to totally pull off Sweeney, but his voice is gorgeous. Annaleigh Ashford carries her shtick too far into the story, undercutting the show's impact, but she is frequently wonderful.

The direction is messy. Sometimes it is impossible to find what you should be focusing on. And, ironically enough, despite the production's humorous bent, it misses some of the best jokes in the show. Also, the choreography is a total minus for the show and completely unnecessary.

Overall, though, this Sweeney is well worth seeing. While not the best version I've seen, it is solid. And, oh, that music!

Wendy Caster 

Monday, August 14, 2023

Orpheus Descending

Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending (recently at the Theatre for a New Audience) was the first of his works to be produced. While it is not one of his masterpieces, it is still rich, sad, funny, fascinating, and compellingly overwrought.

As described on TFANA’s website, the play “tells the story of the passion of two outcasts—Lady Torrance, a storekeeper’s wife and daughter of a murdered Sicilian bootlegger, and Val, a wandering guitar player—and their attempt to escape from a Southern Hell.”


Lady (the excellent Maggie Siff) and Val (Pico Alexander) must negotiate dealings with a wide variety of townspeople: Maggie’s husband, deathly ill but still quite powerful and mean; Carol Cutere, a needy young woman with little chance of ever getting her needs met; Vee Talbott (the wonderful Ana Reeder), who turns her religious visions into paintings; and her husband, the sheriff, who operates in a much more concrete–and dangerous–manner. There are also the town gossips, Maggie’s husband’s nurse, and others. 

Lady and Val exist in a different world than the rest of the town, and they inevitably get involved, despite the dangers of doing so. They talk and actually listen to each other, they understand each other, and they are deeply drawn to each other physically. Most importantly, they find hope in each other.

Erica Schmidt’s direction of the TFANA production left much to be desired in terms of clarify and use of space. The cast was uneven. Maggie Siff had the presence and skill necessary to ground the play in the underpinning of reality that it needs. Pico Alexander lacked the animal magnetism required by his role, which threw off the balance of the play. But all in all, the TFANA production was vibrant and alive.


Wendy Caster


Thursday, August 10, 2023

Once Upon a One More Time

Once Upon a One More Time is not a show I would usually see. The only thing I know about Britney Spears is that she's in the news a lot and has had some tough times. And I don't care much about fairy tales. And I relate to princesses not at all.

But my old friend Linda's son is in the show. Many years ago, Linda and I used to sneak into shows together; we'd travel an hour and a half each way to see a 50-minute second act! We saw entire shows when we had the money, but that was not often. We were kids.

The thing is, Broadway was complete magic to us. The people on stage were otherworldly--certainly not regular humans. Broadway was a place for joy and pain and catharsis and wonder and breath-taking talent. My view of Broadway has gotten a bit less shiny over the years, but there is still part of me that is gob-smacked by Broadway talent. So if Linda's son is in a show, I'm going! 

He's Joshua Daniel Johnson, and he's a particularly fabulous part of a particularly fabulous ensemble. He and they are wonderful, energetic, radiant. And they work their butts off! I'm in awe. 

The show itself is fun, full of wild choreography and great singing. Spears' songs are great to listen to, and the entire cast is top-notch. 

It's too bad that the book, while full of funny lines and good ideas, doesn't engage the audience emotionally (or at least this audience). It's hard to care about Cinderella, Prince Charming, and Snow White (despite the hard work and excellence of the performers) when they are written as stick figures. 

Once Upon a One More Time is an excellent concert, however, and I had a great time.

Wendy Caster

Friday, June 02, 2023

Tony Predictions, Because Why Not?

Well, it is that time of year again. The 76th Tony Awards will recognize theatrical achievements on Broadway for the 2022-23 season. Who will win? Below are Show Showdown's guesses.

Clip from New York, New York

Best Book of a Musical

Liz: Kimberly Akimbo

Wendy: Wow, one I’d finally bet on: Kimberly Akimbo, David Lindsay-Abaire.

Sandra: Ditto (I submitted my predictions last … so you might see this a few times).

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Liz: Kimberly Akimbo

Wendy: Kimberly Akimbo, Music: Jeanine Tesori, Lyrics: David Lindsay-Abaire

Sandra: Ditto

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Liz: Wendell Pierce, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Pierce was revelatory as Willy Loman and richly deserving of the award. I thought Stephen McKinley Henderson was also brilliant in Between Riverside and Crazy, and I’d be delighted if he took this, but I suspect it’ll go to Pierce.

Wendy: Tough, tough, tough category to guess. I guess this is kinda cheating, but I predict the two men from Topdog/Underdog. I just hope that Sean Hayes doesn’t win; his winning would seem just too #TonysTooWhite

Sandra: The fate of Willy Loman and his family is always wrenching, but particularly so in this version … and Wendell Pierce’s take on the iconic role ups the ante.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Liz: Jodie Comer, Prima Facie. I confess I’ve seen none of these, so this is a shot in the dark, but Comer apparently gives a mesmerizing, scenery-chewing, shape-shifting, mountain-moving, buckets-of-sweat-spill-your-guts-out performance, which is just total Tony bait.  

Wendy: This category should have five nominees! That being said, I think Jodie Comer, Prima Facie, has got it. Her performance is astonishing, and the role is full of the dramatic opportunities that nab trophies. If Comer wasn’t in the list, I think Jessica Chastain, A Doll's House, would have been the winner. Truly, this category sums up the weirdness of awards: four nominees instead of five for no real reason, and comparing apples, oranges, kumquats and motorcycles.

Sandra: Let’s make this lucky number seven for Audra McDonald.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Liz: J. Harrison Ghee, Some Like It Hot. Ghee’s performance as a trans jazz musician who discovers their true self as Daphne was by equal turns hilarious, graceful, beautiful to watch, and deeply moving.

Wendy: Everyone but Borle would be a legit winner here (I thought he was miscast and not all that interesting). I predict J. Harrison Ghee, Some Like It Hot, because their performance is lovely and something new.

Sandra: J. Harrison Ghee, Some Like It Hot. This was my favorite show of the season and part of that is because of Ghee who brings joy to this role and glorious tapping.


Some Like It Hot


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Liz: Victoria Clark, Kimberly Akimbo. Diamond could take this instead, but she never quite nails the southern accent; Clark makes what could have been a cliché of a character into a deeply nuanced, believable, lovable one.

Wendy: Victoria Clark, Kimberly Akimbo, is a shoo-in.

Sandra: Ditto. I have adored Victoria Clark since The Light in the Piazza and my admiration for her intensified after reading this New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/10/theater/kimberly-akimbo-victoria-clark.html

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Liz: Brandon Uranowitz, Leopoldstadt. Uranowitz was memorable in a very crowded cast of characters. That said, I’d be pleased if any of the nominees ended up winning this category.

Wendy: I’m going with Jordan E. Cooper, Ain't No Mo'. Fabulous performances!

Sandra: David Zayas, Cost of Living. I just loved this show … and he was wonderful — steadfast and moving.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Liz: Katy Sullivan, Cost of Living. This is total wishful thinking, but in both the original production and the Broadway one, Sullivan was funny and raw in the role of a paraplegic woman struggling to adjust to her new disabilities, and a life without her ex-husband.

Wendy: Katy Sullivan, Cost of Living. Though, once again, how can anyone possibly compare these performances?

Sandra: Katy Sullivan, Cost of Living. Who didn’t gasp during that bathtub scene? What a compelling and brave moment.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Liz: Alex Newell, Shucked. 
Newell stopped the show mid-act when I saw it, and apparently continues to do so every damn time with her barn-raiser of a solo number.  

Wendy: Kevin Del Aguila, Some Like It Hot, is a total crowd pleaser.

Sandra: Gotta go with Wendy on this one. You have to love Osgood Fielding III … if only Elon Musk was so open-minded and jovial.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Liz: Bonnie Milligan, Kimberly Akimbo

Wendy: Bonnie Milligan, Kimberly Akimbo, is a crowd pleaser.

Sandra: I feel like Sweeney deserves some acknowledgment this season and Ruthie Ann Miles is its best shot, bringing a seething fury and sadness to the beggar woman.



Kimberly Akimbo



Best Scenic Design of a Play
Liz:  I had some other guess here, but I totally just changed it because I too think Wendy had the better guess. What she says: 

Wendy: Tim Hatley & Andrzej Goulding, Life of Pi

Sandra: I’m with Wendy. Look what they did with a boat …

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Liz: Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York. New York, New York is not as genuinely terrible as most of the reviews imply…but then, the scenic design really did stand out as a particular strength.

Wendy: Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York

Sandra: Beowulf Boritt, New York, New York. I loved the subtle sketching of a city neighborhood that no longer exists — with its balconies overlooking everyone’s business.

Best Costume Design of a Play
Liz: Emilio Sosa, Ain't No Mo'. For Peaches’ glorious getups alone….

Wendy: Emilio Sosa, Ain't No Mo'

Sandra: Ditto

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Liz: Gregg Barnes, Some Like It Hot. I would happily wear the same pair of jeans and ratty t-shirt every day of my life if I could, and yet I coveted every damn outfit worn in this show.

Wendy: Gregg Barnes, Some Like It Hot

Sandra: Ditto


& Juliet



Best Lighting Design of a Play
Liz: Bradley King, Fat Ham

Wendy: Jon Clark, A Doll's House

Sandra: Tim Lutkin, Life of Pi

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Liz: Natasha Katz. No idea who will win, so I’m guessing Katz because she’s nominated twice. For which show? Dunno.

Wendy: Ken Billington, New York, New York

Sandra: Natasha Katz, Some Like It Hot

Best Sound Design of a Play
Liz: Ben & Max Ringham. See "lighting design" above.

Wendy: Ben & Max Ringham, A Doll's House. Rarely has sound design had such a significant role in the ambience, meaning, and success of a play.

Sandra: Carolyn Downing, Life of Pi

Best Sound Design of a Musical
Liz: Gareth Owen, & Juliet

Wendy: Scott Lehrer & Alex Neumann, Into the Woods

Sandra: I’m with Wendy with this one.


Shucked Broadway Recording of "Corn."


Best Direction of a Play
Liz: Saheem Ali, Fat Ham

Wendy: Aargh! How to choose? I’m going with Stevie Walker-Webb, Ain't No Mo', for his breathtakingly energetic, theatrical directing.

Sandra:
Patrick Marber, Leopoldstadt

Best Direction of a Musical
Liz
: Lear deBessonet, Into the Woods. I was never a huge fan of this particular show, but deBessonet’s bubbly, joyous production was thoroughly delightful.

Wendy: Lear deBessonet, Into the Woods.

Sandra: Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot. That chase scene alone deserves a Tony.

Best Choreography
Liz: Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot. Call me a sucker for an old-fashioned tap-heavy musical, but come on, now.

Wendy: Another tough category. Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot.

Sandra: Casey Nicholaw, Some Like It Hot. I haven’t seen such exciting tap since 42nd Street--and did I mention that chase scene?

Best Orchestrations
Liz: No clue, truly. May the best orchestrator win.

Wendy: Jason Howland, Shucked. Total guess!

Sandra: Bill Sherman and Dominic Fallacaro, & Juliet. Because I just want them to win something.

Best Play
Liz: Leopoldstadt. Stoppard’s legacy and the fact that this show keeps getting described as “probably his very last” will result, I think, in a symbolic win. That’ll be fine with me, but then, so would it be if any other show nominated wins for best play instead.

Wendy: I adore Stoppard, and I think he's going to win, but I'd love it to be Fat Ham.

Sandra: What Liz said.

Best Musical
Liz: Some Like It Hot. Big, splashy, sweetly subversive, lotsa tap dance.

Wendy: I predict Kimberly Akimbo.

Sandra: Some Like It Hot. Really fun, exuberant, well-staged musical.

Best Revival of a Play
Liz: The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. I really loved this production and this play, even as I suspect I’m wrong and it won’t win.

Wendy: Topdog/Underdog, but I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it.

Sandra: The Piano Lesson

Best Revival of a Musical
Liz: Parade. I’m really not a big fan of this show, even as I recognize that the production is solid. I would be delighted if Into the Woods upset the cart, but that’s no longer running and Parade is.

Wendy: Into the Woods. I have more faith in people's memories, but, hey, I could be wrong.

Sandra: Parade. A moving production that offers context about the true story

All video clips from YouTube