Sunday, April 19, 2015

Salvage

When all is lost, what is left? What can be salvaged? In the Flux Theatre Ensemble production of August Schulenburg's new play, Salvage, these questions are faced by survivors of a regional apocalypse. (New York City is basically gone, but Idaho and Japan seem to be okay.)

Akiko, Noma, and Mandy are searchers. Each day they put on Hazmat suits and go into the ruins of New York to find anything of value. A cobbled-together meter then registers whether the found items are likely to cause "the Tox," which is never described but clearly to be avoided.

 Mihm, Tanenbaum, Hip-Flores, Crespo
Photo: Deborah Alexander
Akiko was a teacher and the daughter of a poet; she records an audio diary addressed to her father, who did not make it through the devastation. Noma was (and is?) an actor. She explains:
Well, like, I’m still an actor even if there’s not, you know, opportunities to do it, that’s like the thing about actors, you’re still an actor even if you’re not acting, which most of the time you’re not, even when there isn’t a, you know, catastrophe, so. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fun Home

Photo: Sara Krulwich
There's very little to say about Fun Home that wasn't enumerated by Wendy's spot-on comments, so I'll simply say this:

I am glad that Alison Bechdel decided to tell her story ten years ago. It meant a lot to me then, as a young person coming to terms with my own sexuality and place in the world, and it continues to mean a lot to me now. And it's meant a lot to a hell of a lot of people for a hell of a lot of reasons.

I am glad that Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori decided to adapt Bechdel's memoir for the stage. They were the absolute right people to do so, and their deep understanding of the beautiful and painful intricacies of Bechdel's story is reflected in the brilliant musical they created.

I am glad that the Public Theater had faith in this musical and saw it through workshops, development productions, and the wildly-acclaimed, multi-extended full production that opened in the fall of 2013. The Public has given voice to a wide array of artists and stories over the course of its sixty year history, and Fun Home is another sparkling panel in their rich and diverse tapestry.

I am glad that there are artists like Judy Kuhn, Michael Cerveris, Emily Skeggs, Beth Malone, Joel Perez, and Robert Colindrez to bring these deeply flawed, tragic, staggering, and beautiful characters to life. I am glad that there are young performers like Sydney Lucas in the world, for she embodies Alison Bechdel better than I ever imagined anyone could.

I am glad that there are still producers who aren't afraid to bring a musical like this to Broadway. A musical with complicated, adult themes. A musical with a lesbian central character. A musical that rejects easy answers and unearned cheerfulness. A musical that recognizes how messy, how tragic, and how magnificent life really is, and isn't afraid to to reflect that. To the producers who moved this show uptown, to greater visibility and a wider audience, I say thank you.

I am glad that Fun Home exists. Plain and simple.

[TDF, rear side orchestra]

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hamlet

Photo: Carol Rosegg
Hamlet's a real pain in the ass, if you ask me. I don't mean the titular protagonist, though he's a pill, too. I'm talking about the show itself, which is so well-known, so riddled with famous phrases, so regularly referenced, and so often staged that, in CSC artistic director Brian Kulick's words, Hamlet "is really not a play anymore--it's kind of a sporting event: You come, you watch, you know it, and you wait--you see, well, how does Hamlet do 'to be or not to be?' How does this Hamlet do 'O this too too solid flesh?'" Hamlet might be a challenge to seasoned performers and directors in this respect, but I'm neither, so I don't feel like a total moron admitting that the very thought of tackling a show everyone knows so well--one whose lead character comes off as maddeningly mopey and indecisive; whose plot doesn't really progress all that much; and whose characters mostly stand around brooding for three-plus hours, uttering lines so familiar that they've become cliches, only to end up in an orgiastic hamster-pile of death in the last scene--seems to me like a nightmare.

The production of Hamlet at CSC, however, shook me out of my own trepidation. It is sleek and engaging, well-staged, and solidly performed. I am not convinced that the production, which takes a highly stylized, contemporary approach, will appeal to everyone (and indeed, a handful of people left during intermission at the matinee I saw). But at least as I see it, for all the glum indecision, confusing character motivations, and lack of taut pacing that this particular Shakespeare play packs into its lengthy five acts, the CSC production pays off in the end. There are very few sudden moves and no stage gore (though the deliciously scenery-chewing Glenn Fitzgerald, as a slow-burning Laertes, finally pops off at the end by racing around the house while bellowing madly, which is awesome). Yet the show never drags, thanks to the intensity of the company and the shrewd, careful direction of Austin Pendleton.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Living on Love

Renee Fleming, Jerry O'Connell, Douglas Sills
Photo: Sara Krulwich
Full disclosure: I left Living on Love, the wretched attempt at drawing room comedy improbably playing at the Longacre Theatre, at intermission. Even fuller disclosure: I would have fled after the excruciating first scene had I been seated on an aisle.

How this made it to Broadway is truly a puzzler. I imagine the producers put a fair amount of stock in the hypothetical selling power of their star, the opera singer Renee Fleming, in her first non-musical role. That Fleming--perhaps the most recognizable soprano of her generation--would be playing a temperamental diva surely seemed like synergy. Yet at the performance I attended, there were a lot of empty velvet seat-backs, despite a preview deal offering tickets for $19.57 (the price reflects the year the play takes place).

Living on Love was adapted by Joe DiPietro (Memphis) from a third-rate play by Garson Kanin called Peccadillo. A fiery Italian conductor (Douglas Sills) seems more interested in wine and women than dictating his memoir to his ghostwriter (Jerry O'Connell). When the maestro fires his scribe, his wife (Fleming) hires him to write her own autobiography, while the maestro sets his sights on a mousy young copy-editor (Anna Chlumsky).

Hilarity is meant to ensue, I suppose, but the jokes aren't just old enough to vote--they're old enough to collect social security. The actors do their best with some truly crappy material; for a first time actor, Fleming manages not to embarrass herself, despite the script's many attempts to embarrass her. Still, I don't see this as the beginning of a fruitful second career.

And I also don't see this play hanging around Broadway for long after the reviews are published. Addio--molto rancor.

[Rear orchestra, way more than it's worth]

Friday, April 03, 2015

Fun Home

The brilliant Fun Home opens at the Circle in the Square on April 22nd, and the big question is, "How does it fare in the round?"

This is a classic glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation, but the glass is both half-full and half-empty. (For my review of the Off-Broadway production--a rave--see here.)

Glass half-full: Fun Home made it to Broadway! This is wonderful news all around: it will become better known; it will likely have more future productions; the creators and cast may receive some well-deserved awards; and we all get to see it again (or for the first time) and maybe again (I already have my tickets for next time).

And Sam Gold has staged Fun Home about as well as I could imagine it being staged in the round (oval, really). He is aware of the whole audience, and he uses the space in some satisfyingly creative ways. (I don't want to spoil them by describing them here.)

Wolf Hall

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Wolf Hall is a simple yet gorgeous production based on Hilary Mantel's best sellers Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Gracefully adapted by Mike Poulton and elegantly directed by Jeremy Herrin, it gives us Henry VIIIth, some of his wives, Thomas Moore, Cardinal Wolsey, and that whole world from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell. It is beautifully designed (sets and costumes by Christopher Oram; lighting by Paule Constable and David Plater), and the acting is of the high caliber you would expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

And I just didn't care.

Wolf Hall is an exquisite but empty pageant. Scenes that should be heart-breaking fly by, and the show never gives the audience a moment to just feel. It is the proverbial well-oiled machine, admirably efficient but lacking heart.

(tdf ticket; 2nd row center for Part I; row N on the far side for Part II)

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Visit

Photo: Joan Marcus
To watch Chita Rivera in The Visit is to watch a great artist at the top of her game, fully in command of the stage and fully realized in the performance that she's giving. Theater lovers should be grateful that, after fifteen years and a handful of regional incarnations, this beguiling, frequently chilling, and not entirely successful musical has finally made it to Broadway.

For one thing, it may very well be the last original Kander and Ebb musical to make it to the main stem. The brilliant team began working on the musical adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1956 play in the late nineties, and it was first produced (with Rivera and John McMartin) in Chicago in 2001. An Off-Broadway staging at The Public Theater in 2003 was announced, but never came to fruition. Ebb died suddenly in 2004, but Kander, Rivera, and librettist Terrence McNally continued to work tirelessly to bring this daring musical to a wider audience. A 2008 production at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, led to further development and a one-night-only concert in New York, in 2011. The current production, now at the Lyceum, originated at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer. It's been streamlined to a clean ninety minutes and directed with airtight precision by John Doyle.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Hamilton

Much like the titular subject of his densely chewy, enormously satisfying new musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda is clearly so driven by, fascinated with, and passionate about something that he has been unable to keep from inserting himself into it, messing around with its guts enough to leave an indelible mark. Alexander Hamilton, the exceptionally driven founding father, loved his adopted, newborn country so deeply that he couldn't help but pour most of his energies into it, tinkering endlessly with details of its very foundation in hopes not only of ensuring its best possible future, but his legacy along with it. Just as Hamilton helped make this country what it is, Miranda has worked obsessively to push forward, and thereby ensure the continued relevance of, one of its more iconic art forms, which will not be the same as a result of his multifaceted attention to it.

Even before Hamilton entered previews, it became the hottest show in town, and tickets to see it became almost astonishingly hard to come by. When I finally snagged a pair, I decided to avoid reading or listening to other people's opinions about the musical. It's been a long time since any show snowballed the way this one has, and in far less breathless situations, I tend to believe the hype. I've almost always experienced serious disappointment as a result. It turned out to be pretty hard to tune it all out this time around, no matter how hard I tried. When a production gets lauded as often as this one has--when it regularly gets called game-changing, paradigm-shifting, unparalleled, and even revolutionary--it becomes pretty hard to keep the wax in one's ears and remain bound in ignorance to the mast.


Monday, March 23, 2015

The Liquid Plain

Ito Aghayere, Michael Izquierdo, and Kristolyn Lloyd
Photo: Joan Marcus
As with her previous offering earlier this season, And I and Silence (which Wendy reviewed), Naomi Wallace's The Liquid Plain is daring, messy, serious-minded, and unapologetically poetic. It's also quite possibly the most interesting and invigorating play I've seen all year. Working from the true story of a smallpox-infected female slave who was thrown into the Atlantic Ocean, Wallace constructs an admirably complex narrative that encompasses the history of slavery in America, the fluidity of love and gender, and the overwhelming familial bonds that even profound indignity cannot weaken. In the first act, Adjua and Dembi (Kristolyn Lloyd and Ito Aghayere, respectively), two runaway slaves, toil on the docks of a Rhode Island port town to earn enough money for passage to Africa. They are deeply in love and long to start a family, a fact complicated by the fact that Dembi is biologically female. One day, an amnesiac sailor (Michael Izquierdo) washes onto their docks, sitting in motion a series of mystical events that threaten the two lovers best laid plans. Act Two takes place forty-six years later, when Adjua's daughter, Bristol (the extraordinary LisaGay Hamilton), a free black woman raised in England, arrives stateside to enact a long-dreamed revenge plot. However, it doesn't take her long to realize that the history she believes she's been sent to avenge is far more complicated than she could imagine.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Paint Your Wagon

Alexandra Socha and Keith Carradine
Photo: Joan Marcus
One of the many worthy aspects of City Center's Encores is that it often provides a venue for musicals that would otherwise go unrevived. Some of my personal favorite Encores productions--Juno, Pardon My English, Fanny, Pipe Dream, Of Thee I Sing!--are, for one reason or another, not likely candidates for a commercial Broadway production any time soon. Yet this invaluable concert series provides the opportunity to hear these scores sumptuously performed by some of the best singers in New York, backed by a full orchestra. For a musical theatre lover, this is as close to heaven as it gets.

Lerner and Loewe's 1951 musical Paint Your Wagon, which concludes its Encores run with two performances today, fits squarely in this category. (Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre is actually planning to mount a full production of the musical in 2016, albeit with an entirely rewritten book). The story itself is almost beside the point, and, as is the case with most Encores concerts, the book has been pared down to the absolute essentials. Ben Rumson (Keith Carradine), a widowed prospector, strikes gold in California; soon enough, he's got a town named after him, with men flocking from all over the country looking to similarly strike it rich. Ben's teenage daughter, Jennifer (Alexandra Socha), is the only girl in town--it soon becomes clear that the love-starved miners are taking an interest in her. Ben wants to send her to a finishing school in Boston, but Jennifer has set her eye on Julio (Justin Guarini), a soulful Mexican miner who seems as likely to quote poetry as pan for gold.

The show itself might not be much, but the score is resplendent, and it's getting a first-rate treatment. Despite being saddled with some truly unfortunate fake facial hair, Carradine is wonderful as Rumson. His light baritone is less secure than it was twenty-five years ago, when he headlined The Will Rogers Follies, but he makes up for any vocal shakiness by singing with great refinement. He beautifully handles Ben's two big numbers, the hauntingly lovely "I Still See Elisa" (an ode to his late wife) and the folksy "Wand'rin Star."

Socha is perfectly cast. She deftly conveys Jennifer's girlishness and her blossoming womanhood. She's equally adept in comic numbers like "What's Going On Here?," where she puzzles as to why the miners are so fascinated by her every move, and romantic songs like "All For Him," about her devotion to her love. Guarini is an ideal match. Although his accent is a bit shaky, he wraps his elegant tenor around Julio's beautiful music and all is forgiven.

The supporting cast--which includes Jenni Barber, Robert Creighton, and William Youmans--is uniformly excellent. As the miner Steve, Nathaniel Hackmann leads a rousing rendition of what's perhaps the musical's best-known song, "They Call the Wind Maria." It was no accident that he received some of the loudest applause at the curtain call. He's on the fast track to stardom.

Under the baton of Rob Berman, the Encores orchestra is lush and lovely. This is exactly the kind of show Encores should be doing. If I may say, they've struck musical theatre gold. And for those who won't be able to make it to City Center to catch the final performances, fret not: It was announced yesterday that a cast recording will be made.

[Front balcony. $30 + an insane amount of fees, but worth every cent.]

Thursday, March 19, 2015

An American in Paris

There are two sorts of lovers. (This is simplified, but bear with me.) The first focuses on one thing at a time, giving it full and lingering attention. The other is more varied, changing positions, kissing here, touching there, changing positions again. Christopher Wheeldon is the choreography equivalent of the latter. My preference is the choreography equivalent of the former.

(Note that while I saw an early preview, the show already had a run in Paris, so it's fair to assume that what I saw is what the creative team wanted me to see.)

I did not particularly enjoy An American in Paris. Although Wheeldon's dance vocabulary is impressive, and although I have adored some of his ballets, his choreography here is overbusy, constantly upstaging and distracting from itself. For example, at one point various characters are watching a delightful faux-avant-garde dance. The movements are mechanical and odd, and lovely. Wheeldon manages to be satirical and beautiful at the same time. When the other characters then start their own dance, it is actually annoying. Let me just watch one thing and enjoy it! This sort of split focus happens over and over.

Wheeldon seems to be anti-ensemble. His dancers rarely do the same thing, and certainly not for any length of time. New movements come at you like the editing in a music video, never allowing you to focus. When one number had a kick line, and a damn good one, it was fabulous to sit back and enjoy the ensemble work--which unfortunately lasted for maybe maybe six kicks. Really? It's a Broadway dance show and you can't give me a decent kick line?

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Heidi Chronicles

Tracee Chimo, Jason Biggs, Elisabeth Moss, and Bryce Pinkham.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Peggy Olson, the barrier-breaking copy chief on AMC’s Mad Men, is surely kin to Heidi Holland, second-wave feminist art historian and central figure of Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1989 dramedy The Heidi Chronicles. Thus it seems only fitting that, for the first New York revival of Wasserstein’s still-vibrant character study, Heidi should be played by Elisabeth Moss, television’s Peggy. I’m sure this will have double-consciousness effect on many in the audience.

The Heidi Chronicles begins in 1989, at Columbia University, where Heidi is now a professor. There’s a gradual erasure: in the middle of a lecture on neglected women artists of the 18th and 19th-century, Heidi begins to recede into her own past. We meet her at seventeen, in her hometown of Chicago, at the dance where she meets her lifelong friend Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham). We see her as a “Get Clean for Gene” kid in Manchester, New Hampshire, where she meets another significant man: her once and future lover, Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs). The seventies find Heidi at a consciousness-raising women’s group at the University of Michigan; protesting the lack of female representation at the University of Chicago; and coming to terms with her fractured personal life. Along with Scoop (radical journalist-cum-lifestyle magazine founder) and Peter (chief pediatrician at New York hospital), Heidi hits her professional stride in the eighties, becoming (or, perhaps more accurately, being thrust into the role of) an avatar of yuppie-boomer status.

Given these events, it’s perhaps understandable that some questioned whether this play would pack the punch it did twenty-five years ago, when it was firmly identifiable as a comment on current culture. Those fears of datedness, however, were completely unfounded. The Heidi Chronicles is as fresh, alive, and necessary as ever. Like the works of the female artists Heidi champions, this is not merely a museum piece; it is a living testament to the life, achievements, and struggles of a modern woman. And Pam MacKinnon’s smashing production hits its stride early and fires on all cylinders.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

On the Twentieth Century

If I hadn't seen the original production of On the Twentieth Century, I suspect I would have been as blown away by the revival as were my co-bloggers Liz and Cameron. But I did see the original, multiple times, and I just can't ignore where the new version falls short. (By the way, I am not of the knee-jerk "the-original-was-better" school of thought. I found the benefit performance of On the Twentieth Century with Marin Mazzie and Douglas Sills to be excellent.)

Unfortunately, that this revival is a pale recreation becomes evident with the very first notes of the small orchestra. On the Twentieth Century has a superb, exciting overture. The revival provides a taste of the excitement, but it's a thin and tinny taste. The cast is also too small. It includes seven fewer people than the original, which makes a difference again and again in crowd scenes and big musical numbers.

Then there is the direction. I'm not a fan of Scott Ellis, but he does a good job here. However, Hal Prince did a brilliant job. Ellis's direction occasionally loses laughs, focus, and pacing, and it totally lacks Prince's grace notes and specificity. One example [spoilers]: When the female lead is still Mildred Plotka, and Oscar Jaffe is trying to turn her into a star, he hands her a script and says, "Begin reading." In the original, the next bit happened in three sections. (1) Mildred reads and is lackluster and monotonal.(2) Mildred keeps reading in a monotone, but when she gets to "hear the population shout: save our city" she sings "Save our city" full out and beautifully--and then goes right back to the monotone. (3) Mildred becomes Lily Garland, on stage, playing the role she was reading as Mildred. Part 2 is very funny and also provides a necessary transition between 1 and 3. It's missing in this production, making the scene less funny and throwing off the timing. Another example: Prince had little bits of business going on in the background--other people on the train meeting, talking, going off together. It gave a lovely texture to the show. This may not be Ellis's fault--he may not have enough performers to allow these moments--but whatever the cause, it's a loss. [end of spoilers]

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Long Story Short

When a show covers 50 years, difficult decisions must be made about what to include and what to leave out. Long Story Short, which covers five decades of a love relationship, omits showing us how its couple falls in love. We see Charles really like Hope, without Hope reciprocating. Then we see Hope loving Charles, with no explanation of just how that happened. The missing scene might have enticed us to care about the couple and their life's journey together. Without it, they're slightly annoying people who go from relationship cliché to relationship cliché. And when the story does break out of the mold, it becomes heavy-handed and unconvincing.

Charles is Jewish; Hope is part Chinese, part Filipino. Both are completely, generically American. They marry, reproduce, fight, and age. They are, ostensibly, deeply in love, and we are suppose to care if they stay together. Unfortunately, the scenes that might have won our hearts failed to make it into the show.

The music and lyrics (by Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda) are occasionally pretty and occasionally clever, but frequently repetitious. I left the show with a vicious earworm that hammered my brain for hlurs.

Pearl Sun, as Hope, has moments, but mostly she seems miscast. (Her singing is surprisingly lackluster for someone who stood by for the lead role in Next to Normal.) She handles big emotions competently. Bryce Ryness also has moments. His younger and later years are awkward, but he is believable and moving in the middle decades. His voice is nice, and he sometimes truly connects with the audience. The show is directed by Kent Nicholson.

(fifth row; press ticket)

Monday, March 09, 2015

Placebo

Carrie Coon and Florencia Lozano
photo: Joan Marcus
I can’t stand people who talk during a performance. It demonstrates rudeness in the extreme and an utter lack of consideration for the enjoyment of fellow audience members. Yet when the man sitting next to me at Placebo, the new play by Melissa James Gibson, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons, turned to his wife and whispered, “this is one of those plays where everyone just sits around and whines,” I couldn’t help but nod and agree. (Though in the future, sir, please save your commentary for after the show).