Monday, January 02, 2017

Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen is an intimate, well-crafted, well-performed musical, the kind that tidily trashes the generalized dismissal of musical theater as an emotionally overwrought genre filled with forced cheeriness and an abundance of glitz. Performed by a small cast on a sleek, deceptively simple set of sliding panels designed to look like the glossy, liquid screens of laptops, tablets and cellphones, Dear Evan Hansen is, on one level, about the way teenagers relate to their peers and to adults (or don't) in the technological age. But it goes deeper to examine contemporary cultural phenomena, like technology's role in what is sometimes referred to as "inspiration porn" and the ways that the very existence of the Internet can magnify the sorts of awkward, unpleasant social shit adolescents struggle with and always have, even when it couldn't be magnified and instantly replicated across the world with the click of a button.

The musical is moving, layered, and very impressively performed. There's been a lot of buzz, which began when the show premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage last spring, about just how brilliant Ben Platt is in the title role, and it's entirely warranted. Only a handful of years older than Evan, a high-school senior, is supposed to be, Platt clearly remembers well the emotional roller-coaster of adolescence. His Evan is all coiled anxiety, crippling self-consciousness and monstrous self-doubt, and the character is as frustrating and as heartbreaking as your average teen can be. Evan's single mom, an equally memorable Rachel Bay Jones, works long hours, takes classes at night, and thus tends to worry about and dote on her son from a harried distance. It's a testament to the writing and the performances that their relationship, ultimately the heart of the musical, never feels hollow or strained.

Neither, really, does the slightly tidy ending, which is a little cleaner than it surely would have been had the proceedings depicted in Dear Evan Hansen taken place in real life instead of over the course of a two-hour musical. Still, and while it never tortures its characters, Dear Evan Hansen makes it clear that none of them make it through a tough, morally questionable stretch without consequences: some close relationships are ruined; others grow much stronger. Still, the show implies, everyone involved will move on, heal, eventually be all right. This is not a bad message to impart; I took it as a gift.

And for the record, my daughter, the friends I saw the show with, and I can't wait for the cast recording to be released later this winter.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Debbie Reynolds in Irene

It was late summer 1974 and Debbie Reynolds was returning to the musical Irene for a brief stint before taking it on the road. (Jane Powell had been her replacement.) My friend R and I decided that we had to see it again, and this time in good seats.

I think this was the very first time I paid full price for a good seat. We usually sat in the cheap seats or wherever the TKTS booth or twofers put us. While it seems laughable now, spending $9 was a big deal. After all, I was making less than $2/hour in my part-time job as a cashier at Mays Department Store.

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016 Top Five: Sandra Mardenfeld

Jay and his mentor--from The Royale.
Photo by Charles Erickson

 I marvel at how many shows Wendy and Liz saw last year. I come in under two dozen--and, even then, I am still playing catch up with 2015 openings (which I'm including in my list since I saw a few of these in 2016). I want to recognize shows that boast long runs without losing their richness, as well as new entries from 2016. I've seen too many musicals/plays that stayed open too long (Guys & Dolls with Jamie Farr, anyone?).

1. The Royale--Liz had an extra ticket to see this so I went grudgingly. Why would I want to watch a show about boxing? I couldn't have been more wrong. What most impressed me was the rhythmic nature to the boxing matches. How director Rachel Chavkin conveyed so much of the grace and music of the sport without anyone throwing real punches. The hard, syncopated claps stood in for the fighting so beautifully. Add to that the richness of the three impressive performances by Khris Davis as Jay, the boxer who wants to be the best in the world, Clarke Peters as his mentor, and McKinley Belcher III, the protege. Marco Ramirez's story shows the difficulty of progress and the reality of its unintended victims.

2. Head of Passes--Phylicia Rashad as a female, modern-day Job struggles between faith and grief as she loses everything yet still maintains her dignity. A bravura performance that moved me tremendously. Kudos to scenic designer G.W. Mercier (Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass) whose set literally falls apart, setting off a chain of events that tests Shelah's (Rashad) belief system. Beautifully directed by Tina Landau.

3. The Color Purple (closing on January 8). This actually opened in December of last year, but won best revival at the 2016 Tony Awards. Cynthia Erivo (as Celie) sings the best "I'm Here" I've ever heard. Perhaps it's because her evolution from trembling child victim to a home-owning, confident business woman is so hard-won and believable in this production. Ervio, who won Best Actress, had two standing ovations after numbers the night I saw this in December.

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time--I saw this in July. It is a testament to the strength of the production that even near the end of its run, the show resonated with its beautiful story, told in a unique way. With scenic and costume design by Bunny Christie (Tony Award), lighting design by Paule Constable, video design by Finn Ross (Tony Award) and sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. What an amazing production team. I saw Tyler Lea, making his Broadway debut in the role of Christopher.  Alex Sharp won the Tony for his portrayal of the same part in 2015, and Lea was so moving in the role I wish he could get the same recognition. Two more Tony Awards went to author Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott.

5. The Waitress/Fiddler on the Roof--The Waitress wasn't my favorite show but it did contain Jessie Mueller who might just usurp Kelli O'Hara as my top Broadway actress. The show itself is energetic and entertaining. Lots of laughs and songs that fill in the story nicely but nothing you'll remember afterward EXCEPT for Mueller's rendition of "She Used to Be Mine." Watch this: You'll see what I mean.

Fiddler--I loved this version and Danny Burstein's sweet Tevye. How nice it was to see Alix Korey on Broadway as Yente, too. What a great musical this is, with its score by Jerry Bock and lyrics from Sheldon Harnick, with songs of love and loss that still are relevant 52 years after it first was staged! The emotional impact of the show is increased by its references to the future: the show opens, for instance, with a glimpse of Anatevka's future, with Burstein standing on a lonely, bare stage looking at an old battered sign with the village's name before swirling into Tevye moments later. It closes Dec. 31.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

2016 Top Ten: Liz Wollman

In years as rough and depressing as 2016 has been, I am extra-super-duper thankful for the theater. I have no desire, after a year as harsh as this one was, to come up with a "worst" list--enough with the snark! Anyway, I've found that even productions that disagreed with me most were automatically more enjoyable than the news of the world, so I won't be dissing anything here.

I do, however, want to celebrate the shows that brought me particular joy during these dark times, so here's my top ten "best" in chronological order.

2016 Top Ten: Wendy Caster

Due to some health challenges, I only saw 42 shows in 2016--my lowest total in decades. Yet it was still difficult to carve my best list down to 10 entries.

I remain in awe of the breadth of theatre available in New York--and I remain dedicated to the idea that New York theatre is much more than Broadway. In fact, only one of my top ten entries is a Broadway show; four were Off-Broadway; three were at City Center or St. Ann's; and the remainder were Off-Off-Broadway. In other words, New York continues to offer superb theatre options for less than the cost of a movie and popcorn.

Here's my list, mostly in alphabetical order, followed by some random "bests." (Where possible, I've provided a link to my review.)

Blossom: Puppet theatre at its most emotional best.

Cabin in the Sky: Not a great show, but, oh, those performances!

Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and Women of a Certain Age

Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
In very dark times, I'm always telling my students, people crave the comfort-food version of mass entertainment: breezy movies, bubbly Broadway shows, silly TV sit-coms, trashy romance novels. But lately, I've been disproving my own axiom. For the first time I can think of, at least in my life, the news has been so relentlessly, sloggingly bad, and the state of the country so brutally disillusioning, that somehow, easy escapism just isn't doing it for me. A very large portion of the country is going through in a period of collective mourning that I somehow feel the need to remain ever alert and connected to. Tuning out completely, while certainly tempting, feels cheap, at least for right now. I'm envious of those who can do it, but I haven't felt completely safe in totally blotting the world out. Somehow, remaining connected to the problems plaguing the country, while at the same time seeking solace in diversions that allow me to sort of tune out halfway, is where it's at for me these days. So I thought I'd weigh in about two shows that recently worked for me, despite--or perhaps because--of their heavy themes and underlying sadness.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is a puzzle to me because the show is invigorating, original and evocative and, yet, also overbearing in its intensity. Based on 70 pages of Leo Tolstoy's second volume of War and Peace, the Off-Broadway transfer, which features the Broadway debuts of singer Josh Groban (Pierre) and Denée Benton (Natasha), offers a sometimes annoyingly frenetic, immersive experience that both irritates and captivates.

Audience members enter an opulent nightclub, dubbed Kazino, where the stage overtakes the Imperial Theatre, transforming it into a Slavic Studio 54, all red velvet and gilt. Two hundred individuals sit among the actors and orchestra on banquettes, armchairs and stools. The fourth wall disappears as characters occasionally involve the audience in the action. The astounding set (by Mimi Lien), which actually reduced the amount of available seating in the theater, brings even the last seats in the mezzanine into 19th century Russia, with a small square stage built amid the uppermost seats and cafe tables scattered throughout the area. Dozens of old-fashioned lightbulbs suspend from the ceiling, mixed among several chandeliers that look like clusters of stars (lighting design by Bradley King). Actors run up and down the aisles, playing music, dancing -- even handing out potato dumplings to the most enthusiastic applauders. With 22 ensemble members, the company numbers are colorful and exuberant but can over-stimulate (you'll see strobe warnings in the lobby); it's like a gypsy circus (with more leather, halters and tattoos) in constant motion--imagine Diane Paulus' Pippin on acid.

Comet tells the story of Natasha, an innocent girl engaged to Andrey, a prince who leaves to fight the war. When Natasha journeys to Moscow she meets Anatole (a sexy Lucas Steele), a married rogue, who convinces her to forsake her betrothed for him. Her elopement is stopped by her best friend, Sonya (Brittain Ashford), and Natasha, in her distress over her lover's betrayal and her reputation's ruin, tries to poison herself. Pierre (played capably by Groban) drinks his way through an identity crisis and a loveless marriage with Anatole's sister, who like her brother enjoys sleeping in many beds. A handful of other characters populates the melodrama; they ponder loneliness, old age and the loss of friendship. By the time the comet swoops in, all the lingering plot lines are coiled together and magically solved with one act of mercy and a song.

The electro pop opera-styled music and lyrics by Dave Malloy (who also did the book and orchestrations) are often clever and entertaining, but sometimes feature too much oversimplification and not enough emotion. The opening song, for instance, serves as a character primer detailing all the parts with one word monikers--Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Helene is a slut--because, after all, as the cast sings: "It's a complicated Russian novel. Everyone's got nine different names." If you missed the beginning, no worries: there's also a synopsis and a family tree in the program. Still, other numbers ("Sonya Alone," "Pierre & Natasha") provide heart-warming flashes. When Natasha sings "No One Else," the sweetness of Benton's voice glides through the song as twinkling bulbs overhead lower downward like slow-moving shooting stars, and a fluff of snow swirls around a faraway Andrey. The joy of Natasha compounded by the settings' stillness connects the audience to the character in a profound way.

Compressing the source material into such a small section takes much of the luminescence of the original work away -- even though Comet intends to take inspiration from War and Peace and not be it, the musical feels more Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Russian style than Tolstoy's war classic, with the only battles depicted on stage of love and betrayal. Groban, though, fares well in his debut with solid songs like "Dust and Ashes" and "The Great Comet of 1812" that suit his famous baritone. He's sympathetic as a man who's frozen inside, who wants to be more than he is--and his musicianship is obvious as he switches from accordion and piano player to singer. Ultimately, despite the show's flaws, director Rachel Chavkin deserves much credit for creating an experience that allows the audience to feel a show rather than just see it.

Sunday, November 06, 2016


I can't be 100% certain what William Shakespeare would think of the current election season, but, as Director Michael Sexton and the good people of the Red Bull Theater show in their dynamic and impressive production of Coriolanus, he might well think, "Same as it ever was, same as it ever was."

Aaron Krohn, Patrick Page
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Coriolanus is a war hero, running for consul, who just can't and won't play the political game. It's not that he has superior ethics; instead, he is so sure of his own worth that he thinks power should be handed to him. He's an emotionally blind narcissus; he changes his allegiances to suit his needs; he sees "the people" as useful or not-so-useful tools. Sound like anyone who's been in the news lately?