Friday, August 28, 2015

Looking Forward: The 2015/2016 Season

The 2015/2016 theater season has already begun, with the much lauded Broadway premiere of Hamilton (and the less-lauded debut of Amazing Grace) and the first new shows of the Off-Broadway season -- Annie Baker's highly acclaimed John, which Wendy and I both greatly admired, for instance -- cropping up. However, like kids going back to school, we often associate a theater season with a calendar that starts in September and ends in June, with the Tony Awards. And looking ahead, this promises to be a busy and interesting year on the Great White Way and beyond. A particularly busy fall season -- by my count, nineteen plays and revivals opening or beginning previews on Broadway between September 1 and December 31 -- gives way to a spring that will host the likes of Audra McDonald, Jessica Lange, Ben Whishaw, Frank Langella, Sophie Okonedo, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Saorsie Ronan, to name just a few. Off-Broadway remains as vibrant as ever, with world premieres from David Lindsay Abaire, Michael John Lachiusa, Naomi Wallace, Danai Gurira, and Nick Payne on the docket, and appearances by Lupita N'yongo, Kristine Nielson, Mario Cantone, Mamie Gummer, Sherie Rene Scott, Dame Harriet Walter, and Holland Taylor.

To the folks at Show Showdown, the impending arrival of a new theater season makes us giddy as kids at Christmas. We're happy to each offer a brief overview of what excites us the most from the crop of upcoming shows.

Cameron Kelsall
Two recent musicals are returning in inventive new productions. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening comes back via California's Deaf West Theatre, in a production that utilizes sign language and the presence of hearing and hearing-impaired actors. The cast will include Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, in her Broadway debut, and several of the leading roles will be played by two actors: one singing, one signing. (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, previews begin September 8).

When I first saw The Color Purple in 2005, I enjoyed a lot of the music and LaChanze's radiant lead performance. However, I felt the production's unnecessary pageantry dulled the story's emotional punch. John Doyle's revival -- transferring to Broadway from London's Menier Chocolate Factory, where the recent revivals of La Cage aux Folles and Sunday in the Park With George originated -- promises to present the musical on a smaller, more intimate scale. Acclaimed London star Cynthia Erivio will make her Broadway debut as Celie, along with Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (as Shug Avery) and Orange is the New Black favorite Danielle Brooks as Miss Sofia. (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, previews begin November 10).

Right out of the gate, in September, two play revivals promise to bring the heat. Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda return to Broadway in Sam Shepard's Fool For Love (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, previews begin September 15), reprising their acclaimed performances from last summer's production at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Rockwell and Arianda are two of the most kinetic actors working; perhaps Manhattan Theatre Club, who is sponsoring this revival, should keep Ladder 4 on standby. Equally tantalizing is the return of Harold Pinter's beguiling, chilling Old Times (American Airlines Theatre, previews begin September 17), starring Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly, and Eve Best, who was so brilliant in the 2008 revival of Pinter's The Homecoming.

I am excited to have two new productions by the visionary director Ivo Van Hove this season. An Off-Broadway fixture, he'll make his main stem debut in October, when Lincoln Center Theater presents a transfer of his highly acclaimed London production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge (Lyceum Theatre, previews begin October 21). A highly conceptual production set entirely inside a boxing ring, original London star Mark Strong will reprise his Olivier-winning Eddie Carbone, opposite Russel Tovey (HBO's Looking), making his Broadway debut as Marco.

Van Hove will tackle Miller anew come February, when his production of The Crucible begins previews on February 29, 2016, at a theater to be announced. His cast will include Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okendeo as John and Elizabeth Proctor, with Oscar nominee Saorsie Ronan making her Broadway debut as Abigail Williams and the always excellent Ciaran Hinds on hand as Deputy Governor Danforth. Philip Glass will provide original music.

From where I'm sitting, Shuffle Along looks to be the event of the spring. Writer/director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover will tell the story of the making of the title musical -- a scandalous success when it premiered, in 1921 -- using the original score by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. The cast includes six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, as well as Billy Porter, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Joshua Henry. And that's just who's been announced so far! Now, this is a show that might be worth the rare full price splurge. (Music Box Theatre, previews begin March 14, 2016).

I couldn't possibly name all of the upcoming Off-Broadway productions that look promising this season, so I'll just home in on a few that I'm really dying to see. I regard Michael John Lachiusa as the greatest composer working, so his First Daughter Suite (Public Theatre, previews begin October 6) has me champing at the bit. A sort-of sequel to his brilliant 1994 trio of chamber musicals, First Lady Suite, the cast includes Mary Testa (who, it could be said, is Lachiusa's muse), Alison Fraser, Barbara Walsh, and Rachel Bay Jones.

Classic Stage Company is hit or miss -- mostly miss, if I'm being honest -- but their forthcoming production of Mother Courage and Her Children has the potential to be great. Set in the modern Congo and starring Tonya Pinkins, the production (previews begin December 9) will feature original music by Duncan Sheik.

And Playwrights Horizons has two promising fall options: Taylor Mac's Hir (Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, previews begin October 16), which uses a family's erosion to explore questions of gender identity; and Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime (Main Stage, previews begin November 20), a 2015 Pulitzer finalist starring the peerless Lois Smith, as a dying woman with an unlikely new companion.

Sandra Mardenfeld
Spring Awakening: With book and lyrics by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s music, this revival of the 2006 Tony-winning musical is performed simultaneously in sign language and English. Camryn Manheim and Marlee Matlin play Adult Women. I saw Matlin narrate Epcot’s holiday Candlelight Processional this year and her signing is beautiful to watch. Also, I’ve loved Patrick Page (Adult Men) since I saw him in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.  He was stuck, suspended in the air in his Green Goblin machine, for about 10 minutes of “technical difficulty” and his ad libs were the best part of the show.

Fool For Love: A Sam Shepard play with Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell as former lovers with secrets. The New York Times called it a knock-out production and one that taps into Arianda’s “emotional expansiveness” – which is what made her so good in David Ives’ Venus in Fur. Sign me up.

On Your Feet!: I love musical revue shows. I started listening to Gloria Estefan when she was still part of Miami Sound Machine. Mix the two together and I’m a happy theater-goer.

Allegiance: There are two reasons I want to see this show: George Takei and Lea Salonga. I saw her in Les Miserables in 1987 and have been a fan since.  What a voice! I know George Takei more through social media than Star Trek and I am eager to see this story based on his real-life experiences. He often subtly inserts such wisdom into his funny musings. I hope the show takes the same tone.

A View from the Bridge: I’ve seen this twice. The first was the brilliant 1998 production staring Anthony LaPaglia as Eddie, Allison Janney as Beatrice, Stephen Spinella as Alfieri and fresh-from-the-movie-Clueless, Brittany Murphy as Catherine. The cast was top-notch, and Paglia took home a Tony for Best Actor, but the true revelation was Murphy whose effervescence dominated the stage. The 2010 version nabbed a Tony for Scarlett Johansson in Murphy’s part. Despite the deserved accolades for Johansson (and the show, in general), there was something more magical about Murphy’s appearance. I’m not sure another revival of A View from the Bridge is necessary this soon but here’s hoping three times is a charm.

The Color Purple: In 2007, Fantasia belted out “I’m Here” and “What About Love?” and I immediately downloaded the songs on my iPod. I can’t wait to see Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of Shug. Plus, I loved the novel by Alice Walker and the movie with Whoopi Goldberg. How could a revival of a musical I’ve already seen and loved, based on a book I admire fail to please?

Fiddler on the Roof: Here’s a musical that every high school and community theater group perform. I’ve even seen an elementary school do a version. It’s a hard show to mess up: wonderful book (thanks Joseph Stein), amazing music (kudos Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) and then you have Tevye, a loveable mensch. There’s a reason this show is the 16th longest-running one. I’ve seen the show about a dozen times, including one of the now five Broadway revivals (#4 with Harvey Fierstein as Tevye). Danny Burstein, who was so good in South Pacific and Follies, should make a wonderful Tevye.

She Loves Me: is another show I have wonderful memories about – I must be nostalgic; everything I want to see practically is a revival. Harnick and Bock provide the lilting sentimental tunes in a show about anonymous pen pals (think the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan flick “You’ve Got Mail”).  Boyd Gaines starred as leading man Georg in the 1993 version I saw and Sally Mayes played the feminist Ilona, a role that Jane Krakowski will tackle. The new version also features Josh Radnor as Georg and Laura Benati as Amalia. Krakowski hasn’t been on Broadway since 2003’s Nine … that’s way to long.

Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed:
Honestly, how could you NOT want to see this: Written by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle with a book by George C. Wolfe. Directed by George C. Wolfie. AND a cast with Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter? See this one in previews. It will be the new Hamilton.

Liz Wollman
Spring Awakening
Deaf West’s now-legendary production of Big River came to Broadway in 2003, was raved about by critics, and won a special Tony award for Excellence in Theater. It also closed after only 67 performances. I suspect it didn’t last because people didn’t know quite what to make of it, but its hasty departure meant that I never got to see it. I am happy that Deaf West is about to become Deaf Temporarily East again for another go around. No matter what the outcome, I’ll catch this one. 

Fool for Love 
Arianda and Rockwell as incestuous lovers in a play filled with all manner of Shepardian weirdnesses? Well slap my face, put your hand in my mouth, and call me something deeply disturbing and vaguely absurdist in a Southwestern accent. I’m in. 

On Your Feet! and Allegiance 
Contemporary musicals are my business, and hell if I’m not pleased to see not one but two new musicals (three if you count the revival of The Wiz) in the lineup that promise to be about people who are not white, middle-class, and newly involved in a bromance. I’m thrilled by the notion of a contemporary American musical that actually represents, you know, contemporary America, so these are on my must-see list. 

School of Rock—The Musical 
Then again, as a scholar of the contemporary musical, I guess I should also make it my business to see rehashes of popular movies that were ok if not legendary, almost entirely about white people (with penises), and repurposed for the stage by other white people (ditto previous parenthetical remark) because money talks and bullshit…apparently makes money, too. Whatever, if this one actually doesn’t turn out to suck, I’ll drop by.  

American Psycho 
Then again again, there is a proper time and place for penises. For example, I had a religious experience seeing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which was chock full of ‘em, and was also hilarious and brilliant. This show also features Benjamin Walker as a psychopath—albeit a more late-20th century kind. It is scheduled to open on my birthday! I can think of no better gift to myself than a show about a crazy dude from the ‘80s imagining that he is doing weird, violent shit to people with whom he works and has sex. Walker’s perfect for the role, and the source material is relevant for our weird, violent times. I’m in! As an added bonus, I’ve been thinking about contemporary masculinity as represented in post-millennial Broadway musicals (thanks, Hamilton!!), so this’ll even maybe count as research.  

Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. 
I am most interested by and excited to see this one. Shuffle Along was a revelation: the first Broadway show by, for, and about American blacks to feature a love story, and to desegregate the Broadway theater it played in (black people were allowed, for the first time, to sit in the orchestra, if still not in the same sections as white people sat). The show proved to the (all white) industry at the time that “black musicals” (hate the term) could appeal to white people too. A monster hit for its time, the show will need some updating: while not quite as offensive as blackface minstrel shows were, Shuffle Along internalizes some pretty horrible stereotypes (the title’s just the tip of the iceberg). Structurally, too, it predates the integrated book musical—there was a mini concert by composers Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake dropped right into the second act of the original production, for crying out loud—so it would surely strike contemporary audiences as too loose and scattered as is. But the team working on it is brilliant, so are the people performing in it, and so is the decision to reconstruct it for modern times. I just can’t wait.  

Wendy Caster
  •  Honeycomb Trilogy: Mac Rogers’ wonderful sci-fi thriller-comedy returns! Can’t wait to see it again. (For more information, click here.)
  • Astoria Performing Arts Center: Their Merrily We Roll Along (review here) turned me into a fan. (For more information, click here.)
  • Clubbed Thumb: After their amazing Men on Boats (review here), I’m eager to see what they do next. (For more information, click here.)
  • Flux Theatre: I never miss one of their shows. Their batting average is astounding. (For more information, click here.)
  • Gallery Players: Solid, reliable, strong productions, well-acted. I’m particularly looking forward to In the Heights. (For more information, click here.)
  • Labyrinth: Their work is always worth seeing. (For more information, click here.)
  • The Mint: The Mint rescues unappreciated plays from the past in polished productions. The lemons are rare, and some are flatout wonderful. (For more information, click here.)

  • Barbecue: After his brilliant Bootycandy (review here), I am excited to see any show by Robert O’Hara. (Public)
  • Cloud Nine: I’m nervous about this one. Cloud Nine is one of my favorite plays, but it requires fine calibration, smooth direction, and surprisingly subtle acting. Here’s hoping. (Atlantic)
  • Desire: This evening of one acts based on Tennessee Williams short stories features work by Rebecca Gilman, John Guare, and Beth Henley. (59e59)
  • First Daughter Suite: New musical by Michael John LaChiusa? I’m there. And the cast is not exactly chopped liver: Alison Fraser, Rachel Bay Jones, Caissie Levy, Theresa McCarthy, Betsy Morgan, Isabel Santiago, Carly Tamer, Mary Testa, Barbara Walsh. (Public)
  • Henry IV: If this all-woman production starring Harriet Walter is half as good as the all-woman Julius Caesar (review here) done by the same group, it will be a must-see. (St Ann's Warehouse)
  • Hir: I’ve never seen a piece by Taylor Mac, and it’s time! (Playwrights)
  • Mother Courage and Her Children: Despite the CSC’s crappy past season, I will give them another chance, because Tonya Pinkins is Mother Courage. (Classic Stage Company)
  • Prodigal Son: Is any other writer as uneven as John Patrick Shanley? But when he’s good, he’s so damn good… (Manhattan Theatre Club)
  • Ugly Lies The Bone: Interesting premise (female veteran returns home severely burned, receives video game therapy, works on relationships and her life) and cast (Karron Graves, Mamie Gummer, Caitlin O'Connell, Chris Stack, Haynes Thigpen). Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino is new to me, and I look forward to seeing what she’s got to say. (Roundabout Black Box)

(Note: all of these are dependent on the availability of discount tickets. Not one of them would inspire me to part with $150!)
  • Allegiance: A musical about Japanese-Americans forced to live in internment camps during World War II, starring George Takei and based on his life.
  • Noises Off: One of the funniest shows ever written, starring Andrea Martin and Megan Hilty.
  • On Your Feet!: I love Gloria Estefan. Here’s hoping her biomusical is good.
  • She Loves Me: Bock, Harnick, and Masteroff’s classic musical She Loves Me starring Laura Benanti. She Loves Me starring Laura Benanti. She Loves Me starring Laura Benanti!
  • Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed: Backstage drama with music by Eubie Blade, book and direction by George C. Wolfe, and starring Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter!
  • Sylvia: Two words: Annaleigh Ashford.
  • Waitress: Loved the movie. Love Jessie Mueller. Here’s hoping I love the musical.

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