Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 On Stage

It may be redundant at this point, but I want to echo my colleagues and reiterate that it's really just gob-smacking to be able to live in a time of such bounteous creation, and to have the opportunity to see as much theater as I do. Between my personal theater-going, my responsibilities for our humble blog and my position as a regional critic for Talkin' Broadway (where I cover theatrical productions in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware), I saw well over 100 shows in 2015. Some were unbelievably good, some unbelievably bad, and many held moments of wonder. Narrowing down the list to a manageable number of "bests" wasn't easy, but that is what I have attempted to do herein. So, without further ado, here are the theatrical experiences that have remained foremost in my mind throughout the year (in alphabetical order):
Daniel N. Durant and Krysta Rodriguez in Spring Awakening.
Photo: Joan Marcus

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Top Theater Moments of 2015

This wasn’t my favorite theater season. Yes, it had the sublime Fun Home, but more often I felt mixed about the just-under two-dozen shows I saw. I enjoyed parts, but not always the whole experience. So here’s my “Six Best Theater Moments in 2015.”*

Fun Home

The Shows:
1.     Fun Home—Circle in the Square. Previews began on March 27, still playing. This transfer from the Public Theater shattered me. Based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel and featuring music by Jeanine Tesori and book/lyrics by Lisa Kron (both of whom won Tonys for their contribution), the plot centers on the coming-out of a young lesbian, but also offers an intimate look at a fractured family. Sydney Lucas broke my heart as the child who discovers she is different through a ring of keys, and Judy Kuhn as the unfulfilled mother is haunting when she sings “Days and Days.” I could continue with more superlavatives to describe Michael Cerveris, Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs, but I’ll let the Tony received for Best Musical do the talking for me.

2.     Into the Woods—Laura Pels Theatre. Last performance: April 12, 2015. The Roundabout Theatre Company presented the McCarter Theatre and Fiasco Theater production of the Sondheim/Lapine musical. As Liz said, this scaled down version focused more on the play than sets and costumes (for instance, an actor transforms into Milky White merely by hanging a cowbell from his neck). The 10 actors played multiple parts (and sometimes instruments) and often the key set was the piano. The simple re-telling allowed the audience to focus on the complexities of the story.

3.     The Legend of Georgia McBride—MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre. Last performance: October 4, 2015. This frothy romp by Matthew Lopez tells the tale of Casey (Dave Thomas Brown), an Elvis impersonator who goes from unwilling drag queen to a man who fully embraces his feminine side.  Matt McGrath played the wise, no-nonsense older queen with a sly, knowing humor. Everything about this production was fun – and its message of transformation and acceptance was moving despite its predictability. Plus, the spirited performances filled with country hits by Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton vastly entertained.

4.     On the Twentieth Century—Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre. Last performance: July 15, 2015. Tony winner Kristen Chenoweth (Lily Garland) was a laugh in this musical revival set on a train. Peter Gallagher played the charming impresario with big ideas and little money and Andy Karl was Garland’s movie star fiancé. Zany and delightful, the true star was the staging that swirled the set from a station to a train before your eyes and the dancing bell (train?) boys.

An American in Paris
The Moments:
1.     An American in Paris—Palace Theatre. Previews started March 13 and the show is still playing. Based on the beloved 1951 Oscar-winning MGM musical, this show lagged for me. Ballet stars Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope dazzle when dancing but the songs never reach show-stopping heights with their thin voices. Interestingly, on April 27th, director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon spoke at Symphony Space about An American in Paris, comparing it to his experience in 1995’s West Side Story Suite where Jerome Robbins tried casting dancers in some of the speaking/singing roles before hiring more established theatrical folk to do the bulk of the singing. Perhaps, Wheeldon should have done the same. Still, the big, dreamy 14-minute ballet, featuring Fairchild and Cope, is one of my favorite moments in 2015.

2.     Hand to God—Booth Theatre. Previews started March 14, still playing—Robert Askins’ play about an evil puppet is full of laughs, even though it lags in the second act and tends to oversimplify complex issues. Still, when I think of the moment when Stephen Boyer (Jason)’s hand puppet defiles a Sunday school room, it still brings me chuckles.

·      Note: I did not see the much-lauded Hamilton. Ask me after January 16th, when I see the show, and I’ll tell you if it would’ve made the list.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Not-Best of 2015

Although Ben Brantley's opinion can change the fate of a show, and yours and mine can't, in a deeper sense his is no more valuable than ours. Some of us may bring more experience to the table; some of us may be better writers; some of us may know more about the history of theatre. Nevertheless, an opinion is an opinion. Here are some definitions:
  • Merriam-Webster: a belief, judgment, or way of thinking about something: what someone thinks about a particular thing.
  • Google: a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge
  • a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal
  • The Free Dictionary: a belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof
Brantley and the other mainstream theatre critics follow the essay style of giving their opinions as though they are fact. Here's Charles Isherwood* on The Humans: a "blisteringly funny, bruisingly sad and altogether wonderful play." No wishy-washy-ness here. Isherwood gives his blessing from on high, and The Humans gets to move to Broadway. (Yes, I am simplifying here, and The Humans received many positive reviews, but would it be moving if the New York Times had hated it? Very possibly not.)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Best of 2015

I share Liz Wollman's wonder at the sheer volume of art in this beautiful city of ours. In 2015, I saw 80 shows and there are easily 80 more I wish I had seen. But even with "only" 80 shows, I had trouble getting my "best-of" list down to 10 shows, so I cheated a bit. This article has a top 10 for drama/comedy and then a separate top 4 for musicals.

As always, I wish the incredibly talented playwrights of Off-Off-Broadway received the attention they deserve. August Schulenburg, Mac Rogers, Jaclyn Backhaus, and Melissa Ross are as or more talented than the playwrights who are featured again and again on Broadway and at the Off-Broadway nonprofits. I hope that their ships all come in, both for them and for theatre audiences everywhere.

My top ten is in alphabetical order. If I reviewed the show, I linked to the review.

Rebekah Brockman in Arcadia 
(costume by Grier Coleman and photo from her website)
Arcadia: Although it was my seventh production of Tom Stoppard's masterpiece, I laughed and cried and was amazed all over again, thanks to Juilliard's solid, well-paced, and well-acted production. And did I mention the $20 ticket?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide (book review)

In the introduction to Ethan Mordden's On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, Mordden writes, "My intention is to bring the reader closer to Sondheim's oeuvre, to explore his unique approach to the creation of musicals while trying to position him in relation to developments in Western art, especially in twentieth-century music and theatre." He goes on to say, "I have endeavored to address all readers simultaneously, from the aficionado through the average theatregoer to the newcomer whose familiarity with the subject is still in process."

Mordden achieves his first goal sporadically and the second less so. Trying to appeal to aficionados, average theatregoers (as though there were such a thing!), and newcomers simultaneously is like trying to teach addition, geometry, and calculus simultaneously: everyone ends up short-changed. Not to mention that the book clocks in at a spare 186 pages, which would be hardly enough for any one audience, let alone all three.

Mordden's book is in three parts: (1) opening essays: "An Introduction to Sondheim's Life and Art" and "Sondheim's Mentors and the Concept Musical"; (2) brief chapters on each of Sondheim's shows in chronological order; and (3) chapters about Sondheim on film, books on Sondheim, and albums/CDs featuring Sondheim's music.

The opening essays are reasonably interesting, if meandering. There is little new here for aficionados, however, and it's difficult to imagine many newcomers or "average theatregoers" enjoying them. Of course, that might be a lack in my imagination rather than Mordden's writing.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Fifteen for '15

It's humbling, really, just how much theater happens in this town--and just how much talent there is making it. Because I've been on sabbatical this year, I've seen many, many more shows than I typically do over the course of a year. Even so, it's a little overwhelming to think of the fact that I haven't even scratched the surface of what's out there--and that for all I've seen, I've still missed plenty of must-see shows that were gone before I could find time to get to them. How do the critics do it?

Even though I'm not a critic, it's fun to play one at this time of year. So here's my top 15 list for 2015. The shows are in rough chronological order. Links to the original posts I wrote about them, if I wrote about them, are embedded in the titles. I've embedded links to preview clips, interviews and the odd critics' review in the body of the text in case you prefer to skip my yammering and go right to the visuals. 

Happy new year, all. Here's to the theater--and to a happy, peaceful 2016!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Theatre: How to Love Musicals and Still Be Hip

My latest article is up at Art Times:

An odd thing happens to some people when faced with the existence of musicals. They start saying very strange things:
  • “I don’t like musicals, except Cabaret and Chicago.”
  • “I don’t get why they sing; singing isn’t realistic.”
  • “Musicals are silly and stupid.”
  • “I liked Fun Home because it’s like a real play.”
  • “Musicals are cheesy. Period.”

Friday, December 11, 2015


About halfway through Lazarus, the self-important mess that is currently a hot ticket at New York Theatre Workshop, the dude next to me started noodling with his Apple watch. Now, normally, that sort thing fills me with sanctimonious rage: how DARE this troglodytic asshole distract me with his shiny electronic bauble? FUCK this guy with his bad theatergoing manners! But in this case, not only didn't I mind, I was momentarily mesmerized. It's a pretty cool gadget, really, and it was a lot more interesting than much of what was going on up on the stage pretty much each time he checked it (which was about every three minutes). What all is on there, aside from the time, I found myself wondering? And what is time, anyway? Does time exist anymore? Because, man, it sure would be reassuring to know that eventually, I'll be allowed out of this theater and will get to go home, which is not as beautifully designed, but also not nearly as boring.

Lazarus was probably too good to be true, really. Any project developed by the brilliant, highly accomplished musician David Bowie and the brilliant, highly accomplished director Ivo Van Hove would have held almost too much promise of exponential brilliance. Both specialize in detached, cooly efficient surfaces, beneath which roil blood, guts, and the contradictory tangle of the human psyche, poked through with lacerating barbs of moody alienation. Bowie's songs may be gorgeously produced, chock full of tight, chugging rhythms and the slickly smooth harmonies of female backup singers, but take a listen to his lyrics. Whether he's intoning them in his husky baritone or rising past his thinning tenor into primal scream territory, his songs inevitably imply that he's been up for weeks doing blow, losing touch with reality, making terrible, life-mangling mistakes, or just staring into the void, probably while doubting your love or worrying about fascism. Likewise, Van Hove's overlying vision might be sparsely efficient and outfitted with clean lines, beige tones, and cold lights, but his characters are about to beat or fuck the shit out of one another, maybe both, probably while being judged by the magnified faces on subtly shifting video projections.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan

When it comes to biographical jukebox musicals that are produced by the same people being depicted, you could do worse than On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan. The musical may be an extended advertisement for the Estefan empire, but hell, the couple seems to have lived lives that were destined to be made into a big, dancy, feel-good Broadway show, so I can't begrudge them the sanitized recounting of their rags-to-riches story.

It's a pretty good story, at least as it's presented here: the daughter of an aspiring singer and a Vietnam veteran, both Cuban immigrants, Gloria (ably portrayed by Alexandria Suarez as a child and Ana Villafane as an adult) is a college student in Miami in the late 1970s when she first sings with a local group called the Miami Latin Boys, managed by Emilio. Emilio (played with enormous charisma, if a highly questionable relationship with tonal accuracy by Josh Segarra) is quick to recognize Gloria's monstrous talent--and her sex appeal--so changes his group's name to the Miami Sound Machine once she officially signs on as a member.