Friday, April 15, 2016

Spring roundup: Head of Passes, Bright Star, The Color Purple, Kvelertak

It's been a hellishly busy couple of weeks, but I've managed to see a few shows nonetheless. In the interest of time, I'll spare you my typically long-winded reviews in favor of terser ones. Here goes:

Head of Passes, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is a modern retelling of the Job story. Set in Head of Passes, Mississippi, the action takes place in the formerly grand home of Shelah, who has a birthday approaching, a recently diagnosed illness she's dreading telling her friends and three children about, and property so badly in need of repair that it's raining as hard in her living room as it is out in the yard. The play itself, which has apparently been reworked since it ran at Steppenwolf in 2013, still occasionally misses the mark: some of the characters are not as developed as they might be, and a few of the plot points introduced early on don't gain much steam. But even if the show were perfect, there's really no way to prepare for the absolutely thrilling ass-whooping Phylicia Rashad gives the audience late in the second act.

Joan Marcus

I know it sounds like a cliche--as does the old "I had to remind myself to breathe"--but hell if Rashad doesn't tear the roof off in this tour de force performance. Being that this is a Job story, I don't think it gives much away to tell you that Shelah shoulders a whole lot of bad news in the second act. Driving the surviving characters away in a heartbroken rage, she stands in the rubble of her ruined house (yet another cliche: the set, by GW Mercier, is worth the price of admission), and the final stretch of the show has her alone, railing for a good half hour at a God she is at once furious with and wholly devoted to. While I've always appreciated Rashad, I admit I never knew she had the depth and range that she exhibits here. She makes mincemeat of a monologue that has her crying, cackling, thundering, raging and rejoicing on a dime. Hers is one of the finest--and possibly most exhausting--performances taking place nightly on a New York stage right now. Head of Passes has been extended, for good reason--see it before it closes, if you can swing it.

Bright Star was not nearly as satisfying a show, which is not to say it totally sucks. There are some pretty musical numbers, some interesting staging, and a very impressive performance by Carmen Cusack, a West End regular making her Broadway debut. But the story is incredibly predictable, and the conclusion so contrived that the two women sitting next to me when I saw it collapsed into a fit of giggles and had trouble collecting themselves through the curtain call. I can't say I blamed them: at intermission, my theater companion and I correctly projected everything that was going to happen in the second act--though we, too, were not prepared for how lame and forced the big reveal would be when it happened.

Also: this is a show about the deep south right after the war (with flashbacks to the 1920s) and there is not a single person of color in the reasonably sizeable ensemble. Have Steve Martin or Edie Brickell ever been to the southland? Or have they simply written their roots-music score entirely from a comfy, totally Caucasian distance? Look, I recognize that Broadway, even for all its recent (and appreciated) attempts at diversification, caters to an overwhelmingly white, middle-class audience (around 80% at last check). But Bright Star doesn't even try, which honestly sort of pisses me off. Perhaps I'm being irrational here, considering just how white so much theater is in this town, but still, sue me.

The Color Purple, on the other hand, boasted one of the most diverse audiences I've seen on Broadway or anywhere else of late, and a thrillingly enthusiastic one to boot. A brilliant and deeply moving novel, The Color Purple is a lot hokier and less convincing on the stage. Stripped from its literary moorings, the plot comes off as just as sad, but also more farfetched, which doesn't always work. Also, the score isn't bad, but as with Bright Star, it didn't much stick with me or compel me to take a deeper listen, either.

Still, the cast is strong and the direction swift and engaging. And despite the moments that don't land quite right, I still teared up a bunch, and chuckled a bunch too. Jennifer Hudson was curiously stiff when I saw it--she's leaving soon, and maybe already has her mind on the next big project she has lined up for herself. Danielle Brooks, as Sophia, was hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measures. And holy Moses, Cynthia Erivo, making her Broadway debut as Celie, gives an unbelievably thrilling, increasingly intense, finely calibrated performance that just kept building and growing as the show progressed. Not only should the Tony committee just get that prize out of the way right now, but also, Erivo and Rashad should get together soon over drinks or snacks, so they can talk about what it's like to absolutely fucking slay the characters they currently inhabit.

Speaking of fucking slaying, every few years or so my metalhead husband and I get tickets to a concert to hear very aggressive music played at damagingly loud volumes by musicians who call their fans motherfuckers, more or less as a rule. This time around, we saw Wild Throne open for Torche open for Kvelertak at Irving Place. Wild Throne consists of three very young dudes from Washington state who are clearly traveling the country in a van, living on Doritos and Old Milwaukee, and (at least in the case of the concert on Wednesday) still loading and unloading their own gear. They need to work on making their constant tempo changes sound less forced, and the lead singer needs to sound less terrified when he calls the audience motherfuckers. I wish them well.

Torche hails from Miami. They are a sludge metal (sometimes also called stoner metal) band, and they create a heavy, fuzzy, deep wash of sound that is not without a chugging, gradually mesmerizing groove. I was stone-cold sober at the show and I liked them very much, anyway.

Kvelertak is from Norway. It's hard to make them out in the photo above, but there are six members: a bassist, a drummer, a lead singer (he's the shirtless dude wearing the glowing owl head), and THREE GUITARISTS. They have a big, fat, bouncy sound that blends nicely with their punk and black metal influences. Don't worry, they're not a full-on black-metal church-burning and other-band-murdering group; they just want to rock you, entirely in Norwegian. It works, even after the lead singer takes the owl head off so that he can stage dive and spray water (and mouthfuls of Pabst) on the crowd. We saw Kvelertak two years ago open for Mastodon, and they've only gotten better. Keep at it, Wild Throne! There's hope! Perhaps we'll meet again in a few years, motherfuckers!

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